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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, 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 continued to say the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. Shia representatives said they saw no increase in Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) protection; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the Shia community ahead of large Shia gatherings. Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) in March that targeted Sikhs and killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of the lack of security and insufficient government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling commercial and civil disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation by the local community and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils.

There were reports that ISIS-K, an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities and that the Taliban targeted and killed individuals because of their religious beliefs or their links to the government. During the year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019 – causing 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. According 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. Two major attacks on the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, two gunmen opened fire on participants, primarily Shia Hazara, attending a commemorative ceremony in Kabul, killing 32; ISIS-K claimed responsibility. On May 12, three gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and health-care workers; no group claimed responsibility, although the government believed ISIS-K was responsible. On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship and community gathering place) in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one person. Police also found and defused two other IEDs targeting Sikhs on March 26 and 27. 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. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. Media reported an Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission statement that on June 19, Taliban physically abused and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing funeral rites for a local police commander. Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques, including attacking two mosques in June, leading to the deaths of two imams and other worshippers. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were harassed by fellow students in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. 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 only privately, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution. One mullah in Herat reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia; authorities did not restrain his activities, citing the need to focus on the Taliban. 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, such as music concerts, they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, due to the small size of their communities, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of violent attacks on the community, societal discrimination, and 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 Hindu and Sikh communities continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested the support of police, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. According to members of the community, at year’s end, approximately 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year.

U.S. Embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the 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 with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), among other government agencies. The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost Province with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. The embassy used virtual platforms to engage communities so these discussions could continue despite COVID-19 restrictions. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.6 million (midyear 2020 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 Pew Forum data from 2009, 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. According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 400 members of the Sikh community remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 600 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017. Most of the community is located in Kabul, with smaller groups in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 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 at least 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 tenets 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 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 contains 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. 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 and specifies imprisonment for persons using a computer system, program, or data to insult Islam.

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-$780). 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 hudood crimes as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood crimes are punished according to sharia as interpreted by the Sunni school of 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 with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines age of maturity 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. Those accused of proselytizing are subject to the same punishment as those who convert from Islam.

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 by other Muslims.

Licensing and registration of religious groups by the MOHRA 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 to reflect 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, but there are no alternatives offered. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. MOHRA registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-registered 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 Ministry of Education.

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 addresses a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi 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 Hanafi 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.

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 or Sikh communities. The person occupying the seat is not obliged to swear allegiance to Islam, only to obey the law and serve all citizens and the state.

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.

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

Government Practices

Media reported and representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, merely symbolic measures – and that the government failed to implement effective measures to protect the community, including from nonstate actors. Members of the Shia community reported they saw no increase in ANDSF protection during the year; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the community ahead of large Shia gatherings. 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 the Ashura commemoration. According to media reports, security forces took special precautions to reduce street traffic in the affected neighborhoods of Kabul during the Ashura commemoration period. There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.

Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-K in March that killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of lack of security and insufficient government protection.

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” by many Muslims, although they were not always considered converts from Islam (apostates); as such, they were not charged with either crime.

MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics on the number of mullahs and mosques in the country because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry, but they estimated there were approximately 160,000 mosques. MOHRA reported that at year’s end, of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 7,000 mullahs were registered with and paid by MOHRA. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive monthly salaries of between 7,710 and 15,420 afghanis ($100-$200) from the government, depending on their location, the size of their congregation, and the knowledge of the mullah. MOHRA reported that just 7,000 mosques in the country were registered with the ministry.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate approximately 65 percent of its budget (188 million afghanis – $2.44 million) 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 not to spread information about their religion or encourage others to practice it. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing commercial and civil disputes in the courts for fear of retaliation and that they avoided pursuing land disputes through the courts for the same reason, 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 continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs also reported that individuals who lived near the cremation site continued to interfere with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government allocated 80 million afghanis ($1.04 million) for the repair of places of worship, including for Sikh and Hindu sites, of which 40 million afghanis ($520,000) were expended as of October 2020. Community leaders reported that MOHRA provided free water and electricity and was making efforts to provide repair services for a few remaining Sikh and Hindu temples.

According to MOHRA, due to insecurity, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said that in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs and that because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. In November, the First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, ordered the Central Statistics Office to register all teachers and students of the 362 madrassahs in Kabul City and of the 130 madrassahs in the other districts of Kabul Province. Once registration was complete in Kabul Province, the office was expected to conduct the same process throughout the country. 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 media reporting, there were approximately 5,000 madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country registered with MOHRA. 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. The government stated that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not have sufficient resources to consolidate data on the enrollment of students in religious institutions.

MOHRA 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.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Approximately 80 Ministry of Education-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,000 public madrassahs were registered with the ministry, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of the number of unregistered madrassas available.

Members of the Ulema Council, the highest religious body in the country, 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 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. 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.

MOHRA’s office dedicated to assisting religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus, focused on helping Sikhs and Hindus secure passports and visas so they could permanently leave the country, most often to India.

Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish and a number of deputy ministers, governors, and one member of the Supreme Court, but no cabinet-level positions, unlike in previous years. Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics, which they attributed to the government’s marginalization of minority groups and the lack of a supportive social environment. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia were overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras, who are mostly Shia Muslims, often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion. Some observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara police officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported that Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country.

A small and decreasing number of Sikhs continued to serve in government positions, including one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, and one as a presidential advisor on Sikh and Hindu affairs.

Three Ismaili Muslims were members of parliament, down one from 2019, and State Minister for Peace Sadat Mansoor Naderi is also an Ismaili Muslim. 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 (a Shia-led initiative with some Sunni members), and MOHRA continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. On October 25 and November 12, they held meetings in Kabul to address concerns and find areas of mutual cooperation. On October 1, women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani organized the country’s first women’s Ulema conference, held in Kabul. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Since religion and ethnicity in the country 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 reported they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress.

According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. 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. Christian sources estimated there were “dozens” of Christian missionaries in the country, mostly foreign but some local.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private 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 in urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable not wearing 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. Ahmadis continued to report the increasing need to conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there was a peace agreement with the Taliban. Ahmadis said they received direct as well as indirect threats against their safety in the form of notes, telephone messages, and other menacing communications because of their faith. Ahmadis representatives said they did not report these threats to police because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from police and other officials.

Christian representatives continued to report 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. They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. 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 remaining 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 a total of 70 gurdwaras and mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, although they did not specify how many of each. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said their complaints over seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar, Paktiya, and Parwan Provinces – some pending since 2016 – remained unresolved at year’s end. The ONSC established a commission to assist in the restoration of these properties, but no further action was taken by year’s end.

Community leaders continued to say they considered the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders again 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 lacked capable teachers, books, and other items necessary to teach students.

While in past years Sikh leaders stated the main cause of Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities, due in part to illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education, during the year they said threats from antigovernment groups, inadequate government protection, and multiple attacks on the community in March caused many families to emigrate or consider doing so. Many left for India, where international Sikh organizations facilitated their relocation. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples because they could not afford permanent housing. Both Sikh and Hindu communities stated emigration would increase as economic conditions declined and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated fewer than 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu community remained in the country at year’s end, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year. They said the departure mirrored events in 2018, when 500 to 600 Sikhs fled the country following a major attack on the community. Some Sikhs and Hindus also reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to 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. Media reported a cleric in the city of Herat banned public music and concerts, stating that certain television programs and social media platforms were un-Islamic. The cleric enjoyed the support of hundreds of supporters; according to press and other observers, local law enforcement rarely interfered with the cleric’s strict interpretation and enforcement of sharia. The same mullah reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia, such as women not covering their hair or public contact between unrelated men and women.

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

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. Women who swam at a private swimming club in Kabul and exercised at a gym in Kandahar told media they experienced harassment from men when going to and from these facilities and sometimes faced the disapproval of their families due to traditional attitudes against women’s participation in sports.

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

Algeria

Executive Summary

The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. In a constitutional referendum passed on November 1 and effective December 30, voters approved a new constitution that removes language providing for “freedom of conscience.” Christian leaders expressed concern the change could lead to greater government persecution of religious minorities. In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law. In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi Muslim leader to two years’ imprisonment on “unauthorized gathering” charges that followed a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. On December 22, a court in Tizi Ouzou sentenced four Ahmadis to two months’ suspended sentences and 20,000-dinar ($150) fines while releasing 27 other Ahmadis whom authorities arrested in November. Lawyers for the Ahmadis said their clients were arrested for “disseminating leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” There were 220 cases pertaining to Ahmadi Muslims pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end, mostly involving unauthorized gatherings. Ahmadi religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. The Ministry of Justice completed, but did not release, an investigation into the 2019 death following a 60-day hunger strike in pretrial detention of Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar. A court sentenced a prominent opposition leader active in mass popular demonstrations (known as the hirak) to 10 years in prison and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600) on charges of denigrating Islam following a raid on his house, during which police found a damaged Quran. The 18 Christian churches affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) and closed by the government since 2017 all remain closed. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work. Catholic leaders in Algiers reported the government refused to renew the residency permit of a Catholic priest in Tamanrasset, citing a meeting with foreign officials.

Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. In April, the press reported that the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.” Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.” Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they consider government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed with them the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers focused on pluralism and religious moderation in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups as well as with other members of the public. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance, although COVID-19 pandemic restrictions curtailed some of these activities during the year.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school. Religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims reside principally in the Province of Ghardaia. Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.

The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the EPA, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000. According to the Christian advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Christian Concern, there are approximately 600,000 Christians. According to government officials and religious leaders, foreign residents make up most of the Christian population. Among the Christian population, the proportion of students and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa without legal status has also increased in recent years. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.

Christians reside mostly in Algiers and the Provinces of Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, Ouargla, and Oran.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable. The new constitution, passed in a November 1 national referendum and effective December 30, removed language from the previous constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience. The previous constitution says, “Freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion shall be inviolable. Freedom of worship shall be guaranteed in compliance with the law.” The new constitution’s language reads, “The freedom of opinion is inviolable. The freedom to exercise worship is guaranteed if it is exercised in accordance with the law. The state ensures the protection of places of worship from any political or ideological influence.”

The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($7,600) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training…or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.

The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($380-$760) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.

The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations.

The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The President appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the President on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals and correct understanding of the religion. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the President.

The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. Under the Associations Law passed in 2012, the government required all organizations previously registered to reregister. The Ministry of Interior grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. The ministry registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; provide police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; demonstrate they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters.

The law requires the Ministry of Interior to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all required documentation. The ministry has 60 days to respond to applicants following the submission of a completed application. If the ministry does not respond within the 60-day timeframe, the application is automatically approved, and the receipt may be used as proof of registration. If the ministry considers the application incomplete, it does not issue a receipt for the application. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) has the right to review registration applications of religious associations, but the Ministry of Interior makes the final decision. The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.

The National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, a government entity, facilitates the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the committee, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs; the presidency; national police; national gendarmerie; and the governmental National Human Rights Council (CNDH).

The constitution requires a presidential candidate to be Muslim. Under the law, non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.

The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion. Membership in the Islamic Salvation Front, a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal.

The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Islamic or otherwise, must take place. The law states that religious demonstrations are subject to regulation, and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. Except for daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques.

Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, be run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Islamic religious events must be submitted to the relevant governor at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The individuals identified as the event’s organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali. The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would endanger public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or “symbols of the revolution.” If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, police may disperse the participants. Individuals who fail to disperse at the behest of police are subject to arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.

The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($760) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,500) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge.” The law states that such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.

By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel as well as for health care and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.

The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts and items, except those intended for personal use. Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.

The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” A 2017 decree established a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran. The decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information about the applicant and text. The ministry has three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application. A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.

The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.

The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam, although authorities do not always enforce this provision. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women. Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion. In the event of a divorce, a court determines the custody of any children.

The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk closure.

The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.

In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law.

The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the CNDH to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The CNDH may address religious concerns to appropriate government offices on behalf of individuals or groups it believes are not being treated fairly. The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions, but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court. It submits an annual report to the President, who appoints the committee’s members.

The government does not register religious affiliations of the citizenry and does not print religious affiliations on documents such as national identification cards.

By law, individuals who convert from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities unrelated to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.

Mohamed Fali, the former head of the country’s Ahmadi Muslim community, remained in Morocco, having fled there to seek asylum in December 2019. He told the online Moroccan news outlet Yabiladi that he fled to escape religious persecution from the MRA and Ministry of Justice and said he had seven pending charges related to his faith. In September 2017, authorities arrested and charged Fali with unauthorized fundraising, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and forming an unauthorized association. Courts convicted Fali and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison term. Authorities seized his passport upon his conviction, but the government returned it in 2019, and he fled the country.

In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi leader to two years imprisonment for charges related to a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. Authorities agreed to the officers’ meeting with the Ahmadi leaders at that time, but then arrested all seven of the Ahmadi participants on charges of “unauthorized gathering” after the meeting ended. In response, the Ahmadis said that they are nonviolent Muslims who want to cooperate with the government and that the meeting was intended to open a dialogue between Ahmadis and the government. In December, authorities convicted the other six Ahmadi Muslims of the same offenses.

On November 24, a court in Tizi Ouzou summoned a group of 31 Ahmadi Muslims for what their lawyers described as “the dissemination of leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” The lawyers said that authorities had arrested their clients for their Ahmadi beliefs. In the December 22 trial, the court sentenced four of the defendants to two-month suspended prison terms and fines of 20,000 dinars ($150) while releasing the remaining 27 Ahmadis.

In August, Ahmadi leaders reported authorities summoned a member of their community in Adrar and questioned him about his religious beliefs. Police searched his home and confiscated his computer, telephone, personal notes, and his Quran, which the authorities held as evidence for a future trial on unspecified charges.

On September 30, police searched the home of well-known opposition hirak activist Yacine Mebarki and arrested him after finding an old copy of the Quran with one of its pages ripped. The police charged Mebarki in connection with the damaged Quran, accusing him of inciting atheism, offending or denigrating the dogma and precepts of Islam, and undermining national unity. On October 8, a court sentenced Mebarki to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600). His lawyers said Mebarki stated he was a Muslim advocating for secularism and democracy.

In April, authorities arrested Hirak activist Walid Kechida in Setif Province and charged him with insulting the President and “offending the precepts of Islam” on Facebook. The government referred his case to the criminal court for trial. At year’s end, he remained in detention awaiting trial.

On December 15, a court in Amizour convicted Abdelghani Mameri, a Copt who promoted Christianity, for insulting the Prophet Muhammad and denigrating Islam. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($760). On December 3, the same court tried Mabrouk Bouakkaz, also known as Yuva, who was a Christian convert. The prosecution asked for a sentence of six months in prison and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,500) on the same charges as Mameri. According to social media, on December 17, the court sentenced Bouakkaz to three years imprisonment.

Ahmadi leaders stated there were 220 cases against community members pending with the Supreme Court at the end of the year. Charges included insulting the Prophet Muhammad, operating and belonging to an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, burning the Quran, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. Community representatives said that in some cases, police confiscated passports, educational diplomas, and approximately 40 laptops and 400 books. Among these cases, employers placed Ahmadi Muslims who were under investigation on administrative leave, and the government dismissed 20 public sector teachers and doctors. Ahmadi representatives stated they believed these individuals would appear before the Supreme Court in the next three to six years and that in the meantime, they would be prohibited from working. The government confined Ahmadi Muslims with pending cases to their wilayas and required they physically report to the local court once a week.

During the year, the Ministry of Justice completed an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of prominent Berber Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar in 2019 but did not release the findings publicly. Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike while in pretrial detention. Authorities arrested him on charges of “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices against Ibadi Muslims.

NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging the completed registration application submitted by the community to the government in 2012, to reregister the group under the 2012 Associations Law. Ahmadis also reported they had not received a government response to their outstanding 2018 request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns.

The Ahmadi community continued to report administrative difficulties and harassment since the community is not a registered association and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations. Members of the community said, after their initial attempt in 2012, the community again tried to reregister with the MRA and Ministry of Interior as a Muslim group in 2016 and in 2020, but the government refused to accept those applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis said they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.

The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church had yet to receive responses from the Ministry of Interior regarding their 2012 applications to renew their registrations. Both groups submitted paperwork to renew the registrations that had been issued prior to the passage of the 2012 Associations Law. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 application in 2015 and 2016 but was never reregistered despite several follow-ups with the government. Neither church received receipts for their registration attempts.

Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received a Ministry of Interior confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers such as utilities and banks refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.

Numerous Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration. A Christian NGO and Christian publication said there was no indication that the committee had ever met. They again stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment; the leaders attributed this to the emphasis of some Protestant groups on proselytizing and conversion, as well as to the EPA’s primarily Algerian composition.

The MRA said it does not view Ibadis as a minority group and considers the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community. Muslim scholars affirmed Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.

In January, Morning Star News reported that a pastor of an Oran church affiliated with the EPA received an order to close the church on January 11. Authorities originally ordered the church closed in 2017 because it was not registered with the government as an association. Following appeals, a court issued a judgment to close the church on November 10 but had not delivered the order to the church by year’s end, according to the pastor.

According to media reports and EPA statements, since 2017 the government closed at least 18 EPA churches, all of which remained closed. In August, the administrative court rejected the EPA’s request to reopen the EPA-affiliated Spring of Life church in Makouda, which the government closed in 2019 for hosting unauthorized gatherings. The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.

In December, an international group that described itself as being comprised “of organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates” signed a letter to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune regarding “violations of freedom of religion and belief of Christians in Algeria, including closure of numerous churches and a failure to renew the registration of the [EPA].” According to the letter, the government closed 13 churches and ordered seven more to close since 2018 because they lacked the required permit to hold non-Islamic worship services. The letter also stated that the National Committee for Non-Muslim Religious Worship, which is responsible for issuing permits, had not issued a single permit to EPA-affiliated churches.

In March, the government closed all places of worship as part of its COVID-19 response. In August, the MRA reopened larger mosques capable of supporting social distancing measures, although Friday prayer services remained limited to smaller, neighborhood mosques. Catholic and Anglican churches also reopened in August, but the government denied the EPA’s request to reopen its churches, including those which were closed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, the EPA submitted a complaint to the governor of Tizi Ouzou for closing its churches and requested permission to reopen, but local authorities ruled in the governor’s favor and denied the request. Seventh-day Adventists said they intended to reopen when mosques reopened fully.

Pastor Salah Chalah reported that the Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, remained closed. Police closed the church in October 2019.

Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the country’s primarily Berber Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.

According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.

MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited resources, it was unclear if the government continued the MRA’s stated practice of monitoring sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials in the past, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.

Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Seventh-day Adventists leaders reported they did not attempt to import religious literature during the year. Anglican leaders said most parishioners preferred to download the Bible and prayer applications on their cell phones rather than carry a physical Bible. Anglican leaders also reported it remained illegal to print copies of religious texts.

Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. In 2019, the government approved the first versions of the Quran in the Berber language, Tamazight, in the Arabic script.

The government continued to enforce its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

On November 1, voters approved a new constitution. According to the BBC, the major Islamic parties, including the Movement for the Society of Peace, the Movement for Justice and Development, and the Nahda Movement, said the proposed new constitution was “against the Islamic values of the Algerian society,” “a threat to the future of the nation,” and backed a “no” vote. The Association of Algerian Ulema expressed its reservations about some of the articles in the draft constitution before the vote, stating, “There is…ambiguity regarding issues such as freedom of worship, national unity, and language.” Christians stated that one change regarding religious freedom in the new constitution, the deletion of a reference guaranteeing the freedom of conscience, was concerning. As one Christian publication stated, unlike the previous constitution, “There is no more ‘freedom of conscience,’ possibly a way to stop churches and their members from discussing Christianity online or having web-based religious services.” Another stated that “the new constitution’s protection of places of worship means little, given the government’s track record regarding freedom of religion.” A representative of International Christian Concern told the U.S.-based website Crux, “This removal [of the freedom of conscience] is what worries many Christians as something which could cause future legal difficulties.”

Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.

The MRA required that couples present a government-issued marriage certificate before permitting imams to conduct religious marriage ceremonies.

According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

EPA leaders reported public and private institutions fired some of its members due to their Christian faith and that in the public sector, the government frequently withheld promotions from non-Muslims.

Both private and state-run media continued to produce reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.

Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. Catholic leaders continued to say their greatest issue with the government was the long and unpredictable wait times for religious workers’ visas. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as significantly hindering religious practice, although Anglican leadership reported they usually received visas in a timely manner. One religious leader again identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups. Catholic leaders in Algiers said the government denied a Tamanrasset-based priest’s residency renewal following his November 2019 meeting with foreign officials.

The government and public and private companies funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The Province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic, although many Amazigh Christians said they would prefer services to be broadcast in Tamazight. The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism included dedicated state-run religious television and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, state broadcasters aired religious programs countering extremism. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.

Religious and civil society leaders reported that the Jewish community faced unofficial, religion-based obstacles to government employment and administrative difficulties when working with government bureaucracy. The MRA said it had not received requests to reopen the synagogues that closed during the period of the country’s struggle for independence.

Government officials continued to invite prominent Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as Revolutionary Day celebrations at the People’s Palace on November 1.

Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.

In July, the Ministry of Education required teachers in the Province of Tizi Ouzou to report their religious affiliations. EPA leaders expressed concerns that Christian teachers could face religious persecution and employment discrimination, as teachers are public-sector employees.

Authorities arrested Houssame Hatri in Maghnia on July 23 and said they would try him for his role in a 2014 violent anti-Semitic attack on a young couple in Paris. In the 90-minute attack, Hatri and his companions subjected the couple to physical and verbal abuse, destroyed many Jewish religious objects in the couple’s apartment, and made jokes referring to the Holocaust. After arrest and trial in France in 2018, Hatri escaped and fled to Algeria. According to press reports, under the terms of an extradition agreement with France, authorities will try Hatri in Algeria and he will not face extradition. A French security source told AFP, “It’s a good signal.”

The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction. On October 28, the government opened the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. The Prime Minister and other officials attended the opening ceremony. According to press reports, the project cost one billion dollars and faced criticism for diverting funding from social needs and being a vanity project of former President Bouteflika. The seven-year construction work was completed in April, three years behind schedule.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Christian converts said they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community.

Several Christian leaders said some Muslims who converted or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity were assaulted by family members or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.

According to religious leaders, some individuals who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, pressured them to convert back to Islam, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.

Media criticized religious communities they portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they considered government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

Christian leaders continued to say when Christian converts died, family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued to prohibit Christians from being buried alongside Muslims. In these cases, Christians opted to be buried under Islamic rites so their remains could stay near those of their families.

In April, the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” According to the website Middle East Monitor, the posting sparked a wave of controversy, especially on social media, where some attacked him for interfering “in a purely religious issues only Islamic and medical scholars can tackle.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.”

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 16 percent of respondents in Algeria either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” the lowest percentage in the region, which compared with 65 percent regionwide. In contrast, 63 percent of Algerians either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 72 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, which was the highest level for a single country in the region and compared with a level of 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

Some Christian leaders stated they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment. Christian and Muslim leaders hosted each other during the year. EPA leaders reported Catholic and Muslim leaders sent letters in support of the EPA to the MRA. Other faiths privately expressed support to Protestant leaders, and the EPA reported excellent interfaith dialogue within the religious community. The EPA reported some local authorities expressed regret for church closures, but stated they were duty-bound to follow government directives, regardless of their personal opinions.

Andorra

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of individuals to manifest their religion or belief and prohibits religious discrimination. It names two co-princes – the President of France and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain – as joint heads of state. In accordance with the constitution, the government offers the Catholic Church privileges not available to other religious groups. In February, the Department of Equality Policies within the Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Youth established the Observatory on Equality. The observatory is tasked with advising the government on issues pertaining to equality and discrimination, including those involving religious issues. The government did not respond to longstanding requests by Muslim and Jewish groups to build cemeteries for these communities, but tasked the Ministry of Territorial Planning to look for public land on which to build a multi-confessional cemetery. The government issued religious work permits only to Catholics, but it allowed non-Catholics to reside and perform religious work in the country under a different status.

In the absence of a mosque in the country, the Muslim community continued to rent two prayer rooms. The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community.

The U.S. Ambassador, Resident in Spain, the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona continued to meet and communicate regularly with senior government officials including the Attorney General and representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Social Affairs, the Office of the Head of Government and others, as well as with the Office of the Ombudsman. During visits to the country and periodic communications, consulate officials discussed with Jewish and Muslim leaders and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) issues such as the lack of official status for faiths other than Catholicism and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 86,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). The local government does not provide statistics on the size of religious groups, and there is no census data on religious group membership. Government officials report that approximately 92 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Muslim leaders report an increase in membership and estimate their community, largely composed of recent immigrants, has approximately 2,000 members. The Jewish community reports it has approximately 100 members. Other small religious groups include Hindus, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Baha’is, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), the New Apostolic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees “freedom of ideas, religion, and cult.” It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion and stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religion or beliefs. The constitution states such freedoms may be limited only to protect public safety, order, health, or morals as prescribed by law or to protect the rights of others. The constitution acknowledges a special relationship with the Catholic Church “in accordance with Andorran tradition” and recognizes the “full legal capacity” of the bodies of the Catholic Church, granting them legal status “in accordance with their own rules.” The Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain, is one of two constitutionally designated princes of the country, who serves equally as joint head of state with the other prince, the President of France. The current Bishop of Urgell is Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicilia, whose diocese includes Andorra.

A nondiscrimination law provides for the right to equal treatment and nondiscrimination, including for members of any religious group. The law establishes judicial, administrative, and institutional guarantees, which protect and provide compensation for victims of discrimination. The law also provides for fines of up to 24,000 euros ($29,400) in cases of discrimination, including on the basis of religious affiliation, and stipulates the burden of proof in such cases rests with the defendant, who must demonstrate there has not been discrimination.

Faiths other than Catholicism do not have legal status as religious groups. The government registers religious communities as cultural organizations under the law of associations, which does not specifically mention religious groups. To build a place of worship or seek government financial support for community activities, a religious group must acquire legal status by registering as a nonprofit cultural organization. To register, a group must provide its statutes and foundational agreement, a statement certifying the names of persons appointed to the board or other official positions in the organization, and a patrimony declaration that identifies the inheritance or endowment of the organization. A consolidated register of associations records all types of associations, including religious groups.

The national ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints of racism, discrimination, and intolerance, including those involving a religious motivation, in the public and private sectors. The ombudsman makes recommendations to the public administration to correct problems and reports annually to parliament. The ombudsman is a member of the commissions established by the newly created Observatory on Equality.

The law governing the issuance of official documents such as residence permits, passports, and driver’s licenses requires individuals to appear and be photographed with their heads uncovered.

According to the law, municipalities are responsible for the construction, preservation, and administration of cemeteries and funerary services.

Government regulation permits ritual slaughter as required by the Islamic or Jewish faith, as long as it takes place under the supervision of the veterinary services of the country’s slaughterhouse.

Instruction in the Catholic faith is optional in public schools. The Catholic Church provides teachers for religion classes, and the government pays their salaries. The Ministry of Education also provides space in public schools for Catholic religious instruction.

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

Government Practices

The Catholic Church continued to receive special privileges not available to other religious groups. The government paid the salaries of the eight Catholic priests serving in local churches and granted all foreign Catholic priests citizenship for as long as they exercised their functions in the country.

According to the government, although the construction of cemeteries fell within the responsibility of the municipal authorities, the Ministry of Territorial Planning in October began to look for public land on which to build a multi-confessional cemetery; by year’s end, the ministry had not indicated it had identified land for the cemetery. Government officials at the national and local levels continued not to respond to longstanding requests by Muslim and Jewish community representatives to allow the construction of separate cemeteries where they could bury their dead according to their rituals and traditions. Muslim community representatives stated they were disappointed due to the lack of government response to their requests. According to municipal authorities, Jews and Muslims could use existing cemeteries, but these did not allocate separate burial areas for these communities to use. As a result, most Jews and Muslims continued to bury their dead outside the country.

The government continued to fund three public Catholic schools at the primary and secondary level. These were open to students of all faiths. Catholic instruction was mandatory for all students attending these schools.

The government continued to maintain a policy of issuing religious work permits for foreigners performing religious functions only to members of the Catholic Church. Foreign religious workers belonging to other groups said they could enter the country with permits for other positions such as schoolteachers or business workers and carry out religious work without hindrance.

During the year, the national ombudsman’s office did not report receiving any complaints of religiously motivated discrimination or intolerance in the public or private sector. The principal religious groups said they had not reported any incidents of discrimination to the ombudsman.

In February, as provided for in the 2019 nondiscrimination law, the Department of Equality Policies in the Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Youth established the Observatory on Equality to collect and analyze data and advise the government on issues of equality and discrimination in the country, including those involving religious issues. The observatory created commissions including representatives of the government, civil society, the national ombudsman, and state-owned companies to identify indicators that will be used when gathering data to issue reports in the future. The observatory did not issue any reports during the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In the absence of a mosque in the country, the Muslim community continued to rely on two Islamic prayer rooms that it rented in Andorra la Vella and in Escaldes-Engordany.

The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community so that visiting Anglican clergy could conduct services for the English-speaking members of that community.

Antigua and Barbuda

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, as well as the right to practice and change one’s religion or belief. While its restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic were in effect, the government on occasion granted curfew exemptions to religious leaders to perform religious rites. Some members of the Rastafarian community said they objected to the government’s requirement of vaccinations for all children attending public schools.

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

Embassy officials spoke with government officials, including from the Ministry of Social Transformation and Human Resource Development’s Office of Ecclesiastical Affairs, and a member of the Rastafarian community to highlight the value of religious diversity in contributing to society and the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. The embassy maintained frequent social media engagement on religious freedom issues. In January, a series of posts highlighted U.S. National Religious Freedom Day, and also included the history of religious freedom in the Eastern Caribbean.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 98,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 17.6 percent of the population is Anglican, 12.4 percent Seventh-day Adventist, 12.2 percent Pentecostal, 8.3 percent Moravian, 8.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 5.6 percent Methodist. Those with unspecified or no religious beliefs account for 5.5 percent and 5.9 percent of the population, respectively. Members of the Baptist Church, the Church of God, and the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium each account for less than 5 percent of the population. The census categorizes an additional 12.2 percent of the population as belonging to other religious groups, including Rastafarians, Muslims, Hindus, and Baha’is, without providing percentages for each group. Based on anecdotal information, these four religious groups are listed from largest to smallest.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, as well as the right to change and practice one’s religion or belief. The constitution protects individuals from taking oaths contradictory to their beliefs or participating in events and activities of religions not their own, including participating in or receiving unwanted religious education. These rights may be limited in the interests of defense or public safety, order, morality, or health, or to protect the rights of others, unless actions under such limitations can be shown “not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” The constitution prohibits members of the clergy from running for elected office. No law may be adopted that contradicts these constitutional provisions. The government does not enforce a law outlawing blasphemous language in a public place or any other place that would “cause annoyance to the public.”

The government does not require religious groups to register; however, to receive tax- and duty-free concessions and to own, build, or renovate property, religious groups must register with the government. To register, religious groups must fill out an online tax form that describes the group’s activities. The government uses this form to determine the group’s tax status. The Inland Revenue Department reviews and approves the completed form, usually granting registration and tax concessions.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Private schools may provide religious instruction. Public schools require parents to immunize their children to attend school. Some private schools do not require immunizations for their students. The law also permits homeschooling.

The law decriminalizing marijuana for any use also recognizes the government’s responsibility to uphold the religious rights of persons of the Hindu and Rastafarian faiths. It allows these persons to apply for a special religious license to cultivate the plant within their private dwelling, use the plant for religious purposes within their private dwelling or within their approved place of worship, and transport the plant between their private dwelling and approved place of worship. The special religious license, however, does not permit any commercial or financial transaction involving any part of the cannabis plant.

Occupational health regulations require individuals with dreadlocks to cover their hair when they work with food, hazardous equipment, or in the health sector. These regulations apply to both public and private sector workplaces.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

While its restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic were in effect, the government on occasion granted curfew exemptions to religious leaders to engage in religious activities.

Some members of the Rastafarian community said they objected to the government’s requirement of vaccinations for all children attending public schools.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. On March 12, a Bangladesh Speedy Trial Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death four Muslim defendants of the group Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB), a violent extremist group accused in the 2016 killing of a Hindu priest. The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and to monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. The government continued to deploy law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence. In January, the Election Commission rescheduled local Dhaka elections after students and faith groups protested scheduling the elections during a Hindu festival.

In October, media reported a crowd of several hundred persons beat to death a Muslim visiting a mosque after a rumor spread that he desecrated a Quran in Lalmonirhat District, Rangpur Division near the country’s northern border. The man’s body was then set on fire. In July, according to press and Sufi Muslims, a Sufi follower was stalked and killed outside a Sufi shrine in Gazipur. In July, press reported local residents exhumed the body of an Ahmadi Muslim infant buried in an Islamic cemetery and dumped the body at the side of the road in protest of the infant’s burial, because they considered her family to be “infidels”; the body was later buried in a government cemetery. According to leaders in the Hindu community and media, in November, a crowd of several hundred looted, vandalized, and set on fire Hindu family homes in Cumilla District after rumors spread that local Hindu residents supported Charlie Hebdo’s publication in France of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, initially published in 2015 and reprinted in September. The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for Christians who converted to Christianity from Hinduism and Islam. The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) said communal violence against minorities continued throughout the year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In meetings with government officials, civil society members, religious leaders, and in public statements, the U.S. Ambassador, other U.S. embassy representatives, and the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance. During the year, the United States provided nearly $349 million in assistance for programs to assist overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma and host communities. Embassy public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year, including an event held on November 24.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 162.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2013 government census, the most recent official data available, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus 10 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, animists, agnostics, and atheists. Leaders from religious minority communities estimate their respective numbers to be between a few thousand and 100,000 adherents.

Ethnic minorities concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and northern districts generally practice a non-Islamic faith. The Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian, as are some of the Santal in Gaibandha. Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the CHT. Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, with relatively high concentrations in Barishal City and Gournadi in Barishal District, Baniarchar in Gopalganj District, Monipuripara and Christianpara in Dhaka City, and in the cities of Gazipur and Khulna.

The largest noncitizen population is Rohingya, nearly all Muslim. Human Rights Watch estimates approximately 1,500 Rohingya in the refugee settlements are Christians; approximately 450 are Hindu. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than one million Rohingya refugees fled Burma in successive waves since the early 1990s. Most recently, in August 2017, approximately 740,000 Rohingya fleeing violence in Burma took refuge in the country. Nearly all who arrived during the 2017 influx sought shelter in and around the refugee settlements of Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar District.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.” The constitution also stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion. It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality,” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions. The constitution states no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.

Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison. Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications. While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code, as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act and the Digital Security Act, to charge individuals for acts perceived to be a slight against Islam. The Information and Communication Act criminalizes several forms of online expression, including “obscene material,” “expression(s) likely to cause deterioration of law and order,” and “statements hurting religious sentiments.” The Digital Security Act likewise criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” by denying bail and increasing penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of “destroying religious harmony”, the peaceful coexistence of religious communities, or creating discrimination on religious grounds.

Individual houses of worship are not required to register with the government. Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register as NGOs with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. The law requires the NGOAB to approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects. The NGOAB Director General has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation, or closure of the NGO. NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence, Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, although the standards for this clearance are not transparent.

Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations. Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include certifying the name being registered is not taken, and providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the National Security Intelligence; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; work plan; copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative.

Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.

Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption contains separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. These laws are enforced in the same secular courts. A separate civil family law applies to mixed-faith families or those of other faiths or no faith. The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings. A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again. A Christian man may marry only one woman.

Hindu men may have multiple wives. Officially, Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur. Hindu women may inherit property under the law. Buddhists are subject to the same laws as Hindus. Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups occurs under civil law. To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some marriages are not. Registration of marriages for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.

Under the Muslim family ordinance, a Muslim man may marry women of any Abrahamic faith; however, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim. Under the ordinance, a widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child. Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands. Civil courts must approve divorces. The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate. Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.

Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling out of court family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership. With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.

Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice. Fatwas may neither be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.

Religious studies are compulsory and are part of the curriculum for grades three through 10 in all public government-accredited schools. Private schools do not have this requirement. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students receive instruction in their own religious beliefs, although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.

The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations by prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons. The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy or regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them. Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a faith of their choice before execution.

The Restoration of Vested Property Act allows the government to return property confiscated from individuals, mostly Hindus, whom it formerly declared enemies of the state. In the past, authorities used the act to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups, especially Hindus, who fled the country, particularly following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.

According to law, if a lower court orders the death penalty, the High Court examines the verdict for confirmation of the punishment.

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

Government Practices

On March 12, according to media reports, a Bangladeshi Speedy Trial Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death four Muslim members of JMB, a violent extremist group, for their involvement in the 2016 killing of a Hindu priest. The victim, Jogeshwar Roy, chief priest at Sri Swanta Gouria Monastery, was stabbed to death while organizing prayers at the temple.

At year’s end, the death sentence of seven individuals for their roles in the July 2016 killing of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka remained on appeal with the High Court. In November 2019, a Bangladesh Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced the seven, while acquitting an eighth defendant.

Legal proceedings against six suspects allegedly involved in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. The trial began in the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in April 2019. In March, the trial proceedings stalled due to the absence of witnesses. In late March, authorities closed all courts until August due to the coronavirus outbreak, when the trial resumed. In November, two more witnesses provided testimony to the court, bringing the total witnesses to 24.

There was no progress in the court case regarding a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District; victims expressed frustration to media over the continued investigation into the incident.

Biplob Chandra Baidya, a Hindu man, remained imprisoned since October 2019 for anti-Islam messages posted to his Facebook account, which he stated was hacked. Rioters vandalized homes and religious temples following the postings.

According to press reports, in January, local authorities arrested a Baul folk singer, Shariat Sarker, for derogatory comments against religion and “hurting religious sentiments,” criminal offenses under the law. Baul singing incorporates elements of Tantra, Sufism, Vaishnavism, and Buddhism. Authorities arrested Sarker following a protest by more than 1,000 individuals and a complaint to police by a Muslim cleric. Authorities denied Sarkar bail at the first hearing of his case at the Tangail District Court on January 29. According to press reports, Sarkar spent six months in jail. In February, a lawyer accused another Baul folk singer, Rita Dewan, of making derogatory comments against Allah during a musical competition. After a video recording of the song went viral, she apologized. Criminal charges were brought against Dewan that same month, and following a police investigation, a court issued a warrant for her arrest in December.

In March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights requested the government to “urgently revise the Digital Security Act, to ensure that it is in line with international human rights laws and that it provides for checks and balances against arbitrary arrest, detention, and other undue restrictions of the rights of individuals to the legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression and opinion.”

Human rights organizations reported a decrease in the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions” during the year. In 2019, there was a reported 54 percent decrease in reported cases of fatwa and village out-of-court arbitrations overall. Media attributed the decline to civil society activism. Fatwas, however, continued throughout the year, including a November edict issued against a sculpture honoring Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the country.

Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and provide guidance on the content of their sermons to imams throughout the country through the Islamic Foundation. This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious community leaders again said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy. The government maintained instructions to mosques to denounce extremism.

According to the Ministry of Land’s 2018-2019 report, the most recent figures available, as of 2018, authorities had adjudicated 26,791 of 114,749 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 12,190 of the cases, recovering 10,255 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 14,791 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the BHBCUC attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.

Freedom House’s 2020 report assessed religious minorities remained underrepresented in politics and state agencies.

Religious minorities continued to state that religious minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes because of an insufficient number of religious minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 16.93 billion taka ($199.2 million) for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which covers July 2020-June 2021. The budget included 14.25 billion taka ($167.6 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.12 billion taka ($95.5 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 1.435 billion taka ($16.9 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 46.8 million taka ($551,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2020-2021 budget, it received seven million taka ($82,400) to run its office.

Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, which remained unresolved at year’s end. Some human rights activists said it was often difficult to determine whether these disputes and evictions were a result of deliberate government discrimination against religious minorities or of government inefficiency. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. According to minority religious associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups continued to attribute lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout, rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities. Indigenous groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in particular, have large communities of Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians. A portion of these communities speak tribal languages and do not speak Bangla, making it difficult to access government registrations and services and further disenfranchising these groups.

The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, celebrations during the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima. During the year, the government assisted places of worship implement COVID-19 precautions during major festivals.

President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays and emphasized the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for religious minorities. In January, the Election Commission rescheduled local Dhaka elections after students and faith groups protested scheduling the election during a Hindu festival.

In January, the government said it would lift education restrictions for young Rohingya refugees. According to Minister of Foreign Affairs AK Abdul Momen, “We don’t want a lost generation of Rohingya. We want them to have education. They will follow Myanmar curricula.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools in the country remained closed beginning in March.

In September, Minister of Education Dipu Moni participated in an interreligious gathering on education, resilience, respect, and inclusion promoting what she termed the country’s history of religious harmony and tolerance for all faiths.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In October, according to police and local reports, a crowd of several hundred persons carrying sticks beat to death Abu Yunus Md Shahidunnabi Jewel and then set his body on fire. According to local press accounts, Jewel and a companion visited a mosque while away from his hometown, and while viewing the mosque’s Quran and Hadith, the Quran fell to the ground. A rumor quickly spread that Jewel had desecrated the sacred text. After a crowd attacked Jewel and his companion, officials attempted to protect them in the local government office. The crowd, however, broke into the office and grabbed Jewel. Although his companion successfully fled to the rooftop, Jewel was beaten to death. After Jewel was killed, according to eyewitnesses and video clips, the crowd burned his body while chanting, “Nara E Takbeer Allahu Akbar,” loosely translated as “Shout out loud, God is greatest.” The crowd also attacked law enforcement officers, and police opened fire in what was described as a measure to bring the situation under control, although no casualties were reported. Police authorities formed a government human rights investigation committee team that found after three days of review no evidence Jewel desecrated the Quran.

In late July, according to reports by Sufi leadership and a local media outlet, a Sufi follower named Soheil was stabbed to death in Gazipur, Dhaka. A local media report said criminals noticed Sohail outside a Sufi shrine, followed him, tied his arms and legs, then stabbed him in the stomach and disemboweled him. JMB claimed responsibility and published an online video of the killing. The following morning, the killers tied a brick to Sohail’s body and threw it over the Fakir Majnu Shah Bridge into the Shitalakhya River. While interrogating suspected JMB militants, the Dhaka Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit uncovered this incident and attempted to recover Sohail’s remains. According to Sufi leadership, Sohail was known for selling religious objects and conducting spiritual healings and had the nickname “Maizbhandar Sohail,” linking him with one of the major Sufi shrines in Bangladesh and potentially making him a target. Following the admission, the crime unit included this incident in its investigation into the JMB militants.

Also in July, major news outlets reported the exhuming and subsequent dumping of an Ahmadi Muslim infant’s body on the roadside in Brahmanbaria District. In a public statement, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community said the infant was born prematurely and died three days after birth. The bereaved family had buried the infant in a government cemetery, which according to the media reports caused local residents to become infuriated, not believing it appropriate to bury an Ahmadi Muslim’s body in a government cemetery for Muslims. After local residents exhumed the infant’s body, law enforcement responded to the incident and interviewed both the local residents and the family. Following intervention by law enforcement, the family agreed to rebury the infant in a separate Ahmadi cemetery. Human rights groups not associated with Ahmadiyya Islam termed the incident a “crude example of violence against religious minorities and abuse of human rights.”

According to the BHBCUC, communal attacks against ethnic and religious minorities occurred throughout the year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. The BHBCUC counted 17 deaths in religious and ethnic minority communities between March and September. In June, the Bangladesh chapter of the World Hindu Federation released a press statement detailing a series of 30 incidents against Hindus in May. These included as many as four incidents in which Hindus were killed, according to the federation. The report also noted incidents of temple vandalism, forced conversion, rapes, and abductions of Hindu girls and women. In November, protesters demonstrated in Dhaka, Chattogram, and other parts of the country against communal attacks on minority religious communities. Saying government actions were not enough, protesters demanded tough action and accountability for perpetrators who they stated were harming religious harmony in the country.

In November, according to Hindu activist groups and widely reported in media, a Muslim crowd burned, looted, and vandalized Hindu family homes in Cumilla District, Chattogram Division. Local press outlets reported the crowd was incited by rumors that local Hindu residents supported the publication in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed, initially published in 2015 and reprinted in France in September. In remarks to the press, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan promised “stern, punitive actions” against the culprits and increased police presence in the affected village following the attack. By the end of the year, police arrested 16 suspects in connection with the violence.

According to press reports, in January, unknown persons attacked several Rohingya Christian families at the Kutupalong Maga refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar. Although the reasons for the attack were unknown, one of the Christian refugees said intolerance against the Christian faith was the cause. According to Refugee Relief and Reparation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder, 25 Christian families were transferred to another camp following the attack.

According to media reports, in July, individuals destroyed and forcefully removed the bamboo fence bordering a 200-year-old Hindu temple to the god Shiva and privately owned land in Dighirjan Village of Pirojpur District, in an attempt to take possession of the land. The landowner said no arrests or charges were made in connection with this incident.

The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights NGOs continued to report harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for converts to Christianity from Islam and Hinduism. The NGOs said individuals commonly associated a person’s faith with his or her surname. In spite of constitutional guarantees protecting an individual’s right to change faiths, according to the Christian Welfare Trust, when someone’s professed faith deviated from the faith tradition commonly linked with his or her surname, particularly if the professed faith was Christianity, harassment, threats, and social isolation could ensue.

NGOs continued to report tensions in the CHT between the predominantly Muslim Bengali settlers and members of indigenous groups, primarily Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, largely over land ownership. In October, the Mro tribe, a majority Buddhist group, protested the development of a tourist hotel on Chimbuk Hill, Bandabarban, stating the project would displace tens of thousands of Mro from their ancestral land. According to NGO and press reports, the Mro acquiesced to handing over 20 acres of land believing it would be used for cultivation purposes. However, they later discovered an agreement between the Army Welfare Trust, a fund for Bangladesh Army officials, and a private Bangladesh company to construct a high-end hotel. The Mro said they were deceived when discussing the intended use of the property and did not relinquish their rights to the land.

Bhutan

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage,” provides for freedom of religion, and bans discrimination based on religious belief. The constitution states religious institutions and personalities shall remain “above politics.” The law restricts religious speech promoting enmity among religious groups and requires religious groups to obtain licenses to hold public religious gatherings. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction by the government. The government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO) approved 14 religious groups during the year, but none from religious minority groups. Hindu leaders cited continued public support for the construction of Hindu temples from the highest level of government, including the new temple in the capital in 2019. There were no reports of unregistered religious groups, including Christians, being unable to worship in private, although such groups were unable to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. The international Christian NGO Open Doors continued to list the country on its annual World Watch List. The report for 2021 (which covered events in 2020) alleged discrimination against Christians, stating that religious nationalism created broad pressure for citizens to follow Buddhism. Pastors cited acquiring permanent Christian burial plots as a continuing challenge. Leaders from the Hindu Dharmic Samudai, one of eight religious organizations on the board of the CRO, cited strong official support for Hindu religious practice, including royal support for the construction of Hindu temples and participation in Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals.

NGOs reported continued societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors reported, “All Bhutanese citizens are expected to be Buddhists. Anyone who converts to Christianity is watched with suspicion, and pressure is usually put on them to bring them back to their former religion.”

The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with the country or a diplomatic presence there. Officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged virtually with both government and nongovernment figures on issues including freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities. Unlike in previous years, U.S. government officials were unable to visit the country during the year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 782,000 (mid-year 2020 estimate). According to a 2012 report (the most recent) by the Pew Research Center, approximately 75 percent of the population follows either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma school of Buddhism, and Hindus make up approximately 23 percent of the total population. Hindus reside mostly in southern areas adjacent to India. The 2020 report by the World Christian Database estimates that Buddhists comprised 83 percent of the population and Hindus 11 percent in 2019. The government does not publish statistics on religious demography.

According to a Pew Research Center report in 2012 and the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List, estimates of the size of the Christian community range from 0.5 to 3.6 percent of the total population. Most Christians are concentrated in towns in the south. According to scholars, although traditional Bon practices are often combined with Buddhist practices, very few citizens adhere exclusively to this religious tradition. The Sharchop ethnic group, which makes up the majority of the population in the east, practices elements of Tibetan Buddhism combined with elements of the Bon tradition and Hinduism, according to scholars.

Most of Bhutan’s foreign workers come from India. In 2019, India’s Ministry of External Affairs estimated that 60,000 Indian nationals lived in the country and 8,000 to 10,000 additional temporary workers entered the country daily. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some Indian residents left the country and entry of foreign workers was greatly limited. While there is no data on their religious affiliation, most foreign workers are likely Hindu and, in fewer numbers, Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage” and stipulates it is “the responsibility of all religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country.” The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and bans discrimination based on faith. The constitution says the King must be Buddhist and requires the King to be the “protector of all religions.”

The constitution states, “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.” The penal code criminalizes “coercion or inducement to convert” as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Neither “coercion” nor “inducement to convert” is defined in law or regulation.

The law prohibits oral or written communication “promoting enmity among religious groups” and provides for sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment for violations.

The penal code states individuals found guilty of promoting civil unrest by advocating “religious abhorrence,” disturbing public tranquility, or committing an act “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony” among religious groups shall be subject to punishment of five to nine years’ imprisonment.

The law requires religious groups to register with the CRO. To register, a religious group must submit an application demonstrating its leaders are citizens and disclosing their educational background and financial assets. The law also specifies the organizational structure, bylaws, and procedural rules registered religious organizations must follow. It prohibits religious organizations from “violating the spiritual heritage” of the country and requires them to protect and promote it. The law also states no religious organization shall do anything to impair the sovereignty, security, unity, or territorial integrity of the country. It mandates that the CRO certify that religious groups applying for registration meet the specified requirements.

Registered religious groups may raise funds for religious activities and are exempt from taxes. Registered groups require permission from local government authorities to hold public meetings outside of their registered facilities and must seek permission from the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs to invite foreign speakers or receive foreign funds.

Unregistered religious groups may not organize public religious services, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. Penalties for unregistered organizations performing these activities range from fines to prison terms, depending on the offense. The law states it is an offense for a religious group to provide false or misleading information in its religious teachings, to misuse investments, or to raise funds illegally. The CRO has the authority to determine whether the content of a group’s religious teachings is false or misleading and whether it has raised funds illegally. Sanctions include fines and potential revocation of registration.

The law states the CRO shall consist of an eight-member board responsible for overseeing the structure of religious institutions, enforcing the constitutional separation between the government and religious organizations, and monitoring religious fundraising activities. The chairperson of the board is a cabinet minister appointed by the Prime Minister, who as of early 2020 was also the Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs. A senior official from the Ministry of Finance and one of the King’s appointees to the National Council also sit on the board. The director of culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs serves ex officio as secretary. Heads of Buddhist religious organizations and the Hindu Dharma Samudaya, a registered Hindu organization, occupy the remaining seats. The law requires the CRO to “ensure that religious institutions and personalities promote the spiritual heritage of the country” by developing a society “rooted in Buddhist ethos.”

The constitution states the King shall appoint the chief abbot of the central monastic body on the advice of the five masters of the monastic body. Those individuals and a civil servant administrative secretary make up the Commission for Monastic Affairs, which manages issues related to Buddhist doctrine. The constitution says the state will provide funds and “facilities” to the central monastic body.

The law permits the government to “avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses for public assembly, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and imposing curfews. The government may apply these measures to groups and organizations of all kinds, including religious groups.

Government approval is required to construct religious buildings. By law, all buildings, including religious structures, must adhere to traditional architectural standards. The CRO determines conformity with these standards.

The constitution states religious institutions have the responsibility to ensure religion remains separate from the state. It states, “Religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.” The law prohibits religious organizations from involvement in political activity. Ordained members of the clergy of any religion may not engage in political activities, including running for office and voting.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Open Doors continued to list the country on its annual World Watch List with respect to discrimination against Christians, stating that religious nationalism creates broad pressure for citizens to follow Buddhism, especially from family members who sometimes see converting to Christianity as bringing shame on the family and who disown Christian family members.

The CRO approved 14 religious groups during the year, but none were from religious minorities. There are approximately 140 Buddhist groups, two Hindu groups, and no Christian groups registered by the government.

The CRO continued not to approve the pending registration request of any church, which, according to Open Doors, Christians “are technically worshipping illegally,” although Christian pastors reported they were generally able to worship in private. The government did not offer any official explanation to these groups for not registering them.

There were no reports of authorities threatening or forcing house churches to close during the year. One pastor reported that some new home Christian fellowships opened during the year. He said that he was not aware of any cases of the government persecuting religious minorities in the country during the year, in part because COVID-19 restrictions limited gatherings and movement. Open Doors’ 2021 report noted that “Buddhist monks oppose the presence of Christians. In general, local officials overlook this opposition.”

Christian pastors cited acquiring permanent Christian burial plots as a continuing challenge. The community was allowed to purchase one small plot of land for burials in 2019, but access was restricted, and government officials continued to press the community to cremate their dead instead of burying them “due to lack of space in the small country.” Pastors noted that Christians had less access to radio and television broadcasts and fewer officially endorsed public celebrations than the Hindu community. They also said the Christian community believed that ambiguities in religious affairs laws on “inducements” to conversion could be used to penalize the celebration of Christian religious services if they appeared to be proselytizing, which is illegal.

Open Doors’ 2021 report again said that Christians often faced difficulties in obtaining “nonobjection certificates” from local authorities that were required for loan and employment applications and property registration.

The King supported Hindu temples by allotting them land and funding and by participating in Hindu festivals. The King has also participated in the opening ceremony of a new Hindu temple in 2019. Hindu leaders reported increasing religious acceptance, in part due to the King’s public outreach to the Hindu community.

The government continued its financial assistance for the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines as well as funding for Buddhist monks and monasteries. According to Minority Rights Group International, authorities gave Buddhist temples priority over Hindu temples in the licensing process.

The India-based Hindu organization Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said that Hindu groups took a “cautious policy” toward the government due to the government’s delay in formally recognizing additional Hindu organizations. VHP said, however, that the government had a “better relationship with the predominantly Nepalese Hindus.”

Some courts and other government institutions remained housed within or adjacent to Buddhist monasteries. Some religious groups stated that government ceremonies continued to involve mandatory Buddhist prayer rituals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs reported continuing societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors said Christians faced discrimination in their personal and professional lives and characterized persecution of Christians as “very high.” According to Open Doors’ report for 2021, “Buddhism is engrained in daily life in Bhutan, and anyone who leaves Buddhism to follow Jesus is viewed with suspicion by neighbors, friends, and even immediate family.” The report said that “family members go to great lengths to bring the [Christian] convert back to his or her original faith.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely. The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the Presidency and one house of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – who are predominantly SOC, Roman Catholic, and Muslim, respectively. The government again failed to comply with a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision calling on it to open these positions to other minorities. By law, no Muslim group may register or open a mosque without the approval of the Islamic Community (IC). The human rights ministry made little progress implementing instructions making it responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The Presidency again failed to approve a previously negotiated agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. Religious groups, in communities where they are a minority, reported authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against them in providing services and granting building permits. UNICEF reported students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious discrimination in schools. The Interreligious Council (IRC), comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported inadequate investigation and prosecution of religiously motivated crimes.

The IRC registered 14 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites, including one involving a shooting at a cross, but said the number of actual incidents was likely much higher. In October, vandals damaged the Sultan Sulaiman Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina, a designated national monument. The Saint Sava Orthodox church in Blazuj near Sarajevo was repeatedly vandalized, and several Catholic memorials and chapels were also vandalized. In 2019, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to the police. The incidents ranged from threatening religious leaders and disturbing religious ceremonies with threats to vandalizing cemeteries and other religious sites. In contrast with the previous year, the OSCE did not report any anti-Semitic incidents. Slightly more than two-thirds of respondents in an August survey expressed support for maintaining religious education in schools.

U.S. embassy representatives emphasized the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities to government officials. In May, the Ambassador met with the newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge the groups to improve interreligious dialogue to help develop a peaceful and stable society. The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and to fund some of its interfaith and reconciliation-themed activities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population, Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent, Roman Catholics 15 percent, and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.

There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion.

The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.

The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It provides for equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion and prohibits any incitement to religious hatred or intolerance. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.

The laws of Brcko, a self-governing district, do not encompass freedom of religion. Instead, national laws on religious freedom are applied.

A national law on religion provides for freedom of conscience and grants legal status to “churches and religious communities.” To acquire official status as recognized religious communities, religious groups must register. The constitutions of BiH, the Federation, and RS state that registered religious organizations are allowed to operate freely. Simplified registration procedures applied to religious groups recognized prior to adoption of the law, primarily the Orthodox Church, IC, Jewish Community, Catholic Church, and other Christian groups, including the Evangelical, Baptist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Unregistered religious groups may assemble to practice their religion, but they have no legal status and may not represent themselves as a religious community.

Registration affords numerous rights to religious communities that are not available to those that do not register, including the right to conduct collaborative actions such as do charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees (MHRR) is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.

According to law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Requirements for registration include presenting statutes that define the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application. The law stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.” A group may appeal a negative decision to the BiH Council of Ministers. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction.

The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.

In addition to registered churches and religious communities, there are educational, charitable, and other institutions, known as “legal subjects,” that belong to these communities but are registered as separate legal entities in the MOJ registry. The IC has 120 legal subjects, the Catholic Church 398, the Orthodox Church 526, and other churches and religious communities and alliances (primarily of Protestant groups) of these communities have 47.

A concordat between the BiH government and the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including to establish educational and charitable institutions and carry out religious education in public or private schools, and it officially recognizes Catholic holidays. The government and the Catholic Church created a commission to implement the concordat. A similar agreement exists between the BiH government and the SOC, and a commission to implement it was created in September.

The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.

The law on religion states that churches and religious communities are obligated to pay taxes and contributions on earnings of their employees (pension, health, and disability insurance). In the Federation, two of 10 cantons – Western Herzegovina Canton and Herzegovina-Neretva Canton – include religious officials in their health insurance system. Sarajevo Canton does not include religious workers in its health insurance system but offers such insurance to religious officials under more favorable provisions than those available to average citizens. The RS provides pension benefits and disability insurance to religious workers while they have residence in the RS.

All three BiH administrative units have hate crimes regulated within their criminal codes. The provisions in these codes regulate hate crimes as every criminal act committed because of the race, skin color, religious belief, national or ethnic origin, language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the victim. The criminal codes also stipulate that this motivation is to be taken as an aggravating circumstance of any criminal act unless the code itself stipulates harsher punishments for qualified forms of criminal acts.

The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to assume responsibility for teaching religious studies in public and private preschools, primary and secondary schools, and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers, who are employees of the schools where they teach, although they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.

The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions.

In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course, or students may take a course in ethics. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools may attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week or take a course in ethics. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS that do not have Croat majorities, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. The RS Ministry of Education offers elective religious education in secondary schools.

The BiH constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion.

The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the House of Peoples (one of two houses of parliament) and apportions other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups according to quotas. Members of religious minorities are constitutionally ineligible to hold a seat in the House of Peoples. The three-member presidency must consist of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.

A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based specifically on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.

The country has no law on restitution that would allow for the return of, or compensation for, property, including property owned by religious groups, nationalized or expropriated under communist rule.

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

Government Practices

The human rights ministry made little progress in implementing 2019 instructions for implementation of the national religious freedom law. In accordance with the instructions, the ministry is responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The MHRR took no steps to draft proposals for resolving the issues of rights to pension, disability allowance, and health insurance for religious officials, despite issuing instructions in 2019 stating it would do so and submit the proposals to the government for approval. National, Federation, and RS governments had still not made provisions for religious officials to fully qualify for pensions and health and disability insurance, more than 16 years after the adoption of the law on religious freedom and the 2019 issuance of instructions on implementation of the law stating the MHRR should work with religious group representatives to resolve the issue.

The government again failed to comply with a 2009 decision by the ECHR stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of minority groups, including Jews, to run for president and the House of Peoples.

The MOJ said it generally processed registration applications by religions groups within a week. There were no reports the ministry denied any registration applications by religious communities.

The Presidency again failed to reach a consensus on the approval of a 2015 agreement between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers, as well as one-time travel to Mecca for the Hajj. The Presidency did not inform the MHRR what part of the agreement was not acceptable to it.

In September, the IRC reported the government prohibition against employees of judicial institutions wearing any form of “religious insignia,” including headscarves, at work, remained in place. While there were no instances of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council applying the prohibition during the year, an IC representative stated its existence caused uneasiness and uncertainty among Muslims working in or visiting these institutions.

According to officials of religious groups constituting a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits to build new, or repair existing, religious properties. On March 3, three years after the original application, Drvar municipal authorities issued a location permit to the Catholic Saint Joseph Parish in Drvar for the construction of a pastoral and charity center on property owned by the Catholic Church. In 2019, the Livno Canton Ministry of Construction, Space Planning, and Environment ordered Drvar Municipality to issue a location permit to the Catholic Church in Drvar for the construction of the center, overturning the municipality’s initial rejection of the Church’s request.

As of September, the government of BiH had only partially implemented an ECHR ruling ordering it to remove a Serbian Orthodox church the court found was illegally built on plaintiff Fata Orlovic’s property in Bratunac. The lawyer representing Orlovic confirmed the RS government paid Orlovic and her relatives for financial damages. At the end of February, SOC officials removed all religious items from the church, and, for the first time, there was no church liturgy held on the church’s patron saint’s day on September 11. At year’s end, the church building remained in place on Orlovic’s property.

Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s continuing lack of any institution responsible for the rights of religious communities and the lack of a law on restitution – for both religious communities and private citizens – hindered efforts on the part of religious communities to resolve the issue of property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, repeatedly said the country was the only one in the region that had done nothing to resolve the restitution problem. He said the lack of resolution posed a burden on religious communities, as disputed properties could be an important and much-needed source of revenue for them.

According to religious community leaders, political disagreement over whether the state or the country’s two entities – the Federation and RS – had competency over restitution, as well as the potential cost, were the main barriers to the country’s adopting a law on restitution. According to a study done by the Economic Institute of the Faculty of Economics, University of Sarajevo, just under 7 percent of the total nationalized property in the country belonged to religious communities, and each major religious group had unresolved restitution claims involving high-profile properties. For example, the SOC sought return of its former seminary building, which housed the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Economics; the Jewish Community was seeking return of its La Benevolencija building in the center of Sarajevo, which housed the Ministry of Interior of Sarajevo Canton; the Catholic Church was seeking return of its Saint Augustine Institute building in Sarajevo, which housed the Music Academy; and the IC had a claim on the Palata Gazihusrevbeg building in downtown Sarajevo. In some cases, municipal, cantonal, and entity governments engaged in “silent restitution,” where they allowed religious communities to use a property but did not transfer legal ownership. All main religious groups expressed concerns regarding discrimination and unequal treatment of religious communities by the Federation and the RS. All major religious groups in the country said they agreed on the urgent need for a restitution law to be adopted.

In welcoming remarks during a Christmas reception on January 16, SOC Metropolitan Hrizostom called on the BiH Presidency to support, and the BiH Parliament to adopt, a law on restitution of property. He stated that, by failing to return seized properties to churches and religious communities, the government continued to violate basic human and religious rights of believers. On September 17, Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic, in a meeting with High Representative Valentin Inzko, the official responsible for overseeing implementation of civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement, said the government should either return all nationalized properties to religious groups or pay them compensation. In its October report, Key Findings of the Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovinas EU Membership Application and Analytical Report, the European Commission criticized BiH authorities for failure to adopt a legislative framework for handling restitution cases.

At the end of 2019, the Municipality of Stari Grad Sarajevo began construction of a 5,800 square-meter (62,000 square-foot) building in the center of Sarajevo on a plot of land, ownership of which was partly claimed by four Jewish families and partly by the IC. The Stari Grad Municipality registered itself as the owner of the land, even though the Jewish Community informed the municipality that one of the four original Jewish owners was still alive and the remaining three had living heirs. The families and Jewish Community submitted an appeal to the municipality in 2018, but the municipality rejected it in 2019 and issued a building permit to itself and private investor Amko Komerc. Unlike the Jewish families, several online media outlets, including tacno.net and klix.ba, reported that the IC was compensated for its share of the property.

According to a UNICEF report issued in March, students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious segregation, intolerance, and division in a number of ethnically homogenous schools throughout the country, especially in the “two schools under one roof,” where children were segregated from each other based on ethnicity.

Returnee students (those belonging to a minority ethnic group returning to their homes after being displaced by the war) continued to face barriers in exercising their rights to language education. For the seventh consecutive year, parents of Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation of BiH Ministry of Education with support from the governments of the Sarajevo and the Zenica-Doboj Cantons and the IC. According to media and international organizations, the boycott was based on the refusal of the RS Ministry of Education and Culture (RS MoEC) to approve a group of national subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students are entitled and taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity). Parents of one of these schools in Vrbanjci, Kotor Varos, won a court case in December 2019 in which the RS Supreme Court ruled they were entitled to the national group of subjects in the Bosnian language. The RS MoEC, however, failed to implement the decision by the beginning of the new school year in September. As a result, 60 children continued learning in the Hanifici Islamic Center building, with teachers traveling from Zenica-Doboj Canton, approximately 80 kilometers (48 miles) away. In June, lawyers representing Bosniak parents filed a request for execution of the RS Supreme Court decision at the Kotor Varos Basic Court. By year’s end, that court had not responded. Lawyers representing the parents also reported that they had tried to meet with the RS MoEC officials twice, but without success.

According to nongovernmental organizations and media reports, parents often chose to send their children to public school religious education classes to avoid having their children stand out from other children who attend the classes and be exposed to peer pressure. In August, the PRIME Communications agency asked 1,500 persons whether religious education should remain in schools in the country; 52.8 percent of respondents opposed removing religious education from schools; 16 percent were largely against removal; 11.5 percent favored removal; and the remainder did not answer the question.

According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Bosniak returnees again complained that schools in the RS celebrated Saint Sava Day as an official holiday for their schools; Bosniaks said they considered this discriminatory, since Saint Sava is an Orthodox saint.

Representatives of religious minority communities throughout the country reported that their members had difficulties accessing government services and protections, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. For example, in July, Cardinal Puljic told an Italian Catholic media outlet that thousands of Catholics left the country every year because of discrimination.

On several occasions, IRC leaders again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate in providing police protection and investigating threats of violence and harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated the cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. According to the IRC, the officials rarely investigated the motives of the acts, which would help distinguish cases of theft from hate crimes. In many instances, IRC leaders said they hesitated to report incidents to the police or media, particularly in areas where their religious group is a minority, fearing that public attention could result in retaliation and greater problems for their community in the future.

The Sarajevo Canton Assembly again failed to implement its 2018 decision to change the name of an elementary school and street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad named after Mustafa Busuladzic. Busuladzic was a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. Both the school and street retained the Busuladzic name.

According to representatives of the Catholic Church, the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See had not met since 2016, and the government had not implemented the agreements reached by the commission earlier, such as legislation on observing religious holidays.

In September, the government and the SOC formed a commission to implement the agreement between the government and the SOC. According to the MHRR, the implementation of the agreement with the SOC had likely been stalled for years due to the absence of a similar agreement between the state and the IC.

The MHRR stated in September it had launched a process to unblock the process of adopting an agreement between the IC and the government.

International and local nongovernmental organizations, academics, and government agencies said each of the country’s major political parties continued to align with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership: the largest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the largest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The IRC stated it believed the actual number of incidents was much higher but remained significantly underreported because members of religious groups feared that reporting them could trigger retaliation or further episodes.

In July, unknown persons fired several shots from a small-caliber weapon at a Catholic cross in Bisnje near Derventa. Authorities reported there were no victims; they failed to identify any suspects by year’s end.

On October 11, unknown persons vandalized Sultan Sulaiman’s Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina by breaking glass on two windows. The mosque was a designated national monument previously restored after being destroyed in the 1992-95 war. Mirnes Kovac, a columnist for Al Jazeera Balkans, tweeted: “This is just one more sign of the dramatic rise of ultranationalist forces among the Serb population in the Balkans.” Mayor of Bijeljina Mico Micic condemned the incident and called for tolerance and coexistence in the municipality, as “animosities, mistrust, and instability can bring nothing good.”

In July, unknown persons sprayed insulting graffiti on the Saint Sunday Orthodox Church in the village of Dobric near Siroki Brijeg. According to the IRC, the incident led to a more proactive and constructive attitude towards the SOC by local authorities in Siroki Brijeg, who agreed to help what the IRC described as the small and long-neglected Orthodox returnee community in the village by initiating a project to provide regular water supply to its residences.

In February, vandals damaged the parish house next to the Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kotor Varos Municipality in the RS in February. Police arrested two suspects and initiated criminal proceedings against them, but further information on the case was unavailable at year’s end.

In January, police arrested two minors after they damaged a window and the facade of the Carsijska Mosque in Kozarska Dubica. The perpetrators later visited the imam, together with their parents, and apologized to him, offering to pay for the damage. The local mayor also offered to cover the cost of repairs.

In August, on the first day of the Islamic New Year, a dead pig was found in the yard of the mosque in Bratunac. The perpetrators were not identified.

In 2019, the OSCE mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to police. Incidents ranged from disturbing religious ceremonies with threats and shootings, to threatening religious leaders, to vandalizing graveyards and religious facilities through property destruction and graffiti.

On February 26, Danijel Rajkovic from Gacko was sentenced to one year in prison for provoking ethnic, racial, and religious hatred. In 2019, Rajkovic defecated in front of the mosque in Gacko and, on several occasions, sent threatening messages to the imam in Bosanski Novi. In addition to his prison sentence, the court ordered Rajkovic to undergo psychiatric treatment.

The Council of Muftis of the IC said it was continuing efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease what they described as “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. The IC reported 11 active para-jamaats during the year, compared with 21 in 2019 and 64 in 2016.

In May, Cardinal Puljic, the most senior Catholic prelate in the country, held a memorial Mass for the victims of Bleiburg, where Yugoslav partisans killed thousands of Nazi-allied Ustasha fighters who fled the advance of the communist forces, as well as innocent persons, including women and children. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Cardinal Puljic could not travel to Bleiburg, Austria, for the annual commemoration. The Jewish Community, Israeli Embassy in Tirana, Albania, and SOC criticized the Cardinal’s plans to hold the commemorative Mass, which also drew sizeable but peaceful protests in the center of Sarajevo. The press reported that the Mass, which was also broadcast by a regional television station, included a prayer for all victims of World War II, and there was no mention of Ustasha leaders. Online newspaper Crux Now reported that in an interview with local Catholic radio station Marija, Cardinal Pujlic said he had received threats related to the memorial Mass and that his church had prayed “for all the victims, not for Ustashas or criminals.”

The IRC organized six training sessions for youth, religious leaders, and IRC staff on usage of social media in promoting positive narratives (stories designed to promote interreligious and interethnic dialogue). The IRC continued to monitor and condemn attacks on religious leaders and buildings. It also organized “youth corners” – booths in public areas providing pamphlets and other information promoting the work and mission of the IRC – in Tuzla, Trebinje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Zepce.

Botswana

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, with certain exceptions, and protection against governmental discrimination based on creed. An antidiscrimination policy in schools adopted by the government allows students to wear religion-based clothing with their uniforms, including hijabs.

Representatives of religious organizations said the country continued to have a high degree of religious tolerance and robust interfaith relations.

U.S. embassy officials met with representatives of faith groups to discuss religious freedom, interreligious relations, and community engagement.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2011 Population and Housing Census reporting on the population 12 years of age and over, 79 percent of citizens are members of Christian groups, 15 percent espouse no religion, four percent are adherents of the Badimo traditional indigenous religious group, and all other religious groups together constitute less than one percent of the population.

Anglicans, Methodists, and members of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa make up the majority of Christians. There are also Lutherans, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Mennonites, and members of the Dutch Reformed Church and other Christian denominations. According to the 2011 census, there are approximately 11,000 Muslims, many of whom are of South Asian origin. There are small numbers of Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jews. Immigrants and foreign workers are more likely to be members of non-Christian religious groups than native-born citizens.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Under its broader protections of freedom of conscience, the constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, the right to change religion or belief, and the right to manifest and propagate religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution permits the government to restrict these rights in the interest of protecting the rights of other persons, national defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health when the restrictions are deemed “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” The government has never exercised this provision. The constitution’s provision of rights also prohibits discrimination based on creed.

The constitution permits religious groups to establish places for religious instruction at their expense. The constitution prohibits requiring religious instruction or participation in religious ceremonies in a religion other than one’s own. The constitution also prohibits compelling an individual to take an oath contrary to that individual’s religious beliefs. The penal code criminalizes “hate speech” towards any person or group based on “race, tribe, place of origin, color or creed” and imposes a maximum fine of 500 pula ($46) per violation.

All organizations, including religious groups, must register with the government. To register, a group must submit its constitution to the Registrar of Societies section of the Ministry of Nationality, Immigration, and Gender Affairs. Registration enables religious groups to conduct business, sign contracts, and open an account at a local bank. In order to register, new religious groups must have a minimum of 150 members. For previously registered religious groups, the membership threshold is 10. Any person who manages, assists in the management of, or holds an official position in an unregistered group is subject to a fine of up to 1,000 pula ($93) and up to seven years in prison. Any member of an unregistered group is subject to penalties, including fines up to 500 pula ($46) and up to three years in prison. According to 2019 data from the Registrar of Societies, there are 2,318 registered religious organizations.

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

Government Practices

Optional religious education remained part of the curriculum in public schools; this curriculum continued to emphasize Christianity, but it also discussed other religions practiced in the country. Government regulation of private schools did not distinguish among Christian, Muslim, or secular schools. In February, the government adopted a nondiscrimination policy in schools that allows students to wear a hijab or religiously-based head covering.

The government continued to pursue court cases involving unregistered churches (sometimes called “fire churches”) coming into the country to “take advantage of” local citizens by demanding tithes and donations for routine services or special prayers. The government required pastors of some of those churches to apply for visas, even those from countries whose nationals were normally allowed visa-free entry. The government ordered the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) in November 2019 to close its church branches in the country following cancellation of ECG’s registration in 2017 over questions of financial impropriety. The Church had appealed the decision, but during the year dropped its court challenge to its deregistration. The ECG, founded by a Malawian pastor who faced charges of fraud and money laundering in South Africa late in the year, had 14 branches in the country.

Although it was common for government meetings to begin with a Christian prayer, members of non-Christian groups occasionally led prayers as well.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Representatives of religious organizations stated interfaith relations were robust, and they said there was a high degree of tolerance for religious diversity.

Brunei

Executive Summary

The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i School of Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.” The government enforces the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which includes offenses, such as apostasy and blasphemy, punishable by corporal and capital punishment, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning. A 2019 de facto moratorium on the death penalty continued during the year. The SPC, which is in force in parallel with the common-law-based secular penal code, applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections. Under the SPC, the Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF) and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both secular law and sharia. The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths but continued its official ban of religious groups it considers “deviant,” including Ahmadi Islam, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government did not ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT), which it signed in 2015 following widespread condemnation of the government’s implementation of the first phase of the SPC order in 2014, but the Foreign Minister reported the ratification process was ongoing. Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) enforcement officers deported a U.S. citizen in February for publicly proselytizing for a religion other than Islam. Non-Muslims and members of Muslim minorities reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions since the full implementation of the SPC in 2019 but noted that the law continued to impose restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize to other non-Muslims. In March, the government announced that all places of worship would be closed to counter the spread of COVID-19. Some observers noted MORA neglected to announce the reopening of non-Islamic houses of worship when it announced the reopening of the country’s mosques in June, instead relying on the Ministry of Health to pass on the information. In September, the Sultan publicly reprimanded MORA for the slow pace of proselytizing in the country’s rural districts, where indigenous religious beliefs are prevalent, and for budget mismanagement. Members of the LGBTI community reported that MORA summoned transgender individuals to its offices and demanded that they maintain the gender listed on their birth certificate, although no threats of punishment were made in any of the reported cases. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation.

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. In discussions of religion and religious freedom on social media, which were less prevalent than after introduction of the SPC in 2019, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments asking whether adhering so closely to Islam, the Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) national philosophy, and MORA’s policies was slowing the country’s development, and whether the large amount of required religious education was impeding secular academic studies. Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. Numerous individuals from throughout society praised the announcement that Roman Catholic Bishop Cornelius Sim had been created a Cardinal.

The Charge dAffaires and other embassy officers engaged throughout the year with senior government officials regarding the effects of the SPC, the ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority rights. The Charge d’Affaires also encouraged MORA to support religious freedom by resuming interfaith dialogues with religious minorities. Embassy officials emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom and encouraged religious minority groups to maintain communication with the embassy. U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about the SPC. Embassy officials visited places of worship, spoke with leaders of various religious groups, and facilitated discussions on the SPC and laws and policies affecting religious freedom in the country, including sharia and obstacles to practicing religions and beliefs other than Shafi’i Islam.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 464,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 78.8 percent of the population is Muslim, 8.7 percent Christian, and 7.8 percent Buddhist, while the remaining 4.7 percent consists of other religions, including indigenous beliefs.

There is significant variation in religious identification among ethnic groups. According to 2019 official statistics (the most recent), ethnic Malay citizens comprise 66 percent of the population and are defined by law as Muslims from birth. The ethnic Chinese population, which is approximately 10 percent of the total population and includes both citizens and stateless permanent residents, is 65 percent Buddhist and 20 percent Christian. Indigenous tribes, such as Dusun, Bisaya, Murut, and Iban, make up approximately four percent of the population and are estimated to be 50 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and the remainder followers of other religious groups, including adherents of traditional practices. The remaining 20 percent of the population includes foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other South Asian countries. According to official statistics, approximately half of these temporary and permanent residents are Muslim, more than one-quarter Christian, and 15 percent Buddhist.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.

The legal system is divided between secular law and sharia, which have parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department. The civil courts are based on common law. The sharia courts follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, in which there is no concept of legal precedent and judges are not bound by the decisions of a higher court. Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both criminal law and civil/family matters involving Muslims and hear cases brought under longstanding sharia legislation as well as under the SPC.

The SPC spells out provisions for corporal and capital punishment for murder, theft, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, blasphemy, and other acts deemed crimes under sharia. Depending on the type and specifics of the offense, these punishments include fines, imprisonment, whipping, caning, amputation of hands or feet, or death (including by stoning). The SPC identifies murder, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, and blasphemy as capital offenses, although the law requires either a confession or the testimony of multiple pious Muslim male eyewitnesses to support a death sentence. A de facto moratorium on the death penalty, announced by the Sultan in 2019, continued during the year.

Most SPC sections apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, and are applicable to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents. Non-Muslims are exempt from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers and pay zakat (obligatory annual almsgiving). The SPC states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation.”

The SPC incorporates longstanding domestic laws based on sharia that prohibit drinking alcohol, propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, and close physical proximity between unmarried persons of the opposite sex. It prohibits “indecent behavior,” including pregnancies out of wedlock, and criminalizes any act that “tends to tarnish the image of Islam, deprave a person, bring bad influence, or cause anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.”

Punishments included under the SPC have different standards of proof from the common law-based penal code, such as requiring four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning. Stoning sentences, however, may be supported by a confession in lieu of witness testimony at the discretion of a sharia judge. If neither qualifying testimony nor a confession is available, the possible sentences are limited to caning, imprisonment, and fines.

The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which it defines as “a system that encompasses strong Malay cultural influences, stressing the importance of Islam in daily life and governance, and respect for the monarchy as represented by His Majesty the Sultan.” The government has said this system is essential to the country’s way of life and is its main defense against “extremism.” A government body, the MIB Supreme Council, seeks to spread and strengthen the MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies. MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.

The Religious Enforcement Division under MORA leads investigations of crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays. Cases involving crimes that are not covered by sharia legislation, such as human trafficking, are investigated by the RBPF. RBPF and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both the secular and sharia laws. In such cases, an “assessment committee” composed of secular and sharia prosecutors and secular and sharia law enforcement officers decides which court system will try the case. The deliberations of the assessment committee to determine whether specific cases would proceed through secular or sharia court are not public, and the government does not make public the committee’s bases for its decisions.

The government bans religious groups it considers “deviant,” including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Tasipan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The list is based on fatwas proclaimed by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the Sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is available on MORA’s website. The SPC also bans most non-Sunni forms of Islam and any practice or display of “black magic.”

The SPC includes a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by only Muslims or in relation to Islam. MORA officials state that the use of certain words such as “Allah” by non-Muslims does not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity.

Under the SPC, Muslims are not permitted to renounce or change their religion. Non-Muslims must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert or renounce their religion. If parents convert to Islam, their children younger than 14 years and seven months automatically become Muslim.

The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members. Applicants are subject to background checks for leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements. Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information requested by the registrar. Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, reserve space in public buildings, and apply for permission to raise funds. The registrar of societies oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar. Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned. The penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to 10,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($7,600), imprisonment for up to three years, or both.

The law states that any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance. Under longstanding emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, including religious assembly. In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private places in which gatherings do not require approval.

The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith. Under the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 BND ($15,100), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam as well as the SPC itself.

Laws and regulations limit access to religious literature. The law states it is an offense for a person to import any publication deemed objectionable, which is defined in part as describing, depicting, or expressing matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” The law also bans distributing materials relating to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no faith.

The law establishes two sets of schools: those offering the national or international curriculum that are administered by the Ministry of Education, and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA.

Ministry of Education schools are required to teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge that is required for all Muslim children between the ages of seven and 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. Non-Muslims are exempted from all religious study requirements and receive teaching on moral behavior. Non-Muslim students are still required to take MIB classes.

Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction in beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam as part of the school’s curriculum. Schools may be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. The SPC criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religious affiliation to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The law requires that any person wishing to teach on matters relating to Islam must obtain official permission. Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer private religious education in private settings, such as someone’s home.

All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to parents who are not both Muslim. The non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate, unless that parent has converted to Islam. The law bans any Muslim from surrendering custody of a minor or dependent in his or her guardianship to a non-Muslim.

Under the SPC, non-Muslims may be arrested for zina (fornication or adultery) or khalwat (close physical proximity between two unmarried individuals of opposite sexes), provided that the other accused party is Muslim. Foreigners are also subject to these laws.

A regulation requires businesses that produce, supply, and serve food and beverages to obtain a halal certificate or apply for an exemption if serving non-Muslims.

MORA has declared circumcision for Muslim girls (sunat) a religious rite obligatory under Islam and describes it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification). The government has stated it does not consider this practice to be female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and has expressed support for the World Health Organization’s call for the elimination of FGM/C. In his 2017 fatwas, the State Mufti declared that both male and female circumcision are required and specified that female circumcision involves a “small cut above the vagina.”

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

MORA enforcement officers deported a U.S. citizen in February for publicly proselytizing for a religion other than Islam, an offense that under the SPC is punishable by a fine not exceeding 20,000 BND ($15,100), imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or both. The head of MORA’s Enforcement Division stated that MORA officers followed a precedent set by a past proselytizing case, which had also resulted in deportation, but he also said that maintaining good relations with the United States was a factor in the decision to deport the man instead of arresting him.

The government did not ratify the UNCAT, which it signed in 2015 following widespread condemnation of the government’s implementation of the first phase of the SPC order in 2014. The Foreign Minister reported, however, that the government was in the ratification process.

In March, the Sharia High Court issued its first verdict in a case of “causing hurt” – an offense under the SPC roughly equivalent to assault. The court sentenced the accused, a Bruneian Muslim man, to five years’ imprisonment, and for the first time since the implementation of the SPC, the judge ordered the accused to pay “blood money” of 91,516 BND ($69,200) to compensate the victim.

In January, a sharia judge dropped the 2019 case of two Vietnamese men who were the first non-Muslim foreigners to be charged in the sharia courts for “causing hurt” after both parties reached an out-of-court settlement.

In April, all sharia courts ceased operations due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, sharia courts resumed operations mostly to hear routine cases of theft and khalwat.

Non-Muslims continued to note that the SPC imposed restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize to other non-Muslims. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation. Some non-Muslims described the existence of the SPC itself as a “scare tactic” that, alongside other government policies, would pressure non-Muslims to convert to Islam. They noted the SPC’s blasphemy provisions could be used to constrain non-Muslim groups’ activities but expressed greater concern about subtle pressure by the government than about the possibility of harsh sharia punishments.

In March, the government announced that all places of worship would be closed to counter the spread of COVID-19. Senior members of minority religions reported good communications from the Ministry of Health about the rules for closing and reopening churches and places of worship. Some observers noted MORA neglected to announce the reopening of non-Islamic houses of worship when it announced the reopening of the country’s mosques in June, instead relying on the Ministry of Health to pass on the information, which it did soon after.

The government periodically warned the population about the preaching of non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism. It permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths, including by permitting non-Islamic churches to operate and allowing non-Muslim religious minorities to gather in private churches.

MORA continued to provide all mosques with approved sermons for Friday services. The government required that the sermons be delivered by registered imams, and deviance from the approved text was forbidden. Government data from 2015, the latest available, indicated there were 99 registered mosques.

There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities continued to reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear a head covering (known locally as a tudong), and many women did so. When applying for passports, drivers’ licenses, and national identity cards, Muslim females were required to wear a tudong. Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work, although some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (a traditional hat), although this was not required in all schools. Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.

As in past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the country’s sole Chinese Buddhist temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members. Members of the royal family publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with front-page coverage in state-influenced media.

In December, the human rights NGO Jubilee Campaign wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State to report that MORA sent officials to ensure that a ban on Christmas decorations was enforced around the country. In practice, however, people were able to celebrate Christmas and decorate their private residences. There were no reports of shops or restaurants being warned by MORA for displaying decorations.

The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic instructional materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution. Authorities generally continued to ban the import of non-Islamic religious texts, and the censorship board continued to review Islamic texts to ensure they did not contain text that deviated from the Shafi’i school of Islam. Customs officials continued to check personal packages entering the country to ensure they did not contain anything of a non-Shafi’i Islamic or perceived sexual nature, such as magazines showing women in swimsuits.

Christian leaders continued to state that a longstanding fatwa discouraging Muslims from supporting non-Islamic faiths inhibited the expansion, renovation, or construction of new facilities; in accordance with the fatwa, government officials slowed or did not process building plans and permits for churches. Christian religious groups said that authorities generally only permitted churches and associated schools to repair and renovate buildings on their sites if required for safety. The process for obtaining approval to renovate church buildings and associated school buildings remained lengthy and difficult, and there were continuing reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated requirements. With only six approved churches in the country, the last built in the 1960s before the country gained independence, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Several sources reported that schools associated with Christian churches had to pay government business taxes despite being nonprofit organizations. This measure was not applied to other nonprofit private schools with no religious affiliations. The Chinese temple was also subject to the same fatwa. Christian worshippers continued to report difficulty accessing churches on many Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled.

The government reported that many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam. Reportedly, those applying for government-funded scholarships believed having such courses on their transcripts could be advantageous. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the tudong. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.

Authorities continued to prohibit non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools. All church-associated schools were recognized by the Ministry of Education and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to offer religious instruction other than for Shafi’i Islam.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no warnings in the press to local restaurants not to serve dine-in customers during fasting hours for Ramadan as in past years. Throughout the year, the government enforced restrictions requiring all businesses to close for the two hours of Friday prayers.

Religious authorities allowed nonhalal restaurants and nonhalal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but they continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.

The government continued to offer incentives to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, including help with housing and welfare assistance. The government allocated travel funding so that those who could not participate in the Hajj due to COVID-19 travel restrictions during the year could do so in the future. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media. According to government statistics, 293 individuals converted to Islam during the year, approximately the same as the previous year. Converts included citizens and permanent residents as well as foreigners. Government policy supported Islam through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (one that remembers and obeys Allah).

In a rare instance, during a surprise inspection in September, the Sultan publicly admonished MORA for the slow pace of Muslim proselytization in the rural districts, budget shortfalls, general poor performance, and poor management of the zakat (annual almsgiving) fund.

Members of the LGBTI community reported in September that MORA summoned transsexual individuals to its offices and demanded that they maintain the gender listed on their birth certificate, although no threats of punishment were made in any of these reported cases. Other members of the LGBTI community reported family members had been contacted by MORA and questioned on the individuals’ sexuality.

Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Muslim weddings required approval from the sharia courts, and officiants, who were required to be imams approved by the government, required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.

Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.

The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity and were used in part to determine whether he or she were Muslim; for example, all ethnic Malays, including those traveling in the country, were assumed to be Muslim. Malays were required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. Some male members of the Islamic community reportedly felt pressure from family and friends to attend Friday prayers despite not having strong religious beliefs. Members of the LGBTI community expressed fears about openly expressing their sexual or gender identity, since they believed it would bring shame on their families for violating religious mores.

The local press reported in November the announcement from the Holy See that the Apostolic Vicar of Brunei, Bishop Cornelius Sim, had been created a Cardinal. On social media, a cross-section of society praised the move. The government made no statement about Sim’s elevation.

In discussions of religion and religious freedom on social media, which were less prevalent than after introduction of the SPC in 2019, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments asking whether adhering so closely to Islam, the MIB national philosophy, and MORA’s policies was slowing the country’s development and whether the large amount of required religious education was impeding secular academic studies. Social media outlets such as Reddit and Facebook remained the only source of open public discussion on religion and the government.

Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion continued to fear social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. If parents converted to Islam, there was often family and official pressure for the children to do the same if they were not young enough to have been automatically converted with their parents. Some non-Muslims said they continued to feel pressured in the workplace or in social groups to convert to Islam. While the SPC outlined harsh punishments for converting to another religion from Islam, there were no known cases of the government applying those penalties. Non-Muslims reported, however, that government officials observed their religious services and events to ensure that no Muslims attended and that there was no anti-Muslim messaging.

Burkina Faso

Executive Summary

The constitution states the country is a secular state, and both it and other laws provide for the right of individuals to choose and change their religion and to practice the religion of their choice. International media reported that terrorist groups, armed insurgents, and jihadists continued their campaign of violence and sometimes targeted places of worship or religious leaders in an attempt to divide the country along sectarian lines. On October 21, at a government forum on “national cohesion,” Speaker of the National Assembly Allassane Bala Sakande stated, “In this war against terrorism, we are not engaged against an ethnic group or against a religion, but we are engaged against those who hate Burkina Faso and the Burkinabe.” In July, Minister of Interior and Territorial Administration Simeon Sawadogo joined the Catholic Archbishop of Ouagadougou during Eid al-Fitr prayers led by the Grand Imam of Ouagadougou and called on the population to “cultivate religious tolerance.” The government issued a decree integrating traditional religions into the Office of National Religious Affairs (ONAFAR), a government office whose main mission is to promote interreligious dialogue, and prevent and manage conflicts of a religious nature.

Domestic and transnational terrorist groups operated throughout the year, resulting in numerous targeted killings based on religious identity, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Attackers killed imams, other clergy, and worshippers while attacking and destroying mosques and churches. Reports stated that they also forced communities in the northern part of the country to dress in specific “Islamic” garb. Terrorists attacked schools and killed teachers for teaching a secular curriculum and for teaching in French rather than Arabic, according to media reports. As of August, terrorist violence forced more than 2,500 schools to close, depriving more than 330,000 children of education, according to UNICEF. Expanding their targeted killings, terrorist groups increasingly attacked Christian religious leaders and worshippers and destroyed churches.

Human rights organizations and religious groups continued to express concern that religiously targeted violence threatened what they termed the traditional peaceful coexistence of religious groups in the country. Academic and other observers stated that the “stigmatization” of the mostly Muslim ethnic-Fulani community because of their perceived sympathy for Islamists aggravated existing societal tensions and posed a threat to stability.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the continued increase in religiously motivated attacks, particularly in the Sahel and Est Regions, with the government, including the Ministries of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Security, and the Office of the President. In addition, embassy staff met religious leaders to promote religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and civil dialogue. Throughout the year, the Ambassador or Charge d’Affaires met with imams and Catholic and Protestant leaders to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom and tolerance. During the year, the embassy conducted regular outreach with imams, Catholic priests, and Protestant leaders to understand the current threat to religious freedom and tolerance in the country as a result of the unprecedented violence against both Christian and Muslim worshippers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 20.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2006 census, 61 percent of the population is Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 19 percent is Roman Catholic, 4 percent belong to various Protestant groups, and 15 percent maintain exclusively indigenous beliefs. Less than one percent is atheist or belongs to other religious groups. Statistics on religious affiliation are approximate because Muslims and Christians often adhere simultaneously to some aspects of traditional or animist religious beliefs.

Muslims reside largely in the northern, eastern, and western border regions, while Christians are concentrated in the center of the country. Traditional and animist religious beliefs are practiced throughout the country, especially in rural communities. The capital has a mixed Muslim and Christian population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the country is secular, and both the constitution and other laws provide for the right of individuals to choose and change their religion and to practice the religion of their choice. The constitution states freedom of belief is subject to respect for law, public order, good morals, and “the human person.” Political parties based on religion, ethnicity, or regional affiliation are forbidden.

The law allows all organizations, religious or otherwise, to register with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, which oversees religious affairs. The ministry, through the Directorate for Customary Affairs and Worship, monitors the implementation of standards for burial, exhumation, and transfer of remains; helps organize religious pilgrimages; promotes and fosters interreligious dialogue and peace; and develops and implements measures for the erection of places of worship and the registration of religious organizations and religious congregations. Registration confers legal status, and the process usually takes approximately three to four weeks and costs less than 50,000 CFA francs ($95). Religious organizations are not required to register unless they seek legal recognition by the government, but after they are registered, they must comply with applicable regulations required of all registered organizations or be subject to a fine of 50,000 to 150,000 CFA francs ($95 to $280).

Religious groups operate under the same regulatory framework for publishing and broadcasting as other entities. The Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization may request copies of proposed publications and broadcasts to verify they are in accordance with the nature of the religious group as stated in its registration and it may conduct permit application reviews.

The government generally does not fund religious schools or require them to pay taxes unless they conduct for-profit activities. The government provides subsidies to a number of Catholic schools as part of an agreement allowing students from public schools to enroll in Catholic schools when public schools are at full capacity. The government taxes religious groups only if they engage in commercial activities, such as farming or dairy production.

Religious education is not allowed in public schools. Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant groups operate private primary and secondary schools and some institutions of higher education. These schools are permitted to provide religious instruction to their students. By law, schools (religious or not) must submit the names of their directors to the government and register their schools with the Ministry of National Education and Literacy. The government does not appoint or approve these officials, however. The government periodically reviews the curricula of new religious schools as they open, as well as others, to ensure they offer the full standard academic curriculum. The majority of Quranic schools are not registered, however, and thus their curricula not reviewed.

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

Government Practices

The government stated that terrorists attacked religious institutions with the aim of dividing the population. On October 21, at a government forum on “national cohesion,” Speaker of the National Assembly Allassane Bala Sakande stated, “In this war against terrorism, we are not engaged against an ethnic group or against a religion, but we are engaged against those who hate Burkina Faso and the Burkinabe.”

Following the kidnapping and killing of the grand Imam of Djibo by armed groups in Soum Province on August 11, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said he “strongly condemned” the “barbaric assassination” which “aimed to undermine our model of religious tolerance and the foundations of our nation.”

Following a February 16 attack by approximately 20 armed assailants on the village of Pansi in Yagha Province during which a pastor and 23 others were killed, opposition political party head Jean Hubert Bazie said it was “imperative that the state secure places of worship, as well as other places where citizens gather” and called on the government to create a national body to monitor religious freedom and prevent interreligious confrontation.

The government allocated 75 million CFA francs ($142,000) each to the Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, and animist communities, the same level as the previous year. Sources stated that this funding was meant to demonstrate equitable government support to all religious groups in the country. The government also provided funding to registered Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim (commonly referred to as “Franco-Arabic”) schools through subsidies for teacher salaries, which were typically less than those of public-school teachers.

On August 6, the government issued a decree integrating the traditional animist communities into ONAFAR, providing animist communities with representation in the government agency responsible for promoting interreligious dialogue as well as preventing and managing conflicts of a religious nature.

The government continued to routinely approve applications from religious groups for registration, according to religious group leaders, although the government indicated it had rejected some on “moral” grounds.

In September, the government intervened in a legal dispute between Christian and Muslim groups involving a plot of land in Ouagadougou where a mosque had been destroyed. In an October 7 statement, the government said that it “disapproves of the destruction of a place of worship” and that it had taken ownership of the disputed property and would fund reconstruction of the mosque.

In June, the Archbishop of Ouagadougou, Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo, joined Minister of Interior and Territorial Administration Simeon Sawadogo during Eid al-Fitr prayers led by the Grand Imam of Ouagadougou.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Human rights organizations and religious groups continued to express concern that religiously targeted violence threatened what they termed the “traditional peaceful coexistence” of religious groups in the country. Observers continued to report the stigmatization of the Fulani ethnic community because of its perceived association with militant Islamist groups. They said that this aggravated social tensions in some regions, since self-defense militias at times exacted vigilante justice on Fulani communities in northern and central regions of the country because of their alleged connection to “jihadists.”

On November 8, an unknown individual threw a Molotov cocktail into a mosque in the capital during Friday evening prayers, wounding six persons. Media reported a note left nearby said, “Close the mosque or we’ll launch grenades at you.”

Members of the Burkinabe Muslim Community Organization, the Catholic Archdiocese of Ouagadougou, and the Federation of Evangelical Churches continued to state that despite an increase in religiously motivated attacks, religious tolerance remained widespread and numerous examples existed of families of mixed faiths and religious leaders attending each other’s holidays and celebrations. Members of the largest religious communities promoted interfaith dialogue and tolerance through public institutions such as the National Observatory of Religious Facts, which conducted awareness campaigns throughout the country. They also worked through NGOs such as the Dori-based Fraternal Union of Believers, which encouraged various religious communities, specifically in the Sahel Region, to conduct socioeconomic activities with the goal of fostering religious tolerance.

As in previous years, new Muslim and Protestant congregations continued to open without approval and oversight from existing Muslim and Protestant federations. Religious leaders stated the Muslim and Protestant federations were often undermined by small new religious groups that did not fall under their oversight and that took positions counter to the federation’s messages of tolerance. They said the lack of oversight made it difficult for official religious groups to monitor and regulate the activities and messages of these new groups.

Burma

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs. As during previous years, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. Violence, discrimination, and harassment in Rakhine State targeting ethnic Rohingya, nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued. Following the military’s commission of ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocities against Rohingya in August 2017 that displaced more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Burma continued to face an environment of severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Among the 163 Rohingya who reportedly fled the country between January and October, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State; others reported continuing government pressure to participate in a residency verification campaign, which they said they did not trust. During the year, several UN entities commented or released reports on the Rohingya crisis. In September, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar said the government was purposefully evading accountability and making it difficult for Rohingya refugees to safely return to Rakhine State as part of the government’s goal of “exterminating their basic identity.” The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) began to interview witnesses and collect evidence for possible criminal proceedings for gross violations of human rights, including against Rohingya. Religious leaders and civil society activists reported some government and military officials continued to deploy anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech in official events. Rohingya, both in Rakhine State and those living in Bangladesh, faced mass disenfranchisement in November general elections because of discriminatory citizenship policies. The government barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on citizenship grounds, while allowing five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority to run. Non-Buddhist minority groups, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, said authorities restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minority groups, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing. NGOs said the military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to continued severe hardship for religious minority groups.

According to media reports, ethnic armed organizations in the country continued to pose a threat to religious freedom. Christian pastor Tun Nu, abducted in 2019 by the Arakan Army and previously presumed dead, was found alive and was reunited with his family in March. In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government had no administrative control, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) tightened restrictions on Christian religious practice. In December 2019, 51 Baptist churches had reopened and UWSA authorities stated they were conducting assessments to determine which other churches would be allowed to reopen. In October, however, a Baptist religious leader reported that all churches were again closed and even house worship was limited to no more than four families together in some areas.

Some leaders and members of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly Ma Ba Tha) continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims. Although the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, issued orders that no group or individual be allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha and declared it an “illegal organization,” many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name. Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim speech in sermons and through social media. According to Burma Monitor, an NGO focused on monitoring and analyzing hate speech, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates registered to run in the 2020 general elections, mostly from nationalist parties such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. While local and international experts said deep-seated prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against members of religious minority groups, some civil society groups worked to improve interreligious tolerance. According to media reports, civil society activists spearheaded efforts to improve interreligious tolerance and respect for religious practices and to deepen interfaith dialogue. The interfaith “White Rose” campaign that formed after an anti-Muslim, Buddhist nationalist mob shut down temporary Ramadan prayer sites in Yangon in 2019 continued its efforts. Other religious and civil society leaders continued to organize intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.

Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ambassador to Burma, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against members of religious minority groups, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tensions. In June, the Acting USAID Administrator noted freedom of religion was a key component of national security and that the U.S. response to promote accountability for those involved in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya remained a top priority. U.S. financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on the Burmese military commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against members of ethnic and religious minority groups remained in place. During the year, U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religion-based abuses, including discrimination, and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging.

Since 1999, Burma 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 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma 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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 56.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists. Approximately six percent are Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations). Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately four percent of the population. The 2014 census excluded Rohingya from its count, but NGOs and the government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to October 2016. According to estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh beginning in August 2017, and an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 remain in Rakhine State. There are an estimated 130,000 Rohingya living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, according to Human Rights Watch. There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. There is a very small Jewish community in Yangon (Rangoon).

There is a significant correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups. Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim. Individuals of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian. Ethnic Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State, as well as some Bamar and ethnic Indians in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Magway, and Mandalay Regions, practice Islam. Chinese ethnic minority groups generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions observe traditional indigenous beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs. The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution. It further provides to every citizen the right to profess and practice his or her religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.

The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings “of any class” by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs. The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.

All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status. This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities. The law on registering organizations specifies voluntary registration for local NGOs.

The law bars members of “religious orders” such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group, from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting. The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha). The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.” The election law states that a candidate’s parents must be citizens at the time of the candidate’s birth, and the citizenship of most Rohingya is denied, thus precluding Rohingya from candidate status.

Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

The government bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the SSMNC, the members of which are elected by monks.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools. Religious education is not included in public schools; however, some schools with Buddhist-majority student bodies may start the school day with a Buddhist prayer.

Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect. The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance. The Religious Conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process through a township-level Religious Board for Religious Conversion; however, the law is rarely applied, and many townships do not have conversion boards. The applicant must be older than 18 and must undergo a waiting period of up to 180 days; if the applicant still wishes to convert, the board issues a certificate of religious conversion. The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing. The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which the country’s penal code also criminalizes.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

International organizations and NGOs reported most members of the military involved in mass atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 had not been held accountable, and the military continued to commit acts of violence against members of ethnoreligious groups. In April, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee stated that the military “may once again be committing crimes against humanity in Rakhine State.” According to Lee, the military had expanded its campaign against minorities from Rakhine to Chin States, adding, “having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity.” According to NGO Fortify Rights, two former soldiers confessed in videos recorded in July by the Arakan Army to having taken part in atrocities committed by the army against Rohingya in 2017. In the recording, the soldiers said they were involved in killing more than 180 Rohingya men, women, and children in Taung Buzar Village and surrounding villages in Buthidaung and five villages in Maungdaw during military operations in Rakhine State in late 2017. One also admitted to committing rape in Taung Buzar Village, Rakhine State. At year’s end, the two men were reportedly in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

On June 23, a Buddhist monk and military veteran stabbed to death a Muslim teenager in Magway Region’s Aung Lan Township. The victim’s brother told authorities the assailant, Tun Naing Win, called the brothers “kalar,” considered a derogatory term for persons of South Asian descent, and shouted, “You kalars do not own this country, you kalars do not own this road,” before killing the victim.

The investigation of the June 2, 2019, beating of one group of villagers by another group of villagers in Ann Myawk Village, Rakhine State continued with no reported progress through year’s end. According to the CHRO, which first documented the incident in December 2019, 25 villagers, led by Khin Aung, Myint Maung, Hwe Hla and Nyuat Maung, assaulted members of the Chawn family, who were conducting a Christian home prayer service.

In November 2019, The Gambia filed an application instituting proceedings against Burma at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and a request for provisional measures, alleging Burma’s actions against Rohingya violated the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In January, the ICJ unanimously indicated provisional measures, ordering Burma to preserve any evidence of atrocities against Rohingya; ensure that government and security officials refrain from any act that could contribute to genocide; and report to the ICJ on its progress on these measures in May and every six months thereafter while the case was pending. The government submitted two reports and stated its reports would show decisively that no genocide occurred. The government also filed preliminary objections to the jurisdiction of the court and the admissibility of The Gambia’s application; proceedings on the merits were suspended while the ICJ considered the preliminary objections. In September, Canada and the Netherlands announced their intention to intervene in the case.

According to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor, during the year it was in the process of organizing a fact-finding mission to gather relevant evidence for its investigation into credible allegations that crimes against humanity were committed against Rohingya in Burma. Although the country is not a party to the ICC, the court claimed it had jurisdiction over such crimes if elements of the crime were at least commissioned in Bangladesh, which is a state party, and where most displaced Rohingya fled.

The Independent Commission of Enquiry established by the government in 2018 to investigate the 2017 violence in Rakhine State released the executive summary of its final report in January. The summary stated the commission found no evidence of genocidal intent, but it did not address alleged crimes against humanity. It stated the abuses amounted to “war crimes.” According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary was part of the government’s attempt to portray the operation as a “legitimate armed conflict” with no element of genocide. The summary also stated there was “no evidence of gang rape committed by Burma’s security forces,” despite extensive documentation by the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and human rights groups of widespread rape against Rohingya women and girls. According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary of the final report fell well short of creating the conditions for justice and accountability or the safe return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. As of the end of the year, the government had not released the full report. According to international and domestic human rights activists, previous government-led investigations of reports of widespread abuses by security services against Rohingya in northern Rakhine State in 2016 had yielded no findings of responsibility by security forces and were criticized by international observers as deeply flawed.

The IIMM, established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 to facilitate fair and independent criminal proceedings covering human rights abuses in Burma since 2011, continued to develop protocols and procedures to balance public outreach with confidentiality and the protection of witnesses in criminal cases. Since 2018, the government has denied the IIMM permission to establish an office in the country, and during the year, the IIMM, based in Geneva, received no response to its request to travel to the country. During the year, the IIMM received evidence from the UN Fact-Finding Mission, traveled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to interview Rohingya refugees, and completed a mapping of NGOS and victims’ groups in Burma as part of planning for evidence collection there.

According to leaders of religious minority communities and human rights activists, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, communal disparities were exacerbated by inconsistent government regulations, their enforcement, and varying interpretations of the regulations around the country, with harsher outcomes for minority religious communities. The President’s Office banned public events and mass gatherings nationwide on March 13, including religious events. As of year’s end, a range of restrictions at the national and regional level remained in place, and pagodas, monasteries, mosques, and churches remained closed to the public. At least three different laws were applied to enforce limits on gatherings, including religious gatherings. The same action – for instance, a gathering of five or more persons – had the potential to result in charges and punishment under the Natural Disaster Management Law (three months to three years’ imprisonment or a fine or both), the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law (six months’ imprisonment or a fine), or Article 188 of the Penal Code (one to six months’ imprisonment or a fine). According to media, the government prosecuted Rohingya returnees from Bangladesh – returning through both formal and informal channels – amid anti-Muslim sentiment and hate speech from the public, military, and religious hardliners portraying Rohingya as a vector for the coronavirus.

More than 200 residents of Sinthay Village in Dawei District’s Yebyu Township attended Buddhist funeral rites for a monk in April, despite COVID-19 restrictions. According to the Irrawaddy newspaper, the chairman and secretary of the pagoda trustee committee were fined 93,000 kyat ($70) under the penal code for defying an order issued by government officials. In contrast, 12 Muslim men in Mandalay were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment under the Natural Disaster Management Law for holding a religious gathering at a house in the Aung Pin Lae quarter of Chanmyathazi Township.

According to the Myanmar Times, Christian pastor David Lah and colleague Wai Tun were sentenced to three months in prison on August 6 for organizing a prayer session in April in violation of the government’s National Disaster Management Law prohibiting mass gathering as part of a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In response, Ma Ba Tha members shared some of Lah’s speeches denigrating Buddhism, reportedly in an attempt to incite anti-Christian hatred.

According to Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the National League of Democracy’s (NLD) central information unit, on May 26, Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein and the NLD-led Yangon regional government attended a public religious ceremony that went “against the government’s own [COVID-19] instructions.” The government took no disciplinary against the Chief Minister or cabinet members who attended the event.

Several NGOs reported authorities confined approximately 130,000 Rohingya in camps within the country, following an earlier round of violence in 2012. Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya remained extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside.

In July, newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Thomas Andrews told the Human Rights Council, “Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are forced to live in deplorable conditions in IDP camps or in villages without basic rights, including freedom of movement.” He also noted that a proposed camp closure project the government launched as part of its National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons and Closure of IDP Camps in 2019 “not only prohibits the right of IDPs to return home but may force them into land susceptible to flooding and without access to basic services, including healthcare and education. And it may also continue to deny other basic rights, including freedom of movement.” According to local sources, authorities continued to deny IDPs the right to choose their relocation or return destination. Human Rights Watch described these IDP camps as severely limiting livelihoods, movement, education, health care, and adequate food and shelter. It stated the government closure process entailed constructing permanent structures near the current camp locations, further entrenching segregation and denying Rohingya the right to return to their land, reconstruct their homes, regain work, and reintegrate into society.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an additional 163 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and October, compared with 2,966 during the same period in 2019. According to humanitarian aid organizations, the government made no new efforts to initiate the return of Rohingya refugees during the year. An attempt in August 2019 failed when Rohingya refused to return, often saying they would be subject to human rights abuses if they returned without a guarantee of citizenship. Bangladesh authorities said they would not force them to go back.

Starting in 2019 and continuing during the year, authorities arrested hundreds of Rohingya in Ayeyarwady, Yangon, Bago, and Magwe Regions for traveling without permission, and charged them with violations of the Immigration Act. On April 8, a court dropped charges against more than 200 of those accused of leaving Rakhine State illegally, but according to activists, hundreds more remained in jails and youth detention centers across the country.

On November 2, Wirathu, a monk and chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, surrendered to Yangon police on an arrest warrant issued in 2019 for criticism of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Numerous human rights groups described Wirathu’s anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric as hate speech.

According to international humanitarian NGOs, the government continued to tightly restrict outside access, including UN and NGO humanitarian aid and media, to northern Rakhine State, northern Shan, southern Chin, and Kachin States during the year. NGOs stated the government’s travel authorization process for aid groups within the country effectively restricted aid and humanitarian access to displaced populations, in violation of international humanitarian law. During the year, the Red Cross Movement and World Food Program continued to maintain generally predictable access to meet life-saving emergency needs.

Multiple sources stated authorities and the military continued to single out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor, including requiring them to transport soldiers, weapons and ammunition, and food supplies, and arbitrarily arrested them and imposed restrictions impeding their ability construct houses or religious buildings. According to reports, government officials were occasionally complicit with traffickers abducting Rohingya women and children in transit while fleeing violence, selling them into sex trafficking and forced marriage in India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Authorities in northern Rakhine State reportedly continued to prohibit Rohingya from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons, prior to the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions. Rohingya refugees reported that exceptions to the five-person regulation applied only to marketplaces and schools.

Armed conflict between the government and ethnic armed organizations in Kachin and northern Shan States, begun in 2011, continued. It was often difficult to categorize specific incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. The United Nations reported that 107,000 persons remained displaced during the year by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where many Christians and individuals from other religious groups lived. According to the United Nations, 97,000 persons remained displaced in Kachin State and 20,000 in Shan State.

According to NGOs, both the government and nationalist monks used their influence and resources to build Buddhist infrastructure in majority Christian areas, including in Kachin and Chin States, against the wishes of the local population. Minority religious communities said they perceived these efforts to be part of a process of “Burmanization.”

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), authorities continued practicing discriminatory and abusive policies against members of religious minority groups. The CHRO said that Christians in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to face destruction of homes and places of worship and suffered physical violence by pro-military Buddhist nationalists, and that authorities prevented them from legally owning land and constructing religious buildings. The CHRO also said there were cases in which police failed to investigate or hold perpetrators to account for crimes against members of religious minority communities.

In Rakhine State, according to the United Nations and media reports, the situation remained unchanged from 2019, and government and security forces continued to restrict the movement of members of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly Rohingya. Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considered foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State, varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form. The traveler could obtain this form only from the township of origin’s Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks but was given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, according to human rights activists. Sources stated obtaining travel permits often involved extortion and bribes. Muslims throughout the country still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine State if they were to visit the state. According to an August report by Burma Human Rights Network, 160 cases against 1,675 individuals were documented over four years of discriminatory prosecution against Rohingya for attempting to move freely in the country.

According to NGOs, such restrictions continued to impede the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods and education, access markets, hospitals, and other services, and engage other communities. Sources stated that individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim continued to receive additional scrutiny on their movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion; obtaining these travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.

According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, whether religious in nature or not, remained lengthy and often went uncompleted due largely to bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments. Some NGOs that tried to register reportedly found the process extremely onerous. According to Myanmar Now, a leading national news organization publishing in Burmese and English, the Internal Revenue Department required an NGO categorized as an “advocacy group” to pay tax if the department determined the NGO had made a “profit,” based on its tax return. NGOs voiced concern that new tax rules could place an unfair burden on small organizations and limit their operations.

According to the Irrawaddy, on July 7, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture ordered the removal of sitting Buddha statues in Nay Pyi Taw donated by members of the country’s former military regime because, it said, the stone idols were sculpted according to occult practices that contravene Theravada Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion.

According to the CHRO, the government continued not to issue permits for Christian religious groups to register and own land and properties. All such registration applications remained pending at year’s end, with some pending for more than 15 years.

Religious groups throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and especially Muslims, continued to report difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of and repairs to religious buildings. Buddhist leaders said obtaining such permission was more difficult for non-Buddhist groups. Representatives of religious groups said the need for multiple permissions, unclear authority among government agencies, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions, leaving them vulnerable to future government action, often as a result of pressure by members of other religious groups. Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.

In areas with few or no mosques, Muslims often conducted prayer services and other religious practices, such as teaching, in private homes. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture continued to restrict non-Buddhist religious teachings to government-approved religious buildings and prohibited prayer services and religious teaching in private homes.

Along with other houses of religious worship, mosques remained closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak as of the end of the year, although some authorities allowed limited renovation work to take place. In September 2019, some Muslim leaders formed a committee to press the government to reopen shuttered mosques across the country, most of which were closed by the government in the wake of 2012 communal Buddhist-Muslim violence in Rakhine State. The committee maintained a list of more than 40 shuttered mosques across the country. A 2019 list from the General Administration Department reported there were more than 800 mosques in Maungdaw Township, more than 400 in Buthidaung Township, and 10 in Rathedaung Township, all in northern Rakhine State. It was unknown how many of them had been shut down or destroyed. Twelve mosques and religious schools remained closed in Ayeyarwady, Mandalay, and Sagaing Regions, as well as in Shan State, according to the Burma Human Rights Network. A 2017 ban on prayers in eight Islamic schools in Thaketa Township in Yangon Region and the closure of two additional schools remained in force. Thirty-two mosques and religious schools in Yangon and Mandalay Regions remained closed. Human rights and Muslim groups reported that historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Region, Hpa-An in Karen State, and other areas continued to deteriorate, in part because authorities denied permits to perform routine maintenance.

Muslims in Mandalay Region reported continued obstacles to rebuilding mosques after anti-Muslim violence in 2014. Authorities ordered mosques shut down after the 2013 anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila, and they remained closed, as did mosques in Bago and Mandalay Regions. Some Hindu leaders also reported authorities continued to limit access to religious sites.

A Chin-based NGO again reported local authorities in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches seeking to buy land in the name of their religious organizations. Religious groups said individual members continued to circumvent this requirement by purchasing land in their own names on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.

According to the CHRO, the General Administration Department in Mindat, Chin State continued to require organizers of religious events and activities involving domestic and international NGOs to seek permission at least two weeks in advance from the Chin State government. COVID-19 restrictions that remained in place at the end of the year, however, stopped all events.

According to the CHRO, in January and before COVID restrictions were in place, the Chin State government prohibited a religious gathering organized by the Chin Baptist Convention, the largest Christian organization in Chin State. The event was scheduled to take place in Mindat Township, Chin State, with a focus on peace and environmental issues. Despite the convention’s having submitted a permission request in advance and having pledged not to discuss politics during the meeting, Chin State officials denied the request just prior to the scheduled start of the gathering.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented most public events, sources said the government continued restrictions on both secular and religious civil society organizations holding public events in hotels and other venues, including requirements for advance notice of events and participants. NGOs sometimes turned to churches and other religious institutions in light of restrictions on the use of other venues. Many religious groups and NGOs said they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events to avoid last-minute cancellations.

Christian and Muslim groups seeking to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.

The government continued to financially support Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. It continued to fund two state sangha universities in Yangon and Mandalay that trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.

Teachers at many government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography. According to the CHRO, Christian students were required to convert to Buddhism to access so-called “Na Ta La” schools in Chin State, which were better funded than public schools. The CHRO described Na Ta La schools as a “state-sponsored religious and cultural assimilation program.” The national elementary school curriculum included lessons and textbooks containing discriminatory and incendiary material, according to UN and NGO reports. According to sources, one high school textbook still commonly used included a poem that read, “Horse, the color of a coconut shell / slave, [the red-brown color of a] kalar.”

Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs, in Yangon, Sagaing, and elsewhere.

Due to movement restrictions, many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools. Rohingya and Kaman children in central Rakhine State had physical access to only one high school, located in Thet Kae Pyin, Sittwe Township, according to international observers. Authorities generally did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship cards from graduating, which disproportionately affected students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students. These students could attend classes and take examinations but could not receive diplomas unless they had a citizenship card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.

A Rakhine State government university program for Rohingya and Rakhine students – launched during the 2018-2019 school year and expected to expand during the 2020-2021 school year – allowed students to attend University of Sittwe-administered courses in a limited distance education program.

In December 2019, the Center for Diversity of National Harmony (CDNH) and the embassies of the Netherlands and Denmark launched a small scholarship program in Rakhine State that allowed 100 students, both Rakhine and Rohingya, to attend East Yangon University in Yangon. Previously, Rohingya students were required to attend the University of Yangon because of stated government concerns regarding security if they attended school in Sittwe. According to CDNH, the program was set to expand in the 2020-2021 school year.

Human rights organizations again reported that schools sometimes submitted citizenship applications on behalf of non-Muslim students while denying the same privilege to Muslim students. Muslim students, after submitting the applications, sometimes had to pay bribes to immigration officials to obtain documentation. According to Rohingya rights organizations, instructors reportedly made anti-Muslim comments in university classrooms. Muslim students typically were not permitted to join institutes for professional studies. One human rights group documented the teaching of racist and anti-Muslim tenets in schools throughout the country.

According to a 2019 report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2017, the government continued to prevent Rohingya and other Muslims from holding congregational prayers on Friday or during religious festivities in Rakhine State. Rohingya refugees reported they were unable to freely celebrate Eid al-Fitr or other religious holidays for the past seven years.

According to media reports, Yangon authorities requested that Muslims observe Ramadan at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to additional government restrictions on all forms of worship, including Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim, but sources reported punishments for violation were disproportionally meted out to religious minorities. In July, the government permitted limited worship with fewer than 30 people at a time. Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of public events, the White Rose campaign – which grew in response to anti-Muslim activities in 2019 – conducted food distribution and a “Peace Biker” rally in Yangon during Ramadan.

Although Muslims said government authorities had granted limited permission to slaughter cows during Eid al-Adha in prior years, COVID-19 restrictions prevented this activity in 2020. Media and religious sources said that in previous years, local authorities in some villages had restricted the licensing and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority of which were owned by Muslims. Community leaders stated these restrictions negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslims to celebrate Islamic holidays.

Sources continued to state that authorities generally did not enforce four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion.”

Although there were no public reports of military donations to Ma Ba Tha during the year, according to the weekly newsmagazine Frontier, the military and military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had a history of patronizing and funding Ma Ba Tha. In October remarks to Frontier, a monk active in Ma Ba Tha stated, “So what if Ma Ba Tha was funded by the USDP? It’s a charity organization. Everyone was welcome to support Ma Ba Tha’s mission and it is not fair to criticize the giving of donations to a Buddhist organization.”

On February 10, the military-aligned nationalist Buddhist organization Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) conferred its highest honor on the military’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing for protecting “race, language, [and] religion,” according to the newspaper Myanmar Times. On June 26, the YMBA issued a statement demanding “insults” to Buddhism, race, and religion must be stopped or be prosecuted, according to Frontier.

On January 26, Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture Aung Ko said during a Myanmar Muslim Youth Gathering in Yangon that he wanted to reopen closed mosques and build a large new mosque in Yangon, but he feared the reaction of what he termed “ultranationalist thugs.”

The 2019 case against monk Myawaddy Sayadaw for defaming the military was ongoing at the end of the year. NGOs stated that Sayadaw was an active participant in various peacebuilding and interfaith efforts.

A 2005 local order in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State remained in effect, requiring residents, predominately Rohingya, to obtain local authorization to marry. In addition, some Rohingya sources expressed concern about the two-child policy for Rohingya families, referring to a 2005 local order promulgated in northern Rakhine State and sporadically enforced.

According to civil society activists, Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions.

Buddhists continued to make up nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service. Applications for civil service and military positions continued to require the applicant to list his or her religion. Applications by Muslims for government jobs were largely rejected, according to one human rights organization.

Buddhists continued to make up the vast majority of parliamentarians. There were 60 Christian and two Muslim members of parliament: Sithu Maung (Yangon constituency) and Win Mya (Mandalay constituency). Neither of the two was Rohingya. According to political observers, the exclusion of Rohingya in the political process was based more on animosity towards Rohingya as an ethnic group than on Rohingya as followers of Islam. Twenty-Five Muslim candidates competed in the November general elections, compared with none in 2017 and 2018. The Union Election Commission barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on the grounds that their parents did not hold citizenship. Activists noted the difficulty of attributing this to anti-Muslim (rather than anti-Rohingya ethnic group) sentiment, citing the fact that five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority were allowed to run.

According to Fortify Rights, because of discriminatory documentation requirements, Rohingya were disenfranchised en masse in the November general elections, both Rohingya still living in Rakhine State and Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament were Christian.

Authorities continued to require citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards usually indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity. The government also required citizens to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, continued to face problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards. Some Muslims reported they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on their application for a citizenship card.

The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs). The government said these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship under the 1982 citizenship law. NGOs reported that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. There were reports that government officials required Rohingya to have an NVC to fish or access banking services. Many Rohingya expressed distrust of the process; they said they were already citizens and that they feared the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would grant naturalized rather than full citizenship, which carried fewer rights. Some townships in Rakhine State continued to require Rohingya to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs and listed “Bengali” as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card, also known as “pink card.” At least one NGO stated that NVCs were a method used by authorities to diminish the citizenship standing and future rights of Rohingya by indicating they were foreigners. The few Rohingya who received citizenship through this process said they did not receive significant rights or benefits, and consideration of their citizenship applications usually required significant bribes at different levels of government.

State-controlled media continued to frequently depict military and government officials and their family members paying respect to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.

Statements from various government ministries and departments, including the President and State Counselor’s Office, highlighted discriminatory attitudes toward Rohingya, according to the NGO Progressive Voice. According to media reports, the military continued a coordinated effort to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment through fictitious Facebook accounts and other social media. After media attention in July focused on a handful of cases of COVID-19 imported into Burma by Rohingya returning from Bangladesh, Kyaw Win, director of Burma Human Rights Network, said the narrative that Rohingya brought COVID-19 into Burma was an attempt to “divide the Rakhine and Rohingya community.”

On May 4, the government ordered all civil servants to stop using hate speech on social media and required civil servants to monitor and report online behavior to the central government. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), civil society groups welcomed the move but were cautious about its intent and effect. Thet Swe Win, Executive Director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, told RFA, “We have noticed that the government has issued directives on hate speech in the past few days. This coincides with increasing international pressure, as they will soon submit a report to the ICJ. They may be politically motivated to reduce international pressure, but otherwise these measures are very good in nature.”

In January, former President Thein Sein urged voters to consider the protection of “race, religion and military” as they looked toward the November election. NGOs said this phrase was well-known coded language used to encourage discrimination against Rohingya.

The government hosted conferences and attended events with a number of interfaith groups, including Religions for Peace, to promote reconciliation, peace, and development through national and local initiatives in its interfaith councils, the Interfaith Youth Network, and Women of Faith Network. Events included multireligious, multistakeholder Community Forums for Advancing Peace and Development in Pyay, Bago Region, on February 19, and in Lashio, Shan State, on February 25. Religions for Peace participants included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh leaders.

In February, Vice President Myint Swe and other senior government officials participated in an interfaith conference organized by Religions for Peace in Loikaw, Kayah State. During the event, Myint Swe urged respect for the country’s different faiths.

According to NGOs, the government generally regulated foreign religious groups in a manner similar to nonreligious foreign aid groups. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and foreign religious visitors acquired either a tourist or business visa for entry. Authorities generally permitted Yangon-based religious groups to host international students and experts.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to instances of abuse or discrimination against members of religious minorities by societal actors. Many prominent civilian and religious leaders continued to promote the idea that Burmese Buddhist culture was under assault by Islam and Muslims, who would come through the mountains of western Burma – northern Rakhine State where Rohingya live – and overwhelm Buddhist areas of the country.

According to Muslim leaders and civil society activists, opposition from Buddhist monks in Hpa-an, Karen State, prevented the construction or repair of any mosques and blocked Muslims from purchasing homes outside the traditional Muslim quarter, despite government approval. Monks exercised influence over local officials to prevent permits or construction despite higher-level government approval, according to religious and interfaith leaders.

Despite a continuing order by the SSMNC that no group or individual operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. Many of the group’s leaders and members continued to make pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media, including a July campaign in Mandalay that distributed stickers reading, “We don’t want the NLD to make Myanmar a kalar country.”

According to Burma Monitor, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates ran in the 2020 general election from various – mostly nationalist – parties, such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. None of the candidates was elected to office. According to RFA, the parties’ campaign posters contained three banyan leaves – a symbol used by Burma’s Buddhist majority – and the slogan “No Rohingya.”

On February 9, hundreds of individuals, characterized as anti-Muslim ultranationalists by civil society and pro-tolerance activists, protested in Yangon as part of the newly formed and Ma Ba Tha-linked Myanmar Nationalist Organization, accusing the NLD-led government of failing to protect the country’s Buddhist majority, according to Reuters. Speakers at the rally protested against remarks made by Religious Affairs Minister Aung Ko, blaming him for criticizing the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry for the government’s failure to arrest several nationalist figures for sedition and inciting violence. Protestors carried “No Rohingya” banners.

On December 28, “Bullet” Hla Shwe, a former USDP lawmaker and former military officer, who said in 2019 that the Prophet Mohammad would bomb the U.S. embassy if it posted “insulting images” of him, surrendered to Yangon police on a 2019 arrest warrant for sedition.

On April 3, police arrested three street artists in Kachin State for painting a mural that raised awareness about the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. The artists were charged with violating the law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion after some Buddhists, described by interfaith activists as “hardliners,” said the mural, which portrayed a grim reaper figure spreading the COVID-19 virus, was wearing a robe that resembled those worn by Buddhist monks. On July 17, the artists were freed after charges were dropped.

According to local and international experts, Rohingya Muslims were perceived as not truly belonging to the country, irrespective of citizenship status, and belonging to a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain. There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for Rohingya. Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent. There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.

On June 15, local media outlet The Voice ran a cartoon depicting a Rohingya man crossing the border carrying COVID-19 with him, accompanied by the derogatory label “illegal interloper,” a term frequently used to describe Rohingya.

Hate speech against Muslims continued to be widespread on social media. In September, Facebook said that in the second quarter of the year it had taken action against 280,000 pieces of content in Burma that violated its community standards regarding hate speech, with 97.8 percent detected by its systems before being reported, up from the 51,000 pieces of content it took action against in the first quarter.

Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders in Mandalay continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered activities, such as informational exchanges, although most activities were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Religious and community leaders and civil society activists organized intrafaith and interfaith events, and some worked jointly to develop mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech and to promote religious tolerance and diversity. A coalition of interfaith civil society groups, including Article 19 and Free Expression Myanmar, continued advocating and consulting on draft legislation to counter hate speech, although parliament did not take up the legislation by year’s end.

Monk Ashin Issariya, formerly known as “King Zero,” continued to lead the Anti-Adhamma Committee, a group of approximately 100 like-minded monks who preached against intolerance, confronted militant Buddhism from within the Buddhist clergy, and conducted interfaith outreach initiatives. According to interfaith activists, Issariya collaborated with other monks and lay activists, including Pyin Oo Lwin-based monks U Seintita and Thet Swe Win, who led the 2019 “White Rose” solidarity campaign with Muslims following a spate of communal violence in Yangon.

In Mandalay Region, civil society and interfaith leaders continued to hold meetings and public events for community leaders and youth aimed at promoting peace and religious tolerance, as in previous years, although such meetings were, in part, curtailed due to COVID-19. A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.

Burundi

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the state as secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of conscience and religion. It prohibits political parties from preaching religious violence or hate. Laws regulating religious groups require them to register with the Ministry of Interior, and religious groups must meet certain standards, including a minimum number of adherents, in order to seek registration. In September, the Minister of Interior met with a delegation of the East-Central Africa Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to address the continued imprisonment of Church president Lameck Barishinga and other matters related to leadership issues within the Church, including approving a transitional leadership team chaired by David Bavugubusa. In February and May, police briefly detained the leader of Vivante Church, Pastor Artemon Nzambimana, and other pastors from the Church. In October, the government closed two Free Methodist churches in Cibitoke Province following clashes between the churches’ leadership and congregations. In July, the government announced the suspension of requests to register new religious groups until further notice, citing the need to design new registration procedures. In May, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, citing the reports of their 2,716 observers during the May 20 general election, released a report concluding numerous election-related irregularities could affect the transparency and fairness of the elections results. On June 5, their public statement “rejoiced with the electorate” and congratulated then President-elect Ndayishimiye.

Religious leaders from different denominations took measures to promote peace and reconciliation. In January, members of the Interfaith Council organized a workshop with religious leaders to discuss the causes and consequences of conflicts in the country and to develop strategies that contributed toward sustainable peace and reconciliation. Media reported instances in which residents complained about noisy churches in their neighborhoods and sometimes clashed with church members.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy representatives encouraged community leaders, including representatives of major faith groups, to support religious tolerance and promote interfaith discussion of the collaborative role religious groups could play in disseminating a message of peace and reconciliation.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2008 national census (the most recent), 62 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 21.6 percent Protestant, 2.5 percent Muslim, and 2.3 percent Seventh-day Adventist. Another 6.1 percent have no religious affiliation, and 3.7 percent belong to indigenous religious groups. The head of the Islamic Community of Burundi estimates Muslims constitute 10-12 percent of the population. The Muslim population lives mainly in urban areas. Most Muslims are Sunni. There are some Shia Muslims as well as a small Ismaili community. Groups that together constitute less than five percent of the population include Church of the Rock, Free Methodist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Christians, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vivante, Hindus, and Jains. According to 2018 statistics from the Ministry of Interior, there are approximately 1,000 religious groups in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes a secular state; prohibits religious discrimination; recognizes freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; and provides for equal protection under the law regardless of religion. These rights may be limited by law in the general interest or to protect the rights of others, and may not be abused to compromise national unity, independence, peace, democracy, or the secular nature of the state, or to violate the constitution. The constitution prohibits political parties from preaching religious violence, exclusion, or hate.

By law, all religious celebrations and prayer sessions must not cause harm to the natural environment and must respect public order.

The government recognizes and registers religious groups through a 2014 law governing the operational framework of religious groups, which states these organizations must register with the Ministry of Interior. There is a 20,000 Burundian franc ($10) fee for registration. Each religious group must provide the denomination or affiliation of the institution, a copy of its bylaws, the address of its headquarters in the country, an address abroad if the local institution is part of a larger group, and the names and addresses of the association’s governing body and legal representative. Registration also entails identifying any property and bank accounts owned by the religious group. The ministry usually processes registration requests within two to four weeks. Leaders, administrators, or adherents of religious groups who continue to practice after their registration has been denied, or after a group has been dissolved or suspended, are subject to six months’ to five years’ imprisonment and a fine.

The law regulating religious groups incorporates additional specific registration requirements. Any new, independent religious group based in the country must have a minimum of 300 members. Foreign-based religious groups seeking to establish a presence in the country must have 500 members. The law prohibits membership in more than one religious group at the same time. The law prohibits foreigners from being part of executive and decision-making committees of religious groups at the national level.

The law on religious groups does not provide broad tax exemptions or other benefits for religious groups; however, the financial laws exempt from tax goods imported by religious groups if the groups can demonstrate importation of the goods is in the public interest. Some religious schools have agreements with the government entitling them to tax exemptions when investing in infrastructure or purchasing school equipment and educational materials.

The official curriculum includes religion and morality classes for all primary and secondary schools. The program offers religious instruction in Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, although all classes may not be available if the number of students interested is insufficient in a particular school. Students are free to choose from one of these three religion classes or attend morality classes instead.

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

Government Practices

The president of the country’s chapter of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Lameck Barishinga, arrested in October 2019, remained in prison without formal charges. On September 24, according to media reports, the government met with a delegation from the East-Central Africa Division (ECD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, headquartered in Kenya, to discuss the imprisonment and other issues stemming from the ECD’s appointment of Barishinga as head of the Church after dismissing his predecessor in 2018. The government recognized the Church’s new four-person executive committee, appointed by the ECD in September to lead the Church until internal elections in July 2021, and during a joint press conference with the ECD delegation, urged members to accept the new leadership and avoid internal conflicts. On October 17, police intervened to prevent violence when former Church President Joseph Ndikubwayo led a group attempting to enter a church in Bujumbura during services held by David Bavugubusa, the chair of the new executive leadership committee; police arrested Ndikubwayo and an undetermined number of church members.

On November 10, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists released a statement thanking God for increasing religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the country, and expressing hope there would be even more progress in religious liberty activities in the country.

On February 27, police detained for two days Pastor Arthemon Nzambimana of Eglise Vivante (Living Church), who replaced former Pastor Edmond Kivuye after he fled Burundi in 2015. The police did not give a reason for the detention, but according to media and civil society representatives, the government likely disapproved of his leadership and intended to install Terence Mpanuwaka, a pastor considered close to the government, as the head of the Church. Police arrested Nzambimana again in May along with 10 other pastors from the Church and released them five days later after further questioning. Media reported police continued to interrogate Nzambimana periodically throughout the year, but that he was at liberty at year’s end.

On October 18, the government closed two Free Methodist churches in Cibitoke Province following clashes between members of the churches in which two persons were injured. Media reported tensions arose over internal conflicts between members of the churches’ leadership and congregations, which led to police intervening and arresting four church members for public disturbance.

Government officials routinely employed religious rhetoric before, during, and to a slightly lesser extent after the May national election in the context of political speeches, and invoked divine guidance for political and other important decisions. Opposition parties generally did not employ similar religious rhetoric during the campaign.

Pressure to join the Church of the Rock, run by former First Lady and ordained minister Denise Bucumi-Nkurunziza, significantly decreased according to observers, after President Evariste Ndayishimiye, a Catholic, assumed office in June.

President Ndayishimiye met with Protestant church leaders in October to discuss their roles in strengthening unity and social cohesion. According to media reports, the President urged them to manage peacefully conflicts within their churches because those conflicts sometimes led to public disorder. President Ndayishimiye also met with the Conference of Catholic Bishops in July and asked for their support of government development projects.

In July, the Ministry of Interior announced the suspension of requests to register new religious groups until further notice, citing the need for the ministry to design new registration and approval procedures. The ministry continued its 2019 suspension of construction of new churches and mosques in Bujumbura, which it stated was meant to guarantee order and provide better zoning regulation for the construction of future buildings.

Media reported weekly visits by government officials to various churches throughout the year, including by the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the National Assembly, and President of the Senate. In some instances, officials were given the opportunity to preach about scriptures and moral issues. The Senate President also served as the legal representative of the Free Methodist Church in the country.

The CNDD-FDD, the country’s ruling political party, organized monthly “thanksgiving crusades” on the last Thursday of each month in all provinces around the country, and invited government officials, party members, religious leaders, and other notable local figures to attend. During the events, clergy from various churches gave thanks for the blessings the party and its members had received. Government officials delivered speeches that included references to scriptures and their applicability to events in the country, and recommended ways party members should improve their moral behavior on a personal level and as members of the party.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops deployed 2,716 domestic observers across the country to monitor the presidential and legislative election held in May. After the election, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement denouncing what the conference stated were many irregularities regarding the freedom and transparency of the electoral process, as well as fairness in the treatment of certain candidates and voters. The president of the Independent National Electoral Commission stated it was “surprising” that of the 39 organizations that observed the general elections, only the Catholic Church identified irregularities. The president of the electoral commission invited the Church to review the reports from the other 38 organizations, most of which were identified as progovernment civil society organizations, to assess their veracity. On June 5, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a public statement in which they “rejoiced with the electorate” and congratulated then President-elect Ndayishimiye.

Religious leaders appointed by the government to the Body for the Regulation and Conciliation of Religious Confessions, established by the government in 2018 to coordinate with religious groups, continued to serve as president and vice president of the body, and a government employee served as executive secretary. The body continued its efforts to promote dialogue among and within religious denominations during the year but was constrained by resource limitations, according to the body’s president, Charles Nduwumukama, pastor of Eglise du Plein Evangile (Full Gospel Church).

The government continued to grant benefits, such as tax waivers, to religious groups for the acquisition of materials to manage development projects. According to the Burundi Revenue Authority, the government also granted tax waivers on imports of religious materials such as printed materials, wines for masses, and equipment to produce communion wafers. In September, the government encouraged all religious leaders engaged in commercial activities to pay taxes in compliance with tax law and procedures.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Religious leaders from different denominations conducted activities to promote peace and reconciliation. In January, members of the Interfaith Council organized a workshop with religious leaders to discuss the causes and consequences of conflicts in the country and to develop strategies that contribute toward sustainable peace and reconciliation.

Media reported instances in which residents complained about noisy churches in their neighborhoods. On September 16, physical altercations erupted between members of a church in the Carama neighborhood of Bujumbura and nearby residents disturbed by noises coming from the church.

Cabo Verde

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws protect the right of individuals to choose, practice, profess, and change their religion. The law provides for freedom of religion and worship and provides for equal rights in accordance with the constitution and international law. The law requires religious groups to prove they have 500 members before they may register formally as such and accords them certain rights and privileges. Under a concordat with the Holy See, the government recognizes the legal status of the Catholic Church and Catholic marriages under civil law.

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

Embassy representatives discussed interfaith relations with members of civil society, including religious leaders, around the country and promoted respect for religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 583,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent national census in 2010, 77 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 10 percent Protestant, and 2 percent Muslim; 11 percent does not identify with any religion. The second largest Christian denomination is the Church of the Nazarene. Other Christian denominations include Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Assemblies of God, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Independent Baptists, and other Pentecostal and evangelical Christian groups. There are small Baha’i and Jewish communities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states freedom of conscience, religion, and worship are inviolable and protects the right of individuals to choose, practice, profess, and change their religion and to interpret their religious beliefs for themselves. It provides for the separation of religion and state, and it prohibits the state from imposing religious beliefs and practices on individuals. It prohibits political parties from adopting names associated with particular religious groups. The constitution prohibits ridiculing religious symbols or practices.

Violations of religious freedom are crimes subject to penalties of between three months and three years in prison. These may include discrimination against individuals for their expressed religion or lack thereof, violations of the freedom of and from religious education, denial of religious assistance in hospitals and prisons, denial of free speech to religious organizations, threats against places of worship, and violations of conscientious objection within the bounds of the law.

The law codifies the constitution’s religious freedom provisions by providing for equal rights and guarantees for all religions in accordance with the constitution and international law. The law separates religion and state but allows the government to sign agreements with religious entities on matters of public interest. Specific sections of the law guarantee the protection of religious heritage, the right to religious education, freedom of organization of religious groups, and the free exercise of religious functions and worship.

A concordat between the government and the Holy See recognizes the legal status of the Catholic Church and its right to carry out its apostolic mission freely. The concordat further recognizes Catholic marriages under civil law and the right of Catholics to carry out religious observances on Sundays, and it specifies a number of Catholic holidays as public holidays. It protects places of worship and other Catholic properties and provides for religious educational institutions, charitable activities, and pastoral work in the military, hospitals, and penal institutions. The concordat exempts Church revenues and properties used in religious and nonprofit activities from taxes and makes contributions to the Church tax deductible.

The law requires all associations, whether religious or secular, to register with the Ministry of Justice. The constitution states an association may not be armed; be in violation of penal law; or promote violence, racism, xenophobia, or dictatorship. To register, a religious group must submit a copy of its charter and statutes signed by its members. Failure to register does not result in any restriction of religious practice but can impinge on a religious group’s ability to conduct related activities, such as importing supplies, purchasing land, and constructing places of worship. Registration provides additional benefits, including exemptions from national, regional, and local taxes and fees. Registered religious groups may receive exemptions from taxes and fees in connection with places of worship or other buildings intended for religious purposes, activities with exclusively religious purposes, institutions and seminaries intended for religious education or training of religious leaders, goods purchased for religious purposes, and distribution of publications with information on places of worship. Legally registered churches and religious groups may use broadcast time on public radio and television at their own expense. The law requires religious groups to obtain the notarized signatures of 500 members before they may begin any activities related to developing their presence in the country. Failure to present the required signatures prevents religious groups from completing their formal registration process and obtaining tax-exempt status and protections to property and presence in the country. The law permits conscientious objection to mandatory military service on religious grounds.

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

Government Practices

Some public schools continued to offer an optional Religious and Moral Education Curriculum (EMRC), produced by the Catholic Church per the terms of the Holy See’s concordat with the government.

According to Ministry of Justice prison authorities, the government provided accommodation to inmates to practice their religions and to worship in the country’s correctional facilities.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

Cambodia

Executive Summary

The constitution states Buddhism is the state religion, and it is promoted by the government through holiday observances, religious training, Buddhist instruction in public schools, and financial support to Buddhist institutions. The law provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, provided such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. The law does not allow non-Buddhist denominations to proselytize publicly. The government continued to refuse to allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to accept permanently a group of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who came to the country to claim refugee status. Civil society groups and some religious leaders highlighted what they stated was an increase in religious discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic and partially attributed the cause to a short-lived government policy of separating Muslims and non-Muslims in official COVID-19 infection statistics. In October, the government issued a directive that required Buddhist clergy to obtain physical land titles for pagodas and put a temporary halt on new applications to establish Christian churches. The government also said it was altering registration procedures and creating a new process to reregister existing churches.

The press reported that villagers killed a man suspected of practicing sorcery due to his animist beliefs and practices. There were local media reports that the Buddhist community continued to view the predominantly Muslim Cham and other ethnic minority groups with suspicion as purported practitioners of sorcery.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials regularly raised religious freedom and tolerance with Ministry of Cults and Religion (MCR) representatives and other government officials, including by encouraging the government to allow Christian Montagnards from Vietnam to settle permanently in the country and to ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic was not used as a basis for discrimination against certain religious groups. The embassy underscored the importance of acceptance of religious diversity with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups, emphasizing the importance of interfaith tolerance in a democratic society. Some embassy programs continued to focus on the preservation of religious cultural sites.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the MCR, approximately 95 percent of the population is Buddhist, of whom 95 percent practice Theravada Buddhism. The remaining 5 percent of the population includes Christians, Muslims, animists, Baha’is, Jews, and Cao Dai adherents. Ethnic Vietnamese traditionally practice Mahayana Buddhism, although many have adopted Theravada Buddhism. Other ethnic Vietnamese practice Roman Catholicism, and these make up the vast majority of Catholics in the country. Catholics constitute 0.4 percent of the population. Nongovernmental estimates of the Protestant population, including evangelical Christians, vary but are less than 2 percent of the total population.

According to government estimates, approximately 2.1 percent of the population is Muslim, although some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimate Muslims constitute 4 to 5 percent of the population. The Muslim population is predominantly ethnic Cham, although not all Cham are Muslim. The Cham typically live in towns and rural fishing villages on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River, as well as in Kampot Province. There are four main Islamic traditions represented in the country. Nearly 90 percent of Muslims are adherents to Sunni Islam, subscribing to the Shafi’i school of Islamic law. The remaining minority practice Salafist, Wahhabist, and Ahmadi doctrines. A portion of the Cham community also subscribes to the indigenous Iman-San sect of Islam, combining traditional ancestral practices with Sunni Islam.

An estimated 0.28 percent of the population is ethnic Phnong, the majority of whom follow animistic religious practices. An additional estimated 0.25 percent of the population includes Baha’is, Jews, and Cao Dai adherents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, as long as such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. The constitution establishes Buddhism as the state religion and provides for state support of Buddhist education; it also prohibits discrimination based on religion. The law requires that religious groups refrain from openly criticizing other religious groups, but it does not elaborate the legal consequences for those who violate this restriction. The law also forbids religious organizations from organizing events, rallies, meetings, and training sessions that are politically focused.

The law requires all religious groups, including Buddhist groups, to register with the MCR. The law mandates that groups must inform the government of the goals of their religious organization; describe their activities; provide biographical information for all religious leaders; describe funding sources; submit annual reports detailing all activities; and refrain from insulting other religious groups, fomenting disputes, or undermining national security. Registration requires approvals from numerous local, provincial, and national government offices, a process that can take up to 90 days. There are no penalties for failing to register, but registered religious groups receive an income tax exemption from the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The law bans non-Buddhist groups from proselytizing publicly and stipulates that non-Buddhist literature may be distributed only inside religious institutions. The law also prohibits offers of money or materials to convince persons to convert.

The law requires separate registration of all places of worship and religious schools. Authorities may temporarily shut down unregistered places of worship and religious schools until they are registered. The law also makes a legal distinction between “places of worship” and “offices of prayer.” The establishment of a place of worship requires that the founders own the structure and the land on which it is located. The facility must have a minimum capacity of 200 persons, and the permit application requires the support of at least 100 congregants. An office of prayer may be located in a rented property and has no minimum capacity requirement. The permit application for an office of prayer requires the support of at least 25 congregants. Places of worship must be located at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) from each other and may not be used for political purposes or to house criminals or fugitives. The distance requirement applies only to the construction of new places of worship and not to offices of religious organizations or offices of prayer.

Schools that focus on religious studies must be registered with the MCR and the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MOEYS). MOEYS advises religious schools to follow the ministry’s core curriculum, which does not include a religious component. Non-Buddhist religious schools are permitted and may be either public or private. Secular public schools may choose to have supplemental Buddhist lessons, but they are required to coordinate with MOEYS when doing so. Not all secular public schools offer supplemental Buddhist lessons, and non-Buddhist students may opt out of such instruction. The law does not allow non-Buddhist supplemental religious instruction in secular public schools.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to refuse to allow UNHCR to permanently accept a group of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who came to the country to claim refugee status. Of the original estimated 200 Christian Montagnards who had fled Vietnam and were in Cambodia in 2017, 12 remained in the country after two traveled illegally to Thailand and 13 returned to Vietnam voluntarily during the year. The government continued to require them to live in a specific area of Phnom Penh. The adults were not permitted to work, and the children were not permitted to attend school. The remaining 13 decided to stay in the country until they are permitted to leave for a third country.

The government continued to promote Buddhist holidays by grants of official status and declarations of government holidays. The government also provided Buddhist training and education to monks and laypersons in pagodas, and it gave financial support to an institute that performed research and published materials on Khmer culture and Buddhist traditions. The government did not grant similar treatment to other religious groups, including by declaring government holidays.

On July 24, MCR Undersecretary of State Thor Koeun led a delegation from the Cambodian Buddhist Institute to visit the Chinese Cultural Center in Phnom Penh. Following the meeting, Koeun proposed hosting a joint workshop to exchange information on the two countries’ customs, with a focus on their shared Buddhist traditions.

On March 17, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a ban on all religious gatherings as part of the government’s pandemic response. After publishing health guidelines for Pchum Ben – a local Buddhist festival – gatherings on August 31, the government allowed Islamic religious gatherings to resume beginning September 5 on a trial basis and under Ministry of Health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing and a ban on sharing prayer mats. Christian churches were not allowed to convene their followers until September 11, when the government granted them permission to hold gatherings under the same health-related restrictions.

In March, when the government implemented more stringent health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Ministry of Health separated Muslim Cambodians from other Cambodian citizens – into their own “Khmer Islam” category – in official government statistics on COVID-19 infections. After receiving public criticism for singling out the religious minority group, the government began issuing official infection counts with a single “Khmer” category for all Cambodian citizens. There were subsequent reports of local merchants refusing to sell their goods to Muslims and some non-Muslims putting on a mask only when in the presence of a Muslim. Some civil society group and Muslim leaders pointed to the Ministry of Health’s “Khmer Islam” distinction – along with media reports of large numbers of Muslims returning with the disease from a religious gathering in Malaysia – as having partly caused a perception that Muslims had brought the virus to the country, sparking these incidents of discrimination. On June 9, the United Nations, in coordination with the Ministry of Health, launched a nationwide campaign to combat discrimination and hate speech during the COVID-19 pandemic. After the launch of the campaign, there were few reports of this discrimination continuing.

In October, the government issued a directive that required Buddhist clergy to obtain land titles recognized by the national government for pagodas in what it said was a move to better regulate religious institutions in the country. A spokesperson stated that pagodas had been involved in multiple land disputes in the past and said the move was meant to prevent “future consequences.” The spokesperson also said it would not cost money to obtain the titles. Some monks said they thought this new requirement would be used by the government to exercise more control over monks and pagodas. The government directive also put a temporary halt on new applications to establish Christian churches. The government said it was altering registration procedures and creating a new process to reregister existing churches. The government said this would apply to all religious groups.

Local authorities continued the process of returning 742 disputed hectares (1,800 acres) of land from an economic concession to Vietnamese company Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) to indigenous communities in Rattanakiri Province, which predominantly practice animist beliefs. In March, local villagers and land rights NGOs accused HAGL of destroying sites on the land earmarked for return considered sacred by the local indigenous communities, including two spirit mountains, wetlands, traditional hunting areas, and burial grounds. As of the end of the year, the government had not finalized the return of the land, which remained under the control of HAGL.

For the first time in seven years, Prime Minister Hun Sen did not host an iftar due to concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. The Prime Minister conveyed his regrets to Muslim communities in the country on his Facebook page. On April 24, the Prime Minister issued a public statement wishing all Muslim communities inside and outside the country a happy Ramadan.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On June 10, in Ponlork Village, Chum Tum Commune, Krokor District, Pursat Province, Nhim Thim and Pat Ly attacked and killed Prak Bonn with an axe, according to media reports. The report stated that Nhim and Pat accused Prak of having used sorcery to harm them. Local media reported that some members of the majority Buddhist community continued to view the predominantly Muslim Cham and other minority ethnic groups with suspicion as purported practitioners of sorcery.

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. The government and the country’s armed groups continued their efforts to implement the 2019 Political Accord for Peace and Reconciliation (APPR), including an agreement to safeguard places of worship from violent attacks. Civilians, however, were still plagued by atrocities and crimes by nonstate actors. In January, after public consultations, the National Assembly passed a law that created a Truth, Justice, Reparations, and Reconciliation Commission in support of the APPR. As of September, the Special Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2018 in Bangui to investigate serious human rights violations, some of which were related to religious identity, announced that it had received 122 complaints and had opened a preliminary investigation on one case. During the year the Bangui Criminal Court for the first time convicted militia leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The case involved leaders of five predominantly Christian militias who perpetrated an attack against Muslims in Bangassou in 2017 in which dozens of persons were killed. Registering for the December general election process posed challenges for religious minorities, according to international observers. Clashes between armed groups continued to threaten the safety of religious groups.

Many Muslims, the principal religious minority in the country, remained displaced in the western part of the country, where according to media reports, they were not allowed to practice their religion freely. In September, Bishop Nestor Nongo-Aziagbia, president of the country’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the armed groups were rearming, despite their commitments to the APPR. He stated the country’s religious leaders were united for peace. Muslims continued to report social discrimination and marginalization, including difficulties acquiring identification documents, and security concerns. According to Al Jazeera, individuals accused of sorcery or witchcraft, many of them elderly Christians, experienced social exclusion and were unable to attend houses of worship. Traditional and social media outlets continued to feature hate speech, which in many cases negatively portrayed Muslims.

In meetings with President Faustin-Archange Touadera and other government officials, embassy representatives raised concerns about religious freedom and the safe, voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their home communities. The Ambassador advocated for the government to add a provision allowing refugees, the majority of whom are Muslim, to vote in the December election. Embassy officials regularly engaged with religious leaders on issues related to religious freedom and reconciliation. The Ambassador visited the local school of the first two embassy-sponsored student participants in the Pan Africa Youth Leadership Program from the marginalized PK5 Muslim community in Bangui. Embassy officials monitored religious and ethnic-based hate speech in local media and expressed concern about hate speech to local media and government contacts on a regular basis. The embassy gave equal attention to all principal religious holidays on social media. During the year, the embassy sponsored the travel of a female Muslim community leader to the United States for a program to mentor women leaders on promoting peace and security.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6 million (midyear 2020 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 nongovernmental organization (NGO) Oxfam estimates the percentage of Muslims, most of whom are Sunni, at up to15 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. As of October, more than 270,000 refugees from the country, the majority of whom are Muslim, were living in neighboring Cameroon. According to a November UN report, there are approximately 630,000 refugees outside the country and more than 631,000 IDPs, the majority of whom are Muslim. UNHCR and other partners noted an increase in IDPs in the country and Central African Republic refugees in other countries as a result of electoral violence in December.

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, which observers said was due largely to the presence of armed groups, including the ex-Seleka, a grouping of predominantly Muslim armed groups, and the anti-Balaka, a grouping of predominantly Christian armed groups. Police and the gendarmerie failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias, including killings, physical abuse, and religious-based violence, according to human rights organizations. For instance, between March and April, clashes between two predominantly Muslim armed groups from different ethnic groups, the Goula and the Rounga, resulted in the deaths of more than 50 combatants and civilians and affected more than 1,200 civilians in the town of N’dele. Conflicts between the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic (FPRC) and the Movement of Central African Freedom Fighters for Justice (MLCJ) reportedly led to the segregation of their respective ethnic groups in IDP camps in Birao. A Muslim advocacy organization reported it had documented Muslims being subjected to arbitrary and long pretrial detentions by the government when the government pursued majority-Muslim armed groups.

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, according to peacekeeping experts, but MINUSCA stated it remained hampered in its ability to protect civilians due to an increase of electoral violence and the closure of the main supply routes in December as well as limited resources and personnel and poor infrastructure.

Because religion, ethnicity, and politics were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as solely based on religious identity. Most observers, including the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic, described the conflict in the country along ethnic lines, which mostly overlap with religious beliefs.

Thirteen of the country’s armed groups remained as formal signatories to the terms of the 2019 APPR, which was originally signed by 14 armed groups, while the government generally followed the terms, according to international observers. Among other commitments, the armed groups agreed to refrain from acts of violence directed at places of worship. The Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) armed group, however, suspended its participation in the APPR implementation mechanisms in June. In December, armed groups formed a new alliance, the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), which included two predominantly Christian anti-Balaka groups, predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka groups (MPC – Central African Patriotic Movement, UPC – Union for Peace in the Central African Republic, FPRC), and the mostly Fulani, predominantly Muslim 3R. Experts widely viewed these groups as violating the terms of the APPR and responsible for the significant disruption of election on December 27.

In January, after public consultations, the National Assembly passed a law creating a Truth, Justice, Reparations, and Reconciliation Commission in support of the APPR. The Commission will have 11 members, including four women, with a mandate to promote a national dialogue on the conflicts that have seriously marked the country since independence.

In July, the International Criminal Court (ICC) set a February 2021 hearing date in the case of Alfred “Rambo” Yekatom, an anti-Balaka commander and former 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. At year’s end, no Muslim ex-Seleka militia leaders had been similarly accused by the ICC, despite having allegedly committed similar crimes against humanity throughout the country’s conflict.

In February, a criminal court in Bangui sentenced five leaders of predominantly Christian militias to life in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during a 2017 attack in Bangassou in which dozens of Muslims were killed. The decision represented the first time a court handed down a sentence for crimes against humanity, according to the Minister of Justice.

Religious minorities generally had difficulty obtaining the necessary identification to register and vote in the December general election, according to observers. They said that many non-Muslims did not consider Muslims, especially those with ties to neighboring countries, to be citizens, which complicated procurement of identity documents. In accordance with the electoral code updated in September, individuals living as refugees outside the country, the majority of whom were Muslim, were not allowed to vote in the election. Observers said that without refugee voter registration, Muslims would be underrepresented in the electorate.

The Ministry of Humanitarian Action and National Reconciliation continued public service announcements via radio stations nationwide, reaffirming the government’s commitment to treat all citizens equally. Working with international assistance, the ministry supported locally established peace committees to enhance social cohesion.

Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha were observed for the first time as national legal holidays. The National Assembly’s adoption of the law establishing the holidays in December 2019 followed the recommendations of the Bangui National Forum, a national reconciliation conference held in 2015 to promote social cohesion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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 September, Bishop Nestor Nongo-Aziagbia, president of the country’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said nonstate actors were rearming, despite their commitments to disarmament and demobilization as part of the APPR. He stated the country’s religious leaders were united behind peace and focused on raising awareness around the peace agreement and the December general election.

The Platform for Religious Confessions in Central Africa (PCRC) continued its efforts to promote interfaith dialogue throughout the country. The group remained focused on supporting the return of IDPs and refugees and promoting social cohesion in communities that previously experienced religious violence. For example, in September, October, and November, the PCRC visited Bossangoa, Kaga-Bandoro, and Bria to increase social cohesion, with a special focus on promoting peace during the December national election. The PCRC promoted unity, good conduct, and fair play for all actors involved in the election. The group reported being concerned about hate speech in the media and that young people were particularly susceptible to malign influence. The PCRC noted progress in social cohesion, but Muslims continued to be denied access to worship in some communities.

During the year, Radio Sewa FM, a community radio station dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue, continued to broadcast programs aimed at both Muslim and Christian communities in Bangui’s PK5 and PK3 neighborhoods. 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 acquiring identification documents, and security concerns, which hampered their ability to move freely throughout the country. Muslims reported being interrogated by gendarmes more frequently than Christians while moving on the road between Bangui and neighboring Cameroon. Muslims reportedly were underrepresented among recruits for state security institutions, despite attempts to meet diversity targets set in the state defense plan. A Muslim advocacy organization reported a lack of Muslim representation in all public spheres, including a lack of Muslims in healthcare systems and government positions. For example, they reported only one member of the investigative police was a Muslim, who did not exercise his functions due to an injury. The organization reported the majority Muslim neighborhood of PK5 faced more water outages than other Bangui neighborhoods.

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.

According to Al Jazeera, individuals, often elderly Christians, accused of sorcery or witchcraft experienced social exclusion and were unable to attend houses of worship. According to a female legal advocate, the penal code does not have an established definition of witchcraft, and the state did not intervene in these cases. In general, district chiefs presided over witchcraft trials; local populations sometimes killed or seriously harmed those accused of witchcraft without legal consequences. For example, on August 27, local press reported that in the village of Barka-Panziin, a 60-year-old woman suspected of witchcraft was severely beaten by her own children and buried alive by local inhabitants. Gendarmes stationed at a timber company 2.5 miles away rescued her. Women accused of witchcraft faced the possibility of sexual violence in prison while awaiting trial or serving their sentences. Men and women accused of witchcraft stated that fear for their physical safety caused them psychological harm.

Traditional and social media outlets continued to portray Muslims negatively. A news article published in September in Le Citoyen described in provocative terms the fatal stabbing of a young Christian girl named Mauricia by her Muslim boyfriend, Adam. Adam belonged to the PK5 Muslim community and was described as a “terrorist” by the newspaper. Observers reported this type of anti-Muslim news coverage was common and served to increase religious tensions.

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 said enforcement of the ban remained difficult and that Wahhabis continued to meet and worship in their own mosques. Arabic-language local media said one reason Wahhabi groups continued their activities was that a number of government and security officials come from the same region or tribe as the Wahhabi leaders. Between March and June, the government closed all places of gathering, including places of worship, to fight the spread of COVID-19. National Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic leaders publicly supported the government restrictions and encouraged believers to pray at home. Media reported that Wahhabis did not support or comply with government restrictions and said they continued communal prayers in the northern and northeastern neighborhoods of N’Djamena. On December 14, President Idriss Deby signed into law an amendment to the constitution that eliminated a denominational oath for high-ranking government servants instituted in 2018. The government frequently denounced as dangerous to national unity all forms of “communalism” – allegiance to a specific group or community rather than to wider society – without specifying religious, ethnic, or other dividing lines.

A National Day of Prayer for Peace, Peaceful Cohabitation, and National Concord was held on November 28 that brought together Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim religious leaders, many of whom made statements calling for unity and peaceful coexistence. Analysts said the country remained relatively free from significant conflict between religious groups and from extremist movements, while also noting that the divisive legacy of the largely southern and Christian rule of the country between 1960 and 1979 lingered and, together with widespread poverty, increased the risk of radicalization along identity lines. During an interfaith meeting in August, some Muslim leaders said Wahhabism was growing in the country.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the embassy expanded virtual engagement on religious freedom and tolerance. In lieu of hosting an annual iftar, the Charge d’Affaires spoke by telephone with the president of the High Council for Islamic Affairs (HCIA) at the beginning of Ramadan to discuss religious freedom and tolerance in the country. The Charge d’Affaires also recorded a video message for Eid al-Adha. During the August visit of the U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel Region of Africa, the embassy organized a roundtable discussion to support interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.9 million (July 2020 estimate). According to a 2014-2015 census estimate, 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, Salafism, or follow the political-religious doctrine espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood. Most 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. There is a significant Muslim presence in the south but minimal Christian presence in the north. 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.

In December, the government adopted constitutional amendments that removed a denominational oath of office that had required government directors and secretaries general and above to take an oath “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. 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 one year in prison and a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 CFA francs ($94 to $940) for failure to register. 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 HCIA, an independent government body, oversees Islamic religious activities, including some Arabic-language schools and institutions of higher learning, and represents the country’s Muslim community at international Islamic forums. The government approves those nominated by members of the HCIA to serve on the council. Wahhabis are nominated to serve on the council but have not participated due to their stated concerns regarding the council’s role in the government ban on their activities. Muslim Brotherhood adherents are also represented on the council, operating under the umbrella of Sufi groups rather than as overt representatives of Muslim Brotherhood groups. The Grand Imam of N’Djamena, who is selected by a committee of Muslim elders and approved by the government, is the de jure president of the HCIA and oversees the heads of the HCIA branches and 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 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, and ensuring religious freedom. It also reports concerns and suggestions regarding religious activities to the Minister of Territorial Administration, who has the authority to ban or sanction activities. The position of office director rotates every two years among Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics. The office contains a special bureau for Hajj and Umrah under the supervision of the Presidency of the Republic, with members chosen annually by presidential decree. The HCIA deals directly with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralized Territorial Collectivities or with the civil office of the President of the Republic to address concerns with Wahhabi groups.

The constitution states military service is obligatory, and it prohibits invoking religious belief to “avoid an obligation dictated by the national interest.” This statute largely applies in case of wartime mobilization, since the country does not have universal military conscription.

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. According to civil rights organizations, enforcement was difficult, and adherents continued to meet and worship in their own mosques. Local media reported that many security force officials belonged to the same tribes and came from the same regions as the Wahhabi leaders, resulting in lax implementation of government decisions, favoritism, and bribery. Local Arabic-language media reported that the HCIA president reconciled with Wahhabi groups, unlike his predecessor, who was generally anti-Wahhabist. Due to the government ban on their activities, Wahhabis received financial support from abroad as individuals rather than as a group, according to local Arabic-language media.

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 on other occasions for religious events.

Between March and June, the government closed all gathering places, including places of worship, to fight the spread of COVID-19. The measures applied to all religious groups in the same manner, and national Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic leaders all supported these government restrictions in public statements and encouraged believers to pray at home. Local media reported that Wahhabis did not support or comply with governmental restrictions, especially in the northern and northeastern neighborhoods of N’Djamena. The government lifted restrictions on public communal worship in June and promoted social distancing measures. Mosques and Protestant churches reopened in June, while Catholic churches chose to delay their reopening until July, citing COVID-19 transmission concerns.

According to media, the government’s elimination in December of the denominational oath of office that had required senior government officials to take an oath “under God” or “under Allah” was widely popular.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Analysts stated the country, which comprises a diverse society with many tribal, ethnic, and religious identities, remained relatively free from significant conflict between religious groups and from extremist movements. They added that the divisive legacy of the largely southern and Christian rule of the country between 1960 and 1979 lingered and, together with widespread poverty, increased the risk of radicalization along identity lines. Arabic-language media said N’Djamena and other large cities self-segregated according to religious divisions.

Analysts said poverty and a lack of government services raised the risks that violent extremism, including extremism related to religion, would spread to the country, especially in the Lake Chad region, where Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa launched attacks against government soldiers and unarmed civilians during the year.

Religious leaders continued to raise awareness of the risks of terrorist attacks, which continued throughout the year, particularly in Lac Province, 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.

In line with government restrictions, media coverage did not mention instances of religious tension or conflict, instead using the term “communalism” – allegiance to a specific group or community rather than to wider society – to refer in general to divisions among various groups or communities, whether based on geographic, ethnic, religious, or other loyalties. Media reported religious tensions existed in instances of farmer-herder violence, with Christian groups refusing to accept diya, or financial compensation paid to victims of violence.

At an interfaith roundtable discussion in August, a representative of the HCIA said Wahhabism was spreading quickly in the country and the government could not stop the growth. Representatives of the Catholic and Protestant Churches said there were contentious social-religious problems between Muslims and Christians that were difficult to resolve, especially forced conversion from Christianity to Islam upon marriage. Religious leaders said violence targeting religious groups, such as mosque attacks and church vandalism, consisted of isolated incidents perpetrated by individuals and were not based on extreme ideology or backed by any particular religious group.

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

Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim religious leaders participated in a National Day of Prayer for Peace, Peaceful Cohabitation and National Concord on November 28. Protestant leader Pastor Batein Kaligue said individuals should “favor the spirit of solidarity, communion, and fraternity for national peace.” Catholic leader Bishop Edmond Djitangar Gotbe said, “God does not answer our prayers, he does not accept our sacrifices, when our hearts are filled with resentment and hatred towards one another.” The president of the HCIA publicly condemned all forms of terrorism and stated, “Barbaric terrorist acts contradict all divine religions.” President Deby emphasized the consolidation of peace and national unity, stating, “Every Chadian must be fully aware of the imperative to consolidate national unity. Let us be more united; let us transcend all selfishness and all considerations related to divisions of all kinds.”

Comoros

Executive Summary

The constitution specifies Islam is the state religion and defines the national identity as being based on a single religion – Sunni Islam – but proclaims equality of rights and obligations for all, regardless of religious belief. The constitution also specifies that the principles and rules to regulate worship and social life be based on Sunni Islam under the Shafi’i doctrine. Proselytizing for any religion except Sunni Islam is illegal, and the law provides for deportation of foreigners who do so. The law prohibits the performance of non-Sunni religious rituals in public places on the basis of “affronting society’s cohesion and endangering national unity.” On August 28, security forces, under orders from Interior Minister Mohamed Daoudou, arrested seven persons on Anjouan and four persons on Grande Comore for engaging in the public Shia commemoration of Ashura. The gendarmerie released the 11 individuals after four days of detention. There were no reports of arrests for Comorians practicing other religions, but members of non-Sunni groups reported broad self-censorship and stated they practiced or spoke about their beliefs only in private. Shia Muslims reported government surveillance during religious holidays important to their community. In contrast with previous years, there were no reports of national leaders making public statements against religious minorities.

There continued to be reports that local communities unofficially shunned individuals who were suspected of converting from Islam to Christianity or from Sunni to Shia Islam.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy in Antananarivo, Madagascar, engaged on issues of religious freedom with government officials, including officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, and President’s Office, focusing on the importance of individuals having the ability to practice their religion freely and of government officials refraining from statements criticizing religious minorities. Embassy representatives also discussed religious freedom with religious and civil society leaders and others, including members of minority religious groups.

On December 2, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Comoros on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 846,000 (midyear 2020 estimate), of which 98 percent is Sunni Muslim. Roman Catholics, Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Protestants together make up less than 2 percent of the population. Non-Muslims are mainly foreign residents and are concentrated in the country’s capital, Moroni, and the capital of Anjouan, Mutsamudu. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims mostly live in Anjouan.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and citizens shall draw principles and rules to regulate worship and social life from the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam. The preamble “affirms the will of the Comorian people” to cultivate a national identity based on a single religion, Sunni Islam. It proclaims equality of rights and obligations for all individuals regardless of religion or belief. A law establishes the Sunni Shafi’i doctrine as the “official religious reference” and provides sanctions of five months’ to one year’s imprisonment, a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 Comorian francs ($250-$1,200), or both, for campaigns, propaganda, or religious practices or customs in public places that could cause social unrest or undermine national cohesion.

The law prohibits anyone from insulting a minister of religion in the exercise of his functions, punishable by a fine of 15,000 to 45,000 francs ($37-$110) and imprisonment of six months to two years.

Proselytizing for any religion except Sunni Islam is illegal, and the law provides for deportation of foreigners who do so. The penal code states, “whoever discloses, spreads, and teaches Muslims a religion other than Islam will be punished with imprisonment of three months to one year and a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 Comorian francs” ($120-$1,200).

There is no official registration process for religious groups. The law allows Sunni religious groups to establish places of worship, train clergy, and assemble for peaceful religious activities. It does not allow non-Sunni religious groups to assemble for peaceful religious activities in public places, although foreigners are permitted to worship at three Christian churches in Moroni, Mutsamudu, and Moheli, and foreign Shia Muslims are permitted to worship at a Shia mosque in Moroni.

The law prohibits proselytizing or performance of non-Sunni religious rituals in public places, based on “affronting society’s cohesion and endangering national unity.” Without specifying religion, the penal code provides penalties for the profaning of any spaces designated for worship, for interfering with the delivery of religious leaders in the performance of their duties, or in cases where the practice of sorcery, magic, or charlatanism interferes with public order.

According to the constitution, the Grand Mufti is the highest religious authority in the country. The President appoints the Grand Mufti, who manages issues concerning religion and religious administration. The Grand Mufti heads an independent government institution called the Supreme National Institution in Charge of Religious Practices in the Union of the Comoros. The Grand Mufti counsels the government on matters concerning the practice of Islam and Islamic law. The Grand Mufti chairs and periodically consults with the Council of Ulema, a group of religious elders cited in the constitution, to assess whether citizens are respecting the principles of Islam.

The law provides that before the month of Ramadan, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Council of Ulema publish a ministerial decree providing instructions to the population for that month.

The government uses the Quran in public primary schools for Arabic reading instruction. There are more than 200 government-supported, fee-based schools with Quranic instruction. The tenets of Islam are sometimes taught in conjunction with Arabic in public and private schools at the middle and high school levels. Religious education is not mandatory.

The country is a signatory but not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On August 28, security forces, operating on orders from Interior Minister Mohamed Daoudou, arrested seven Shia Muslims on Anjouan and four on Grande Comore for commemorating Ashura in public. According to a local Shia leader, the gendarmerie released the 11 individuals after four days of detention. Shia community members reported government surveillance during religious commemorations important to their community such as Ashura.

There were no reports of arrests of citizens engaged in other religious practices during the year, but members of non-Sunni groups and other minority religious groups reported self-censorship and stated they practiced only in private to avoid being harassed by the government.

According to a Shia leader in Moroni, a cultural center operated in Moroni, on Grande Comore, where Shia practiced their religion, but where police also intervened on Ashura and arrested Comorians attending.

In contrast with previous years, there were no reports of national leaders making public statements against religious minorities.

Expatriate Christian community members reported they had been waiting for more than three years for a government response to their application for a license to build a new church.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

As in previous years, there were reports that local communities unofficially shunned individuals suspected of converting from Islam to Christianity. Societal abuse and discrimination against non-Muslim citizens persisted, particularly against Christians or those who were converts from Islam. Non-Muslim foreigners reported little to no discrimination.

Most non-Sunni Muslim citizens reportedly did not openly practice their faith for fear of societal rejection. Societal pressure and intimidation continued to restrict the use of the country’s three churches to noncitizens. Christians reported they would not eat publicly during Ramadan so as not to draw attention to their faith.

Cuba

Executive Summary

The country’s constitution contains written provisions for religious freedom and prohibitions against discrimination based on religious grounds. According to the religious freedom advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and religious leaders, the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life. CSW’s annual report concluded the government “violated freedom of religion or belief routinely and systematically” through arbitrary detentions, false charges, threats, and harassment of religious leaders and religious freedom defenders. The report also noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government confiscated food that some religious groups intended to provide to those in need, blocked overseas humanitarian aid, and threatened and charged religious leaders for “spreading disease.” There were reports that authorities continued to subject leaders of Free Yorubas of Cuba to arbitrary detentions, threats, and verbal harassment. Media and religious freedom defenders reported the government continued to restrict the right of prisoners to practice religion freely, limit or block international and domestic travel, and harass and detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez and Apostolic Church Pastor Alain Toledano. CSW reported 203 documented cases of freedom of religion violations, compared with 260 in 2019, attributing the decrease to the decision of the Ladies in White to halt their weekly attendance at Catholic Mass for seven months during the pandemic. On October 30, state security officers surrounded a church affiliated with Toledano in Santiago de Cuba and destroyed it; authorities arrested Toledano while he live streamed the destruction on Facebook. According to media, authorities temporarily detained Apostolic leader Yilber Durand Dominguez and Christian artist Jose Acebo Hidalgo when they resisted letting government officials into their homes during the COVID-19 quarantine. In March, authorities released homeschooling advocate Ayda Exposito after she served a sentence for “other acts against the normal development of a minor.” Her husband, Reverend Ramon Rigal, was released in July. Media reported authorities threatened to deny the couple custody of their children if they resumed homeschooling. According to religious groups, the ORA and MOJ continued to deny official registration to certain groups, including to several Apostolic churches, or did not respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). In April, a female convert to Islam told media she stopped wearing a hijab after her government-run workplace forbade her from wearing it. In January, a member of the Jewish community in Nuevitas, Camaguey Municipality, said a local state prosecutor forced him to sign a document acknowledging that if his children came to school wearing kippahs, he and his wife would be arrested and charged with “acts against the normal development of a minor,” with a potential one-year prison sentence. According to CSW, many religious leaders continued to practice self-censorship because of government surveillance and infiltration of religious groups. A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Roman Catholic Church continued to press for legal changes, including easing registration of religious groups, ownership of church property, and new church construction.

Unlike in previous years, the Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” was unable to hold an interfaith meeting due to COVID-19 restrictions. Some religious groups and organizations, such as the Catholic charity Caritas, however, continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to individuals regardless of religious belief.

Due to lack of government responsiveness, U.S. embassy officials did not meet with or otherwise engage the ORA during the year. Embassy officials met regularly, both in person and virtually, with a range of religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics, concerning the state of religious freedom and political activities related to religious groups’ beliefs. In public statements and on social media, U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion. On October 5, the Secretary stated, “Vast swathes of humanity live in countries where religious freedom is restricted, from places like…Cuba, and beyond.” Embassy officials remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating meetings between visiting civil society delegations and religious groups in the country.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Cuba on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Catholic Church estimates 60 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent. According to some observers, Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 150,000 members; the four Baptist conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000.

Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists 50,000; Seventh-day Adventists 36,000; Presbyterians 25,000; Anglicans 22,500; Episcopalians 10,000; Anabaptists 4,387 (mostly Iglesia de Los Hermanos en Cristo, the Brethren of Christ), Quakers 1,000; Moravians 750; and the Church of Jesus Christ 357 members. There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International. According to some Christian leaders, evangelical Protestant groups continue to grow in the country. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,200 members, of whom 1,000 reside in Havana. According to the local Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims, of whom an estimated 1,500 are native born. Immigrants and native born citizens practice several different Buddhist traditions, with estimates of 6,200 followers. The largest group of Buddhists is the Japanese Soka Gakkai; its estimated membership is 1,000. Other religious groups with small numbers of adherents include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Baha’is.

Many individuals, particularly Afro-Cubans, practice religions with roots in the Congo River Basin and West Africa, including Yoruba groups often referred to by outsiders as Santeria, but by adherents as the order of Lucumi or Orisha worship, or Bantu influenced groups referred to as Palo Monte. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism and other forms of Christianity and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership. Rastafarian adherents also have a presence on the island, although the size of the community is unknown.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “the state recognizes, respects, and guarantees religious liberty” and “distinct beliefs and religions enjoy equal consideration.” The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs. It declares the country is a secular state and provides for the separation of religious institutions and the state.

The constitution also “recognizes, respects, and guarantees people’s freedom of thought, conscience, and expression.” It states, “Conscientious objection may not be invoked with the intention of evading compliance with the law or impeding another from the exercise of their rights.” It also provides for the “right to profess or not profess their religious beliefs, to change them, and to practice the religion of their choice…,” but only “with the required respect for other beliefs and in accordance with the law.”

The government is subordinate to the Communist Party; the party’s organ, the ORA, enlists the entire government, especially the MOJ and the security services, to control religious practice in the country. The ORA regulates religious institutions and the practice of religion. The Law of Associations requires all religious groups to apply to the MOJ for official registration. The MOJ registers religious denominations as associations on a basis similar to how it officially registers civil society organizations. The application process requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities, their proposed leadership, and their funding sources, among other requirements. Even if the MOJ grants official registration, the religious group must request permission from the ORA each time it wants to conduct activities other than regular services, such as holding meetings in approved locations, publishing major decisions from meetings, receiving foreign visitors, importing religious literature, purchasing and operating motor vehicles, and constructing, repairing, or purchasing places of worship. Groups failing to register face penalties ranging from fines to closure of their organizations and confiscation of their property.

The penal code states membership in or association with an unregistered group is a crime; penalties range from fines to three months’ imprisonment, and leaders of such groups may be sentenced to up to one year in prison.

The law regulates the registration of “house churches” (private residences used as places of worship). Two house churches of the same denomination may not exist within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of one another and detailed information – including the number of worshippers, dates and times of services, and the names and ages of all inhabitants of the house in which services are held – must be provided to authorities. The law states if authorization is granted, authorities will supervise the operation of meetings; they may suspend meetings in the house for a year or more if they find the requirements are not fulfilled. If an individual registers a complaint against a church, the house church may be closed permanently and members subject to imprisonment. Foreigners must obtain permission before attending services in a house church; foreigners may not attend house churches in some regions. Any violation will result in fines and closure of the house church.

The constitution states, “The rights of assembly, demonstration and association are exercised by workers, both manual and intellectual; peasants; women; students; and other sectors of the working people,” but it does not explicitly address religious association. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.

A law in force since July 2019 curtails freedom of expression on the internet to protect against “disseminating information contrary to the common good, morals, decency, and integrity through public data transmission networks.” The penalty for violating the law is 3,000 Cuban pesos ($120) or two to four years in prison.

Military service is mandatory for all men, and there are no legal provisions exempting conscientious objectors from service.

Religious education is highly regulated, and homeschooling is illegal, with parents who homeschool their children subject to arrest.

The country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008 but did not ratify it. The government notes, “With respect to the scope and implementation of some of the provisions of this international instrument, Cuba will make such reservations or interpretative declarations as it may deem appropriate.”

Government Practices

CSW’s annual report concluded that the government “violated freedom of religion or belief… routinely and systematically” through arbitrary detentions, false charges, threats, and harassment of religious leaders and religious freedom defenders. It reported 203 documented cases of freedom of religion violations compared with 260 in 2019, attributing the decrease in numbers to the decision of the Ladies in White to halt their weekly attendance at Catholic Mass for seven months during the pandemic. CSW said approximately half of the cases involved threats and harassment, including arbitrary summons of religious leaders and pressure on congregation members to not worship at unregistered churches or else face losing their employment. The report also noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government confiscated food some religious groups intended to provide to those in need, blocked overseas humanitarian aid, and threatened and charged religious leaders for “spreading disease.”

Many religious groups said notwithstanding the constitutional provisions providing for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibiting discrimination based on religion, the government continued to use threats, detentions, violence, and other coercive tactics to restrict the activities of some religious groups, leaders, and followers, including the right of prisoners to practice religion freely. Religious groups also said the government applied the law in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Some religious groups continued to state their concern that the new constitution, in effect since February 2019, significantly weakened protections for freedom of religion or belief, as well as diluting references to freedom of conscience and separating it from freedom of religion.

According to media, prison authorities continued to abuse Christian rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro for his refusal to participate in ideological re-education programs while incarcerated. Diaz Paseiro, imprisoned since November 2017 and recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, was beaten, prohibited from receiving visits or phone calls, denied medical and religious care, confined to a “punishment” cell, and transferred from prison to prison. Diaz Paseiro was serving a three-year and five-month sentence for “pre-criminal dangerousness” for protesting municipal elections in 2017. He remained in prison through year’s end. Media reported police also used violence against individuals protesting Diaz Paseiro’s treatment. On September 30, police detained two Free Yorubas of Cuba leaders who were protesting Diaz Paseiro’s mistreatment, holding them overnight, beating them, and breaking the arm of one of them, Jennifer Castaneda.

In August, the U.S.-based Patmos Institute blogged a statement calling on the Cuban government to recognize religious minority groups, including the Free Yorubas of Cuba. According to the U.S.-based Global Liberty Alliance, authorities continued to subject Free Yorubas of Cuba leaders to arbitrary detentions, threats, and verbal harassment, in addition to the September detentions and beatings of the two Yoruba leaders protesting the mistreatment of Paseiro. In February, police detained a Free Yorubas couple, telling the couple, “There is only one god, Fidel Castro.” According to observers, although Yoruba and other African syncretic religious groups were given latitude to practice their beliefs as individuals, the government selectively recognized groups and leaders based on their favorable view of the government.

Media reported police continued their repeated physical assaults on and brief arrests of members of the Ladies in White; more than 20 women were arrested across the country on March 8, International Women’s Day. Reports indicated the group’s members typically attempted to attend Mass and gather afterwards to protest the government’s human rights abuses. Throughout the year, Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez reported repeated arrests and short detentions for Ladies in White members when they attempted to meet on Sundays. According to media, because of the government’s intensified pressure on the movement, it lost significant momentum. According to media and NGOs, Soler Fernandez and other Ladies in White members were frequently physically abused while in police custody, as shown in videos of their arrests. After being taken into custody, they were typically fined and released within 24 hours.

According to media, authorities detained Apostolic leader Yilber Durand Dominguez and Christian artist Jose Acebo Hidalgo when they resisted allowing government officials into their homes during the COVID-19 quarantine. Acebo and Durand were released shortly thereafter.

According to media, authorities harassed and threatened journalists reporting specifically on abuses of religious freedom. In September, authorities released journalist and lawyer Roberto Quinones, imprisoned in April 2019 while reporting on a trial involving religious expression. Reportedly, he left prison having lost a significant amount of weight due to insufficient food.

According to media, in March, authorities released homeschooling advocate Ayda Exposito after having served 11 months of an 18-month sentence for “other acts against the normal development of a minor.” Her husband, Reverend Ramon Rigal, was released in July. After the couple was released from prison, authorities threatened to deny them custody of their children if they resumed their prior activities (homeschooling their children). Patmos reported that on August 9, journalist Yoel Suarez Fernandez was detained and threatened for reporting on the Quinones and Rigal cases, and authorities confiscated his phone. In February, he had been prohibited from leaving the country.

According to media sources, Oscar Kendri Fial Echavarría was scheduled for trial in late December for refusing compulsory military service after declaring himself a conscientious objector because of his Christian faith. His trial was subsequently suspended. Echavarría had previously been detained by state security in October and early December.

According to CSW, many religious groups continued to state their lack of legal registration impeded their ability to practice their religion. Several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to await a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official registration, some dating as far back as 1994. Despite a 2019 letter from Cuban Ambassador to the United States Jose Cabanas to the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ in Salt Lake City stating that the denomination was “welcome” in Cuba, the MOJ had not approved the Church’s registration by year’s end.

Representatives of several religious organizations that had unsuccessfully sought registration said the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the ORA and the MOJ to deny registration of certain groups. They also said ineligibilities for registration sometimes included determinations by the MOJ that another group had identical or similar objectives, using this argument as a pretext to favor certain factions of a religious denomination or one religious group’s activities over others.

Due to COVID-19 shutdowns, the MOJ delayed requests for registration. EchoCuba, a U.S.-based international religious freedom advocacy group associated with Outreach Aid to the Americas, again reported that some Apostolic churches repeatedly had their attempts to register denied, forcing them to operate without legal status.

Members of Protestant denominations said some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of house churches in private homes, although some unregistered house churches could operate with little or no government interference. According to EchoCuba, however, several religious leaders, particularly those from smaller, independent house churches or Santeria communities, said the government was less tolerant of groups that relied on informal locations, including private residences and other private meeting spaces, to practice their beliefs. They said the government monitored them, and at times, prevented them from holding religious meetings in their spaces. CSW reported authorities continued to rely on two 2005 government resolutions to impose complicated and repressive restrictions on house churches.

According to EchoCuba, the ORA approved some registration applications, but it took up to two to three years from the date of the application to complete the process. At year’s end, Soka Gakkai remained the only Buddhist group registered with the government.

According to religious leaders and former inmates, authorities continued to deny prisoners, including political prisoners, pastoral visits and the ability to meet with other prisoners for worship, prayer, and study. Many prisoners also said authorities repeatedly confiscated Bibles, crucifixes, rosary beads, and other religious items, sometimes as punishment and other times for no apparent reason. According to recently released prisoner Roberto de Jesus Quinones, during his time in prison, officials repeatedly “lost” copies of his request for pastoral care and punished him for fasting on holy days by placing him in solitary confinement or suspending other privileges.

According to CSW, the government, through the Ministry of Interior, continued to systematically plant informants in all religious organizations, sometimes by persuading or intimidating members and leaders to act as informants, or by sending informants to infiltrate a church. The objective was to monitor and intimidate religious leaders and report on the content of sermons and on church attendees. As a result, CSW assessed, many leaders continued to practice self-censorship, avoiding stating anything that might possibly be construed as anti-Castro or counterrevolutionary in their sermons and teaching. Catholic and Protestant Church leaders, both in and outside the government-recognized Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), continued to report frequent visits from state security agents and CCP officials for the purpose of intimidating them and reminding them they were under close surveillance, as well as to influence internal decisions and structures within the groups.

Many house church leaders continued to report frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be threatened if the house church leaders continued their activities.

CSW reported that on May 4, state security officers appeared at the home of a member of an unregistered Islamic group, who was studying the Quran with others. Members were summoned to appear the next day at the National Revolutionary Police, where authorities told them if they continued to hold unpermitted religious activities, they would be “punished for the crime of association to conspire and commit crimes.”

Authorities continued to harass Pastor Alain Toledano Valiente, a member of the Apostolic Movement and leader of the Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba. According to Toledano’s Facebook page, state security officials organized several “actos de repudio” (state-sanctioned crowds) to intimidate and socially isolate him. On May 1, local members of the Communist Party surrounded his home, as shown in a video posted to the pastor’s Facebook page. According to his Facebook page, several individuals also interrupted church services on July 26, National Revolutionary Day and a civic holiday. According to observers, in the eyes of the Communist party, church services held on a civic holiday were an affront to the spirit of the revolution.

On October 30, state security officers surrounded a church affiliated with Toledano in Santiago de Cuba and destroyed it with bulldozers and other heavy equipment while parishioners watched and sang hymns. Toledano was arrested while live streaming the destruction on Facebook. Authorities said they were destroying the church to construct a new railroad line to a local cement factory, but no other buildings or structures were razed. According to CSW, the church’s pastor, Palomo Cabrera, and Assemblies of God Regional Superintendent Jose Martinez were taken by state security officials and pressured to sign a document stating the demolition of the church was legal. Local sources also reported authorities attempted to bill Cabrera for usage of the machinery employed in the demolition. Toledano said authorities opposed the construction of a new church – authorities had demolished the previous Emanuel Church and detained hundreds of church members in 2016 – although he had the permits to build the new church. Following one summons, Toledano stated, “In Cuba, pastors are more at risk than criminals and bandits….I cannot carry out any religious activity; that is to say they want me to stop being a pastor.”

According to Pastor Andy Nelson Martinez Barrero, on March 17, authorities demolished the III Eden Baptist Church, allegedly for its being an illegal structure. When parishioners approached the site, police said they could not be in the area because they were considered to be a danger to a former member of the congregation who had been expelled for bad behavior. Members of the church said they believed the person was sent to join their church as an informant, a common government practice.

According to media, on September 8, authorities impeded celebrations of the country’s patron saint, the Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre, an unofficial but important holiday also known as Feast Day, and security officials arrested scores of activists. According to many observers, senior government leaders attempted to appropriate the religious holiday with political messaging. The Catholic Church received permission to televise a special Mass and published a statement describing the “opportunistic politicization” of the Feast Day by “the heirs [the current government] of those who once said they [Fidel and Raul Castro] wanted to erase every vestige of religion.” The statement also said, “Neither side has the right to politicize a celebration that precisely calls for harmony, peace, unity, and not hatred.”

According to CSW, although the majority of cases of what CSW defined as religious persecution were directed toward Christians, the country’s religious minorities were also likely to be victims of religious persecution. Patmos again stated that Rastafarians, whose spiritual leader remained imprisoned since 2012, were among the most stigmatized and repressed religious groups. The Patmos report said reggae music, the primary form of Rastafarian expression, was marginalized and its bands censored. According to Sandor Perez Pita, known in the Rastafarian world as Rassandino, reggae was not allowed on most state radio stations and concert venues, and Rastafarians were consistently targeted in government crackdowns on drugs, with the government incarcerating them for their supposed association with drugs without presenting evidence of actual possession or trafficking. Authorities also subjected Rastafarians to discrimination for their clothing and hairstyles, including through segregation of Rastafarian schoolchildren and employment discrimination against Rastafarian adults.

According to its representatives, the country’s small Muslim community was subject to discrimination. Samira Salas Quiala wrote on a Facebook group page for Cuban Muslim Women about her experience of discrimination while working at CIMEX, a company owned by the Cuban Armed Forces. She said that after three years working at a CIMEX store in Havana, her supervisor summoned her and the head of Human Resources and told her she could no longer wear a hijab. Salas Quiala said she stopped wearing a headscarf to avoid being fired.

According CSW, Christian leaders from all denominations said a scarcity of Bibles and other religious literature continued, primarily in rural areas. Some religious leaders continued to report government obstacles prevented them from importing religious materials and donated goods, including bureaucratic obstruction and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on computers and electronic devices. In some cases, the government held up religious materials or blocked them altogether. According to Patmos, the Cuban Association for the Divulgation of Islam was unable to obtain a container of religious literature embargoed since 2014. Several other groups, however, said they continued to import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods.

The Catholic Church and several Protestant representatives said they continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and to operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.

By year’s end, the government again did not grant the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCB) requests to allow the Catholic Church to reopen religious schools and have open access to broadcasting on television and radio. According to Church representatives, the ORA expanded the CCB’s access to state-controlled media and allowed some members to deliver sermons on public networks as a concession to COVID-19 restrictions. Not all religious groups that also petitioned for media access were given similar access, although for the first time, state-selected evangelical Protestant pastors associated with the government-recognized CCC were given the opportunity to prerecord 15-minute broadcasts during Holy Week. No other churches had access to mass media, which remained entirely state-owned. Several religious leaders continued to express concern about the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.

According to media, the government continued to prohibit the construction of new church buildings. All requests, including for minor building repairs, needed to be approved by the ORA, which awarded permits according to the inviting association’s perceived level of support for or cooperation with the government. The Berean Baptist Church, whose request for registration has been pending since 1997, continued to be prevented from repairing existing church buildings because as an unregistered group, it could not request necessary permits.

According to CSW, the government continued to use endless requirements for permits that could be arbitrarily cancelled at any time, plus other bureaucratic practices, to control and restrict freedom of religion or belief. Reportedly, the ORA’s processes meant many communities had no legal place to meet for church services, particularly in rural areas. Some denominations, especially Protestant denominations, reported similar problems, with the government prohibiting them from expanding their places of worship by threatening to dismantle or expropriate churches because they were holding “illegal” services.

According to CSW, several cases of authorities’ arbitrary confiscation of church property remained unresolved or under review, including a church in Artemisa that belonged to a registered religious group and that the government confiscated in March 2019, and the Nazarene Church of Manzanillo. The government had started a process to confiscate the Nazarene Church in April 2019 but took no further action during 2020.

According to media, between June and July, evangelical Protestant pastors Uberney Aguilar and Yalina Proenza received at least six visits and official summons from various government agents aimed at shutting down their congregation, Jehovah Shalom Church, in Holguin. The pastors said that starting in 2017, they met in a property owned by a member of their congregation. On July 9, Holguin Minister of Justice Nelson Flavio Plutin Santos and Ormani Rodriguez Tamayo, the head of the provincial Department of Associations, denied their request for government recognition, which they had submitted in 2019. Due to government public health restrictions, they continued to hold outdoor services.

Other land ownership issues remained unresolved, including that of the land owned by the Western Baptist Convention, which the government confiscated extralegally in 2012 and later transferred to two government companies. According to observers, the confiscation was in retaliation for the refusal of the Western Baptist Convention to agree to various ORA demands to restructure its internal governance and expel some pastors. The Methodist Church of Cuba said it continued its efforts to reclaim properties confiscated by the government more than 60 years ago, including a theater adjacent to the Methodist church in Marianao, Havana. The Methodist Church reportedly submitted all necessary ownership documentation, but government officials again took no action on the case during the year.

According to the Catholic News Agency, on August 29, the Bishop of Santiago de Cuba consecrated the San Benito Abad Church, located in San Bendito Crucero, Santiago de Cuba. Another small Catholic church was under construction in Havana at year’s end.

According to media, religious discrimination against students was a common practice in state schools, with multiple reports of teachers and Communist Party officials encouraging and participating in bullying. According to Olaine Tejada, a member of the Jewish community in Nuevitas, Camaguey Municipality, local state prosecutor Mary Vidal forced him on January 6 to sign a legal document acknowledging that if his sons came to school wearing kippahs, he and his wife Yeliney Lescaille would be arrested and charged with “acts against the normal development of a minor,” with a potential one-year jail sentence. In December 2019, local officials ruled against the Jewish family’s right to wear religious headgear to school. Tejada said the family would appeal to higher authorities to reinstate their rights.

In another incident, Yordanis Diaz Arteaga, President of the Christian Reformed Church of Cuba, told online magazine Evangelico Digital in January that his eight-year-old son had been harassed by his teacher in Havana because of his faith. On one occasion, the teacher humiliated his son in front of his peers for saying that he believed in God. On another day, the same teacher confiscated a bracelet the boy was wearing because it had Jesus’ name on it. Diaz said he reported the incident to the school but was not informed if the teacher was disciplined.

According to religious leaders, the government continued to selectively prevent some religious groups from establishing accredited schools but appeared to tolerate the efforts of other religious groups to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before- and after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs. The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework, including entrepreneurial training leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners. Several Protestant communities continued to offer university-level degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however, the government did not recognize these degrees.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the courses of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs because their religion prohibited them from political involvement.

CSW continued to report the government used social media to harass and defame religious leaders, including Facebook posts of public figures targeting religious leaders or groups. In most instances, accounts posting attacks targeting religious leaders seemed to be linked to state security. According to CSW, during the year, the government increased pressure on leaders of the Cuban Evangelical Alliance, including through a state television broadcast of a purported investigation of the growth of “dangerous fundamentalism” on the island. The program included an interview with a religious leader considered close to the government who spoke of “extremist Christian fundamentalists” who received support and funding from the United States. The backdrop of the interview included footage of worshippers at religious services in churches affiliated with the Cuban Evangelical Alliance.

Although movement to, from, and within the country was highly restricted for most of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, religious travelers said they faced higher levels of scrutiny than others and were often denied freedom of movement, including traveling to religious gatherings outside the country. According to Patmos, immigration officers continued to target religious travelers and their goods and informed airport-based intelligence services of incoming and outgoing travel. On March 31, authorities in Las Tunas refused to renew Pastor Mario Jorge Traviezo’s passport, informing him he was under a travel ban and could not leave the country. According to several news accounts, on February 17, state security agents arrested journalist Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre, a reporter on religious freedom issues, as he tried to leave his hometown of Camaguey to attend a religious celebration at the invitation of Pastor Alain Toledano. Authorities told him if he tried to leave his town again, he would be imprisoned for “disrespect.” Reportedly, Fernandez Izaguirre did not leave town during the year, partly due to the government order and because of COVID-19 restrictions.

According to CSW, unlike in previous years, there were no reported cases of the ORA and immigration officials targeting foreign visitors by denying them religious visas. CSW attributed the change to the government’s overall closure of borders to tourists as part of its efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Reportedly because of restrictions on internal movement, government agencies continued to refuse to recognize a change in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to a new church or parish. These restrictions made it difficult or impossible for relocating pastors to obtain government services, including housing. Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups. According to EchoCuba, the application of the decree to religious groups was likely part of the general pattern of government efforts to control their activities. Some religious leaders said the decree was also used to block church leaders from traveling within the country to attend special events or meetings. Leaders associated with the Apostolic churches regularly reported they were prevented, sometimes through short-term detention, from traveling to attend church events or carry out ministry work.

According to EchoCuba, the government continued to give preference to some religious groups and to discriminate against others. EchoCuba continued to report the government applied its system of rewarding churches that were obedient and sympathetic to “revolutionary values and ideals” and penalized those that were not. Similarly, the government continued to reward cooperative religious leaders and threatened to revoke the rights of leaders deemed as noncooperative. According to EchoCuba, in exchange for their cooperation with the government, CCC members continued to receive benefits that other nonmember churches did not always receive, including building permits and international donations of clothing and medicine.

According to media reports, President Miguel Diaz-Canel met with visiting international religious leaders, such as Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, but he did not hold public meetings with any national religious leaders.

According to international media, in the face of increasing shortages of food and other essential items, authorities increased restrictions on many religious organizations’ ability to receive and distribute humanitarian assistance. While the government allowed Caritas to continue providing food and other goods to the needy, it did not allow many smaller religious groups and charities that were not part of the government-recognized CCC to provide aid. According to The Havana Times in August, Customs refused to hand over to non-CCC-affiliated church groups a shipment of five containers of food and other donations from Florida for needy families in Cuba, organized by dissident Rosa Paya of the human rights project Cuba Decide. A CCC religious leader said, “Cuba doesn’t need aid from those who serve a government which has wanted to create humanitarian crises with a political and economic agenda for 60 years.” Other religious leaders also said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas.

Some religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs and to share their religious beliefs. Other religious groups reported government restrictions varied and were largely based on the government’s perceptions of the “political pliancy” of each religious group. Religious leaders continued to report government opposition to and interference in religious groups’ providing pastoral services.

According to media, government officials frequently instigated or did not investigate harassment of religious figures and institutions. For example, Pastor Daniel Gonzalez told online magazine evangelicodigital.com that for several years, police in his town of Florida, Camagüey Province, failed to investigate individuals throwing rocks at his church during services. The large rocks severely damaged the roof of the building. Members of the Missionary Church of Cuba in Victoria, Las Tunas, were pelted with stones on their way to worship several times a week, according to Pastor Yoel Demetrio, who said state security officials knew about the attacks and encouraged residents in their neighborhood to carry them out. Prior to the attacks, Demetrio received two summonses from the National Revolutionary Police, accusing him of “disturbing public order” because of his “illegal” use of audio equipment at his also “illegal” church.

During the year, the government increasingly used an internet law restricting freedom of expression against independent journalists, including those promoting freedom of religion or belief and other human rights. Authorities threatened to use the law to sanction Pastor Jose Yvan Rodríguez Yanez of the Apostolic Movement for making “subversive posts on social media.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Unlike in previous years, the Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” was unable to hold an interfaith meeting due to COVID-19 restrictions.

International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, both Catholic, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana. Caritas continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to all individuals regardless of religious belief.

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 continued to improve, according to religious leaders and media reports. In April, NGOs and media reported 55 members of a “separatist religious movement” died in clashes with police after the group’s leader called on his followers to be “ruthless” in “chasing out” members of different ethnic groups.

Illegal armed group members targeted churches and church property in North Kivu and Ituri Provinces. Local leaders in the northern part of the country expressed concern over the presence of the nomadic Muslim Mbororo cattle-herder communities. Some leaders in the Christian-dominated northern provinces continued to describe this 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 it was difficult to categorize the clashes 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 101.8 million (midyear 2020 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, an estimated 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 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 makes up 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 issues a provisional approval and, within six months, a permanent approval or rejection. Unless the ministry 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 ministry. 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 ($100), 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 they offer religion as a subject.

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

Government Practices

Between April 13 and 24, according to NGO and media reports, police killed 55 members of a “separatist religious movement” and injured dozens more following demonstrations in which armed members of Bundu Dia Kongo (Gathering of Kongo – BDK) blocked roads and chanted slogans “inciting ethnic hatred” in towns in the west of the country. A Human Rights Watch report said police used excessive force when dispersing crowds and arresting members of the BDK, whose leader issued a statement April 12 urging followers to “ruthlessly… chase out” those who were not of Kongo ethnicity. In late April, the interior ministry said 22 BDK members died during two raids, one of which led to the arrest of the group’s leader, Ne Muanda Nsemi, for “rebellion, threatening state security, and incitement of tribal hatred.” Ne Muanda Nsemi was released after spending four months under observation in a psychiatric hospital. Military prosecutors said they took steps to investigate whether security forces committed unjustifiable killings, but they did not announce any prosecutions, although they previously communicated their intent to do so.

The government and religious communities maintained close relations, according to the media and religious leaders. Catholic leaders reported regular dialogue with members of the Presidency and the government on issues of human rights, women’s empowerment, religious freedom, education, and security. Representatives from the Catholic Lay Community expressed support for what they called the government’s open stance regarding freedom of assembly and freedom of speech under President Felix Tshisekedi, who took office in January 2019. Leaders of the Church of Christ in Congo, an umbrella organization for the country’s Protestant communities, said in press statements that they believed Tshisekedi was committed to fighting corruption and advancing human rights, including religious freedom.

The Ministry of Justice again did not issue any final registration permits for religious groups, and had not done so since 2014. A ministry internal audit, reportedly in progress for several years and focused on fraudulent registration practices, remained incomplete at year’s end. It was cited by some observers as an obstacle to resuming the issuance of registrations. The government, however, continued its practice of permitting groups to operate that were presumed to have been approved. Unregistered domestic religious groups reported they continued to operate unhindered. The ministry 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 ruled favorably on their application and the government did not object to their application for status. According to 2015 registration statistics, the latest year for which the Ministry of Justice 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.

The government continued to rely on religious organizations to provide public services such as education and health care throughout the country. According to the Ministry of Education, approximately 72 percent of primary school students and 65 percent of secondary school students attended government-funded schools administered by religious organizations. The government paid teacher salaries at some schools run by religious groups, depending on the needs of the schools and whether they were registered as schools eligible to receive government funding.

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

Some religious leaders reported continued tensions between the overwhelmingly Christian local populations in the north and nomadic Muslim herder communities. Local leaders continued to express concerns that the 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. Civil society actors, including local Catholic priests, publicly warned that the conflict could worsen without significant intervention on the part of the national government. 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.

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, continued to carry out attacks against civilians and occasionally targeted churches for attack. On October 28, ADF assailants killed at least 18 persons and burned down a church in the eastern part of the country. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Additionally, in January, according to press reports, suspected ADF members attacked and killed dozens of individuals in four villages, including an Anglican pastor. During the year, the ADF reportedly killed over 500 civilians who were targeted for a variety of reasons, including religion. Local Christian and Muslim leaders, with vocal support from the government, condemned the ADF’s actions.

Leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported generally positive relations with persons from other religious groups but said that at least 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.

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. Religious groups must register with the government, which conducts lengthy background checks as part of the registration process. Foreign religious workers must obtain a work permit and purchase annual residency cards. 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 government continued to mandate a civic and moral education course based on Islam for all students in public schools as well as private schools run by non-Muslim religious organizations.

Norms and customs continued to discourage conversion from Islam. Muslim and Christian religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam. Non-Muslims faced discrimination in employment and education. There were reports of hateful speech against minority religions on social media.

U.S. embassy officials met regularly with government officials and religious leaders to discuss equitable treatment of religious groups by the government.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 922,000 (midyear 2020 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 31,131, of whom 43 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. Imams are civil service employees of the ministry; the government owns mosque properties and other assets. The ministry’s High Islamic Council vets all Friday prayer service sermons.

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, except for religious schools run by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the country, which follow the Saudi curriculum. Other international schools are permitted to offer their own curriculum. The public school system is secular. Private schools run by religious organizations must offer a civic and moral education course based on Islam to all students, including non-Muslims.

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 the 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 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, and its workers must obtain work permits and purchase annual residency cards. 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. The 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

Since 2014, the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs has overseen all Islamic matters, and mosques have little operational independence. A ministry representative stated that government control and oversight of mosques was necessary to preclude political activity from mosques and counter foreign “extremist” influence.

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, including the Ethiopian Protestant and non-Sunni Muslim congregations, which applied for registration years ago, operated without government sanction. 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.

In September, the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs collaborated with the Ministry of Youth and Sports to invite a well-known Somali Islamic scholar, Sheik Moustapha Ismail, to preach at several mosques and host a large event at the national stadium. The events were intended to encourage and revive religious practice among youth.

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 an annual residency card for 24,000 Djiboutian francs ($140).

According to observers, it would be practically impossible for a non-Muslim to achieve a high position in government service.

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.

The government continued to implement a civic and moral education course, based on Islam, in public schools across the country. According to a Christian religious leader, private schools run by non-Muslim religious groups were required to teach the Islam-focused course.

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. An Islamic leader stated that women were less likely to marry outside the Islamic faith due to societal pressures. Both Muslim and Christian leaders stated conversion from Islam was detrimental to a person’s social status; Muslim religious leaders said traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.

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.

A religious leader expressed concern that the operation of unregistered religious groups “in the shadows” could lead to extremism, religious intolerance, and social unease.

There were instances of individuals using social media to spread hateful messages, particularly against Christianity. A Christian religious leader stated that he had personally received threatening and defamatory messages online. He also said there were a few incidents of youths throwing stones and heckling clergy outside the main Catholic church in Djibouti City.

Dominica

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of thought, freedom to practice one’s religion, and freedom from oaths contrary to one’s beliefs. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in March, the government temporarily suspended all public religious gatherings. On May 30, the government granted special permission and provided protocols exclusively for churches and places of worship to reopen provided they had no more than 250 individuals in attendance and implemented health protocols. Rastafarians continued to press the government to legalize marijuana use. On October 26, the parliament decriminalized the possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana for personal religious use to individuals 18 years and above.

Interdenominational organizations continued their efforts to advance respect for religious freedom and diversity. Televised religious services were available throughout a government-mandated COVID-19 shutdown from March 24 to May 30, and religious groups broadcast via radio, television, and social media. In September, the Dominica Association of Evangelical Churches (DAEC) and other religious groups established counseling hotlines for persons experiencing fear, worry, or emotional stress as a result of COVID-19.

The U.S. embassy continued to maintain social media engagement on religious freedom. In January, for example, a series of posts highlighted U.S. National Religious Freedom Day, including the history of religious freedom in the Eastern Caribbean.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 74,200 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the U.S. government, Roman Catholic represent 61.4 percent of the population, Protestants 28.6 percent, Rastafarians 1.3 percent, Jehovah’s Witnesses 1.2 percent, and those listing “other” 0.3 percent; 6.1 percent report no religious affiliation, and 1.1 percent are unspecified. According to the most recent census in 2011, approximately 53 percent of the population is Catholic. Evangelical Protestants constitute approximately 20 percent of the population. The largest evangelical Protestant groups are Pentecostals with 6 percent, Baptists with 5 percent, and the Christian Union Mission, with 4 percent. Seventh-day Adventists constitute 7 percent of the population. Other smaller religious groups include Anglicans, Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Rastafarians, and Baha’is. According to the census, 9 percent of the population professes no religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of thought, freedom to practice one’s religion, and freedom from taking oaths contrary to one’s beliefs. By law, the government may make exceptions to constitutionally required provisions in the interests of public order and morality if the exceptions are for activities “shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”

The constitution prohibits a minister of a religion from being qualified to run in an election.

Religious groups seeking nonprofit status must register with the Attorney General’s Office. They must submit a letter signed by five executives of the religious group and provide the official name of the group and an address identifying the place of worship. The registration fee is 25 Eastern Caribbean dollars ($9). The Attorney General’s Registry Office reviews and approves applications. Any organization denied permission to register has the right to apply for judicial review. By law, religious groups also must register buildings used to publish marriage banns (announcements of marriage) or used as places of worship.

The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and to provide religious instruction. Students of different religions may attend private schools run by religious groups of another affiliation. Public schools may hold nondenominational prayers, and attendance is optional. The law requires the vaccination of all children to attend both public and private schools. The government does not offer a waiver for children without vaccinations. Parents may homeschool their children.

Dreadlocks are prohibited in all government-funded schools as well as in prisons.

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

Government Practices

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 24, the government temporarily suspended all public religious gatherings, including funerals with more than 10 persons in attendance. On May 30, the government granted special permission and provided protocols exclusively for churches and places of worship to reopen provided they had no more than 250 individuals in attendance and implemented health protocols, such as hand hygiene and wearing masks.

The DAEC and Catholic representatives continued to advocate for the repeal of a law prohibiting licensed clergy from running for public office.

Rastafarians continued to press the government for complete legalization of marijuana use, stating they considered decriminalization to be a commercially focused half-measure. Representatives of the Rastafarian community said authorities did not enforce the law against using marijuana when the community used it in its religious rites.

In July, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit urged parliament to decriminalize the possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana for “medical, religious, and recreational use” and to “expunge the criminal records of all persons previously convicted for possessing small quantities of marijuana that were clearly not for sale.” He subsequently pledged, “The government will forge ahead on the matter of developing a revenue stream and foreign exchange earnings from a marijuana industry.” On October 26, Parliament decriminalized the possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana to individuals 18 years and above for personal religious use.

The government continued to subsidize teacher salaries at all private schools run by religious organizations, including those affiliated with the Catholic, Methodist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches.

At public schools, teachers, principals, and students continued to lead nondenominational prayers during morning assemblies, but students were not required to participate.

On September 17, the Dominica Christian Council applied for, and received, the High Court’s permission to intervene in a 2019 constitutional challenge to the country’s anti-sodomy law. LGBTI groups called the challenge a “delay tactic” by the Dominica Christian Council, because the council opposes overturning the law.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Religious groups produced live and recorded televised religious services throughout the COVID shutdown, broadcasting on radio, television, and social media. In September, the DAEC and other religious groups established counseling hotlines for persons experiencing fear, worry, or emotional stress as a result of COVID-19.

Interdenominational organizations continued their efforts to advance respect for religious freedom and diversity. For example in January, individuals from the Israel United For Christ marched in Roseau, distributing flyers explaining their belief that blacks and Hispanics are descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel and welcoming interfaith dialogue; on March 6, Christian women of numerous denominations celebrated World Prayer Day, emphasizing the importance of peace and the need to help victims of poverty, violence, and human trafficking, and in September, religious leaders held prayer and reflection ceremonies to commemorate the third anniversary of the deaths of local citizens in Hurricane Maria. Both the Catholic Church and the DAEC periodically hosted prayer gatherings.

The DAEC continued to support the government’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Equatorial Guinea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation. The law states that the country has no national religion, but by decree and practice, the government gives preference to the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Church of Equatorial Guinea, which are the only religious groups not required to register their organization or activities with the Ministry of Justice, Religious Affairs, and Penitentiary Institutions (MJRAPI). On April 5, the government disbanded two religious groups for “noncompliance” with restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In January, the government led efforts to raise funds to restore a Catholic cathedral damaged in a fire.

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

U.S. embassy representatives met with government officials, including the MJRAPI minister, to discuss the importance of religious freedom and respect for human rights. Embassy staff members met with the Catholic Archbishop of Malabo and also with the respective presidents of the evangelical Christian and Pentecostal communities and members of the Jewish and Baha’i communities to discuss their experiences as minority religious groups and religious tolerance in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 836,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). The most recent local census, conducted in 2015, estimates the total population at 1.2 million. According to the most recent government estimate, 88 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 5 percent Protestant. Many Christians reportedly practice some aspects of traditional indigenous religions as well. Two percent of the population is Muslim, mainly Sunni, according to the 2015 census. Most of the Muslim population consists of expatriates from West Africa. The remaining 5 percent adhere to animism, the Baha’i Faith, Judaism, and other beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation. The law states there is no national religion and individuals are free to change religions. By law, Christians converting to Islam are permitted to add Muslim names to their Christian names on their official documents.

Neither the Catholic Church nor the Protestant Reformed Church of Equatorial Guinea is required to register with the MJRAPI. The only religious group to receive state funding for operating educational institutions is the Catholic Church.

Some longstanding religious groups, such as Methodists, Muslims, and Baha’is, hold permanent authorizations and are not required to renew their registrations with the MJRAPI. Newer groups and denominations may be required to renew their registration annually. To register, religious groups at the congregational level must submit a written application to the MJRAPI director general of religious affairs. Groups seeking to register must supply detailed information about the leadership (e.g., curriculum vitae) and members of the group; construction plans for religious buildings; property ownership documents, accreditations, and religious mandate and a fee of 350,000 Central African francs (CFA francs) ($660). The director general of religious affairs adjudicates these applications and may order an inspection by the MJRAPI before processing. The government may fine or shut down unregistered groups. The law requires a permit for door-to-door proselytizing.

An MJRAPI decree specifies that any religious activities taking place outside the hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. or outside of registered places of worship require preauthorization from the ministry. The decree prohibits religious acts or preaching within private residences if those acts involve persons who do not live there. Foreign religious representatives or authorities must obtain advance permission from the MJRAPI to participate in religious activities. The decree exempts the Catholic Church.

The government recognizes official documents issued by authorized religious groups, such as birth certificates and marriage certificates.

The constitution states individuals are free to study religion in schools and may not be forced to study a faith other than their own. Catholic religious classes are part of the public school curriculum, but such study may be replaced by non-Catholic religious study or by a recess with a note from a leader of another religious group.

There are several Catholic schools. Protestant groups, including the Reformed Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Methodists, Baptists, and other Christians, operate primary and secondary schools. These schools must be registered with the government and fulfill standard curriculum requirements.

Most foreigners, including foreign evangelical Christian missionaries, are required to obtain residency permits to remain in the country. Catholic missionaries are exempt from the residency permit requirement.

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

Government Practices

On April 5, the government disbanded two religious groups for “noncompliance” with restrictions under a national emergency declared in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The government said the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God-Stop Suffering, run by Brazilian missionaries, and the locally based Ministry of Liberation, Health, and Prophecy demonstrated “civil disobedience and a lack of social responsibility and solidarity.” The decree disbanding the two groups prohibited the churches from holding events of any type, whether for worship or other reasons; annulled the residence permits for foreign pastors and other church leaders and ordered their deportation as soon as possible; and annulled the permits issued to the church leadership to operate in the country.

During the year, the government maintained the price of registration of religious groups at 350,000 CFA francs ($660), and religious groups could apply to reregister every two years instead of annually.

While the government continued routinely to grant permission for religious groups to hold activities outside of places of worship with the exception of private homes, it usually denied permits to hold activities outside of the prescribed hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., according to religious leaders. Authorities permitted all religious groups, including a small number of Baha’i and Jewish groups, to hold services as long as they finished before 9 p.m. and did not disturb the peace. Evangelical Christian groups stated they continued to hold activities outside the prescribed period with no repercussions.

Evangelical Christians continued to report that residency permits were prohibitively expensive at 400,000 CFA francs ($760) for a two-year period, leading some missionaries to risk the consequences of not obtaining or renewing such permits. Local police reportedly enforced the requirement with threats of deportation and requested a small bribe as an alternative. There were no deportations reported. While the residency permit fee for foreign missionaries was the same as for all other foreigners, if the missionary coordinated with the MJRAPI, a residency permit could be obtained for free, provided applicants could prove their missionary status and pass the requisite security checks. Catholic missionaries did not require residency permits to remain in country.

Catholic masses remained a normal part of all major ceremonial functions and were held, for example, on Independence Day (October 12) and the President’s Birthday holiday (June 5). Catholic leaders were the only religious leaders to regularly meet publicly with the highest-level government officials. Catholic and Reformed Church leaders were often seated in preferred locations at official functions. After part of the Cathedral of Santa Isabel of Malabo was damaged in a fire on January 16, the government organized the collection of public and private donations for its renovation.

Some non-Catholics who worked for the government continued to report that their supervisors strongly encouraged participation in religious activities related to their government positions, including attending Catholic masses. Government officials stated that it was expected that they attend major events such as the President’s Birthday Mass at nearby Catholic churches.

Unlike in previous years, the government did not allow the Muslim community to celebrate Eid al-Adha in Malabo Stadium due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The National Day of Prayer, celebrated by religious groups the first Sunday in April, was held online due to the pandemic. Parliament passed a law in 2017 making the National Day of Prayer an annual event.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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 Tewahedo 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 international media continued to report that 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 detention without explanation of individuals observing the unrecognized faiths. In December, the government released 28 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served prison sentences of between five and 26 years, in some cases for refusing compulsory military service. The government did not comment publicly or privately on the releases. In April, the government reportedly arrested 15 Christians engaged in a worship service at a private home, and in June, another 30 persons were arrested at a Christian wedding. 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. Authorities continued to confine former Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios to house arrest, where he has remained since 2006. International 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 24 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 at least 101 of these reportedly were released in August. During the year, the government also reportedly released 115 Christian detainees. 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 recognized and unrecognized religious groups were widely attended, including by senior government officials.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington regularly raised religious freedom concerns with government officials throughout the year, 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. A return visit by a U.S. delegation that visited Asmara in 2019 to continue dialogue on these issues was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara, 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 2, 2020, 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 6.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The UN estimates a population of approximately 3.5 million. Reliable population data in the country is difficult to gather, however. There are no reliable figures on religious affiliation. The Pew Foundation in 2016 estimated the population to be 63 percent Christian and 37 percent Muslim. Some government, religious, and international sources estimate the population to be 49 percent Christian and 49 percent Sunni 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 500 members, half of whom reside in the capital, Asmara. Only one Jew is known to remain in the country and on a part-time basis.

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, which serves as the guiding law on religious issues, 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 the former provisional penal code, which sets penalties for failure to register and noncompliance. A new penal code was promulgated in 2015 that 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-$1,300); however, the new code has not yet been implemented.

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 group’s history in the country; an explanation of the uniqueness or benefit the group offers compared with other registered 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). While the Baha’i are not one of the four officially recognized religions, they have registered every year since 1959, the year the chapter was established, and have “de facto” recognition from the government. A 2002 decree requires all other religious groups to submit registration applications and to cease religious activities and services prior to approval.

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 ages 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 from National Service, are elderly, or are otherwise exempted from military service in the past, to carry firearms and attend ad hoc militia training. Failure to participate in the militia or national service may 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.

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

In December, the government released 28 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served prison sentences of between five and 26 years, in some cases for refusing compulsory military service. The government did not comment publicly or privately on the releases.

In April, the government reportedly arrested 15 Christians engaged in a worship service at an individual’s home, and in June, another 30 persons were arrested at a Christian wedding. Local contacts reported some, but not all, were released within a few weeks of arrest. 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 at year’s end.

The International NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (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 the number of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 24 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 at least 101 of Muslim detainees arrested following protests in Asmara in 2017 and 2018 were released.

International media reported that authorities released from prison 22 Christians in July and at least 69 Christians in September. The released prisoners were not allowed to leave the country. According to CSW, those released in September had been in prison between two and 16 years without charge or trial prior to their release.

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

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

The government 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 detain Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons. Authorities’ treatment of religious prisoners appeared to have been inconsistent. In some prisons, religious prisoners reportedly were not allowed to have visitors, but in others, visitors were allowed. Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter. Other former religious prisoners reported acceptable conditions, adequate food, and no physical abuse.

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 international 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, although they reported that in many cases the government unofficially allowed them to worship in private homes as long as it was done discreetly.

The government, which has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002, stated that it is willing to register new religious groups. A representative of the Office of Religious Affairs said that the office had received applications since 2002 but that all had been “defective.” Unrecognized religious groups expressed fear that applying would open them to further repression.

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.

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 unrecognized religious communities could be denied exit visas solely on the basis of their religious affiliation. Commercial air service was suspended from March through year’s end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it impossible for most citizens to acquire exit visas.

The government continued to ban all other practices of Islam other than Sunni 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. Some religious prisoners reported they were allowed to worship together in prison as long as they did so quietly.

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 say that their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice. 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 formerly used by the Jewish and Greek Orthodox communities in Asmara have been preserved. The government protected the historic synagogue, which was maintained by the last Jew known to be remaining in the country. The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, and as there is no longer a Greek Orthodox community, members of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church sometimes held religious services on the site. Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as the Church of Christ, remained shuttered. The government allowed the Baha’i center in Asmara to remain open, and the members of the center had unrestricted access to the building. A Baha’i temple outside of Asmara was allowed to operate. Other unregistered groups, including Seventh-day Adventists and the Faith Mission Church, operated to some degree and contributed to the government’s COVID-19 fund. 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 a fear of imprisonment or other government actions, continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government actions 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 in a designated place of worship, according to group members.

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 the Sunni Islamic community, and some international NGOs said that authorities directly controlled the appointments. The government denied this, stating these decisions were made entirely by religious communities. The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), 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 executive director of the mufti office, Sheik Salim Ibrahim al-Muktar, who was seen by observers as friendly to the government, 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. Lay administrators appointed by the PFDJ managed some church operations, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service.

COVID-19-related travel restrictions, including the closure of the airport in March, prevented Eritreans from taking part in travel abroad for religious reasons and hosting 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 the importation of foreign “fundamentalist” or “extremist” tendencies.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government continued to grant some visas permitting Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from the Vatican or other foreign locations. However, the Catholic Church reported that in February, officials barred Ethiopian Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel and his delegation from entering the country after they arrived in Asmara at the invitation of Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam. According to the BBC, the officials stated they were following orders from those “higher up” not to permit the delegation to enter the country. The delegation was forced to spend the night at the airport and return to Ethiopia the next day. Delegation members said they had one-month visas and did not know the reason authorities turned them away.

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 Roman Catholic seminaries, 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, that 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, four ministers in the 17-member cabinet, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader were Muslims.

The government, through National Service, the Warsay Yikealo Secondary School at Sawa that all 12th graders attended, and official party doctrine promoted a sense of national citizenship above religious sectarianism and stated that it does not officially prefer any religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

While government control of all media and public discourse limited information available concerning societal actions affecting religious freedom, religious tolerance appeared to international observers to be widespread within society. Churches and mosques are located in close proximity to each other, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on the occasion of religious holidays and other events. There were no reports of sectarian violence, and most towns and ethnic groups included members from all of the major religious groups.

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 state dinners for several visiting foreign officials. Some shrines were venerated by both Orthodox and Muslim believers. Some Muslims expressed privately their feelings of stress and scrutiny in professional and educational settings because of their religion.

Eswatini

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to worship, alone or in community with others, and to change religion or belief. Although the law requires new religious groups to register, unregistered groups were able to operate freely. In April, the University of Eswatini published results of a study of the effects of the 2017 directive requiring public schools to teach only Christianity, and recommended the government review the curriculum. The policy of excluding the teaching of other religions remained in effect. The government reportedly provided favorable treatment to Christian beliefs and organizations in various circumstances, such as access to free radio and television time.

Muslim leaders continued to report negative and/or suspicious views of Islam in society. Faith groups and civil society organizations held interfaith dialogues, and different faith groups sometimes collaborated on community service or development initiatives, which Muslim leaders said helped increase societal respect and tolerance for Islam.

The Ambassador and other U.S. government officials engaged with government officials on issues such as the directive banning the teaching of non-Christian religions in public schools. They engaged with religious leaders on the importance of developing and maintaining interfaith dialogue in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Religious leaders estimate that 90 percent of the population is Christian, approximately 2 percent is Muslim (of whom many are not ethnic Swati, the dominant ethnic group in the country), and the remainder belongs to other religious groups, including those with indigenous African beliefs. According to anecdotal reports, approximately 40 percent of the population practices Zionism, a blend of Christianity and indigenous ancestral worship (some adherents of which self-identify as evangelical Christians), while another 20 percent is Roman Catholic. There are also Anglicans, Methodists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and very small Jewish and Baha’i communities. Zionism is widely practiced in rural areas.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to worship, alone or in community with others, and to change religion or belief. These rights may be limited by laws that are “reasonably required” in the interest of defense, public safety, order, morality, health, or protecting the rights of others. The constitution provides religious groups the right to establish and operate private schools and to provide religious instruction for their students without interference from the government.

The law requires religious groups to register with the government. The Ministry of Home Affairs is the government agency responsible for monitoring religious affairs in the country. To register as a religious group, Christian groups must apply through one of the country’s three umbrella religious bodies – the League of Churches, Swaziland Conference of Churches, or Council of Swaziland Churches – for a recommendation, which is routinely granted and does not impede registration, according to church leaders. The application process requires a group to provide its constitution, membership, and physical location, along with the umbrella body’s recommendation, to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Trade, which then registers the organization. For indigenous religious groups and non-Christian religious organizations, authorities consider proof of a religious leader, a congregation, and a place of worship as sufficient grounds to grant registration. Registered religious groups are exempt from taxation, but contributions are not tax deductible.

All prospective builders, including religious groups, must obtain government permission for the construction of new buildings in urban areas, and permission from the appropriate chief and chief’s advisory council for new buildings in rural areas. In some rural communities, chiefs have designated special committees to allocate land to religious groups for a minimal fee.

Christian religious instruction is mandatory in public primary schools and is incorporated into the daily morning assembly. Christian education is also compulsory in public secondary schools. There are no opt-out procedures. Religious education is neither prohibited nor mandated in private schools.

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

Government Practices

A 2017 directive declaring Christianity the only religion in the public school curriculum and banning the teaching of other religions remained in effect. In April, a group of University of Eswatini researchers completed a study on the effects of the 2017 directive and published a journal article recommending that the government review the curriculum to suit the needs of all learners and ensure that constitutional protections against religious discrimination are honored in practice. In September, Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly Phila Buthelezi, in his role as chair of the Public Accounts Committee, publicly asked whether it was time for the government to reconsider the 2017 directive and stated his intention to introduce a motion for reconsideration in the next session of the Assembly. As of year’s end, the government had not reacted to the study nor to Buthelezi’s call for reconsideration of the 2017 directive. According to religious leaders and civil society organizations, school administrations continued to permit only Christian religious youth clubs to operate in public schools. Christian clubs sometimes conducted daily prayer services in public schools and were permitted to raise funds on campus. Christian clubs’ activities were normally conducted during lunch breaks, weekends, and school holidays.

During the year, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Themba Masuku hosted an interfaith dialogue in which he called for religious leaders to collaborate among themselves and with the DPM’s office to help raise awareness of, and fight against, poverty, sexual exploitation, rape, truancy, domestic violence, and other crimes and social ills. Religious leaders reported that the DPM’s efforts were both welcome and helpful in encouraging coordination and cooperation on commonly held goals. A Muslim leader highlighted the DPM’s efforts to engage with various faith groups and said that religious tolerance appeared to have improved somewhat during the year as a result of more frequent and more inclusive dialogue.

Religious leaders said the government continued to protect the right of Muslim workers to close businesses in order to attend Friday afternoon prayers at mosques despite government-mandated business operating hours. Businesses owned by members of the Baha’i community were allowed to close shops in observance of Baha’i religious holidays. Public schools, however, did not excuse students from attendance on non-Christian religious holidays, Friday Islamic prayers, or Saturday services, such as for Seventh-day Adventists.

Non-Christian groups reported the government continued to provide some preferential benefits to Christians, such as free time on state television and radio. Government-owned television and radio stations broadcast daily morning and evening Christian programming. The government continued to provide each of the three Christian umbrella religious bodies and their affiliates with free airtime to broadcast daily religious services on the state-run radio station. Local newspapers provided free space in their announcement sections to Christian groups but not to non-Christian groups.

The monarchy, and by extension the government, aligned itself with Christian faith-based groups and supported Christian activities such as commemorating Christian holidays. Official government programs often opened with a Christian prayer, and several government ministers held Christian prayer vigils, which civil servants were expected to attend.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Muslim community continued to report negative, but improving, views of Islam in society. According to Muslim leaders, some members of society continued to conflate reports of violence committed by groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram with behavior associated with Muslims or Islam in general. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, with Muslims in the country being primarily of South Asian descent, it was difficult to categorize such perceptions as being solely based on religious identity.

The Baha’i community held quarterly interfaith devotional fellowship dialogues, and different faith groups sometimes collaborated on community service or development initiatives. Muslim leaders and civil society organizations also hosted pioneering interfaith dialogues during the year. Muslim leaders reported that they viewed these interfaith initiatives as key to increasing societal respect and tolerance for Islam, stating they believed the suspicion Muslims faced was due more to ignorance than intolerance. In light of COVID-related lockdowns, the Muslim community held virtual dialogues to promote religious, cultural, and social tolerance.

One civil society organization, the Swaziland Youth Intent Organization (SIYO), hosted an interfaith dialogue that received significant coverage in local newspapers and on national radio. SIYO also developed and held the first of a series of all-day “boot camps,” in which 40 participants from different religious groups attended simulated immersion trips to Muslim, Baha’i, and traditional Eswatini religious communities to experience firsthand their respective religions, cultures, and languages. According to the SIYO project coordinator, these simulated experiences helped to dismantle religious and cultural stereotypes, build social cohesion, and promote peace and tolerance among individuals and organizations representing diverse backgrounds.

Gambia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the freedom of religious choice, as long as doing so does not impinge on the rights of others or the national interest. It prohibits religious discrimination, establishment of a state religion, and formation of political parties based on religious affiliation. Two years of drafting a new constitution and a parliamentary debate described by media as polarized and acrimonious came to an end when the legislature in September rejected the new constitution. Although not the main issue of contention, the omission of the word “secular” in the draft generated debate during the ratification process. Some members of the Christian community had advocated the inclusion of the word “secular” in the description of the republic, stating that the omission of the specific reference to the secular nature of the state left open the possibility of minority persecution and the unilateral formation of an Islamic government, although other provisions of the draft constitution guaranteed religious freedom and nonestablishment of a state religion. Some Muslim commentators said the country “should remain a nonsecular state” in recognition not only of its 95-percent Muslim majority and interpretations of Quranic law, but also of the overwhelming importance of religious faith in the country to both Muslims and Christians. In televised statements during religious holidays, President Adama Barrow stressed the need for continued religious freedom and tolerance.

There continued to be tension between the majority Sunni Muslim and the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim communities. The Supreme Islamic Council (SIC), a religious body tasked with providing Islamic religious guidance, continued to state the Ahmadiyya community did not belong to Islam, and the council did not include members of the community in its events and activities.

While the global COVID-19 pandemic impacted the nature of U.S. embassy engagement, the Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with government officials to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy representatives held meetings with religious leaders of different faith groups to emphasize the importance of continued religious tolerance. The embassy shared messages on social media to celebrate religious holidays and the importance of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Approximately 95.7 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom are Sunni, with a small Ahmadi Muslim population. The Christian community makes up 4.2 percent of the population, the majority of whom are Roman Catholics. Religious groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Hindus, and Eckankar members. Some individuals mix indigenous beliefs with Islam and Christianity.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states, “Every person shall have the freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice” subject to laws that may impose such “reasonable restrictions” as necessary for national security, public order, decency, or morality. The constitution also states that such freedom “not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others or on the national interest, especially unity.” The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, the establishment of a state religion, and religiously based political parties. It provides for the establishment of qadi courts, with judges trained in the Islamic legal tradition. The courts are located in each of the country’s seven regions, and their jurisdiction applies only to marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance where all the involved parties are Muslims. Citizens may choose to use either the civil or qadi courts.

There are no formal guidelines for registration of religious groups. Religious groups that do not provide social services are not legally required to register. Faith-based groups that provide social services as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must meet the same eligibility criteria as other NGOs. By law, all NGOs are required to register with the NGO Affairs Agency and register as charities at the attorney general’s chambers under the Companies Act. They are required to have governing boards of directors of at least seven members responsible for policy and major administrative decisions, including internal control. This law also requires that all NGOs submit to the NGO Affairs Agency a detailed annual work program and budget, a detailed annual report highlighting progress on activities undertaken during the year, work plans for the following year, and financial statements audited by NGO Affairs Agency-approved auditors. The government has stated the submissions help the NGO Affairs Agency monitor NGO activities.

The law does not require public or private schools to include religious instruction in their curricula. The government, through the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, provides religious education teachers to public schools to teach an academic course on major world religions. The majority of public schools offer this course, and most students take the class. Some private schools also offer classes in religious education and tolerance and provide an overview of major world religions.

The constitution bans political parties organized on the basis of religion.

The Ministry of Lands and Regional Affairs continued to oversee the portfolio of religious affairs.

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

Government Practices

In September, the National Assembly rejected the draft of a proposed new constitution, for which consultation and drafting began in 2018. During debate over the draft, the Gambia Christian Council (GCC) and the SIC disagreed over the inclusion of the word “secular” in the draft constitution to describe the nature of the state. The 1997 constitution currently in effect does not include the phrase. The GCC said, however, that the language was needed, since former President Yahya Jammeh had declared the country an “Islamic Republic” in 2015 – a declaration that was rescinded by President Adama Barrow soon after he took office in 2017. President Barrow refrained from any public comment on the debate concerning the inclusion of the word “secular’ in the draft constitution. Sources stated that members of the National Assembly supportive of the President rejected the draft constitution for reasons unrelated to the “secular” issue, but rather because of limitations on executive power and retroactive presidential term limits.

The GCC stated that the draft constitution lacked three key guarantees and safeguards: the country’s secular identity as currently guaranteed in law by an act of parliament, protection against discrimination and persecution of minority groups, and the protection of the state against another unilateral declaration of an Islamic Republic. Christian commentators also said that the introduction of a sharia high court in the draft constitution to run parallel to the High Court would be discriminatory to both Christians and women. They also expressed concern that the draft expanded the authority of sharia courts and gave them jurisdiction over Christians in interfaith marriages and families, although the drafters disputed this interpretation.

The Muslim community, through the SIC, said the country should remain a nonsecular state, reflecting the country’s Islamic majority and the religious devotion of Gambians of all faiths, and said the nonsecular status since the inception of the country had provided “all the peaceful coexistence and liberty to embrace any conviction and right to join any religion without being subjected to any restraint or persecution.” According to media reports, the September rejection of the draft by the legislature for reasons not related to the “secular republic” issue left the next steps in the adoption of a new constitution uncertain.

Starting in March, authorities placed restrictions on gatherings for religious worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a local source, on April 17, government security forces arrested an imam and more than 30 worshippers in a mosque in Kerr Alhagie Keru village, North Bank Region. Those arrested were later charged and released on bail. Similar arrests took place in the West Coast Region villages of Gidda and Bwiam.

President Barrow read televised statements during major Islamic and Christian religious holidays in which he stressed his administration’s commitment to promoting religious tolerance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

SIC leaders continued to state that all religious organizations in the country were entitled to freedom of expression and assembly. The SIC continued to state that Ahmadi Muslims did not belong to Islam, and it therefore did not include Ahmadi members in SIC events. Ahmadi Muslims said they believed themselves free to practice their religion without interference but expressed frustration with the SIC’s refusal to integrate them into the broader Muslim community.

Intermarriage between Muslims and Christians continued to be common. However, due to cultural and gender norms, women were generally required to convert to their husband’s religion and raise all children in the husband’s religion. It was not uncommon for persons of different faiths to live in the same dwelling, and observers said religious differences were widely accepted among family members and neighbors, with each jointly celebrating the religious events and holidays of the other.

Grenada

Executive Summary

The constitution protects freedom of conscience, including freedom of thought and religion. The criminal code prohibits the publication and sale of blasphemous language; however, the code is not enforced. The government continued to review its religious affairs program to determine appropriate resource allocation and to design a work program for religious groups. Denominational and ecumenical Christian worship services and prayer continued to form part of official festivities on national holidays, religious holidays, and other public functions. Government officials consulted and collaborated with religious groups during the COVID-19 pandemic on emergency protocols to ensure every religious group had the opportunity to practice its beliefs and traditions.

The Conference of Churches Grenada (CCG), an ecumenical body, continued to promote unity and mutual understanding among members of the Christian community despite the restrictions on all gatherings, including religious services, during the global COVID-19 pandemic. The CCG held virtual meetings and continued to encourage discussions with other faith-based groups, including evangelical Protestant groups, as well as non-Christian denominations, including the Muslim community. In May, the CCG and the Alliance of Evangelical Churches held a virtual National Day of Prayer.

The U.S. embassy engaged the Prime Minister, Minister for Religious Affairs, and religious leaders, both in person and virtually, due to the government’s declared COVID-19 state of emergency and related restrictions. The Principal Officer held virtual meetings with the presidents of the CCG and the Alliance of Evangelical Churches to discuss religious freedom in the country and the challenges the organizations faced as a result of the pandemic. Embassy representatives also used social media to promote religious freedom, including freedom of conscience, belief, and thought.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 113,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the latest government estimate (2011 estimate), 49.2 percent of the population identifies as Protestant (includes Pentecostal 17.2 percent; Seventh-day Adventist 13.2 percent; Anglican 8.5 percent; Baptist 3.2 percent; Church of God 2.4 percent; evangelical Protestant 1.9 percent; Methodist 1.6 percent; and other 1.2 percent). Approximately 36 percent identifies as Roman Catholic; 1.2 percent as Jehovah’s Witnesses; 1.2 percent as Rastafarian; 5.5 percent as other; 5.7 percent as no religious affiliation; and 1.3 percent as unspecified. Smaller groups include Brethren, Baha’is, Hindus, Moravians, Muslims, Mennonites, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Salvation Army. There is a small Jewish community. All of these groups have fewer than 1,000 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution protects freedom of conscience, including freedom of thought and religion. It guarantees the right to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate it. The constitution prohibits forced participation in any religious ceremony or instruction. The criminal code prohibits the publication and sale of blasphemous language; however, the government does not enforce the law. The Office of Religious Affairs functions within the Ministry of Education.

To qualify for customs and tax exemptions, a religious group must obtain recognition from the government as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). The group must also register with the Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office (CAIPO) and with the Inland Revenue Office in the Ministry of Finance, and it must provide a letter of request to the ministry. The Attorney General grants final approval, and the ministry grants the applications for tax exemptions. Applications are routinely granted. Recognition as an NGO requires the group to submit details to CAIPO regarding the organization, including information about its directors, as well as a description of the group’s general activities and the location of these activities. According to the 2011 statistics, the most recent available, there are more than 18 religious groups registered in the country.

By law, the government allows religious head coverings of certain types, including the hijab and the Rastafarian head wrap, in photographs for national identity documents, provided the face is clearly visible.

The government subsidizes all denominational schools managed by a board of directors and staffed by the associated faith-based organization, including those of the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, and Mennonite communities. There are no non-Christian denominational schools. Students at such schools may attend religion classes and may use credits from those classes towards completion of the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate. Students from religions other than the one associated with a school may also attend these schools and are not obligated to attend religion classes.

As part of the visa process, foreign missionaries must apply to the Ministry of Labor for a work permit costing 500 East Caribbean dollars ($190) along with an application fee of 100 Eastern Caribbean Dollars ($37); the permit must be renewed annually. To be approved, foreign missionaries must demonstrate prior experience, and a registered religious group must sponsor them.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to review its religious affairs program to determine appropriate resource allocation and to design an annual work program through year’s end. With the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, however, the government placed these programs on hold and redirected funding to priority areas such as health. Government officials actively consulted and collaborated with religious groups during the pandemic on emergency protocols to ensure every religious group had the opportunity to practice its beliefs and traditions. The Religious Affairs Unit stated statistical data on the number of religious groups was an area of focus that it expected to address in the coming year.

As in previous years, the government’s official declarations, speeches, and activities attended by the Governor General, Prime Minister, and other government officials often included religious references. Denominational and ecumenical Christian worship services were part of official festivities on national holidays such as Independence and Thanksgiving Day. In May, Minister for Religious Affairs Emmalin Pierre commended religious groups for “providing hope in these very difficult times,” and she encouraged them to make use of technology to reach their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On October 25, Minister for Religious Affairs Pierre and other cabinet ministers gave remarks at an ecumenical church service organized by the National Celebrations Committee in collaboration with the CCG to commemorate the country’s Thanksgiving Day, marking the 1983 U.S. military intervention. The public service featured prayers, scripture readings, and sermons from various Christian denominations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The CCG, an ecumenical Christian body that includes Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian members, continued to serve as a forum to promote mutual understanding, unity, and tolerance among religious organizations. The organization held virtual meetings at least once a month during the pandemic lockdown and continued to engage and encourage discussions with different faith-based Christian and non-Christian organizations. Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown from March to July, the CCG met with Christian and non-Christian organizations, including the Muslim community and government representatives, to chart a way forward during the pandemic.

In September, Christian and non-Christian religious groups partnered to conduct an outreach activity with hospital and frontline medical workers. The Alliance of Evangelical Churches and the CCG held a National Day of Prayer in May, which was broadcast live. The Alliance of Evangelical Churches also engaged the Rastafarian community regarding national discussions surrounding the legalization of marijuana.

Guinea

Executive Summary

The constitution states the state is secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for the right of individuals to choose and profess their religion. The Secretariat General of Religious Affairs (SRA) continued to issue weekly themes for inclusion in Friday sermons at mosques and Sunday sermons in churches. Although the SRA did not control sermons at every mosque and church, its inspectors were present in every region and were responsible for ensuring that mosque and church sermons were consistent with SRA directives. On July 11, SRA authorities in Kankan, Upper Guinea summoned Imam Nanfo Ismael Diaby for continuing to lead prayers in a local language. Diaby and 10 of his followers were handed over to the police by SRA authorities. After the governor of Kankan intervened, Diaby was released on July 13 with no formal charges filed. The same day unidentified youths reportedly vandalized his mosque and home. The government closed all places of worship on March 26 in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, and during the month of Ramadan, media reported instances of mosques in Kamsar and Dubreka refusing to obey the government order by remaining open for prayers. The government announced on September 3 the full reopening of places of worship after religious leaders publicly called for a lifting of restrictions.

In mid-March, at least 30 individuals died and nearly 70 were injured in Nzerekore in the southeast of the country during several days of violence following a constitutional referendum. According to media and nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, largely Muslim government supporters and mostly Christian and Animist opposition groups clashed, with more than 80 buildings, including churches and mosques, damaged or destroyed. Archbishop of Conakry Vincent Coulibaly on September 20 issued a statement denouncing the attempted seizure by local villagers of land belonging to Catholic institutions near Coyah. The case remained pending at year’s end.

On multiple occasions, the U.S. Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials met with the Secretary General of Religious Affairs and other religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance, reconciliation, and social cohesion among religious groups. The Charge met with the Grand Imam to discuss the importance of interfaith dialogue, particularly in the aftermath of the October 18 presidential election. The embassy used social media to share messages and stories of religious tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 12.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the SRA, approximately 85 percent of the population is Muslim, 8 percent Christian, and 7 percent adheres to indigenous religious beliefs. Much of the Muslim and Christian population incorporates indigenous rituals into their religious practices. Muslims are generally Maliki Sunni; Sufism is also present. Christian groups include Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and several evangelical groups. There is also a small Baha’i community, in addition to small numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and adherents of traditional Chinese religious beliefs among foreign residents.

Muslims constitute a majority in all four regions of the country. Christians are concentrated in large cities, including Conakry, the south, and the eastern Forest Region. Adherents of indigenous religious beliefs are most prevalent in the Forest Region.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the state is secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for the right of individuals to choose and profess their religious faith. It recognizes the right of religious institutions and groups to establish and manage themselves freely. It bars political parties that identify with a particular religious group. These rights are subject only to “those limits that are indispensable to maintain the public order and democracy.”

By law, the SRA must approve all religious groups. Groups must provide a written constitution and application to the SRA along with their address and a fee of 250,000 Guinean francs ($25). The SRA then sends the documents to the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization for final approval and signature. Once approved, the group becomes officially recognized. Every six months, each registered religious group must present a report of its activities to the government. Registering with the government entitles religious groups to an exemption from the value-added tax (VAT) on incoming shipments and makes them eligible for select energy subsidies.

Unregistered religious groups are not entitled to VAT exemptions and other benefits. By law, the government may shut down unregistered groups and expel their leaders. There is limited opportunity for legal appeal of these penalties.

Religious groups may not own radio or television stations.

The compulsory primary school curriculum does not include religious studies. Many parents send their children to Quranic schools (madrassahs), either in addition to primary school or as their primary form of education.

The imams and administrative staff of the principal mosque in Conakry and the principal mosques in the main cities of the four regions are government employees. These mosques are directly under the administration of the government. Other mosques and some Christian groups receive government subsidies for pilgrimages.

The Secretary General of Religious Affairs (SRA) appoints national directors to lead the Offices of Christian Affairs, Islamic Affairs, Pilgrimages, Places of Worship, Economic Affairs and the Endowment, and Inspector General. The SRA is charged with promoting good relations among religious groups and coordinates with other members of the informal Interreligious Council, which is composed of Muslims and members from Catholic, Anglican, and other Protestant churches, as well as the SRA.

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

Government Practices

The SRA continued to issue guidance outlining themes for discussion during Friday sermons at mosques and Sunday sermons in churches. The stated purpose of the weekly guidance was to harmonize religious views in order to prevent radical or political messages in sermons. Although the SRA did not monitor sermons at every mosque and church, its inspectors were present in every region and were responsible for ensuring that mosque and church sermons were consistent with SRA directives. Clerics whom the SRA judged to be noncompliant were subject to disciplinary action. Deviations from approved guidance were often reported in various sermons at mosques and other Islamic events, but the SRA said it had difficulty imposing disciplinary sanctions.

As part of its measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, the government closed all places of worship on March 26. During the month of Ramadan, according to local media reports, there were instances of mosques in Kamsar and Dubreka refusing to obey the government order and remaining open for prayers. In June, the government authorized reopening places of worship in regions with low COVID-19 case counts. The government announced on September 3 the full reopening of places of worship after religious leaders publicly called for a lifting of restrictions. Since the SRA holds a cabinet level position, sources stated that religious associations were able to effectively lobby the SRA, and in turn the government, that places of worship should reopen on the grounds that the government had previously approved numerous political rallies without proper health measures while keeping places of worship closed.

Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Baha’i community have not requested official recognition. Some groups stated they preferred not to have a formal relationship with the SRA since a lack of recognition granted them more freedom, as they preferred not to be subject to state regulations in the same way as an officially recognized community.

Islamic schools were prevalent throughout the country and remained the traditional forum for religious education. Some Islamic schools were wholly private, while others received local government support. Islamic schools, particularly common in the Fouta Djallon region, taught the compulsory government curriculum along with additional Quranic studies. Private Christian schools in Conakry and other large cities accepted students of all religious groups. They taught the compulsory curriculum but did not receive government support, and they held voluntary Christian prayers before school.

The government allocated free broadcast time on state-owned national television for Islamic and Christian programming, including Islamic religious instruction, Friday prayers from the central mosque, and church services. The government permitted religious broadcasting on privately owned commercial radio, and encouraged equal time for Christian and Muslim groups.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In mid-March, at least 30 individuals died and nearly 70 were injured in Nzerekore in the southeast of the country during several days of violence following a constitutional referendum. According to media and NGO reports, largely Muslim government supporters and mostly Christian and Animist opposition groups clashed, with more than 80 buildings, including churches and mosques, damaged or destroyed. NGOs reported government security forces did not intervene to stop the violence and that some security forces committed abuses.

On September 20, Archbishop of Conakry Coulibaly issued a statement denouncing an attempt to forcibly “seize” property owned by Catholic institutions by residents of the village of Kendoumayah, located in Coyah Prefecture, while the case was pending in court. On September 20, Muslim Susu villagers, who said they were part of the Lower Guinea “Labesangni” nativist movement, barricaded the entry and exit of Kendoumayah, ostensibly to divide up the disputed land among themselves. Saint-Jean community members said that they were also threatened with physical assault. According to the archbishop, the dispute dated to 2014, when a local woman approached the community stating that she owned the land the community occupied. At year’s end, the dispute was before the Conakry Court of Appeals after the lower court in Coyah ruled in favor of the villagers. The archdiocese argued the lower court’s ruling was invalid because it was the state that had granted the land to the Church and no state representative was present during the ruling.

In parts of the country, including the middle and upper regions, particularly strong familial, communal, cultural, social, or economic pressure discouraged conversion from Islam, according to observers.

Many Muslim students not enrolled in private Islamic schools received religious education at madrassahs, some of which were associated with mosques and others supported by local communities. Unlike Islamic schools, the madrassahs did not teach the compulsory primary school curriculum. The government did not recognize the madrassahs nor require them to register; it allowed them to operate freely. They focused on Quranic studies, and instruction was in Arabic rather than French. Funds from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states supported some madrassahs. Most students in madrassahs also attended public or private schools that taught the compulsory curriculum.

Guinea-Bissau

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state and the responsibility of the state to respect and protect legally recognized religious groups. In September, during a press conference, Attorney General Fernando Gomes expressed concern regarding what he said was an increase of verbal attacks in media from citizens encouraging hatred and ethnic and religious divisions. He exhorted citizens and media to respect a diversity of opinions and repudiate any form of inappropriate language. Various groups criticized the government’s August 27 announcement that it would introduce the teaching of the Arabic language in schools, stating that it favored Islam over other religions and would “reinforce the country’s Islamization.” In September, President Umaro Sissoco quashed the proposal, stating, “We are a secular country. In our society, in our system, Arabic is not part of our teaching. Here it is Portuguese, French, and English.”

Some Muslims reported continuing concerns regarding what they termed “stricter” Islamic practices taught by foreign imams to the local Muslim population.

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. The United States directs its engagement in the country from the U.S. embassy in Dakar, Senegal. In January, the Ambassador held a meeting with the Bishop of Bissau to promote peace and democracy for the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Estimates of the religious composition of the population vary widely, but according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, approximately 45 percent is Muslim, 31 percent follows indigenous religious practices, and 22 percent is Christian. The remaining 2 percent are small communities of Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews, many of whom are foreign citizens.

The Fula (Peuhl or Fulani) and Mandinka (Malinke) ethnic groups are the most numerous followers of Islam. Muslims generally live in the north and northeast, and most Muslims are Sunni; Shia communities exist as well. Adherents of indigenous religious beliefs generally live in all but the northern parts of the country. The Christian population, including Roman Catholics and Protestants, is primarily from the Pepel, Manjaco, and Balanta ethnic groups and is concentrated in Bissau and along the coast. Catholics represent more than half of the Christian population, while Brazilian Protestant and other Protestant denominations maintain a significant number of congregations and missions throughout the country. Large numbers of Muslims and Christians hold indigenous beliefs as well.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state shall be separate from religious institutions and shall respect and protect legally recognized religious groups, whose activities shall be subject to the law. It holds freedom of conscience and religion as inviolable, even if the state declares a state of siege, and provides for freedom of worship as long as it does not violate the fundamental principles cited in the constitution. It establishes that all citizens are equal under the law, with the same rights and obligations, irrespective of their religion. Political parties and labor unions are barred from affiliating with a particular religious group. The constitution recognizes the freedom of religious groups to teach their faith.

The government requires religious groups to obtain licenses. The formal process, which is not often followed, entails providing the name, location, type, and size of the organization to the Ministry of Justice. Under the law, religious groups are recognized as associations and benefit from tax exemptions.

In accordance with the constitution, there is no religious instruction in public schools. The Ministry of Education regulates and enforces the decree against religious teaching in public schools. There are some private schools operated by religious groups.

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

Government Practices

In September, during a press conference, Attorney General Fernando Gomes expressed concern regarding how the right to freedom of expression was exercised in the country. He said that through mass media, including radio and internet, there was what he termed an “increasing wave of verbal attacks and insults by some citizens, often using abusive words that encourage hatred, ethnic, and religious divisions.” He exhorted citizens and the media to respect a diversity of opinions and to strengthen Guinean democracy by repudiating any form of inappropriate language.

On August 27, the government announced it would introduce the teaching of the Arabic language in schools. Minister of Education Arceni Balde stated that one of the objectives of the measure was to “place Muslim students at the same level as students from other religious denominations,” a stance that was heavily criticized by opponents of the decision. The president of the civil society group Movement of Conscious and Nonconformed Citizens said the Minister’s words were a sign of discrimination and further stated it was necessary “to condemn and denounce the appropriation of state institutions to foment tribalism and religious discrimination.” According to media reporting, various sectors of society regarded the initiative as an attempt to “reinforce the country’s Islamization.”

In September, President Sissoco said the proposal to introduce the teaching of Arabic in the country’s school system would not be implemented. He stated, “We are a secular country. In our society, in our system, Arabic is not part of our teaching. Here it is Portuguese, French, and English.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Muslims reported continuing concerns about what they termed “stricter” Islamic practices taught by foreign imams to the local Muslim population. Media reported imams’ concerns regarding the increase in Salafist Quranic schools, new mosques with “unvetted” imams, online recruitment of youth to religious radicalism, and the threat these developments posed to the country’s tradition of religious tolerance.

Guyana

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, including the right to choose and change one’s religion. The government recognized the first church for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community – The Open and Affirming Church. Representatives of the Rastafarian community continued to state a law criminalizing the possession of 15 grams or more of marijuana infringed on their religious practices. In December, the cabinet approved a decision to amend the law to remove custodial sentencing for small amounts of marijuana. According to interfaith leaders, the government continued to promote religious tolerance and diversity, including through public messaging on religious holidays. The government did not hold interfaith activities because of COVID-19 precautions and restrictions and what local and international press described as a volatile five-month period from the March 2 national election until a winner was declared on August 2.

On March 1, the interfaith Universal Peace Federation – Guyana hosted a ceremony to encourage all persons to promote peace and refrain from violence during the national election. The Inter-Religious Organization of Guyana (IRO), whose members include representatives of the Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Rastafarian, and Baha’i faiths, continued to conduct interfaith efforts, and its constituent religious groups made oral pledges to promote social cohesion and respect religious diversity.

In October and December, the Ambassador spoke with the Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports regarding the importance of keeping the country’ s multireligious and multiethnic society strong despite tensions occurring during the five-month electoral impasse. The two also spoke about engaging all religious groups in public observances of national religious holidays to further strengthen the country’s existing commitments to religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance. U.S. embassy officials promoted social cohesion and religious tolerance, meeting with representatives of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Rastafarian groups and discussing issues related to religious tolerance. Embassy officials amplified these messages through discussions about religious tolerance on social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 750,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2012 census, 64 percent of the population is Christian, 25 percent Hindu, and 7 percent Muslim (mainly Sunni). Less than 1 percent belongs to other religious groups, which include Rastafarians, Baha’is, Afro-descendent Faithists, and Areruya, an indigenous faith system. An estimated 3 percent of the population does not profess a religious affiliation. Among Christians, Pentecostals comprise 23 percent of the population; Roman Catholics, 7 percent; Anglicans, 5 percent; Seventh-day Adventists, 5 percent; Methodists, 1 percent; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, less than 1 percent, and other Christians, 21 percent, which includes those belonging to the Assembly of God Church, Church of Christ, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, among others.

The membership of most religious groups includes a cross section of ethnic groups, although nearly all Hindus are of South Asian descent, and most Rastafarians are of African descent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, including the right to choose and change one’s religion. An unenforced law prescribes a prison term of one year for a blasphemous libel conviction; however, the law exempts religious expression made in “good faith and decent language.”

There is no official system for formal registration of a religious group, but to receive government recognition, all places of worship must register through the Deeds Registry. The Deeds Registry requires an organization to submit a proposed name and address for the place of worship, as well as the names of executive group members or congregation leaders. Once formally recognized, a place of worship falls under legislation governing nonprofit organizations, allowing the organization to conduct financial operations, buy property, and receive tax benefits in its name.

Foreign religious workers require a visa from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Religious groups seeking to enter an indigenous village for the purpose of proselytizing must apply for and obtain permission from the village council. Application to a village council must include the name of the group, the names of its members who will be going to the village, their purpose, and estimated date of arrival.

There is no religious education in public schools, regardless of whether the school is religiously affiliated. Most public schools’ religious affiliations are Anglican or Methodist. There are both public and private religiously affiliated schools. Private schools are operated entirely by private groups and are not funded by the state. All students attending private religious schools must participate in religious education, regardless of a student’s religious beliefs.

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

Government Practices

According to media reports, in January, the government recognized the Open and Affirming Church, associated with the United Anglo-Catholic Church in the United States and established by an LGBT group in October 2019. The Church stated it provided an inclusive environment for LGBT persons, whom it said encountered homophobic attitudes at other places of worship.

Representatives of the Rastafarian community continued to state a law criminalizing the possession of 15 grams or more of marijuana infringed on their religious practices. The Guyana Rastafari Council continued to petition the government to legalize the use of small amounts of marijuana for religious purposes. In September, at an interfaith roundtable, a representative of the council said the group would be advocating with the newly installed government to decriminalize marijuana possession for religious purposes. The council also asked for international support to lobby the government. In December, the cabinet approved a decision to amend the law to remove custodial sentencing for small amounts of marijuana. It also said it was deliberating on the quantity that would not mandate custodial sentencing.

The government continued to maintain regulations limiting the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the President’s discretion; however, the government and religious groups whose membership included foreign missionaries continued to state the government did not apply the visa limitation rule. Religious groups also said the visa quotas the government allotted to them were sufficient and did not adversely affect their activities.

The government continued to promote interfaith harmony and respect for diversity through its public messaging. It did not hold interfaith activities because of COVID-19 precautions and restrictions, and what local and international press described as a volatile five-month period from the March 2 national election until a winner was declared on August 2. In March, then-President David Granger encouraged “togetherness regardless of religion” on the occasion of the Hindu festival of Holi, known locally as Phagwah.

In December, Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports Charles Ramson said he was focused on ensuring public observances of national holidays were religiously diverse, and having members of different religious groups participate actively in national celebrations. He also said he was committed to holding a dialogue with all religious organizations to better understand their needs and concerns.

Government representatives continued to meet with leaders of various religious groups to promote social cohesion and discuss tolerance of diversity, including Muslim, Hindu, and Christian groups. Government officials also participated regularly in the observance of Christian, Hindu, and Islamic religious holidays throughout the year. The government continued to declare some holy days of the country’s three major religious groups, including Eid al-Adha, Holi, Easter, and Diwali, as national holidays.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The IRO, whose membership includes approximately 40 religious bodies and organizations, continued to lead interfaith efforts, and its constituent religious groups made oral pledges to promote social cohesion and respect religious diversity. On March 1, the Universal Peace Federation – Guyana, whose membership includes representatives from Christian, Hindu, and Islamic groups, hosted an interfaith ceremony to encourage all persons to promote peace and refrain from violence during the March 2 national election. Several IRO member groups also participated in the march. Christian, Muslim, and Hindu groups expressed similar sentiments during Holi celebrations in March.

In September, during a roundtable discussion, IRO participants, including representatives of Baha’i, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Rastafarian groups, stated their religious groups did not discriminate against members of the LGBT community but did not condone the open practice of their lifestyle. Some members of IRO said they declined to openly partner with the Open and Affirming Church, which is specifically identified with LGBT persons.

Haiti

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions. Any religious group seeking official recognition must receive government approval by law, a multistep process requiring documentary support. The Bureau of Worship, a unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), continued to provide some preferential treatment to the Roman Catholic Church, including a monthly stipend to Catholic priests. Vodou and Muslim representatives said their religious groups still struggled to gain support for registration and financial assistance for their educational institutions. Islamic groups said they continued to wait for official government recognition. From March to July, the government suspended all public gatherings of more than five persons, including religious services, to limit the spread of COVID-19. In March, police arrested 32 individuals of various religious affiliations throughout the country for violating the restrictions. In late July, religious leaders said some of the government’s COVID-19 measures were unfair because businesses and government agencies were permitted to reopen, while houses of worship were not. Vodou and Islamic organizations said their exclusion as official COVID-19 relief implementing partners was discriminatory. In July, Christian groups objected to the government’s new penal code, which enters into force within two years, because it included significant protections for LGBTI persons, the decriminalization of abortions, and the lowering of the age of sexual consent from 16 to 15.

In August, Hope Ministry reported what it considered the targeted killing of a Presbyterian pastor by unidentified individuals who shot the pastor and no other persons riding in a vehicle with the pastor. During the year, priests and pastors were among the hundreds of victims of gang-related kidnappings for ransom. In July, a Catholic Church representative said the country’s general insecurity hindered the movement and flow of resources to support social initiatives. According to media, the Evangelical Baptist Union Mission of Haiti (UEBH) had to relocate church activities and ministries from Boulos, near Port au Prince, due to gang activity in the area. Various religious organizations, including the Haitian Pastors Conference, publicly condemned the country’s continuing political and social instability. According to Vodou leaders, there were no killings of Vodou priests during the year, compared with one killing in 2019. As in previous years, Vodou leaders said non-Vodou followers often mischaracterized their religion as sinister. In September, Landy Mathurin, President of the Haitian Muslims National Council, said the population generally respected Muslims, including their right to wear the hijab.

In January, a Department of State official visited the country to discuss the importance of religious freedom and tolerance, particularly addressing registration issues. During the visit, he and U.S. embassy officials met with senior MFA officials and discussed fair and equal treatment for all religious groups. Throughout the year, embassy representatives regularly met with MFA officials and religious representatives, including through virtual meetings, to discuss religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.1 million (July 2020 estimate). According to the government’s 2017 Survey on Mortality, Morbidity, and Use of Services, the most recent study available, Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists represent approximately 50 percent of the population, while Catholics constitute 35 percent; 12.5 percent of the population claimed no religion. There are also small numbers of followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other faiths, including Judaism, Islam, Rastafarianism, and Church of Scientology have small numbers of adherents. According to the same report, the Vodou faith is followed by approximately 3 percent of the population, although most observers state that is underestimated because many individuals practice Vodou secretly. According to the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou (KNVA) representatives, more than half of the population practices Vodou.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions. Under the law, the MFA is responsible for registering religious organizations, clergy, and missionaries of all denominations.

Religious institutions must register with the Bureau of Worship to receive government benefits, but there is no penalty for nonregistration. Even though registration would grant them standing in legal disputes and tax-exempt status, many religious groups do not comply. The Ministry of Justice authorizes registered religious leaders to issue official civil documents, such as marriage and baptismal certificates. To obtain government recognition, a religious group must provide information on its leaders’ qualifications, a membership directory, and a list of the group’s social projects. Registered religious groups must submit annual updates to the MFA.

To obtain a government-issued license, the prospective leader of a religious group must submit documents to the MFA, such as a religious studies diploma and a police certificate. Once the MFA confirms the applicant’s eligibility for a license, a Ministry of Justice official authorizes the applicant to perform civil ceremonies, such as marriages and baptisms.

A concordat between the Holy See and the government provides the Vatican authority to approve a specific number of bishops in the country with government consent. Under the accord, through the MFA’s Bureau of Worship, the government provides a monthly stipend to Catholic priests. Catholic and Episcopalian bishops and the Protestant Federation’s head have official license plates and carry diplomatic passports.

A 2003 government directive establishes Vodou as an official religion and accords the right to the Vodou community to issue official documents.

Foreign missionaries operating in the country are subject to the same legal and administrative requirements as their domestic counterparts.

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

Government Practices

The three Muslim communities in the country – Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadiyya – individually continued to seek official recognition. According to the National Council for Haitian Muslims President, Landy Mathurin, MFA officials did not act on the Sunni and Shia community requests for registration pending since 2018. The MFA Religious Affairs director said only the Ahmadiyya followed official registration procedures, adding their application was still under review. To reach other Muslim groups, the MFA director said he would conduct registration drives outside Port au Prince instead of requiring applicants to come to the bureau’s headquarters to complete the registration. No registration drives, however, occurred during the year.

The government continued to recognize only wedding ceremonies and baptisms conducted by government-certified officials. According to the MFA, there were 9,195 certified Protestant pastors, 704 certified Catholic priests, and two certified Vodou clergy at year’s end. By year’s end, the government still did not certify any Muslim clergy. Some Protestant leaders continued to call for more government regulation of unregistered churches and pastors.

According to media reports, starting in September, the government required all religious organizations to request a formal customs exemption when importing goods. According to local media, the decision was made to prevent widespread misuse of the government’s customs exemption program.

During the 2020-21 school year, the Ministry of Education (MOE) disbursed 100 million gourdes ($1.4 million) to religious schools: 50 million ($698,000) to Catholic schools, 40 million to Protestant schools ($559,000), and 10 million ($140,000) to Anglican schools. On October 14, the MOE signed a three-year agreement with the Catholic Church, providing annual financial assistance for Catholic schools, especially in vulnerable areas identified by the government and civil society leaders.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government suspended all gatherings of more than five persons, including religious services, from March to July. According to news reports, police took 30 individuals into custody on March 22, including four Protestant pastors, for holding religious services in violation of government orders. The same day, police detained two individuals in Gressier, near Port au Prince, at a Vodou ceremony. In both instances, authorities released the individuals and did not formally charge them. In May, Minister for Foreign and Religious Affairs Claude Joseph urged religious leaders in the southern part of the country to convince followers to wear face masks and practice social distancing. After initial compliance, Christian groups, primarily Protestant, objected to the COVID-19 measures, stating that several factories and government agencies were allowed to reopen.

Vodou and Muslim groups said government officials excluded them as implementing partners for COVID-19 relief and other donor-financed projects. KNVA said the government dismissed local Vodou herbal remedies as COVID-19 preventive measures but explored cooperation with Madagascar’s government to use an alleged herbal remedy, which Vodou practitioners said was a slight.

The Office of Citizen Protection (OPC) continued to advocate for students’ religious freedom. As a result, the MOE rescheduled exams on weekdays instead of Saturdays, allowing full participation by Seventh-day Adventist students, according to the Church.

Some Muslim leaders said the government gave preference to Christian groups in its funding of development projects.

On September 22, the government, continuing past practices, installed religious representatives from the Vodou and Protestant communities on the Provisional Electoral Council, the country’s elections administrative body. Unlike in previous years, a Catholic representative did not participate.

Although many religious leaders reported the government promoted tolerance and societal respect for religious freedom, non-Catholic religious leaders called for an end of government preference for the Catholic Church.

In July, the government adopted a new penal code that included significant protections for LGBTI persons, the decriminalization of abortion, and the lowering of the age of sexual consent from 16 to 15; the code was scheduled to enter into force after a two-year transition period. Christian group leaders, primarily from Protestant organizations, said the measures countered their beliefs and would require all clergy to perform same-sex marriages. According to the government, the new criminal code did not change the civil code that codified marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In July, the Haitian Protestant Federation and other Christian groups throughout the country launched petitions and peacefully marched, asking the government to repeal penal code articles related to LGBTI protections and the age of sexual consent. According to media, on July 26, approximately 6,000 citizens, predominately Christian, participated in a peaceful march in Port au Prince against the new penal code. According to the Haitian Protestant Federation, the government did not consult religious groups before establishing the new penal code. In July, the Catholic Church released a statement against the measures. Representatives of the LGBTI community said they were concerned Christian groups would convince the government to reverse the new protections.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the year, priests and pastors were among the hundreds of victims of gang-related violence, including at least one targeted killing and kidnappings for ransom. According to Reformation Hope, in August, a Presbyterian pastor was likely the victim of a targeted killing, the only passenger in the vehicle whom unidentified individuals shot. According to reports, the pastor had received multiple death threats over several years. In July, a Catholic Church representative said the country’s general insecurity hindered the movement and flow of resources to support social initiatives.

From July through December, there were reports of armed gangs occupying Maranatha High School, which is a part of the Mission Evangelical Baptist Union of Haiti’s (UEBH) complex in Boulos, near Port au Prince. In November, Pastor Jacques Louis said the UEBH was forced to relocate church activities and ministries from Boulos due to violent gang activity in the area. A different Protestant leader said gangs continued to occupy Maranatha High School through the end of the year. During the year, various religious organizations, including Religions for Peace (RFP) and the Haitian Pastors Conference, publicly condemned the country’s continuing political and social instability.

According to Vodou leaders, there were no killings of Vodou priests during the year, compared with one killing in 2019. Vodou clergy continued to state some practitioners experienced social stigmatization for their beliefs, saying some Christian pastors continued to consider the religion a sinister force. In June, KNVA representatives labeled the results of a 2017 survey on religious adherence, entitled Mortality, Morbidity, and Use of Services, as unreliable, stating more than 50 percent of the population practiced Vodou rather than the 3 percent estimated in the survey. The KNVA said Vodou followers often hid their adherence to the religion because it was falsely associated with evil. In June, KNVA President Carl Desmornes said misrepresentative Western media and false Christian teachings stigmatized the religion, causing followers to hide their adherence to it.

National Council for Haitian Muslims President Mathurin said Muslims were generally well respected in the country. In September, he said Muslim women were comfortable with wearing the hijab.

In an April 8 press conference, Vodou Priest Augustin St-Clou urged Vodou leaders to suspend traditional festivities coinciding with Easter to avoid the mass spread of COVID-19. In April, however, the celebration of some springtime Vodou traditions continued, including a Vodou rally in St. Louis du Nord showing practitioners packed tightly together that was recorded in a viral social media video.

In September, Pierre Caporal, President of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said many Adventists struggled to secure employment in both the private and public sectors because their religion forbids working on Saturdays. He said that while the OPC supported the Church in successfully challenging the weekend university admission exam schedule, lax enforcement continued.

RFP, whose members include representatives from the Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Churches and the Vodou community, continued to meet, primarily focusing on COVID-19 relief efforts and promoting respect for religious diversity.

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 or Islam”). 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.” According to the online news service Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court, for the third time, upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni Muslim prisoners who were charged with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.” On October 4, according to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish nongovernment organization (NGO), security forces arrested a prominent Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in his home in the city of Piranshahr. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. On October 8, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, stating, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities in the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’is across the country in “simultaneous operations.” On May 28, Radio Farda reported that police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri (an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals) and separatist groups.” The opposition website Iran Focus stated human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several religious Sunni teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan (which began in late April). NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them were placed there during the year. In July, a court sentenced seven of eight Christian converts who were arrested in Bushehr in 2019 for spreading “propaganda against the regime.” After sentencing a married couple among the group, the court ruled that, as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their adopted daughter, who has heart and other health conditions, whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In May, the parliament passed amendments to the Islamic Penal Code, including language that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. On November 9, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her prison sentence for protesting the compulsory hijab. On November 1, Iran International and the international human rights news agency HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. In January, NGOs and press reported that the application form for the state-issued national identity card, required for almost all government and other transactions, would only allow citizens to register as one of the country’s recognized religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism; previously application forms for the identity card had an option for “other religions.” According to a December 4 report by the news website IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to provincial judiciary heads establishing a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, including women lawyers not wearing the mandatory hijab at work or on social media or doubts about a lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader.

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. According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University in Qom had infected the country with the COVID-19 virus. According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. In June, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, a Netherlands-based NGO focusing on research on Iran, conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that found dramatic changes in Iranian society’s religiosity, especially an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran. 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. On September 24, the United States sanctioned several officials and entities for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking only to practice their religion, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad prisons. The statement read, in part, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.”

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 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 85.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 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, Yarsanis, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians. 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 greater than 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and the Center for Human Rights in Iran (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 lower than the peak of 300,000 estimated 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 government media, includes 14,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are nonreligious 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 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 may be considered apostasy under sharia, 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. The law considers these activities 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. The government makes some exceptions for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (“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 [Islam]”). 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 schools (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi school 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. The government considers 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, to be 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 Ahl-e-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 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. The law does not recognize individuals who convert to Christianity as Christian. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The Supreme Leader (the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist), 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 constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The government appoints judges “in accordance with religious criteria.”

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (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 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. To pass the university entrance examination, applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The Ministry of Education 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 regulations state 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 the Baha’i Faith (e.g., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism).

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. Individuals who are not Shia Muslims are barred from serving as Supreme Leader or President, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council (the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council over legislation).

The constitution bans 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 that 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 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.

The criminal code provides for hadud punishments (those mandated by sharia) for theft, including amputation of the fingers of the right hand, amputation of the left foot, life imprisonment, and death, as well as flogging of up to 99 lashes or stoning for other crimes.

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

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

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. According to Amnesty International and Voice of America (VOA), on June 10, an official told the family of Hedayat Abdollahpour, a Sunni Kurdish activist, they executed him on or about May 21 in the town of Oshnavieh. Authorities subsequently gave the family a death certificate stating he died on May 11 as a result of “being hit by hard or sharp objects,” a phrase Amnesty International had previously documented was used on certificates of deaths from gunshot wounds. Authorities had arrested Abdollahpour in 2016 in connection with an armed fight between the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and the IRGC. The government charged him with “taking up arms [against the government]” and “supporting a dissident group,” charges he denied. The NGO Justice4Iran reported that authorities did not notify Abdollahpour’s family members at the time of his execution, and for many months before his death, his whereabouts were unknown, which led international observers to press authorities for information on his case. At year’s end, the government still refused to disclose what it did with Abdollahpour’s remains. According to Kurdistan Human Rights-Geneva, out of the nine political prisoners executed in 2020 in addition to Abdollahpour, there were three other Sunni Kurd political prisoners charged with “enmity against God” and other vague national security charges – Mustafa Salimi, Saber Shehkh Abdullah, and Diako Rasulzadeh – and two Sunni Baluchis – Abdulbaset Dehani and Abdulhameed Baluchzahi.

According to Radio Farda and IranWire, on July 9, authorities executed in Central Mashad Prison a man social media users helped identify as Morteza Jamali, who was arrested and charged with “consumption of alcohol.” IranWire reported that Jamali’s lawyer said that he was arrested in 2017 or 2018 and had been charged with consuming alcohol on several occasions. Under the country’s Islamic penal code, consuming alcohol is a “crime against God” and the initial punishment is usually flogging. Article 179 of the code states, however, that the accused may face the death penalty after being arrested three times.

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace and multiple media reports, on February 22, a Revolutionary Court sentenced to death three young men who had participated in November 2019 antigovernment protests, which began in reaction to a government increase in fuel prices. The government charged the men with “participating in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “enmity against God.” The reports identified the three men as Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi. Amnesty International said their trial was unfair and that security forces “tortured [them] with beatings, electric shocks, and being hung upside down.” Gholam-Hossein Esmaeili, a spokesman for the country’s judiciary, confirmed the three protesters’ death sentences on July 14 and accused them of “having links with certain groups abroad.” Citizens posted items on social media using the hashtag “DoNotExecute.” On July 19, the country’s judiciary said it would suspend the executions.

CHRI reported that the government announced the execution of two Sunni Baluch prisoners, Behnam Rigi and Shoaib Rigi, in the central prison in Zahedan, in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, on December 19. On December 20, the government executed a third Baluch prisoner, Abdolbaset Khesht, who was arrested in 2012, in the central prison of Dozap, in the same province. Authorities accused the men of membership in militant Sunni Muslim groups. NGOs and press reported that three other Sunni prisoners held in Zahedan were in imminent danger of execution.

According to Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni prisoners for the third time. Authorities imprisoned the inmates, Farhad Salimi, Qassem Absteh, Davood Abdollahi, Ayub Karimi, Anwar Khezri, Khosrow Besharat, and Kamran Sheikha, in the Urmia, Evin, and Rajai Shahr prisons for 11 years after arresting them in 2009. The government charged the men with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.”

According to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish NGO, security forces arrested a Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in the city of Piranshahr on October 4. Authorities arrested Hamzehpour in his home, which they searched. The news report’s source stated that the government arrested Hamzehpur, whom the source said was regarded as one of the prominent clerics in the province, several times in the past. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown.

The ABC said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. Commenting on the report, Amnesty International stated, “The real number of victims is likely to be higher as many cases are believed to go unreported.” During this period, the ABC said the government flogged at least 2,134 individuals, including at least 17 children. According to the ABC, these numbers meant that, on average, for the past 20 years authorities have amputated the fingers of at least one person every two months and flogged at least two persons every week.

According to Amnesty International, members of the intelligence unit of the IRGC arrested Yarsani Kurdish activist and documentary filmmaker Mozhgan Kavousi at her home in Noshahr, Mazandran Province, primarily in connection to her writings on social media about the November 2019 protests. IGRC intelligence officers held Kavousi in a Mazandran detention center, where she was kept in prolonged solitary confinement. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Noshahr convicted her of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting people to disrupt the country’s order and security” in connection with two posts on her Instagram account about the protests and sentenced her to five years and nine months in prison. Starting in May, she was serving her sentence in Evin Prison along with 35 other women prisoners of conscience as of year’s end.

According to Amnesty International, in March and April, thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons across the country, many in provinces containing Sunni Ahwazi Arab, Kurdish, and Azerbaijani Turkish ethnic minorities, staged protests over fears of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Prison authorities and security forces reportedly responded by using live ammunition and tear gas to suppress the protests, killing approximately 35 inmates in two prisons and injuring hundreds of others. According to reports from families of prisoners, journalists, and Ahwazi Arab human rights activists and organizations, on March 30 and 31, security forces used excessive force to quell protests, causing up to 15 deaths in Sepidar Prison and 20 in Sheiban Prison, both located in the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan Province. Amnesty International reported that numerous videos taken from outside both prisons and shared on social media sites showed smoke rising from the buildings, while gunfire can be heard. Authorities transferred Arab minority rights activist Mohammad Ali Amourinejad and several other inmates, including prisoners of conscience serving life sentences for “enmity against God” due to having promoted educational and cultural rights for Ahwazi Arabs, out of Sheiban Prison following the unrest. At year’s end, the government continued to hold these prisoners incommunicado in an unknown location.

On October 8, ahead of the World Day against the Death Penalty, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, saying it was “an indelible stain on the country’s human rights record.” According to the report’s language, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the FIDH report, “These ethnic and religious groups have been subjected to extensive and protracted discrimination with regard to their political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights, which has led to resentment towards the central government. Various groups have engaged in opposition activities and occasionally taken up arms in ethnic-populated regions in the past four decades. Rather than addressing their grievances, the Iranian authorities have responded with heavy-handed measures, including the implementation of the death penalty on a large scale.…Members of religious minorities [who have been targeted by executions] include some groups of Sunni Muslims in West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Sistan and Baluchistan Provinces; followers of the Shia Ahl-e-Haq sect [Yarsan] in West Azerbaijan Province; and Baha’is.”

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 6, IranWire and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) reported security forces shot and killed two Sunni Baluchi brothers, 18-year-old Mohammad and 20-year-old Mehdi Pourian, in their home in Iranshahr, the capital city of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Security forces also reportedly killed a 17-year-old, Daniel Brahovi, in the incident. The Iranshahr prosecutor told local media that the three were “famous and well-known miscreants” and that “weapons and ammunition were seized from them.” The families of the three deceased filed charges against the security forces involved but did not receive a response. According to one report, the local police and prosecutor threatened to kill the Pourian family if they continued to press the case.

According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities of the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. Authorities released Omidi from Evin Prison in August after he served two years on charges of “establishing home churches” and “promoting Zionist Christianity.” In September, he moved to Borazjan in Bushehr Province to serve a two-year term of internal exile. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Omidi and fellow members of the Church of Iran denomination Yussef Nadarkhani, Zaman (Saheb) Fadai, and Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mosayebzadeh to 10 years in prison each in 2017. At a retrial in June, a court reduced Nadarkhani and Fadai’s sentences to six years each and Omidi’s sentence to two years. On November 15, according to UK-based Article 18, an NGO focused on religious freedom in Iran, authorities summoned Fadai to the Shahid Moghadas Revolutionary Court, where he received 80 lashes for drinking communion wine.

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 requiring all inmates, regardless of their faith, to use a chador as their head-to-toe covering.

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. Article 18 reported that on January 12, authorities arrested Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi during protests in central Tehran and took her to Vozara detention center, where male and female prison guards beat her so badly that she carried visible bruises for three weeks. Detention center staff forced her to sit outside in extremely cold temperatures, withheld food until 24 hours after her arrest, and strip-searched her. They transferred Mohammadi to Qarchak Prison, where her bail was set at approximately 95 million rials ($2,300), equivalent to more than the annual salary of the average Iranian. Mohammadi had already served six months in prison for her Christian activities on charges of “action against national security” and “propaganda against the system.” According to VOA, on April 21, Mohammadi told her Instagram followers that she spent 46 days in “terrible conditions” during her detention. She said authorities sentenced her to three months in prison and 10 lashes for participating in the January protests but suspended punishment for one year, allowing her to remain free.

In a July report, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, expressed concern at the reported high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience from the Azerbaijani-Turk, Kurdish, and Ahwazi Arab communities, many of whom were from religious minorities.

On May 6, Amnesty International reported that Hossein Sepanta, a prisoner in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, was critically ill because authorities denied him proper treatment for a spinal-cord disorder. CHRI had reported in 2019 that in response to his hunger strike, prison authorities had transferred Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, to the “punishment unit” of Adel Abad Prison. According to a source inside the prison, an interrogator severely beat Sepanta, after which he had problems keeping his balance when walking. Sepanta began serving a 14-year sentence in 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”

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 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Amnesty International called on authorities to suspend the execution of a Baluchi man, Javid Dehghan, who had been forced to confess under torture that he was a member of a Salafi terrorist group called Jaish ul-Adl and fatally shot two IRGC agents in an ambush in 2015. According to OHCHR, there was a series of “at least 28” executions in December in the country. An OHCHR spokesperson said, “This has included a series of executions of members of ethnic and religious minority groups – in particular, Kurdish, Ahwazi Arabi, and Baluchi communities.”

According to IranWire, on December 15, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, who criticized the government many times in the past, released a video protesting the government’s execution of a dissident journalist and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the bloodshed in the country since 2009. He also called on fellow clerics and religious scholars not to remain silent about the violence.

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 60 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, the government sentenced at least 25 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (baghi), which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Authorities sentenced at least 43 persons to prison for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” and at least 13 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam.”

On May 28, Radio Farda reported police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri and separatist groups.” The report said that authorities used takfiri as an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals. Police accused those arrested of shooting at government buildings and raising the flag of dissident groups around the city.

On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’i’s across the country in “simultaneous operations.” Security agents possessing vaguely worded search warrants confiscated personal effects, mobile telephones, computers, laptops, and religious books and pictures. In some cases, agents also reportedly confiscated cash and national identity cards. Some of the Baha’is whose homes were searched had previously served prison sentences, including Afif Naeimi, a member of the former leadership body of the country’s Baha’i community, who was freed in 2018 after serving a 10-year sentence, and Riaz Sobhani and Shahrokh Taef, who each had served four-year sentences in Rajaei Shahr Prison.

Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities held in government prisons. On September 26, VOA reported that since August, authorities denied a Gonabadi Sufi dervish, Benham Mahjoubi, medical treatment, including medication provided by his family, for a panic disorder, and forcibly transferred him from Evin Prison to the Razi Aminabad psychiatric hospital in Tehran. Amnesty International stated that authorities subjected Mahjoubi to torture and gave him injections of an unknown substance on multiple occasions against his will. Mahjoubi’s wife posted on social media that authorities transferred him to the facility after he was paralyzed in a fall. According to VOA, the government had arrested Mahjoubi for taking part in street protests in Tehran in 2018, along with 300 other Gonabadi Sufi dervishes who had been demanding the release from house arrest of their leader, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh (who subsequently died on December 24, 2019).

In May, Gonabadi dervish Reza Yavari told VOA that authorities forced him to relocate to the northeastern town of Taybad, in Razavi Khorasan Province, to start a two-year sentence of internal exile following his April 1 pardon and release from a prison in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, capital of Khuzestan Province. Yavari, a native of Khuzestan who was studying at a Tehran university prior to his 2018 detention, accused authorities of acting illegally by forcing him into internal exile after granting him a pardon. Yavari told VOA that 38 other dervishes had also been forced into internal exile and expressed concern about the government’s ongoing imprisonment of eight other dervish activists who were among more than 300 dervish community members arrested for involvement in antigovernment protests in Tehran in 2018. In August, four dervishes whom the government sentenced to internal exile told VOA that they rejected the claim made by a government representative in a press briefing that the government did not maintain a predetermined list of destinations for internal banishment. The four men said that the government sends released prisoners to live in poor towns, with harsh climates, far from the country’s population centers and their homes.

According to the human rights NGO Hengaw, in late September, government security services arrested three Kurdish religious activists, Syawash (Forat), Behzad Talayi, and Farshad Fatahi in Urmia, West Azerbaijan Province. The government transferred the men to Urmia Central Prison on October 14. According to the NGO, the government arrested the three individuals because of religious activities and “propaganda” on behalf of “Islamic extremist groups.”

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. According to a June report by the online news source Balochwarna News, Sunni cleric Molavi Fazl al-Rahman Kouhi remained in prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad on the orders of a special clerical court that summoned and jailed him in November 2019 following nationwide antigovernment protests after a sharp increase in gasoline prices. Kouhi served as the Friday prayer leader for the town of Pashamagh, inhabited mostly by Baluchi Sunnis. The court summoned and jailed him days after he gave a sermon criticizing the country’s Shia-dominated government for violently suppressing the protests. According to the report, Kouhi’s sermon described the crackdown as un-Iranian, un-Islamic, and inhumane. Abdol Sattar Doshoki, an exiled Sunni rights activist, said that the government’s apparent arbitrary detention of an outspoken Sunni cleric was the latest sign of a bleak future for the country’s Sunni Muslim minority.

Balochwarna News reported that security forces arrested Molawi Mohammad Qalandarzai, a Sunni imam, on February 27 at his home in Zahedan.

Iran Focus stated that during the year, the government increased its persecution of Sunnis in the parts of the country that have large Sunni populations. The website stated that human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several Sunni religious teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan, which began in late April. Authorities detained at least 10 Sunnis in Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province. According to other reports, the Sanandaj Intelligence Agency summoned Ali Moradi, a Sunni cleric, and his son Mohammad at the beginning of Ramadan. On April 22, the IRGC summoned and interrogated Maktoom Askani, a Sunni activist in Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchistan Province. The Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and arrested Abdul Rauf Dashti, another Sunni activist. In late April, the Human Rights News Agency reported that MOIS summoned and interrogated Shahdad Zehi, a Sunni cleric in Sarbaz in Sistan and Baluchestan Province. On May 21, the Baluch Activists Campaign said that the Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and interrogated Akram Kuhi, the temporary head of Friday prayers in Peshamag village. The reports said that after the IRGC officials asked Kuhi about the employees, teachers, and students at a local religious school, they summoned and interrogated four other Sunnis from the school in September.

NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them – 19 women and seven men – were placed there in 2020. NGOs reported that it was not clear whether holding twice as many women as men was accidental or whether it marked the beginning of a trend designed to apply additional pressure on the Baha’i community. In Shiraz, authorities summoned 26 Baha’is for a criminal hearing on October 5.

According to Iran Press Watch (IPW), on December 24, Branch 2 of the Bandar Abbas Revolutionary Court sentenced eight Baha’is for “gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt the security of the country.” Six Baha’is received two-year prison sentences and two received one-year prison sentences. The court banned them from membership in political and social parties and groups, including Baha’i banquets and gatherings, for a period of two years and sentenced them to five sessions of “counseling on sectarian issues.”

According to press reporting, on September 7, a court in southern Khorasan Province sentenced eight Baha’is – six women and two men – to prison for “membership in the illegal Baha’i organization, which is a threat to national security.” Authorities arrested the eight during a celebration of a Baha’i holiday. The court gave the defendants – Ataollah Melaki, Attiyeh Salehi, Saeed Melaki, Roya Melaki, Nasrin Ghadiri, Arezou Mohammadi, Farzaneh Dimi, and Banafshe Mokhatari – sentences ranging from 15 months to two years’ imprisonment. Some of these individuals wrote letters to Birjand judicial authorities requesting a delay in starting their sentences due to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Authorities denied their requests, however, and the group began serving their sentences on October 20.

On June 8, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported that in the weeks leading up to that date, authorities summoned 55 Baha’is to court in Shiraz, Birjand, Karaj, and Kermanshah, trying and sentencing 26 of them; summoned 11 Baha’is to prison in Shiraz, Ghaemshahr, and Birjand; arrested three Baha’is in Yazd; and arrested two Baha’is in Isfahan, releasing them shortly thereafter. In a court hearing in Shiraz, a court official threatened to “uproot” the Baha’is in the city.

The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that on September 17, security forces arrested brothers Salar Ghazali and Saman Ghazali, holding them in a MOIS detention center for 75 days before transferring them to Mahabad Prison. In mid-December, Branch 1 of the Mahabad Revolutionary Court tried them for “acting against national security through membership in a Kurdish opposition party” and “propaganda against the state.”

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

IPW and IranWire reported that on May 2, IRGC agents raided the Isfahan homes of three Baha’is, Shahzad Hosseini, his son Shayan Hosseini, and Shahzad’s mother. Security personnel then arrested Shayan Hosseini and transferred him to an unknown location. According to a close relative of Shayan, during the raids, agents searched for small wooden boxes that the families used to store prayer books.

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.

On May 28, authorities summoned Hossein Kadivar, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammed Vafadar to begin serving five-year prison sentences. The government arrested the men in early 2019 before releasing them on bail. The four men were among nine Christian converts belonging to the Church of Iran denomination arrested over a four-week period, accused of endangering state security and promoting Zionism. The government transferred the other five converts, who were unable to afford bail, to Evin Prison shortly after their 2019 arrests. In late 2019, a court convicted all nine of “acting against national security” and sentenced them to five years’ imprisonment. A court upheld the sentences on appeal in February.

In July, a court convicted seven of eight Christian converts arrested in Bushehr in 2019 of “propaganda against the regime.” One of the Christians, Sam Khosravi, received a one-year prison term followed by two years of internal exile. The court fined Maryam Falahi, his wife, who worked as a nurse, 80 million rials ($1,900) and banned her from working in a public institution. After their sentencing, a court ruled that as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their daughter, whom they adopted as an infant in early 2019 and whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In September, an appeals court upheld that decision, despite the daughter’s physical disabilities, which, according to the judge, made her chances at another family adopting her “zero.”

On January 11, a court sentenced Anglican convert Ismaeli Maghrebinejad to three years’ imprisonment for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs” after he responded with a smiley emoji to a joke seen as critical of ruling clerics that had been texted to him on his cell phone. On February 27, a court sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment on a separate charge of “membership in a group hostile to the regime” (“evangelical Zionism,” according to court documents) for receiving a Bible verse sent over a cell phone app. In May, a court upheld the February verdict and added a one-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the regime.” In July, a court overturned on appeal his three-year sentence for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs,” but upheld the other two sentences. Authorities arrested Maghrebinejad in early 2019 in Shiraz. In late 2019, authorities dropped a charge of apostasy that they brought against Maghrebinejad at the time of his arrest.

In February, authorities in Rasht arrested four Christian converts, Ramin Hassanpour, his wife Saeede (Kathrin) Sajadpour, Hadi (Moslem) Rahimi, and Sakine (Mehri) Behjati, for being members of a house church belonging to the Church of Iran. On May 14, the Revolutionary Court in Rasht initially set bail at five billion rials each ($119,000). The government transferred the four to Lakan Prison, near Rasht, when they were unable to post bail. A week later, the court reduced the bail to two billion rials each ($47,600) and released Sajadpour, Rahimi, and Behjati on May 20 and Hassanpour on May 21. On August 1, a court handed down prison sentences to the four for “acting against national security” by belonging to a house church and “spreading Zionist Christianity.” Hassanpour received a five-year sentence, Rahimi four years, and Behjati and Sajadpour two years each.

After the cancellation of several court sessions connected with appeals of their 2017 and 2018 convictions and respective 10- and five-year sentences relating to “illegal church activity,” Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, learned in early August that their appeals had been denied and that authorities would schedule no further hearings. On August 11, Isavi received a summons to report to Evin Prison to begin her prison sentence. On August 15, the couple fled the country. In September, Article 18 reported that Christian converts Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, Hadi Asgari, and Amin Afshar-Naderi, who had received prison sentences in 2017 alongside Bet Tamraz, also fled the country after their appeals were rejected. In January, authorities summoned Ramiel Bet Tamraz, the son of Victor Bet Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi, to Evin Prison to serve his four-month sentence from 2018 for “propaganda against the system” through membership in a house church. Authorities released him from prison on February 26.

According to Article 18, authorities extended the two-year internal exile of Ebrahim Firouzi by 11 months. The government released Firouzi, a Christian convert, from Rajai Shahr Prison in 2019 after he served six years in prison for “collusion against national security” for converting to and practicing Christianity and related missionary activities. After he reported to the city of Sarbaz for the two years of internal exile included in his sentence, authorities extended his exile, saying that Firouzi did not have proper permission for a brief trip home to attend to some family business involving the death of his mother. After Firouzi’s exile was extended, a local prosecutor summoned him on new charges of “insulting the sacred,” which carries a maximum five-year sentence, and “propaganda against the state through promoting the Christian faith,” which may be punished with up to a year in prison. After meeting Firouzi, the prosecutor dismissed the case.

On November 18, at a virtual conference hosted by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights regarding the “attitude of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards the different religious groups,” an Article 18 representative said that 17 Christian prisoners of conscience, all converts, were incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

In April, authorities arrested Masoud Heydari and Hamid Haghjoo, the managing director and the Telegram channel administrator at the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), following the posting of a cartoon mocking COVID-19 remedies prescribed by religious leaders. ILNA officials denied publishing the cartoon and said they were falsely accused. Police released Heydari on bail while detaining Haghjoo pending an investigation into the case. There were no updates as of year’s end.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the greatest leeway 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.

According to the BBC Persian service, on October 29, the Qom Seminary Teachers Association labeled Grand Ayatollah Kamal Heidari a “liar,” “sinner,” and “foreign agent,” and decreed that any dealings with him would be considered a “sin.” The association excommunicated Heidari and labeled him a “seditionist” for his modernist and rationalist views.

In a January 28 report to the UN Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran said he was “deeply concerned” about a bill adopted by the Committee for Judicial and Legal Affairs of parliament in 2019 on “misguided sects” that would criminalize membership in religious groups that the government considered to be “misguided.” The special rapporteur stated, “According to a member of the Committee, the bill was proposed because of concerns about sects that have no jurisprudential or religious status but attribute their belief to Islam and about the cults that have emerged recently. Members of nonrecognized religious minorities have expressed concern that passage of the bill would make it a criminal offence to follow certain religions and could be used to increase discrimination against them.”

In May, parliament passed the legislation on “misguided sects” in the form of amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code. The legislation stated that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. A human rights lawyer living in Europe stated, “The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government, but in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognized minorities.” The NGO Article 18 reported that the Guardian Council, which must approve all parliamentary bills, returned the bill to parliament in July, seeking eight clarifications, the majority of which related to “ambiguous” language. An Article 18 official cautioned that the legislation would still likely to return in a “different, perhaps more minimal, form.” ARTICLE 19, another human rights NGO based in the UK, reported that in November, it was believed that parliament addressed issues raised by the Guardian Council, but the specific changes were not publicly released. The NGO said the proposed amendments, regardless of any changes, would “further erode the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief.”

According to the U.S. 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. On September 5, IranWire reported that in late 2019, authorities arrested Einollah Rezazadeh Juibari, a Shia cleric, at his home as preparations began for the 40th day commemorations of the deaths of protestors killed by government forces in the November 2019 protests. Authorities first detained Juibari, a critic of the government who was repeatedly arrested in the past, at a detention center in Urmia before taking him to a prison in Miandoab, where he undertook a 13-day hunger strike before being released. IranWire reported that Juibari, whose case remained open at year’s end, had written a letter stating that he would remove his clerical garments and clerical turban for good, because such clerical attire needed to be “excised from politics.” His letter also said that the government had “used Islamic jurisprudence as a pretext for a power grab” and that it had “sacrificed the truth and authority of the Shia faith with [its] greed.”

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.

The BBC Persian service and the Times of Israel reported authorities confirmed to local media that a California-based Zoroastrian priest, Arash Kasravi, was killed on July 25 while attending his father’s funeral in Kerman. BBC Persian reported on August 2 that the Kerman Province prosecutor told local media that the killer’s body was one of two others found with Kasravi and that he had committed suicide after the killings. The prosecutor said the judiciary believed the killings were financially motivated, since $10,000 was found in one of the victims’ vehicles. A social media post said that, following the 1979 revolution, many Zoroastrians have been targeted in these types of “mysterious homicides.”

Sources said that even when arrested, perpetrators of crimes against Baha’is faced reduced punishment if they stated that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

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.

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 performing 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, 100 miles away, 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.

BIC reported that it learned in July that the Baha’i cemetery in Taft, Yazd Province, which the government had confiscated shortly after the 1979 revolution, was being divided and sold. According to BIC, the judiciary endorsed the confiscation of all property owned by Baha’i residents in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran Province, on the grounds that Baha’is have “a perverse ideology” and therefore have no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property.

According to BIC, the government’s anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.

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 that when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. NGOs report that virtually all Farsi-language churches in Iran were closed between 2009 and 2012. In 2019, Radio Farda reported, “Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognized minority who are usually able to freely practice their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.” Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

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 all women 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.

On November 9, Branch 28 of the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her 24-year prison sentence, which she received in August 2019, on a set of charges relating to her protesting the compulsory hijab. As a result, she faced a minimum of 15 years in prison, the sentence associated with the most serious charge against her, “spreading corruption.” In July, Amnesty International said authorities forced Kord-Afshari to wait a year following her 2019 arrest before allowing her to make her first hospital visit on June 29 for pre-existing gastrointestinal problems that were exacerbated in prison. Amnesty International also said the doctor failed to conduct a comprehensive examination of Kord-Afshari and referred her for future colonoscopy, endoscopy, and ultrasound procedures. VOA reported that Kord-Afshari was told that she could not have the procedures because of her late hospital arrival and her lack of funds for payment. As a result, Kord-Afshari’s health problems worsened since the government transferred her to Evin Prison in August 2019, the source added.

In December, authorities summoned Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent female human rights lawyer and 2012 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, back to prison one month after her release due to health complications she manifested in prison. The government arrested Sotoudeh multiple times since 2009 because of her work as a rights defender. Most recently, authorities arrested her in 2018 as a result of what Amnesty International described as her “peaceful human rights works, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s forced-hijab laws.” A court sentenced her to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in 2019. At year’s end, she remained confined to Qarchak Prison.

The government continued to suppress public behavior it deemed counter to Islamic law, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani 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.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. On November 1, Iran International and HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. As in previous years, the government organization responsible for holding university entrance exams and for placing students, the Sazeman-e Sanjesh, used pretexts such as “incomplete information” and “further investigation required” to reject Baha’i applicants. A November 2 Radio Farda report stated, “The real number of Baha’i students unable to access… degrees is likely much higher,” noting that officials rejected 70 Baha’i students in 2017. IranWire said that the banning of Baha’is from entering higher education began in 1980 and that this was the 40th consecutive year the government denied its own citizens access to higher education because of their religious beliefs.

In January, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran reported to the UN Human Rights Council that he remained “highly concerned about the denials of the right to education for religious minorities, with continuing reports of Baha’i students being rejected from entering university despite passing the required examinations.”

On September 11, Radio Farda reported that new Minister of Education Mohsen Haji Mirzaei, apparently in response to an account published two days earlier by a human rights organization, said, “It is forbidden for them [Baha’is] to study in schools.” Mirzaei was referring to the organization’s claim that authorities had ordered Saadet High School in the city of Semnan to refuse enrollment to student Borna Pirasteh in the third year of high school because of her Baha’i faith.

A Sabean-Mandaean resident of Bandar-e Mahshahr, Khuzestan Province told IranWire in October that law enforcement personnel regularly harassed his community. The man said that authorities regularly demanded bribes from Sabean-Mandaean goldsmiths. Another Sabean-Mandaean goldsmith stated that police worked with known thieves to victimize Sabean-Mandaean-owned jewelry shops.

In January, NGOs and press reported that the state-issued national identity card required for almost all government and other transactions would henceforward only allow citizens to register as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions. According to CHRI, “anyone applying for the card who is not of the official Muslim faith or one of three religious minorities recognized in the…constitution (Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism) will have to either lie and check the required box on the application for one of those religions, or not receive the card.” Previously, application forms for the ID card had an option for “other religions.” The card is used for all government services, banking activities, and the vast majority of other transactions. CHRI stated the policy “will blatantly discriminate against Baha’is as well as members of the Mandaean, Yarsani, and other unrecognized minority faiths in the country.” A report by Deutsche Welle stated that since Baha’is were forbidden by their faith to lie about their religion, they were unable to apply for new identity cards and obtain official identification.

In a July 21 report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur stated that he “remains deeply concerned at the continued discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Changes to the national identity card application process reportedly hinder minority religious groups from gaining access to several essential services. The application form had previously listed ‘other’ as a religious option. In January, the National Organization for Civil Registration reported that this option had been removed, meaning individuals could only choose from the four officially recognized religions. The removal of ‘other’ raised fears that nonrecognized religious groups, such as Baha’is, Christian converts, Yarsanis, Sabean-Mandaeans and nonbelievers, would be unable to obtain a national identity card, which is necessary to gain access to government and banking services.”

According to a December 4 report by IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to the country’s provincial judiciary heads regarding the supervision of lawyers. Describing the expansion of a “security umbrella” over practicing attorneys, the government letter said it had established a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, in addition to the work already carried out by the Bar Association. Possible issues cited in the memorandum included non-observation of the mandatory hijab by female lawyers at work or on social media, or doubts about a given lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader. According to IranWire, this new office “will intimidate, silence, and push some lawyers out of the profession, while forcing others to align with the state’s principles, leading to an atrophy of justice.”

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 Baha’is “unclean.”

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. Three news sources opposed to the government stated that Sunnis were not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran.

On May 25, the Deutsche Welle Persian service reported that Mohammad Baqer Tabatabai, an advisor to the Razavi Khorasan Guidance Office, referred to the Maki Mosque in Zahedan, the country’s largest and most culturally significant Sunni mosque, as a “house of corruption” on his Twitter account and called for its destruction. He deleted his tweet after public protest. Maki Mosque was built in 1353 in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. It is religiously and culturally significant to the Sunni Baluch minority, which reportedly contributed to the upkeep of the building independently from the central government.

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 religion. 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 propaganda aimed at deterring 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. A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz, whom IranWire identified as “Selim,” said, “The Mandaeans of Ahvaz are not allowed to be buried in the public cemetery.” On December 31, Radio Farda reported, “destroying graves and tombstones of minorities and dissidents, including Baha’is and Yarsanis, [has] formed a part of the daily life of the supporters of the Islamic Republic.” According to the report, security forces warned Baha’is that they no longer had the right to bury their dead in many cities, including Gilavand, Tabriz, Kerman, and Ahvaz.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and in school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. According to a February article in U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, “The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish. Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.”

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.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of previously available books about Christianity, 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 Yarsani 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, but only 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.

Baluch sources reported that throughout the year, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

According to media reports from 2018, the most recent reporting available, there were 13 synagogues in Tehran and approximately 35 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. According to the Anti-Defamation League, following a March speech by the Supreme Leader on the COVID-19 pandemic, his office’s website posted remarks by a cleric who said “there is no doubt that the Jews and especially the Zionists previously have a long history of supernatural affairs and matters such as a relationship with the devil and genies.” The Anti-Defamation League report stated that most of the COVID-19 conspiracy theories spread by the government imagined the United States as leading “a biological attack, either with the help of Jewish capitalists or Israel, or to benefit Israel or at the behest of Jewish puppet masters.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, another central theme of the government’s propaganda regarding the global health crisis was the conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful or seek world domination.

In September, Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the head of a government arts agency, announced a plan to organize another exhibition of Holocaust-denial cartoons, which the government also held in 2006 and 2016. Following the beheading in France of a teacher who had shown students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, Shojaei-Tabatabai told the Tehran Times, that “our [exhibition] program [will] publish serious artworks challenging the Holocaust; for one insulting cartoon, we will publish 10 cartoons in social media and other virtual spaces.” After French President Macron defended the slain teacher’s presentation of secularism and individual freedom, the Supreme Leader asked on Twitter, “Why is it a crime to raise doubts about the Holocaust? Why should anyone who writes about such doubts be imprisoned while insulting the Prophet (pbuh [Peace be upon him]) is allowed?”

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

On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The General Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 82 states in favor, 30 against, and 64 abstentions. The resolution, which was cosponsored by 45 member states, expressed concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations….” These violations included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i faith, who have faced increasing restrictions from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on account of their faith and have been reportedly subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences.” The resolution called upon the government “to cease monitoring individuals on account of their religious identity, to release all religious practitioners imprisoned for their membership in or activities on behalf of a recognized or unrecognized minority religious group, and to ensure that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ….”

Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. According to NGOs, government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which the law defines as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but there was no requirement for a government agency to approve their budgets publicly.

According to Radio Farda, religious leaders in Qom warned shops not to sell gifts associated with Valentine’s Day because of its roots in Christian tradition. Radio Farda stated that the country’s law enforcement agencies issue warnings to stores every year against selling such items, threatening to close the businesses from one to six months for noncompliance. The report also stated that some secular citizens have tried to promote the February 19 celebration of the day of Sepandarmaz, the goddess of fertility from the country’s pre-Islamic past. The country’s religious leaders opposed Sepandarmaz because of its roots in Zoroastrianism, which was replaced by Islam as the country’s predominant religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. “Yarsanis are not our brothers,” he told the congregation, adding, “Brotherhood is only possible in Islam.” According to IranWire, protests by members of the Yarsan community followed, gaining momentum over the days that followed, prompting Faraji to issue a retraction on social media in which he said enemies of the Islamic Republic had distorted and misrepresented his statements in an attempt to sow division between Muslims and Yarsanis in the area. He defined these “enemies” as Jews, Christians, and Zionists.

According to Radio Farda, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University had infected Iran with the novel coronavirus. The university said in a statement that the Sunni leader had no evidence to back up his accusation and that top religious clerics should be more cautious in public remarks. According to Iran News, the university also “deplored Abdolhamid for accusing al-Mustafa International University of brainwashing its non-Iranian students.”

A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz said that he had witnessed the destruction of a temple and 12 other buildings belonging to the community in recent years. Another Sabean-Mandaean said, “Since 2015, the destruction of the Mandaean tombs has occurred many times in different parts of the country. But have our protests ever been heeded?”

According to a Radio Farda report, Yarsani graves were neither safe from attacks nor from disrespect, and Yarsani cemeteries and mausoleums were repeatedly damaged and destroyed in the city of Kermanshah and elsewhere in the country.

According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. IRNA, the country’s official press agency, which first confirmed the attack but later removed the report from its website, said there was no major damage to the shrine. The attack followed reports in February that the government was considering razing the shrine as an act of revenge aimed at the United States and Israel. Hamedan’s prosecutor, Hassan Khanjani, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that police had not reached a conclusion on the cause of the fire and that no arrests had been made.

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported that Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence and that perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity.

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.

Yarsanis outside the country reported that 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 human rights NGOs, including 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.

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

In June, the Netherlands-based NGO Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that showed Iranian society’s unprecedented secularization. According to its authors, the result of the poll of 40,000 individuals revealed dramatic changes in the country’s religiosity, with an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim, contrasting with government data that states 99.5 percent of the country is Muslim. The survey found 32 percent of respondents explicitly identified as Shia, while 5 percent said they were Sunni Muslim and 3 percent Sufi Muslim. Another 9 percent said they were atheists, along with 7 percent who preferred the label of “spirituality” as describing their religion. Among the other selected religions, 8 percent said they were Zoroastrians, which the pollsters interpreted as a reflection of Persian nationalism and a desire for an alternative to Islam, rather than strict adherence to the Zoroastrian faith, while 1.5 percent said they were Christian (which Christian groups state translates into between 750,000 and one million Christians in the country). Of those polled, 78 percent said they believed in God, while only 37 percent believed in life after death and only 30 percent believed in heaven and hell. Approximately 25 percent said they believed in jinns (demons).

Kiribati

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Religious groups with memberships equal to or greater than 2 percent of the population are required to register with the government.

Two islands in the southern part of the country continued to uphold a “one-church-only” policy due to a stated deference to the first Protestant missionaries that visited the islands in the 1800s.

The U.S. Ambassador to Fiji is accredited to the government, and officials from the U.S. Embassy in Fiji discussed religious tolerance and practices with the government when visiting the country. Embassy officials also met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) to discuss religious tolerance and the treatment of minority groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 112,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2015 census, approximately 57 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 31 percent belongs to the Kiribati Uniting Church (until 2016 known as the Kiribati Protestant Church). Members who did not accept the name change continue as the Kiribati Protestant Church. Five percent of the population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include the Baha’i Faith (2 percent), Seventh-day Adventist Church (2 percent), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assemblies of God, and Muslims. The Church of Jesus Christ states its membership exceeds 12 percent of the population. Persons with no religious affiliation account for less than 1 percent of the population. Members of the Catholic Church are concentrated in the northern islands, while Protestants constitute the majority in the southern islands.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience (including religion), expression, assembly, and association. These rights may be limited by law “which is reasonably required” in the interests of public defense, safety, order, morality, or health, or to protect the rights of others.

By law, any religious group with adult members representing no less than 2 percent of the total population (according to the most recent census) must register with the government, although there are no legal consequences for not registering. To register, the religious organization submits a request to the Ministry of Women, Youth, and Social Affairs, signed by the head of the group and supported by five other members of the organization. Also required in the request is information regarding proof of the number of adherents and the religious denomination and name under which the group wishes to be registered.

There is no mandated religious education in public schools. Public schools in the country allow a variety of religious groups, including Catholics, Protestants, Seventh-day Adventists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ, to provide religious education in schools. Students who opt out of religious education must participate in a supervised study period.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Most governmental meetings and events began and ended with an ordained minister or other church official delivering a Christian prayer.

The government continued to administer a small grants program for development projects administered by nongovernmental organizations and registered religious organizations. Foreign missionaries, including members of the Church of Jesus Christ, were active in the country and operated freely. Missionary visits to islands with a “one religion” tradition were allowed as long as they followed the traditional practice of requesting permission from local leaders.

The government allowed the Kiribati Protestant Church to operate but had not completed the church’s registration, which was submitted when it separated from the Kiribati Uniting Church in 2016.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

With approximately 1,000 inhabitants each, the population of two islands – Arorae and Tamana – remained largely members of the Protestant Kiribati Uniting Church, at 98 percent and 96 percent, respectively, according to the 2015 census, although a small number of Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of Jesus Christ, and Baha’i adherents were also present. The residents of these islands continued their “one-church-only” tradition, which they stated was in deference to Protestant missionaries who came to the islands in the 1800s, according to government reports. On these islands, residents of other religious groups worshipped in their own homes. Villagers discouraged religious groups outside the Kiribati Uniting Church from proselytizing or holding meetings but permitted missionaries to visit if they requested permission from local leaders first.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, subject to limitations to ensure public order, health, and safety or to protect the rights of others. The law does not provide a means for religious groups to acquire legal status. In September, the cabinet approved amendments that would provide religious groups with such status and enable them to conduct business in their name and gain certain tax benefits, but parliament did not act on these due to an unrelated lack of a quorum required to pass legislation. According to the Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK), in multiple cases, public elementary schools denied female Muslim students in religious attire permission to attend classes. On September 4, the Kosovo and Serbian governments signed a list of commitments in Washington, D.C., brokered at the White House, that included a pledge to domestically protect and promote freedom of religion, renew interfaith communication, protect religious sites, implement judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property. The SOC said a lack of constructive communication with some municipal governments prevented Serbian Orthodox pilgrims from having free access to some SOC temples and graveyards. The SOC said the government failed to fully enforce the Law on Special Protective Zones (SPZs) by failing to prevent road construction in the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ. The government halted the work in the SPZ in August following objections by the international community. Kosovo’s Implementation and Monitoring Committee (IMC), which includes the SOC, decided in November on the rehabilitation of the road in accordance with the law. Local and central authorities continued to ignore a 2016 court decision on SOC ownership of several land parcels next to the Decani monastery. Following a review, the government stated in August that, in many cemeteries managed by BIK under municipal contracts, a lack of municipal oversight enabled BIK to prevent other religious/nonreligious groups from conducting burial services according to their beliefs and to discriminate against religious minority groups. Kosovo Serb and Jewish communities said some municipalities did not properly maintain these communities’ cemeteries.

National police said they received reports of 57 incidents against religious sites or cemeteries during the year, compared with 61 in 2019. Police classified most of the incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. The majority of incidents targeted Muslim community sites, although a few involved SOC and Catholic Church properties. According to the SOC, many incidents involving SOC religious sites were linked to Serb ethnicity as well as religion, and there were incidents not reported to police. In August, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that vandals damaged an SOC church in the Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren. In September, according to media and police, an SOC church was robbed in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic. On January 6 in Gjakova/Djakovica, local Kosovo Albanians, including families of persons missing from the 1998-1999 conflict, staged a protest, as they had since 2015, in front of the local SOC church, leading displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members to again cancel a pilgrimage there. SOC officials again complained about negative media reporting and criticism of Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava Janjic, such as claims the abbot was blocking local development by denying Decan/Decani municipality use of its property and resources.

U.S. embassy officials continued to encourage the government to enact amendments permitting religious groups to acquire legal status, enforce mechanisms to protect freedom of religion, implement legislation and judicial decisions pertaining to SOC religious sites, and resolve SOC property disputes. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, including equal protection and property rights concerns, with religious and civil society leaders and encouraged religious tolerance and improved interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 95.6 percent of the population is Muslim, 2.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, with Protestants, Jews, and persons not answering or responding “other” or “none” together constituting less than 1 percent. According to the SOC and international observers, lack of financial support for the census and a boycott of it by most ethnic Serbs resulted in a significant undercounting of ethnic minorities of all religious backgrounds, including SOC members, Tarikat Muslims, and Protestants. Other religious communities, including Tarikat Muslims and Protestants, also contested the registration data, stating they distrusted the census methodology and believed it resulted in undercounts of their communities’ members.

The majority of Kosovo Albanians are Muslim, although some are Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant). Almost all Kosovo Serbs belong to the SOC. The majority of ethnic Ashkali, Bosniaks, Egyptians, Gorani, Roma, and Turks are also Muslim, while most ethnic Montenegrins and some Roma are Christian Orthodox. Nearly all ethnic Croats are Catholic.

According to BIK, most Muslims belong to the Hanafi Sunni School, although some are part of the Sufi Tarikat community. There is also a Sufi Bektashi religious community; no official estimate exists for the number of its adherents. Kosovo Albanians represent the majority in 28 of the country’s 38 municipalities, and Kosovo Serbs make up the majority in the remaining 10. Most SOC members reside in the 10 Serb-majority municipalities. The largest Catholic communities are in Gjakove/Djakovica, Janjeve/Janjevo, Kline/Klina, Pristina, and Prizren. Evangelical Protestant populations are located throughout the country, concentrated in Pristina and Gjakove/Djakovica. There are small Jewish communities in Prizren and Pristina.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion for all residents, including the right to change, express, or not express religious belief; practice or abstain from practicing religion; and join or refuse to join a religious community. These rights are subject to limitations for reasons of public safety and order or for the protection of the health or rights of others. The constitution provides for the separation of religious communities from public institutions, including the right of religious groups to regulate independently their own organizations, activities, and ceremonies, and the right to establish religious schools and charities. It provides for equal rights for all religious communities, stipulates the country is secular and neutral regarding religion, declares the state shall ensure the protection and preservation of the country’s religious heritage, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution states the law may limit freedom of expression to prevent violent and hostile provocations on racial, national, ethnic, or religious grounds. It allows courts to ban organizations or activities that encourage racial, national, ethnic, or religious hatred.

The law on religious freedom states, “All religions and their communes in Kosovo, including the Kosovo Islamic Community, Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Hebrew Belief Community, and Evangelical Church (the five “traditional” religious communities), shall be offered any kind of protection and opportunity in order to have rights and freedom foreseen by this law.” The constitution provides for rights and protection for all citizens, including maintaining, developing, and preserving their religion using their own language. The constitution also states religious communities have the right to establish religious schools and charitable institutions with the possibility of being funded with government financial assistance “in accordance with the law and international standards.” The constitution provides guarantees of freedom and pluralism of media. It guarantees all ethnic communities access to public media. Additional rights for religious groups include establishing and using their own media, maintaining unhindered peaceful contacts with persons outside the country with whom they share a religious identity, and having equitable access to public employment.

The constitution guarantees 20 of 120 seats in parliament to representatives from ethnic minority communities, which are often associated with a single majority religious group, such as Muslims or Orthodox Christians. It also stipulates the adoption, amendment, or repeal of all laws pertaining to religious freedom or cultural heritage requires approval by a majority of the parliamentarians representing minority communities, as well as by a majority of all parliamentarians.

The constitution provides for the Ombudsperson’s Institution, which is responsible for monitoring religious freedom, among other human rights, and recommending actions to correct violations. It stipulates the state shall take all necessary measures to protect individuals who may be subject to threats, hostility, discrimination, or violence because of their religious identity.

The law stipulates there is no official state religion, but it lists the five “traditional” religious communities that receive extra protections and benefits, including reduced taxes.

The law does not require registration of religious groups, but it also does not provide a legal mechanism or specific guidance for religious groups to obtain legal status through registration or other means. Without legal status, religious communities may not own property, open bank accounts, employ staff, or access the courts as a collective entity. Individual congregations or individuals, however, may do so and perform other administrative tasks in their own name. Local communities often recognize religious groups’ possession of buildings; however, the law generally does not protect these buildings as property of a religious community, but rather as the private property of citizens or nongovernmental organizations. SOC property is an exception; the law on SPZs acknowledges and protects the integrity of SOC property ownership and stewardship over designated areas within the SPZs.

The law stipulates freedom of religious or nonreligious practice and the rights to establish humanitarian/charity organizations, accept voluntary financial contributions from individuals and institutions, and engage in national and international communication for religious purposes.

The law provides safeguards for sites of religious and cultural significance and prohibits or restricts nearby activities that could damage the surrounding historical, cultural, or natural environment. According to the law, the IMC is responsible for arbitrating disputes between the government and the SOC concerning SPZs and other matters related to protecting the SOC’s religious and cultural heritage. The IMC is a special body originating from the 2007 Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (also known as the Ahtisaari Plan) and established by law. IMC members include the Ministry of Economy and Environment (cochair); Special Representative of the European Union (cochair); Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport; SOC; and OSCE.

Municipalities are legally responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of all public cemeteries, including those designated for specific religious communities.

According to the law, “Public educational institutions shall refrain from teaching religion or other activities that propagate a specific religion.” This law is unenforceable in schools operated under Serbian government-run parallel structures, over which the Kosovo government has no control.

A Ministry of Education and Science (MES) administrative circular on the code of conduct and disciplinary measures for elementary and high school students, which carries the force of law, prohibits students from wearing religious “uniforms” on elementary and secondary school premises.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In September, the cabinet approved and sent to parliament amendments to the law on religious freedom that would permit religious groups to acquire legal status, conduct business and acquire real and personal property in their name, open bank accounts, and gain import tax benefits. At year’s end, parliament had not voted on the amendments; there was a persistent lack of a quorum due to the COVID-19 pandemic and boycotts by Kosovo Serb parliamentarians. Absent enactment of the legislation, all religious communities said they continued to operate bank accounts registered to individuals instead of communities. In addition, communities such as the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church (KPEC) said they continued to be taxed as for-profit businesses.

According to BIK, there were multiple cases in which elementary schools denied access to female Muslim students as a result of the enforcement of the MES administrative circular prohibiting “religious attire” on school property. Imam Labinot Maliqi, head of the nongovernmental organization Kosovo Center for Peace, reported that two female elementary school students, one in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje and the other in Gjakova/Djakovica, were denied entrance to school for wearing a hijab. School officials reversed their decision after the Kosovo Center for Peace inquired into the situation. In July, according to Maliqi, MES officials told him the MES was committed to reviewing the religious attire prohibition. The ban remained in place at year’s end.

Muslim community representatives said there were cases of hiring discrimination against Muslim women who wore religious attire during the year, but they did not cite any examples.

On September 4, Kosovo and Serbia signed lists of commitments in Washington, D.C., in which the government of Kosovo pledged to protect and promote freedom of religion, including renewed interfaith communication, protection of religious sites, and implementation of judicial decisions pertaining to the SOC, and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.

Decan/Decani municipal officials continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision upholding the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that recognized the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery’s ownership of approximately 24 hectares (59 acres) of land in the monastery’s vicinity. In November, the SOC appealed to the Kosovo Cadastral Agency; its decision was pending at year’s end. NATO troops in the country continued to provide security at the Decani Monastery.

In August, the Decan/Decani municipality began road work within the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ in violation of the law. The government halted the work following international criticism. In November, the IMC and the Decan/Decani municipal government endorsed an Italian-brokered arrangement that adhered to the law for the rehabilitation of the road. The arrangement included the development of both a bypass road external to the SPZ boundaries, which would connect Decan/Decani to Montenegro, and a separate local road within the SPZ. The proposed road work had not begun by year’s end.

In July, Pristina Municipality issued a construction permit for, and construction began on, a Grand Mosque in Pristina, funded by the Turkish government. Some citizens opposed construction of the mosque, saying its design was based on an archaic Ottoman style rather than traditional Kosovo mosque architecture. Some local imams continued to state existing downtown mosques fulfilled the needs of their constituency and there was no demand for such a large mosque in the area.

Jewish community representatives again said local governments did not properly maintain Jewish cemeteries outside Pristina, including in Novo Brdo/Novoberde, Lipjan/Lipljan, Kamenice/Kamenica, Prizren, Mitrovice/Mitrovica, and Gjilan/Gnjilane, notwithstanding their legal obligation to do so.

With the government’s assent, the OSCE continued to monitor the implementation of legislation on protection of SPZs around SOC religious and heritage sites. The Police Unit for the Security of Religious and Cultural Heritage Buildings continued to provide 24-hour security to 24 SPZs countrywide.

At year’s end, Pristina Municipality and the Jewish community continued to disagree on a suitable location for a synagogue for which the municipality had issued a construction permit in 2016.

The SOC said the Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency continued to dispute SOC ownership of the property the agency has used since 2001. The SOC stated the agency owed rent for use of the property. The SOC received partial payment for the rent in 2018 but received no further compensation. At year’s end, neither the SOC nor the agency had initiated legal action over the dispute.

According to BIK, the central government continued to provide some funding for Islamic education in the BIK madrassah in Pristina and its branches in Prizren and Gjilan/Gnjilane. Some University of Pristina law faculty members said they believed this funding was discriminatory because the government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group.

KPEC stated the Kosovo Immigration Office continued to deny recognition of non-Kosovo missionaries engaged by the Church. KPEC said the Customs Service sought payment of 3,393 euros ($4,200) in taxes for humanitarian aid KPEC received from abroad during the year, while some other religious communities, such as BIK, were exempt from the taxation. KPEC said the Customs Service continued to insist on the tax payment despite intervention by then-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in 2019. In addition, according to KPEC, some businesses did not respect the value-added tax exemption for goods purchased by their churches due to religious prejudices.

The SOC continued to complain about public statements made by Decan/Decani municipal leadership against Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava for his opposition to illegal road construction within the Decan/Decani SPZ.

The Water Services Regulatory Authority stated it waived water utility fees during the year for religious buildings belonging to all religious communities, in contrast with the previous year, when it billed some religious communities, such as Protestants and Tarikats.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

National police said they received reports of 57 incidents targeting religious sites during the year, compared with 61 incidents in 2019. All the incidents were against property. Of the 57 incidents, 45 took place at Muslim, eight at SOC, and three at Catholic sites, while one targeted property not belonging to a specific religious group. Police classified most of the other 56 incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. There were also incidents involving religious sites that were not reported to police. Police did not classify any of the 57 incidents reported as religiously motivated. The SOC, however, stated that some of the incidents involving its property in Kosovo were religiously and ethnically motivated. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as solely based on religious identity.

The SOC again stated media reporting contributed to a climate of interethnic and interreligious intolerance during the year. For example, in September, the SOC Archdiocese of Raska-Prizren issued a press release condemning an article in the newspaper Koha Ditore by history professor Bedri Muhadri that, the press release stated, claimed without evidence that SOC holy sites in Kosovo were actually medieval Albanian and usurped Roman Catholic churches.

BIK again stated there were media reports and statements on social media that portrayed Muslims negatively. In July, a newspaper columnist condemned strong public support for construction of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, writing that Muslims in the country “no longer have any connection with Illyrians,” and adding that “investment in mosques is taking Kosovo away from its European path.”

BIK reported one case of a Muslim woman denied an employment contract in the private sector but did not provide details. According to BIK, devout Muslim women were reluctant to report cases of religious discrimination.

On January 6 in Gjakova/Djakovica, local Kosovo Albanians, including families of persons missing from the 1998-99 conflict, staged a protest in front of the local SOC church, where displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members had planned a pilgrimage on Orthodox Christmas. Media reported that organizers again cancelled the pilgrimage, citing security reasons. Such protests have taken place since 2015.

In August, vandals damaged an SOC church in Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren. In September, media reported an SOC church was desecrated and burglarized in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic.

There were reports of incidents of vandalism throughout the year at Serb cemeteries. Serbian-language media reported that on January 10, an unknown individual placed an Albanian flag on the fence surrounding a Serb cemetery in Gornji Livoc, near Gjilan/Gnjilane Municipality. In February, Serbian-language media reported unknown individuals vandalized a Serb cemetery in the village of Zac in Istog/Istok Municipality on the eve of a memorial service. According to media, the vandals knocked over and broke monuments, cut down centuries-old trees that then fell on gravesites, and removed the fence. The church in the cemetery was reportedly also damaged. In November, Serbian-language media reported that several monuments were demolished at a Serb cemetery in the village of Frasher/Svinjare, near Mitrovice/Mitrovica South, prior to a memorial service. According to media reports, in June, a group of Kosovo Serbs visited a cemetery in Mitrovice/Mitrovica South where more than 80 percent of the tombstones had been destroyed. Some media also published pictures of the cemetery, showing broken tombstones and overgrown foliage.

In April, tombstones on graves of members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian ethnic communities were broken in Rahovec/Orahovac Municipality. Mayor Smajl Latifi publicly condemned the incident and called for immediate police intervention in finding the perpetrators. Then-Minister for Communities and Returns Dalibor Jevtic referenced previous instances in the municipality and pledged to support families affected by the incident. The OSCE also issued a statement of condemnation.

In December, Skenderaj municipal officials reported that vandals destroyed a plaque inscribed with the words “Our Church” in the town of Gjytet in Syrigana. The site is a state-protected cultural heritage site. No specific religious group claimed ownership of the plaque.

According to Catholic Church officials, reports in 2019 of the destruction of religious symbols at a Catholic church in Janjevo village proved to be inaccurate.

BIK leadership stated a group of Mitrovice/a citizens lobbied for reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovice/a North that Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces destroyed in 1999, but that opposition from local Kosovo Serbs continued to stymie reconstruction plans.

Religious group leaders continued interfaith discussions on property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues. The OSCE continued to coordinate some activities among religious groups, including meetings with central and local authorities, to discuss issues such as cemetery maintenance, tax and custom duties exemptions for humanitarian activities by religious communities, and amendments to the law on religious freedom. One outcome of this engagement was improved maintenance of cemeteries by some municipal governments. The OSCE also advocated for inclusion of representatives of all major religious communities in municipal community safety councils, which meet to discuss security issues.

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. Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of Tengrism, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups. By year’s end, parliament did not take up amendments proposed to the religion law in 2019 by the State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA), which include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing. The SCRA continued to refuse to register local Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in the south of the country, despite a UN Human Rights Committee finding in 2019 that the law’s requirement that religious groups register with local councils in order to establish new places of worship was in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the constitution and despite an earlier Supreme Court decision finding the practice unconstitutional. The government did not always provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. The SCRA-proposed solution, which would divide public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space, remained pending as of year’s end. There continued to be reports of threats of violence and other harassment of Christian minorities, including threats against family members in the case of Eldos Sattar uulu, who was attacked by his neighbors because of his Protestant beliefs.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers held mostly virtual meetings 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 virtually with religious leaders, including representatives of the Grand Muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups, 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 6.0 million (midyear 2020 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 Ahmadi 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, in 2019 (most recent data available) ethnic Kyrgyz make up approximately 73 percent of the population, ethnic Uzbeks approximately 15 percent, and ethnic Russians approximately 6 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 provides for 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 prohibits 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, a government organization composed of presidential appointees, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion. 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. 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, despite a 2016 Supreme Court decision that nullified this section of the law.

The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. The SCRA may also deny or postpone the registration of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of the group are not religious in character. Denied applicants may reapply at any time or may appeal to the courts. The law prohibits unregistered religious groups from actions such as renting space and holding religious services. Violations may result in an administrative fine of 500 som ($6).

After the SCRA has approved a group’s registration as a religious entity, the group must register with the Ministry of Justice to obtain status as a legal entity so it may own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities. The organization must submit an application to the ministry that includes a group charter with an administrative structure and a list of board and founding members. If a religious group engages in a commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes. By law, religious groups are designated as NGOs exempt from taxes on their religious activities.

The law gives the SCRA authority to ban a religious group in cases where courts concur that a religious organization has undermined the security of the state; undertaken actions aimed at forcibly changing the foundations of the constitutional system; created armed forces or propaganda advocating war or terrorism; engaged in the encroachment on the rights of citizens or obstruction of compulsory education of children; coerced members to remit their property to the religious group; or encouraged citizens to refuse to fulfil their civil obligations and break the law. The group may appeal the decision in the courts.

The constitution prohibits religious groups from “involvement in organizational activities aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.” A conviction for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of three to eight years, while a conviction for creating an organization aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of five to 10 years. Conviction for murder committed on the grounds of religious hatred is punishable by life imprisonment.

The law mandates separate prison facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and “extremism.” The law also allows for stripping the citizenship of any Kyrgyz national found to have trained to acquire skills to commit terrorist or extremist crimes outside the country. The law defines “extremist activity” as including the violent overthrow of the constitutional order; undermining the security of the country; violence or inciting violence on racial, national, or religious grounds; propagating the symbols or paraphernalia of an extremist organization; carrying out mass riots or vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity; and hate speech or hostility toward any social group.

According to the law, only individuals representing registered religious organizations may conduct missionary activity. If a foreign missionary represents an organization approved by the SCRA, the individual must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Visas are valid for up to one year, and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country. All foreign religious entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must reregister annually. Representatives of religious groups acting inconsistently with the law may be fined or deported. Violations of the law may result in fines of 1,000 som ($12), and deportation in the case of foreign missionaries.

The law provides for the right of religious groups to produce, import, export, and distribute religious literature and materials in accordance with established procedures, which may include examination by state experts. The law does not require government examination of religious materials (such as literature and other printed or audio or video materials), and it does not define the criteria for state religious experts. The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations or in visits to individual households, schools, and other institutions. The law specifies fines based on the nature of the violations. The law requires that law enforcement officials to demonstrate an intent to distribute extremist materials to arrest a suspect.

The law allows public schools an option to offer religion courses that discuss the history and character of religions, as long as the subject of such teaching is not religious doctrine and does not promote any particular religion. Private religious schools need to register with SCRA to operate as such.

According to the law, religion is grounds for conscientious objection to and exemption from military service. Conscientious objectors must pay a fee of 18,000 som ($220) to opt out of military service. Draft-eligible males must pay the fee before turning 27 years of age. Failure to pay by the age limit requires the person to perform 108 hours of community service or pay a fine of 25,000 som ($300). If males are unable to serve due to family circumstances and have not paid by the age limit, they must pay 18,000 som ($220). Draft-eligible men who evade military service and do not fall under an exemption are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years. It is obligatory to serve in the military for 12 months, although the law provides for alternative forms of community service. Religious groups are not exempt from this law, and members must pay to opt out of military service.

The country is a party to the ICCPR.

Government Practices

The government maintained its bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including al-Qaida, the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, Kurdish Peoples’ Congress, Organization for the Release of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Union of Islamic Jihad, Islamic Party of Turkistan, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah, At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar. Authorities also continued to ban all materials or activities connected to the Chechen Islamist militant leader A.A. Tihomirov (aka Said Buryatsky), whose activities and materials the Bishkek District Court deemed to be extremist in 2014.

During the year, the government continued to arrest members of the pan-Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir on extremism charges. According to local press, the government arrested 13 alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir during the first six months of the year. In most cases, the arrestees were detained in the State Committee for National Security’s (GKNB) pretrial detention center that housed violent extremists.

According to human rights NGOs, religious extremism arrests dropped significantly after the change to extremism laws in 2019 that removed provisions allowing the arrest of individuals for possessing materials deemed extremist. Official government statistics to corroborate this were not available. According to a human rights NGO that tracks these cases, in eight of 12 confirmed arrests on extremism charges during the year, charges were dropped after courts found there was insufficient evidence under the revised law. Extremist incidents were defined as membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, distribution of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization. Despite the change in the extremism laws, NGOs reported that the government arrested social media users who shared or liked digital content that the government considered extremist, especially religious literature connected to banned groups, in a shift away from arrests for possessing physical media. The NGOs noted that arrests were centered on ethnic Uzbek communities in the south.

Leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that on September 3, the leadership of the SCRA hosted a local television program with members of the Russian Orthodox Church and a local Muslim cleric in which the SCRA participant repeatedly said that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were extremists.

Ethnic Uzbeks said that police continued to target and harass them, usually in connection with the possession of banned religious literature or support of banned organizations, which they said was based on false testimony or planted evidence. Unlike in 2019, there were no reports of government officials visiting Christian churches to demand to see their financial records.

There were reports that police and prosecutors continued to threaten members of Eldos Sattar uulu’s family with violence or arrest. Sattar uulu, a Protestant, returned to the country during the year after fleeing in 2018 due to being threatened because of his faith.

Parliament continued to consider draft amendments to the religion law submitted by the SCRA in 2019 but did not take action before year’s end. The amendments would ban on door-to-door proselytizing, require notification to the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad, and maintain the 200-member minimum for registration as a religious organization, which would restrict registered organizations from creating smaller filial branches across the country.

As of September, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the SCRA continued to refuse to register local houses of worship, based on a provision of law requiring religious groups to register with local councils to establish new places of worship. The requirement remained in effect despite a finding by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2019 that it was in violation of Article 18 of the ICCPR and the constitution, and a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 that the requirement was unconstitutional.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ representatives stated that the SCRA and other government organizations continued to use spurious applications of the law to prevent them from establishing new congregations. On January 20, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community reapplied for registration of their local houses of worship. Their 2019 request had been denied by the SCRA. The SCRA rejected the January application, “in order to avoid a threat to social stability, interfaith harmony, and public order.” On May 28, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a lawsuit with the Bishkek administrative court, citing the SCRA’s insistence on using a provision of the law that had been deemed unconstitutional. On June 24, the court returned the claim without consideration, accepting the SCRA’s argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative appeal process. On July 14, the community filed an appeal of the initial decision with the SCRA. The SCRA rejected this appeal, stating that it was not submitted in a timely manner. On July 24, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a second suit against the SCRA in the Bishek administrative court, after which the SCRA announced that it was suspending consideration of the registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregations due to the lawsuit. On November 12, the Supreme Court upheld the Bishkek court ruling, accepting the SCRA argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative process and thus could not appeal the SCRA decision in court. With the court’s ruling, the SCRA’s rejection of the Jehovah’s Witnesses application became final.

Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete, even when successful. One group reported that the SCRA had not registered it after five years of attempts. Some unregistered groups continued to report they were able to hold regular religious services without government interference, especially foreign religious organizations that had been registered in the past and had an annual application for reregistration pending. The SCRA reported it registered 112 mosques, 11 Christian churches (no information provided on denominations), 38 religious schools, and 28 religious organizations through October. The SCRA also reported that there were 2,662 registered mosques, two registered Islamic universities, 141 registered madrassas, and 77 registered Islamic foundations in the country.

Although the government continued not to list the Ahmadi Muslim Community as a banned organization, a representative of the group again stated it still had not obtained registration. The community initially registered in 2002, but the SCRA declined to approve its reregistration every year since 2012, including again in 2020. The SCRA has also refused to register Tengrism as a religion since 2013, declaring that government theologians said Tengrism is a philosophical movement and not a religion.

While the law does not require examination of all religious literature and materials, religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated the SCRA required that they submit 100 percent of their imported religious material for review. According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, the SCRA continued its practice of having individuals designated by the SCRA as experts examine imported religious materials submitted for review by religious organizations, although the law did not mandate such a review. There continued to be no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating the experts who examined the religious literature that groups wished to distribute within their places of worship. According to religious studies academics, the SCRA continued to choose its own employees or religious scholars whom the agency contracted to serve as the experts. Attorneys for religious groups continued to say the experts chosen by the SCRA were biased in favor of prosecutors and were not formal experts under the criminal procedure code. The State Forensic Service, with support from SCRA on religious matters, screened the content of websites, printed material, and other forms of media for extremist content.

NGOs working in prison reform and countering violent extremism continued to report that laws mandating separate facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism were often poorly implemented. NGOs reported that violent extremists were not separated from inmates who were incarcerated for lesser crimes, including simple possession of extremist materials, which they said could lead to radicalization of other populations in the prisons. The government announced that it would review old convictions for possession of such materials, but there were no reports it had actually done so. NGOs reported that prison authorities required religious literature other than the Quran or hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammed) to be approved by the Muftiate.

According to representatives of religious groups, refusal either to serve or to pay a fee to opt out of military service continued to subject a conscientious objector to hardship, because military service remained a prerequisite for employment in the government and with many private employers.

According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. A government policy announced in 2017 to address this problem by dividing public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space had not been implemented as of year’s end. According to the SCRA, the draft policy was approved by relevant government agencies and was undergoing revisions before implementation.

The SCRA held an interfaith dialogue forum in January, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented subsequent forums during the year. The event included Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i participants as well as civil society representatives, local authorities, and officials from the Ministry of Interior and the GKNB. As in previous years, the forum focused on religious tolerance, cooperation, and mutual understanding among representatives of religious communities as well as between the state and religious organizations, including a specific focus on religious communities outside of the capital.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to civil society activists, incidents of harassment of minority religious groups continued to occur in small towns and villages with majority Kyrgyz populations. In January, Eldos Sattar uulu, who fled to Ukraine in 2018 because of attacks against his Protestant faith, returned to the country, but not to his village of Tamchi, out of fear of reprisal from community members due to his decision to go to the media after the attacks against him. Sattar uulu returned after a reported settlement between his attackers and his family in which he agreed to not prosecute his attackers in exchange for his family’s safety. According to observers from the area, the settlement was likely due to continuing threats against Sattar uulu’s parents.

On March 18, the Muftiate suspended Friday prayers and Islamic proselytization (dawah) due to COVID-19. The Grand Mufti, Maksat Azi Toktomushev, encouraged Muslims to pray at home and maintain social distancing. On August 26, the Muftiate lifted those restrictions as long as mosques followed anti-COVID-19 protocols.

Lesotho

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief and to manifest and propagate one’s religion. On January 10, the Christian Council of Lesotho (CCL), an umbrella organization of seven Christian churches, said in a statement that there was a risk that the government and security agencies would not respect the rule of law during a period of political change leading to the May 11 collapse of the ruling coalition. The government did not publicly respond to the statement. On August 10, in response to the continued ban on in-person religious services as part of the government’s efforts to combat COVID-19, the Council of Pentecostal Churches of Lesotho publicly stated “the church is not a super spreader” like shopping malls and other businesses, which had been allowed to reopen, and the government should permit religious services to resume. On August 30, the government announced churches could hold services in groups of no more than 50 persons indoors and 100 persons outdoors. The government continued to provide extensive support for schools operated by religious groups, including paying and certifying all teachers.

While religious leaders said in general there was broad religious tolerance and respect in the country, some government and private sector representatives occasionally expressed distrust of business owners of South Asian origin, many of whom were Muslim. Some government and security-sector officials said they were concerned about the growth of Islamic religious practices in urban areas. Some colleagues of these officials, however, dismissed such concerns as fearmongering.

The U.S. embassy continued to maintain regular contact with religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and the need to prevent discrimination against adherents of the country’s growing minority religions, particularly Islam.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the CCL, approximately 90 percent of the population is Christian. An Afrobarometer February-March survey estimated the Christian population to be 95 percent or higher. The survey found that Protestants, including Anglicans, evangelical Christians, Methodists, members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Pentecostals, Christian Zionists, Baptists, and members of the Church of Christ represent 52 percent of the population, and Roman Catholics 41 percent. The rest of the country’s residents are Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, belong to indigenous or other religious groups, or are nonbelievers. Many Christians practice traditional indigenous rituals in conjunction with Christianity. There is a small number of Jews, most of whom are not citizens, and a small number of Muslims, who live primarily in the northern area of the country and in the capital.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief, and to manifest and propagate one’s religion. These rights may be limited by laws in the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or protecting the rights of other persons, provided the limitations are the minimum necessary.

The government has no established requirements for recognition of religious groups. By law, any group, religious or otherwise, may register as a legal entity with the government, regardless of its purpose, as long as it has a constitution and a leadership committee. Most religious groups register, but there is no penalty for those that do not. Registration gives a group legal standing, formalizes its structure under the law, and provides exemption from income tax. In the absence of registration, religious organizations may operate freely, but without legal standing or any of the protections of registered organizations.

The education ministry pays and certifies all teachers at government-funded schools, including religious schools, and requires a standard curriculum for both secular and religious schools. The government permits but does not mandate religious education in schools, and the constitution exempts students at any educational institution from requirements to receive instruction or attend any ceremony or observance associated with a religion that is not their own. The Minister of Education must approve all curricula, including for religious education classes. The law does not prohibit or restrict schools run by religious organizations. Other than the constitutional provision barring discrimination, there is no specific law requiring religious schools to accept children not of the school’s denomination.

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

Government Practices

On January 10, the CCL, which represents the largest Christian groups, said in a statement that there was a risk the government and security agencies would not respect the rule of law during a period of political change leading to the May 11 collapse of the ruling coalition. The government did not take any action in response to the CCL statement.

On August 10, in response to the continued ban on in-person religious services as part of the government’s efforts to combat COVID-19, the Council of Pentecostal Churches of Lesotho publicly stated “the church is not a super spreader” like shopping malls and other businesses, which had been allowed to reopen, and the government should permit religious services to resume. On August 30, the government announced churches could hold services in groups of no more than 50 persons indoors and 100 persons outdoors.

During the year, churches owned and operated 83 percent of all primary and 66 percent of all secondary schools. The Roman Catholic Church, Lesotho Evangelical Church, Anglican Church, and, to a lesser extent, Methodist Church were the primary operators of religious schools, which were publicly funded.

In practice, in any school offering religious education – including all religious schools and some secular schools – the subject was mandatory, according to parents and teachers. Despite the constitution granting the ability for students to opt out, there were no reports of students electing to do so.

The government continued to permit families to send their children to schools run by a religious group other than their own, and some families chose this option. Others went to public schools or secular private schools.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

While religious and civil society leaders said in general there was broad religious tolerance and respect in the country, some government and private-sector representatives occasionally expressed distrust of business owners of South Asian origin, many of whom were Muslim. A few government and security-sector officials said they were concerned about the growth of Islamic religious practices in urban areas. Some colleagues of these officials dismissed such concerns as fearmongering.

Liberia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state and stipulates all persons are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, except as required by law to protect public safety, order, health, morals, or the rights of others. It also provides for equal protection under the law and prohibits religious tests for office and the establishment of a state religion. Religious leaders urged the government to engage religious communities in proactive dialogue on social issues, rather than calling upon religious organizations as mediators as a last resort after problems develop. Religious leaders continued to express willingness to mediate in conflict situations as an extension of their proactive dialogue on social issues. In March, following consultation with the Liberian Council of Churches (LCC), the Minister of Health closed churches and mosques along with schools and businesses in two counties under a national health emergency as part of the country’s COVID-19 response. In April, the President expanded the closures nationwide after declaring a three-week renewable national state of emergency. Some Christian religious groups initially resisted the closure. Police were called in to enforce the order to close houses of worship and arrested some Christian worshippers before the closure measures were later eased in May. Muslim groups continued to call on the legislature to pass a law recognizing Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays.

In February, police in Kakata, Margibi County, arrested and charged a Christian “prayer woman,” Yamah Yango, with manslaughter for allegedly beating to death her eight-year-old nephew, Tom Yango, following his refusal to continue with three days of fasting and prayer “to cleanse him of evil spirits.” At the request of local residents, in August, in Picnicess District of Grand Kru County, County Superintendent Doris N. Ylatun invited traditional herbalist Tamba Bundoo to “cleanse” Chenakaleh of witchcraft believed to have caused the death or disappearance of approximately 50 individuals over two years. His activities were halted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in early September following complaints. More than a hundred local citizens then staged a peaceful demonstration on September 3 seeking the resumption of Bundoo’s activities by marching to the administration building in Barclayville to present their petition to the local authority of Grand Kru County.

U.S. embassy officials engaged with government officials, including the President’s religious advisors and members of the legislature, to promote interfaith dialogue and to stress U.S. government support of religious freedom and tolerance in connection with issues relating to historical accountability, land disputes, and ethnic tensions. Embassy officials additionally promoted religious freedom and tolerance across society through outreach to religious leaders and communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2008 National Population and Housing Census, which remains the most recent available, the population is 85.6 percent Christian, 12.2 percent Muslim, 1.5 percent persons who claim no religion, 0.6 percent adherents of indigenous religious beliefs, and less than 1 percent members of other religious groups, including Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Muslim organizations continued to dispute these official statistics, stating that Muslims constitute up to 20 percent of the population and calling for the government to conduct a new census, which is expected to take place in 2021.

Christian churches include the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Baptist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Episcopal, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, United Methodist, and a variety of Pentecostal churches. Many members of religious groups also incorporate elements of indigenous beliefs and customs into their religious practices.

Christians reside throughout the country. Muslims belonging to the Mandingo and Fula ethnic groups reside throughout the country, while Muslims of the Vai ethnic group live predominantly in the west. The Poro (for males) and Sande (for females) societies – often referred to as secret societies – combine traditional religious and cultural practices and are present in the northern, western, and central regions of the country. Other traditional cultural and religious societies, including the Kui Society and the Bodio, or priests of the Gleebo people, exist in the southeast.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state and stipulates all persons are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It states no one shall be hindered in the exercise of these rights except as required by law to protect public safety, order, health, morals, or the rights of others. It provides for equal protection under the law and prohibits political parties that exclude citizens from membership based on religious affiliation. It also states no religious group should have exclusive privileges or preferences and that the country should establish no state religion.

The government requires all religious groups, except for indigenous ones that generally operate under customary law, to register their articles of incorporation and their organizations’ statements of purpose.

Local religious organizations register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and pay a one-time fee of 10,500 Liberian dollars ($64) to file their articles of incorporation and an annual fee of 3,500 Liberian dollars ($21) for registration. Foreign religious organizations pay 84,000 Liberian dollars ($520) for registration annually and a one-time fee of 105,000 Liberian dollars ($640) to file their articles of incorporation. Religious organizations also pay 1,800 to 2,700 Liberian dollars ($11-$17) to notarize articles of incorporation to be filed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an additional 1,000 Liberian dollars ($6) to receive a registered copy of the articles. The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning issues proof of accreditation for the articles of incorporation. There is also an option of completing the same process at the Liberia Business Registry. Some religious organizations report being charged registration fees for each of their individual locations throughout the country, as per a government regulation issued two years ago.

Registered religious organizations, including missionary programs, religious charities, and religious groups, receive income tax exemptions and duty-free privileges on goods brought into the country, privileges not afforded to unregistered groups. Registered groups may be sued as a single entity separately from any lawsuits brought against individual owners.

The law requires high-level government officials to take an oath ending with the phrase, “So help me, God,” when assuming office. It is customary for Christians to kiss the Bible, and Muslims the Quran on those occasions.

Public schools offer nonsectarian religious and moral education as part of the standard curriculum, which includes an overview and history of various religious traditions and an emphasis on moral values.

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

Government Practices

In March, Minister of Health Wilhelmina S. Jallah declared a national health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic and designated as infected areas two of the country’s 15 counties, Montserrado (where the capital Monrovia is located) and Margibi. She then imposed a lockdown that closed places of worship as well as schools and businesses. The government allowed places of worship to reopen on May 15. The Muslim and the small Baha’i communities generally adhered to the government’s closure of places of worship, but according to the head of the LLC, some Christian religious groups resisted the measure. The Bahaʼi Spiritual Assembly, in keeping with the ban, suspended its New Year’s celebration, which was scheduled for March 19 and 20, and the National Muslim Council suspended all religious activities at mosques. The LCC, however, noted that during negotiations with the government before the lockdown, there was agreement that churches or other places of worship would not have to close but would only reduce overcrowding and observe other rules related to social distancing. Places of worship were ultimately required to close, but sources stated that the determination initially came as a surprise to the LCC, as negotiations before the closure were mainly about overcrowding.

On March 22, according to media reports, police inspector general Colonel Patrick Toe Sudue and several police officers raided the church of Senator Prince Yormie Johnson, pastor of the Chapel of Faith Ministries and an accused war criminal. They entered during a service and attempted to enforce the government’s COVID-19 restrictions and convince worshippers to leave. Johnson refused to halt the service, stating that the legislature remained open while houses of worship were being forced to close. Police threatened to arrest him if he held services the following week. The senator ended his March 22 church service early and did not hold a service the next week.

On March 26, a large group of worshippers of the Saint Assembly Church in the Old Road community in Monrovia gathered on a field and clustered together to worship and “pray for the nation.” According to media reports, members of the group refused to obey police, who used loudspeakers to tell the group to disperse. The police arrested some members but did not succeed in dispersing those assembled. It was reported that Saint Assembly worshipers also ignored a team from the LCC dispatched to the field to assist police with dispersing them. The worshippers eventually left, and the next morning, police took control of the field in which the church members had gathered.

In March 2019, President George Weah appointed Usmane T. Jalloh as the country’s first official Muslim religious advisor, to serve alongside two Christian advisors and to advise the President on issues relating to the Muslim community. On October 28, Jalloh stated that his office had worked out all the necessary modalities with the President’s office for the two religions to live together in harmony. For example, he pointed out that the government had agreed that for official programs, if the opening prayer is delivered by Christian, then a Muslim will perform the closing prayer. In June 2019, the government, for the first time, granted leave to Muslim civil servants to observe Eid al-Fitr.

Muslim organizations said they welcomed the President’s appointment of a Muslim religious advisor and the granting of paid leave. The organizations, however, continued to call for official recognition or observance of major Islamic religious holidays and cited Christmas and Fast and Prayer Day, which falls near Good Friday, as examples of officially recognized Christian holidays. Muslim organizations have advocated for recognition of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays since 1995. On May 24, at the end of Eid al-Fitr, Sheik Ali Krayee, Chief Imam of the Republic of Liberia and the head of the National Imam Council of Liberia (NICOL), called for legislation making Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha public holidays for Muslims a “social right.” The Chief Imam said Muslims should not support political candidates who did not support the legislation and promised that the Muslim community in the country would mount pressure for an Islamic holiday after the upcoming special senatorial election.

In response to Muslim demands for the legislature to enact into law the two holidays, the Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, Jensen Seyenkulo, quoted in the Liberian Observer newspaper on May 27, stated that Christmas and Easter are celebrated worldwide and are not legislated in the country. He said that Fast and Prayer Day cut across every religion in the country and was not restricted to one religion and therefore was not a Christian holiday.

On August 4, dozens of Muslims, under the banner “Movement for Islamic Holidays in Liberia,” also petitioned the legislature to recognize Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays. According to spokesperson Ayoubah Dauda Swaray, the group was composed of 20 Islamic organizations, mostly youth driven, with members mainly from Montserrado and Margibi Counties. Swaray noted that the group had the endorsement of the National Muslim Council of Liberia and the National Imam Council of Liberia. According to Swaray, the petition stated that several Christian holidays are celebrated as national holidays, but there are no recognized Muslim holidays. According to Swaray, this lack of recognition marginalized the Muslim community. In receiving the petition, the chairman of the House Committee on Claims and Petition, Representative Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis, thanked the group for its peaceful assembly and assured them of legislators’ commitment to look through the matter and promised to present their request to the plenary for possible action. She also stated that, because the country is a secular state and there have been no religious holidays passed into law, the legislature would have to consider the request diligently before making any decision.

Members of the Muslim and Bahaʼí communities working in government or public positions said government agencies continued to be reluctant to grant time off to observe other religions’ holidays.

Religious leaders recommended the government engage religious communities in proactive dialogue on social and other issues, such as COVID-19 awareness, political violence and disputes, and economic development, rather than calling upon religious organizations as mediators only after problems develop. On several occasions, as in the previous year, the Interreligious Council of Liberia (IRCL) called for and facilitated dialogue between the government and some opposition figures.

On July 30, when opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) leader Alexander Cummings and Representative Yekeh Kolubah were attacked by an angry mob in Grand Gedeh County for their criticisms of the Weah presidency, LCC Secretary General Christopher Toe said the LCC wanted to be a part of the mediating team but was hampered by financial and logistical considerations. As a result, the LCC called for financial support from the government and partners.

The LCC held discussions with authorities of the University of Liberia and representatives of student groups from the university and from the African Methodist Episcopal University, who staged a protest on August 17 against a mandatory eLearning platform for instruction launched by the universities due to the COVD-19 outbreak. The students wanted the platform to be made optional. They threatened mass protests and demanded the reopening of the university campuses in order to return to a more traditional style of learning. On September 15, the University of Liberia dean of student affairs announced that the state-run university would resume normal learning activities once the necessary health protocols prescribed by the Commission on Higher Education were met at the university. Following the LCC intervention, the students accepted this outcome.

On May 14, the LCC, together with National Muslim Council of Liberia and the Traditional Council of Liberia, mediated a conflict between the Council of Patriots, a prodemocracy movement, and the Liberia Business Registry. The dispute centered on the refusal of the latter to grant the Council of Patriots’ legal registration status due to what many members of the public saw as pressure from the government.

According to Muslim religious leaders, the government continued to employ a disproportionate number of Christian chaplains relative to Muslim chaplains in government institutions when compared with the religious demographics of the country. The government reportedly employed only two Muslim chaplains, one in the armed forces and one in the Supreme Court. In contrast, each of the 19 ministries reportedly had a Christian chaplain, while the Senate had five and the House of Representatives had two. Christian chaplains frequently read Christian prayers before starting official business.

The government continued to subsidize private schools, most of which were affiliated with Christian and Muslim organizations. The government provided subsidies to schools based on need through an application process, although Muslim leaders continued to say the subsidies disproportionately favored Christian schools

Human rights organizations continued to call upon the government to intervene in and investigate cases of persons who were injured or killed due to accusations of witchcraft, exorcisms, and trials by ordeal.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Human rights organizations noted an increase over the course of several years in harmful traditional practices, including accusations of witchcraft, ritualistic killings, and other violent practices, including female genital mutilation, within traditional secret societies such as the Sande Society for girls.

In February, police in Kakata, Margibi County, arrested and charged a Christian “prayer woman,” identified as Yamah Yango, with manslaughter for allegedly beating to death her eight-year-old nephew, Tom Yango. The incident occurred in the Madena community after the child reportedly refused to continue a three-day period of fasting and prayer imposed by his aunt as part of a ritual to “cleanse him of evil spirits.” Yango was being held at the Kakata Central Prison while awaiting trial at the judiciary circuit court in Margibi County.

In July, according to local media, residents of Chenakaleh in the Picnicess District of Grand Kru County asked local officials to employ a traditional herbalist to “cleanse” the area of witchcraft. The residents reportedly said that at least 50 individuals who had disappeared over approximately two years had been abducted for “ritualist purposes,” including a Catholic brother from the Picnicess District, Joseph Nyenplue, who disappeared in June on a fishing trip. In August, Grand Kru County superintendent Doris N. Ylatun invited traditional herbalist Tamba Bundoo to “cleanse” Chenakaleh of “witchcraft and wizardry activities,” but the Ministry of Internal Affairs halted Bundoo’s activities in early September due to complaints of “primitive justice” being administered. On September 3, hundreds of citizens demonstrated to urge the resumption of Bundoo’s activities.

A wide variety of Christian, Muslim, and interfaith organizations worked throughout the year to promote tolerance, dialogue, and conflict resolution through training sessions, workshops, and community meetings. The LCC and the National Muslim Council met and participated in the IRCL, the country’s foremost interfaith organization. In addition, the LCC held several workshops and outreach events on social issues with government agencies and international partners. For example, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, in July, the LCC held a meeting with the head of the COVID-19 Household Food Support Program to review the performance of food distribution. In October, the LCC organized a consultative meeting with political parties, the National Elections Commission, and other stakeholders to address what the LCC described as strengthening peace, security, and democracy in Liberia.

In July, the LCC hosted a consultation with the leadership of the COVID-19 Household Food Support Program (COHFSP), led by the Minister of Commerce and the World Food Program, to review the performance of the government-initiated food distribution program. Following the consultation, the subcommittee on food distribution of COHFSP held a working meeting with the LCC and proposed steps to ensure the peaceful distribution of emergency food relief assistance to vulnerable citizens and residents combating the pandemic.

In October, the LCC held consultations with the leadership of the country’s largest opposition political bloc, the CPP, on a planned nationwide protest action for electoral reform involving cleaning up voter rolls prior to the December 8 senatorial elections. The CPP suspended the planned protest while the LCC continued to work with stakeholders to address some of the concerns raised.

On June 18, with the support of UNICEF and in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the National Public Health Institute, the IRCL began an interfaith effort to train 510 field workers from Christian and Muslim communities to implement its “faith-based action plan” to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in several counties, including Bomi, Bong, Grand Bassa, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Nimba, Margibi, and Montserrado.

Libya

Executive Summary

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution and states that Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation. The activities of non-Muslims remained curtailed by legal prohibitions on the distribution or publication of information aimed at changing the country’s “social structure,” which were used to ban circulation of non-Islamic religious materials, missionary activity, or speech considered “offensive to Muslims.” The criminal code effectively prohibits conversion from Islam, according to scholars and human rights advocates. According to one press report, the Rada Special Deterrence Forces (SDF), a militia nominally aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Human rights activists said freedom of conscience for converts to Christianity, atheists, and Sunni Muslims who deviated from Salafist interpretations of Islam was not respected. Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east, where non-GNA entities competed for control over territory and governance by setting up parallel government institutions. Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. Some of these detainees reported they were tortured and otherwise abused.

Some areas of the country, including the eastern part, operated under the influence of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and LNA-affiliated armed groups. Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including in parts of Tripoli and in Benghazi, where there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards. According to media reports, elements of the Madkhali Salafist movement affiliated with the LNA continued to crack down on activities not sanctioned by their strict interpretation of Islam including the sale of books deemed un-Islamic and events where men and women mixed. According to the Christian rights advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to C