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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.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by ISIS-K and other insurgent groups continued to target specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Shia Hazara. During the year, UNAMA documented a reduction from 2019 in civilian casualties from attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers. UNAMA recorded 19 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019. The attacks caused 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. The report attributed all the attacks to antigovernment elements.

UNAMA continued to report high levels of ISIS-K-directed, sectarian-motivated violence, primarily targeting the Shia Muslim, mostly ethnic Hazara, population. It documented 10 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and Sikhs, resulting in 308 civilian casualties (112 killed and 196 injured), compared with 2019 when there were 10 incidents resulting in 485 civilian casualties (117 killed and 368 injured).

Several major attacks against the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, gunmen attacked a ceremony in Kabul attended primarily by Shia Hazara, killing 32 persons; ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On May 12, three unidentified gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and healthcare workers; no group claimed responsibility. On October 24, a suicide bomber staged an attack on an educational center in the same Shia Hazara-dominant neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons and wounding 57. Most of the casualties were between the ages of 15 and 25. ISIS-K claimed responsibility.

On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11 during a six-hour siege. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one. On March 27, police found and defused another IED near the Kabul gurdwara. In the months that followed, many Sikh families departed the country, primarily to India, due to threats against Sikhs and what they perceived to be inadequate government protection.

Progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. Media reported that on January 28, the district director of the Hajj and Religious Department for Pashtun-Zarghon District in Herat Province, Mullah Abdulhamid Ahmadi, was shot and killed by unidentified individuals. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Media reported that on February 2, unidentified gunmen killed one person praying in a Shia mosque in Herat. On February 11, five children were killed and three others wounded when a bomb exploded at their Sunni madrassah in Kunduz Province. All the children were under the age of 14. On May 13, unknown gunmen attacked worshippers praying at a Sunni mosque in Khost Province. One person was killed and another wounded. On May 19, unidentified gunmen killed three persons and wounded another in a Sunni mosque in Khost. Also on May 19, in Parwan Province, gunmen opened fire on worshippers gathered at a Sunni mosque, killing 12, including four children, and wounding six. None of the perpetrators was identified.

On June 18, a bomb killed at least seven students at a seminary in Takhar Province. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, and there was no investigation of the incident by year’s end.

According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted progovernment Sunni mosques. On June 2, a bomb exploded inside the Sunni Wazir Akber Khan Mosque in Kabul, killing the imam and one other worshipper attending evening prayers. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On June 12, a bomb in the Sunni Sher Shah Suri Mosque in Kabul killed four men gathered for Friday prayers, including the imam. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Following these attacks on two mosques in June, clerics gathered in Kabul to demand government protection of religious figures. Media reported that the Ministry of Interior said it had assigned a team to investigate the incidents.

The Taliban continued to kill religious leaders and threaten them with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. Media reported that on December 22, the Taliban killed Imam Mawlawi Ghullam Sakhi Khatib in Farah because of his progovernment messaging.

In several cases, the responsibility for attacks on progovernment religious leaders was unclear. In these instances, although no individual or group claimed responsibility, local authorities said they suspected that ISIS-K or, less frequently, the Taliban were responsible. On June 13, an imam in Takhar Province was killed and two of his companions wounded by unidentified gunmen as the imam returned from prayers. No group claimed responsibility. On October 17, a religious scholar was killed by a bomb that exploded inside the seminary where he studied in Nangarhar Province; no group claimed responsibility.

There continued to be reports of the Taliban monitoring the social practices of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their interpretation of Islamic law. 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. The man with whom she was reportedly involved escaped. Media reported that on August 4, the Taliban killed a local singer in Takhar Province as he returned home from a wedding because the Taliban considered singing to be prohibited in Islam.

There were again reports of Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. As a result, according to MOHRA officials, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for members of the ANDSF and other government employees. According to media, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that on June 19, the Taliban tortured and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing the funeral rites of a local police commander.

According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.

There again were reports of the Taliban taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula; however, it was difficult to obtain information in Taliban-controlled territory.

Shia Hazara leaders said the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations in Doha offered a chance for a peaceful future but were concerned a postsettlement Taliban would “turn back the clock” to a time when human rights, including religious freedom, were not respected in Afghanistan. Hazara leaders expressed concern that, if the Taliban established an Islamic emirate in the country, the Taliban would not accept Shia Islam as a formal religion and would ignore laws currently in place that protect Shia. In March, the UN Security Council issued UN Security Council Resolution 2513 noting that the Security Council did not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic’s negotiating team for the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations included Shia Hazara representatives.

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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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. In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, although COVID-19 restrictions changed the platforms for engagement used by embassy officials, and many discussions were held virtually.

Senior embassy officials met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities following the March attacks on the Sikh community to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith. On March 28, senior embassy officials met with Shia Hazara leaders to discuss the peace process and the protection of Afghan ethnic and religious minorities. On October 14, senior embassy officials met virtually with members of the Shia Hazara community to discuss their perspectives on the peace negotiations and how they might affect their community, including religious freedom.

Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could foment intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, especially in the context of peace negotiations. The embassy reaffirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom and tolerance. It coordinated events with researchers and religious scholars throughout the provinces to discuss religion as an avenue to promote tolerance. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. On February 20, representatives of the Lincoln Learning Center in Gardiz visited the Sikh minority community of Gardiz to highlight interfaith tolerance. On May 21, the Lincoln Learning Center network hosted a speaker who shared his personal experience about how Muslim Americans observe Ramadan in the United States. In addition, in the context of the connections between ethnicity and religious identities in the country, embassy officials hosted panel discussions to analyze antiracism efforts through an Islamic lens.

The embassy hosted in-person and virtual roundtables with researchers, Sunni and Shia religious scholars, Ulema Council members, including members of the Women’s Ulema, and MOHRA representatives to discuss means to counter violent extremism related to religion and to promote tolerance.

The embassy also used social media to support religious freedom. On January 16, U.S. Religious Freedom Day, the embassy highlighted on Twitter and Facebook a roundtable with faith communities that centered on how tolerance promotes peace and underscored the U.S. government’s support for religious freedom. Senior Department of State officials condemned the late March attacks on the Sikh community in Kabul through tweets and media statements. In drawing attention to diversity in June, the Charge d’Affaires shared a quote on social media expressing U.S. commitment to stand with an Afghanistan that promotes freedoms for all its citizens, including in following their faith. The Charge d’Affaires condemned through Twitter the June 2 attack on a Kabul mosque that resulted in the death of its imam and other worshippers.

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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy representatives regularly met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Social Welfare, and local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. They discussed the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights into security policy and stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from extremist attacks.

During the year, the United States provided nearly $349 million in assistance for programs to assist Rohingya refugees and host communities in the country, emphasizing U.S. support for protecting vulnerable religious minority groups.

As part of U.S.-funded training for community policing, the embassy specifically encouraged law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.

Public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year, including a virtual roundtable held on November 24 that brought together leaders from the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim faiths. During the discussion, participants discussed reports of rising communal attacks against religious minorities and how the United States could assist in protecting religious minorities. On December 18, Department of State and embassy officials participated in a virtual meeting with Hindus and Christians, including the Bangladeshi diaspora community in the United States, to similarly discuss rising communal attacks, possible causal factors, and appropriate response measures. Embassy officials attended religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. On November 18, the Ambassador visited the Hindu Sri Siddeswari National Temple and met with temple leadership to discuss COVID-19 and the pandemic’s impact on the Hindu community.

The embassy used social media throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance. On October 27, U.S. International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy posted social media messages highlighting the U.S. government’s commitment to advancing religious freedom.

Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for the rights of religious minorities and emphasized the importance of their protection. Embassy officials met regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, including the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, BHBCUC, Bangladesh Christian Association, Buddhist Religious Welfare Trust, Christian Religious Welfare Trust, World Buddhist Association Bangladesh, Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, International Buddhist Monastery of Dhaka, and the Aga Khan Foundation. In these often virtual meetings, embassy and other U.S. government officials and representatives from the various groups discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, underscored the importance of religious tolerance, and identified challenges religious minorities encountered.

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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the USAID Administrator, the Ambassador to Burma, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and senior Department of State officials for East Asia and human rights – consistently raised ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom in the country with senior government and military leaders. They specifically raised the plight of the overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing minority religious communities in Kachin, northern Shan, and Chin States amid ongoing military conflicts, and the advocacy on social media of violence against religious minorities.

U.S. visa restrictions imposed in July 2019 on the armed forces commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities remained in force during the year, as did Global Magnitsky financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on these same individuals for serious human rights abuses.

In March, the then-USAID Administrator said, “We have carried out groundbreaking initiatives aimed at helping religious and ethnic minorities recover from atrocities, [providing assistance to] the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh.”

In May, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom warned that the Burmese military was denying Rohingya Muslims access to medical care and exposing them to the risk of complications in severe cases of COVID-19.

In February, when launching the International Religious Freedom Alliance to promote global religious freedom and respect human dignity, the Secretary of State noted the repression of religious freedom in Burma, stating, “We condemn terrorists and violent extremists who target religious minorities, [including] Muslims in Burma.”

The U.S. government continued to press for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations, including those concerning religious freedom.

The U.S. government advocated with senior Burmese government officials for the military to drop its legal action against a leading pro-tolerance monk for remarks critical of the military.

U.S. government officials continued to call for sustainable solutions to the root causes of discrimination and violence in Rakhine State, including a voluntary and transparent path to provision of citizenship, freedom of movement and access to services for IDPs, and unhindered access for humanitarian personnel and media in Rakhine and Kachin States. Embassy officials also urged government and interfaith leaders to improve efforts to mitigate religiously motivated violence in Mandalay, Kachin, and elsewhere. Since August 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $820 million in humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh and Burma, including $469 million in 2020, with $78 million for programs in Burma, $314 million for programs in Bangladesh, and $29 million in regional crisis response.

Embassy officials at all levels emphasized the importance of addressing the effects of ethnoreligious violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric. Embassy officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with high level government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the national security advisor, and the Ministers of International Cooperation; Religious Affairs; Home Affairs; Ethnic Affairs; Immigration, Population, and Labor Affairs; and Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement Affairs. Embassy officials also met with officials in the President’s Office, the Speaker of the lower house of parliament, parliamentarians, and representatives of other governments.

Although embassy travel to ethnic and religious minority-predominant areas was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions of religious freedom and tolerance with state and local government officials, NGOs, and members of community-based organizations and religious communities continued. Embassy staff visited Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Shan and Karen States, areas where conflict or violence have affected religious minorities in recent years, as well as other areas that suffered from and were identified as vulnerable to ethnoreligious violence.

The embassy emphasized the need for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, in public engagements, and through its social media accounts. At high-profile events, embassy representatives spoke out for religious freedom and against intercommunal conflict and hate speech, including at panel discussions on U.S. First Amendment rights integral to freedom of religion and communal harmony. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, repeatedly met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations and NGOs, to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy also shared multiple posts on Facebook to engage local audiences on the importance of religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in democratic societies and in the United States.

The Ambassador gave interviews to local media and international media in which he discussed the need for accountability for the 2017 ethnic cleansing and improved conditions for Rohingya and other minority groups. The embassy regularly published statements highlighting concerns about religiously-based tensions and anti-Muslim discrimination, as well as calling for respect for religious diversity, unity, and tolerance.

Public programs at embassy facilities in Yangon and Mandalay offered a platform for community leaders, media, students, and others to discuss intercommunal tolerance and respect, often featuring individuals from minority ethnic and religious communities, including a virtual Youth Forum on tolerance. The embassy hosted programs on digital and media literacy as a way to empower participants to reject online hate speech and the spread of rumors and other misinformation. As in prior years, the embassy worked with and supported numerous faith-based groups and NGOs working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 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.

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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador raised the issue of the Christian Montagnards from Vietnam on several occasions with government ministers and other representatives and encouraged the government to allow their permanent resettlement to proceed. Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ambassador highlighted to government officials the vulnerability religious minority groups faced and stressed the importance of actively ensuring these groups are not discriminated against and receive all public services to which they are entitled. Embassy officials regularly raised with MCR representatives and other government officials the importance of fully integrating religious minorities into Cambodian society and highlighted the benefits of supporting religious pluralism.

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. The Ambassador highlighted cultural and religious traditions of Muslims in the country and the benefits of religious diversity through a video posted to social media during Ramadan. The Ambassador met with the president of the Highest Council for Islamic Religious Affairs to discuss challenges faced by Muslim communities and encouraged him and the Council to assist any Uyghur or other Muslim refugees from Xinjiang, China, who might seek refuge in the country.

Embassy officers met periodically with ethnic Cham and other Muslim community members to support religious tolerance, respect for minority culture, equal economic opportunity, and integration of ethnic minorities into the wider culture.

Some embassy programs focused on supporting the preservation of religious cultural sites, such as the Phnom Bakheng temple in Siem Reap Province.

China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)

Read A Section: China

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang are appended at the end of this report.

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. National law prohibits organizations or individuals from interfering with the state educational system for minors younger than the age of 18, effectively barring them from participating in most religious activities or receiving religious education. Some provinces have additional laws on minors’ participation in religious activities. The government continued to assert control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports. The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. According to Minghui, a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,600 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. According to the annual report of The Church of the Almighty God (CAG), authorities arrested more than 7,000 of its members and subjected them to physical abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and being forced into stress positions. The CAG reported some individuals died in custody or as a result of police harassment. Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported instances of individuals being held for extended periods of time in psychiatric hospitals for practicing their religious beliefs, where authorities beat them and forced them to take medication. Authorities detained and arrested religious leaders trying to hold services online. The government continued its 2019-2024 campaign of “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, including by requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions, monitoring religious services, preapproving sermons, and altering religious texts, including, according to media, stories from the life of Jesus, to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the State. In September, United Front Work Department (UFWD) vice head and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) director general Wang Zuo’an announced foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in China. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued its campaign against religious groups it characterized as “cults,” including the CAG, and maintained a ban on other groups, such as Falun Gong. From January to July, officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, in some but not all cases citing COVID restrictions. There were reports the government used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to increase the surveillance and arrest of religious practitioners, including members of state-sanctioned groups, and to curtail private worship among religious groups. Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature, and penalized publishing and copying businesses that handled religious materials. Authorities censored online posts referencing Jesus or the Bible. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, and Taoist houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country. The government removed architectural features that identified churches and mosques as religious sites. It altered textbooks to delete references to religious holidays. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In October, the Holy See extended for another two years its 2018 provisional agreement with the government concerning the appointment of bishops. Critics stated the agreement did not alleviate government pressure on Catholic clergy to join the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang and Tibet, authorities continued to suppress Uyghur and Tibetan language and culture, while promoting ethnic Han individuals in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread.

In multiple public speeches, the U.S. Secretary of State criticized the government for curtailing religious freedom. In an October speech on tolerance given while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.” The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of government officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance, and for the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In July, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on four Chinese leaders and additional PRC entities pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. During the year, the U.S. government added 20 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List that were implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. imposed visa restrictions on government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing the visa restrictions, the Secretary of State said, “The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” The U.S. also prohibited import of merchandise believed to have been produced in Xinjiang with forced labor. At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) report Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, published in September 2019, there are more than 200 million religious adherents in the country. An SCIO April 2018 white paper on religion in the country states there are approximately 5,500 religious groups.

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, including those belonging to the five officially recognized religions, are unclear. Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers. The Pew Research Center and other observers say the numbers of adherents of many religious groups often are underreported. The U.S. government estimates that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the country’s total population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, followers of folk religions 21.9 percent, and atheists or unaffiliated persons 52.2 percent, with Hindus, Jews, and Taoists comprising less than one percent. According to a February 2017 estimate by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious adherents in the country, including 185 to 250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60 to 80 million Protestants, 21 to 23 million Muslims, seven to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, six to eight million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2020 report, there are 97.2 million Christians. According to 2015 data from the World Jewish Congress, the country’s Jewish population is 2,500, concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kaifeng.

The SCIO’s April 2018 white paper found the number of Protestants to be 38 million. Among these, there are 20 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches, according to information on TSPM’s website in March 2017. The SCIO report states there are six million Catholics, although media and international NGO estimates suggest there are 10-12 million, approximately half of whom practice in churches not affiliated with the CCPA. Accurate estimates on the numbers of Catholics and Protestants as well as other faiths are difficult to calculate because many adherents practice exclusively at home or in churches that are not state sanctioned.

According to the 2018 SCIO white paper, there are 10 ethnic minority groups totaling more than 20 million persons for whom Islam is the majority religion. Other sources indicate almost all Muslims are Sunni. The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uyghur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces. The SARA, also referred to as the National Religious Affairs Administration, estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million. Most Uyghur Muslims are concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and, along with ethnic Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, number approximately 14.9 million residents, or 60 percent of the total population there.

While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by branch, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.

Prior to the government’s 1999 ban on Falun Gong, the government estimated there were 70 million adherents. Falun Gong sources estimate tens of millions continue to practice privately, and Freedom House estimates there are seven to 20 million practitioners.

Some ethnic minorities follow traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The central government classifies worship of Mazu, a folk deity with Taoist roots, as an expression of “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but it limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining normal. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution provides for the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief. It says state organs, public organizations, and individuals may not discriminate against citizens “who believe in or do not believe in any religion.” The constitution states, “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

The law does not allow legal action to be taken against the government based on the religious freedom protections afforded by the constitution. Criminal law allows the state to sentence government officials to up to two years in prison if they violate a citizen’s religious freedom.

The CCP is responsible for creating religious regulations and oversees the UFWD, which in turn manages SARA’s functions and responsibilities. SARA is responsible for implementing the CCP’s religious regulations and administers the provincial and local bureaus of religious affairs.

CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practice. Members found to belong to religious organizations are subject to expulsion, although these rules are not universally enforced. The vast majority of public office holders are CCP members, and membership is widely considered a prerequisite for success in a government career. These restrictions on religious belief and practice also apply to retired CCP members.

The law bans certain religious or spiritual groups. Criminal law defines banned groups as “cult organizations” and provides for criminal prosecution of individuals belonging to such groups and punishment of up to life in prison. There are no published criteria for determining or procedures for challenging such a designation. A national security law also explicitly bans cult organizations.

The CCP maintains an extralegal, party-run security apparatus to eliminate the Falun Gong movement and other organizations. The government continues to ban the Guanyin Method religious group (Guanyin Famen or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy) and Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline). The government considers Falun Gong an “illegal organization.” The government also considers several Christian groups to be “cults,” including the Shouters, The Church of the Almighty God (CAG, also known as Eastern Lightning), Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church (Quan Fanwei Jiaohui), Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (San Ban Puren), Association of Disciples, Established King Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Family of Love, and South China Church.

The Counterterrorism Law describes “religious extremism” as the ideological basis of terrorism; it uses “distorted religious teachings or other means to incite hatred or discrimination, or advocate violence.”

The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Regulations require religious organizations to register with the government. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations are permitted to register, and only these organizations may legally hold worship services. The five associations, which operate under the direction of the CCP’s UFWD, are the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China (IAC), the Three Self Patriotic Movement Church (TSPM), and the CCPA. Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official TSPM or Catholics professing loyalty to the Holy See, are not permitted to register as legal entities. The law does not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official patriotic religious associations to obtain legal status.

According to regulations, religious organizations must submit information about the organization’s historical background, members, doctrines, key publications, minimum funding requirements, and government sponsor, which must be one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations. Registration information is only required once, but religious organizations must reregister if changes are made to the required documentation.

Under revisions to the civil code passed by the National People’s Congress in June, a religious institution established according to law may apply for the status of a “legal person” (nonprofit entity) under Article 92 of the civil code. The revisions formalized the ability of organizations to possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations, thereby facilitating authorities’ ability to track and regulate religious institutions. Previously, bank accounts and real estate holdings were commonly held in the name of individual staff members, making it difficult in some cases for authorities to separate the financial matters of members from those of the religious institution.

Religious and other regulations permit official patriotic religious associations to engage in activities such as building places of worship, training religious leaders, publishing literature, and providing social services to local communities. The CCP’s UFWD, including SARA, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs provide policy guidance and supervision on the implementation of these regulations.

Government policy allows religious groups to engage in charitable work, but regulations specifically prohibit faith-based organizations from proselytizing while conducting charitable activities. Authorities require faith-based charities, like all other charitable groups, to register with the government. Once they are registered as official charities, authorities allow them to raise funds publicly and to receive tax benefits. The government does not permit unregistered charitable groups to raise funds openly, hire employees, open bank accounts, or own property. According to several unregistered religious groups, the government requires faith-based charities to obtain official cosponsorship of their registration application by the local official religious affairs bureau. Authorities often require these groups to affiliate with one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations.

Article 70 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs requires members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad for “religious training, conferences, pilgrimages, and other activities.” Anyone found organizing such activities without approval may be fined between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100 and $30,600). Illegally obtained income connected to the travel may be seized and “if the case constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be investigated according to law.”

The regulations specify that no religious structure, including clergy housing, may be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments. SARA regulations place restrictions on religious groups conducting business or making investments by stipulating the property and income of religious groups, schools, and venues must not be distributed and should be used for activities and charity befitting their purposes; any individual or organization that donates funds to build religious venues is prohibited from owning the venues.

The regulations impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site. Regulations ban donations from foreign groups and individuals if the donations come with any attached conditions, and they state that any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($15,300) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval. Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” may not accept donations from foreign sources that have conditions attached.

The regulations require that religious activity “must not harm national security” or support “religious extremism.” The regulations do not define “extremism.” Penalties for “harm to national security” may include suspending groups and canceling the credentials of clergy.

National laws allow each provincial administration to issue its own regulations concerning religious affairs, including penalties for violations. Many provinces updated their regulations after the national 2018 regulations came into effect. In addition to the five officially recognized religions, local governments, at their discretion, may permit followers of certain unregistered religions to carry out religious practices. In Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong Provinces, for example, local governments allow members of Orthodox Christian communities to participate in unregistered religious activities.

SARA states, in a policy posted on its website, that family and friends have the right to meet at home for worship, including prayer and Bible study, without registering with the government. A provision states, however, that religious organizations should report the establishment of a religious site to the government for approval.

By law, prison inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious faith while in custody. However, the PRC defines the right to religious faith differently than the right to religious activities, such as prayer facilities and access to clergy. Muslim prisoners are reportedly allowed to have meals with the “halal” label.

The law does not define what constitutes proselytizing. The constitution states that no state unit, social organization, or individual may force a citizen to believe or not believe in a religion. Offenders are subject to administrative and criminal penalties.

An amendment to the criminal law and a judicial interpretation by the national Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court published in 2016 criminalize the act of forcing others to wear “extremist” garments or symbols; doing so is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, short-term detention or controlled release, and a concurrent fine. Neither the amendment nor the judicial interpretation defines what garments or symbols the law considers “extremist.”

Publication and distribution of literature containing religious content must follow guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration. Online activities (“online religious information services”) of religious groups require prior approval from the provincial religious affairs bureau. Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles, Qurans, and Buddhist and Taoist texts, may be confiscated, and unauthorized publishing houses closed.

The government offers some subsidies for the construction of state-sanctioned places of worship and religious schools.

To establish places of worship, religious organizations must first receive approval from the religious affairs department of the local government when the facility is proposed, and again before services are first held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have a set facility or worship meeting space. Therefore, every time such groups want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel room or an apartment, they must seek a separate approval from government authorities for that specific service. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, gained either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity and is subject to criminal or administrative penalties.

By regulation, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or the construction of “key” projects, the party responsible for demolishing the structure must consult with its local bureau of religious affairs (guided by SARA) and the religious group using the structure. If all parties agree to the demolition, the party conducting the demolition must agree to rebuild the structure or to provide compensation equal to its appraised market value.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs include registration requirements for schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their affiliates to form religious schools. Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules varied widely across and within regions. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools. The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students. The Regulations on Religious Affairs of the XUAR state, “Minors shall not participate in religious activities. No organization or individual may organize, induce or force minors to participate in religious activities.” Minors are also prohibited from entering religious venues. Multiple provinces send letters instructing parents that “teachers and parents should strictly enforce the principle of separation between education and religion and ensure that minors are not allowed to enter religious places, participate in religious activities, or to attend religious trainings.” Implementation of these rules, however, varies greatly across and within regions.

The law states job applicants shall not face discrimination in hiring based on religious belief.

On February 1, the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups went into effect. These measures comprise six chapters and 41 articles dealing with the organization, function, offices, supervision, projects, and economic administration of communities and groups at the national and local levels. The measures state that only registered groups may operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must support the leadership of the CCP, adhere to the direction of Sinicization, and implement the values of socialism. Article 17 states that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules, and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). With respect to Macau, the central government notified the UN Secretary-General, in part, that residents of Macau shall not be restricted in the rights and freedoms they are entitled to unless otherwise provided for by law, and in case of restrictions, the restrictions shall not contravene the ICCPR. With respect to Hong Kong, the central government notified the Secretary-General, in part, that the ICCPR would also apply to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Government Practices

Police continued to arrest and otherwise detain leaders and members of religious groups, often those connected with groups not registered with the state-sanctioned religious associations. There were reports police used violence and beatings during arrest and detention. Authorities reportedly used vague or insubstantial charges, sometimes in connection with religious activity, to convict and sentence leaders and members of religious groups to years in prison.

Sources continued to report deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities had targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. There were reports that authorities tortured detainees, including by depriving them of food, water, and sleep. NGOs reported that some previously detained individuals were denied freedom of movement even after their release.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation counted 3,492 individuals imprisoned for “organizing or using a ‘cult’ to undermine implementation of the law.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that according to a government source, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a confidential document in September ordering a nationwide, three-year crackdown on the CAG. The campaign outlined three main goals: “To destroy the Church’s system domestically completely, to substantially downsize its membership by preventing church activities and blocking new members from joining, and to curb the development of the church abroad.” Bitter Winter reported increased arrests of Church members following the issuance of this document, including 71 arrests in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu Province, in September and 160 arrests in Nanyang City, Henan Province, on November 10 alone.

According to the annual report released by the CAG, during the year, at least 42,807 church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 32,815 in 2019. The report stated that authorities harassed at least 35,752 church members (at least 26,683 in 2019), arrested 7,055 (6,132 in 2019), detained 4,045 (4,161 in 2019), tortured or subjected to forced indoctrination 5,587 (3,824 in 2019), sentenced 1,098 (1,355 in 2019), and seized at least RMB 270 million ($41.3 million) in church and personal assets. At least 21 church members died as a result of abuse or persecution (19 in 2019). The 21 included four who died as a result of physical abuse or forced labor, three who committed suicide as a result of authorities surveilling and pressuring them to renounce their faith, and four who died of medical complications during or following their detention.

According to the CAG annual report, in August, a woman named Qin Shiqin died in custody in Shandong Province 10 days after her arrest. Facial swelling and blood in the corners of her mouth could be seen on her remains. A 71-year-old woman identified as “Xiang Chen” died in prison in Sichuan Province while serving a three-year sentence because of her faith. Her remains appeared emaciated, her face was swollen and bruised, and a scar was visible under her nose. A man named Zou Jihuang died in custody in Hubei Province of liver cirrhosis. Zou had been arrested in 2017. During his imprisonment, he had developed a liver condition for which he was denied medical treatment, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor. In Shaanxi Province, a 77-year-old woman named Yang Fengying committed suicide after police went to her home multiple times over the course of three years to intimidate and threaten her.

According to the CAG annual report, at least 847 CAG members were arrested between February and April, many of whom were apprehended as a result of the CCP’s antipandemic household checks or at identity card checkpoints. Police extracted information on the church from these individuals through physical abuse, such as administering electric shocks and handcuffing them painfully, with one arm over a shoulder and one twisted up from below.

Media reported authorities used measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including facial recognition software and telephone tracking, to identify and arrest members of unregistered or banned religious groups. The government installed surveillance cameras outside unregistered churches during the pandemic. According to media reports, the government conducted door-to-door household inspections, during which they identified and arrested members of banned religious groups. One CAG member said she hid under the bed every time officials came for an inspection. A government employee in Shandong Province said his superiors ordered him to search for nonlocal tenants, particularly members of banned groups, such as the CAG and Falun Gong.

In May, Bitter Winter reported the political and legal affairs commission of a locality in northeastern China released a document stating the CCP had established “a stability maintenance mechanism” targeting religious groups, among other individuals and groups, that the government determined posed “a danger to social stability” during the pandemic.

Bitter Winter reported that between February and March, authorities used COVID-19-related mandatory identification checks and home inspections to arrest 325 CAG members. In February, authorities arrested two church members during an identification check, searched their home, and confiscated RMB 45,000 ($6,900) of church valuables. During interrogation, officers reportedly placed a plastic bag over the head of one of the Church members and beat him. They also strapped him to a “tiger bench” with his body tied in a stress position and shocked him with an electric baton. According to Bitter Winter, another church member was arrested when a pandemic inspection team that included community representatives, health personnel, and police officers came to his home. During his interrogation, officers reportedly covered his mouth with a plastic bag and hit him on the face with a desk calendar, stepped on his feet, beat his calves with an iron rod, and forced him to hold a live electric baton.

According to Minghui, police arrested 6,659 Falun Gong practitioners and harassed 8,576 practitioners during the year for refusing to renounce their faith, compared with 6,109 arrested and 3,582 harassed in 2019. The arrests occurred throughout the country. Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Jilin, Sichuan, and Liaoning were the provinces where the highest number of practitioners were targeted. Those arrested included teachers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, authors, and dancers. Minghui stated individuals were tortured in custody. Minghui also reported that authorities sentenced 622 practitioners to prison throughout the country during the year. The sentences ranged from three months to 14 years, with the average sentence being three years and four months.

Minghui reported that during the year, 83 individuals from 20 provinces and centrally controlled municipalities died due to being persecuted for being Falun Gong practitioners. Some individuals died in custody as a result of physical abuse, including being deprived of sleep and food, forced into stress positions, and denied proper medical attention. Others died shortly after being released on medical parole. On May 13, authorities in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, arrested Zhang Zhiwen for distributing Falun Gong materials the previous August. Zheng’s husband attempted to bring her clothes and insulin for her diabetes, but authorities refused to accept the items, saying they would provide her medication. Zheng died in custody on May 17 and authorities sent the body directly to a funeral home without notifying her husband. Falun Gong practitioner Li Ling of Dazhangjia Village, Penglai City, Shandong Province, died on July 13 after reportedly being severely beaten following her arrest on June 28. Village authorities forced her family to cremate her remains on the same day. According to her family, her face was deformed, and she was covered in bruises. The village’s CCP secretary and a group of paramilitary soldiers took Li from her home on June 28 after a fellow villager reported seeing her with dozens of Falun Gong booklets.

According to Minghui, on September 22 and 23, authorities in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, arrested 27 Falun Gong practitioners and three family members who were not practitioners, and confiscated books, laptops, printers, money, photographs of Falun Gong’s founder Li Hongzhi, and other personal items. Authorities harassed eight other practitioners within days of the arrests. One practitioner returned home to find police ransacking her home. They confiscated books on Falun Gong and arrested the woman along with her husband, who was not a practitioner. Following a group arrest of Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun City, Jilin Province, in July, police beat one practitioner, hit his head against the wall, and dragged him around on the concrete floor. He suffered severe injuries to his knees as a result.

According to Bitter Winter, on May 18, authorities assaulted several individuals who were protesting the demolition of a Buddhist temple in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, that authorities declared was “a dilapidated building.” Police beat one woman for filming the scene. A witness said, “Three officers pressed her to the ground, hitting her collarbones until she lost consciousness, and the phone was destroyed.” Police injured a monk in his 70s for waving his walking stick at authorities and accused him of “assaulting the police.”

In March, the U.S.-based NGO Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) released a report, Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. In the report, VOC stated that Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur Muslim prisoners of conscience were the most likely source of organs for sale in the country’s organ-transplant market. A related series of articles published during the year examining the country’s organ transplantation system questioned the plausibility of official government statistics about the sourcing of transplant organs, stating there was an overlap between medical personnel performing organ transplants and individuals involved in the anti-Falun Gong campaign.

On March 1, the China Tribunal, an independent tribunal established by the Australia-based NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, released its Full Judgment on the conditions of organ harvesting in the country. The report was a fuller account with appendices of the evidence the nongovernmental group had drawn on and methodology it had used to reach conclusions contained in its Short Form Conclusions and Summary Judgment report issued in June 2019. In the Full Judgment report, the group included accounts by individuals, including medical personnel, who stated they were eyewitnesses to abuses, including from medical personnel, and other evidence that documented what the NGO determined to be a decades-long and ongoing state-run program of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, principally Falun Gong practitioners. The Full Judgment report also contained eyewitness accounts from Falun Gong and Uyghur individuals of involuntary medical examinations, including x-rays, ultrasounds, blood tests, and DNA tests.

According to the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated news organization, on August 2, authorities broke into the home of a Falun Gong practitioner, pinned her down, and forcibly took a sample of her blood, telling her it was “required by the state.” One officer shouted, “The law does not apply to you. We’re going to wipe you all out.” The Epoch Times stated that dozens of other practitioners across the country reported similar incidents. On July 22, authorities in Gaomi County, Shandong Province, arrested and took blood samples from 46 practitioners. An attorney familiar with the cases said the blood sampling did not appear to be a routine physical checkup but rather was illegally “collecting people’s biological samples.”

According to the CAG annual report, harassment of members included the collection of biological data, such as blood samples and hair.

In April, Bitter Winter reported instances in which individuals were held against their will in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time for practicing their religion. According to a staff member in a psychiatric hospital in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, it was hospital practice to begin “treatment” of CAG members as soon as they were brought in, without any tests or examination. According to a member of the Church from Tianmen City, Hubei Province, who spent 157 days in a psychiatric hospital, “A doctor told me that because of my faith, I was a mental patient, and there was no need for further tests.” Nurses threatened to tie her up if she refused to take medication. One former patient said two doctors pressed her down on a desk and shocked her on the back, hands, and feet with an electric baton to force her to take medication. During the month she was in the hospital, doctors administered six electroshock treatments, causing her to suffer memory loss and numbness in her limbs. She said doctors threatened that her son’s job would be negatively affected if she continued to practice her faith.

International religious media outlets and human rights groups reported that local authorities in several districts around the country continued to award compensation to police officers for arresting religious practitioners from certain groups or confiscating donation money. Conversely, local officials were allegedly disciplined if they did not meet a certain quota for arrests of religious practitioners each month. For example, a government employee from Sanmenxia City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter the municipal government issued arrest quotas for CAG members to subordinate localities, leading to the arrest of 211 individuals. In Jiangxi Province, the police arrested 116 CAG members and confiscated RMB 378,000 ($57,800) of church and personal assets. Minghui reported police received an unknown amount of bonus pay for each Falun Gong practitioner arrested.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities raided the homes of and arrested at least eight members of the Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) during an online worship service on April 12, Easter Sunday. A pastor and a deputy deacon were among those arrested. According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), authorities continued to harass members in the weeks following the raid. On April 24, authorities took Church member Ran Yunfei to a police station shortly before he was scheduled to speak in an online service. He returned home later that same day. The NGO ChinaAid reported police summoned Ran again in November in connection with his participation in another online religious seminar.

The ICC reported that on May 23, authorities arrested a pastor from the Nanjing Road Church in Wuhan, Hebei Province, during an online evangelism event in which he was taking part. They interrogated him for approximately five hours before releasing him.

According to Bitter Winter, in February, police arrested 13 members of the Born Again Movement, also called the All Sphere or All Range Church, in Huai’an City, Jiangsu Province. Five of the members arrested were elderly and suffered from various illnesses. Police released the five after protests from their relatives but forced them to sign statements promising to stop their church activities. Police also came to the home of another church member who hosted church gatherings at her home and threatened to arrest her if she did not stop doing so. They said three generations of her descendants would be unable to take college entrance examinations, enroll in the army, or become public servants if she did not stop. The officers took samples of her blood and prints of her fingers and palms.

According to AsiaNews.it, on April 2, authorities took Zhao Huaiguo, founder and pastor of the Bethel Church in Cili County, Hunan Province, from his home and arrested him on a charge of “inciting subversion against state power.” Police returned to his apartment on April 15 to confiscate books, Bibles, and photocopies of books as evidence of “illegal trade” in books. His wife said he was likely arrested because he spoke to foreign news agencies about COVID-19 and had not affiliated his church with the TSPM church. ChinaAid reported the Zhangjiajie Intermediate Court tried Zhao in October for “inciting subversion of state power,” and prosecutors recommended an 18-month sentence.

In May, the ICC reported that authorities transferred Pastor Wang Yi of the ERCC from Chengdu City Detention Center to a prison in an unknown location. In December 2019, Wang had been sentenced to nine years in prison. According to the ICC, since his arrest, authorities had denied Wang’s parents the ability to visit him, either in person or virtually, despite their having the legal right to do so, and Wang’s wife and child were living in an unknown location under surveillance.

At year’s end, the whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng remained unknown, although media reported it was believed he remained in the custody of state security police. In September 2017, police had detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups. In September, the NGO Jubilee Campaign submitted a written statement to the 45th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for the government to “release unconditionally and with immediate effect all political and religious prisoners of conscience, including lawyer Gao Zhisheng.” Gao’s daughter, Geng Ge, submitted a video statement to the council, stating, “As of today, I don’t know if he’s alive or not.”

In October, ChinaAid reported that since July, police in Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, had threatened and harassed Pastor Wang Hai of the Trinity Church and his wife and detained other church leaders and members of Wang’s extended family. Wang said authorities had targeted the Church because its members belonged to the ethnic Miao minority and were Christian. He said that due to the ongoing harassment, church attendance had dropped from 100 worshippers to only a handful who attended Sunday services.

AsiaNews.it reported that on September 1, authorities from the Religious Affairs Bureau in Fujian Province arrested Rev. Liu Maochun, an underground priest of the Mindong Diocese, and held him incommunicado for 17 days to pressure him to join the CCPA. At least 20 underground priests in the region faced similar pressure from the religious affairs bureau, according to AsiaNews.it.

According to RFA, on April 19 and May 3, several dozen state security police and officials from the local religious affairs bureau raided worship services at Xingguang Church, an unregistered church in Xiamen City, Fujian Province. Church pastor Yang Xibo told RFA the congregation was targeted for refusing to join the state-sanctioned TSPM. According to multiple international press reports and mobile phone videos that Church members posted to Twitter, authorities forcibly entered a private residence in which Church members were holding a worship service, without a warrant or showing any form of identification. Authorities seized several congregants and tried to drag them out, injuring three; they detained at least nine members, releasing them approximately 12 hours later. According to RFA, authorities raided Xingguang Church again on June 11, taking away furniture and other church belongings, but did not arrest anyone. ChinaAid stated authorities broke into church members’ homes on July 22, destroying and removing property.

In January, RFA reported that authorities in Jinan City, Shandong Province, arrested Hui Muslim poet Cui Haoxin, known by his pen name An Ran, for Twitter posts in which he criticized the government for the imprisonment, surveillance, and persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang and throughout the country. He was held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” According to RFA, this charge was “frequently leveled at peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.”

The Falun Dafa Information Center, a Falun Gong rights advocacy group, reported authorities in Beijing detained at least 40 persons ahead of the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on May 22. Sources said police also harassed practitioners and searched their homes and that police told the individuals they were taking the actions because of the upcoming political meetings. On April 21, police forcibly entered the home of Wang Yuling by prying open her window. They ransacked the house and confiscated books and printed materials related to Falun Gong, as well as a printer and computer. They took Wang and her daughter into custody. On April 27, authorities forcibly entered the home of Yang Yuliang, searched it, and confiscated Falun Gong books and photographs of Falun Gong’s founder. They held Yang and his daughter, Yang Dandan, in custody for three days.

There continued to be reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities pressuring members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. Media reported the government threatened to withhold social welfare benefits and to retaliate against family members. The NGO CSW stated authorities instructed schools to report the religious beliefs of students and staff.

Bitter Winter reported that on November 1, the government began the seventh national population census, collecting a broad range of personal and household data, including individuals’ identification numbers. According to several census takers, although there were no questions about religion on the census questionnaire, they were instructed when visiting people’s homes to pay attention to religious materials and symbols and to ascertain if the home was being used as a private religious venue. In one case, when five census takers entered a home in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, they saw a Bible and asked the residents if they were Christian. They determined the home was being used as a house church and ordered the residents to stop hosting gatherings. A census taker in Yantai City, Shandong Province, said local police told him and his colleagues to report any households with images associated with Falun Gong. A census taker in Heze City, Shandong Province, said he was ordered to report to police any person who did not allow him inside the home, because refusal might indicate the person held religious beliefs or hosted unauthorized religious gatherings.

According to the ICC, on October 11, police arrested Elder Li Yingqiang of the ERCC in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, just before the church began an online service. During the arrest, police also threatened Li’s two young children. Police also arrested another church member, Jia Xuewei, and interrogated him for several hours about ERCC’s recent spiritual retreat and the worship that was about to take place. Both were released later that day. An ERCC member told the ICC that authorities likely detained Li and Jia to prevent the online service from taking place. According to the source, police told Li he would be taken from his home every week and that they would target his children if he posted about his experience online.

According to Bitter Winter, during the year, authorities in several provinces investigated the personal backgrounds of civil servants, hospital staff, teachers, students, and the family members of each to determine their religious status. In May, the Education Bureau of Jinan City, Shandong Province, required some primary and secondary schools to determine if any of their teachers, students, or their family members were religious.

There continued to be no uniform procedures for registering religious adherents. The government continued to recognize as “lawful” only those religious activities it sanctioned and controlled through the state-sanctioned religious associations. Only government-accredited religious personnel could conduct such activities, and only in government-approved places of religious activity.

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to 2014 SARA statistics (the latest available), more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered by the CCPA. The April 2018 white paper by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) stated there were approximately 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities in the country, among which 33,500 were Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 mosques, 6,000 CCPA churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 TSPM churches and places of assembly.

The 2018 SCIO white paper stated that by 2017, there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA: 41 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, 9 Catholic, and 21 Protestant. Students younger than 18 were barred from receiving religious instruction. This report also stated there were six national-level religious colleges. Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said they regarded one of these institutions to be primarily used as CCPA propaganda for international visitors. The SCIO report also estimated there were more than 384,000 religious personnel in the country: 222,000 Buddhist, 40,000 Taoist, 57,000 Islamic, 57,000 Protestant, and 8,000 Catholic.

The government continued to close down or hinder the activities of religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups. At times, authorities said the closures were because the group or its activities were unregistered or, at other times, because the place of worship lacked necessary permits. Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations. Authorities allowed some unregistered groups to operate but did not recognize them legally. In some cases, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving congregants from these groups with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader. According to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News, Article 34 of the new Administrative Measures for Religious Groups regulation, which governs money and finances, if enforced, “will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities, and other unregistered religious bodies.”

International media and NGOs reported the government continued to carry out its 2019-2024 five-year nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” by altering doctrines and practices across all faith traditions to conform to and bolster CCP ideology and emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations, promulgated in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions.

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity called for “incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clerical attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and it proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.” According to Bitter Winter, on April 13, the UFWD in Zibo City, Shandong Province, issued an order calling on religious groups and clergy to write essays on their “love for the country and the Communist Party.” A Catholic dean in Zibo said that on April 16, a religious affairs bureau official told him to study Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th National Congress of the CCP for an examination he would have to take later. On February 18, the Shenyang Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province issued a notice that the city’s religious groups should hold events to advance Xi Jinping’s policies. On April 14, the TSPM in Fujian Province issued a document stating, “Posters promoting the core socialist values shall be posted in prominent positions in all church venues. Clergy members should highlight the core socialist values in their sermons and use important festivals, major events, and other occasions to interpret and publicize the core socialist values, so that they are inserted into believers’ minds, their Sunday worship services, and daily lives.” Local government authorities reportedly threatened to close churches whose clergy refused to help spread government propaganda.

According to Bitter Winter, the government regularly pressured clergy to incorporate government messages into sermons. Following President Xi’s call in August to curb food waste in the country, two Chinese Christian Councils of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, demanded all TSPM churches integrate the president’s ideas into their sermons, so that “the policy reaches everyone in society.” In response, some clergy members reportedly integrated the president’s exhortation into the Biblical story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.

Media reported that throughout the year, crackdowns on some churches with foreign ties intensified significantly throughout the country. Many religious groups faced comprehensive investigations that included checking their background, organizational setting, membership, online evangelism, and finances. Following investigations, authorities shut down hundreds of churches that were reportedly unregistered or whose registration had not been updated under the new regulations. In late 2019, the Jilin Province Religious Affairs Bureau issued a document calling for investigations of churches related to or funded by overseas religious groups and blocking their activities online, and it began implementing these measures during the year. In Shandong Province, national security officers interrogated a house church pastor in February for evangelical activities abroad.

The government media outlet Xinhua reported that in September, UFWD vice head and SARA director general Wang announced that in the previous 70 years, through the development of the TSPM, foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in the country.

On May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association held a training session for Buddhist professionals and monks across the province. The training included advising monks on how to implement religious Sinicization, Xi Jinping’s remarks at the National Religious Work Conference, and the religious affairs regulations.

The BAC-affiliated Buddhist website AmituofoCN.com reported that on April 16, approximately 50 religious workers, including monks, pastors, imams, and other clergy from the five officially recognized religions, attended a mandatory training program organized by the Hainan Province UFWD, the Hainan Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hainan Party School. Participants studied the principles of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, Chairman Xi’s April 13, 2018, speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Hainan Special Economic Zone, and the Regulations on Religious Affairs. Hainan UFWD deputy director general Liu Geng in his opening remarks told the religious professionals to “make full use of religion to promote social harmony.” According to AmituofoCN.com, on May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association organized another training session for clergy, teachers, and religious workers from various temples in the province. Song Xinghe, an official in the Hainan UFWD Religious Affairs Bureau, gave a lecture entitled, “Insistence on the Sinicization of Religion.”

According to Gospel Times, a Chinese Christian news website, from July 15 to 17, the Guangdong TSPM held a training session for 98 clergy to study new regulations and promote Sinicization in Guangdong Province. An associate professor from Jinling Union Theological Seminary gave a lecture on TSPM and the Sinicization of Christianity. Government officials also gave a lecture on “anticult” measures.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons of TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and contained praise for government leaders. The publication reported that on July 20, the Dandong City Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province required TSPM clergy to participate in a sermon competition on the Sinicization of religion. The clergy were told to prepare sermons by “looking for elements in the Bible that are relevant to the core socialist values and traditional Chinese culture,” in conformity with “the progress of the times.” One clergy member told Bitter Winter that only competition participants would pass the annual review to receive a clergy certificate.

In August, a conference to study the new civil code and volume three of Xi Jinping on Governance was held at the Guangxiao Buddhist Temple, organized by the Guangdong Buddhist Association. Approximately 800 leaders of all religious groups in Guangdong Province attended in-person and virtually.

The state-owned China News Service reported that on December 1, SARA director general Wang delivered remarks at the 10th National Congress of the BAC. Wang called on the BAC to “pursue political progress toward the adherence of Sinicization of Buddhism” to ensure Buddhist content was suitable for “contemporary social development.”

From August 10 to16, the Gansu provincial UFWD held what it described as the first round of training for Gansu Province’s main Islamic clerics and the directors of temple management committees at the Lanzhou Islamic Institute. A UFWD press release stated the training was intended to direct the Sinicization of Islam, promote the statement of CCP principles, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and “increase political literacy, all while highlighting policies and regulations, history and culture, and national and provincial conditions through the lens of patriotic education.”

In November, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that an Islamic scholar in the northwestern part of the country said of Muslim community leaders, “There are no imams who dare to speak out. You can renounce your state-given imam certification and leave the mosque in order to speak out – but then you can be sure you will be constantly monitored.”

On October 13, the state-owned China National Daily News reported the Hubei Provincial Islamic Association released an outline for implementing the “five-year plan for Hubei Province to adhere to the Sinicization of Islam in China (2018-2022).” According to the article, measures to implement the plan included “strengthening political identity,” studying the works of Xi Jinping, studying the Regulations on Religious Affairs, and guiding imams to interpret the scriptures in accordance with “Chinese traditional culture and the core values of socialism.”

China News Service reported that on November 28, the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Taoist Association was held in Jurong, Jiangsu Province. In addition to passing a code of conduct for Taoist teachers, the congress elected Li Guangfu as the new Taoist Association chairman. Li stated that Taoism should “adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” and “adhere to the Sinicization of Taoism.”

Media reported in September that Catholics in the country protested the distorted retelling of a Bible story in a textbook the government-run University of Electronic Science and Technology Press published to teach “professional ethics and law” in secondary vocational schools. In the original biblical story from the Gospel of John, Jesus forgave the sins of a woman who committed adultery and prevented a crowd from stoning her to death. In the textbook, Jesus disperses the crowd, but he says to the woman, “I, too, am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead,” and he then proceeds to stone her to death himself. According to UCA News, Catholic critics said the authors of the textbook “want to prove that the rule of law is supreme in China and such respect for law is essential for a smooth transfer to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Sources told media that authorities in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, home to a majority of Hui Muslims, prevented public calls to prayer and banned sales of the Quran. Authorities also prohibited news broadcasts from showing images of pedestrians wearing skull caps or veils.

During the year, authorities reportedly pressured churches to display banners with messages of political ideology, recite the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and engage in other acts demonstrating loyalty to the CCP over the church. In a press release on October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Pastor Wang Qingwen, senior pastor of Jinghe New City, Shaanxi Province, called on six Christian churches in the city to “unswervingly adhere to the three-self patriotic principle of teaching and strive to promote the theological construction of the Sinicization of Christianity.” In the press release, Wang urged churches to continue to adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and to “hold high the banner of patriotism.”

In December, the Jerusalem Post reported there were approximately 100 practicing Jews among the 1,000 individuals with Jewish ancestry in Kaifeng, Henan Province. Lacking access to the Torah, they used Christian Bibles containing the Old Testament. Members of the community said they worried about government crackdowns on religion and had to celebrate Hanukkah and hold other gatherings in secret. One community member said, “Every time we celebrate, we are scared.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities placed pastors of house churches and dissident Catholic priests under arrest to make sure they would not lead Christmas celebrations in churches or private homes. According to the publication, in Xiamen, Fujian Province, police stopped a group of Christians from singing Christmas songs at a mall, even though they had been invited to perform there. Authorities fined a Christian in Lushan County, Henan Province, RMB 160,000 ($24,500) for gathering people to pray and sing Christmas songs. The NGO Human Rights Defenders reported there was pressure on schools across the country to teach children that Christmas should not be celebrated and that gifts should not be exchanged. According to the NGO, the government gave permission for “spontaneous” street demonstrations by people carrying banners reading “Christmas, Get out of China.”

The government labeled several religious groups as “cults” (xie jiao – literally “heterodox teachings”), including the CAG, the Shouters, the Association of Disciples, and the All Sphere Church. The government also continued to ban certain groups, such as Falun Gong, which it classified as an illegal organization. In July, Bitter Winter reported that several provinces had introduced measures that encouraged individuals to report on members of what it called “cults,” which carried a penalty of between three and seven years’ imprisonment. According to the CAG’s annual report, authorities harassed and threatened with imprisonment more than 8,400 Church members across the country who refused to sign statements renouncing their faith. In Shandong Province, those who reported on suspected “cult” members could receive up to a RMB 2,500 ($380) award, while Hainan Province offered awards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300). Guangdong Province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and Nanjing City introduced similar measures. Actions by cults to be reported included using the internet to produce or disseminate religious materials; producing or disseminating religious leaflets, pictures, slogans, newspapers, and other publications; and hanging religious banners and posters in public places. Sources told Bitter Winter the campaign against xie jiao was ubiquitous throughout the country. Bitter Winter posted photographs of a park in Yuchen County, Shangqiu City, Henan Province, that contained multiple large red banners with anti-xie jiao messages.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it labeled as cults and prevented government employees from participating in religious activities. Faluninfo.net reported that in June, a police supervisor in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, fired Falun Gong practitioner Zha Zhuolin from the force for refusing to write a statement denouncing the group. According to Zha, the supervisor, Xu Wang, said, “The first rule for a police officer is to be loyal to the [Chinese Communist] Party.”

Media reported that in Guangzhou, pandemic-control volunteers delivered anti-xie jiao brochures, along with facemasks and hand sanitizer, to residents at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then broadcast anticult propaganda when an industrial park reopened in April.

According to media, police and local religious affairs bureau officials raided the Dongguan Branch of Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church on the evening of August 21 when more than 10 adherents were holding a Bible study session. Police accused the attendees of “spreading heterodox teachings” and detained three individuals. Two were released shortly, but the minister, Yang Jun, was detained until the next day on a fraud charge.

According to Bitter Winter, the government responded to protests against school reform in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region by blaming the unrest on banned religious groups, such as Falun Gong, or groups it labeled cults, such as the CAG. On August 28, the region’s Anticult Association launched “Prevention of Xie Jiao Propaganda Month.” Activities during the month included holding events, distributing brochures, and teaching “all ethnic groups in Inner Mongolia to guard against xie jiao.”

In October, CSW reported that some ethnic minority villages had established “village rules” to allow villagers to isolate and target Christians. According to CSW, in September, village authorities in Huang Fei Village, Yingjiang County, Yunnan Province, issued a notice stating that the traditional faith of the Dai community was Buddhism and that Christianity was an “evil cult.” The notice announced that anyone who violated the rules of the village “by believing in Jesus Christ and other sects” would have to pay a financial penalty to the community. CSW stated that individuals on social media reported the Li community in Hainan Province had also imposed a financial penalty on persons believing in Christianity.

From January to June or July, the government closed venues throughout the country, including religious venues, and prohibited mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bitter Winter reported, however, that authorities allowed Taoist temples displaying Mao Zedong images to stay open throughout the lockdown. Sources told Bitter Winter that people worshiped at the Arhat Temple in Zhumadian City, Henan Province, throughout the lockdown because it had a Mao Zedong wall painting. The director of the Chinese National Ancestors’ Temple in Shanqui City, Henan Province, said authorities allowed his temple to remain open during the pandemic because it had a Mao Zedong statue.

Media reported authorities tried to stop many religious groups congregating or holding services online during the COVID-19 lockdown. On February 23, Shandong Province’s two state-run Christian organizations, the TSPM and the Chinese Christian Council, issued a notice prohibiting live streaming of religious services. A former TSPM pastor from Jiangxi Province told Bitter Winter that in early February, police shut down a chatroom he was using for a religious gathering. The ICC reported that on August 11, the local religious affairs bureau in Yunnan Province fined Zhang Wenli of the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness RMB 20,000 ($3,100) for conducting unauthorized online Bible study. A TSPM pastor in Binzhou City, Shandong Province, told Bitter Winter in April that the government blocked the link he shared with his congregation on WeChat, a Chinese social media application. A house church director in Qingdao City, Shandong Province, live-streamed a church service on YY, a video-based social network, but the service was suspended less than half an hour into the broadcast. An imam in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, reported that shortly after he discussed Islamic festivals on a social media platform, police blocked his account. A local government official in Liaoning Province was summoned by his superiors in March for attending an online service of a South Korean church. They forced him to uninstall the app that allowed him to join the service.

In June, AsiaNews.it reported that although the government had begun allowing churches to reopen, the bureaucratic process and conditions for reopening made doing so difficult. A priest in central China said these conditions included getting permission to reopen from the village, city, and provincial governments and meeting strict sanitation requirements. The priest said, “Religion does not seem to belong to us; it belongs to the [Chinese Communist] Party.” The Catholic News Service reported authorities in Zhejiang Province issued a notice on May 29 stating that priests were required to “preach on patriotism” as a condition for resuming in-person services. Bitter Winter reported in June that authorities in Zhejiang Province required churches to praise the government’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and to pray for “national economic and social development,” “attainment of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and “promotion and realization of human destiny community,” all of which were President Xi Jinping’s political slogans.

According to Bitter Winter, in July, before the government had begun to lift lockdown restrictions and reopen religious venues in Nanyang City, Henan Province, the city’s religious affairs bureau ordered several folk religion temples to remove religious books and incense burners. Government authorities inspected the Taoist Jade Emperor Temple three times in August. As a condition for reopening the venue, officials ordered the temple to burn scriptures and expel a nun who lived on the premises. The temple remained closed, however, even after meeting these conditions.

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took measures to stop Christians from gathering for Christmas celebrations, although it allowed some musical, cultural, and political events to take place. On Christmas Day, riot police blocked the entrance to the Catholic Cathedral of the Savior in Beijing (also known as the Xishiku Church), saying religious gatherings were cancelled due to the pandemic. A large Christmas tree was used to block the entrance to St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing, and signs were also posted there saying gatherings were cancelled due to COVID-19.

According to Bitter Winter, officials placed arbitrary restrictions on Catholic churches affiliated with the CCPA, closed facilities, and merged others without the congregations’ consent. Government officials in Linyi used a point system to determine whether a congregation should be merged, considering such factors as whether the congregation had more than 10 members or the facility was equipped with a blackboard, audio system, desks, and chairs.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 10, the local religious affairs bureau and the security bureau ordered Father Liu Jiangdong, a Catholic priest from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Zhengshou City, Henan Province, to leave the Zhengshou Diocese, which was affiliated with the CCPA. A source told Bitter Winter that government authorities had previously accused Liu of financial improprieties, suspended his priesthood certificate, and imprisoned him from October 2018 to December 2019. The source said Liu had in fact been imprisoned because he opposed removal of the cross from atop his church, formed a Catholic youth group, and allowed minors to attend religious services. A member of his congregation said that since Liu’s release, authorities had surveilled him, monitored his telephone calls, and locked him out of his residence. A churchgoer said authorities threatened to fine members of Liu’s former congregation up to RMB 200,000 ($30,600) if they sheltered him or invited him to hold Mass in their homes.

Media and human rights organizations reported that SARA issued a new requirement in October that only the IAC was permitted to organize Muslims’ pilgrimage trips. The new regulations stated that those who applied to join the Hajj must be “patriotic, law-abiding, and have good conduct,” have never before participated in the Hajj, and be in sound physical and mental health. They also had to be able to completely pay the costs associated with going on the Hajj and must oppose religious extremism. The new administrative measure was reportedly intended to “preserve religious freedom and the continued Sinicization of religion in the PRC.”

According to Bitter Winter, the municipal government of a city in Zhejiang Province issued a document in April that required authorities to increase “counterterrorism and stability maintenance measures” during Ramadan. The document instructed police to intensify surveillance of local Hui and other Muslims, especially during Friday prayers, the daily breaking of the fast, and other important Ramadan activities. It also instructed police to surveil ethnic minority visitors from Xinjiang by checking their documents and luggage, determining their whereabouts while in the city, and acquiring other information.

NPR reported in November that in the spring, police detained 14 men in Yiwu City, Central Zhejiang Province, because they had purchased Islamic books. They were subjected to weeks of questioning about their political views and online correspondence with Muslim intellectuals and Chinese Muslims overseas. According to a friend of one of the men detained, “The police had printed out the text records everyone had on WeChat with writers and publishers…Now the police say every time they travel, they have to report to [the police] beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.”

Sources reported churches attended by foreigners continued to receive heavy scrutiny, as authorities forced them to require passport checks and registration for members to prevent Chinese citizens from attending “foreigner” services.

Bitter Winter reported that in April, authorities placed surveillance equipment, including facial recognition cameras, in at least 40 religious venues in Zhongwei City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Authorities also installed surveillance cameras in all Protestant and Catholic churches in Jinxiang County, Jinin City, Shandong Province. A deacon at one TSPM Church in Henan Province, where authorities had installed a surveillance camera in December 2019, said, “[Government officials] always know how many congregation members are in the church and what is said during sermons. We have to speak with caution at any time. If we disobey the government, our church will be shut down.” In March and April, authorities in a city in Zhejiang Province placed surveillance cameras outside the entrances of homes of seven members of the CAG. One church member reported she was told this was done for “theft prevention.”

In October, Bitter Winter reported that authorities in Jiangxi Province’s Poyang County, which has a large population of Christians, issued orders to install RMB one million ($153,000) in facial recognition cameras in all state-approved places of worship. According to the report, authorities installed approximately 200 cameras in more than 50 TSPM churches from July to September, and nearly 50 in 16 Buddhist and Taoist temples. A police officer stated the cameras were installed to monitor church members and sermons.

A Catholic source in the northeast part of the country told AsiaNews.it in July that government staff attended Sunday services to monitor activities and ensure children who were 18 or younger did not attend. The Grand Mosque in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, displayed signs prohibiting children who were 18 and younger from participating in religious activity. According to one worshipper at the mosque, authorities said this was to allow young people to focus on their secular education.

Minghui reported that police in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, intensely surveilled Falun Gong practitioner Ma Zhenyu, who had been released from Suzhou Prison on September 19 after completing his three-year sentence. While monitoring Ma, authorities intimidated his mother and other practitioners.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported in September that authorities in Sanya City, in the island province of Hainan, took measures against the predominantly Muslim Utsul ethnic minority, which comprised approximately 10,000 members. They banned girls from wearing traditional dress, including hijabs and long skirts, in school. An Utsul community worker said the ban prompted fierce protests by students and their families and that it was temporarily lifted after hundreds of students wore hijabs in public and boycotted classes. Photographs and videos circulated on social media showed girls wearing hijabs and reading from textbooks outside their primary school while surrounded by police officers. According to the SCMP, Utsuls working in government or CCP bodies were told the hijab was “disorderly.” The restrictions followed a 2019 government-issued document, Working Document Regarding the Strengthening of Overall Governance over Huixin and Huihui Neighborhoods, which referred to the only two predominantly Utsul neighborhoods on the island. The document called for the demolition of mosques displaying “Arabic” features, the removal of shop signs saying in Chinese characters the words “Islamic” or “Halal,” and increased surveillance over the Utsul population.

According to Bitter Winter, from March to May, Islamic symbols and writings in Arabic were painted over or covered on signboards of 70 Hui-run businesses in Chuxiong, the capital of the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. According to some shop owners, officials from various state institutions, among them the public security bureau, urban management, and religious affairs bureaus, ordered them to remove the symbols from their signboards or replace them entirely. Otherwise, their business licenses would be revoked. A baker from the prefecture’s Lufeng County said that from December to May, Islamic symbols were removed from the signboards of 62 halal shops in the county. “The state is out of control, like during the Cultural Revolution…Hui men are not allowed to wear white caps and women, headscarves. Hui Muslims will disappear in two or three generations.” Local officials told shop owners that the order came from the central government and that the signboard-removal campaign was nationwide. According to one local resident in Songming County, Kunming Province, signboards on 176 Hui businesses were “Sinicized” between December 2019 and May. A restaurant owner said, “If we Hui people tried to argue with officials, they would call us rioters and arrest us on any trumped-up charge.”

The SCMP reported in September that new foreign teachers coming to the country had to attend a mandatory 20-hour training course of what the news source characterized as “political indoctrination covering China’s development, laws, professional ethics, and education policies.” According to the newspaper, the Hainan provincial public security bureau offered rewards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300) for tips on foreigners who “engaged in religious activities without permission,” including teaching religion and evangelizing. One teacher said authorities installed a surveillance camera in his classroom to monitor his lessons.

The SCMP reported in September that many foreign missionaries were not allowed to return to the country after it partially lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions for foreign national residents. According to the Voice of America (VOA), in November, the Ministry of Justice published draft regulations requiring foreign worshippers wanting to host religious activities to apply for a permit and to demonstrate their groups were “friendly to China” in their country of origin. The regulations would ban Chinese citizens from attending any services organized by foreigners and would require those organizing religious activities to provide the names, nationalities, and visa status of those who would attend as well as a detailed program of the service, including which texts would be read, before authorities would grant permission. According to VOA, authorities said the new regulations were intended to stop foreigners from spreading “religious extremism” or using religion “to undermine China’s national and ethnic unity.” The draft regulation specified it would also apply to individuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature. The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which were used by both registered and unregistered religious groups. During the year, however, many provinces conducted campaigns cracking down on “illegal religious publications” from unofficial distribution channels. The government-affiliated news outlet Meipian.com reported that in January, law enforcement officers inspected publication wholesale and retail locations, farmer’s markets, and “urban-rural junctions within their jurisdictions” looking for “illegal religious publications and illegal training courses of a religious nature.” The ICC reported that on March 24, the Zhongshan No. 1 District People’s Procuratorate in Guangdong Province charged Christians Liang Rurui and Zhu Guoqing with conducting illegal business operations that “seriously disrupted market order.” According to the ICC, authorities in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, had arrested them in November and December 2019, respectively, for printing 7,000 children’s Bibles. According to the human rights blog Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network), on July 2, authorities arrested four Christians from the Life Tree Culture Communications Co., Ltd. – Fu Xuanjuan, Deng Tianyong, Han Li, and Feng Qunhao – on charges of “illegal business operations” for selling electronic audio Bible players, small handheld devices that allow the user to listen to (as opposed to read) Biblical text. According to Weiquanwang, the company had been legally established in 2011 in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on September 14, the education and environmental protection bureaus in Luoyang City, Henan Province, inspected a local printing house to determine whether it was publishing banned religious materials. The printing house manager said, “They checked my storehouse, scrutinized all records, and even looked at paper sheets on the floor, to see if they have prohibited content. If any such content is found, I’ll be fined, or worse, my business will be closed.” According to Bitter Winter, similar bans applied to photocopying businesses. One photocopy employee said, “I was told to report anyone who comes to copy religious materials.” Another said, “If we are not sure if a text is religious, we must keep its copy and report it to authorities.”

The ICC reported in September that the People’s Court of Linhai City in Zhejiang Province sentenced online Christian bookseller Chen Yu to seven years in prison and fined him for “illegal business operations,” allegedly for selling unapproved religious publications. Authorities first detained him in September 2019.

In July, Bitter Winter reported government restrictions on printing, copying, and mailing nonapproved Buddhist literature increased throughout the country. A source in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said authorities confiscated thousands of Buddhist books and compact discs from at least 20 stores in the region. One store owner said authorities confiscated more than 2,000 Buddhist books and materials from the store. Another shop owner said, “In the past, people would send me books and materials they printed themselves to distribute them for free, but nobody dares to do this now.” In March, police in Zhejiang Province forbade printing houses from fulfilling orders from venues not approved by the government. In June, authorities in Hulunbuir City, Inner Mongolia, banned copy centers from printing Buddhist and Christian materials. One copy shop owner said, “Government officials come every day to inspect computers and copy machines. If they discover that religious materials have been copied, I could be held legally accountable.”

Bitter Winter reported that in early September, police arrested a person in Jinan City, Shandong Province, who attempted to mail compact discs of sermons by Shenpo Sodargye, a Tibetan Buddhist master, to the more than 100 individuals in Weihai City, Shangdong Province, who had ordered them online. The names of the buyers were forwarded to local Weihai police, who summoned them for questioning.

According to Bitter Winter, during a meeting on Buddhism organized on July 31 by the Fuzhou City Religious Affairs Bureau in Jiangxi Province, authorities banned all temples in the city from keeping religious books from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the name of “preventing foreign infiltration.” The director of a Buddhist temple said, “The government controls all books on Buddhism; nothing that does not comply with the CCP ideology is allowed and is considered illegal. Only religious materials promoting the Party are permitted to be circulated.”

According to Bitter Winter, local authorities throughout the country continued to ban the sale and display of religious couplets (banners with poetry) traditionally displayed during Chinese New Year. Local authorities threatened to fine or imprison anyone caught selling them. One merchant in Luhe County, Guangdong Province, said, “We don’t carry religious couplets. Even if we had them, we wouldn’t dare sell them.” On January 19, three officials from Poyang County, Jiangxi Province, entered a TSPM church, took photos, and registered the personal information of those in the church. The officials distributed couplets praising the CCP and demanded they be posted. A government employee in Xinmi City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter that in early March, municipal authorities ordered all town and township governments to conduct door-to-door inspections of households and shops looking for religious couplets. Inspectors were instructed to remove the couplets and cooperate with the public security bureau to ascertain where they had been produced. One shopkeeper said authorities threatened to close his business if he posted Christian couplets again.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials. According to VOA, in October, ChinaAid stated that online censors removed the words “Christ” (jidu), “Jesus” (Yesu), and “Bible” (shengjing) from social media posts and replaced them with the initials “JD,” “YS,” and “SJ.” The word Christianity was replaced with “JD religion.” According to some scholars, Christians were replacing the words in texts themselves to avoid online censors who might block the posts.

In May, Bitter Winter reported authorities continued to dismantle Islamic architectural features and remove Islamic symbols from mosques throughout the country, and it published photographs from multiple locations showing construction workers taking down domes and minarets as well as before-and-after pictures. In Weizhou City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, many of the more than 4,000 mosques in the city were remodeled or destroyed between 2018 and February 2020 as part of the government’s “de-Arabization and de-Saudization” campaign. Before-and-after photographs of the Weizhou Grand Mosque and other mosques showed that Chinese-style pagodas had replaced minarets and crescent moon symbols had been removed.

In late March, authorities removed the domes and star-and-crescent symbols from 17 mosques in Pingliang City, Gansu Province. A local imam said that before the removals, authorities forced imams to study “de-Arabization and de-Saudization policies as well as the promotion of religion ‘Sinicization.’” The imam said authorities threatened to revoke the credentials of imams who did not cooperate with removal of the symbols. Many mosques visible from major highways in Qinghai Province in September had replaced traditional Islamic minarets with more Chinese-looking structures or appeared to be in the process of doing so. Mosques with more traditional Han Chinese architecture, such as the Grand Mosque in Xining, Qinghai Province, remained unchanged and were highlighted in public tours by imams and other mosque representatives.

According to Bitter Winter, in January, authorities removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from at least 10 mosques in Pingdingshan City, Henan Province. On March 18, amid the coronavirus lockdown, government-hired workers remodeled the roof of the Gongmazhuang Mosque in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, to make it look “more Chinese.” Authorities had removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from the mosque in November 2019. In late March, the government ordered the removal of domes and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Xiaoma Village, Henan Province. In mid-November, authorities removed the dome and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Qinghua Town, Henan Province, and hung banners reading, “Resolutely resist religious infiltration and combat religious extremism” at the mosque’s entrance. In Maying Village, Henan Province, after the government ordered the removal of symbols from the local mosque, one resident said, “We have to listen to what Xi Jinping says and what state policies indicate. No one dares to challenge the state.”

In December, Bitter Winter published before-and-after photographs of numerous churches in multiple provinces, including churches affiliated with the TSPM, that showed that exterior crosses had been removed and facades altered to eliminate Western-style features that identified them as Christian worship venues. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM churches in Anhui Province between January and July. In April, UCA News reported the removal of crosses from several Catholic churches, including from Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Anhui Diocese on April 18. A priest said dioceses normally cooperated with authorities on the removal of crosses in the hopes that they would not demolish the entire building. On June 6, all crosses, other religious symbols, and pews were removed from the Wangdangjia village church in Linyi County. The “Catholic Church” signboard above its entrance was covered with wooden boards.

According to Bitter Winter, between March 2019 and January 2020, authorities removed crosses from approximately 70 Christian churches, including TSPM churches, in Linyi City, Shandong Province. Authorities said the crosses were “too close to the national highway,” “too tall,” or might seem “unpleasant” to visiting provincial government superiors. They threatened to demolish the buildings if the crosses remained. On January 8, the provincial government ordered a TSPM Church near the high-speed rail line in Lanshan District, Shandong Province, to remove its exterior cross because it was “too eye-catching.” The Chinese characters for “love” and “Christian Church” were also removed. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM Churches in Anhui Province between January and July.

According to Bitter Winter, officials in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, pressured the abbot of the Buddhist Yuantong Temple to remove an 11-meter (36-foot)-high statue of Guanyin for being “too tall.” According to sources, authorities threatened to close the temple if the abbot did not comply. On March 9, workers dismantled the statue, and photographs accompanying the Bitter Winter article showed it lying in pieces on the ground.

Media reported authorities continued to destroy religious sites, including those affiliated with the TSPM and CCPA. Throughout the year, Bitter Winter published numerous before-and-after photographs showing churches, temples, and other religious structures that had been reduced in whole or in part to rubble. Bitter Winter reported that on March 10, authorities demolished a TSPM Church in Shangqiu, Henan Province. A source told Bitter Winter that on March 10 at 4:00 a.m., more than 200 government personnel and police came to demolish a TSPM Church in Xiazhuang Village, Shangqiu City, Henan Province. According to the source, police kicked in the door and forcibly removed a member of the congregation who was guarding the church, fracturing two of his ribs. The contents of the church were buried under the rubble.

On April 20, the government of Shangrao County in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Prefecture, demolished a TSPM Church, saying the structure was “unlicensed and dilapidated.” Sources said local officials told the congregation higher-level officials had ordered the demolition because “the government doesn’t allow belief in Jesus.” A church member told Bitter Winter the structure was in fact sound and was also registered with the local religious affairs bureau. The church member said that, contrary to law, authorities did not compensate the congregation for destroying the building. Accompanying the article were photographs showing the church before demolition and a pile of rubble following the demolition. According to another church member, following the demolition, congregants began practicing separately at home but had to be cautious. “The government arrests anyone in unauthorized religious gatherings. When they find two or three of us meeting, they can charge us with any crime at will, saying we are against the CCP.”

The ICC reported that on September 12, authorities in the town of Xiezhou in Yanhu District, Yucheng City, Shangxi Province, demolished the tombstones of more than 20 Swedish missionaries who had performed missionary work in the country in the early 1900s. They threatened to arrest anyone who photographed or videotaped the incident. Authorities planted vegetation over the gravesites.

Local sources reported authorities continued to close Christian venues or repurpose them into secular spaces. According to Bitter Winter, in April, the government of Qingshui Township in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province, closed a TSPM Church for being “unlicensed and too eye-catching.” Officials destroyed religious symbols inside the church and posted a closure notice at the entrance. In May, officials converted the church into an activity center for the elderly, placing a ping-pong table, Chinese chess boards, and secular books inside.

Bitter Winter reported that on January 1, six local government officials and police officers raided a Catholic nursing home in Fuzhou City, Jiangxi Province. They confiscated 30 religious publications, a cross, and other religious symbols, sculptures, and paintings. A photograph accompanying the article showed that a mural of Jesus that had been displayed behind the alter was replaced with a landscape painting and an outdoor sculpture of Jesus was covered with a shed. Authorities pressured the church’s priest to sign an application to join the CCPA, but he refused. According to Bitter Winter, authorities also targeted the Benevolence Home, a nursing home operated by nuns in Saiqi Village, Fujian Province. On January 12, nearly 50 local government officials and police officers raided the nursing home where more than 30 persons lived, some of whom were from impoverished households or disabled. Authorities forced the elderly residents out and cut off the building’s electricity and water supply.

In July, a Catholic source in southeast China told AsiaNews.it that the local government denied permits to construct new Catholic churches and halted construction that was already underway. In January, AsiaNews.it reported that in at least five parishes in Mindong Diocese, Fujian Province, including Fuan, Saiqi, and Suanfeng, authorities cut off power and water to prevent churches from being used, citing “fire safety” measures.

Bitter Winter reported that government and law enforcement personnel destroyed the Great Hall of Strength, a Buddhist temple in Handan City, Hubei Province, on March 6. A local Buddhist said authorities demolished it because it “lacked a religious-activity venue-registration certificate.” The temple director said he was never approached about obtaining such a certificate. The local Buddhist said, “The government just wanted to demolish the temple…People cannot argue with authorities; they will accuse us of breaking the law as they please.”

According to Bitter Winter, authorities demolished the Buddhist Phoenix Temple in Qitang Town, Chongqing Municipality, on January 3. In March, authorities ordered eight Buddhist temples in Yongchuan District, Chongqing Municipality, to close and brick up their entrances, rendering the buildings unusable. Authorities demolished the Longhua Temple in Ma’anshan City, Anhui Province, on April 1.

Sources told Bitter Winter that on May 18, more than 20 officials and police in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, destroyed a Buddhist temple that authorities had declared “a dilapidated building.” When a protester attempted to film the scene, police officers pressed her to the ground and hit her in the collarbone until she lost consciousness. Police then destroyed her mobile phone.

Bitter Winter reported several cases of authorities destroying folk religion sites throughout the country. From April 14 to 19, authorities demolished three buildings in the Yangfu Temple in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province. On April 22, authorities demolished 18 statues in two folk religion temples in Linzhou, Henan Province. From April to June, authorities demolished 85 small folk religion temples in Handan, Hebei Province. On May 1, authorities demolished an ancestral hall in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on July 2 in Dangtu County, Ma’anshan City, Anhui Prefecture, more than 100 police officers destroyed a village folk temple. One villager said police first cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from approaching. The witness said, “They then smashed the lock to get inside and demolished the temple after dragging out the eight elderly believers protecting it.” The online magazine posted a video on social media that showed a large number of police standing guard while a bulldozer knocked down the structure.

Bitter Winter reported in July that authorities had not yet reopened the Cao’an Manichean temple in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, which had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Police were seen periodically patrolling the temple. Before its closure, authorities ordered the construction of a flagpole for the national flag and placed government propaganda slogans inside the temple.

Religious education for minors remained banned, but enforcement and implementation of the prohibition varied widely across and within regions.

AsiaNews.it reported authorities sent a directive to Xilinhaote Middle School Number 6 in Xilinhaote, Inner Mongolia dated March 25 forbidding students from taking part in religious activities in or outside of school. The directive reportedly prohibited parents from teaching their children about religion and religious organizations from operating in schools. Students and teachers found disobeying the restrictions faced expulsion and dismissal.

In November, Bitter Winter reported that a fifth-grade teacher in a Liaoning Province primary school told the online magazine any mention of religious holidays had been purged from English-language textbooks. The teacher said a text originally entitled “Easter Party” had been replaced with “English Party” and descriptive passages such as “You will meet the Easter Bunny” with “You will meet Robin the Robot.”

In January, AsiaNews.it, reported the government had closed down several Tibetan Buddhist centers in Sichuan Province because, authorities said, “Illegal activities” were carried out in the centers. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet said the government’s actual purpose was to limit the influence of Khenpo Sodargye, a Buddhist monk who founded these centers. The centers were associated with the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute, from which authorities had expelled more than 15,000 Buddhist monks and nuns since 2016 and destroyed significant portions of the property.

Individuals seeking to enroll at an official seminary or other institution of religious learning continued to be required to obtain the support of the corresponding official state-sanctioned religious association. The government continued to require students to demonstrate “political reliability,” and political issues were included in examinations of graduates from religious schools. Both registered and unregistered religious groups reported a shortage of trained clergy due in part to government controls on admission to seminaries.

Religious groups reported state-sanctioned religious associations continued to be subject to CCP interference in matters of doctrine, theology, and religious practice. The associations also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.

National regulations required Muslim clerics to meet the following requirements: “Uphold the leadership of the CCP; love Islam and serve Muslims; possess a degree in or receive formal training in Islamic scriptural education; have graduated from junior high school or above, in addition to attaining competency in Arabic; and be at least 22-years-old.” According to sources, imams had to pass an exam testing their ideological knowledge to renew their license each year.

The government and the Holy See remained without formal diplomatic relations and the Holy See had no official representative to the country. On October 22, the Holy See and the PRC announced they had agreed to extend a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for another two years. The two parties signed the original agreement in 2018. The precise terms of the agreement were not made public, but according to Catholic News Agency (CNA) and Vatican News, it was a “pastoral” effort to help unify members of the underground Catholic Church in China – which had remained in communion with the Holy See – with Catholics belonging to the CCPA. Vatican News stated the agreement “does not directly concern diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, nor the legal status of the Chinese Catholic Church or relations between the clergy and the authorities of the country. The Provisional Agreement concerns exclusively the process of nomination of bishops…” Following the signing of the agreement, seven CCPA-affiliated bishops appointed without papal mandate were brought into full communion with the Holy See; an eighth bishop was posthumously recognized. AsiaNews.it reported that on November 23, Reverend Thomas Chen Tianhao became the third new bishop without a prior affiliation with the CCPA to be ordained under the agreement, assuming the position of Bishop of Qingdao in Qingdao City, Shandong Province. UCA News reported that on December 22, a fourth bishop, Peter Liu Genzhu, was ordained bishop of Hongdong in Linfen City, Shanxi Province.

Commentators, human rights groups, and some Catholic leaders criticized the agreement as doing little to protect freedom of religion or belief for Catholics in China. On November 17, the America Jesuit Review published an article discussing 30 bishops who belonged to the underground Catholic Church and refused to join the CCPA. “The situation of these bishops has become more difficult since the agreement as, contrary to what Rome expected, Chinese authorities have used it to pressure underground bishops and priests to submit to the state’s religious policies.” Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong in his online blog of October 7 said the agreement was lopsided, with the CCP nominating bishops for the Pope to approve, and that persecution of the underground Catholic Church had increased since 2018.

Catholic clergy and laypersons told media the situation of both registered and unregistered Catholic communities worsened during the year. A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the Pope remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA. According to Bitter Winter, the Catholic Diocese of Mindong in Fujian Province suffered severe persecution from the CCP after most of its priests refused to join the CCPA. Authorities closed five parishes in January. Bitter Winter reported multiple instances of authorities pressuring Catholic leaders to join the CCPA and, in some cases, arresting and physically abusing Catholic leaders who refused. According to Bitter Winter, during the first half of the year, the CCPA attempted to force 57 unregistered Catholic priests from the Mindong Diocese to join the organization. As of June, 25 had complied, three had resigned in protest, and one was driven out of the diocese. Local authorities continued to pressure the remaining 28 priests to join.

According to Bitter Winter, on April 2, officials detained Father Huang Jintong, a priest from the Mindong Diocese’s parish in Saiqi Village in Fuan City, Fujian Province. Police deprived the priest of sleep for four days before he signed a document saying he would join the CCPA. According to AsiaNews.it, on September 1, the local religious affairs bureau detained another priest of the Mindong Diocese, Father Liu Maochun, for at least 17 days for refusing to join the CCPA.

Sources told Reuters News Agency that in May, two Catholic nuns serving at the Holy See’s Study Mission to China in Kowloon (Hong Kong) were arrested by mainland authorities when they traveled to Hebei Province to visit their families. The nuns were detained in Hebei for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They remained under house arrest as of year’s end, and their families’ homes were under surveillance. The nuns were reportedly allowed to attend Mass but were not permitted to leave mainland China.

In July, AsiaNews.it reported that a priest said authorities often gathered priests in order to “brainwash” them, congregation members were no longer able to host Mass in their homes, and bishops of underground dioceses were increasingly arrested since the 2018 signing of the provisional agreement between the Holy See and China. One lay member said there were more restrictions on the number of individuals allowed to attend religious gatherings, children younger than 18 were forbidden from entering the church, and government authorities often sat in on church meetings to surveil the church.

CNA reported that on October 4, Vincenzo Guo Xijin, the auxiliary bishop of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province, announced he would no longer preside over public masses or receive any tithes and said that all administrative matters associated with the diocese should be referred to Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu. In 2006, the Holy See excommunicated Zhan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, but in December 2018 allowed him to replace Guo as bishop of the Mindong Diocese while Guo stepped into the subordinate position. Zhan was one of seven individuals appointed without papal mandate whom the Holy See recognized as bishops under the 2018 provisional agreement. The government did not recognize Guo, who was not a member of the CCPA, in his role as auxiliary bishop. In an open letter announcing his withdrawal from public religious duties, Guo stated, “The sacraments celebrated by those who sign [a document joining the CCPA] and those who do not sign are legitimate.”

In June, CNA reported that authorities detained underground Catholic bishop Cui Tai in Zhangjiakou Municipality, Hebei Province. According to AsiaNews.it, authorities in the past had repeatedly placed Cui under house arrest or sent him to forced-labor camps for engaging in evangelization activities without official government permission and for criticizing the CCPA. As of year’s end, it was unclear whether he had been released from detention.

Sources told Bitter Winter the government threatened to retaliate against family members if clergy in the Mindong Diocese did not join the CCPA. Authorities forced Father Feng from Xiyin Village, Fuan City, to sign an application to join the CCPA by threatening to dismiss his younger brother and sister-in-law from public employment. After another priest refused to join, authorities confiscated the vehicle his brother used for business and shut down his nephew’s travel agency.

The ICC reported in July that a member of the ERCC said authorities threatened to send the children of church members to “reeducation camps” and take adopted children away from their parents. The source said authorities had already taken four adopted children from one church family and returned them to their biological parents or found them other homes.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers continued to discriminate against religious believers. Religious minorities continued to report employers terminated their employment due to their current or prior religious activities. Minghui reported cases of Falun Gong practitioners losing their jobs due to their beliefs.

Bitter Winter reported that in June, a sanitation worker in Henan Province was fired for reading the Bible while on a work break. The director of the Environmental Sanitation Bureau fired her after publicly criticizing her earlier in the day. Thereafter, the Environmental Sanitation Bureau required that new workers show a “certificate of no faith” issued by police in the area of their permanent residence registration and stated that “one who believes in the Lord is not allowed.” A man in Shaanxi Province told Bitter Winter that he was required to provide a “certificate of no faith” to each of the multiple hotels he had worked at over the course of his career. A man working in the public security sector in Shandong Province said he lost his job because his father was a member of the CAG.

Discrimination against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs continued. Since 2017 and 2018 when articles in the 2005 Public Security Administration Punishment Law related to “suspicious activity” began to be enforced in earnest, Falun Gong practitioners reported ongoing difficulty finding landlords who would rent them apartments. Sources stated the enforcement of this law continued to move the PRC further away from informal discriminatory practices by individual landlords towards a more formalized enforcement of codified discriminatory legislation.

Sources told Bitter Winter that government propaganda portraying Uyghurs as radicals, extremists, and terrorists had created societal hostility towards that group. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread. Bitter Winter reported that in March, police in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, sent notices to many rental and real estate agencies forbidding them to rent apartments or shop spaces to Uyghurs. One property owner said police fined him RMB 500 ($76) for renting to Uyghurs and demanded he send police identification information and photographs of all Uyghur tenants. One Uyghur man said his family had, after some difficulty, found an apartment to rent, but on the condition that the family report to a local police station three times a week. The man said, “Three days after we signed the rental contract, police officers installed a surveillance camera at our building entrance.” One man in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, said owners preferred to keep their properties empty rather than to rent to Uyghurs. A Uyghur man said he had to use his friend’s bank card because local banks refused to issue him one. Uyghur grocery store and restaurant owners said constant police visits had a severe negative impact on their businesses. A Han businessman told Bitter Winter, “The government tries every means possible to deprive Uyghurs of their rights, prohibiting them from renting, doing business, and staying in hotels. The goal is to drive them away and cut off all their sources of survival, forcing them back to Xinjiang to be locked in ‘transformation-through-education’ camps.”

According to Bitter Winter, several college students stated college administrators encouraged students to report on fellow students who appeared to engage in religious activities. One Christian student in Inner Mongolia said she had been reported and that school administrators investigated her, frequently summoned her, and forced her to write self-criticism statements. A university professor who was a member of the TSPM Church was demoted from her teaching position after mentioning the Bible in class and was subsequently investigated by the State Security Bureau.

There were reports that Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and other religious minorities continued to face difficulties in finding accommodation when they traveled.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. On September 30, at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s Symposium on Advancing and Defending Religious Freedom Through Diplomacy in Rome, Italy, the Secretary gave a speech on the restrictions of religious freedom in China. The Secretary said the CCP “has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more. Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression.” In an October speech on tolerance while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.”

Embassy and consulate officials regularly sought meetings with a range of government officials managing religious affairs to obtain more information on government policies and to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy and consulate officials, including the Ambassador and Consuls General, urged government officials at the central, provincial, and local levels, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, to implement stronger protections for religious freedom and to release prisoners of conscience. The Ambassador highlighted religious freedom in meetings with senior officials. The Department of State, embassy, and consulates general regularly called upon the government to release prisoners of conscience and advocated on behalf of individual cases of persons imprisoned for religious reasons.

The Ambassador, Consuls General in Chengdu (prior to its closure by the Chinese government in retaliation for the closure of PRC Consulate Houston), Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan, and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious groups as well as academics, NGOs, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and family members of religious prisoners to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The Consul General in Chengdu (prior to its closure) met with Tibetan and Muslim leaders in Sichuan Province to emphasize support for freedom of religion or belief. Embassy and consulate general officials hosted events around religious holidays and conducted roundtable discussions with religious leaders to convey the importance of religious pluralism in society and learn about issues facing religious communities. Embassy officials met with visiting members of U.S. religious groups to discuss how these groups were engaging with local communities.

The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to local audiences through postings to the embassy website and to its Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter accounts. Over the course of the year, the embassy published more than 120 messages promoting religious freedom, including videos, statements, images, and infographics. More than 250,000 social media users engaged with these social media posts, participating in online discussions with embassy staff and with each other. The embassy also highlighted the Secretary’s visit to the Vatican to emphasize U.S. support on religious freedom.

The embassy also shared religious holiday greetings from the President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador. These included well wishes on the occasion of special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. Millions of social media users viewed these messages, often sparking further comments, such as “Countries that respect religious freedom will be respected,” “Freedom of religion is a prerequisite for building a civil society,” and “The essence of religion is to lead people to the good. As a democratic power, the United States has guaranteed religious freedom.” For International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy published the Secretary’s message supporting respect for religious freedom as well as information describing the Chinese government’s continuing control over religion and restrictions on the activities of religious adherents. These posts on Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter social media platforms garnered more than 750,000 views and approximately 10,000 engagements.

In January, the Consulate General in Guangzhou submitted comments to the Guangdong People’s Congress and Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission regarding the new draft of Guangdong Religious Affairs Regulations. The government stated the new regulations would “protect citizens’ freedom of religious belief, maintain religious harmony and social harmony, standardize the management of religious affairs, and improve the level of legalization of religious work.” In December, the embassy submitted comments and recommendations on the central government’s draft Rules for the Implementation of the Provisions on the Administration of Foreign Religious Activities, which proposed burdensome preapproval procedures for almost all religious activities. The draft rules also limited activities of unregistered religious groups and conflated peaceful religious practice with “terrorism.”

On May 22, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add China’s Ministry of Public Security Institute of Forensic Science and eight commercial entities to the list of entities subject to specific license requirements for export, reexport, and/or transfer in-country of specific items (the “Entity List”) for being complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR. On July 20, the Bureau of Industry and Security announced it would add an additional 11 commercial entities to the list for the same reasons, bring the total number of entities added to the Entity List during the year to 20. These actions constrict the export of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations to entities that have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the country’s campaign targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 1, the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued a business advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor, in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.

On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on three senior CCP officials for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang: Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of the XUAR; Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee; and Wang Mingshan, the party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB). They and their immediate family members became ineligible for entry into the United States. In making the announcement, the Secretary said the United States “will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Chen, Zhu, Wang, and Huo Liujun, former party secretary of the XPSB, as well as the XPSB organization, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In response, the Chinese government on July 13 imposed sanctions on the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, three members of Congress, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed a second round of sanctions pursuant to the Executive Order on one government entity and two current or former government officials, in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), Sun Jinlong, a former political commissar of the XPCC, and Peng Jiarui, the deputy party secretary and commander of the XPCC.

On December 10, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on Huang Yuanxiong, chief of the Xiamen Public Security Bureau Wucun police station “for his involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xiamen, China.” In his statement, the Secretary said, “Huang is associated with particularly severe violations of religious freedom of Falun Gong practitioners, namely his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs.” The action also applied to Mr. Huang’s spouse.

On May 1, June 17, September 14, and December 2, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise, including hair products, apparel, cotton, and computer parts, produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang, based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang being held in internment camps.

On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities.

PRC authorities consistently harassed and intimidated religious leaders to dissuade them from speaking with U.S. officials. Authorities regularly prevented members of religious communities from attending events at the embassy and consulates general, and security services questioned individuals who did attend. Authorities routinely declined to approve or postponed U.S. officials’ requests to visit religious sites and meet with religious leaders.

At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

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Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Hong Kong

Read A Section: Hong Kong

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) as well as other laws and policies state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). On June 30, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when the PRC appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief, Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL, with some viewing it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, and others viewing it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their institutions preferred to stay neutral. Cardinal John Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, who described the NSL as “understandable,” said the NSL would not curtail religious freedom; other religious leaders made similar comments. Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and some other Christian leaders said they were concerned the law would enable the government to curtail religious liberty and freedom of expression in the name of combating subversion. One Protestant leader said the law’s ambiguous wording meant churches raising funds from overseas were open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers and money laundering. Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the government granted churches permission to resume in-person or hybrid (in-person/online) services when health restrictions were lifted. Authorities did not curtail activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, but the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said it was concerned practitioners could be accused of “subversion of state power” under the NSL and sentenced to prison for activities that were currently permitted, including criticizing the PRC’s persecution of practitioners in mainland China. In May, a phishing campaign targeted Hong Kong Catholic Diocese leadership using a method “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” In an August letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education, Peter Lau, urged them to guard against campus politicization and to “foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” In December, police froze the bank accounts, raided two buildings, and arrested two members of the Good Neighbor North District Church, saying the church was under investigation for money laundering and fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign. Police said they froze the church’s assets because the church had underreported donations. The church pastor said the raid and asset freezes were in retaliation for church members’ support for prodemocracy protestors in 2019.

Falun Gong practitioners reported some incidents of harassment and vandalism at public information booths. Religious observers and practitioners stated groups were able to worship in line with their religious norms and without incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observations while strictly following health precautions. Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some churches reported they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, and community representatives. In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL could be used to repress religious believers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 403,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 620,000 followers (403,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.

There are numerous Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, the Church of Christ in China, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government may not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states that religious organizations “may maintain and develop their relations with religious organizations and believers elsewhere.”

The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. If a state of emergency is proclaimed, the rights may not be limited based solely on religion.

On June 30, with the support of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) announced the imposition of an NSL for Hong Kong. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law states that it shall override local Hong Kong laws if there are inconsistencies. The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local Hong Kong courts.

Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government. They must, however, register to receive government benefits such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, a group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society, a tax-exempt organization, or both, provided they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. The Falun Dafa Association is registered as a society rather than a religious group; as a society, it may establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.

The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers subsidies to schools that are built and run by religious groups. Government-subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum. Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.

The NSL includes articles on public education, stipulating that the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” The NSL states the SAR “shall promote national security education in schools and universities[.]” The SAR and Education Bureau advised that subsidized schools, which include most religious schools, must comply with the NSL.

Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land on concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.

The Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs, has a direct role in managing the affairs of some temples. The SAR chief executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and gives grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.

An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive. The Basic Law stipulates the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is composed of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.

Government Practices

Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

The Catholic News Agency reported that in April, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong called for the Chinese government to respond to prodemocracy demonstrators’ demands, including an independent inquiry into police tactics.

Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL – some viewed it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, but others viewed it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their religious institutions preferred to stay neutral on the politically polarizing law.

Several Christian groups and religious leaders issued statements and open letters to the government regarding the NSL. After the May announcement that the NPC would pass the NSL, Cardinal Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, described the NSL as “understandable” and said it would not curtail religious freedom. He stated the Church’s relationship with the Vatican should not be seen as collusion with foreign forces. Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong said he supported the NSL, stating, “I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms – in particular the freedom of religion and way of life – as much as anyone, and I don’t think this law will change any of that….What I hope the new law will do is diminish the agitation against the government that last year brought things to a standstill, and to restore law and order.”

In June, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a public statement acknowledging the Hong Kong government’s inability to pass its own NSL legislation but calling for the NPC to abide by the principles of the Basic Law and to “fully guarantee human rights and all types of freedoms (including freedom of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, association, etc.) that have been enjoyed under the one country, two systems principle.” In May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, told the Catholic News Agency that he worried the NSL would be used to subvert freedom of religion in the SAR. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, Chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist Convention Reverend Hing Choi Lo said in a statement to all member churches in May, When the Church thinks it is ‘acting justly and [with] loving mercy,’ but the authorities consider the Church to be overthrowing [the regime], what choices do we have? Do we dance with the authorities’ baton?”

Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, churches petitioned directly to the government to resume in-person or hybrid services and did not report any difficulty in getting approval once health restrictions eased.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported they generally were able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, conducting public exhibitions, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials. In June, a practitioner in the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said the community was fearful. “Falun Gong practitioners take part in activities exposing the CCP’s crimes and encourage Chinese people to renounce the CCP and its affiliated organizations….These activities can all be considered ‘subversion of state power’ under the so-called National Security Law. Falun Gong practitioners could be sentenced to prison for activities that they are now able to freely partake in on a daily basis.” Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at informational displays. No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions.

In July, the NGO International Christian Concern stated that in May, a phishing campaign targeted leaders of the Catholic Church. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a type of malware “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of “lure documents” associated with the Catholic Church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. The NGO said that as the legitimate documents loaded, malware was installed, allowing the hacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.

Media reported in August that in a letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education Peter Lau told them to guard against campus politicization. The letter stated in part that school authorities should “enhance students’ awareness to national security and [the importance of] abidance to the law, have them learn and respect the national flag, the national emblem and the national anthem and foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” Critics on social media accused the Catholic Diocese of pandering to the PRC. Some members of the Catholic Church leadership said adhering to the law did not invalidate the Church’s vision or mission.

In August, the Justice and Peace Commission, comprised of 18 elected bishops, began to solicit donations to place advertisements in media that included a prayer to preserve democracy in Hong Kong. The Catholic Diocese suspended the donation campaign and pulled the advertisements, stating it did not approve of the method of fundraising or the content of the advertisements.

Media reported that on December 8, police froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbor North District Church, raided two of its buildings and three homeless shelters it ran, arrested two church members, and ordered the arrests of church pastor Roy Chan and his wife, who were abroad. The police said this was done because the church had raised 27 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.5 million) through crowd funding campaigns from June 2019 through September 2020 but had publicly declared raising only one-third of that amount. The church stated the investigation was an “act of political retaliation” because some of its members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.

In December, Radio Free Asia reported that Reverend Chi Wai Wu, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said, “The wording of the national security law is ambiguous, which means that churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, are now open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers.” He said police were using the law’s vague definition of “money laundering” to target religious groups that garnered overseas donations or host conferences with overseas church groups. Wu said the targeting of the Good Neighbor North District Church sent “shock waves” through religious communities in Hong Kong and that it was likely intended as a warning to them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times reported that in August, a man reportedly defaced a Falun Gong display several times in one week and said to a Falun Gong practitioner, “The national security law is enacted, yet you dare to show these [Falun Gong materials]?” When the practitioners said he would call the police, the man responded, “Okay, I also want the police to come….See who the police will arrest, you or me?” Epoch Times reported that more than a dozen people gathered at the display the following day and cursed at Falun Gong practitioners. According to Epoch Times, in December, Falun Gong practitioners reported experiencing harassment at informational booths, as well as multiple instances of vandalism.

Religious observers and practitioners stated they were able to worship consistent with their religious norms and without incident. With COVID-19 measures requiring more restrictions, many religious groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observation while strictly following health precautions.

Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some Hong Kong churches reported that they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. In June, the Consul General met with the Hong Kong Christian Council to discuss the effects of political divisions on congregations within the Hong Kong Christian community. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.

In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL “raises the specter that the Party will use the same tactics of intimidation and the full apparatus of state repression against religious believers.”

Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. In May, the Consul General met the Chief Imam and toured the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Hong Kong. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Indonesia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides a guarantee of freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and, as noted in the constitution, to satisfy “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.” Individuals continued to be detained and received prison sentences for violations of blasphemy laws. In April, police arrested individuals across the country for blasphemy related to social media uploads that included altered lyrics to a popular song about the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious observance, such as regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice. In Aceh Province, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, including caning a woman, who received 200 strokes for her extramarital affairs with two men, who each received 100 strokes for their involvement. In Riau Province, a local community had been preventing renovations at a Catholic church until President Joko Widodo’s cabinet became involved in February and mediated the dispute to ensure the renovations could begin. At the national level, government and religious leaders cooperated closely in developing restrictions to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some disputes occurred between government authorities and religious groups at the local level. In December, a joint ministerial decree outlawed the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a group known to observers for violence and religious intolerance, for its violations of law. That same month, police arrested the leader of the FPI for organizing large gatherings in violation of COVID-19 health protocols and for being involved in an altercation that left six FPI members dead. In September, a Christian pastor was killed in Papua Province, with human rights organizations stating that members of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) involved in a conflict with Papuan armed separatists were responsible. In February, local authorities in Bandung, Central Java, organized an interfaith parade that attracted more than 6,000 persons, where government and police officials signed a document stating their intent to support religious tolerance and harmony.

Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media. Individuals affiliated at the local level with the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), a national, quasi-governmental Muslim clerical body, used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including Shia and Ahmadi Muslims. There were multiple reports of assaults on Shia Muslims at Shia events. In August, several Islamic organizations associated with the South Sulawesi chapter of the United Islam Community Forum (FUIB) released a statement condemning the Shia community and its plans to commemorate Ashura. In April and May, reports of a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” spread on social media that claimed Jews, Christians, and communists were using COVID-19 and restrictions on public gatherings to destroy Islam. In March, an interfaith group of representatives from 11 youth wings of the largest religious organizations in the country signed a declaration promoting religious tolerance within the country and internationally.

In October, the U.S. Secretary of State gave a speech at an event hosted by Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest independent Muslim organization in the world, on the importance of religious freedom and pluralism. The Ambassador and embassy and consulate officials advocated for religious freedom with the government, including at the highest levels. Issues raised included actions against religious minorities, closures of places of worship, access for foreign religious organizations, convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion, the importance of tolerance and rule of law, and the application of sharia to non-Muslims. Members of the U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism – an organization endorsed by both governments and comprising religious and civil society leaders, academics, and experts from both countries – met with the Ambassador to discuss religious freedom. The embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach to promote respect for diversity and religious tolerance through events, media interviews, social media initiatives, digital and public-speaking engagements, youth exchanges, and educational programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 267 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 87 percent of the population is Muslim, 7 percent Protestant, 3 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.5 percent Hindu. Those identifying with other religious groups, including Buddhism, traditional indigenous religions, Confucianism, Gafatar, other Christian denominations, and those who did not respond to the census question, comprise approximately 1.3 percent of the population.

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no joint ministerial decree that bans proselytizing by other groups. The MUI, however, has issued fatwas that ban proselytizing by so-called deviant groups such as Inkar al-Sunnah, Ahmadiyya, Islam Jama’ah, the Lia Eden Community, and al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah. While the MUI has not labelled Shia Islam as deviant, it has issued fatwas and guidance cautioning against the spread of Shia teachings.

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

A 2006 joint ministerial decree issued by the MORA and the MOHA states that religious groups may not hold services in private residences, and those seeking to build a house of worship are required to obtain the signatures of at least 90 members of the group and 60 persons of other religious groups in the community stating they support the construction. Local governments are responsible for implementing the decree, and local regulations, implementation, and enforcement vary widely. The decree also requires approval from the local interfaith council, the Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). Government-established FKUBs exist at the provincial and district/city level and comprise religious leaders from the six official groups. They are responsible for mediating interreligious conflicts.

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

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

Aceh’s provincial sharia regulations criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct, adultery, gambling, consumption of alcohol, and proximity to members of the opposite sex outside of marriage for Muslim residents of the province. An Aceh governor’s decree forbids women from working in or visiting restaurants unaccompanied by their spouse or a male relative after 9 p.m. A Banda Aceh mayoral decree forbids women from working in coffee shops, internet cafes, or sports venues after 1 p.m. Sharia regulations prohibit female Muslim residents of Aceh from wearing tight clothes in public, and officials often recommended wearing headscarves. The regulation allows local officials to “remind” female Muslims of these regulations but does not allow women’s detention for violating them. One district in Aceh prohibits women from sitting astride motorcycles when riding as passengers. The maximum penalties for violations of sharia regulations include imprisonment and caning. There are regulations intended to limit the amount of force that authorities may exert during a caning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

The government was involved in a number of actions against the FPI that included a December 7 altercation with police that resulted in the deaths of six FPI members; the December 12 arrest of the FPI’s leader for violating COVID-19 related health protocols; and a December 30 government proclamation outlawing the FPI, its symbols, and any of its activities. Civil society and religious organizations have long accused the FPI of being a hardline Muslim group that engages in acts of violence, extortion, intimidation, and intolerance against other Muslims and religious and ethnic minority communities.

On November 10, Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the FPI, returned to the country after three years of self-exile in Saudi Arabia. Shihab had originally left in 2017 while facing criminal investigations related to accusations that he had committed blasphemy, spread hate speech, been involved in land grabs, insulted the national ideology of Pancasila, and violated the antipornography law. Following his return, Shihab organized several large gatherings in Jakarta and West Java on November 13-14. Police arrested Shihab on charges of involvement in organizing mass gatherings in violation of COVID-19 health protocols. On December 29, a South Jakarta District Court judge ordered authorities to reopen the investigation into Shihab’s possible violation of the antipornography law for exchanging sexually explicit messages with a follower, a crime that carries a maximum punishment of 12 years in prison.

On December 7, police shot and killed six FPI members on the Jakarta-Cikampek toll road. According to Jakarta police, they received a tip that the six were part of a group planning to prevent police from questioning Shihab. Police officials said the shooting occurred in self-defense after the six FPI members attempted to attack the police. An investigation by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), an independent, government-affiliated body, was underway at year’s end.

On December 30, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD announced a joint ministerial decree that declared the FPI was a “nonregistered” organization; it banned the organization, its symbols, and its activities. The FPI’s permit to operate as a religious organization had expired in June 2019, and it had been operating without a clear legal status for 18 months. Mahfud MD stated that during this period, the FPI had engaged in activities that violated the law and public order and refused to amend its articles of association to make it consistent with the law. A coalition of prominent human rights organizations released a statement saying that while they criticized the FPI’s violent actions, hate speech, and violations of law, the joint ministerial decree was not consistent with the country’s constitution and was an unjust restriction on the right of association and expression.

On September 19, Yeremia Zanambani, a Christian pastor, was fatally shot in Intan Raya Regency, Papua. Local activists and religious leaders called for an independent investigation into the killing, accusing TNI personnel as being the likely culprits. Minister Mahfud MD established an independent fact-finding team that concluded TNI personnel may have been involved. Komnas HAM publicly released its own report into the incident, which determined that TNI personnel were responsible for the killing. A TNI internal investigation continued at year’s end. Human rights organizations and religious leaders linked the incident to operations by security forces against armed separatists in the region, but they did not attribute the attack to religious discrimination or persecution.

In Aceh, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs. Canings continued to occur in public spaces despite the Aceh governor’s 2018 order that they should be executed only in prison facilities. Government and sharia officials stated non-Muslim residents of Aceh could choose punishment under either sharia or civil court procedures, but Muslim residents of Aceh must receive punishment under sharia. According to media reports and human rights activists, several non-Muslim residents of Aceh chose punishment under sharia, reportedly due to its expediency and to avoid the risks of prolonged and expensive trials and possible lengthy prison sentences.

On February 12, authorities in Central Aceh Regency caned a Christian man 27 times for selling alcohol. On March 5, authorities in Bireuen Regency caned a non-Muslim man and a Muslim woman 24 times each for sexual relations outside of marriage. In both cases, the non-Muslim men accepted punishment under sharia in lieu of punishment under the regular judicial system. On April 10, authorities in Aceh Tamiang Regency caned a woman 200 times for her extramarital affairs with two men, who each received 100 strokes. On April 21, authorities in North Aceh Regency caned two men 25 and 40 times, respectively, for sexual abuse of a child, and a couple convicted of adultery received 100 strokes each. On June 5, authorities in the North Aceh Regency began caning a man sentenced to 100 strokes for adultery. The man collapsed following the 74th stroke and was taken away in an ambulance.

In August, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation reported 38 blasphemy cases from January to May, two of which involved five individuals younger than 18. According to two government officials, blasphemy laws were often used to discriminate against religious minorities. On August 21, the chairman of Komnas HAM, Ahmad Taufan Damanik, said a lack of clarity in the blasphemy law meant it was often used to target religious minorities. On March 6, the commissioner of the National Women’s Commission, Siti Aminah Tardi, said prosecutions under blasphemy laws targeted women, especially those from religious minorities.

On January 7, police in West Sumatra arrested Sudarto, an activist from Pusaka Foundation Padang, a human rights and environmental advocacy organization, for violating the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) law by disseminating information with intent to incite hatred based on religion, ethnicity, race, and/or class. Sudarto had uploaded a post on Facebook that stated the local government in Dharmasraya Regency, West Sumatra, had banned Christmas. According to media reports, in December 2019, police officials in Dharmasraya had told the local community not to hold Christmas services there and instead travel to a church in neighboring Sawahlunto Regency, 75 miles from the village. Sudarto was released a day after his arrest.

On January 15, police in South Sulawesi arrested and charged Paruru Daeng Tau, the head of the Organization for Implementing the Mandate of Adat and Pancasila (LPAAP), with blasphemy after receiving a complaint that Tau allegedly told his followers he was the last prophet and to disregard the basic tenets of Islam. The local MUI branch in Tana Toraja Regency had issued a fatwa in December 2019 denouncing LPAAP as a heretical organization. On June 3, Tau was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years and four months in prison.

In February, media reported that a panel of judges decided that Suzethe Margaret, a Catholic woman accused of blasphemy after bringing a dog into a mosque in June 2019, was guilty of blasphemy but would not be sent to prison due to mental illness. Prosecutors had previously recommended that she be sentenced to eight months in prison.

In March, police in Probolinggo Regency, East Java, arrested Indriyanto for sharing a picture of Hajar Aswad (a spiritually significant stone set in one of the corners of the Kaaba) that resembled female genitalia and for sharing an image that showed the word “Allah” being defecated on. On July 9, the Probolinggo State Court of East Java sentenced Indriyanto to four years’ imprisonment and imposed a five million rupiah (IDR) ($360) fine for violating the ITE law.

In April, police arrested and charged individuals across the country for social media uploads that included an altered version of “Aisyah Istri Rasulullah,” a popular song about the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. On April 10, Rahmat Hidayat, a YouTube celebrity popularly known as Aleh Khas Medan, was arrested in Medan, North Sumatra, for posting a YouTube video that included the song, as well as for actions authorities deemed offensive. On October 1, Hidayat was sentenced to seven months in prison under the ITE law. On April 15, police in Surabaya arrested and charged Bambang Bima Adhis Pratama under the ITE law after Bambang uploaded a video of himself on social media, singing the song with changed lyrics. On April 30, police in South Sulawesi detained Bahrul Ulum, a university student, for tweeting the changed lyrics of the song. In May, police in Gorontalo Province arrested three young adults after they uploaded a video of themselves singing and dancing to the song with changed lyrics on WhatsApp.

On May 4, police in Central Lombok Regency, West Nusa Tenggara, detained a woman for blasphemy after she uploaded a video to TikTok of herself dancing in clothes traditionally worn during prayer. Following the arrest, an official from Muhammadiyah, one of the largest Islamic groups in the country, encouraged local police to release the woman, stating that she did not intend to commit blasphemy. It was unclear whether police released her.

On July 9, port police in Makassar arrested and charged Ince Ni’matullah with blasphemy after she allegedly threw a Quran during an argument with her neighbor.

On August 4, a court in Medan sentenced Doni Irawan Malay to three years in prison for blasphemy. According to prosecutors, on February 13, Malay desecrated a Quran in the Al-Mashun Mosque, including putting it down his pants, tearing out pages, and throwing it in the trash.

On August 8, police arrested Apollinaris Darmawan in Bandung under the ITE law for a series of tweets and videos posted on Twitter and Instagram that, among other things, stated Islam was not a religion and should be expelled from the country. Immediately prior to the man’s arrest, a crowd outraged at his postings stormed his house, dragged him into the street, and stripped him of his clothes. It did not appear that police detained anyone involved in the assault. On November 24, public prosecutors formally charged Darmawan under the ITE law and sought the maximum allowable punishment of six years in prison and an 800 million rupiah ($57,000) fine. Darmawan had been convicted and sentenced in August 2017 to four years in prison and an 800,000,000 rupiah ($57,000) fine for violating the ITE law for a series of pictures and articles he posted to Facebook which depicted Allah as a monster, the Prophet Muhammad as homosexual, and which made other disparaging descriptions of Islam. Darmawan was released early from prison in March as part of an assimilation program. It is not clear if this release was related to a government effort that helped prevent the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons.

On September 29, a court in Medan sentenced Muhammad Qadafi, alias Udin, to 18 months in prison for blasphemy after he was found guilty of throwing a Quran inside a mosque during an incident on March 25.

On December 4, police arrested a Muslim cleric in Cibadak Regency, West Java, for distributing a video in which the man conducted the call to prayer with altered wording that made it a call to jihad instead. The man was arrested under the ITE law for spreading hate. Prominent Muslim leaders from Nahdlatul Ulama and the MUI publicly condemned the video when it began circulating in late November.

On December 28, police called in Haikal Hassan for questioning related to potential violation of the ITE and blasphemy laws for stating he had met with the Prophet Muhammad during a dream. Haikal was the spokesman for the 212 Alumni Association, a group formed in commemoration of the December 2, 2016, protests by conservative Islamic groups against then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama that called for his prosecution under blasphemy laws.

From August 18 to August 27, a coalition of CSOs hosted an online conference entitled “Blasphemy Law: Protection or Criminalization?” The conference explored trends, patterns, and developments in criminalization involving accusations of blasphemy, as well as what were described as “discriminatory practices” occurring in the country. The organizers of the conference surveyed the 2,247 participants and found that 78 percent believed the greatest challenges facing religious freedom were discriminatory regulations, intolerant acts against minorities, and a lack of remedies for victims. The survey also showed that 84 percent agreed efforts were needed to eliminate discriminatory regulations, promote effective law enforcement against those who violate others’ religious freedom, and provide remedy for those accused of violating blasphemy laws.

The government responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing policies to prevent the spread of the virus through limiting public events, including religious gatherings. At the national level, government and religious leaders cooperated closely in developing these restrictions. For example, on March 16 the MUI issued a fatwa recommending the suspension of communal Friday prayers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In June, President Joko Widodo met with interfaith leaders to discuss how their organizations and religious groups were planning to adapt to COVID-19.

Several other disputes between government authorities and religious groups occurred at the local level regarding health restrictions related to the COVID-19 virus. In April, members of Ar-Rahmah Mosque in Parepare city, South Sulawesi, reported the district head, Andi Ulfa Lanto, to police for blasphemy after Lanto attempted to stop Friday prayer at the mosque. Mosque officials said Lanto’s actions constituted blasphemy because the local COVID-19 regulation encouraged persons only to avoid mass gatherings, as opposed to explicitly banning Friday prayer. On May 1, Parepare Mayor Taufan Pawe responded by filing a police report accusing the members of the mosque of failing to adhere to health protocols and of obstructing an official from conducting his duties. The South Sulawesi chapter of the MUI and the FUIB stated that Lanto did not commit blasphemy.

On April 19, two men entered the residence of a Christian family in Bekasi Regency, West Java, and demanded they terminate a religious service being held in the home. The disruption was recorded and disseminated widely online. According to media reports, one of the men was a local Muslim leader.

On January 27, the Regent of Bogor, West Java, Ade Munawaroh Yasin, issued a letter to the local Ahmadiyya community stating that Ahmadi Islam was illegal in Bogor and calling on the Ahmadis to stop all activities inside and outside their compound in Kemang Bogor. On March 16, activists from the Benteng Aqidah Alliance, an ad hoc group comprised of local Islamic groups seen by observers as more hardline, rallied in front of the regent’s office to support her decision to outlaw Ahmadi activity in Bogor. In response, a group of 31 local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) created an Alliance for a United Bogor to condemn the rally and to support tolerance in Bogor.

According to media reports, in July, the Ternate Municipality Team for Supervision of Beliefs and Religious Sects in Society (PAKEM), which includes the police, the Prosecutor’s Office, MORA, FKUB, and MUI, implemented a ban on activities by the Shia Jafariah religious group in the North Maluku city. The PAKEM meeting was held after the Shia group hung a banner to celebrate Eid al-Fitr. The North Maluku chapter of the MUI issued a fatwa against the group in 2015, designating it a heretical organization.

On July 27, the congregation of the Indonesian Pentecostal Efata Church in Indragiri Hilir Regency, Riau, accepted an offer from the local government to relocate its church to a location 10 kilometers (six miles) away. In 2019, local officials had prevented the congregation from worshiping at the location because it was not formally registered as a house of worship.

On August 5, the Bali Customary Village Council, created in 2019 by the Bali provincial government, banned all worship activities by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in the province’s 1,493 customary villages. The council chairman stated ISKCON teachings were fundamentally different from Hindu teachings, and therefore the ban was necessary to preserve Hindu and Balinese culture. The Bali chapter of the Indonesian Hinduism Society (PHDI) publicly revoked its recognition of ISKCON and encouraged the central PHDI to do so on a national level.

On July 1, the MORA spokesperson stated the ministry would involve the TNI in efforts to increase religious harmony. Legislators and a coalition of CSOs stated that security forces’ involvement in religious affairs would likely create artificial and coerced religious harmony rather than the interfaith dialogue required for true harmony. On July 7, then Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi, a retired TNI general, clarified before the legislature that the MORA had only requested the military’s input, not involvement, into religious efforts, and specifically only in Papua, to help ease tensions there.

The Smart Pakem smartphone app, launched by the Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office in 2018 to allow citizens to report heresy and blasphemy cases, was removed from both the Google Play Store and the Apple Store. Following its launch, human rights organizations had criticized the app and requested Google and Apple to remove it. It was unclear what caused its removal.

The MORA maintained its authority at the national and local levels to conduct the “development” of religious groups and believers, including efforts to convert minority religious groups to Sunni Islam. Beginning in 2014, Ahmadiyya communities in several West Java regencies reported that local governments were forcing or encouraging the conversion of Ahmadi Muslims, using a requirement that Ahmadis sign forms renouncing their beliefs in order to register their marriages or participate in the Hajj. However, in July, members of the Ahmadiyya community in Tasikmalaya City, West Java, reported they were no longer required to sign such forms prior to marriage or the Hajj.

According to religious groups and NGOs, government officials and police sometimes failed to prevent “intolerant groups” from infringing on others’ religious freedom and committing other acts of intimidation, such as damaging or destroying houses of worship and homes. Groups often identified as intolerant included the FPI, Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and Indonesian Mujahideen Council.

Throughout July and August, the East Nusa Tenggara FKUB held a short story competition on the value of religious harmony within the province. The organizers received 71 entries from university students. To celebrate the winning entries, the local FKUB chapter collaborated with local print media to publish the stories. The top 10 stories were also compiled into e-books, and published.

In August, East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa designated three villages in the province as “Harmony Awareness Villages,” Mojorejo village in Batu, Tenduro village in Lumajang, and Wonorejo village in Situbondo Regency. Governor Khofifah and East Java MORA officials selected them based on accomplishments in promoting religious tolerance.

In September, Minister of Villages, Underdeveloped Regions, and Transmigration Abdul Halim Iskandar designated Banuroja village in Gorontalo Province as a “Pancasila Village.” Iskandar and ministry officials selected Banuroja due to its ethnic and religious diversity.

In September, Tajul Muluk, leader of a community of more than 500 Shia Muslims, stated his intent to convert to Sunni Islam, along with the majority of his community. The community had been displaced to the outskirts of Surabaya, East Java, since 2012 after communal violence forced them from their homes in Sampang Regency, Madura. In a September 10 letter to the Regent of Sampang, Muluk requested that he and his followers be converted to Sunni Islam. The letter and subsequent media interviews did not make clear the reason for the request for conversion. According to media reports, the regent stated that he had not requested Muluk write the letter.

In January, a group of local human rights organizations released a report entitled 2020 Outlook on Freedom of Religion and Faith in Indonesia. The report stated the number of religious freedom violations was increasing every year and criticized the government’s approach to religious freedom as increasing based on majoritarianism and repression. Speaking at the report release, Alissa Wahid, Coordinator of Jaringan Gusdurian and daughter of the late former president Abdurrahman Wahid, stated, “Favoritism and majoritarianism are getting stronger in Indonesia. The government is not doing enough to enforce the constitution, and more and more conflicts are being solved by local agreements, which often represent the interests of the majority.” Asfinawati, chairwoman of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, stated during the report’s release that “the state has been employing a repressive approach [to religious differences], which only deepens conflicts and segregation instead of ending intolerance.”

In April, the legislature resumed discussions on a draft penal code that was tabled for further discussion in September 2019 due to mass public protests. CSOs expressed concerns that the legislation might expand the blasphemy laws and other criminal sections that could be used to restrict religious freedom. On April 14, the National Alliance of Reform of the Criminal Code, a coalition of 41 CSOs, released a statement criticizing the legislature’s proposal to resume deliberations in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic on the grounds that it would prevent meaningful public participation. The alliance was also critical of numerous provisions in the draft, including sections that might restrict religious freedom. The legislature continued discussing the proposed legislation at year’s end.

In July, the Wahid Foundation released a report documenting cases of religious freedom abuses, as defined by the foundation, that occurred from 2009 to 2018. The report found that during that period, there were 1,033 cases of abuse by state actors and 1,420 cases by nonstate actors, with the largest categories of state abuses being the restriction/closure of places of worship (163), and nonstate abuses being intimidation (205). According to the report, cases of persecution by state actors increased during the Joko Widodo administration compared to the prior administration, but nonstate and violent cases decreased.

The governors of two provinces requested the removal of translated Bibles that were available through smartphone apps. On May 28, the Governor of West Sumatra, Irwan Prayitno, sent a letter to the Minister of Communication and Information requesting the removal of an app called “The Bible in the Minangkabau Language.” Pravitno stated that the translation had made the Minangkabau people uncomfortable because it contradicted their culture. On May 30, acting Governor of Aceh Nova Iriansyah sent a letter to Google Indonesia requesting it remove an app titled “Aceh Holy Book,” a version of the Bible translated into the Acehnese language, stating it was provocative and triggered unrest in Acehnese society. In both cases, the developer chose to voluntarily remove the application from the Google Play Store. Sources stated that there was no indication that the application violated Google’s content policy or that the Ministry of Communication and Information requested the developer to remove the application.

Across the country, minority religious groups, including Muslim groups in non-Muslim majority areas, continued to state the official requirement for a specific number of supporters to build or renovate a house of worship was a barrier to construction. Members of the Jewish community stated that since their numbers nationwide were so few, it was impossible for them to build new synagogues.

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

Local governments, police, and religious organizations reportedly tried to close religious minority groups’ houses of worship on the grounds of permit violations, often after protests from “intolerant groups,” even if the minority groups had been issued a proper permit.

Many congregations could not obtain the requisite number of nonmember signatures supporting construction of houses of worship and often faced protests from “intolerant groups” during the application process, making permits nearly impossible to obtain. Even when authorities issued permits, they halted construction on some houses of worship after facing legal challenges and public protests. Protestant and Catholic churches also reported that “intolerant groups” forced them to pay protection money if they continued operating without a permit. Some houses of worship established before the joint ministerial decree on house-of-worship construction came into effect in 2006 reportedly were still obligated to meet the requirements or face closure. Many houses of worship operated without permits in office buildings, malls, private homes, and shops.

In February, President Joko Widodo and then Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi interceded with the local government of Karimun Regency, Riau, to allow the renovation of a local Catholic church. The Saint Joseph Catholic Church had received a permit to renovate its premises in 2019, but local opposition prevented the beginning of construction. Following the intervention, construction of the Church began in April.

In February, President Joko Widodo approved the construction of an underground tunnel connecting Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, with the Jakarta Cathedral. President Joko Widodo termed it the “Tunnel of Brotherhood” to represent the deep connections among the country’s religions. Construction was to occur as part of a larger renovation of Istiqlal Mosque. Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo, head of the Jakarta Archdiocese, stated the tunnel was a continuation of the vision of the country’s first President, Sukarno, who decided to build Istiqlal Mosque opposite the cathedral to promote a message of tolerance. Istiqlal Mosque Grand Imam Nasaruddin Umar said that one day the road separating the two houses of worships might be removed to create one large interfaith campus shared by the two congregations.

In February, local authorities in Bandung, Central Java, organized an interfaith parade that attracted more than 6,000 persons. At the conclusion of the event, officials from the local legislature, government, and police signed a document stating their intent to support religious tolerance and harmony in Bandung.

Ahmadiyya congregations faced pressure from local officials to stop reconstruction and renovations on their houses of worship. According to a complaint filed by Ahmadi Muslims in Sukabumi city, West Java, to Komnas HAM in February and March, local government, police, and military officials attempted to intimidate the Ahmadi community in order to stop renovation of the Al-Furqon Mosque. Local officials visited the site on several occasions, warning that continued renovation would cause unrest and lead to attacks. According to media reports, on March 16, local officials permanently sealed the mosque. In a similar case, on January 27, the government of Tasikmalaya city, West Java, enacted a joint decree that banned renovation of the Ahmadi Al-Aqso Mosque, as well as forbidding Ahmadis from conducting worship activities publicly or proselytizing. On April 4, local officials sealed the mosque.

On March 6, protesters rallied against the construction of a Baptist church in the Tlogosari Kulon area of Semarang city, Central Java. The church had obtained a building permit from the city government in 1998, but construction had not been completed. Following the protests, local police contacted the church and requested it suspend building for three months to avoid more protests. On September 24, the mayor of Semarang issued a new building permit for the church, and construction resumed in October. Similar protests had stopped construction of the church in August 2019.

On July 20, local officials closed a tomb built by members of the Sunda Wiwitan religious group in Kuningan Regency, West Java. Local authorities said the group had built a monument, which according to local regulations required a building permit, while members of Sunda Wiwitan said that the structure was just a tomb and thus did not require a permit. Members of Sunda Wiwitan filed a complaint with Komnas HAM, which offered to mediate between local authorities and the religious group. On August 13, local officials removed the seals on the structure and it was reopened.

According to media reports, in September, in Cikarang city, West Java, individuals protested against a Christian church and used large speakers playing Islamic chants to drown out religious services. Leaders of the protest stated the church was located in a residence that did not have a valid permit to operate as a house of worship.

On September 17, the Regent of Singkil Regency, Aceh, sent a letter to Pakpak Dairi Christian Church ordering it to stop construction on a house for the pastor of the congregation. According to the letter, the house was being built without a proper permit and threatened the religious harmony of the area. Earlier in September, the congregation sent a complaint to the local office of the Komnas HAM that said local authorities were not responding to their communications. The congregation stated that since the building was a house for the pastor, it should not require the same approval as a house of worship.

According to media reports, on September 21, government authorities in Ngastemi village in Mojokerto Regency, East Java, asked a Christian woman to stop renovating her house after they suspected she was using her home as place of worship without a permit. Reportedly, local authorities halted the renovation after they discovered one of the newly renovated windows depicted a cross.

In March, the Paramadina Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy released a research study on the 2006 joint ministerial decree on houses of worship and FKUBs. Researchers received questionnaires from 24 provincial-, 33 city-, and 110 regency-level FKUBs – approximately 30 percent of the total 548 FKUBs in the country. The study found discrepancies among FKUBs in recommending whether new houses of worship should be built. For example, the FKUB in Solo, Central Java, had received 396 requests to build houses of worship, approving them all. The FKUB in North Lampung Regency, Lampung, however, had received 47 requests and refused 38 of them. The report concluded that vagaries in the 2006 decree meant the performance of FKUBs depended on local government regulation; the membership of FKUBs was not particularly diverse and was made up mostly of older, male government employees; and the FKUB’s mission to promote interfaith dialogue and prevent religious conflict was hampered by the administrative workload related to processing requests for the construction of houses of worship.

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

On June 12, the Regent of Gowa, South Sulawesi, implemented a Quran reading-fluency test for Muslim civil servants seeking promotion. The local regency required 76 local civil servants to read the Quran to be considered for promotion. Fourteen civil servants failed to pass the test and were told to achieve a sufficient level of fluency in six months; otherwise, they would be not be considered.

According to media reports, in April, the local government of East Lombok Regency, West Nusa Tenggara, asked the Ahmadi Muslim community there to relocate from their current temporary shelter to a new location. The community had been housed in the shelter since being displaced from their village of Gereneng by communal violence in 2018. The community refused the government request to relocate.

In Mataram, the capital of West Nusa Tenggara, 131 Ahmadi Muslims remained internally displaced in cramped apartments after a mob expelled them from their East Lombok village in 2006. According to media reports in June, the governor of West Nusa Tenggara offered to build a new apartment for the community, but as of the end of the year no progress had been made.

Although the government generally allowed citizens to leave the religion column blank on their identity cards (KTP), individuals continued to report difficulties accessing government services if they did so. Faced with this problem, many religious minority members, including those following indigenous beliefs, reportedly chose to identify as a member of an officially recognized religion close to their beliefs or reflecting the locally dominant religion. According to researchers, this practice obscured the real numbers of adherents to religious groups in government statistics. A 2017 Constitutional Court ruling allowed citizens to select indigenous faiths on their KTPs. According to media reports, in January, 450 adherents of Sapta Darma, an indigenous religious group, were able to change their KTPs to reflect their religion.

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

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

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

Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. For example, Andrei Angouw won the December 9 election for mayor of Manado, becoming the country’s first Confucian mayor. President Joko Widodo’s new 34-member cabinet included six members of minority faiths (4 Protestants, 1 Catholic, and 1 Hindu), the same total number as during his previous administration.

Many individuals in the government, media, civil society, and general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism. On August 14, President Joko Widodo delivered his annual Independence Day address, during which he stressed the need for an inclusive and united society. He said, “Indeed, democracy guarantees freedom, but it is only for freedom that respects other people’s rights. No one should be self-righteous and blame others. No one should think of themselves as the most religious.” At a December 27 interfaith conference, newly appointed Minister of Religious Affairs Yaqut Cholil Qoumas stated that Ahmadi and Shia Muslims have the same protections under the law as any other citizen. Qoumas also stated that he opposed Islamic populism, which sought to use religion as a source of division and conflict, and encouraged religious differences to be resolved through dialogue rather than violence.

The MORA introduced a “Religious Moderation” campaign that sought to improve religious tolerance. In January, President Joko Widodo signed the 2020-2024 National Medium-Term Development Plan, a strategic document for the government’s overall development efforts, which included “Religious Moderation” as a goal. The national plan budgeted 21.9 trillion rupiah ($1.56 billion) for the MORA to pursue this goal from 2020 to 2024. Religious moderation was also included as a goal in the MORA’s strategic plan released in June. The principles underpinning the Religious Moderation campaign were laid out in a book published by MORA in October 2019. According to officials and civil society organizations involved in the effort, specific activities to be undertaken by the campaign were still being developed.

In September, Komnas HAM released its Standardized Norms and Regulations on the Rights to Freedom of Religion or Belief. The document is a consolidated reference guide for national and international law related to religious freedom in Indonesia, including definitions of key terms and rights.

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

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

According to the law, a marriage is legitimate if performed according to the laws of the respective religions and beliefs of the parties concerned. Religious leaders, human rights activists, and journalists stated, however, that interreligious marriage was difficult unless the groom or bride was willing to marry according to the religious rituals of only one of the two religions. Many individuals preferred to go abroad for interreligious marriage, although this option was severely limited due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In November, suspected Islamic militants killed four Christians in Lemban Tongoa village, Central Sulawesi Province. The perpetrators also burned down several homes, including one used as a house of worship. Following the attack, President Joko Widodo called the killings “beyond the limits of humanity.”

Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi rhetoric was common in online media outlets and on social media.

Individuals affiliated at the local level with the MUI used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadis as deviant sects. In February, the chairman of the East Java MUI, Abdusshomad Buchori, stated he wanted the national MUI to release a new fatwa against the Shia community. The national MUI did not address or repudiate local MUI officials who called for such fatwas.

In August, a group of youths attacked a Shia prewedding ceremony in Solo city, Central Java, shouting anti-Shia slogans and assaulting several participants. Following the event, local police arrested several suspects for the assault.

According to Shia Rights Watch¸ in August, unknown individuals assaulted Shia Muslims attending a welcome dinner for a new Shia leader in the community, resulting in injuries to two youths.

In August, several Islamic organizations associated with the South Sulawesi chapter of the FUIB released a statement condemning the Shia community and its plans to commemorate Ashura, and said they would disrupt any events that the Shia community planned. The chairman of the South Sulawesi chapter of the FUIB, Muchtar Daeng Lau, cited an MUI fatwa that denounced Shia Islam as a form of heresy and condemned Shia commemorations of Ashura.

In April and May, reports of a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” spread on social media that claimed Jews, Christians, and communists were using COVID-19 and related restrictions on public gatherings to destroy Islam. Large Muslim organizations dismissed the conspiracy theory, with the secretary general of Muhammadiyah, Abdul Mu’ti, stating in April that it was baseless.

Many of the largest and most influential religious groups and NGOs, including the two largest Islamic groups in the country – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – officially endorsed and advocated for tolerance, pluralism, and the protection of minority groups on numerous occasions. For example, on March 4, an interfaith group of representatives from 11 youth wings of the largest religious organizations in the country signed a declaration promoting religious tolerance within the country and internationally.

In January, the Alvara Research Center, a sociopolitical survey and marketing research company, released Indonesia Moslem Report 2019: The Challenges of Indonesia Moderate Moslems. The study consisted of face-to-face interviews with 1,567 Muslims across the country’s 34 provinces. The study’s findings included the following: 69.3 percent of respondents approved of or were neutral to the construction of houses of worship of other religions located near them, while 19.2 opposed such construction; 56.3 percent approved of or were neutral to the idea of non-Muslim political leaders, while 32.5 percent said they would not support a non-Muslim political leader; 82.9 percent would openly accept and help neighbors of different religions, while 16.3 percent said they would accept them but would limit the relationship due to religious differences; 0.5 percent said they would not accept neighbors of different religions; 81.6 percent believed the secular national ideology of Pancasila was an appropriate foundation for the country, while 18.3 percent believed a religious-based ideology would be more appropriate.

In November, the Center for the Study of Islam and Society at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University released a study showing that conversations on social media about religion were dominated by what it termed conservative narratives and traditional interpretations of the original teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Researchers categorized religious conversations on Twitter between 2009 and 2019 as being dominated by Islamist (4.5 percent), conservative (67 percent), moderate (22.2 percent), or liberal (6.1 percent) narratives. The lead researcher of the study, Iim Halimatussa’diyah, told media that a “noisy minority” pushing a conservative narrative was often able to co-opt conversations, while moderate narratives struggled to gain traction on social media.

In December 2019, the MORA released its Religious Harmony Index for 2019. The index used a survey of more than 13,000 respondents in 34 provinces to measure harmony across three dimensions: tolerance, equality, and solidarity. The index was scored from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most harmonious. The national score for 2019 was 73.83, up from 70.90 in 2018. According to the index, the most religiously harmonious provinces were West Papua (82.1), East Nusa Tenggara (81.1), Bali (80.1), North Sulawesi (79.9), and Maluku (79.4), all in the central and eastern parts of the country. The five lowest-rated provinces were Aceh (60.2), West Sumatra (64.4), West Java (68.5), Banten (68.9), and Riau (69.3), all in the west. Some civil society organizations and experts criticized the index as providing an overly optimistic assessment of religious freedom and harmony in the country.

On February 14-16, the Association of Journalists for Diversity held a three-day training event for students from different faiths and universities in Jakarta. Participants stayed with Ahmadiyya, Sunda Wiwitan, Catholic, and Christian communities in Kuningan Regency, West Java. After the event, the association encouraged participants to write about their experiences to promote religious freedom and tolerance among youth.

Hindu sites experienced acts of vandalism. In March, unknown individuals damaged three religious statues at the Agung Jagatnatha Temple in Denpasar city, Bali. In January, a Hindu school in Banyuwangi city, East Java, reported that unknown perpetrators broke into the facility and vandalized property.

On August 20, members of the local chapters of GP Ansor and Banser, organizations associated with Nahdlatul Ulama, confronted individuals suspected of supporting Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) in Pasuruan Regency, East Java. HTI is the Indonesian branch of the Hizbut Tahrir, outlawed in 2017 by the government. Video of the confrontation spread widely online and appeared to show GP Ansor and Banser officials aggressively questioning and reprimanding alleged HTI supporters. Then Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi praised the organizations’ actions, while the secretary of the East Java chapter of the MUI, Ainul Yaqin, stated they should have reported the case to local police.

On September 29, a mosque in Tangerang regency, Banten, was vandalized with anti-Islamic messages written on the walls. On October 1, police arrested a suspect.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On October 29, the Secretary of State visited the country and addressed an audience of interfaith leaders at an event on religious pluralism hosted by Nahdlatul Ulama. The speech focused on several themes: the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in democracies; opposing blasphemy accusations and discrimination against nonofficial religions; and calling on all religious leaders to defend the rights of other religions. The speech was followed by a question-and-answer session with attendees, where the Secretary emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue in pursuing peace and human rights around the world.

The embassy, the consulate general in Surabaya, and the consulate in Medan regularly engaged with all levels of government on religious freedom issues, such as actions against religious minorities, closures of places of worship, access for foreign religious organizations, convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion, the undue influence of “intolerant groups,” the importance of the rule of law, the application of sharia to non-Muslims, the importance of education and interfaith dialogue in promoting tolerance, the equal protection of all citizens regardless of their religion or belief, and promotion of tolerance in international forums.

The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism is a civil-society-led entity endorsed by both governments that includes a diverse group of experts, academics, and religious and civil society leaders established to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and tolerance. The Ambassador engaged its leadership by discussing ways to augment the council’s activity on issues affecting the country’s religious communities. To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith gathering with council members, representatives of the country’s six officially recognized religions, and representatives of nonrecognized religions, including Ahmadi Muslims and Baha’is. During the event, the Grand Imam of the National Istiqlal Mosque, Nasaruddin Umar, who has published a series of weekly columns about religious pluralism in the United States since his return in 2019 from a U.S. exchange programs, thanked the Ambassador for frequent interfaith engagement during his tenure and noted the United States had been the most active country in doing so. In October, the chair of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights met with members of the council to discuss the environment of religious freedom in the country.

In August, the embassy initiated a project with the Yogyakarta-based Srikandi Lintas Iman to promote religious pluralism through early childhood education and utilizing social media among women. The project used funding related to the Department of State’s Meeting on Education, Resilience, Respect, and Inclusion. In August, the embassy launched a digital storytelling project, which places students from 20 high schools across four provinces (East Java, Central Java, West Java, and Jakarta) in interfaith groups to create videos, stories, photographs, and essays on themes of tolerance, diversity, and peace. Interactive webinars facilitated group discussions, and online content-creation workshops equipped diverse, interfaith groups of students with the skills to identity and avoid misinformation.

The embassy continued an $11.5 million project through a cooperative agreement with the Asia Foundation to engage with legal aid organizations to defend human rights and religious freedom in six provinces, including all provinces in Java except Banten and Papua. The embassy supported these partners in developing advocacy papers for outreach on regulations that discriminate against religious minorities, improving their capacity to represent minority religious groups in legal cases, undertaking strategic public campaigns to build wider civil society engagement in challenging intolerance, and publishing periodic reports on abuses of religious freedom.

The embassy continued a $27 million project aimed at developing more effective tools and systems to bolster religious tolerance. The project partnered with national and local-level government officials, CSOs, universities, research institutions, and grassroots movements that focus on promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Early in the year, the embassy launched a three-million-dollar activity to promote religious tolerance and pluralism among high school students. Through partnerships with the Ministries of Religious Affairs and Education and Culture, the project aimed to design and implement innovative arts and cultural curricula in select districts to advance community resilience to religious intolerance.

During Ramadan, the embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach throughout the country to highlight religious tolerance. The consulate in Surabaya hosted a Ramadan chat series with American Muslims that highlighted the contributions of U.S. Muslims in American society. The embassy hosted two events at its @America venue. The first consisted of former participants of embassy exchange programs discussing their experience of religious freedom in the United States during Ramadan. The second program celebrated Eid al-Fitr with an Egyptian-American singer-songwriter, who discussed his experiences practicing his religion in the United States.

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

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

In February, 23 leaders of religious groups and communities in East Java visited the consulate in Surabaya to learn about the consulate’s activities in the east, as well as to exchange ideas on how to collaborate to promote religious freedom.

In August, the consulate in Surabaya hosted an event on religious freedom and multiculturalism that was headlined by Zuhairi Misrawi, a former participant in a U.S. exchange program.

The embassy posted translated speeches and commentary on religious freedom by the Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and other high-level government officials on its website. The embassy also developed graphics for social media and sent information to local journalists to encourage them to cover these 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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Before pandemic restrictions were imposed, the Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials, including the SCRA deputy chief and high-ranking officials in the Grand Muftiate, to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. In November, an embassy officer met with SCRA officials to discuss plans for legislation in 2021, including proposed amendments to the Law on Religion, as well as how the new government planned to approach longstanding issues, including religious intolerance.

Embassy officers continued to engage with representatives of the Muftiate, leaders of minority religions, NGOs, and civil society representatives to discuss the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities. Throughout the year, these interactions were significantly reduced due to the pandemic, although embassy staff continued to interact with contacts virtually. The Ambassador also met virtually with members of religious communities, including representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Baptist and Evangelical Unions of Kyrgyzstan, and discussed religious registration, interreligious relations, and religious extremism.

Macau

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. The SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law on October 7 allowing the Judiciary Police to create national security branches. Some members of the religious community said they were concerned Macau’s implementation of these new provisions could mirror the Hong Kong police force’s national security units and potentially affect civil liberties, although they were uncertain if the new provisions could eventually infringe upon religious freedom. Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. At a Lunar New Year celebration, the Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office told religious community representatives the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally on April 25 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China.

Falun Gong practitioners continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.

In meetings with civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 614,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2015 estimate by the research group Association of Religion Data Archives, 48.1 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Taoist, 4.5 percent Catholic, 2.5 percent other Christian, 1.2 percent other religious groups (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent nonreligious. The SAR Government Information Bureau 2020 yearbook states the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists, but it states they are numerous and individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 4.5 percent of the population are Roman Catholics, of whom almost half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 2.5 percent of the population are Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with officially recognized mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of religious belief and the freedom to publicly preach as well as conduct and participate in religious activities. These rights may be limited in extreme situations for national security reasons. The Basic Law further stipulates the government shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups or in their relations with their counterparts outside Macau. It bars the government from restricting religious activities that do not contravene the laws of the SAR.

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the PRC, safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education. On October 7, the SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law allowing the Judiciary Police to create four new national security branches: the National Security Information Division; the National Security Crime Investigation Division; the National Security Action Support Division; and the National Security Affairs Integrated Service Division.

Religious groups are not required to register to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status. Benefits include exemption from taxation (such as property tax, stamp duty, complementary tax [profit tax], and industrial tax) and financial assistance from the government. Religious groups register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter. Registered charities receive the same benefits as registered religious groups. Religious groups need to be registered as a charity under a similar or different name in order to provide charitable services.

The law states that religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.

There is no religious education in public schools. A small number of schools run by religious organizations receive no public funding, and these schools may require students to receive religious education.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.

Government Practices

The government’s stated aim in amending the 2009 National Security Law was to improve external communications about national security and promote law enforcement. Human rights advocates said they were concerned the SAR’s new divisions mirrored the divisions that were created under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which came into effect on June 30 and were being used to threaten civil liberties. Religious leaders said they were uncertain if the new provisions might eventually infringe upon religious freedom.

Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

According to the Central Government Liaison Office in Macau, in January, Zhang Rongshun, Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office, held a Lunar New Year celebration with more than 30 representatives from the Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, and Baha’i communities. Zhang said successful implementation of the PRC’s “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support.

On April 25, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in front of St. Dominic’s Church to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the CCP’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group, carried banners, and distributed informational pamphlets.

Some religious groups continued to report they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.

The government continued to provide financial support, regardless of religious affiliation, to religious groups to establish schools, child-care centers, clinics, homes for the elderly, rehabilitation centers, and vocational training centers. The government also continued to refer victims of human trafficking to religious organizations for the provision of support services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, continued to recognize the Pope as its head. The Vatican appointed the bishop for the diocese. Sources stated the PRC central government and religious leaders from mainland-authorized churches invited Macau diocese representatives to public events.

The Catholic Diocese of Macau continued to run many educational institutions.

According to Minghui.org, with fewer foreigners visiting the SAR due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Falun Gong practitioners interacted more with local residents, handing out information on the streets, including publications called CCP Virus Special Editions and MinghuiWeekly. According to the website, “Local residents have always treated Falun Dafa practitioners with kindness.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. Consulate General representatives in Hong Kong, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious diversity and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland. They raised these points in meetings with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Nepal

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion. The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another and prohibits religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality. The law prohibits both proselytism and “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class. The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or nonprofit organizations to own property or operate legally. One man was killed by police in August in a confrontation with the Muslim community over cow slaughter. In September, police and protestors clashed in Lalitpur District when the government tried to prevent the celebration of a local religious holiday due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Officials arrested several pastors for violating the COVID-19 lockdown, including one who was arrested while sending parishioners home from their church. Another pastor was arrested, first for providing what the government said was misinformation about COVID-19, released on bail, and then arrested twice more for seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity. Police arrested seven Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year for proselytizing, including two U.S. citizens, who were released on bail and were awaiting trial as of the end of the year. In several locations, police arrested individuals accused of slaughtering cows or oxen. Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate most Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies but prohibited the public celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday and continued to drastically curtail their ability to hold public celebrations. During the year, police surveillance of Tibetans remained high. Authorities cited the pandemic in restricting public ceremonies and gatherings while maintaining, and in some cases increasing, prepandemic levels of security personnel and scrutiny of Tibetan cultural and religious celebrations, particularly those involving the Dalai Lama. Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the anti-Christian sentiment of the Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), which seeks to reestablish the country as a Hindu state. Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating as NGOs. The government again did not recognize Christmas or Eid al-Adha as public holidays, but allowed Christians and Muslims time off from work to celebrate and continued to recognize Buddha’s birthday as a public holiday. Christian and Muslim groups said they continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials.

In August, assailants shot and killed a Hindu priest on temple grounds in southern Nepal in an attack that some sources stated was religiously motivated. Police arrested and charged two suspects and stated they were seeking three others in connection with the case. In September, a clash between Hindus and Muslims in a southern district left more than a dozen people injured. Christian leaders said that a Hindu activist openly threatened Christians on a television interview in January. Catholic and Protestant sources stated that threats of violence against Christians on social media had increased. Local media again published occasional reports of alleged harmful practices by religious minorities that were disputed by local authorities, witnesses, and media. According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other “high-caste” individuals continued to prevent persons of “lower” castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites. There were incidents of vandalism against a church and a mosque, characterized by sources as minor and which were addressed by authorities.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador, U.S. embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code, including the continued criminalization of converting others and proselytizing. They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, the prohibition against “forced or induced” conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians. The embassy used social media to communicate religious freedom messages, highlight the country’s religious diversity, and promote respect and tolerance. Following the arrests of U.S. citizens on proselytizing charges, embassy officers spoke with the detainees, their lawyer, and police. Embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the most recent, Hindus constitute 81.3 percent of the population, Buddhists 9 percent, Muslims (the vast majority of whom are Sunni) 4.4 percent, and Christians (a large majority Protestant and a minority Roman Catholic) 1.4 percent. Other groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Kirats (an indigenous religion with Hindu influence), animists, adherents of Bon (a Tibetan religious tradition), Jains, Baha’is, and Sikhs. According to some Muslim leaders, Muslims constitute at least 5.5 percent of the population, mostly concentrated in the south. According to some Christian groups, Christians constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population. Many individuals adhere to a syncretic faith encompassing elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and traditional folk practices, according to scholars.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country to be a secular state but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” The constitution stipulates every person has the right to profess, practice, and protect his or her religion. While exercising this right, the constitution bans individuals from engaging in any acts “contrary to public health, decency, and morality” or that “disturb the public law and order situation.” It also prohibits converting “another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardize other’s religion,” and states that violations are punishable by law.

The criminal code sets five years’ imprisonment as the punishment for converting, or encouraging the conversion of, another person via coercion or inducement (which officials commonly refer to as “forced conversion”) or for engaging in any act, including the propagating of religion, that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of any caste or ethnic group. It stipulates a fine of up to 50,000 Nepali rupees ($430) and subjects foreign nationals convicted of these crimes to deportation. The criminal code also imposes punishments of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 rupees ($170) for “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or in writing.

The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. It is not mandatory for Buddhist monasteries to register with the government, although doing so is a prerequisite for receiving government funding for maintenance of facilities, skills training for monks, and study tours. A monastery development committee under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation oversees the registration process. Requirements for registration include providing a recommendation from a local government body, information on the members of the monastery’s management committee, a land ownership certificate, and photographs of the premises.

Except for Buddhist monasteries, all religious groups must register as NGOs or nonprofit organizations to own land or other property, operate legally as institutions, or gain eligibility for public service-related government grants and partnerships. Religious organizations follow the same registration process as other NGOs and nonprofit organizations, including preparing a constitution and furnishing information on the organization’s objectives as well as details on its executive committee members. To renew the registration, which must be completed annually, organizations must submit annual financial audits and activity progress reports.

The law prohibits the killing or harming of cattle. Violators are subject to a maximum sentence of three years in prison for killing cattle and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees ($430) for harming cattle.

The law requires the government to provide protection for religious groups carrying out funeral rites in the exercise of their constitutional right to practice their religion, but it also states the government is not obligated to provide land grants for this purpose. There is no law specifically addressing the funeral practices of religious groups.

The constitution establishes the government’s authority to “make laws to operate and protect a religious place or religious trust and to manage trust property and regulate land management.”

The law does not require religiously affiliated schools to register, but Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic religious schools must register as religious educational institutions with local district education offices (under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology) and supply information about their funding sources to receive funding at the same levels as nonreligious public/community schools. Religious public/community schools follow the same registration procedure as nonreligious public/community schools. Catholic and Protestant groups must register as NGOs to operate private schools. The law does not allow Christian schools to register as public/community schools, and they are not eligible for government funding. Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups may also register as NGOs to operate private schools, but they too are not eligible to receive government funding.

The law criminalizes acts of caste-based discrimination in places of worship. Penalties for violations are three months’ to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 rupees ($430 to $1,700).

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

Government Practices

According to members of civil society groups, on August 27, one man was killed by police in Jhapa during a confrontation between police and the Muslim community after two persons were arrested for slaughtering cows.

Police clashed with approximately 1,000 protestors on September 3 when they gathered in Lalitpur District to celebrate the Buddhist festival of Rato Machindranath in contravention of the government’s COVID-19 restrictions against festivals, large gatherings, or any nonessential activities. According to media reports, the crowd began to throw rocks and debris and to fire slingshots when police tried to stop them from pulling a five-story high ceremonial chariot through the streets. Approximately 650 Nepal Police and Armed Police Force officers responded with water cannons and tear gas and arrested nine protestors. The two sides clashed for four hours until community leaders and the Lalitpur Chief District Officer agreed on a compromise. District authorities imposed a day-long curfew enforced by armed police on September 5, the first unrest-related curfew in the Kathmandu Valley since November 2009.

On March 23, according to media reports and religious groups, police in Pokhara arrested Christian preacher Keshav Raj Acharya for spreading misinformation about COVID-19. A February 21 YouTube video showed Acharya praying to “damn” the virus and stating that those who follow Christ would not become infected. The Kaski District Administration Office released Acharya with a 5,000-rupee ($43) fine for the COVID-19 related charges, but police kept him in jail and subsequently charged him with religious conversion and offending religious sensibilities. On April 19, the administration office set bail for these charges at 500,000 rupees ($4,300). On May 13, when Acharya was released on bail, he was immediately rearrested at the courthouse and transferred 400 miles to Dolpa District to face additional charges of religious conversion. On June 30, Acharya was released on 300,000 rupees bail ($2,600). Multiple religious groups stated that local police prejudice continued to factor heavily in the selective enforcement of the vague criminal code provision against “forced conversion.” In a July 18 letter to Nepal’s Attorney General, the International Religious Freedom Roundtable described Acharya’s arrest as “arbitrary” and “discriminatory” and called for charges against him to be dropped.

According to media reports, police arrested two pastors on March 28, charging them with holding worship services in violation of COVID-19 restrictions. In the first case, Pastor Mohan Gurung was arrested in the Surkhet District of Karnali Province while he was talking with family members and assistant pastors who lived on church property with him. Gurung said “police jumped over the church gate, barged inside the premises, and accused [him] of holding a worship service” while he “was having family time, chatting, and studying the Bible.” In the second case, Pastor Prem Bahadur Bishwakarma was arrested in his church building, also in Surkhet District, while telling members of his congregation not to gather because of pandemic restrictions and showing them pictures depicting COVID-19 health precautions. Bahadur told the media that police officers using lathis (clubs) “charged at us” before arresting him. The two pastors were charged with violating the lockdown, disturbing the peace, and putting public health at risk. Both were released on bail on March 29.

According to a Christian news portal, in February, the government deported two Japanese and three Taiwanese individuals for spreading Christianity on tourist visas. The local NGO INSEC (Informal Sector Service Center) stated that four Japanese and two Taiwanese were transferred to the Department of Immigration in Kathmandu in late February, but it could not confirm their deportations.

According to civil society sources, during the year police arrested seven Jehovah’s Witnesses on two separate occasions in Pokhara for proselytizing. Two were U.S. citizens and five were Nepali citizens. The Nepali citizens were arrested on February 1 and released February 27 on 200,000 rupees ($1,700) bail per person. The U.S. citizens were arrested on March 17 and charged with religious conversion while they were visiting the house of friends, who were also Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were detained in police custody pending investigation for 11 days. On March 27, police released them due to COVID-19 protocols on 230,000 rupees ($2,000) bail each. On April 24, police recalled them and detained them until April 26, when the district court released them on an additional 200,000 rupees ($1,700) bail each, pending trial. The original 230,000 rupee bail was refunded to the U.S. citizens after they paid the second bail. As of the end of the year, their case was pending in Kaski District Court.

According to the Society for Humanism Nepal, 35 individuals were arrested for cow slaughter in nine separate incidents through October. These arrests took place in eight different districts throughout the country.

The government continued deepened restrictions on Tibetans’ ability to publicly celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6, stating the religious celebrations represented “anti-China” activities. Although authorities allowed small private celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July, security personnel around these events outnumbered the Tibetan attendees. Similarly, Tibetans could only conduct other ceremonies with cultural and religious significance in private, such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and World Peace Day, which commemorates the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tibetan leaders urged Tibetans to respect government-imposed restrictions on public gatherings to combat the spread of COVID-19 by celebrating days of religious significance in private. Tibetan leaders organized small “official” commemorations of these occasions, which were subjected to heightened scrutiny from security personnel despite compliance with government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions. Civil society organizations said this scrutiny was the result of the government’s policy to treat all religious programs associated with the Dalai Lama as constituting “anti-China activities.”

Abbots of Buddhist monasteries reported that monasteries and their related social welfare projects generally continued to operate without government interference, but they and other monks said police surveillance and questioning increased significantly during the year. Police continued to gather information from a 2019 circular sent to Tibetan institutes about Tibetan refugees studying in monasteries and nunneries. Tibetan Buddhist business owners also reported what they termed unwarranted police questioning about religious and social affiliations in their businesses and homes.

Human rights lawyers and leaders of religious minorities continued to express concern that the constitution’s and criminal code’s conversion bans could make religious minorities subject to legal prosecution for actions carried out in the normal course of their religious practices, and also vulnerable to prosecution for preaching, public displays of faith, and distribution of religious materials in contravention of constitutional assurances of freedom of speech and expression.

Human rights experts continued to express concern that a provision in the criminal code prohibiting speech or writing harmful to others’ religious sentiments could be misused to settle personal scores or target religious minorities arbitrarily. According to numerous civil society and international community legal experts, some provisions in the law restricting conversion could be invoked against a wide range of expressions of religion or belief, including the charitable activities of religious groups or merely speaking about one’s faith. Media and academic analysts continued to state that discussions on prohibiting conversion had entered into religious spheres in the country and that those seeking political advantage manipulated the issue, prompting religious groups to restrict some activities.

According to legal experts and leaders of religious minority groups, the constitutional language on protecting the “age-old religion” and the prohibition on conversion was intended by the drafters to mandate the protection of Hinduism. Christian religious leaders continued to state that the emphasis of politicians in the RPP on re-establishing the country as a Hindu state continued to negatively affect public perception of Christians and Christianity. The RPP currently holds one seat in Parliament and civil society sources stated that it uses anti-Christian sentiment to garner populist support. (The country was a Hindu monarchy until 2007, when the interim constitution established a secular democracy.)

Leaders of the RPP outside of Parliament continued their calls for the reestablishment of Hindu statehood and advocated strong legal action against those accused of killing cows. Kamal Thapa, chairman of the RPP, tweeted praise for the Prime Minister’s efforts to control conversion, criticized the government for not doing more, and likened conversion to an epidemic. Civil society leaders said pressure from India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and other Hindu groups in India continued to push politicians in Nepal, particularly from the RPP, to support reversion to a Hindu state.

Civil society leaders said what they characterized as right-wing religious groups associated with the BJP in India continued to provide money to influential politicians of all parties to advocate for Hindu statehood. According to NGOs and Christian leaders, small numbers of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) supporters were endeavoring to create an unfriendly environment for Christians on social media and occasionally at small political rallies and encouraging “upper-caste” Hindus to enforce caste-based discrimination.

Religious leaders said the requirement for NGOs to register annually with local government authorities placed their organizations at political risk, and one source reported their religious group was denied reregistration. Christian leaders expressed fears that changing obligations could potentially limit the establishment of churches, which must be registered as NGOs.

As in recent years, the government did not recognize Christmas as a public holiday. The government, however, allowed Christians and Muslims time off from work to celebrate major holidays such as Christmas and Eid al-Adha, and continued to recognize Buddha’s birthday as public holiday.

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

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

Muslim groups stated Muslim individuals in the Kathmandu Valley continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries but said they sometimes faced opposition from local communities.

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

According to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development (previously the Department of Education), which is under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, the number of gumbas (Buddhist centers of learning) registered rose from 111 in 2019 to 114. The department had 104 gurukhuls (Hindu centers of learning) registered during the year, up one from 2019.

According to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development, 911 madrassahs were registered with district education offices, representing an increase of four from the previous year. Some Muslim leaders stated that as many as 2,500 to 3,000 full-time madrassahs continued to be unregistered. They again expressed apprehension that some unregistered madrassahs were promoting the spread of less tolerant interpretations of Islam. According to religious leaders, many madrassahs, as well as full-time Buddhist and Hindu schools, continued to operate as unregistered entities because school operators hoped to avoid government auditing and having to use the Center for Education and Human Resource Development’s established curriculum. They said some school operators also wished to avoid the registration process, which they characterized as cumbersome.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 19, assailants shot and killed a 65-year-old Hindu priest on the premises of Hanuman Temple, located in Rautahat District in the southern part of the country. The police arrested two individuals and registered charges against them on August 23. At year’s end, the case was pending in district court and three additional suspects remained at large. Prior to investigation, the attack was portrayed on social media as religiously motivated, with commenters accusing Muslims, although the individuals later arrested were not Muslim. Comments on social media criticized the Chief Minister of Province 2, who is Muslim, and Mohna Ansari of the National Human Rights Commission for failing to speak publicly about the incident.

Authorities reported no change in the 2016 case in which Banke District police filed charges against 29 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim clashes that led to the killing of two Muslims. The suspects were later released on bail and the District Administration Office provided each victim’s family 1,000,000 rupees ($8,500) in compensation in 2017. The case remained pending in the Banke district court, but a leader from the Muslim community stated he did not expect justice for the victims’ families.

A violent clash erupted in Sarlahi District in the south when a Hindu procession carrying an idol of the god Bishwakarma passed through a Muslim community on September 18, which some Muslim commenters said they believed was a deliberate provocation – an allegation the Hindu community denied. According to media reports, the procession planned to immerse the idol in a lake located near a mosque. Members of the Muslim community tried to stop the procession, which was accompanied by a tractor and DJ playing music. The dispute escalated and people began throwing stones at one another, leaving over a dozen injured. Police used tear gas to regain control of the situation, and the district administration office imposed an 18-hour curfew to prevent further clashes.

Some leaders of religious minority groups stated that some converts to other religions, including Hindus who had converted to Christianity, remained willing and able to state publicly their new religious affiliation. Some Christian leaders, however, reported that some converts to Christianity tried to conceal their faith from their families and local communities, mainly in areas outside Kathmandu.

Christian leaders said Manoj Sapkota, a Hindu activist affiliated with Shiva Sena, openly threatened Christians on a television interview in January. They also stated that Hindu activist Abhishek Joshi openly threatened the Christian community in several television interviews.

According to Catholic and Protestant sources, social media was increasingly used to spread threats of violence against Christians. Several sources noted a rise in anti-Christian propaganda and divisive religious content on social media due to the COVID-19 lockdown. When a song against Bahun and Chettri (two “high” Hindu castes) was placed on social media, Christians were blamed. Some civil society organizations stated that Pastor Sukdev Giri of the Trinity Fellowship Church in Chitwan District continued to receive insults and threatening messages through social media.

Some Muslim leaders continued not to accept converts to Islam, saying it would violate the law according to their interpretation. Instead, they continued to recommend that individuals who sought to convert travel to India to do so.

Local media again published occasional reports of alleged harmful practices by religious minorities that were disputed by local authorities, witnesses, and media. After a disproportionate number of Muslims were among the first to test positive for COVID-19, Muslim leaders stated that some journalists and media outlets tried to use COVID-19 fears to fuel anti-Muslim sentiment and communal unrest. These included allegations that Tablighi Jamaat missionaries and other members of the Muslim community were deliberately spreading COVID-19. The Ministry of Health tested members of the Muslim community for COVID-19, and the government worked with Muslim leaders to curb the spread of misinformation.

A Christian religious leader said there were no news reports of social disturbances in rural areas caused by the spread of Christianity, as there had been in previous years. Multiple Christian sources said that inflammatory material migrated to social media, since there were very few public activities that could trigger disturbances due to COVID-19 restrictions.

According to NGOs, Hindu priests and “high-caste” residents continued to prevent Dalits, as members of a “lower” caste, from entering temples and sometimes prevented them from performing religious rites and participating in religious festivals. A provincial assembly member and local residents of Pokhara in Gandaki Province denied mourning rituals to Dalits in a public facility. The court case against perpetrators of the 2017 attack on a Dalit man for entering a temple in Saptari District remained pending as of December. A representative from a Dalit rights organization stated that the Dalit community did not expect justice to be served in this case, as impunity continued in many cases of Dalit rights violations.

Christian sources reported one incident of vandalism against a church in Dhading District in August. The incident was minor, according to the sources, and was quickly mediated at the local level. In October, Madani Mosque in Sundhara, Kathmandu, was vandalized with a bulldozer in a land dispute. Police arrested and later released the bulldozer driver and the individual claiming ownership of the land (which sources stated is owned by the government) but investigated the incident. The government determined that the land claim was fraudulent and as of the end of the year was in the process of returning it to the mosque. Madina Mosque in Bhairahawa, Rupandehi District, was also vandalized in October. Individuals on a motorbike threw a stone at a window, causing minor damage. Police promised the local community that they would investigate.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, the Ambassador, embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government representatives expressed concerns to senior government officials and political leaders about restrictions on freedom of religion, including the rights to convert and to proselytize, posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code. They repeatedly emphasized to government officials working in law enforcement, immigration, and foreign affairs the importance of bringing legislation and practice into concordance with the country’s constitutional and international obligations. Embassy officers worked with legal advocates and rights groups to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens threatened by the criminal code and continued to highlight how anticonversion laws could be used to arbitrarily restrict the right to the freedoms of religion and expression. Following the arrests of U.S. citizens on proselytizing charges, embassy officers spoke with the detainees, their lawyers, and police to ensure they were being treated fairly and in accordance with the law. Embassy officers and visiting senior U.S. government officials raised concerns with government officials about the government’s restrictions on Tibetan Buddhists conducting peaceful religious activities, including celebrations of Losar (Tibetan New Year), the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and World Peace Day.

The Charge d’Affaires and a senior embassy officer led a group of 10 embassy participants to the February 26 Tibetan Losar celebration hosted by the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office at the Boudha Settlement Community Hall in Kathmandu. The Ambassadors from Australia, the European Union, and Switzerland and officials from the French and German embassies also joined. For the first time since 2008, the event was held outdoors. Plainclothes police were present and attendance was lower than in prior years.

Throughout the year, embassy officers and other U.S. government representatives discussed with civil society members and religious groups their concerns about arrests, access to burial grounds, public celebration of religious holidays, the prohibition against religious conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians.

The embassy used social media to communicate religious freedom messages, highlight the country’s religious diversity, and promote respect and tolerance. Although COVID-19 restricted the ability to attend many religious events in person, the Ambassador used social media to highlight and revisit past engagements in order to communicate U.S. continued support for religious freedom. Embassy officers frequently addressed religious diversity and tolerance using virtual platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

The embassy continued to provide financial assistance for the preservation and restoration of religious sites, including Buddhist stupas (shrines) and monasteries as well as several Hindu temples, and continued to promote religious tolerance in a program for underprivileged youth, including Muslim and Tibetan refugees, in Kathmandu.

Pakistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis) is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges up to the death penalty. According to civil society reports, there were many individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 35 of whom had received death sentences, as compared with 82 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and 29 who received death sentences in 2019. According to the Center for Social Justice, a national nongovernmental organization (NGO), at least 199 individuals were accused of blasphemy offenses, a significant increase over 2019 and the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. The accused were mostly Shia (70 percent of cases) and Ahmadi Muslims (20 percent of cases). Other NGOs corroborated that 2020 had seen an increase in blasphemy cases. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a national NGO, expressed concern over a surge in blasphemy cases against religious minorities, particularly the Shia community, and the continued potential for sectarian violence. It stated that more than 40 cases against religious minorities were registered under the blasphemy laws in August alone. In October, the Lahore High Court acquitted a Christian of blasphemy, the first such ruling since 2018. The court acquitted a second Christian in December. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders continued to report they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including a 2018 Islamabad High Court judgment that some government agencies continued to use to deny national identification cards to Ahmadi Muslims. In May, the Cabinet approved a proposal creating a National Commission for Minorities within the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Religious freedom activists and civil society groups said the proposal was “toothless” and raised concerns regarding the ministry’s lack of public consultation, the limited powers of the proposed body, and the fact that Ahmadi Muslims were excluded. The government of Punjab, the country’s largest province, passed a series of measures against Ahmadi Muslim beliefs. Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. Following the July killing of U.S. citizen and self-identified Ahmadi Muslim Tahir Naseem, who was standing trial for blasphemy charges, some political party leaders celebrated the killer’s actions. In December, using expanded authorities granted by the government in November, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority publicly demanded the removal of “sacrilegious” content from the Google Play Store and Wikipedia. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of retaliation, inadequate staff, or apathy. Perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. The government took some measures to protect religious minorities. On January 26, for example, a local court sentenced four boys for vandalizing a Hindu temple in Sindh’s Tharparkar District, the first attack on a Hindu temple in that area in more than 30 years; minority lawmakers and civil society activists reacted strongly to the attack. In July, religious and right-wing parties criticized the government’s plan to permit construction of a new Hindu temple in Islamabad.

Armed sectarian groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the once-banned anti-Shia group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which is connected to other organizations banned by the government as extremist, and groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), however, the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups decreased compared with previous years, corresponding with a continued overall decline in terrorist attacks. The government continued to implement the National Action Plan against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism as well as conducting military and law enforcement operations against violent groups. Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship, which had been frequent targets of attack in past years. Police and security forces throughout the country enhanced security measures during religious holidays in consultation with religious leaders.

Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. There were a series of additional violent incidents targeting Ahmadis following the Tahir Naseem killing in a Peshawar courtroom. An Ahmadi trader in Peshawar was shot near his business on August 12. On October 5, also in Peshawar, Ahmadi professor Naeemuddin Khattak was shot and killed while driving home from work. On November 9, also in Peshawar, unknown gunmen killed an 82-year-old retired government worker who was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community while he was waiting for a bus. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. Sunni groups held three large rallies in Karachi in September, with speakers warning Shia Muslims of dire consequences, including beheadings, if they continued to blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions. NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was the increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women from religious minority communities, especially young Hindu and Christian women. There continued to be reports of attacks on holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of Hindu, Christian, and Ahmadiyya minorities. According to Ahmadi Muslim civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, as provided for in the National Action Plan. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.

Senior Department of State officials, including the Office of International Religious Freedom’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, the Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, and other embassy officers met with government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including the Minister for Human Rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect. Embassy officers continued to engage civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts in discussing ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with religious minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The embassy highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on its social media platforms throughout the year. U.S. government cultural centers in Khairpur, Hyderabad, and Karachi held events to promote religious freedom. Following the killing of Tahir Naseem, the Department of State issued a statement expressing outrage over the killing and noting that Naseem had been lured from his home in the United States by individuals who used blasphemy laws to entrap him. The statement also called on the government to reform its blasphemy laws and court system and to ensure that the suspect in Naseem’s killing be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Following the killing of Ahmadi physician Tahir Ahmad in November, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom posted an official tweet calling upon authorities to ensure the safety of all Pakistanis.

On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 234.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017 (the most recent), 96 percent of the population is Sunni or Shia Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims (whom national law does not recognize as Muslim); Hindus; Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants, among others; Parsis/Zoroastrians; Baha’is; Sikhs; Buddhists; Kalash; and Kihals and Jains.

Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population, and Shia Muslims, including Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.

According to the 2017 census results, the population is 1.6 percent Hindu, 1.6 percent Christian, 0.2 percent Ahmadi Muslim, and 0.3 percent others, to include Baha’is, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Taking into account the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000 to 600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the provisional results of the 2017 census and state the numbers underrepresent their true population and their political influence, because minority seats in the national and provincial parliaments are allocated based on census figures.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” According to the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death penalty for “defiling the Prophet Mohammed,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority for possible removal or to the Federal Investigative Agency for possible criminal prosecution.

The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Mohammed… the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Mohammed.” It also states that “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Baha’i, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”

According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from “posing as Muslims,” using Islamic terms, carrying out Islamic customs, preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violating these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine, the amount of which is at the discretion of the sentencing judge.

The penal code does not explicitly criminalize apostasy, but renouncing Islam is widely considered by clerics to be a form of blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty.

The government may use the antiterrorism courts, established as a parallel legal structure under the 1997 Antiterrorism Act, to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.

The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.

The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax for the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a mandatory, automatic 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims who hold savings accounts in banks. It distributes the funds through a government-run charity as stipends for poor families and students, payment for medical treatment, and support to Sunni mosques and madrassahs registered with the government. Sunni Muslims who want to distribute zakat themselves may request an exemption, and Shia Muslims are exempted by filling out a declaration of faith form.

The constitution mandates that the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.

The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam or its prophets or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.

The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.

The constitution states that no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states that no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.

The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. In Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, private schools are also required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students.

By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. Wafaqs (independent academic boards) register seminaries, regulate curricula, and issue degrees. The five wafaqs each represent major streams of Islamic thought in the country: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is considered ultraconservative. The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan, to represent their interests to the government. The government requires all madrassahs to register with the Ministry of Education in addition to registration with one of the five wafaqs.

The constitution states, “All existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah [Islam’s body of traditional social and legal custom and practice].” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Some personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition British legislation.

The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution also grants the FSC “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) over criminal cases in the lower courts relating to certain crimes under the Hudood Ordinance, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The FSC’s review power applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may not appear before the FSC. If represented by a Muslim lawyer, however, non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters, such as questions of sharia or Islamic practice that affect them or violate their rights. By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.

The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”

In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. The province-level Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the national-level Hindu Marriage Act (applying to federal territory and all other provinces) codify legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the Hindu Marriage Acts allow marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion, or by fraud.” The acts allow for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. The Sindh provincial government has legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death. The Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act allows local government officials in that province to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.

Some court judgments have considered the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized.

The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an independent government-funded agency that reports to parliament, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation of human rights abuses. The NCHR is also mandated to monitor the government’s implementation of human rights and review and propose legislation. It has quasi-judicial powers and may refer cases for prosecution but does not have arrest authority. A constitutional amendment devolves responsibility for minorities’ affairs, including religious minorities, to the provinces.

According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified. There is a 5 percent minimum quota for hiring religious minorities (primarily Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Kalash, and Parsis but excluding Shia and Ahmadi Muslims) at the federal and provincial levels of government.

The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces, although students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe Mohammed is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation. There is no provision in the law for atheists.

The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) designates religious affiliation on passports and requires religious information in national identity card and passport applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe Mohammed is the final prophet and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim. There is no option to state “no religion.” National identity cards are required for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18. Identification cards are used for voting, pension disbursement, social and financial inclusion programs, and other services.

The constitution requires the President and Prime Minister to be Muslims. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires elected Muslim officials to swear an oath affirming their belief that Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam. This requirement effectively prohibits Ahmadi Muslims from holding elected office, as they recognize a prophet subsequent to Mohammed.

The constitution reserves seats for non-Muslim members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for non-Muslims, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected directly by the minority constituencies they represent.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, 1984 (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men in certain civil matters pertaining to contracts and financial obligations is given greater weight than that of women; and second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service, would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the President and Prime Minister be Muslims.

Government Practices

Instances of torture and mistreatment by some police personnel were part of broader human rights concerns about police abuses against citizens of all faiths reported by local and international human rights organizations; some police agencies took steps to curb abuses by incorporating human rights curricula in training programs.

On January 29, an antiterrorism court in Lahore acquitted and ordered the release of 42 individuals accused of participating in the 2015 lynching of two Muslim men in Lahore. The killings took place during protests sparked by twin suicide bombings outside two churches there. The victims, burned to death by an angry mob, were Babar Noman and Hafiz Naeem.

According to civil society reports, there were many individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and at least 35 under sentences of death, compared with 82 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and 29 under sentences of death in 2019. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), authorities accused at least 199 individuals of new blasphemy offenses during the year. Leaders in other NGOs agreed the actual number of blasphemy cases was likely higher, but uneven reporting and lack of media coverage in many areas made it difficult to identify an exact number. According to the CSJ, 2020 saw the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. Other NGOs also said that 2020 had seen an increase in blasphemy cases. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims were the most often accused, accounting respectively for 70 and 20 percent of all cases. Sunni Muslims made up 5 percent of all accused blasphemers, followed by Christians at 3.5 percent, and Hindus at 1 percent.

Courts issued two new death sentences for blasphemy and sentenced another individual to five years’ imprisonment. Other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. At least one individual was accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under PECA. Civil society groups continued to state that the blasphemy laws disproportionately affected members of religious minority communities. Persons accused of blasphemy were often simultaneously charged with terrorism offenses.

According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted and sentenced to death in well-publicized blasphemy cases dating as far back as 2014 – including Nadeem James; Taimoor Raza; Junaid Hafeez; Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed; Shafqat Emmanuel; and Shagufta Kausar – remained in prison and continued to await action on their appeals. In all these cases, judges repeatedly delayed hearings, adjourned hearings without hearing arguments, or sent appeals to other judicial benches. Civil society and legal sources said judges were generally hesitant to decide blasphemy cases due to fear of violent retribution.

Human rights groups reported an increase in blasphemy cases and allegations against members of the Shia Muslim community. On September 5, the HRCP expressed concern over the surge in blasphemy cases against religious minorities, particularly the Shia community, and the potential for sectarian violence. The HRCP reported that more than 40 such cases were registered under the blasphemy laws in August alone.

On January 30, police arrested two Shia men in Tando Mohammed Khan, southern Sindh, and charged them with blasphemy. According to police, the content they posted on Facebook insulted the companions of Mohammed, which, they said, infuriated Sunni Muslims.

On April 14, police filed a blasphemy case against Shia singer Zamin Ali in Jamshoro, Sindh. The case was based on the complaint of a local shopkeeper who claimed Zamin Ali’s Facebook page contained a blasphemous song that hurt the religious sentiments of Sunni Muslims. By year’s end, police had dropped the case due to lack of evidence and pressure from activists.

On August 30, police charged Shia cleric Taqqi Jaffar with blasphemy for criticizing Mohammed’s companions during a Karachi Muharram procession. Jaffar made his remarks in Arabic, which were then aired on a popular Karachi news station, 24 News HD. Following complaints by some Sunni groups, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority temporarily suspended 24 News from broadcasting, citing Jaffar’s comments as “hate-inciting content.”

The blasphemy charges against Jaffar were followed by anti-Shia rallies throughout the country and at least three rallies in Karachi by Sunni groups on September 11 and 13 attended by thousands of individuals. Speakers at these rallies warned Shia of dire consequences, including beheadings, if they continued to blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions.

On June 10, police arrested Sajid Soomro, a professor at Shah Abdul Latif University, in Khairpur, Sindh, on blasphemy charges. According to eyewitnesses, police officials in at least four police vans cordoned off the area and arrested Soomro, who initially resisted. Subsequently, Arfana Mallah, a professor at Sindh University Jamshoro who criticized Soomro’s arrest and the blasphemy laws, was herself accused of committing blasphemy and had to apologize publicly. Soomro was free on bail at year’s end, but the case was still pending in court.

NGOs, legal observers and religious minority representatives continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, and the slow pace of adjudicating these cases, which led to some suspects remaining in detention for years as they waited their initial trial or appeals, and to some convicted persons spending years in prison before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. According to legal advocacy groups, some lower courts continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of antiblasphemy groups, such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), often threatening the defendants’ attorneys, family members, and supporters. At other times, advocacy groups reported that blasphemy trials were held inside jails for security reasons, in which case the hearings were not public, resulting in a gain in immediate security but a loss of transparency. These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to hold timely hearings or acquit those accused persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.

While the law requires a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint may be filed, a requirement that NGOs and legal observers stated helped contribute to an objective investigation and the dismissal of many blasphemy cases, some NGOs said police did not uniformly follow this procedure. There were some cases in which police received custody of the accused from a court for 14 days for a senior officer to carry out an investigation. At the same time, NGOs reported that sometimes lower-ranking police would file charges of blasphemy, rather than a senior police superintendent who had more authority to dismiss baseless claims, or that police would not carry out a thorough investigation. NGOs and legal observers also stated police often did not file charges against individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.

During the year, courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal and acquitted others after the accused had spent years in prison. On October 6, the Lahore High Court acquitted Sawan Masih, a Christian man sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2014, but Masih continued to face death threats and had to go into hiding with his family. His was the first acquittal for blasphemy since October 2018, when Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in 2010, was acquitted. On December 15, the Lahore High Court acquitted a second Christian man, Imran Ghafur Masih, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Courts also penalized antiblasphemy groups. In January, an antiterrorism court sentenced 86 members of the TLP to 55-year prison terms each for taking part in violent protests following Bibi’s acquittal.

Police intervened on multiple occasions to quell mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy. On September 10, police saved a Hindu trader from a mob that accused him of committing blasphemy and called for his death in Kashmore, Sindh. Several hundred protesters led by religious leaders took to the streets and chanted slogans against the alleged blasphemer. Police took him into protective custody and transferred him to a senior police officer’s office as the mob blocked the Indus Highway and demanded police hand over the alleged blasphemer. Also in September, according to law enforcement reports, Peshawar police rescued an Ahmadi family after a large mob gathered outside their home, accusing the family of preaching Ahmadi beliefs.

There were reported cases of government intervention and assistance from courts and law enforcement in situations of attempted kidnapping and forced conversion, although enforcement action against alleged perpetrators was rare. In January, after going missing, a 15-year-old Hindu girl appeared in a video with Ali Raza, a Muslim man, in which the two claimed they had willingly married and she had converted to Islam. Her family said she had been kidnapped and forcibly converted. In court proceedings, the girl retracted her video statement and said she wanted to return to her parents. In February, a court in Jacobabad, Sindh, ruled that the marriage with Raza was illegal under the 2013 Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act. On July 9, the Sindh High Court ordered that the girl could return to her Hindu parents. According to local sources, the high-profile case led to communal tensions in Jacobabad, the couple’s home district, and clerics from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal party publicly accused the girl of apostasy and called for her death. The girl remained in a government shelter for several months before returning to her parents.

On November 23, the Sindh High Court dissolved the marriage of an underage Christian girl to a 44-year-old Muslim man. According to her parents, the girl had been abducted and raped after being forcibly converted to Islam in Karachi. The Sindh High Court on October 27 originally upheld the validity of the marriage, citing the marriage certificate that indicated the girl was 18 years old, and ruling that she had converted to Islam and married of her own free will. Following petitions, the court reversed its decision and declared the marriage illegal under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act and ordered the girl placed in a shelter after she refused to return to her parents. The court also barred her alleged husband and his family from meeting her and ordered police to arrest those who facilitated the marriage.

The Ministry of Interior maintained multitier schedules of religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed (Schedule 1) and individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed, including during religious holidays such as Ashura (Schedule 4). On August 23, the Sindh provincial government barred 142 “firebrand” speakers and religious scholars from leaving their home districts for 60 days to avoid violent disturbances during Shia Muharram commemorations. These 142 individuals included both Shia and Sunni clerics who in the past had given controversial statements leading to sectarian tensions.

According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Mohammed.

Community leaders continued to report that the government hindered Ahmadis from obtaining legal documents and pressured community members to deny their beliefs by requiring individuals wishing to be listed as Muslim on identity cards and passports to swear Mohammed was the final prophet of Islam and the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder was a false prophet. Ahmadiyya community representatives reported the word “Ahmadi” was written on their passports if they identified themselves as such.

In 2018 the Islamabad High Court issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the armed forces, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam. Neither the National Assembly nor the Senate had acted on the 2018 judgment by year’s end, but Ahmadiyya community representatives said that NADRA required Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they are non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card, another requirement of the high court judgment.

According to Ahmadiyya leaders, the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of the Prophethood of Mohammed,” something that they stated was against Ahmadi belief, in order to register as Muslims. Since voters who registered as Ahmadis were kept on a separate voter list, they said they were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, and many Ahmadis continued their longstanding practice of boycotting elections.

Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives continued to state that Ahmadi families were unable to register their marriages with local administrative bodies, known as union councils, since those councils considered Ahmadis to be outside the authority of the Muslim Family Law of 1961.

Some community representatives said Christians continued to face difficulties in registering marriages with Islamabad union councils because the councils claimed they had no authority to deal with unions recorded by Christian marriage registrars (usually church authorities). Parliament, church leaders, and advocates continued to debate the text of a draft law to govern Christian marriages nationwide, because the existing regulation dated from 1872. Members of parliament and officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law and Justice held consultations with church leaders from prominent Christian denominations and with NGO representatives, but the denominations, church leaders, and NGO representatives had not agreed on elements of the draft law pertaining to divorce and interfaith marriage by year’s end. NGOs lobbying for amendments to permit divorce in a wider range of circumstances praised the Ministry of Human Rights’ efforts to consult with stakeholders and the ministry’s overall efforts to accelerate progress on the bill.

Although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages in that province, members of the Sikh community reportedly continued to seek a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered as Hindus for the purposes of the law. The Sindh provincial cabinet adopted regulations to implement the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act in December 2019, which provided more specific rules for implementation. In 2020, the provincial government began to implement the act, and NADRA began registering Hindu marriages in Sindh, according to Hindu community activists.

The government continued to prohibit citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, from traveling to Israel. Representatives of the Baha’i community said this policy particularly affected them because the Baha’i World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – was in Haifa, Israel. Christian advocates also called on the government to allow them to travel to Israel.

According to media reports and law enforcement sources, in the weeks leading up to and during the Islamic month of Muharram – religiously significant for Shia Muslims – authorities at the federal and provincial levels again restricted the movement and activities of dozens of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4 listing. According to civil society and media reports, the government restricted the movement and activities of these individuals because they were known for exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Some religious minority leaders stated the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats,” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. Others said parliamentarians occupying reserved seats had little influence in their parties and in the National Assembly because they did not have a voting constituency.

The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. To seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so because by law they are considered non-Muslims, even though they self-identify as Muslim.

The government continued to permit limited non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to proselytize as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. According to the government’s immigration website, the Ministry of Interior could grant visas to foreign missionaries invited by organizations registered in the country. The visas were valid for one year and allowed one reentry into the country per year, although it was understood by missionary sources that only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for long-term missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. The website further stated extensions could be granted for two years with two reentries per year, excluding from India.

The government continued its warnings against blasphemy and other illegal content on social media through periodic print advertisements and text messages sent by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). The text messages stated, “Sharing of blasphemy, pornography, terrorism, and other unlawful content on social media and the internet is illegal. Users are advised to report such content on content-complaint@pta.gov.pk for action under PECA 16 (the 2016 PECA act).”

In a January press release, PTA stated it was “proactively playing its role in blocking/removal of unlawful content, with social media platforms being approached in this regard,” and it encouraged the public “to report such content directly to PTA and avoid sharing it on social media platforms and other websites.”

In February, the National Assembly introduced a draft law requiring internet and technology companies to open offices in Islamabad, locate their servers within the country, and remove “objectionable” internet content within a specified timeframe. According to technology companies and religious minority activists, the definition of objectionable content in the draft law was vague and subject to government interpretation.

On October 9, the PTA blocked the video-sharing social media application TikTok, based on what it called “immoral and indecent” content. Reactions to the PTA’s measure was mixed, with many social media users praising the decision to ban TikTok, but others concerned that the government could use this to target religious minorities. On October 19, the PTA lifted the block after the government received reassurances from the company that it would more closely regulate content, but NGOs and activists expressed concern that the government could use this authority to target religious minorities.

In November, the government finalized its Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020, which sought to codify the PTA’s authority to regulate content the government deemed “unlawful.” The rules not only enhanced the PTA’s ability to compel online content platforms such as Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Twitter, and Wikipedia to remove content but also extended the regulator’s purview to include local internet service providers that could also be held liable for such content. In late December, the PTA publicly used this new authority for the first time to demand the removal of “sacrilegious” content. The PTA cited public complaints against an “unauthentic version” of the Quran uploaded by the Ahmadiyya community on the Google Play Store and information that portrayed Mirza Masroor Ahmad as a Muslim on Wikipedia, which the PTA characterized as “misleading, wrong, deceptive, and deceitful.” The PTA successfully removed the same Quran application from the Apple Store in July. On December 24, the PTA issued a legal notice to two Ahmadi U.S. citizens requiring them to remove their website, trueislam.com, or face fines, sanctions, or potential prison sentences.

According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow most organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Similar to the previous year, some Sikh and Hindu places of worship reopened during the year. The Katas Raj Hindu temple was reopened for Hindus after renovation in the Chakwal district of Punjab. An additional six Sikh gurdwaras and seven Hindu temples were also reopened after renovation in Punjab.

In July, religious and right-wing parties criticized the government’s plan to permit construction of a new Hindu temple in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan gave verbal approval to build the temple following a request from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Hindu and Christian members of the National Assembly. Then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government had granted the land to build the temple in 2016. Islamist political parties and Punjab Provincial Assembly speaker Chaudhry Elahi (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – PTI – party) criticized the decision before written approval was issued, however, declaring new temples should never be built in an Islamic country. Opponents filed a petition to stop construction with the Islamabad High Court on June 29, and vandals destroyed the land’s boundary wall on July 5. On October 28, the Council on Islamic Ideology gave its approval for construction, ruling that Islamic law allows Hindus a place of worship, but noting there is no tradition for the government to provide funds for places of worships owned by private parties. The government announced it would seek a review from the Council on Islamic Ideology and at the end of the year it was unclear whether it still maintained its support for the temple.

On July 21, the government returned a 200-year-old Sikh gurdwara to the Sikh community in Quetta. The gurdwara had been used as a government-run girls’ school since 1947. Danesh Kumar, the adviser on minority affairs to the Balochistan Chief Minister, said the government had decided to hand over sacred sites of religious minorities in Balochistan to promote interfaith harmony.

On February 7, the district administration returned a century-old Hindu temple to the Hindu community in Zhob, Balochistan. The temple had also been part of a government-run school. Hindu community representatives welcomed the decision to return the temple to the community after 70 years.

Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.

Authorities provided enhanced security for Shia Muslim, Christian, and Hindu places of worship at various times throughout the year, including around particular religious holidays or in response to specific threats. In August and September, increased security was provided throughout the country for the Shia community’s Muharram processions. In Islamabad, the deputy inspector general of police said as many as 15,000 police, Rangers, and Frontier Corps personnel were involved. In Peshawar, security was increased around churches ahead of Christmas after security forces arrested four militants on December 17 who were allegedly planning an attack on Christmas Day, which is also celebrated as Quaid-i-Azam Day, the birthday of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Ahead of Christmas in Lahore, police deployed some 6,000 officers and officials at 623 churches. Police also deployed snipers and used closed-circuit television cameras and metal detectors to ensure the security of churches and Christmas markets. In Sindh, police provided enhanced security at churches and Hindu temples, especially in Karachi, on eves of festivals such as Christmas and Diwali.

Legal experts and NGOs continued to state that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for ensuring the legal rights of all citizens, in practice, the Ministry for Human Rights continued to assume primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests. Since 2019, the NCHR has been without a mandate for a second four-year term and lacked newly appointed commissioners, making it effectively nonfunctional throughout the year.

Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be an inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Human Rights. Religious minority community members also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and that official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadi Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadi Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.

In May, the Cabinet approved a Religious Affairs Ministry proposal establishing a National Commission for Minorities housed within the ministry. The proposal named a prominent Hindu business owner and ruling PTI party leader as the commission’s chair, along with other Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Parsi, and Kalash members. The commission also included two Sunni Muslim clerics and senior civil servants from the Ministries of Interior, Law and Justice, Human Rights, Federal Education and Professional Training, Religious Affairs, and the Council of Islamic Ideology.

The plan followed a 2014 Supreme Court decision that ordered the government to take steps to ensure the rights of minorities and promote a culture of religious and social tolerance, but religious freedom activists and civil society groups said the proposal was “toothless” and raised concerns regarding the Religious Affairs Ministry’s lack of public consultation, the limited powers of the proposed body, and the ultimate decision to exclude Ahmadis. Information Minister Shibli Faraz’s announcement that the Cabinet had decided against including an Ahmadi Muslim representative on the new commission contributed to a wave of hate speech against Ahmadis, according to community representatives. The Religious Affairs Ministry later issued a statement saying Ahmadis would not be included on the commission, “given the religious and historical sensitivity” of including Ahmadis in government institutions. Ahmadi Muslim leaders said they had never been approached about participating in the commission and would never join a body that required them to identify as non-Muslims.

The Punjab Provincial Assembly also unanimously passed a resolution in May insisting that the federal National Commission on Minorities not include a representative from the Ahmadi community until community leaders submitted in writing that they accepted their status as non-Muslims under the constitution. The resolution stated, “This House demands that if the chief of Qadianis [a derogatory term for Ahmadis] submits in writing declaring that they accept the Constitution of Pakistan and accept their status as non-Muslims, then we will have no objection to their inclusion into the Commission.”

Speaker of the Punjab Provincial Assembly and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) party leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi made numerous statements denouncing Ahmadis and any effort to undermine the status of Mohammed as Islam’s final prophet. The Punjab provincial government adopted three anti-Ahmadi measures: in May, a resolution that Ahmadis not be permitted to join the federal government’s National Commission for Minorities unless they “acknowledge” they are not Muslims; in June, a new curriculum law that requires school textbooks to state the finality of the Prophet Mohammed; and in July, the “Protection of the Foundations of Islam” bill giving the provincial government authority to censor objectionable materials and inspect any publishing house or private home for banned Ahmadi literature.

Lawmakers from the National Assembly, the Sindh Provincial Assembly, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly also adopted resolutions requiring the title “last of the prophets” to be used when referring to Mohammed. Video footage from a National Assembly session in July showed opposition lawmakers immediately criticizing Prime Minister Khan when he failed to use the phrase after speaking the name of the Prophet Mohammed in an address to parliament.

In April, police arrested Ramzan Bibi, an Ahmadi Muslim woman, after a neighbor accused her of blasphemy against Mohammed – a crime that carries the death penalty – in an argument over Bibi’s charitable donation to a non-Ahmadi mosque. Bibi remained in custody at year’s end.

In May, the Federal Investigative Agency raided the Lahore home of Ahmadi missionary and youth worker Rohan Ahmad, arresting him on charges of cybercrime, blasphemy against the Quran, and propagating the Ahmadi faith through a WhatsApp group in September 2019. At year’s end, he was still being held at Camp Jail, Lahore, and had not been charged

In July, the Lahore High Court Bar Association (LHCBA) demanded that the federal interior ministry prevent the Ahmadi community from sacrificing animals on Eid al-Adha. In a letter written to the Interior Minister, the LHCBA quoted the section of the constitution stating that Ahmadis are non-Muslim.

In August, a case was opened against three Ahmadi men after an official of a religious seminary approached police complaining that the men sacrificed an animal on Eid al-Adha. The complainant said the three men “hurt the belief of Muslims” by engaging in Islamic rituals as non-Muslims. No arrests were made, and no one was charged.

In October, Punjab police arrested three Ahmadis for using Islamic symbols and practices in their mosque. The charges carry up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine. A complainant filed a criminal charge against them on May 3, triggering the police investigation. As of year’s end, the case was awaiting prosecution.

Government officials and politicians attended and spoke at multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) conferences held in major cities and at religious sites around the country. These conferences were organized by groups that stated they were defending the teaching that Mohammed is the final prophet but were often characterized by both secular and Ahmadi critics as engaging in hate speech against Ahmadi Muslims.

On September 7, the JUI-F party held a large Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Peshawar, with party leaders and national and provincial parliamentarians in attendance. At the conference, JUI-F national leader Fazl ur Rehman praised the lawyers who were defending the teenager accused of killing U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem, a self-proclaimed Ahmadi, in Peshawar and blamed Western nations for supporting Ahmadi Muslims. That same day, a Punjab Provincial Assembly lawmaker from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Mohammed Ilyas Chinyoti, participated in an international Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in the Chanab Nagar area of Punjab near the Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s headquarters. Speakers at that conference repeatedly used anti-Ahmadi rhetoric.

The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training held consultations with minority faith representatives during the year in a review of textbooks for derogatory material.

In June, the Punjab Provincial Assembly unanimously passed the Curriculum and Text Book Board Amendment Bill, which Governor Chaudhary Muhammad Sarwar signed into law. The law requires clearance from the Muttahida Ulema Board, a Punjab-based advisory council of religious scholars from multiple Muslim schools of thought, to publish content on Islam in school textbooks, which Assembly Speaker Elahi said was necessary to “stop the publishing of blasphemous material” against Mohammed and his companions. Civil society representatives said the bill targets Ahmadis, who do not have representation on the ulema board and who are barred by the constitution and the penal code from identifying as Muslims. Some politicians acknowledged privately the bill was intended to ensure textbooks identify Mohammed as the final prophet, thereby excluding Ahmadis from the definition of Islam taught in public schools.

On July 22, the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed the Protection of Foundation of Islam Bill, which prohibits the printing and publication of objectionable material in the province. Governor Sarwar did not sign the bill, which was promoted by the PML-Q party, noting controversy about its provisions and concerns that it could be seen as anti-Shia. According to a Punjab government official, Sarwar had no intention of signing the bill until there was a consensus that it would not harm religious minorities. Other government officials, including Prime Minister Khan, advised Sarwar against signing the bill, according to a Lahore-based journalist. Among the restrictions outlined in the bill, publishers, editors, and translators would be barred from printing or publishing any book and material containing statements or anything deemed to be of a blasphemous nature. The bill would also require the words “last of the prophets” to be written after the name of Mohammed and specific honors for his companions revered in the Shia community (“may Allah be pleased with them,” rather than “peace be upon them”). Ahmadi community leaders said they saw the requirement to designate Mohammed as last of the prophets as directly targeting them. Shia leaders, meanwhile, denounced the specific honors prescribed by the bill to Mohammed’s companions, which they said risked stoking discord between Shia and Sunnis, given their fundamental disagreements over some of the companions’ status within Islam.

The law also would make “desecration” (including physical destruction of books or symbols, along with verbal, written, or online actions perceived to be insults) of any prophet, any of the four divine books (the Quran, Torah, Psalms of David, and Gospel of Jesus), any family and companions of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as abetting or glorifying terrorists, or promoting sectarianism in any book, punishable with a maximum of a five-year jail term and a substantial fine of up to 500,000 Pakistani rupees ($3,100). According to the bill, all publishers would be required to submit to the Directorate General Public Relations, the provincial government authority with jurisdiction over printing presses and publishing houses, four copies of every edition of each title they print. The directorate would be empowered to inspect printing presses, bookstores, and publishing houses and confiscate books before or after they are printed if they are judged to contain “objectionable” content.

While schools were required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students, sources reported many non-Muslim students were also required to participate because their schools did not offer parallel courses in their own religious beliefs or ethics. The government did not permit Ahmadis to teach Islamic studies in public schools. Members of religious minority communities stated public schools gave Muslim students bonus grade points for memorizing the Quran, but there were no analogous opportunities for extra academic credit available for religious minority students.

Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the declaration students were required to sign on their applications for admission to universities continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Their refusal to sign the statement meant they were automatically disqualified from fulfilling the admissions requirements. The government said Ahmadis could qualify for admission if they did not claim to be Muslims.

There were continued reports that some madrassahs taught violent extremist doctrine, which the government sought to curb through madrassah registration and curriculum reform.

Members of religious minorities, particularly lower-caste Hindus, complained of forceful evictions from their homes and villages by individuals desiring their land with assistance from government officials. On July 13, hundreds of members of the Bheel community, including women and children, marched and demonstrated against the demolition of their homes by revenue officials whom they said were in collusion with an influential landlord of the area in Mithi, Sindh. The protesters said that when they opposed the illegal evictions of villagers, they were charged in “fake” cases by revenue officials. They complained that Dalits, who are considered to be the lowest in the traditional Hindu caste structure, were being targeted and subjected to violence and torture in Thar and other areas. For example, in March, media reported that a woman from Meghwar committed suicide after being repeatedly raped by a man of an upper-caste Hindu clan in Deeplo, Sindh. The woman’s family said she was pregnant at the time of her suicide and that police initially refused to file charges against the man because of his caste.

Most minority religious groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring. According to religious minority activists, provincial governments also often failed to meet quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service.

Minority rights activists said most government employment advertisements for janitorial staff continued to list being non-Muslim as a requirement. Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting. For example, the Lahore Waste Management Company continued to employ mainly Christian street sweepers, which HRCP criticized as the result of employment advertisements continuing to specify that religious minorities should apply. Citing a sanitation job advertisement issued by the Sindh provincial government, HRCP stated such advertisements infringed on human dignity and violated the constitutional guarantee of equality of all citizens. In May, the New York Times reported the issue, which was subsequently raised by international human rights NGOs.

Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions, but one NGO also stated that due to insufficient higher education opportunities compared to the majority religious community, few religious minorities met the qualifications to apply for these positions. Although there were no official obstacles to the advancement of minority religious group members in the military, they said that in practice, non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.

Print and broadcast media outlets continued to publish and broadcast anti-Ahmadi rhetoric. In May, after the government announced that Ahmadis would be excluded from the National Commission for Minorities, Religious Affairs Minister Qadri said on a popular television show, “Anyone supporting Ahmadis is not a Muslim.” Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated that the Urdu-language press frequently printed hate speech in news stories and editorials, some of which could be considered as inciting anti-Ahmadi violence. Inflammatory anti-Ahmadi rhetoric continued to exist on social media and was at times spread by senior members of mainstream political parties.

Following the killing of U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem in July, JUI-F leader Mufti Kifayatullah celebrated the accused killer for his act of “justice.” Some political figures, including the ruling PTI Party’s Sindh provincial president Haleem Adil Sheikh, who is also a member of the Sindh Provincial Assembly, changed their social media profile pictures to that of Naseem’s killer.

On January 26, a local court sentenced four young boys, who had confessed to vandalizing a Hindu temple in Sindh’s Tharparkar district, to a juvenile center in Hyderabad. The incident was the first attack on a Hindu temple in Tharparkar in more than 30 years. Minority lawmakers and civil society activists reacted strongly to the attack, stating the boys had been instigated by local Muslim clerics.

Civil society members reported authorities took no action to prevent attacks on Ahmadi mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set fire to Ahmadi mosques. Local authorities did not allow the repair or unsealing of Ahmadi mosques damaged or demolished by rioters in previous years. In February, a crowd occupied and vandalized a 100-year-old Ahmadi mosque in Punjab. In July, residents in the Sheikpura District of Punjab damaged Ahmadi gravestones.

Community leaders continued to state the government did not take adequate action to protect its poorest citizens, including religious minorities, such as Christian and Hindu Dalits, from bonded labor practices. In May, Daniel Masih appealed to the court in the Sargodha District of Punjab, urging authorities to rescue his brother Bashir and his family from bonded labor under a Muslim landlord. Hindu Dalits remained vulnerable to human rights violations and pressure by perpetrators to withdraw police cases. On September 30, media reported that a 17-year-old girl from a Hindu Dalit community committed suicide after having been gang-raped a year earlier by Muslim men and subsequently blackmailed by them in Tharparkar, Sindh. Three suspects were arrested for the rape but were released on bail, and the girl’s family said they harassed and pressured the girl to withdraw the case.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to civil society and media, armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government, including the LeJ, TTP, and the once-banned anti-Shia group SSP, continued to be responsible for violence and other abuses against religious minorities. Groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIS, also committed violent acts. Among the targets of these attacks were Shia Muslims, particularly the predominantly Shia Hazara community.

According to the SATP, the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups continued to decrease, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks. Data on sectarian attacks varied because no standardized definition existed of what constituted a sectarian attack among reporting organizations. According to the SATP, at least 10 persons were killed and three injured in 10 incidents of sectarian violence by extremist groups during the year. These attacks targeted gatherings of Shia individuals.

There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia Muslims in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although because religion and ethnicity were often closely related, it was difficult to categorize some incidents as being solely based on religious identity. In September, unidentified gunmen killed two prominent members of the local Shia community in the Kohat District of that province. This was part of an increase in anti-Shia activity that month nationwide that included the shooting of a prominent Shia religious leader in Punjab’s Mandi Bahauddin District and the shooting of a Shia employee of the National Bank of Pakistan in Islamabad. On October 11, unidentified militants abducted six Shia pilgrims near the Pakistan-Iran border region of Panjgur, in Balochistan. The six, all from Karachi, were returning from a pilgrimage in Iran; they remained missing at year’s end.

According to the SATP and media reports, antiterrorism courts convicted and sentenced several individuals affiliated with terrorist organizations and involved in past sectarian attacks and targeted killings. On June 25, an antiterrorism court sentenced five al-Qa’ida militants to 16 years’ imprisonment each for terrorist financing and possession of explosives. The militants were also convicted for running an al-Qa’ida media cell in Gujranwala. On July 27, an antiterrorism court sentenced a member of SSP to 13 years’ imprisonment for facilitating terrorist activities.

The Hindu community in Sindh and Balochistan remained vulnerable to targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom. On July 19, members of the Hindu community staged a sit-in in Khuzdar, Balochistan, to protest the July 18 killing of local Hindu trader Nanak Ram by unidentified assailants in the Wadh area of Khuzdar District. On July 31, Hindu business owner and member of the Khairpur Chamber of Commerce and Industries Raja Kishan Chand was killed by unknown gunmen in that city. In a statement, the Pakistan Hindu Council condemned the killing as well as two other July incidents of violence towards Hindu citizens in the district.

According to the nonprofit Middle East Media Research Institute, the December edition of the Urdu language TTP magazine Journal of The Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan blamed “the Jews and their puppets” for the COVID-19 pandemic and for harassing Muslims during the pandemic. The author of the article wrote that COVID-19 had been hidden since the 1960s to be “used against Muslims.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Targeted killings of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims and violence and discrimination against Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims continued to occur. Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Shia and Ahmadis in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.

Shia Hazaras in Quetta, Balochistan, continued to express concern about targeted killings taking place for the last several years. Although the government continued to implement elevated security measures around Hazara neighborhoods in Quetta, some Hazara community members continued to state that these measures had turned their neighborhoods into isolated ghettos.

In July, a teenager killed U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem in a Peshawar courtroom, where Naseem was on trial for blasphemy. The young man and two coconspirators were indicted, taken into government custody, and were awaiting trial at year’s end. The 16-year-old suspect was being tried as a juvenile; the two coconspirators were a prayer leader and a young lawyer involved in the blasphemy complaint against Naseem. Many social media users celebrated Naseem’s killing. At least three top Twitter trends praised the killer and called him the “savior” and “pride” of Pakistan. Twitter and WhatsApp users circulated graphic images and video footage from the courtroom, depicting Naseem slumped over a chair and crowds of men ignoring the body and seeming to congratulate the killer.

Following Naseem’s death, there were a series of additional violent incidents targeting Ahmadis, and Ahmadiyya community members said they felt in more danger than ever before. Unknown assailants shot a Peshawar trader, also an Ahmadiyya community member, near his business on August 12. Police stated they believed he was targeted because of his religious beliefs. On October 5, also in Peshawar, Professor Naeemuddin Khattak, a member of the Ahmadiyya community, died after being shot while driving home from work. Khattak’s brother, who witnessed the killing, named two suspects in his criminal complaint, including a friend of Khattak – a lecturer from the University of Agriculture in Peshawar – with whom Khattak had had a heated religious argument on October 4. On November 9, also in Peshawar, an 82-year-old retired Ahmadi government worker was killed by unknown gunmen while waiting for a bus. Ahmadiyya community leaders said he was targeted due to his religious beliefs.

On November 20 in a rural area of Punjab, a teenage boy killed Ahmadi doctor Tahir Ahmad and seriously wounded three of his family members. On November 21, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari posted a tweet calling for the government to protect all its citizens. Ahmadiyya community members said they were surprised by this instance of a senior government official condemning anti-Ahmadi violence, but added that they do not expect it to become the new norm. The special assistant to the Prime Minister for religious harmony, Tahir Ashrafi, said it was “the responsibility of the government and court to punish” the perpetrator in a televised interview.

In its 2020 World Watch List report, the international NGO Open Doors listed Pakistan, noting that Christians face “extreme persecution in every area of their lives, with converts from Islam facing the highest levels.” According to Open Doors, all Christians in the country “are considered second-class citizens, inferior to Muslims.” The NGO stated Christians are often given jobs “perceived as low, dirty and dishonorable, and can even be victims of bonded labor.” The NGO also said that Christian girls in the country were increasingly “at risk of abduction and rape, often forced to marry their attackers and coerced into converting to Islam.”

AsiaNews, the official press agency of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, reported that two members of a Christian family were shot and wounded after buying a house in a neighborhood inhabited primarily by Muslims on June 4 in the Sawati Phatak Colony of Peshawar. Police arrested several members of a neighboring Muslim family in connection with the incident. Salman Khan, the head of the Muslim family, remained at large. According to AsiaNews, once Khan learned the family was Christian, he ordered them to leave immediately, because “Christians are enemies of Islam.” After harassing the family for a few days, Khan gave them a 24-hour ultimatum to leave. When he and his sons returned to the house, they shot and wounded two of the Christian family members.

Civil society activists and media reported young Christian and Hindu women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their religious minority identity. According to the NGOs Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS) and the Pakistan Center for Law and Justice, there were also reports of religious minority women being physically attacked by men. On October 9, a Hindu teacher was attacked by a Muslim man with an axe on her way to her school in Mithi, Sindh. The teacher survived the attack and told media the man had been following and harassing her for days. Despite her filing a complaint, police did not open a case initially. The man was later arrested by police after the Sindh education secretary intervened in the case.

The HRCP said forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower-caste Hindu girls from rural Sindh province, continued to occur. On October 13, according to local media reports, Reeta Kumari, a pregnant Dalit Hindu woman, told the Sindh High Court in Sukkur that she had been abducted by a Muslim man, Rafique Domki, in Islamkot. She said Domki had taken her to Balochistan two months earlier and held her there until police rescued her. She denied her abductor’s claim that she had willfully married him and converted to Islam, and instead asked the court to allow her to reunite with her Hindu husband and minor son. The court ordered police to hand over the woman to her Hindu husband and no police or court action was taken against Domki.

Christian activists also stated young women from their communities were vulnerable to forced conversions. On February 22, a Christian woman from Lahore fled to a shelter after a Muslim factory worker forced her to convert to Islam and marry him. The woman’s mother filed a police report against the abductor, who was subsequently arrested.

On July 22, Saeed Amanat, a Muslim man, abducted a 15-year-old Christian girl on her way to church in Faisalabad, Punjab. The girl’s family said they feared she had been forced to convert and marry a Muslim. On August 22, another teenage Christian escaped from the home of Mohamad Nakash, a Muslim who had kidnapped her in April and had been holding her since. On September 8, Mehwish Hidayat, a Christian woman, was reunited with her family after being abducted by a Muslim man and spending three months in captivity.

Also in September, a Karachi court issued an arrest warrant for Abdul Jabbar, a Muslim man who allegedly abducted, forcibly married, and converted a teenage Christian girl in Karachi in 2019. She was taken to Dera Ghazi Khan, in Punjab, to avoid Sindh provincial law, which bans marriage of girls younger than 18. At year’s end, she and her alleged husband had not appeared in court in Karachi, despite multiple court orders to do so.

International and local media, as well as Christian activists, reported that young Christian women, many of them minors, were specifically targeted by Chinese human traffickers because of their poverty and vulnerability. The traffickers told pastors and parents they would arrange marriages to Chinese men who had supposedly converted to Christianity, after which the women were taken to China, abused, and in some cases, sexually trafficked. Reports indicated parents and pastors were frequently paid by the traffickers for the women, and that some pastors were complicit in the trafficking.

Members of civil society reported that converts from Islam lived in varying degrees of secrecy for fear of violent retribution from family members or society at large.

Representatives of the Kalash, an indigenous group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, continued to report their youth were under pressure from Muslim schoolteachers and others to convert from their traditional beliefs.

Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The events were often covered by English and local-language media and featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric which Ahmadiyya community representatives said could incite violence against Ahmadis. In addition to the large JUI-F conference and rallies, the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami also held a large event in September in Peshawar; both parties criticized the PTI-led national government for failing to enforce Islamic law. The TLP and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a banned organization under the National Counterterrorism Authority’s Schedule-I list, also held smaller rallies. The rallies occurred days after a unanimous resolution by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly condemning anti-Islam statements and the republication in France of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.

In September, several religious groups from the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Sunni Islam organized a series of rallies in Karachi to denounce Shia “defamation” of revered Sunni religious figures. The rallies came after police charged Shia cleric Taqi Jaffar with blasphemy on August 30 for criticizing two companions of Mohammed during a Karachi Muharram procession.

Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against community members, including physical attacks, destruction of homes and personal property, and threats intended to force Ahmadis to abandon their jobs or towns. On August 12, armed gunmen attacked the house of Ahmadi Muslim Syed Naeem Ahmad Bashir in the Sahiwal District of Punjab, firing into the courtyard at night, where they reportedly expected the family to be sleeping. The family was in another location, however, and survived. On August 20, attackers attempted to kill Sheikh Nasir Ahmad, an Ahmadi man from the Lalamusa area of central Punjab.

In October, members of a State Youth Parliament team in Gujranwala defaced a public portrait of the country’s first Nobel laureate, physicist Dr. Abdus Salam, an Ahmadi. The group also painted slogans insulting the Ahmadiyya community. On October 22, a private business school, the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, cancelled an online seminar that was to feature U.S.-based Ahmadi economist Dr Atif Mian, citing pressure by “extremists.”

Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor, with some advertisements for menial jobs specifying they were open only to Christian applicants. In January, two Christians, Kamran Sandhu and Nauman Aslam, applied for seats reserved for minorities in the Gujranwala Electric Power Company (GEPCO) in Punjab. Both passed the recruitment test and had successful interviews but were denied appointment by the assistant manager. CLAAS helped both file an antidiscrimination petition in the Lahore High Court. The court ordered the chief executive officer of GEPCO to hire the two Christians, but he did not do so. The CLAAS legal team filed a contempt of court application, but the Lahore High Court dismissed the plea. At the end of the year, CLAAS was planning to take the case to the Federal Ombudsman.

Observers reported that English-language media continued to cover issues facing religious minorities in an objective manner, but Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media censored references to Ahmadis on talk shows, used inflammatory language, or made inappropriate references to minorities. In a September editorial, the largest Urdu daily, Nawa-i-Waqt, described the 1974 legislation declaring Ahmadis officially non-Muslim as a historic day in the country’s history. The high circulation daily Jang also published a lengthy editorial on the struggle to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims in a special magazine edition.

Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups continued to report that they exercised caution and, occasionally, self-censorship when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of a societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.

Hindu activists in Sindh reported discrimination against the Hindu community during COVID-19 food-relief efforts by private charities. In April, some members of the Hindu community in Karachi’s Lyari area were denied food packages provided by a local charity, according to local sources.

Reports continued of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. In July, police arrested four men for destroying a 1,700-year-old Gandharan civilization statue of Buddha in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a video showing one of the men hammering the statue went viral on social media. The four men were charged with defacing antiquities. On October 25, a Hindu temple was vandalized in Nagarparkar, Sindh, during the nine-day Navratri celebrations. Several statues were destroyed. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah Imran Ismail issued a statement condemning the attacks.

On October 20, HRCP reported that an Ismaili Muslim mosque in Ghizer was attacked by unknown assailants, who opened fire on the building. No casualties were reported.

On December 30, a mob estimated at 1,000 people incited by a cleric attacked an historic Hindu temple site in Karak District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, destroying the shrine of Hindu saint Shri Paramhans Jee Maharaj and an adjacent building under construction. Police arrested more than 45 JUI-F followers and clerics involved in the destruction. Government officials condemned the incident, suspended more than 100 police officials for failure to stop the mob, and ordered the temple rebuilt.

On October 7, Dr. Qibla Ayaz, then chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, inaugurated a national code of conduct to promote interreligious harmony in the face of increased sectarian violence and mistreatment of religious minorities. Islamic and minority religious leaders endorsed the code. Ayaz also spoke at a seminar on interfaith harmony at the cultural center at the National Library of Pakistan in Islamabad.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. officials engaged government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including the Minister for Human Rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect.

During his February visit to Karachi, the Department of State Special Adviser for Religious Minorities told students and faculty at Karachi University’s Department of Islamic Studies, “An inclusive society creates more space for trade and prosperity.” The audience applauded his comments about the protection of religious freedom for Muslims in the United States. Following the address, the Special Adviser convened an interfaith roundtable discussion at Karachi University, which included Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Parsis. The event received positive coverage in local media. The Special Adviser went on to meet with federal and provincial government officials and civil society leaders in Islamabad and Lahore.

Three U.S. government cultural centers in Sindh Province and Islamabad held events to promote religious freedom. On January 21, the center in Khairpur hosted a Religious Freedom Day event at which 25 students discussed the importance of being able to practice religion freely in Pakistan. On January 22, the Hyderabad center hosted an event on educational institutions’ roles in promoting tolerance and creating peaceful communities. Sanjay Mathrani, a former participant in a U.S. government exchange program, was a featured speaker. On August 24, the Karachi center hosted a talk entitled, “How to Develop Religious Tolerance and Empathy,” with Syed Ali Hameed from the Shaoor Foundation and a consulate general officer.

Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to stress the need to protect the rights of religious minorities and to continue to support measures that decrease sectarian violence. They also met with representatives of other embassies, leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase respect among religions and to enhance dialogue. Department of State programs, including outreach activities such as speakers and workshops, helped to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders. The embassy and consulates highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on their social media platforms throughout the year.

In July, the Department of State issued a statement following the killing of Tahir Naseem expressing outrage over the killing and noting that Naseem had been lured from his home in the United States by individuals who used blasphemy laws to entrap him. The statement also called on the government to “immediately reform its often abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur, and to ensure that the suspect is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

In an official tweet in November following the killing of Ahmadi physician Tahir Ahmad, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said the killing was “the latest in a series of recent killings targeting the Ahmadiyya community. We call upon authorities to ensure the safety of all Pakistanis.”

On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.

Philippines

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law. The law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship. At year’s end, two Catholic priests continued to face charges of conspiracy to commit sedition over their alleged involvement in the production and release of a 2019 video linking President Rodrigo Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade. Muslim groups expressed objections to an antiterrorism law passed in July, citing fears that it could lead to restraints in the free practice and free expression of their faith. Several Muslim lawmakers, lawyers, and citizens who said they were arbitrarily designated as members of terrorist groups, filed petitions before the Supreme Court stating that the definition of terrorism in the law infringed on the freedom of religious expression. In addition, Catholic and Protestant groups expressed concern over reported cases of church workers being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

During the year, killings, bombings, and kidnappings by ISIS-affiliated and other terrorist groups continued. In May, alleged Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) terrorists killed two children, aged 10 and seven, and injured 13 others when a mortar shell landed in a residential area in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao, during a BIFF attack against the Armed Forced of the Philippines (AFP) on Eid al-Fitr. ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks, including an August suicide bombing in Jolo that killed 15 people and wounded 75 others. Following the attack, the Vicar Apostolic of Jolo, Bishop Charlie Inzon, called for peace.

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country where Muslims are the majority of the population, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity. Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported some tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu Province. The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country, such as private companies requiring information on religion in job applications and discriminatory comments from private citizens. Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination.

The U.S. embassy conducted a broad range of engagement throughout the year with the government to highlight the importance of international religious freedom. In June, the Ambassador met with leaders of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and assured them of continued U.S. government support. Although the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person engagements, the embassy continued to use online platforms and virtual engagements to emphasize strong U.S. support for religious freedom and protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths. The embassy supported a virtual iftar event with 25 former participants of U.S.-sponsored exchange programs, during which participants discussed religious tolerance and its importance in building community trust. An embassy program continued to train religious leaders and youth organizations and encourage dialogue to foster social cohesion in religiously diverse areas of Mindanao.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 109.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2015 census (the most recent) conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), 79.5 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 9 percent belong to other Christian groups, including Seventh-day Adventists, United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), United Methodists, Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Bible Baptist Church, other Protestant churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other Christian groups include locally established churches, such as the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ); Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan or IFI); Members Church of God International; The Kingdom of Jesus Christ; and The Name above Every Name. Approximately 6 percent of the population is Muslim, according to the PSA, while the NCMF estimates a figure of 10 to 11 percent. The NCMF attributes its higher estimate to a number of factors, including the reluctance of Muslims to officially register with the civil registrar office or to participate in the formal survey; the community’s transience due to internal movement for work; and the government’s failure to survey Muslim areas and communities thoroughly. According to the PSA, approximately 4 percent of those surveyed in the 2015 census did not report a religious affiliation or belonged to other faiths, such as animism or indigenous syncretic faiths.

A majority of Muslims are members of various ethnic minority groups and reside in Mindanao and nearby islands in the south. Muslims constitute a majority in the BARMM. Although most are practitioners of Sunni Islam, a small minority of Shia Muslims live in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur in Mindanao. An increasing number of Muslims are migrating to the urban centers of Manila, Baguio, Dumaguete, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Cotabato, and Davao, a trend that accelerated after the May-October 2017 siege of Marawi during which local residents fled to other provinces for their security.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. No religious test is required for the exercise of civil or political rights. The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state. The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law. The law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship as well as any person “notoriously” offending religious feelings during such services or in a place of worship.

The law requires organized religious groups to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to establish tax-exempt status. Religious groups must submit their articles of faith and bylaws to the SEC in order to register as religious corporations. The SEC requires religious corporations to submit annual financial statements. The law does not specify penalties for failure to register with the SEC. To register as a nonstock, nonprofit organization, religious groups must meet the basic requirements for corporate registration with the BIR and must request tax exemption from the BIR. The basic requirements for registration include a name verification of the religious corporation, articles of incorporation and bylaws, the name of a director, list of members, and a list of financial contributors. The BIR provides tax exemptions to newly established religious corporations that are then reviewed for renewal every three years. The BIR may fine religious corporations for the late filing of registrations or for failing to submit registration datasheets and financial statements.

The government permits religious instruction in public schools with written parental consent, provided there is no cost to the government. Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory; parents must express in writing a desire for their child to attend religious instruction for a specific denomination, and the various groups share classroom space. Students who do not attend religious instruction because no class was offered in their denomination or because their parents did not express a desire receive normal supervised class time. The government also allows groups to distribute religious literature in public schools. The law mandates that government agencies address religious issues and consult recognized experts on Filipino Muslim beliefs as well as the history, culture, and identity of indigenous peoples, when formulating the national history curriculum.

By law, public schools must protect the religious rights of students. Muslim girls may wear the hijab and are not required to wear shorts during physical education classes.

The government recognizes sharia in all parts of the country through a presidential decree. Sharia courts are organized into five sharia districts, all located in the south of the country; Muslims residing in other areas must travel to these districts to pursue an action in a sharia court. Sharia courts handle only cases relating to personal laws affecting family relations and property. Sharia does not apply in criminal matters and applies only to Muslims. The state court system hears cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims, and national laws apply in those cases.

The BARMM is a Muslim-led autonomous region, established by the central government in January 2019 following the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, with jurisdiction over five provinces and three major noncontiguous cities. The Bangsamoro Organic Law provides the framework for the transition to greater autonomy for the area’s majority Muslim population.

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

Government Practices

A report released in October by the Uniting Church of Australia (UCA) in partnership with the UCCP found that 16 Christian church leaders and members were killed between 2017 and 2020 by unknown assailants, although in some cases, witnesses accused local police of committing the killings. Of the victims, three were Catholic priests, one was a UCCP pastor, one was a Kings Glory Ministry pastor, and 11 were lay members, including five from the IFI and one from the UCCP. In August, unknown assailants on a motorbike shot and killed Zara Alvarez, a Church Workers Solidarity Group ecumenical volunteer who documented extrajudicial killings by security forces and other human rights abuses for a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report. The government had included Alvarez on a list of individuals accused of being terrorists (a list that also included a UN special rapporteur), a label which, according to the report, often led to targeting by death squads.

The UCA report also documented 29 church leaders and members who received death threats and harassment after speaking out against the Duterte government between 2017 and 2020. Incidents of harassment and intimidation included arbitrary arrests on what church groups described as false charges. The report stated that the government frequently labeled critics and human rights activists as “terrorists.” The UCA report noted that on July 9, a UCCP clergyman was arrested on accusations of involvement in a 2018 armed ambush against the military. Church members said he was presiding over a worship service at the time and could not have been involved. The clergyman was released on July 24, but soldiers continued to file charges against him.

On March 28, media reported on a video in which a Santa Ana police officer beat a member of the Golden Mosque compound for violating curfew. Philippine National Police (PNP) police chief General Archie Gamboa ordered an investigation of the incident.

Some Catholic clergy who vocally criticized extrajudicial killings attributed to the war on drugs under President Duterte or who stated their opposition to the reinstatement of the death penalty again reported being harassed, intimidated, and threatened with death by unknown perpetrators. As of the end of the year, Catholic priests Albert Alejo and Flaviano Villanueva continued to face charges of conspiracy to commit sedition. The government originally charged the two priests, as well as four bishops, a third priest, and members of the opposition, with sedition, cyberlibel, libel, and obstruction of justice in July 2019 over their alleged involvement in the production and release of a video earlier that year linking President Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade. Various ecumenical groups condemned the charges, filed through the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group. Prosecutors dropped all charges against the four bishops and the third priest for lack of evidence.

Several Muslim groups filed objections with the Supreme Court to the Antiterrorism Act of 2020, passed in July, citing fears that the law could result in arrests made due to mistaken identity and stereotyping, which could lead to restraints in the free practice and expression of their faith. Muslim lawmakers and lawyers stated that the provision in the law that punishes those “inciting” acts of terrorism specifically restrains them from teaching the concept of jihad, which they said has been erroneously related to terrorist attacks. Three Muslim citizens who said they were arbitrarily designated as members of terrorist groups filed a separate, similar petition. The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, a Catholic group, also filed a petition to the Supreme Court stating that the definition of terrorism in the law would lead to missionaries and Christian faithful being labeled as terrorists. They stated that church workers often work with the poor and other marginalized sectors of society – the same sectors that, they said, “overzealous” members of the national police and armed forces often accuse of having terrorist ties.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) expressed concern over reported cases of Church workers being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the NPA, the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, also known as “red-tagging.” In May, Catholic priest Raymond Montero Ambray accused the AFP of falsely linking him to the NPA in a post on a Facebook account that was subsequently deactivated. Ambray worked with the indigenous Lumad peoples, whom the AFP frequently accused of harboring NPA fighters, and said that the post was intended to end his work with the Lumads through intimidation. The AFP denied Ambray’s allegations.

In January, the PNP Manila Police District internally released a memorandum requiring schools to identify Muslim students in all high schools, colleges, and universities in Metropolitan Manila as part of the PNP’s countering violent extremism efforts. Muslim leaders in Mindanao, including BARMM authorities, and the interfaith organization Duyog Marawi expressed outrage, saying that the move promoted Islamophobia and discrimination, particularly against the Muslim minority in Metropolitan Manila. The reactions led to the Metropolitan Manila police chief recalling the memorandum and announcing the PNP would organize a dialogue between the PNP and Muslim student leaders. As of the end of the year, the PNP had not confirmed whether the dialogue took place.

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, passed in March, granted special powers to the President to manage the COVID-19 outbreak. Mass gatherings, including religious gatherings, were prohibited from March 13 through June 1. Gatherings continued to be prohibited throughout Manila and Luzon until August. Restrictions were then gradually eased to 10 percent, 20 percent, and then 30 percent of capacity as of October. Public Holy Week celebrations and travel were also prohibited. Many religious leaders stated that religious institutions were being unfairly treated, with malls and other establishments allowed to open before religious services. On June 7, Catholic Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan Socrates Villegas said, “I am very afraid that there is an implied persecution of our faith because going to Mass, attending the Eucharist, worshiping the Lord, is lumped together in the same group as going to the barber shop and going to the theater to watch a movie.”

In June, media reported that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict designated the National Council of Churches Philippines (NCCP) and two of its member churches, the UCCP and the IFI, as “open sectoral organizations” of the NPA. The NCCP, one of the largest associations of Protestant and non-Roman Catholic Christian denominations in the country, described the designation as an attack on its “right to exercise the freedom of religion.” The IFI also condemned the designation and said that red-tagging encouraged government agents and other individuals to violently attack church members.

President Duterte continued to criticize the Catholic Church despite a 2018 vow not to do so. In January, in a public speech containing explicit language, he stated that he had won the presidential election in 2016 despite insulting the Pope and Catholic bishops and said that such criticism was needed to win a “war” against the Catholic Church. Media reported that the criticism was related to the Church’s public comments about human rights abuses linked to Duterte’s antidrug campaign. Some clergy continued to raise concerns that the manner in which the President denounced the Church promoted violence against its priests and leaders.

In July, prior to the President’s State of the Nation Address, police confiscated protest materials from parishioners during a Mass at the Quiapo Catholic Church in Manila after a church security officer reported to police that attendees were holding placards. The materials protested the Antiterrorism Act. Senator Risa Hontiveros, who also attended the Mass, spoke to the PNP and said the materials were not being used during the Mass.

The Department of Education continued to support its Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program for Muslim students in private madrassahs and public elementary schools with a Muslim population of 10 percent or more. For the 2018-19 school year, 1,686 public elementary schools administered the voluntary ALIVE program for 145,591 students, compared with 1,622 schools and 158,093 students the previous year. The program aims to integrate madrassahs into the public education system while preserving Islamic education for Muslim Filipinos.

Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF or the Department of Education, both, or neither. Registered madrassahs received government funding and produced curricula that were subject to government oversight. The Department of Education did not provide updates during the year. There were 85 private madrassahs registered with the Department of Education during the 2018-2019 school year. Many private madrassahs, however, choose to remain unregistered rather than allow government oversight, according to Department of Education representatives.

The Department of Education’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system. By law, only registered schools or madrassahs may receive financial assistance from the government. Madrassahs registered by the Department of Education followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for classrooms, facilities, and educators who taught the Revised Basic Education Curriculum. The Department of Education did not provide updates during the year. The overall funding for and attendance at private madrassahs increased by 25 percent from 2018 to 2019. During 2019, the Department of Education provided funding of 90,960,000 pesos ($1.89 million) to 18,192 private madrassah students, compared with 67,510,000 pesos ($1.4 million) allocated to 13,502 private madrassah students in 2018.

Since the inauguration of the BARMM in March 2019, the transition government suffered some setbacks and delays in establishing the permanent legal framework for a Muslim-led autonomous region due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front-led interim authority conducted consultations with Christian minority groups and indigenous peoples with the stated purpose of ensuring their concerns are addressed.

NCMF officials said that anti-Muslim discrimination continued to occur in government offices but cited no specific examples. Some Muslim leaders continued to express concern about the low percentage of Muslims in senior government and military positions. There were 13 Muslims in the 301-member House of Representatives, but no Muslims in the 24-member Senate. There was one Muslim member of the cabinet, the head of the NCMF, and President Duterte appointed Muslims to a small number of senior positions, such as commissioner of the Social Security System, member of the Board of Directors of the Cooperation Development Authority, and Undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture.

The PSA estimated during the year that 40 percent of a total of five million unregistered residents were children who were 14 or younger, primarily among Muslim and indigenous groups. Citizenship derives from birth to a citizen parent. The government initiated a pilot program in Metropolitan Manila that provided undocumented Muslim Filipinos with an identity card – the Muslim Filipino Identity Card – stating that it was intended to help them access services, since many in this population did not have a birth certificate. Sources stated that the lack of a birth certificate did not generally result in a denial of education or other services, but it could cause delays in some circumstances. Undocumented Filipinos could use this secondary identification when applying for jobs, school, and for other government services in lieu of a birth certificate or formal registry. The NCMF noted that this secondary identification helped overseas Filipino workers who found themselves in precarious labor situations. If their employers confiscated their passports, having a secondary form of identification could speed the government’s citizenship assessment, thus providing fast repatriation services. Critics expressed reservations about the potential for abuse in similar initiatives in the past.

Muslim officials continued to report that, while Muslim prison detainees were allowed to engage in religious observances, Roman Catholic Mass was often broadcast by loudspeaker to both Catholic and non-Catholic prison populations.

The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment is responsible for administering logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims. The NCMF reported that it was at the height of its Hajj operations when the Philippine government imposed COVID-19 quarantine measures. It continued to assist Hajj travelers until the Saudi embassy informed the NCMF in June that the 2020 Hajj would be limited to Saudi citizens and foreign expatriates residing in Saudi Arabia only. The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee the establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The government attributed several killings, attacks, and kidnappings in the south of the country to the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – both of which are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and other ISIS-related terrorist groups. In May, alleged BIFF terrorists killed two children, aged 10 and seven, and injured 13 others when a mortar shell landed in a residential area in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao, during an attack by the BIFF against the AFP on Eid al-Fitr. ISIS claimed responsibility for an August suicide bombing in Jolo in Sulu Province that killed 15 people and wounded 75 others. The attacker detonated the bombs a few yards from a Catholic church that ISIS suicide bombers had previously attacked in January 2019, killing 20 and wounding 102. Following the attack, the Vicar Apostolic of Jolo, Bishop Charlie Inzon, called for peace. The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against the Maute Group, ASG, and other ISIS-related groups.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country where Muslims comprise the majority of the population, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity.

Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported tensions among different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu Province. Social media comments denigrating the beliefs or practices of Muslims continued to appear.

The NCMF reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country. For example, the NCMF reported that private companies often required job seekers to list their religion on job applications. The NCMF also said that private citizens made discriminatory comments linking Muslim Filipinos to violence, especially following a violent incident either in the country or abroad. Following the August suicide attack in Jolo, Sulu Province, the NCMF reported that a text message circulated among non-Muslims in Mindanao warning them to take extra precautions.

In August, the Commission on Human Rights reported that a female member of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church wearing conservative attire was denied entry to a provincial sports complex for not wearing proper sports attire.

Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination. The CBCP collaborated with other Christian groups and the government Interagency Council against Human Trafficking to combat trafficking in persons and partnered with other Christian groups to campaign against the death penalty and the Antiterrorism Act of 2020. The CBCP also engaged with other faith-based organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable communities and to promote solidarity, peace, and harmony. In February, Equal Access International – a peace promotion NGO – hosted the OURmindaNOW 2020 peace summit in Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao, which enabled interreligious dialogue among more than 400 participants. The summit encouraged participants, brought together from different faith groups, to craft a shared vision of the future of Mindanao by considering how to transform violent extremism, empower youth, and highlight positive narratives using alternative media.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy conducted a broad range of engagement throughout the year with the government to highlight the importance of international religious freedom. In June, the Ambassador met with leaders of BARMM and assured them of continued U.S. government support.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person engagement, the embassy continued to use online platforms and virtual engagements to emphasize strong U.S. support for religious freedom and protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths, including highlighting subjects such as freedom to worship and the importance of religious tolerance.

The embassy posted a series of articles and videos on social media in observance of Religious Freedom Day on January 16. In one of the posts, the embassy highlighted the work of Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, who in the 1930s offered a safe haven in the country to Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Europe.

In February, embassy social media amplified the launch of the U.S.-led International Religious Freedom Alliance and also provided funding support to a Mindanao peace summit in Cagayan de Oro that enabled interreligious dialogue among more than 400 participants.

In May, the embassy supported a virtual iftar program organized by Muslim former participants of U.S.-sponsored exchange programs in Mindanao to demonstrate U.S. support for religious freedom and tolerance. The event concluded with a virtual iftar with 25 former participants of different U.S. exchange programs, including the governor of Lanao del Sur, who provided messages of support and contributed to the discussion of religious tolerance and its importance in creating community trust.

Other embassy initiatives included a series of social media postings on completion of the reconstruction of a church in Guiuan, Eastern Samar. The rehabilitation was led by the National Museum of the Philippines, with the support of the U.S. government through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.

An ongoing U.S. program continued to engage religious leaders and youth organizations to stimulate social cohesion in select religiously diverse areas of Mindanao that were vulnerable to violent conflict, including violent extremism. The program is aimed at fostering social cohesion by training and engaging religious and youth leaders to effectively represent their groups in support of peace. The project is also aimed at creating opportunities for dialogue to mitigate and address violent conflict and violent extremism.

Sri Lanka

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The constitution and other laws accord Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. In his February 24 report to the UN Human Rights Council on his visit to the country in 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, said that he observed “significant gaps” in “upholding accountability and access to justice as well as ensuring non-recurrence of human rights violations.” He also said that religious minorities faced restrictions in the manifestation of their religion or belief, such as proselytization, conversion, and building of places of worship, in addition to numerous incidents of violent attacks. A government investigation continued into the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks that targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels, killing 268 persons, including five U.S. citizens, and injured more than 500. As of December, 135 suspects remained in custody, including three facing U.S. terrorism charges. According to police, 2,299 individuals were arrested overall. According to representatives of minority religious communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials continued to engage in systematic discrimination against some religious minorities. Reports stated that local government officials and police responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated discrimination and violence against minorities. Religious minorities reported government officials and police often sided with Buddhists and did not prevent harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. Religious rights groups reported instances in which police continued to prohibit, impede, and attempt to close Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing government regulations, which legal scholars said did not apply. Media reports stated police and military personnel were complicit in allowing Buddhists to build religious structures on Hindu sites. In March, the Ministry of Health (MOH) made cremation compulsory for COVID-19 victims, denying Muslims who died from the virus the Islamic tradition of burying their dead. Between April and November, four UN special rapporteurs, including the Special Rapporteur for Religious Freedom, in addition to the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, expressed deep concerns about the government’s policy and asked it to reconsider in light of World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines permitting burial or cremation for COVID-19 victims. The Government Medical Officers Association called for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to convene a panel of experts to examine the issue. In May, the country’s two major Muslim political parties, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) as well as several civil society activists, petitioned the Supreme Court, challenging the government’s policy; at year’s end, the court had not determined whether it would consider the case. In November, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi informed parliament that the government had appointed a committee to investigate the matter, and media reported that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed to allow burials for Muslims who died from COVID-19 and asked health authorities to identify appropriate areas, but no official announcement of a policy change had been made by year’s end, and media and civil society groups reported that forcible cremations continued. In December, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal against the mandatory cremation practice filed by 11 Muslim and Christian activists. The court gave no explanation for its unanimous refusal to hear the case. At year’s end, the government maintained the policy despite increasing domestic and international calls to abandon it.

During the year, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 50 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services, compared with 94 in 2019. In January and February, groups led by Buddhist monks accosted evangelical Christians on their way to church or interrupted church services, demanding they end immediately and threatening worshippers. In three instances, the crowd assaulted pastors, their family members, or congregants. In two of these cases, police said the pastors were to blame for holding worship services; in one case, police accused a pastor of breaching the peace. NCEASL reported few arrests and none involving Buddhist monks. Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report incidences of discrimination and abuse and lengthy delays in court action on cases involving them. In September, a magistrate issued arrest warrants for two men accused of assaulting four members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2019. In October, police reported that the attorney general would be filing a complaint against Buddhist monks accused of leading a mob that assaulted three female Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2013. According to civil society groups and NGOs, highly visible social media campaigns targeting religious minorities continued to fuel hatred and incite violence. According to Human Rights Watch, in April and May, there were calls on social media to boycott Muslim businesses and false allegations of Muslims spreading COVID-19 deliberately, which the authorities did not contest. Buddhist nationalist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) continued to use social media to promote what it called the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and vilify religious and ethnic minorities.

U.S. embassy officials repeatedly urged senior government officials and political leaders, including the President and Prime Minister, to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue and respect for the right of religious minorities. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 22.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The 2012 national census lists the population as 70.2 percent Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim, and 7.4 percent Christian. According to census data, the Theravada Buddhist community, which comprises nearly all the country’s Buddhists, is a majority in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva, and Western Provinces.

Most Sinhalese are Buddhist. Tamils, mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority, constitute the majority in the Northern Province and represent the second largest group, after Muslims, in the Eastern Province. Most Muslims self-identify as a separate ethnic group, rather than as Tamil or Sinhalese, but are Tamil-speaking. Tamils of Indian origin, who are mostly Hindu, have a large presence in the Central, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva Provinces. Muslims form a plurality in the Eastern Province, and there are sizable Muslim populations in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Uva, and Western Provinces. Christians reside throughout the country but have a larger presence in the Eastern, Northern, Northwestern, and Western Provinces, and a smaller presence in Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces.

Most Muslims are Sunni, with small Sufi, Ahmadi, and Shia, including Dawoodi Bohra, minorities. According to government statistics, an estimated 81 percent of Christians are Roman Catholic. Other Christian groups include the Church of Ceylon (Anglicans), the Dutch Reformed Church, Methodists, Baptists, Assembly of God, Pentecostals, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christian evangelical and nondenominational Protestant groups have grown in recent years, although there are no reliable estimates of their numbers. According to the government, membership remains low compared with the larger Christian community. There is a small Jewish population living in different parts of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, every person is “entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” including the freedom to choose a religion. The constitution gives citizens the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, both in public and in private. The constitution accords Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and requires the government to protect it, although it does not recognize it as the state religion. According to a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, the state is constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism, and other religions do not have the same right to state protection. The same ruling also holds that no fundamental right to proselytize exists or is protected under the constitution. In 2017, the Supreme Court determined the right to propagate one’s religion is not protected by the constitution.

The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. There is no registration requirement for central religious bodies of these four groups. New religious groups, including groups affiliated with the four recognized religions, must register with the government to obtain approval to construct new places of worship, sponsor religious worker (missionary) visas/immigration permits, operate schools, and apply for subsidies for religious education. Religious organizations may also seek incorporation by an act of parliament, which requires a simple majority and affords religious groups state recognition.

The government adheres to a 2008 ministerial circular, introduced by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Religious, and Cultural Affairs (Ministry of Buddha Sasana), the cabinet ministry responsible for oversight of what the constitution describes as the country’s foremost religion, Theravada Buddhism, requiring all groups, regardless of their religion, to receive permission from the ministry to register and construct new places of worship. A 2017 Supreme Court ruling upholds the registration requirements. In 2018, the Ministry of Buddha Sasana ruled that the 2008 circular on registration and construction of religious facilities only applied to Buddhist religious sites.

Starting in 2020, specific noncabinet departments under the Ministry of Buddha Sasana are responsible for addressing the concerns of each major religious community. The Prime Minister heads this ministry. Previously, individual cabinet ministries handled religious affairs with each of the four recognized religions.

Religion is a compulsory subject at the primary and secondary levels in public and private schools. Parents may elect to have their children study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity, provided enough demand (at least 15 students) exists within the school for the chosen subject. Students may not opt out of religious instruction even if instruction in their religion of choice is not available, or if they do not choose any religion. All schools teaching the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus, including private schools founded by religious organizations, must use the Ministry of Education curriculum on religion, which covers the four main religions and is compulsory for the General Certificate Education Ordinary Level exams (equivalent to U.S. grade 10). International schools not following the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus are not required to teach religious studies.

Matters related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and property inheritance, are adjudicated either under customary law of the ethnic or religious group in question or under the country’s civil law. According to the 1951 Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Islamic personal law governs marriages and divorces of Muslims, while civil law applies to most property rights. In the Northern Province, civil law governs marriages, while the Thesawalamai (Tamil customary law) often governs the division of property. For some Sinhalese, Kandyan personal law (based on the traditions of the Sinhalese Kandyan kingdom that proceeded British colonial rule) governs civil matters, such as inheritance issues, and works within the caste system. Civil law governs most marriages of Sinhalese and Tamils of various religions, including mixed marriages or those of individuals who state no religious affiliation. Religious community members report practices vary by region, and numerous exceptions exist.

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 does not stipulate a minimum age for marriage, permitting Islamic religious court judges to allow children as young as 12 to be married. Written consent from the bride is not required. The religious marriage ceremony and marriage registration do not have to take place concurrently, which can complicate divorce and child support cases.

There is no national law regulating ritual animal sacrifice, but there are laws prohibiting animal cruelty that are used to prevent religious ceremonies involving animal sacrifice.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The country’s ICCPR Act, which is designed to incorporate the international covenant into domestic law, criminalizes propagating or advocating religious or racial hatred. Punishment ranges from fines to up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Government Practices

In his February 24 report to the UN Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed said that during his 2019 visit to Sri Lanka, he observed that “significant gaps exist, particularly in upholding accountability and access to justice as well as ensuring non-recurrence of human rights violations.” He said that, despite Sri Lanka’s civil war ending over a decade ago, “Reverberations of the ethnic conflict remain apparent in the political, social and economic life of the country and impact the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.” Shaheed stated that religious minorities also faced restrictions in the manifestation of their religion or belief, such as proselytization, conversion, and building of places of worship in addition to numerous incidents of violent attacks. He noted the importance of analyzing and identifying the root causes of religious intolerance and tensions that lead to violations of freedom of religion or belief to better address these challenges.

NCEASL said evangelical Christian groups continued to report that police and local government officials were complicit in the harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. Christian groups said officials and police often sided with the religious majority. NCEASL said police often attempted to coerce Christians into signing statements absolving those harassing them and accused them of breaching the peace if they filed complaints about police behavior.

According to police, 2,299 individuals were arrested in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks that targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels, killing 268 persons, including five U.S. citizens, and injuring more than 500. As of December, the government’s investigation continued and 135 suspects remained in custody, including three men charged by the United States with providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization (ISIS). Hejaaz Hizbullah, a Muslim lawyer, was arrested in April under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The government publicly stated that Hizbullah was arrested because of his interactions with the bombers and their family, though he was never charged. He was being held without bail at year’s end. Civil society regularly engaged the international community on his behalf and NGOs and diplomatic missions called upon the government to grant Hizbullah due process under the law.

According to NCEASL, on September 17, a plainclothes officer from the Criminal Investigation Department attached to the Gampola police station visited the Foursquare Church in Nawalapitiya, Kandy District, and questioned the pastor regarding the registration status, number of congregants, and locations of all churches in the fellowship. He told the pastor that he collected details in accordance with an unspecified government circular.

According to Christian, Hindu, and Muslim civil society groups, incidents of increased monitoring often occurred in concert with harassment by local Buddhist monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations.

According to members of Christian groups, local authorities sometimes demanded their groups stop worship activities or relocate their places of worship outside the local jurisdiction, ostensibly to maintain community peace. Local police and government officials reportedly continued to cite a government circular, revoked by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana in 2012, requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities. Police also reportedly cited a 2008 circular on the construction of religious facilities when they prohibited, impeded, or closed Christian and Muslim services and places of worship. According to some legal experts, however, there was no explicit basis in national law for such a requirement.

According to NCEASL, on January 18, a mob of approximately 150 individuals arrived at the King of Kings Gospel Church in Kalawanchikudy and demanded that the pastor stop conducting his religious worship activities in the village and close the church. The mob included members of the local government and a Hindu priest. The pastor went to the Kalwanchikudy Police Station on January 25 for an inquiry, where the senior officer there spoke in favor of the pastor, defending his religious rights and reiterating his freedom to conduct his religious activities. The senior officer further warned the others against harassing the pastor and said that he would place them all under arrest if they continued to cause trouble in the future.

On February 10, according to NCEASL, the pastor and nine congregants of Good Shepherd Church at Sri Nissankamallapura met with local police, government officials and 12 Buddhist monks. The government officials and the monks demanded that the pastor stop religious activities immediately, reportedly saying Christians would not be tolerated in the village. The pastor refused and challenged them to take legal action. On February 16, a group led by a Buddhist monk went to the church and admonished the pastor for not stopping his religious activities as instructed. At the pastor’s request, local police personnel provided protection to the church. When the pastor went to lodge a complaint against the monks, however, a police headquarters inspector instructed him to sign a statement affirming that he had breached the peace. When the pastor refused, the inspector threatened to place him under arrest. Police accused the pastor of disturbing the peace. His case was taken before the Manampitiya Magistrates Court on February 17 and postponed until March 16. The magistrate ordered the pastor not to invite anyone to participate in religious activities at his premises for one month and imposed a bail bond of 500,000 rupees ($2,700) if he violated the order.

Writer Shakthika Sathkumara faced a criminal hearing on September 22 for charges stemming from his 2019 publication of a short story that a group of Buddhist monks said offended Buddhism. The story referred to homosexuality and child abuse at a Buddhist temple. The monks filed charges against Sathkumara under the ICCPR Act, accusing him of propagating religious hatred. He was detained four months, released in August 2019, and filed a fundamental rights petition in October 2019 challenging the constitutionality of his arrest. At his September hearing, the court postponed his case to February 2021, pending the Attorney General’s instructions on whether to file indictments.

According to Amnesty International, on April 9, police arrested Ramzy Razeek for violating the ICCPR Act by inciting religious hatred. The charge was based on his April 2 Facebook post calling for an “ideological jihad” through social and mainstream media “to help people understand the truth” in the context of rising “hate propagated against Muslims” during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Razeek’s lawyers, in August, the Supreme Court agreed to hear his petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest, but no date had been set for a hearing by the end of the year. On September 17, the Colombo High Court granted him bail on medical grounds.

On October 18, newspapers reported that police arrested a woman on charges of “spreading hate” between Buddhists and Catholics after she posted a video criticizing Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo. The status of her case was unknown at year’s end.

On October 21, the Colombo High Court granted bail to BBS general secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, who was charged with denigrating the religious beliefs of Muslims following statements he made in 2016 at the Kuragala Raja Maha Vihara Temple. Further proceedings of the trial, set for November 24, were postponed, and Gnanasara Thero remained free on bail at year’s end.

On August 18, the Mahiyanganaya Magistrate Court dismissed a 2019 case against a woman for wearing clothing decorated with the logo of a ship’s wheel, described as a Buddhist dharma chakra. She had been charged under the ICCPR Act for propagating religious hatred.

During the year, there were no prosecutions for the May 2019 anti-Muslim violence that led to the death of one Muslim and attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned homes and businesses. By year’s end, the government had not fully compensated owners for property damage they sustained during the violence across Northwestern Province.

According to a NCEASL report, on February 23, while a worship service was underway at Bethany Church in Tangalle, a group of approximately 100 individuals, including one Buddhist monk, forcibly entered the premises and questioned the legality of the place of worship. The group threatened the Christians, and one individual grabbed the pastor by his throat. They demanded that the Christians leave the village and never return and threw stones at the building, damaging the roof. Police arrived and insisted that the pastor and Christian congregants leave the church before dispersing the mob. The police inspector in charge said he had warned the pastor against conducting worship activities and accused him of breaching the peace. In response, the pastor said it was the mob who had breached the peace and that he had the right to conduct worship there. NCEASL said there were no arrests in this case.

Despite a public awareness campaign by the Department of Christian Religious Affairs underway since 2016 to encourage local congregations of nondenominational groups to register as religious organizations, the government had not registered any new groups by year’s end. According to some nondenominational groups, government officials threatened them with legal action if they did not register, but the process dragged on indefinitely if they tried to register. Instead, unregistered Christian groups continued to incorporate as commercial trusts, legal societies, or NGOs to engage in financial transactions, open bank accounts, and hold property. Without formal government recognition through the registration process, however, nondenominational churches said they could not sponsor religious worker visas for visiting clergy and faced restrictions on holding meetings or constructing new places of worship.

According to Christian groups, they experienced two major difficulties in complying with local officials’ registration requirements. First, rural congregations often could not obtain deeds to land due to the degradation of hard-copy Land Registry documentation and incomplete land surveys. Second, without the consent of the local community or the local Buddhist temple, local councils often opted not to approve the construction of new religious buildings. Church leaders said they repeatedly appealed to local government officials and the ministry responsible for religious affairs for assistance, with limited success.

On June 1, President Rajapaksa issued an official notification in the government gazette that created a 12-member Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province composed exclusively of Sinhalese Buddhists and headed by Secretary of Defense Kamal Gunaratne. The task force’s mandate was to conduct archaeological site surveys in the heavily Tamil and Muslim Eastern Province, and to recommend measures to preserve religious heritage. The task force included six Buddhist monks but no representatives from other religious communities, despite the multiethnic nature of the province. On August 19, President Rajapaksa added four more monks to the task force, including two general secretaries of the Asgiriya and Malwatte chapters, the two main Buddhist sects in the nation, despite civil society and political leaders’ repeated calls for the inclusion of minority representatives.

Media reported that in June, an archeological task force surveyed 40 acres around the Muhudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuvil, Ampara District and evicted approximately 400 Muslim residents from land their families had inhabited since the colonial era. Tamil activists reported that in September, a Buddhist monk from Arisimalai, who was a member of the task force, threatened a group of Tamil farmers in the Thiriyai area in the Kuchchaveli Divisional Secretary’s Division in the Trincomalee District and prevented them from engaging in cultivation of more than 1,000 acres, including 400 acres without private deeds or government permits that had been cultivated by farmers for many decades. According to lawyers involved in the cases, by the end of the year, more than 40 Tamil and Muslim farmers had filed cases against the expulsions from their traditional lands. All cases remained pending at year’s end.

On August 20, presenting the government’s policy speech at the inaugural session of parliament, President Rajapaksa pledged to “protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana” and explained that he had established an advisory council of leading Buddhist monks to seek advice on governance. He also highlighted the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management, saying that it had been established to protect places of archaeological importance and to preserve the Buddhist heritage. He said that by “ensuring priority for Buddhism… the freedom of any citizen to practice the religion of his or her choice is better secured.” Tamil and Muslim activists in the Eastern Province predicted that the Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management would use its authority to claim locations that possess ancient Buddhist relics as a pretext to force minorities off their lands.

Civil society groups and local politicians continued to state the military sometimes acted outside its official capacity and aided in the construction of Buddhist shrines in predominantly Hindu and Muslim areas, although there were few reports of this practice during the year due to movement restrictions imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports published by various civil society groups indicated security forces involved in constructing Buddhist religious sites continued to cite archeological links in places where there were no Buddhist populations.

In January, the army completed construction of a Buddhist vihara (shrine) in Valikamam North on privately owned land occupied by the army and designated as a “high security zone” during the war. Journalists reported that residents lodged complaints with the Valikamam North divisional council regarding construction of the vihara, but the council did not have jurisdiction over military-controlled lands.

On March 8, student groups reported that a Buddhist vihara had been dedicated on Jaffna University’s Killinochchi Campus, whose student body is mostly Hindu. Students protested the rushed manner in which the vihara was constructed, in contrast with a Hindu temple and Christian church on the university grounds that had been abandoned with no renovations planned.

On July 10, newspapers reported that Buddhist monk Ellawala Medhananda, a member of the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management, said that up to 2,000 sites in the Eastern Province would be subject to examination, including in forests across Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. He specifically noted that if Buddhist artifacts were found at the historic Koneswaram Hindu Temple, they should be protected. Civil society groups said the effort was a Sinhala Buddhist land grab in the historically Tamil and Muslim province.

On October 9, the Vavuniya Magistrate Court granted bail to the administrators of the ancient Hindu Vedukkunari Hill Temple after local police and Archeology Department officials filed a case against them for damaging the temple, which had been declared a Buddhist archaeological site, by holding a Hindu festival there in September. At a November 6 hearing, the case was postponed until 2021. However, at the request of the lawyer representing the Archaeology Department and police, the court rescheduled the hearing to December 11. Because the temple administration was not aware of the change of date and missed the hearing, the magistrate revoked bail and issued an arrest warrant for the administrators of the temple. At year’s end, temple administrators remained at large, despite the arrest warrant.

Also in October, the mostly Hindu residents of Delft Island in Jaffna protested an effort of Jaffna-based Buddhist monks and Archaeology Department officials, who said that a Vedi Arasan fortress in Delft belonged historically to a Tamil Buddhist king. Monks also surveyed the area with the Archaeology Department using a drone camera.

According to press reports, on September 24, at the request of Buddhist monk Thilakawansa Nayaka, the Archaeology Department seized 358 acres of land between Panikkanvayal and Thennamaravadi in Trincomalee, including fields belonging to Tamil farmers. The farmers reported that Civil Defense Force guards posted at the site prevented them from cultivating their land and that monks had begun to build a Buddhist shrine at the site to prevent any alternative use for the land.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses community said it continued to have difficulty obtaining approval to build houses of worship. Local government officials cited the 2008 circular and forwarded all new Kingdom Hall construction applications to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Department of Christian Affairs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year, the ministry again did not issue any approvals for building applications. Older applications, such as those submitted in 2015 to build houses of worship in Pugoda and Nattandiya, remained pending at year’s end.

During a July 24 meeting with the Buddhist Advisory Council, President Rajapaksa appointed a committee of Maha Sangha (senior Buddhist clergy) to study the Antiquities Ordinance and recommend amendments to strengthen the preservation of antiquities and national heritage. During this meeting, the Maha Sangha requested the President transfer cases relating to artifacts and historic places in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim Northern and Eastern Provinces to courts in Colombo.

On September 28, the cabinet announced it would amend national and local legislation to ban cattle slaughter, saying that such a ban would help the dairy industry and save money used to purchase imported milk powder, but by year’s end, the government had taken no action to introduce the ban for consideration by parliament.

In March, the MOH made cremation compulsory for all COVID-19 victims, thereby denying Muslims who died from the virus the Islamic tradition of burying the dead. International media reported that Muslims who had lost relatives due to COVID-19 described a traumatic rush by police and health authorities to cremate the bodies of their loved ones. Many family members said they were not provided a copy of the test results showing that their loved ones had tested positive, and that hospital officials refused their pleas to conduct second tests. Human rights activist Shreen Shahor told The Guardian, “The way (the government) is treating the Muslim community during this pandemic is clear-cut racism. The community is being forced to abandon their own dead in order to protect (others’) beliefs and traditions. There is not even a scientific justification for them being denied dignity in death.”

On April 8, four UN special rapporteurs, including the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, in addition to the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL), wrote President Rajapaksa requesting the government reconsider its policy, in light of WHO COVID-19 guidelines that permitted either burial or cremation. The UN letter also stated that MOH guidelines were not sensitive to the religious and cultural practices of different communities. Similarly, the MCSL published a letter to the President on April 8 that highlighted WHO guidelines permitting burial. “Over 182 countries…have permitted (relatives) to bury or cremate the dead bodies of those infected with COVID-19,” MCSL stated. Also in April, the Government Medical Officers Association published a letter calling for the President to convene a panel of experts to examine the issue. On April 11, the MOH issued revised guidelines with no further explanation, reiterating that cremation was mandatory for COVID-19 victims of all faiths. In May, the two major Muslim political parties, the SLMC and the ACMC, as well as several civil society activists, filed petitions with the Supreme Court challenging the government’s COVID-19 cremation policy. By year’s end, the court had not heard the petitions to determine if the cases had standing to proceed. In a November 4 open letter, the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation expressed deep concerns about the country’s policy of mandatory cremation for COVID-19 victims.

In November, Health Minister Wanniarachchi informed parliament that the government had appointed a committee to investigate the burial issue. Media reports that month said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had agreed to allow Muslim burials for COVID-19-related deaths and had asked health authorities to identify appropriate areas to use. In December, however, the Supreme Court refused to hear a petition against the mandatory cremation practice, separate from the SLMC and ACMC petition, filed by 11 Muslim and Christian activists. The petitioners said the practice violated their freedom of religion and their fundamental rights under the constitution. At year’s end, the government’s policy of mandatory cremation for all COVID-19 victims remained in force.

Although religious education remained compulsory in state-funded schools, not all schools had sufficient resources to teach all four recognized religions, and according to civil society groups, some students were required to study religions other than their own. Government schools frequently experienced a shortage of teachers, sometimes requiring available teachers to teach the curriculum of a faith different from their own.

Religious schools continued to receive state funding for facilities and personnel and to fall under the purview of the central government and/or the provincial ministry of education. The National Christian Council of Sri Lanka reported several dozen cases of schools refusing students admission on religious grounds during the year, even though the law required government and private schools receiving government funding, some religiously affiliated, to accept students of all faiths.

Religious rights advocates said that across all religious groups, traditional leaders charged with adjudication of religious law were poorly or completely untrained and issued inconsistent or arbitrary judgments.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion, language, and ethnicity are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize most incidents of harassment or discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.

According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred. According to press reports and civil society, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the BBS continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities, especially in social media. These groups said authorities did not act against those inciting hatred against the Muslim and Tamil community.

According to an NGO report examining online hate speech between March and June, 58 percent of online hate speech in all national languages (Sinhala, Tamil, and English) attacked Muslims or Islam on a variety of grounds, 30 percent targeted Christians, and less than 5 percent attacked Tamils or Hinduism. Of the Sinhala-language posts surveyed, 79 percent attacked Muslims or Islam. Of the Tamil-language posts, 46 percent attacked Christians of Tamil ethnicity and 35 percent attacked Muslims or Islam.

At a hearing in January, 76 medical staff submitted statements claiming knowledge of forced sterilizations of Sinhala women carried out by Muslim doctor Siyabdeen Shafi over several years. A medical expert review of the evidence for the sterilization claims, ordered in 2019, remained pending. Shafi was arrested for suspicious accumulation of wealth and released in 2019. He was investigated further after a social media campaign accused him of the sterilizations. He was not charged with any crimes, however. At the request of police, a magistrate will continue the case until March 2021.

Muslim civil society activists described a “vast outpouring” of anti-Muslim hate speech on social media and in parts of the broadcast and print media related to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Human Rights Watch, in April and May, there were calls on social media to boycott Muslim businesses and false allegations of Muslims spreading COVID-19 deliberately that authorities did not adequately refute. On April 12, in a letter addressed to the acting inspector general of police, several Muslim groups, including the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka and the Colombo District Mosques’ Federation, sought investigations into “the continued hate-mongering against the Muslim community” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On November 10, commenting on reports that the government was considering allowing the burial of Muslim COVID-19 victims, media reported BBS leader Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero blamed “Wahhabi groups infiltrating society” for the political debate surrounding the issue.

NCEASL documented 50 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year, compared with 94 cases in 2019. Human rights activists attributed the lower number of incidents to pandemic-related lockdowns and prohibitions on public gatherings.

According to NCEASL, on January 19, congregants of an Assemblies of God church in Divulapitiya, Gampaha District were accosted on their way to Sunday service by 40 persons led by eight Buddhist monks who verbally abused them with obscene language and took their photographs. The monks also assaulted one female congregant physically. When the congregants complained, police officers defused the situation but made no arrests, and the senior officer present admonished the pastor for continuing her worship activities. The pastor lodged a complaint at the Divulapitiya Police Station. On the same day, some individuals threw stones at the church, targeting the closed-circuit television cameras. There was no follow-up on this case by year’s end.

According to NCEASL, on February 2, a Christian worship service in Inhala Yakkure in Polonanaruwa District was disrupted by a mob of approximately 150 individuals led by four Buddhist monks. The crowd demanded an end to the service and threatened violence if it continued. Police were called and allowed the pastor to conclude the service. Afterwards, however, the Buddhist monks attempted to assault the pastor, and were stopped by the police. The monks said that the pastor needed to register his place of worship with the proper authorities and that the activities at the church were illegal. Later that day, the pastor, accompanied by his wife, son, and a few others, visited the village of a family of parishioners who had been previously threatened by the monks. As they were leaving their vehicles, they were reportedly accosted by a second group of approximately 50 individuals, including three Buddhist monks, who blocked the road with logs and physically assaulted the pastor’s son and the other Christians. On February 3, five persons were detained by police in connection with the incident, but not the monks involved. No charges were filed in the case.

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report incidents of discrimination and abuse. On March 17, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that Angmaduwe Vimala Himi, chief monk of the Weralugahamulla Temple, with a group of followers, approached four female Jehovah’s Witnesses. The monk and his followers verbally abused the women and beat them with a cane. They seized religious literature from one of the women and burned it, while issuing threats to all of them against returning, saying they would “face worse.” One of the women was hospitalized after the attack. On the same day, the same monk and a group of his followers confronted another group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, confiscated their literature, and assaulted them, resulting in the hospitalization of two. Jehovah Witnesses filed complaints in both instances, which remained pending at year’s end.

On October 23, police reported that the attorney general would be filing a complaint against Buddhist monks accused of leading a mob that assaulted three female Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2013. The women had been tied to a tree by the mob, struck, and verbally assaulted. When the incident was first reported to police, the mob stormed the local police station and assaulted the officers there. In the years since the attack, the victims continued to press police to take action, and the monks involved were identified.

On September 7, the case of a February 2019 assault on four Jehovah’s Witnesses in Adikarimulla, Divulapitiya, was brought before the Minuwangoda magistrate, who issued warrants for the two men accused of the attack. They remained at large at year’s end. Jehovah’s Witnesses said they viewed the action by the magistrate as a positive development but said the delays in getting trials started and heard to completion denied many Jehovah’s Witnesses access to justice. Multiple other cases from previous years involving assaults on Jehovah’s Witnesses remained pending at year’s end.

According to representatives of a Sufi Muslim community of approximately 10,000 based in the Eastern Province town of Kathankudy, there were no incidents against them during the year. They said they felt secure, since public attention on Sufi relations with conservative Wahhabi-inspired Sunni Muslims had waned since the Easter Sunday bombing, and government scrutiny of the Wahhabis had increased.

Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the ability of religious and community leaders to lead peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees consisting of religious and civic leaders and laypersons from different faith traditions and ethnicities. The NGO National Peace Council of Sri Lanka created the committees in 2010 following the end of the civil war between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the primarily Hindu and Christian Tamil minority.

According to NCEASL, the number of Christian groups worshipping in “house churches” continued to grow.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy officers emphasized the need for respect for and inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities as part of the postconflict reconciliation process, during meetings with the President, Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, and other officials holding religious portfolios. During his October 28 visit to Sri Lanka, the Secretary of State laid a wreath at the Catholic Shrine of St. Anthony, one of the sites of the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings.

Embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with government officials to express concern about harassment of and government and societal discrimination against members of religious minority groups and to urge the government to reverse the policy mandating cremation for victims of COVID-19.

The Ambassador promoted religious freedom through private diplomatic advocacy and in public statements and speeches, including her January 16 statement for world Religious Freedom Day in which she highlighted how the United States and Sri Lanka shared “a long tradition of religious liberty and diversity.” She added, “The freedom to profess one’s own faith is innate to the dignity of every person,” and, “We will continue to advocate for the right to worship freely and protect those persecuted for their faith.” In a June 11 tweet, the Ambassador encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), noting that the UDHR recognizes that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and that the United States adopted the UDHR in 1948 and Sri Lanka in 1955. The Ambassador urged Sri Lankans to work with the United States to “ensure this right is a reality.” In a November 10 speech at the Pathfinder Foundation Indian Ocean Security Conference, the Ambassador highlighted that the United States is a champion for “human rights, religious freedom, and democratic ideals, as enshrined in international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” and she urged “all nations to join us in upholding these commitments.”

Embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu civil society and religious leaders to understand the views of the communities they represent, the challenges they faced, including government and societal discrimination and the COVID-19 cremation policy, and to identify ways their communities could help diffuse ethnic tensions.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador offered public greetings, including on social media, and participated in person or virtually in celebrations of the country’s many religious holidays, including Thai Pongal in January, Eid al-Fitr in May, Deepavali in November, and Hanukkah and Christmas in December.

The embassy supported multiple reconciliation projects that identified and resolved local grievances, built empathy and understanding among religious groups, and supported government reconciliation efforts. The embassy led ongoing tolerance and unity programs in cultural centers. Embassy representatives supported the work of civil society organizations in strengthening the capacity of religious and community leaders by fostering peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees. Through the National Peace Council, the U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.

Tajikistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies. The constitution states “religious associations shall be separate from the state” and “shall not interfere in state affairs.” The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons younger than the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature. The government continued to detain and prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusal to serve in the military. In some cases, there were allegations of physical abuse. Jehovah’s Witnesses have unsuccessfully sought registration since 2007, and some adherents have claimed harassment by authorities. In April, a Shohmansur district court in Dushanbe convicted independent journalist Daler Sharifov of “inciting religious hatred,” sentencing him to one year in prison. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at Hanafi Sunni mosques. Government officials continued to take measures to prevent individuals from joining or participating in religious organizations identified by authorities as extremist and banned, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region for membership in banned “extremist organizations.” In March, Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon said that law enforcement officials had arrested 154 individuals suspected of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. In August, a Sughd Region court sentenced 20 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood to between five and seven years of prison for their membership in a banned organization. Law enforcement agencies continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or support of groups banned by the government, including groups that advocated for Islamic political goals and presented themselves as political opponents to the government, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Authorities continued a pattern of harassing men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including hijabs. According to international NGOs, the CRA levied heavy fines on four Protestant churches between August 2019 and January 2020 for arranging translation of the Bible into Tajik without prior CRA approval, as required by law. The CRA denied the NGO report, stating that translation of religious literature does not fall under its purview. The government noted its intent to reschedule a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to assess the religious situation in the country and make suggestions to address concerns. The visit planned for 2020 did not take place due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of different religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government on a frequent basis during in-person meetings, virtual gatherings, and calls to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom. Embassy officers raised concerns regarding the participation of women and minors in religious services, restrictions on the religious education of youth, the situation facing Jehovah Witnesses in the country, and harassment of those wearing religious attire.

In 2016, the country was designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the required sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to local academics, the country is more than 90 percent Muslim, of whom the majority adheres to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Approximately 4 percent of Muslims are Ismaili Shia, the majority of whom reside in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, located in the eastern part of the country.

The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox. There are small communities of evangelical Christians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, and nondenominational Protestants. There also are smaller communities of Jews, Baha’is, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country a secular state and “religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.” According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly with others to profess any religion or no religion and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies. Since October 2007, the government has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses for carrying out religious activities contrary to the country’s laws, such as refusing obligatory military service.

The establishment and activities of religious associations promoting racism, nationalism, enmity, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of constitutional order or organizing of armed groups is prohibited. The constitution prohibits “propaganda and agitation” that encourages religious enmity. In accordance with provisions of the constitution, no ideology of a political party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as a state ideology.

The law prohibits provoking religiously based hatred, enmity, or conflict as well as humiliating and harming the religious sentiments of other citizens.

The law defines extremism as the activities of individuals and organizations aimed at destabilization, subverting the constitutional order, or seizing power. This definition includes inciting religious hatred.

The law prohibits individuals from joining or participating in what it considers to be extremist organizations. The government maintains a list of “extremist organizations” that it alleges employ terrorist tactics in an effort to advance Islamic political goals, including the National Alliance of Tajikistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Salafi groups, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

The CRA is the government body primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing all provisions of the law pertaining to religion. The Center for Islamic Studies, under the Executive Office of the President, helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion.

The law defines a religious association as any group composed of persons who join for religious purposes. A religious association is a voluntary association of followers of one faith, with the purpose of holding joint worship and celebration of religious ceremonies, religious education, as well as spreading religious beliefs. To register a religious association, a group of at least 10 persons older than the age of 18 must obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming the adherents of their religious faith have lived in a local area for five years. The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the citizenship of its founders, along with their home addresses and dates of birth. The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage. A religious association must provide information on its houses of worship, which includes religious centers, central prayer houses, and religious educational institutions. The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious association, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.

The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law. To operate legally, both are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.

A religious organization provides for religious education and the spreading of religious faith. Types of religious organizations include the Republican Religious Center, central Friday mosques, central prayer houses, religious education entities, churches, and synagogues. Religious organizations are legal entities and function on the basis of charters. They may be district, municipal, or national organizations.

A religious community, unlike a religious organization, is not a legal entity. Its members gather to conduct other religious activities, which are not defined by law. For example, individuals gather for joint prayer, attend funeral prayers, and celebrate religious holidays. Types of religious communities include Friday mosques, five-time prayer mosques, prayer houses, and other places of worship. A religious community functions on the basis of a charter after registering with the CRA, and the nature and scope of its activities are determined by the charter. A religious community must adhere to the “essence and limits of activity” set out in its charter.

The law provides penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charters, and it assigns the CRA responsibility for issuing fines for such activities. The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration or reregistration; violating provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association. For first-time offenses, the government fines individuals 406 to 580 somoni ($36-$51), heads of religious associations 1,160 to 1,740 somoni ($100-$150), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 5,800 to 11,600 somoni ($510-$1,000). For repeat offenses within one year of applying first fines, penalties are increased to 696 to 1,160 somoni ($61-$100) for individuals, 2,320 to 2,900 somoni ($200-$260) for heads of religious associations, and 17,400 to 23,200 somoni ($1,500-$2,000) for registered religious associations. If a religious association conducts activities without registering, local authorities may impose additional fines or close a place of worship.

The law allows restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion deemed necessary by the government to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of the foundations of constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country. In addition, religious organizations annually must report general information about worship, organizational, educational, and outreach activities to the state, and the state must approve the appointments of all imams.

The Law on Freedom of Conscience (the Law) stipulates that no party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as representing state ideology. The Law also asserts that the state maintains control over religious education to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.

The Law broadly empowers the CRA to create regulations to implement state policies on religion, such as establishing specific guidelines for the performance of religious ceremonies. In addition to approving the registration of religious associations, organizations, and communities, the CRA maintains a broad mandate that includes approving the construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.

The CRA oversees activities of religious associations, such as the performance of religious rites, and the development and adoption of legal acts aimed at the implementation of a state policy on the freedom of conscience and religious associations. Religious associations must submit information on sources of income, property lists, expenditures, numbers of employees, wages and taxes paid, and other information upon request by the CRA.

The Freedom of Conscience Law recognizes the special status of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life. This status is aspirational, however, and does not have any specific legal bearing.

The Freedom of Conscience Law restricts Islamic prayer to four locations: mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines. It regulates the registration, size, and location of mosques, limiting the number of mosques that may be registered within a given population area. The government allows “Friday mosques,” which conduct larger Friday prayers as well as prayers five times per day, to be located in districts with populations of 10,000 to 20,000 persons; it allows “five-time mosques,” which conduct only daily prayers five times per day, in areas with populations of 100 to 1,000. In Dushanbe, authorities allow Friday mosques in areas with 30,000 to 50,000 persons, and five-time mosques in areas with populations of 1,000 to 5,000. The Law allows one “central Friday mosque” per district or city and makes other mosques subordinate to it.

Mosques function according to their charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations or by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population. The Law states the selection of chief-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders at a central Friday mosque), imam-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers), and imams (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in five-time mosques) shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.” The CRA must approve imam-khatibs and imams elected by the founders of each mosque. Local authorities decide on land allocation for the construction of mosques in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.” The CRA disseminates recommended talking points for Friday sermons drafted by the Islamic Center. Individual imam-khatibs can modify or supplement the talking points, and, according to the CRA, there is no penalty for noncompliance.

The Law on Regulation of Traditions and Celebrations regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and observations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, including limiting the number of guests, and it controls ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals. The statute also states that mass worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies must be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions. This statute also bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and 40th day after a death. Traditional sacrifices are permissible during Ramadan and Eid al-Adha.

According to the Law on Regulation of Traditions and Celebrations, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language and national dress.” According to customary (not official) interpretation, “national dress” does not include the hijab, although it does include a traditional Tajik form of covering a woman’s head, known as ruymol. The Code of Administrative violations (the Code) does not list the wearing of a beard, hijab, or other religious clothing as violations.

The Law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute religious literature and materials containing religious content after receiving CRA approval. Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises that produce literature and material with religious content. Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it. The Code allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without CRA permission. According to the Code, violators are subject to confiscation of the given literature, as well as fines of 1,740 to 4,060 somoni ($150-$360) for individuals; 2,900 to 8,700 somoni ($260-$770) for government officials; and 5,800 to 17,400 somoni ($510-$1,500) for legal entities, a category that includes all organizations. According to the Code, producing literature or material containing religious content without identifying the name of the religious organization producing it entails fines of 2,900 to 5,800 somoni ($260-$510) and confiscation of the material.

The Law on Parental Responsibility for Education and Upbringing of Children prohibits individuals younger than the age of 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship. Individuals younger than 18 may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance. The statute allows individuals younger than 18 to participate in religious activities that are part of specific educational programs in authorized religious institutions.

The Law requires all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction to meet the Ministry of Education and Science’s statutory requirements. In practice, however, such permission is usually not granted because madrassahs are not able to meet the ministry’s requirements relative to classrooms, qualified teachers, and curriculum. Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates. Other mosques, if registered with the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students in accordance with their charter and if licensed by the government.

With written parental consent, the Law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside mandatory school hours. According to the Law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum. As part of the high school curriculum, students must take general classes on the “history of religions.” The CRA is responsible for monitoring mosques throughout the country to ensure implementation of these provisions.

According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided they express a desire to learn. The Law forbids religious instruction at home to individuals outside the immediate family. The Law also restricts sending citizens abroad for religious education and establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent. To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a degree in religious studies domestically and receive written consent from the CRA. The Code stipulates fines of 2,900 to 5,800 somoni ($260-$510) for violating these restrictions.

The Law on General Military Duty and Service requires men to serve one year in the armed forces if they have a university degree and two years if they have not graduated from a university. This same statute allows for alternative service, although the government has yet to adopt implementing regulations that specify acceptable forms of alternative service.

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

Government Practices

In January, authorities charged independent journalist Daler Sharifov with “inciting racial and religious hatred.” According to international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, police raided his apartment in January and confiscated religious books and materials and his computer. In February, the Prosecutor General’s Office said that Sharifov had published more than 200 articles and notes containing extremist content aimed at inciting religious intolerance. According to government religious experts, Sharifov published a treatise extolling the Muslim Brotherhood movement and jihadist ideology. In April, a Shohmansur district court sentenced Sharifov to a one-year prison term.

In November, Forum 18 reported that authorities arrested Rustamjon Norov, a 22-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, in the northern city of Khujand for refusing military service on grounds of conscience. Prosecutors accused him of falsifying his medical history to evade military service, which he denied. Norov had offered to perform alternative civilian service. He filed an appeal, which was dismissed on October 28, according to Forum 18. At year’s end, he was in pretrial detention in Khujand.

On April 2, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that a military court in Dushanbe sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Jovidon Bobojonov to two years in a labor camp, beginning in January, for refusing compulsory military service, rejecting his offer of alternative service, according to Forum 18. On November 1, Bobojonov was freed by the 2020 nationwide amnesty decree signed by President Emomali Rahmon. In October 2019, enlistment officers had forcibly put Bobojonov on a train to an assigned military unit. According to Forum 18, Bobojonov was tortured while in the unit, transferred to prison in Dushanbe in January, and lost his appeal of his sentence in April. In 2019, government and military authorities denied that Bobojonov had the right to claim conscientious objection, stating that although the Law on General Military Duty and Service referred to the possibility of alternative service, there was no alternative in practice because the government had not defined acceptable forms of alternative service. The authorities said Bobojonov’s refusal to serve therefore was a crime and that the actions of enlistment officers were lawful. The Dushanbe’s military prosecutor’s office stated that Bobojonov was given the option to serve in construction battalion that did not carry arms but refused.

Another Jehovah’s Witness, Shamil Khakimov, remained in prison at year’s end, serving five-and-a-half years for “inciting religious hatred,” with his release scheduled for May 2024, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives. The Sughd Regional Court dismissed his appeal on October 26. Khakimov also received a three-year ban on proselytizing once he is released from prison.

In July, Forum 18 reported a climate of impunity for security officials accused of torture in the country, citing lack of official action on allegations of torture from Nilufar Rajabova, Bobojonov, and other prisoners detained or arrested in connection to their religious beliefs.

Authorities continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting banned extremist organizations. International NGOs continued to state that some of these organizations were considered to be potential political opponents of the government but in fact had never advocated for or participated in acts of violence. Local and international human rights organizations continued to say that the government “intimidates and arrests” opposition figures on the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism.

In January, Forum 18 reported that Khayriddin Dostakov had been arrested at Dushanbe Airport upon his return from visiting relatives in Russia. According to Forum 18, police questioned him about whether he had become a Shia Muslim or spread Shia beliefs and beat him and used electric shocks on him in prison. On August 25, authorities dropped all criminal charges and released Dostakov from custody after an eight-month detention.

On January 20, Radio Ozodi, the Tajik-language outlet of RFE/RL, reported that law enforcement officials had arrested approximately 70 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization banned in the country since 2006. On March 20, according to RFE/RL, Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon said that law enforcement officials had identified 314 individuals and arrested 154 of them, including the 70 mentioned in January, for their suspected ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to a June 8 RFE/RL report, Imam-Khatib Muhammadsayid Akramov and three of his brothers were convicted by the Khatlon regional court of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They reportedly were in custody for approximately four months prior to the trial, at which point their sentences were suspended and they were released.

On July 7, the Supreme Court began considering criminal cases against 116 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members, including 114 Tajik citizens and two Egyptian citizens. The defendants were charged with financing terrorist activities, making extremist statements, and organizing extremist activities. At year’s end, the Supreme Court continued prosecuting these cases.

The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region, most of whom had received religious education abroad, for membership in banned extremist organizations.

In January, RFE/RL reported that a district court in Dushanbe sentenced Sadriddin Mulloyev, a member of Jamaat Tabligh, a Salafist movement banned by the government, to 12 years in prison for terrorism and extremism activities. Authorities had arrested Mulloyev in September 2019 after he returned to the country in response to a government amnesty program, according to Forum 18. Forum 18 said in January that Mulloyev had served an earlier prison term, from 2008 to 2013, for being a member of the same movement.

On November 12, according to his relatives, State Committee for National Security (GKNB) officers detained Sirojiddin Abdurahmonov, widely considered to be the leader of the Salafi movement in the country. Although law enforcement agencies did not comment on Abdurahmonov’s arrest, RFE/RL cited an anonymous judiciary source in reporting that a Dushanbe court authorized his detention. Abdurahmonov’s relatives told RFE/RL that authorities confiscated the cleric’s computer and religious texts at the time of his arrest. He was previously arrested in 2009 on charges of inciting religious hatred but released from prison in 2013 following an amnesty. He remained in detention at year’s end.

Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council that prohibited women from praying at mosques. Ismaili Shia women were permitted to attend Shia services in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and Dushanbe.

The CRA stated that it did not receive any new applications for registration from non-Islamic religious associations during the year. The CRA reported that there remained 66 registered non-Islamic religious organizations, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the Baha’i Faith.

In its October census, the government included a question on religious identity for the first time since 1937. According to Forum 18, some religious groups expressed fear that census answers could be used to target individuals and organizations because of their faith. Government officials were unclear on why the question was included, according to Forum 18. The Statistics Agency, responsible for conducting the census, stated the data was solely to collect demographic information and that it would publish the results in 2022.

NGOs reported continued government restrictions on imam-khatibs and imams, such as centrally selecting and approving sermon topics, as well as prohibiting some imam-khatibs from performing certain ceremonies.

In a 2019 submission to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), which international observers stated remained factual, HRW stated the government “severely curtails freedom of religion or belief, proscribing certain forms of dress, including the hijab for women and long beards for men.” While there remained no legal prohibition against wearing a hijab or a beard, NGOs reported authorities continued to discourage “nontraditional or alien” clothing. In a 2019 submission to the UN, the NGOs Human Rights Vision Foundation, Eurasian Dialogue Institution, and the Tajik Freethinkers Forum said official media stigmatized and persecuted religious women and that local police and ruling party activists organized surprise public inspections of women wearing hijabs, requiring them to remove the headwear. The NGOs also said female patients wearing hijabs were refused treatment in public health clinics and faced restricted access or were denied entrance to educational establishments and administrative buildings. Local women were permitted to cover their hair in a ruymol, in which the scarf covers a woman’s hair and is tied in the back.

On January 22, RFE/RL reported that a court in Dushanbe denied Nilufar Rajabova’s appeal after she was fined 550 somoni ($49) for insulting a law enforcement official. According to December 2019 press reports, she accused Dushanbe police of insulting her and threatening her after she was detained, along with two dozen others, in a raid targeting women wearing hijabs. She told Forum 18 that she had also been hit by an officer, falling and injuring her spine as a result.

On February 13, Hilolbi Qurbonzoda, the chairwoman of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, said during a press conference that the issue of women wearing hijabs would not be sensitive if it were not for terrorist attacks involving women wearing hijabs in other countries. Qurbonzoda added that the international community was taking steps to protect state interests and some countries had already adopted rules on women wearing hijabs. Qurbonzoda said it is important for Tajik women to keep their identity and not be confused with Arab women.

In August, RFE/RL reported that Vanj District officials said a group of individuals protested against being forced to shave, since officials in that area regarded beards as a foreign intrusion on local culture or a sign of religious extremism. Vanj District chairman Jabbor Qosim told RFE/RL that he would hold discussions with these individuals to look into their complaints.

The government mandated that anyone wishing to study religion abroad should receive government approval and should study at a government-approved religious institution.

In July, CRA chairman Davlatzoda said 3,901 citizens who had been illegally studying abroad at religious educational institutions had returned home over the previous 11 years. Some of these individuals reportedly returned involuntarily. The government sometimes sent these students to government boarding schools for secular reeducation. For example, on September 16, a member of the banned IRPT told RFE/RL that his 15-year-old son was “being held hostage” at a boarding school for children who misbehave. Mahmadzarif Saidov, who lives in exile in Europe, said that his son had been studying at a Bangladeshi madrassah when he was detained in Dubai and returned to the country in 2019. He said authorities had placed him in a special boarding school and prohibited contact with relatives. A district government source told RFE/RL on September 16 that Saidov’s son had been “brainwashed” at the madrassah for nearly four years and needed time to receive a secular education.

In its 2019 review (the most recent) of the government’s adherence to its commitments under the ICCPR, which international observers stated remained accurate, the UNHRC stated that it remained concerned “that interference by the State in religious affairs, worship, and freedom of religion and the ensuing restrictions… are incompatible with the Covenant.” The UNHRC identified these restrictions as including: (a) interference with the appointment of imams and the content of their sermons; (b) control over books and other religious materials; (c) the requirement of state permission for receiving religious education abroad; (d) the prohibition against entering a mosque for those younger than 18 years of age; (e) the regulations regarding the registration of religious organizations; (f) the regulations on wearing clothes during traditional or religious celebrations and the prohibition of certain attire in practice, such as the hijab; and (g) restrictions imposed on Christian religious minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A planned visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to assess the government’s actions as they pertain to religious practice did not occur due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At year’s end, the government was coordinating with the special rapporteur to reschedule the visit once conditions permitted.

According to Forum 18 in March and Voice of the Martyrs in May, between August 2019 and January 2020, the CRA fined four Protestant churches 7,000 to 11,000 somoni ($620-$970) each for arranging translation of the Bible into Tajik. One congregant told Forum 18 that these fines were “huge,” given that the average monthly collection in some churches was only 500 somoni ($44). The CRA denied the NGO report, stating that translation of religious literature does not fall under its purview.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of various religious groups, remained a subject they avoided. Individuals said they were more comfortable discussing abuses of civil rights than discussing sectarian disagreements or restrictions on religious freedom.

The NGO Open Doors 2021 World Watch List report, which covers events in 2020, stated that because the country’s ethnic identity is directly tied to Islam, Christians who have converted from Islam face criticism by family, friends, and community.

Leaders of some minority religious groups continued to state their communities enjoyed positive relationships with the majority Hanafi Sunni population, who, they said, did not hinder their worship services or cause concern for their congregations. Other minority religious group leaders stated that converts from Islam experienced social disapproval from friends and neighbors.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In separate meetings throughout the year with the Foreign Minister, Deputy Foreign Minister, CRA senior representatives, and other government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to raise concerns regarding restrictions on minors and women participating in religious services, the situation of Jehovah Witnesses in the country, and restrictions on the religious education of youth. Embassy officers also raised the issue of harassment of women and men for religious dress and grooming.

Because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the embassy did not host any in-person public events dealing with freedom of religion issues. Embassy officials had limited engagements in virtual formats with civil society, NGOs, and religious leaders from Christian organizations on the issue of religious freedom.

U.S. officials emphasized with government representatives the importance of steps to ameliorate restrictions on freedom of religion through national legislation and with regards to alternative service. U.S. embassy officers sought amnesty for conscientious objectors and prisoners of conscience. Embassy officials also discussed with religious leaders how they conducted services during the pandemic amid closures of religious associations, such as mosques and churches throughout the country, in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Since 2016, Tajikistan has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” 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 the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions as required in the important national interest of the United States.

Tibet

Read A Section: Tibet

China | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities,” without defining “normal.” CCP regulations allow only Chinese citizens to take part in officially approved religious practices and stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security.” CCP regulations control all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools, and prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities said included Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. The CCP continued to promote “Sinicization” policies that aimed to interpret religious ideas in accordance with CCP ideology and to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations regulation, released in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions, including Tibetan Buddhism. In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas there were reports of forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices. There were reports of individuals dying in custody after being beaten, and one nun in a detention facility committed suicide. There were multiple reports of individuals who had been released from detention dying as a result of long-term illnesses and injuries suffered following beatings and mistreatment during incarceration. According to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and academic research, the PRC government undertook a large-scale and aggressive campaign of “reeducation” or “vocational training” in military-style camps to conduct forced political indoctrination and to transform traditional farmers and herders into laborers in other industries; the vocational training process required “diluting the negative influence of religion.” In some cases, this program involved transferring Tibetans away from their home districts as part of so-called labor transfer programs. Authorities arrested multiple writers, singers, and artists for promoting Tibetan language and culture. Media and human rights groups reported that local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized-crime program and that Tibetans were told to inform security officials of anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” The PRC government continued to restrict the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries and prohibit them from practicing elsewhere. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain because access to Tibetan areas remained restricted, according to multiple sources, between 2016 and 2019, authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. Satellite imagery and photographs showed that thousands of dwellings at these locations had been destroyed since 2018. PRC authorities continued to restrict the religious practices of monks, nuns, and laypersons. Travel and other restrictions hindered monastics and laypersons from engaging in traditional religious practices and pilgrimages. Repression, including arbitrary surveillance, increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. The government canceled some religious festivals, citing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, although some sources stated this was a pretext. The government surveilled religious sites, encouraged families to inform on their neighbors, and attempted to control access to social media. It continued to force monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag and required Tibetans to replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas with portraits of prominent CCP leaders, including Chairman Mao and General Secretary and PRC President Xi Jinping, in their homes. Media and NGOs reported that authorities erected two Chinese-style pagodas in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site generally considered to be the most sacred temple in Tibet, and closed the square in front of the temple to worshippers. PRC authorities continued to restrict children from participating in many traditional religious festivals and from receiving religious education. As part of efforts to Sinicize the population, schools in some areas required instruction in Mandarin, and some students were sent to other parts of the country to expose them to Han culture. Authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in monastic practices, including by appointing government and CCP personnel and government-approved monks to manage religious institutions. The government continued to control the selection of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and supervised their religious and political education. It continued to force monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Religious leaders and government employees were often required to denounce the Dalai Lama and express allegiance to the government-recognized Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama and promoting the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism. In a statement issued in December, the Standing Committee of the Tibetan People’s Congress stated reincarnations of lamas were to take place in accordance with state laws regulating religious affairs and the reincarnation of living buddhas. The statement said the 14th Dalai Lama’s own selection had been reported to the government for approval. Authorities continued in state media to justify interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities.

Some Tibetans continued to encounter societal discrimination when seeking employment, engaging in business, and traveling for pilgrimage, according to multiple sources.

The PRC continued to tightly restrict diplomatic access to the TAR and deny the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the then-open consulate in Chengdu requests to visit the area. No U.S. diplomats were allowed to visit the TAR during the year. The outbreak of COVID-19 in January led to country-wide restrictions on travel within the PRC and entry into the PRC, which also affected the ability of foreign diplomats, journalists, and tourists to travel to the TAR and other Tibetan areas. U.S. officials repeatedly raised concerns about religious freedom in Tibet with Chinese government counterparts at multiple levels. U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Ambassador to China, and other embassy officers continued sustained and concerted efforts to advocate for the rights of Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language without interference from the government. U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the succession of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders and raised concerns about the continued disappearance of Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, missing since 1995. On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials that it had determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018. In November, Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) President Lobsang Sangay met in Washington, D.C. with the U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities. The embassy and consulates used social media to deliver direct messaging about religious freedom in Tibet to millions of Chinese citizens.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to official data from the 2018 estimate of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the total population of the TAR is 3,371,500, of which Tibetans make up approximately 90 percent. Han Chinese make up approximately 8 percent. Other ethnicities comprise the remainder. Some experts, however, believe the number of Han Chinese and other non-Tibetans living there is significantly underreported. Outside the TAR, official census data show Tibetans constitute 24.4 percent of the total population in Qinghai Province, 2.1 percent in Sichuan Province, 1.8 percent in Gansu Province, and 0.3 percent in Yunnan Province, although the percentage of Tibetans is much higher within prefectures and counties of these provinces designated as autonomous for Tibetans.

Most ethnic Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although a sizeable minority practices Bon, a pre-Buddhist indigenous religion. Small minorities practice Islam, Catholicism, or Protestantism. Some scholars estimate there are as many as 400,000 Bon followers across the Tibetan Plateau, most of whom also follow the Dalai Lama and consider themselves also to be Tibetan Buddhists. Scholars estimate there are up to 5,000 Tibetan Muslims and 700 Tibetan Catholics in the TAR. Other residents of traditionally Tibetan areas include Han Chinese, many of whom practice Buddhism (including Tibetan Buddhism), Taoism, Confucianism, or traditional folk religions, or profess atheism, as well as Hui Muslims and non-Tibetan Catholics and Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The majority of ethnic Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China live in the TAR, Tibetan autonomous prefectures (TAPs), and counties in Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Gansu provinces. The PRC constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” The constitution bans the state, public organizations, and individuals from compelling citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution states religious bodies and affairs are not to be “subject to any foreign control.” The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and legally hold worship services or other religious ceremonies and activities.

CCP regulations regarding religion are issued by the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD’s Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Work manages religious affairs through the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA).

The UFWD controls the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including lamas. Regulations stipulate that, depending on the perceived geographic area of influence of the lama, relevant administrative entities may deny permission for a lama to be recognized as reincarnated (a tenet of Tibetan Buddhism), and that these administrative entities must approve reincarnations. The UFWD claims the right to deny the recognition of reincarnations of high lamas of “especially great influence.” The regulations also state no foreign organization or individual may interfere in the selection of reincarnate lamas, and all reincarnate lamas must be reborn within China. The CCP maintains a registry of officially recognized reincarnate lamas.

Regulations issued by the UFWD allow only Chinese citizens to take part in officially approved religious practices; these regulations assert CCP control over all aspects of religions, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools. Through local regulations issued under the framework of the national-level Management Regulation of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, governments of the TAR and other autonomous Tibetan areas control the registration of monasteries, nunneries, and other Tibetan Buddhist religious centers. The regulations also give the CCP formal control over building and managing religious structures and require monasteries to obtain official permission to hold large-scale religious events or gatherings.

The central government’s Regulations on Religious Affairs require religious groups to register with the government, impose fines on landlords who provide facilities for unauthorized religious activities, and restrict contact with overseas religious institutions. The regulations require religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad and prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities say include Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. The regulations submit religious schools to the same oversight as places of worship and impose restrictions on religious groups conducting business or investments, including placing limits on the amount of donations they may receive, thereby constraining property ownership and development. Publication of religious material must conform to guidelines determined by the Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee.

The regulations also require that religious activity “must not harm national security.” While the regulations stipulate that religious groups must abide by the law, safeguard national unity, and respond to “religious extremism,” the term “extremism” is undefined. Measures to safeguard unity and respond to “religious extremism” include monitoring groups, individuals, and institutions, and recommending penalties such as suspending groups and canceling clergy credentials. The regulations stipulate that the online activities of religious groups must be approved by the provincial UFWD.

Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules vary widely across and within regions. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools. These regulations have effectively barred Tibetan youth from entering monasteries prior to reaching 18 years of age.

On January 11, the government adopted the “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region.” These require “equal opportunities” for non-Tibetan ethnic groups at all levels of government and in schools, private business companies, religious centers and the military in the TAR.

A government policy introduced in 2018 requires Tibetan monks and nuns to undergo political training in CCP ideology. Monks and nuns must not only demonstrate competence in religious studies, but they must also show “political reliability,” “moral integrity capable of impressing the public,” and a willingness to “play an active role at critical moments.”

Self-immolation (setting oneself on fire as a form of protest) is considered homicide, and family members, teachers, and religious leaders may be charged as accessories to homicide if a relative, pupil, or follower chooses to self-immolate.

To establish formal places of worship, religious organizations must receive approval from the local UFWD, both when the facility is proposed and again prior to the first time any services are held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have an established facility or worship meeting space; they must seek a separate approval from CCP authorities each time they want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel or an apartment. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity that may be criminally or administratively punished.

Individuals must apply to the TAR CCP Committee to take up religious orders and the committee may deny any application. Regulations also require monks and nuns to obtain permission from officials in both the originating and receiving counties before traveling to other prefectures or county-level cities within the TAR to “practice their religion,” engage in religious activities, study, or teach. TAPs outside the TAR have similar regulations.

At the central level, the CCP Central Committee’s Central Tibet Work Coordination Group and the UFWD are responsible for developing and implementing religious management policies, which are carried out with support from the five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations: The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, and the Buddhist Association of China (BAC). At local levels, party leaders and branches of the UFWD, SARA, and the BAC are required to coordinate implementation of religious policies in monasteries.

CCP members and retired government officials, including Tibetans, are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. CCP members who are found to belong to religious organizations are subject to various types of punishment, including termination of their employment and expulsion from the CCP.

Government Practices

The government continued carrying out its 2019-2024 five-year plan to Sinicize all religious groups in China by emphasizing loyalty to the CCP and the state. The plan included Tibetan Buddhism, with the involvement of the state-run BAC. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations regulation, released in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions, including Tibetan Buddhism. Article 17 stated that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

Human rights groups and media reported that during a high-level meeting in Beijing held August 29-30, President Xi announced plans to intensify efforts to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism and the “reeducation” of Tibetans. According to the government media outlet Xinhua, “Xi stressed that patriotism should be incorporated into the whole process of education in all schools. He called for continuous efforts to enhance recognition of the great motherland, the Chinese nation, the Chinese culture, the [CCP], and socialism with Chinese characteristics by people of all ethnic groups. Tibetan Buddhism should be guided in adapting to the socialist society and should be developed in the Chinese context, Xi said.”

During President Xi’s remarks at the Seventh Tibet Work Forum in September, he stressed the PRC should help guide Tibetan Buddhism “to adapt to the socialist society and promote the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.” Many Tibetan organizations condemned Xi’s remarks, including the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), which said, “Xi’s campaign of Sinicization is a model of anti-rights policies, especially as far as religious freedom is concerned.”

Human rights groups stated authorities used the “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region” that were adopted in January to further impose central government control and Han culture on the Tibetan population and to encourage Tibetans to become informants on each other. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) stated, “The regulations reflect the culmination of Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping’s focus on consolidating power in the party and eliminating threats, as well as the ideas of a new generation of ethnic policy thinkers who advocate for the dilution of ethnic difference. These thinkers seek to force the assimilation of Tibetans and therefore further undermine Tibetans’ inherent freedom to preserve their unique culture, religion and way of life.”

On September 28, the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) published a report entitled In Prison for their Faith 2020. In the report, HRWF stated, “Due to [the] strong link to the Dalai Lama, the CCP considers religious beliefs in Tibet to be intrinsically opposed to socialism and the Chinese state. As a result, the CCP suppresses their Tibetan Buddhist religious identity, including any association with the Dalai Lama. Instead, the aim is to establish Buddhism with so-called Chinese characteristics and without Tibetan characteristics, in line with Chinese socialism. The religious laws in place allow for this state intervention into religious affairs since religious activities must align with political goals to safeguard ethnic unity and preserve socialism.” HRWF stated the CCP “seeks to gain maximum control over every aspect of societal activities that it considers a threat to its legitimacy, by using any means possible. Although the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the CCP’s objective is to control the lives of all Buddhists, their temples and their institutions.” According to HRWF, every monastery and nunnery had an official state-imposed management committee that was involved in the internal decision-making process of that institution. In its report, HRWF stated, “It is the politicisation of Buddhism that drives the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet.”

In October, HRW reported a herder named Lhamo from Driru County, Nagchu Prefecture, died in August in a hospital where police sent her for treatment of injuries she suffered while in police custody. Sources said police detained Lhamo and her cousin, Tenzin Tharpa, in June on charges of sending money to family members and other Tibetans in India. According to HRW, Lhamo was in good health prior to her arrest, but when family members were summoned to the hospital, they found her badly bruised and unable to speak. Konchog Rinchen, a Tibetan living in exile, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), “Her family believes her death was caused by severe torture she suffered in custody.” Rinchen said the family wanted to perform traditional funeral ceremonies, but authorities forced them to cremate the body immediately. HRW noted the cremation also prevented Lhamo’s family from obtaining an autopsy.

There were no reported cases during the year of Tibetans self-immolating as a means of protesting against government policies, compared with one individual in 2019. According to the ICT, from 2009 to December 2019, 156 Tibetans set themselves on fire in protest against what they said was the occupation of Tibet and abuses of Tibetans’ religion and culture under PRC rule. Some experts and local sources attributed the decrease in the number of self-immolations to tighter control measures by authorities and the fear that family members and associates of self-immolators might be punished, including by being charged as accessories to homicide.

The whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama and most Tibetan Buddhists, remained unknown since his 1995 forced disappearance by Chinese authorities. Nyima was six years old at the time he and his family were reportedly abducted. Media reported that on May 19, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Nyima “received free compulsory education when he was a child, passed the college entrance examination, and now has a job.” Zhao said neither Nyima nor his family wished to be disturbed in their “current normal lives.” The Panchen Lama is considered by the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism to be the second-most-prominent leader after the Dalai Lama. On April 25, Tibetans in exile marked the occasion of Nyima’s 31st birthday. Advocacy groups called on the government to release him and allow him to resume his religious duties.

In September, Tenzin Dhadon, a member of the UN and Human Rights Desk staff of the CTA (the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India) stated, “Chinese authorities disappearing and secretly sentencing Tibetans are their key political tool in suppressing the Tibetan dissent in Tibet. The Chinese government has been practicing enforced disappearances by detaining incommunicado Tibetans deemed a threat to PRC’s unity and stability.”

Media reported that on December 2, authorities arrested Tibetan writer and poet Gendun Lhundrup in Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) County, Malho (Huangnan) TAP, Qinghai Province. Lhundrup, a former monk, was a proponent of preserving Tibetan culture and language, and he released an anthology of poems entitled Khorwa (cycle of repeated birth) in October. He also contributed to a website called Waseng-drak that promotes freedom of expression for writers and artists. His whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.

In December, the ICT issued a statement calling for the release of Rinchen Tsultrim, a Bon monk whom authorities continued to hold incommunicado following his arrest in August 2019 for “suspected incitement to split the country.” According to the ICT, police originally took Tsultrim into custody in Barma (Waerma) Township, Ngaba County, Sichuan Province for “peacefully expressing his thoughts on a range of Tibetan political, social and culture issues” on WeChat. The ICT stated it was concerned Tsultrim might be tortured while in custody.

Sources reported that the whereabouts of several monks remained unknown. These included Dorje Rabten, who in September 2018 protested against government policies restricting young people from becoming monks; Tenzin Gelek, who had protested Dorje’s detention; Lobsang Thamke, who was arrested in 2018 and sentenced on July 30 to four years in prison on unknown charges; Lobsang Dorje, who was arrested in August 2018; and Thubpa, whom police took from the Trotsik Monastery in Ngaba County, Sichuan Province, toward the end of 2017.

Sources told media that authorities routinely abused Tibetan prisoners. In May, a Tibetan former political prisoner told RFA, “Living conditions in Chinese prisons are extremely poor. Especially while inmates are being pressed to confess under questioning, interrogators use extreme violence against them that is beyond anyone’s imagining.”

Sources told RFA many monks and nuns who were evicted from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute were placed in internment camps, where treatment of detainees was poor. RFA reported that an unnamed nun who had been expelled from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute in 2019 and held at an internment camp in Sichuan Province committed suicide in February at the camp due to the harsh conditions. According to a source, “She was defiant of the political reeducation in the camp and always protested against the Chinese officials’ instruction and education, which often resulted in her being beaten.”

There were multiple reports of individuals who had been released dying as a result of illnesses and injuries suffered following beatings and mistreatment during incarceration. In August, RFA reported that authorities released a woman named Dolkar due to failing health after 15 months’ incarceration. She was convicted in May 2019 of telling others that her nephew publicly called for the release of the Panchen Lama. Sources told RFA, “While she was in prison, she was tortured and made to lift heavy stones and do other hard work, and her body is all bruised. Because she was not able to get treatment on time, her limbs are crippled, and she is now immobilized.”

Media reported that Gendun Sherab, a Tibetan monk arrested in 2017 and charged with sharing politically sensitive materials on social media, died in April shortly after being released. According to a source, authorities had charged Sherab with “sharing and disseminating politically sensitive documents on WeChat and social media.” He had shared a letter from the Dalai Lama on WeChat that recognized the reincarnation of religious figure Choedon Rinpoche, from Sera Je Lhopa Khantsen. The source said that during his incarceration, Sherab’s health deteriorated due to beatings, torture, and poor prison conditions, while authorities denied him medical treatment. The source said, “The torture was so bad that he could not even move his body and was unable to speak. They only let him go because it was pretty clear he was about to die.” Before his arrest, Gendun had been expelled from Rongpo Rabten Monastery in Sog County, TAR, for holding what the source said were controversial political views.

Tibetan Review reported that in May, Choekyi, a former monk, died at home in Serthar (Seda) County, Sichuan Province, after authorities denied him permission to travel to a hospital in Lhasa to be treated for damage to his liver and kidneys suffered as a result of torture during his incarceration from 2015 to 2019. According to Tibetan Review, Choekyi had been jailed in 2015 in Sichuan’s Mianyang Prison for making a T-shirt that celebrated the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama.

The India-based Tibetan media outlet Phayul reported that in February, Samdup, a former monk from Drepung Monastery in TAR, died of diabetes-related complications linked to his seven-year incarceration. Authorities had arrested Samdup for taking part in peaceful protests in 1992 and had not allowed him to return to his monastery after his release.

RFA reported that Tsering Bagdro, a former monk at the Ganden Monastery, died on April 26 in Maldro Gongkar (Mozhugongka) County, near Lhasa. A source told RFA, “His untimely death is certainly related to the physical torture and suffering he endured while he was in prison.” Authorities had arrested Bagdro and others in 1992 for demonstrating in Lhasa for Tibetan independence and carrying the Tibetan flag. He was released in 2000. One source said, “During his time in prison, he experienced physical torture and psychological trauma like the other political prisoners held there…. He was not really free even after his release, though. Like other former political prisoners, he lived under constant surveillance by the Chinese authorities, and his movements, activities, and speech were restricted.”

In September, the Jamestown Foundation published a report entitled Xinjiang’s System of Militarized Vocational Training Comes to Tibet. The report noted that government documents indicated TAR authorities had launched a large-scale and aggressive “reeducation” or “vocational training” campaign to transform farmers and herders into laborers. The report also stated the vocational training process required “diluting the negative influence of religion.” Satellite imagery from 2018 showed that facilities built for “reeducation” purposes included high walls and large-scale, barracks-style buildings. According to the report and human rights advocates, the government claimed the campaign was aimed at poverty alleviation, but there was evidence that farmers and herders were forced to participate in the program and were then subjected to coercive labor practices. According to the report, CCP documents showed these programs used “military drill and military-style training to produce discipline and obedience; emphasize the need to ‘transform’ laborers’ thinking and identity, and to reform their ‘backwardness’; teach law and Chinese; aim to weaken the perceived negative influence of religion; prescribe detailed quotas; and put great pressure on officials to achieve program goals.” The report stated, “While some documents assert that the [training and labor assignment] scheme is predicated on voluntary participation, the overall evidence indicates the systemic presence of numerous coercive elements.”

The report stated there was evidence that internment camps in the region were increasingly transitioning from political indoctrination to labor training facilities, with detainees being sent to other regions within the TAR, as well as to other parts of the country, to work in low-skilled jobs that included road construction, cleaning, mining, cooking, and driving as part of so-called labor transfer programs. In September, RFA reported Tibetans were also being forced to work in cotton and textile factories.

Limited access to information and travel restrictions, due both to government policies limiting access to Tibetan areas and to the COVID-19 pandemic, made it difficult to ascertain the exact number of individuals imprisoned because of their religious beliefs or affiliation, or to determine the charges brought against them or assess the extent and severity of abuses they suffered.

In its report In Prison for Their Faith, HRWF stated “It is common for Buddhists to be imprisoned with no official criminal charges or convictions. Instead, they often face vague accusations such as: ‘possession of banned photos of the Dalai Lama’, ‘praying to the Dalai Lama’, ‘found with books and religious audio recordings of the Dalai Lama’, ‘taking part in birthday celebrations of the Tibetan spiritual leader’, ‘inciting self-immolation and sending information on self-immolations abroad’, and ‘leading a conspicuous protest in public against the law of the land, calling for the release of a Tibetan spiritual leader.’ These accusations have no legal basis in the Constitution or the Penal Code and are often related to the Dalai Lama. As the Dalai Lama is considered to be a ‘splittist’ by the CCP, any affiliation with him is seen as against the communist state.”

In July, authorities sentenced lyricist Khadro Tseten and singer Tsego to seven years and three years in prison, respectively, for “subversion of state power” and “leaking state secrets” after they composed and circulated a song praising the Dalai Lama on social media.

Sources told media that officials handed down long prison sentences to writers, singers, and artists for promoting Tibetan national identity and culture. The NGO Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) reported that in June, authorities sentenced Tibetan singer Lhundrub Drakpa to six years in prison for performing the song “Black Hat,” which denounced years of repressive policies and practices. Authorities arrested Drakpa two months after “Black Hat” debuted and held him in pretrial detention for one year with no access to legal representation.

According to multiple sources, political prisoners, particularly monks and nuns, often were forced to perform patriotic songs and dances praising the CCP and to watch propaganda films. If participants seemed uninterested, authorities considered it evidence of disloyalty to the state and subjected them to severe punishment, including beatings, and refused them permission to receive gifts of food or clothing from visiting family members.

In September, Tibet.net, the news outlet of the CTA, reported that according to official sources, in September, authorities released Phagba Kyab, whom the CTA described as a Tibetan political prisoner, in Khanlo TAP, Gansu Province. Authorities had arrested Kyab in 2012 and had held him for more than eight years in a Chinese prison for his involvement in the case of a Tibetan who self-immolated in 2012. According to local sources, during a series of interrogations, authorities beat him, deprived him of sleep and food, and told Kyab to denounce the Dalai Lama. Following his release, he was forbidden to travel outside his home village.

The NGO Dui Hua reported that from June to August, the Kardze (Ganzi) TAP Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan Province convicted nine individuals of “inciting splittism.”

According to Dui Hua’s political prisoner database, at year’s end there were 1,008 known cases of Tibetans detained due to “ethnic minority activism.” It was unclear how many of these cases were connected to religion, but often charges contained vague references to political or religious activities. Observers stated they believed the actual number of Tibetan political prisoners and detainees to be much higher, but the lack of access to prisoners and prisons, as well as the lack of reliable official statistics, made a precise determination difficult. Authorities continued to hold an unknown number of persons in pretrial detention facilities and in “reeducation centers” rather than prisons. Human rights groups continued to report extensions of pretrial detention periods were common for Tibetans accused of engaging in prohibited political activities or threatening national security, resulting in suspects spending long periods of time in jail without being formally charged or brought to trial.

Security officials could confine citizens to reeducation centers without formal legal procedures. Local sources said stays in reeducation centers could last more than one year.

Media and human rights groups reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program and that Tibetans were told to inform on anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” In January, authorities charged 12 villagers from Sog County, Nagqu Prefecture, TAR, for running a “criminal gang.” Court documents stated these individuals had disseminated “negative religious influences” throughout their village.

Sources told tibet.net that from November 2019 through January, officials in Dze Mey Township, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province, arrested nearly 30 persons, including monks from the Dza Wonpo Ganden Shedrub Monastery, on a variety of charges, including scattering pro-independence leaflets in front of a government building, using social media, displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama, and having contact with individuals outside of Tibet. Sources said authorities held the detainees for more than a month. The detainees were fed only barley flour and attended political reeducation classes for two weeks. One source told RFA that following the arrests, Chinese police patrolled the streets in Wonpo Township and other nearby townships, conducted mobile phone searches and interrogations, and extracted forced confessions.

RFA reported that in January and February, authorities detained seven Tibetans in Chamdo (Changdu) Prefecture, TAR, and charged them with “spreading rumors” about the spread of COVID-19. Tengchen County authorities punished a man identified as “Tse” for posting messages to WeChat asking readers to recite prayers 10 times in order to protect themselves against the virus. Tse also requested that readers share the post with their friends and families. Local authorities held him in administrative detention for seven days for positing information that did not comply with laws and regulations.

Media reported that sources said on or about December 30, 2019, police in Dzogang (Zuogong) County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR, arrested 75-year-old Jampa Dorje and his son for listening to recordings of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on a mobile phone and for communicating with Dorje’s daughters living in exile in India. A source said authorities subsequently released them after recording the phone numbers on their phones and forcing them to sign a document stating they would not communicate with the women or listen to recordings of the Dalai Lama again.

The NGO Free Tibet reported that in February, authorities released a man named Chochok, a monk at the village monastery in Zamey Wonpo, Serchul County, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province, after imprisoning him for two years for a message he posted on WeChat in which he used the picture of Konpe, a Tibetan monk who self-immolated in December 2017, as the background.

RFA reported that on December 14, the Golog People’s Intermediate Court in Qinghai Province sentenced Lhundup Dorje, a nomad, to one year in prison, followed by one year of probation, for promoting “separatism.” According to a source, in 2019 Dorje posted a New Year’s greeting message to the CTA on his Weibo account and a 10-second video clip of teachings by the Dalai Lama. The source said that on March 11, he posted slogans calling for Tibetan independence, and that on May 3, Dorje posted a picture of the Dalai Lama as a young man, “along with praises and compliments to him.” According to the source, these postings were viewed on social media at least 2,383 times, and all were listed separately in the indictment against Dorje.

Media reported that in late March or early April, authorities released a shopkeeper named Sonam Dhargyal from prison. According to sources, Ngaba County police had arrested Dhargyal in 2015, two months after he attended the Monlam prayer festival at Ngatoe Goman monastery, where he carried a blue religious flag showing a world peace symbol and a color photograph of the Dalai Lama with two other prominent Tibetan figures.

The government continued to place restrictions on the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain, human rights groups and local sources said that between 2016 and 2019, authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes, both in Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province. Monastics expelled from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes were specifically prohibited from transferring to other monasteries to continue their religious education.

In October, India.com reported that authorities destroyed large portions of the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. Accompanying the article were before-and-after photographs of each institute showing large areas where structures had been demolished. Media and local sources stated that during the year, authorities completed demolition of many structures at both Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes, and that authorities encouraged Han Chinese to visit the sites as tourists or to move there.

During the year, the government reportedly continued its policy of resettling previously nomadic Tibetans in government-subsidized housing units. In many areas, these were located near township and county government seats or along major roads that had no nearby monasteries where resettled villagers could worship. The government prohibited construction of new temples in these areas without prior approval. Traditionally, Tibetan villages were clustered around monasteries, which provided religious and other services to members of the community. Many Tibetans continued to view such measures as CCP and government efforts to dilute religious belief and weaken the ties between monasteries and communities.

The TAR government reportedly maintained tight control over the use of Tibetan Buddhist religious relics and declared them, religious buildings, and religious institutions to be state property. Sources continued to report that while authorities permitted some traditional religious ceremonies and practices, they continued to exercise control over the activities of religious leaders and religious gatherings of laypersons, confining many such activities to officially designated places of worship and preventing monks from traveling to villages for politically sensitive events and religious ceremonies. Religious figures and laypersons frequently reported difficulty traveling to monasteries outside their home regions, both within the TAR and in other parts of the country. Travelers said they encountered roadblocks and police checkpoints surrounding major monasteries, with security personnel often checking their identity cards and refusing entry to nonresidents. Tibetans wishing to visit family members residing in monasteries noted frequent refusals or limits on their ability to visit. Local sources reported similar restrictions on their movements and said checkpoints and fear of detention prevented them from visiting monasteries and participating in religious events. Many monks expelled from their monasteries after 2008 protests in Lhasa and other areas, such as Ngaba, had not returned, some because of government prohibitions.

According to sources, PRC authorities, citing COVID-19 concerns, continued to restrict many major monasteries across the Tibetan Plateau from holding large scale religious events. Many of these sources said officials were using pandemic restrictions to prevent individuals from participating in religious activities. In March, ICT reported that authorities cancelled public religious festivals and prayer ceremonies for Losar (Tibetan New Year) in February, citing COVID-19 restrictions.

On April 17, ICT reported that in similar notifications, dated April 14 and 15, respectively, Samye and Yasang Monasteries in Lhokha (Shannan) Prefecture, TAR announced they were closed as “per circular from higher authorities, and in accordance with the need of work relating to the prevention of the infectious coronavirus.” According to ICT, “These announcements are surprising, as China claims that there were no newly confirmed or suspected cases for 78 consecutive days in the TAR.” ICT stated the PRC, “to bolster its image internationally and indicate a sense of normalcy after the coronavirus crisis,” announced on March 30 that some monasteries in Lhasa would reopen, but with restrictions.

Local sources said the government continued to suppress religious activities it viewed as vehicles for political dissent. There were reports that local authorities again ordered many monasteries and laypersons not to celebrate or organize any public gatherings to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 85th birthday on July 6, or to commemorate the anniversary of the March 10, 1959, Tibetan uprising or the March 14, 2008, outbreak of unrest across the Tibetan Plateau. TAR authorities banned monks and nuns from leaving their monasteries and nunneries during such times, and pilgrimage sites were heavily policed.

A source told RFA that officials visited monasteries in Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces and parts of Kanlho (Gannan) TAP, Gansu Province, warning staff not to host “outside visitors” on the Dalai Lama’s birthday. In Kardze Prefecture, Sichuan Province, a government group led by Wang Shu Yin, a CCP official and head of the local police department, inspected Ganden Phuntsok Ling Monastery in Rongdrag (Danba) County on July 5. The source said that during their tour, the Chinese officials “urged the residents to become ‘exemplary and patriotic’ monks and watch out for any outside visitors in the area and in the monastery itself. The officials urged the monks to report any suspicious persons to the local government or police department.”

In May, Asianews.it reported authorities banned Tibetan students and civil servants from participating in religious events during Saga Dawa, the month-long festival that marks the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. Sources said authorities threatened there would be “serious consequences” for individuals who defied the ban. Authorities intensified surveillance of and restrictions on access to the Jokhang Temple complex on the fifteenth day of Saga Dawa, the holiest day of the month. Free Tibet reported, “The residents of Lhasa have been watched carefully by the local police, military personnel and officers dressed in civilian clothes. The offering sites at the temple and the circumambulation areas were packed with these police officers patrolling around. Tibetans who intended to go to the temple to carry out circumambulations and make offerings were stopped and their mobile phones were checked, reportedly making some of them feel anxious.”

According to local sources, security forces continued to block access to and from important monasteries during politically sensitive events and religious anniversaries. Police maintained heavy security during the Shoton festival held from August 15-25 in Lhasa. There were large numbers of uniformed and plain-clothes police monitoring crowds of worshippers. Officials delivered speeches at the festival denouncing the Dalai Lama and urging attendees to be loyal to the CCP.

In August, the NGO Tibet Watch reported authorities barred Tibetan government workers, school children, and retirees from entering the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, considered the most sacred temple in Tibet, while an increasing number of Chinese tourists were allowed in during the year. A source told Tibet Watch the Chinese tourists did not respect sacred Buddhist spaces. The source said, “The Chinese visitors smoke in holy sites like the central Barkhor area and the Potala Palace. They litter the ground with empty bottles and throw waste everywhere.”

In August, the government again banned the annual Dechen Shedrub prayer festival from occurring at the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. Authorities cited overcrowding and COVID-19 concerns as reasons for the ban. The ban marked the fifth consecutive year the government prohibited the 22-year-old festival from taking place.

According to local sources, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provincial authorities warned major monasteries in Tibetan areas, including Labrang, Amchok, and Bora monasteries, that those holding special events or celebrations would face unspecified “severe consequences.”

Local authorities often invoked regulations concerning safeguarding national unity and responding to “religious extremism” in order to monitor individuals, groups, and institutions, and to punish adherents of religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama.

There were reports that party leaders and branches of the UFWD, SARA, and the state-controlled BAC continued to station party and government officials, including security agents, in monasteries in Tibetan areas. Provincial, prefectural, county, and local governments continued to establish police stations or security offices adjacent to or on the premises of many monasteries and nunneries. While no updated statistics were available, sources estimated that in 2018, more than 15,000 government employees were working in approximately 3,000 Tibetan monasteries.

According to human rights groups and local sources, authorities continued to install overt camera surveillance systems at monasteries. RFA reported in October that authorities had opened “security centers,” or convenience police stations, throughout Lhasa. RFA described the security centers’ role as “subverting local indigenous populations through surveillance.”

According to multiple sources in Ngaba County, Sichuan Province, officials there continued to maintain a security watch list of family members, relatives, and close friends of self-immolators to prevent them from meeting and communicating with international visitors and, in some cases, deprived them of public benefits.

The report Xinjiang’s System of Militarized Vocational Training Comes to Tibet stated that the government employed “grid management” and a “double-linked household” system to surveil and control communities. Under the grid management system, neighborhoods and communities were divided into smaller units with dedicated administrative and security staff who maintained detailed databases on everyone living in that grid. The “double-linked household” system “corrals regular citizens into the state’s extensive surveillance apparatus by making sets of 10 ‘double-linked’ households report on each other.”

According to human rights groups and media sources, authorities frequently checked mobile phones for pictures of the Dalai Lama and other content that was considered sensitive. There were reports that authorities surveilled ordinary Tibetans for years after finding such material. In May, RFA reported authorities continued to surveil a walnut seller named Jampa Sonam eight years after police arrested him for a photograph of the Dalai Lama they found on his mobile phone in a random search. A Tibetan living in exile told RFA, “Now, whenever Jampa Sonam needs to go outside his place of residence, he needs to ask permission from the Chinese authorities, first at the village and then at the township level. Thus, he has remained in a virtual prison for the last eight years.”

In a March report entitled Repressed, Removed, Re-Educated: The stranglehold on religious life in China, the NGO CSW (formerly Christian Solidarity Worldwide) reported the presence of military surveillance and armed police in riot gear at monasteries during religious occasions such as prayer days. CSW wrote “religious ceremonies can resemble military exercises.”

Sources stated authorities forced monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag.

In April, Free Tibet reported authorities expanded the requirement that families replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas with portraits of preeminent CCP leaders, including Chairman Mao and President Xi, in their homes. Previously, this policy was only compulsory for families that were dependent on state support under the poverty alleviation program. According to Tibet Watch’s sources, authorities in the region stated that, in order to “remember the gratitude of the party and in the spirit of following the party, all households, monasteries, schools and offices must display the portrait of top party leaders.” As part of the program, authorities across Tibet gathered villagers together and distributed images of party leaders for them to hang on their walls or altars. Authorities also distributed images to be hung in schools, monasteries, and offices. Sources said authorities conducted inspections of each household to check for compliance. Tibet Watch reported an estimated 14,000 images of President Xi and other CCP leaders were distributed.

In June, RFA reported authorities ordered that prayer flags and the flagpoles from which they hung be taken down in TAR villages as part of what sources said the government called an “environmental cleanup drive” and “behavioral reform” program. One source said this was “an act of contempt and utter disregard for local Tibetans’ customs and faith.” In June, Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in China, reported TAR officials embarked on a campaign to remove Tibetan prayer flags from hilltops and villages. Bitter Winter stated the CCP “is trying to destroy Tibetan religion and culture, leaving only a ‘Disneyfied’ version for the benefit of naive tourists.”

According to HRW, the department under the TAR party committee in charge of overseeing retired government employees issued an official notice requiring TAR party and government officials, including nonparty members, to submit a list by August 18 of any retired personnel performing the kora, a Tibetan practice of circumambulating a sacred site or temple while reciting prayers or mantras. The kora is a standard form of religious devotion among Tibetan Buddhists, particularly the elderly, for whom it is often a daily religious practice, as well as a form of exercise. Those named faced the potential loss of pensions and social benefits.

The CCP reportedly continued to forbid its members from participating in religious activities of any kind, despite reports that many local government officials and CCP members held religious beliefs. The TAR regional government punished CCP members who followed the Dalai Lama, secretly harbored religious beliefs, made pilgrimages to India, or sent their children to study with exiled Tibetans.

According to The Diplomat, on April 1, officials used bulldozers to demolish a building under construction that was to house 16 monks at Langdi Monastery in Markham County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR. The building was reportedly built by the local community in traditional Tibetan style. The abbot of the monastery appealed against the demolition, but he was beaten. Authorities threatened to imprison him and two other monks. According to The Diplomat, photographs taken prior to the demolition showed two Chinese flags displayed on the main building, with Tibetan prayer flags beside them. The Diplomat reported, “Now the monastery is empty, as all the [20] monks were compelled to leave.”

Sources reported that authorities destroyed Tibetan religious sites outside the TAR. According to Bitter Winter, in July, the local government demolished the Fuyan Temple, a 1,000-year-old Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Jinzhong City, Shanxi Province, and expelled the monks. The Fuyan Temple was a popular tourist attraction, but in November 2019, local authorities ordered the removal of Tibetan prayer flags and two statues of Buddha. Accompanying the article were “before” photographs that showed the temple, which contained both Tibetan and Chinese architectural styles, and “after” images of the barren field where the temple had stood. According to an eyewitness, prior to bulldozing the temple, police, urban management officers, and village officials had broken some statues, looking for valuables inside them, and taken away all mahogany tables and chairs.

Media and NGOs reported that in April, authorities began erecting two Chinese-style pagodas in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site originally built in 652 that is generally considered to be the most sacred temple in Tibet. In February 2018, a fire had damaged the temple complex, and the government started renovations that included laying pipes under the square in front of the temple that were aimed at improving security and firefighting facilities at the complex. ICT said the alterations appeared to be incompatible with traditional Tibetan architecture. In October, RFA reported the construction was completed in August but that the square in front of the temple remained closed to worshippers. One source told RFA the square was surrounded by fencing that barred entry to devotees. The source said, “The pilgrims have nowhere to prostrate and worship, and only Chinese police and Chinese visitors can come inside the fenced enclosure. You don’t see any activities by Tibetan Buddhist devotees.”

In addition to the prohibition on the open veneration of the Dalai Lama, including the display of his photograph, the government continued also to ban pictures of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom the Dalai Lama and nearly all Tibetan Buddhists recognize as the 11th Panchen Lama. In some counties of the TAR, punishments for displaying images of the Dalai Lama included expulsion from monasteries. Local sources told RFA that officials from government bureaus monitoring religious practice visited Tibetan schools and warned teachers and students not to keep or display photographs of the Dalai Lama.

Local sources reported that “The 20 Prohibitions” were still in force. These regulations, instituted in the TAR in 2019, forbade monks from using social media to “incite subversion, defame or insult others, assist extremist religious groups, provide undisclosed information of the state to domestic or foreign individuals or organizations, or receive or release illegal information.” TAR government offices also announced that those who misused social media could be imprisoned for up to eight years.

Authorities increased the surveillance of and efforts to restrict access to WeChat and other social media. In May, HRW stated that a TAR official from Lhasa said, “The government monitors the WeChat and social media activity of monks even more strictly than that of ordinary citizens.” In June, Tibetan Review reported that according to Free Tibet, TAR officials also blocked the WeChat accounts of monks and nuns living outside the PRC. According to Tibet Watch, these measures were designed to restrict and control communication between Tibetan monks living abroad and friends and family inside Tibet. According to Tibet Watch, TAR officials investigated 4,000 to 5,000 Tibetan households with family ties to exiles living in Nepal and India.

In December, TCHRD reported that on November 24, Chinese internet police in the TAR again announced criminal prosecutions against individuals who used online communication tools to “split the country” and “undermine national unity.” The notice listed a range of illegal online activities, such as using virtual private networks (VPNs) and joining discussion groups. The notice said authorities would “strike hard” against offenders “in accordance with law.” TCHRD stated that in February 2019, authorities had released a similar notice that criminalized online activities that purported to “collect, produce, download, store, publish, disseminate, and publicize malicious attacks against the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, the socialist system, the regional ethnic autonomy system, and the party and the government’s policy of managing TAR.” The 2019 notice offered rewards of up to 300,000 renminbi (RMB) ($45,900) for information regarding violators of the policy.

According to HRW, in anticipation of National Uprising Month in March (which commemorates the 1959 Lhasa uprising and large riots in 2008 protesting Beijing’s rule over Tibet), the PRC increased its censorship and security posture in Lhasa to deter any public gatherings or displays of support for the Dalai Lama. HRW reported the PRC staged mass rallies in Lhasa and other provincial cities on March 7. In Lhasa, thousands of armed police and other security forces from across the region gathered to “pledge” loyalty to the party and its political objective of “comprehensive, long-term stability.” Ding Yexen, head of the TAR Stability Maintenance Command, addressed the police, calling on them to “intimidate and terrify hostile forces and splittist forces, giving them nowhere to hide.” This was followed by a parade of armored vehicles and military equipment through the city.

Multiple sources reported the government continued to interfere in the religious education of laypersons and children. According to Bitter Winter, during the Seventh Tibet Work Forum organized by the CCP Central Committee on August 28 and 29, President Xi said the CCP should build a “new modern socialist Tibet that is united” and that this would be achieved through school reforms that “plant the seeds of loving China deep in the heart of every youth.” Authorities in the TAR required monks to cancel all classes with children, warning that monks and parents could have their social security benefits restricted or be detained if classes continued. The ban on religious education was also implemented in some places outside of the TAR.

A source told Bitter Winter that one of the government’s strategies to Sinicize Tibet was to send high performing students from Tibetan areas to other parts of the country to expose them to Han culture and Mandarin so that these students could become “reliable successors who will build Tibet and guard borders, [and] shoulder the great mission of ethnic unity.” The students were required to live with Han families with “strong political views and [the] correct ethnic minority outlook.” Host families were instructed to “pay attention to students’ spiritual growth” and to educate them with “correct” views that conformed to CCP ideology. Discussing Tibetan Buddhism and other “sensitive topics” was strictly forbidden in Han homes and in schools. A Tibetan college student studying in Qinghai Province told Bitter Winter that students who were found to possess images of the Dalai Lama on their computers were subject to academic probation and other punishments for “being anti-Communist” or “having ideological problems.” The student said this might affect their studies, graduation, and future employment. The student said, “No one dares to touch the topics of religion.”

In September, RFA reported authorities closed primary schools in several towns in Rebkong County, Qinghai Province and forced the students to attend boarding schools in other regions of the country against the wishes of their parents. A source told RFA that police suppressed a protest by parents using police vehicles and blaring sirens and took one protester into custody. Authorities merged two middle schools in Themchen (Tianjun) County, Qinghai Province and changed the curriculum so that only the Tibetan-language class was taught in Tibetan, while all other subjects were taught in Mandarin.

Local sources reported that during the year, provincial officials in the TAR and other Tibetan areas again banned all underage students from participating in religious activities during school holidays. School officials again required students to sign an agreement stating they would not participate in any form of religious activity during the summer.

Local sources stated authorities in the TAR and some areas in Sichuan Province continued to prohibit Tibetan students from undertaking long-distance travel to other parts of the country during their two-month winter break. It was the fourth consecutive year authorities had implemented such restrictions. Tibetan rights advocates said the prohibition was an effort by authorities to stop parents from taking their children to visit temples outside the capital during the break.

During September testimony before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in Washington, DC, Zeekgyab Rinpoche, Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, which serves as the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, said, “The Chinese government interferes and intervenes in the functioning of the monastic education system by imposing restrictions on our monks and nuns. Even in schools, we see this malign design to wipe out our unique identity in the form of restructuring the curriculum and banning the learning of Tibetan language.”

The government continued to insist that Gyaltsen Norbu, whom it selected in 1995, was the Panchen Lama’s true reincarnation, and not Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom authorities had disappeared that same year. Norbu remained the vice president of and highest-ranking Tibetan in the government-affiliated BAC. According to numerous Tibetan Buddhist monks and scholars, SARA and provincial religious affairs bureau officials frequently pressured monks and laypersons, including government officials, to attend religious study sessions presided over by Norbu.

In accordance with official guidelines for monastery management, leadership of and membership in committees and working groups remained restricted to individuals the guidelines described as “politically reliable, patriotic, and devoted monks, nuns, and party and government officials.” General administrative affairs in TAR monasteries, which monks traditionally managed, continued instead to be overseen by monastery management committees and monastic government working groups, both of which were composed primarily of government officials and CCP members, in addition to a few government-approved monks. Since 2011, the government has established such groups in all monasteries in the TAR and in many major monasteries in other Tibetan areas.

The traditional monastic system reportedly continued to decline as many senior Buddhist teachers remained in exile or died in India or elsewhere. The heads of most major schools of Tibetan Buddhism – including the Dalai Lama, Karmapa, Sakya Trizin, and Khatok Getse Rinpoche, as well as Bon leader Kyabje Menr Trizin – all continued to reside in exile. The government also banned India-trained Tibetan monks, most of whom received their education from the Dalai Lama or those with ties to him, from teaching in Tibetan monasteries in China, although there were reportedly rare exceptions made for progovernment monks.

As in previous years, senior monks at some monasteries continued to report informal agreements with local officials whereby resident monks would not stage protests or commit self-immolations as long as the government adopted a hands-off approach to the management of their monasteries. Sources said authorities monitored all financial transactions involving monasteries inside Tibet and entities abroad.

According to media and NGO reports, the CCP maintained a list of state-approved “living buddhas.” Such individuals reportedly continued to undergo training on patriotism and the CCP’s socialist political system. In 2018, the BAC announced its database contained 1,311 “living buddhas” that it deemed “authentic.” The Dalai Lama was reportedly not on the list.

According to sources, “Every single individual now on the official reincarnation database has to go through an entire political procedure, entirely separate to religious training, in which they are advised about the need for their career and role in the religious community to motivate religious believers to love the party, love the country and social stability maintenance work, as well as fight against ‘separatism’ and the Dalai Lama…This means that now the Tibetan reincarnations are becoming Communist-trained talents rather than religious leaders.” Religious leaders continued to report that authorities were incentivizing lamas and monks to leave monastic life voluntarily by emphasizing the attributes of secular life, as compared to the more disciplined and austere religious life. Monastery leaders cited continued revisions to education policies, religion regulations, and government control of monastery management as reasons for the declining numbers of young monks. Religious leaders and scholars continued to say these and other means of interference continued to cause them concern about the ability of religious traditions to survive for successive generations. In a June letter about the continued enforced disappearance of the Panchen Lama, three UN special rapporteurs, including the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and representatives of two UN working groups, wrote, “Many Tibetan Buddhists have expressed their concerns about the regulation of reincarnation as it undermines the Tibetan religious traditions and practices while such regulation allow the State to interfere in the choice of their religious leaders.”

The government continued to require Tibetan monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Monks and nuns were required to demonstrate – in addition to competence in religious studies – “political reliability,” “moral integrity capable of impressing the public,” and willingness to “play an active role at critical moments.” Since the policy’s inception in 2018, many major monasteries and religious institutes have implemented political training programs.

According to media reports, authorities continued “patriotic reeducation” campaigns at many monasteries and nunneries across the Tibetan Plateau. All monks and nuns were required to participate in several sessions of “legal education” per year, during which they were required to denounce the Dalai Lama, express allegiance to the government-recognized Panchen Lama, study President Xi’s speeches, learn Mandarin, and hear lectures praising the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system.

According to the government media outlet China Tibet Net, from November 6 to 14, 168 Tibetan Buddhists in Lhasa attended training sessions on the constitution, religious affairs regulations, cybersecurity laws, and other subjects. Sources stated that 26 Buddhist nuns in Lhatse County of Shigatse (Xigaze) City, TAR, completed a similar training session. One participant, Luosang Taba, Executive Deputy Director of the Kangma Temple Management Committee in Dangxiong County, said that after the training he had “the determination and confidence to take the lead in educating and guiding the monks and religious believers to firmly support the leadership of the party, adhere to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, take a clear-cut stand against division, safeguard the unity of the motherland, [and] strengthen national unity.”

According to Tibet Watch, on May 1, the Department of Justice and the TAR Religious Affairs Bureau conducted online training for more than 30,000 monks and nuns in “popularization activities” that included lessons on the constitution, national security law, antiterrorism law, and cyber security law.

Authorities continued to ban minors younger than age 18 from participating in any monastic training. Multiple sources reported authorities forced underage monks and nuns to leave their monasteries and Buddhist schools to receive “patriotic education.” Journalists reported that some underage monks who refused to cooperate were arrested and, in some cases, were beaten by police, and that parents and other family members were also threatened with loss of social benefits if underage monks did not comply.

Government officials regularly denigrated the Dalai Lama publicly and accused the “Dalai clique” and other “outside forces” of instigating Tibetan protests, stating such acts were attempts to “split” China. In March, TAR Communist Party Secretary Wu Yingjie publicly criticized the Dalai Lama’s “reactionary” nature and called on all Tibetans to strictly adhere to the CCP’s “guiding principles.” In July, Wu publicly called on security officials to crack down on the “Dalai Lama clique’s infiltration and destructive activities” and to “educate the masses to draw a clear line between them and the Dalai Lama.”

Tibet Watch reported that from July 6 to 8, Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, toured monasteries, nomadic areas, and sites of relocated settlements in and around the cities of Lhasa and Shigatse. During the inspections, he reportedly said, “Tibetan religion is tied to the long term stability of Tibet, primary effort should be made on integrating Buddhism into China’s socialist society, and religious activities and monasteries should be strictly managed according to the law.” He also said laws of the state “are above religion. Tibetans should resolutely fight against the force of separatism… Training of model individuals and monks and promotion of patriotism should continue.”

In comments broadcast on CCTV on July 9, Wang said leaders needed to “thoroughly study and comprehend Xi Jinping’s ideas on Tibet and the CCP’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era.” Wang said it was necessary to focus on improving the level of Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.

The government outlet Chinese Communist Party News reported that at a province-level party meeting on September 2, TAR Party Secretary Wu vowed to “eliminate the negative religious influence of the 14th Dalai Lama” in order to implement the CCP Central Committee’s Tibet policy.

The Standing Committee of the Tibetan People’s Congress issued a statement in December that said, “Living Buddha reincarnation is a unique way of inheritance of Tibetan Buddhism, with fixed religious rituals and historical customization. The Chinese government has promulgated the ‘Regulations on Religious Affairs’ and the ‘Administrative Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism’ to respect and protect the inheritance method of Tibetan Buddhism.” The statement, which was published in response to passage of the U.S. Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2020, said the 14th Dalai Lama’s own selection had been reported to Chinese authorities for approval.

Authorities continued to justify in state media the interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities.

During the year, there were no reports that the Boundary Management System Agreement signed by the PRC and the government of Nepal in 2019 had been used to return long-staying Tibetan refugees to the PRC from Nepal. Tibetan advocacy groups had stated when the agreement was signed that the provision that would require both countries to hand over citizens who illegally crossed the Nepal-China border was potentially in conflict with Nepal’s international commitments under the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well the “gentlemen’s agreement” with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees which provides for Tibetan refugees in Nepal’s custody to transit to India.

Many Tibetans, including monks, nuns, and laypersons, reported continued difficulties traveling to India for religious training, meetings with religious leaders, or to visit family members living in monasteries. In many cases, Public Security Bureau officials refused to approve their passport applications. In other cases, prospective travelers were able to obtain passports only after paying bribes to local officials. Some individuals seeking to travel said they could only obtain passports after promising not to travel to India or not to criticize government policies in Tibetan areas while overseas. In some cases, family members were required to sign a guarantee that passport applicants would return from their travel. According to local sources, numerous Tibetans in Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan Provinces waited up to 10 years to receive a passport, often without any explanation for the delay. There were also instances of authorities confiscating and canceling previously issued passports, reportedly as a way of preventing Tibetans from participating in religious events in India involving the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans who traveled to Nepal and planned to continue to India reported that PRC officials visited their families’ homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. Sichuan Province and TAR officials continued to require religious travelers returning from India to attend political training sessions. According to sources, these restrictions had prevented thousands of Tibetans from attending religious training in India.

Restrictions remained in place for monks and nuns living in exile, particularly those in India, which made it difficult or impossible for them to travel into Tibetan areas.

Tibetans who returned from India reported facing difficulties finding employment or receiving religious or secular education. Returning Tibetans were not allowed to study at Chinese monasteries, and most were denied admission to secular schools because they did not have education certificates recognized by the government. Local sources said they were subject to additional government scrutiny as a result of having relatives at religious institutions in India.

According to sources, authorities in some areas continued to enforce special restrictions on Tibetans staying at hotels inside and outside the TAR. Police regulations forbade some hotels and guesthouses in the TAR from accepting Tibetan guests, particularly monks and nuns, and they required other hotels to notify police departments when Tibetan guests checked in.

RFA reported that on June 11, a recruitment notice for government jobs restricted employment to those who “have a firm stand on the political principals of anti-secession, criticizing the Dalai [Lama], safeguarding the reunification of the motherland, and national unity.” According to RFA, applicants for low-wage positions such as drivers, office cleaners, and kitchen staff were required to support the CCP’s leadership and socialist system.

In June, RFA reported that according to Shide Dawa, a Tibetan living in exile in India, Tibetans wishing to join the PRC army were required to have no record of engaging in political activities. A former resident of Chamdo Prefecture living in exile in India told RFA, “My younger brother tried to enroll in the Chinese police force. But because I’m now in India, they have denied my brother the job.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because expressions of Tibetan identity and religion are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religion. Tibetans, particularly those who wore traditional and religious attire, regularly reported being denied hotel rooms, refused service by taxi drivers, and discriminated against in employment and in business transactions.

Many Han Buddhists continued to demonstrate interest in Tibetan Buddhism and donated money to Tibetan monasteries and nunneries, according to local sources in such monasteries and nunneries. Tibetan Buddhist monks frequently visited Chinese cities to provide religious instruction to Han Buddhists. In addition, a growing number of Han Buddhists visited Tibetan monasteries, although officials sometimes imposed restrictions that made it difficult for Han Buddhists to conduct long-term study at many monasteries in Tibetan areas.

Media and NGOs reported that monasteries collected donations to purchase and distribute personal protective equipment to local residents and populations in other parts of China during the COVID-19 pandemic. The India-based Tibetan media outlet Phayul reported that in February, Kumbum Jampa Ling Monastery in Amdo Prefecture, Qinghai Province, donated RMB 1,000,000 ($153,000) to the city of Wuhan, then the epicenter of China’s COVID-19 outbreak, to purchase items such as masks and goggles for affected people. Sera Monastery in Lhasa conducted prayers and collected donations for COVID-19 patients. A monk from the Shedrup Tenphel Choeling Monastery in Tawu (Daofu) County, Kardze Province said, “This is the least we can do in service to the people living in Tawu. We can only hope that we can be of some help in preventing [the further spread of] this pandemic.” Monks of the Minyak Pel Lhagang Monastery in Dartsedo, Kardze contributed RMB 130,000 ($19,900). ICT reported that Tibetans posted images on social media of butter lamps they lit in memory of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Han physician whom authorities arrested for attempting to warn the public about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.