The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic, and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding converts from Islam) are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and to form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” The government continued to execute individuals on charges of moharebeh, including two Kurdish minority prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8. Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel. On June 18, the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the minority Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February. Human rights organizations widely decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture. The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths. Salas’ execution and alleged show trial was largely seen by the international community as being part of the region’s broader crackdown on Sufi dervishes. International media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities detained more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran where they were protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh. One of the Sufi dervishes arrested in February, Mohammed Raji, died in police custody. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.” The Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing. The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that the government banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan. Mohabat News, a Christian news website, reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian. Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings. According to media and NGO reports in early December, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month, including 114 in one week. According to Sufi media and NGOs, Shia clerics and prayer leaders continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements, and the government closed Sufi websites, such as the Gonabadi Sufi Order’s websites, in an attempt to erase their online identity. Yarsanis stated they continued to face discrimination and harassment by authorities. The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher educational opportunities for members of religious minorities, and confiscated or restricted their religious materials. There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down. On November 23, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks. On October 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September. CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz city council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees. The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council.
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, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.
The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a speech and USA Today op-ed piece. In his opinion piece, he said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces. The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.” At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran. In the statement, the governments said, “As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran and call on authorities to ensure religious freedom for all.” During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end of religious persecution in the country, stating: “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.” In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned the “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi dervish community.” The United States supported the rights of members of religious minority groups in the country through actions in the UN, including votes to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur. The U.S. government also supported resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.
Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law lists Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” and reportedly detained at least 47 Witnesses and put 72 under investigation. Authorities banned Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, raided homes, seized personal property and religious literature, and subjected individuals to lengthy interrogations. Authorities continued to detain, fine, and imprison members of other minority religious groups and minority religious organizations for alleged extremism, including followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. At least 11 of his followers were tried or jailed during the year, with four convicted of allegedly belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, and seven more detained on the suspicion that they were members of the organization. In one case, according to the nongovernmental human rights organization (NGO) Memorial, authorities beat and verbally abused an individual allegedly from Hizb ut-Tahrir in a pretrial detention facility. Memorial stated the government held 177 political prisoners who were jailed because of their religious beliefs, the majority of whom were Muslim. Authorities convicted and fined several individuals for “public speech offensive to religious believers.” In some cases, it was difficult for minority religious organizations to obtain state registration. The government prosecuted members of many Christian denominations and others for alleged unlawful missionary activity under the amendments to antiterrorism laws passed in 2016, known as the Yarovaya Package. Police conducted raids on the private homes and places of worship of religious minorities. Religious minorities said local authorities used anti-extremism laws to add to the government’s list of banned religious texts. Local officials continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land and denied them construction permits for houses of worship. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions. The government fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals engaging in religious activity, including a rabbi and two African Pentecostals.
Media, NGOs, and religious groups reported a number of attacks on individuals based on their religious identity. For example, since the 2017 Supreme Court ruling classifying the religion as “extremist,” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported beatings, arson attacks on their homes, and employment discrimination. Reports also indicated that hundreds fled the country in fear of persecution. According to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), a local NGO, there were several reported cases of vandalism during the year targeting religious properties. These included unknown assailants knocking down crosses and desecrating Jewish cemeteries. In separate instances, arsonists attacked two Orthodox churches and set fire to a Jewish leader’s vehicle.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict the activities of religious minorities, and the revocation of the registration of some minority religious organizations. Throughout the year, the Ambassador met with representatives of the ROC and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country, including with leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC), the National Coalition of Supporting Eurasian Jewry, the Church of Scientology (COS), and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). In addition, consular officers participated in many administrative hearings involving U.S. citizens accused of violating visa or other administrative requirements. Some of the U.S. citizens in these cases said the government targeted them because they were members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other religious minorities. Other representatives from the embassy and Consulates General in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss developments related to religious legislation, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases. The embassy sponsored visits of members of different faiths from several regions of the country to the United States to engage in the topics of religious freedom and countering violent extremism. The embassy also used its social media platforms during the year to highlight religious freedom concerns.
On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In March UN experts said 15 Shia were convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism and were facing execution after legal processes that human rights organizations deemed lacking in fair trial guarantees and transparency. In January the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal. Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law. A December report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism expressed concern at the “systemic repression against the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shia population lives.” Charges announced by the government during the year for prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, reportedly detained in September 2017, include alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-affiliated groups. The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, commonly known outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior to encourage obedience to laws and regulations protecting “public morals.” Many observers noted a continued decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina, and fewer reports of CPVPV harassment. On March 4, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral. On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.
Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.
Embassy, consulate general, and other U.S. government officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs. In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other relevant ministries and agencies, senior embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. Embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained and imprisoned individuals and discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
The constitution states that all people have freedom of belief and religion. The law provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. The 2016 Law on Belief and Religion, which came into effect in January, maintains a multistage registration and recognition process for religious groups but shortens the time for recognition at the national or provincial level from 23 to five years. It also specifies the right of recognized religious organizations to have legal personality. Religious leaders, particularly those representing groups without recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of government harassment – including physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, and property seizure or destruction – and denials or no response to requests for registration and/or other permissions. For example, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were imprisoned in February on charges of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties.” There continued to be reports of severe harassment of religious adherents by authorities in the Central Highlands, specifically members of the Evangelical Church of Christ, and in the Northwest Highlands for H’mong Christians and Catholics, as well as for Catholic and Protestant groups in Nghe An Province. Religious group adherents reported local or provincial authorities committed the majority of harassment incidents. Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were reportedly able to practice their beliefs with less government interference, although some recognized groups reported more difficulty gathering together in certain provinces, including the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) (ECVN) in Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, Ha Giang, and Hoa Binh Provinces. Others seeking to officially register their groups, including the United Presbyterian Church and the Vietnam Baptist Convention, also reported increased difficulty gathering in some provinces. Members of religious groups said some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership, training programs, assemblies, and other activities. The government registered two religious communities, the Vietnam Full Gospel Denomination and the Vietnam United Gospel Outreach Church, during the year. Registration is the second step in the three-step process towards recognition and does not convey legal status. For the first time since 1998, United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) leader Thich Quang Do took up residence in a UBCV-affiliated pagoda. The government also allowed renowned Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh to return to the country. Hanh resided at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue at year’s end, and adherents reported no difficulties visiting him. Hanh also received diplomats and senior government leaders.
There were several reports of registered Cao Dai adherents preventing adherents of the unsanctioned Cao Dai from performing certain religious rituals. There continued to be some incidents of harassment of Catholics by the progovernment Red Flag Association, although the group reportedly dissolved itself in March.
The Ambassador and senior embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the independent UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent and “pure” Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups. They sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration. The Ambassador, Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, and senior embassy officers advocated for religious freedom in visits across the country, including to the Central Highlands. The Ambassador and officials met regularly and maintained recurring contact with religious leaders across the country. The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with the chairman of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs in Washington, D.C. in July and raised concerns about implementation of the new law, the status of religious believers detained or imprisoned, and the situation of ethnic religious minority groups. The Ambassador at Large and a senior official from the Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor raised issues of religious freedom during the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in Washington in May.