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 November 27, a Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death seven of eight defendants accused in the 2016 killings of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, while the eighth was acquitted. Defense attorneys indicated they would appeal all verdicts. 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 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 place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence.
In October protesters clashed with police and attacked a Hindu temple in response to the October 20 arrests of two Muslims in Bhola, who were accused of hacking the Facebook account of a Hindu student in an extortion scheme. There were more than 100 injuries in the clash, and police killed four persons in what they stated was self-defense. In August, according to multiple press reports, police found the body of Buddhist monk Amrita Nanda, vice principal of Gyanaratna Buddhist Monastery, under a railway bridge in Comilla, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Dhaka. According to media accounts, Nanda’s throat was slit. Buddhist community members said Nanda was returning to his hometown from Dhaka. The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported 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 (BHCUC) said “atrocities” against minorities continued, but had slowed.
In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives 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. The embassy successfully urged government officials not to charge a Hindu activist with sedition. The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, NGOs, and religious leaders to continue to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and explore the link among religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism. Since 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $669 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled, and continued to flee, Burma.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 161.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2013 government census, 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, Baha’is, animists, Ahmadi Muslims, 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. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than a 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 Bangladesh. 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. Approximately 450 Rohingya in the country are Hindu.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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, to charge individuals. The Digital Security Act criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” with 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 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 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 (NSI), 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; providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the NSI; 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 is allowed and 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 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.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On November 27, a Bangladesh Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced seven defendants to death for their role in the July 2016 killing of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. An eighth defendant was acquitted. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said they would appeal the verdicts, the government appealing only the one acquittal. According to numerous reports, the attackers, who claimed loyalty to ISIS, singled out non-Muslims and killed the victims with machetes and firearms. According to media, a police investigation found 22 persons were involved in the attack: the eight whose trial just concluded, including two who had fled the country; five who were killed during the security response to the attack; and nine who died in a series of security actions in the country following the incident.
Legal proceedings against suspects allegedly involved in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. In March a Dhaka court transferred the murder case to the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal for trial proceedings. The trial of six men accused in the killing began in April. Machete-wielding assailants hacked to death Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, while he accompanied his wife, who was also injured in the attack, as they returned home from a Dhaka book fair. The press reported police suspected the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a militant Islamic organization claiming association with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent– accused of other acts of violence and banned by the government – was involved in Roy’s killing. Four of the accused appeared before the court during the year; the other two remained at large.
Law enforcement concluded one of eight investigations into a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District. In December 2017, 228 were charged with the attacks on the Hindu community, pending prosecution. However, according to media reports, all accused persons were since released on bail. According to media reports, in the three years since the attack, there was no further progress in this case following the completion of one of eight investigations, and no timeline was given for completing the other seven investigations or for scheduling hearings for the 228 charged. The courts held no hearings before the end of the year. The attackers injured more than 100 individuals and vandalized 52 Hindu homes and 15 temples following a Hindu resident’s Facebook post showing a Hindu deity pasted over the Kaaba in Mecca. The National Human Rights Commission stated the attack was orchestrated to drive Hindus from the area and obtain their land.
According to media reports in November, the government filed charges against members of the Santal Christian community, which was the target of a violent attack in 2016 that allegedly involved local authorities and law enforcement personnel. These charges necessitate these members paying legal and administrative fees, even if the cases fail to progress. Among those charged was the brother of a man killed in the attack. At the same time, authorities dropped charges against police officers videotaped in the attack for lack of sufficient evidence. On July 28, the UN Committee Against Torture reported the Police Bureau of Investigation submitted a report stating no police officers were involved in the burning of homes and schools and looting of property, despite the visual evidence suggesting their involvement.
Human rights organizations did not report the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions” during the year, in contrast with previous years.
Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and to provide guidance to imams throughout the country through the Islamic Foundation on the content of their sermons. This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy. In April the government instructed mosques to denounce extremism.
The government continued to prohibit transmission of India-based Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla, stating the program spread extremist ideologies, and closed “peace schools,” which the government said reflected his teachings.
In May police arrested Catholic poet Henry Sawpon for “offending the religious sentiments of Catholics” in his many social media posts criticizing and insulting members of the clergy. The arrest followed a complaint filed by Father Larence Gomes, a local priest in the town of Barisal, also the home of Sawpon. According to Gomes, Sawpon said young priests organized a seminar for youth where girls were raped. At year’s end, Sawpon remained in jail.
According to the Ministry of Land, authorities adjudicated 15,224 of 118,173 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act as of 2018, the most recent year figures were published. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 7,733 of the cases, recovering 8,187.5 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 7,491 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.
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 11.68 billion taka ($137.4 million) for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which covers June 2018-July 2019, the most recent year for which figures were available. The budget included 9.21 billion taka ($108.4 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.24 billion taka ($96.9 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 780.8 million taka ($9.2 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 37.5 million taka ($441,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2018-19 budget, it received 2.8 million taka ($32,900) 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. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. In July three CHT villages filed a report with the deputy commissioner accusing Jashim Uddin Montu, a businessman, of land grabbing. In an investigative report, The Daily Star discovered Montu falsified residency documents in Bandarban for the right to purchase CHT land to build a tourist property. Villagers said Montu donated money and some of the purchased land in CHT to build a two-story police camp in Bandarban. 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.
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.
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 October the prime minister’s foreign policy advisor, Gowher Rizvi, said at an interreligious event the majority faith (Islam) had the responsibility to protect minority religious groups and urged all to work under a common umbrella and address common problems together.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In September according to press reports, unidentified individuals killed four members of a Buddhist family living in Cox’s Bazar. The victims included two children under the age of 10. The family lived in a predominantly Buddhist village in Cox’s Bazar, and the precise motive of the murder remained unclear at year’s end.
In August, according to multiple press reports, police found the body of Buddhist monk Amrita Nanda, Vice Principal of Gyanaratna Buddhist Monastery, under a railway bridge in Comilla, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Dhaka. According to media accounts, Nanda’s throat was slit, and Buddhist community members said he may have been killed and his body dumped from the train while returning to his hometown from Dhaka. Buddhists and human rights activists formed human chains and protest rallies throughout the country following Nanda’s death. At year’s end, however, no arrests were made.
In its Brief Yearly Report on the Minority Situation, the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) said atrocities against minorities continued, but slowed. Communal acts against religious minorities, including land grabbing, rapes, and arson, remained a “day to day affair” but BHBCUC did not provide specific numbers or give examples. In contrast with 2018, when BHBCUC documented 806 cases of religious persecution against minorities, the organization did not release any statistical data during the year.
The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights NGOs reported 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 tied with his or her surname, particularly if the professed faith was Christianity, harassment, threats and social isolation could ensue.
In October rioters clad in Islamic garb and brandishing Islamist banners protested the arrest of two Muslims in Bhola accused of hacking a Hindu student’s Facebook account to plant disparaging comments on Islam for extortion. The rioters demanded the incarceration of the Hindu student, ransacked a local Hindu temple, and incited local residents to join them. Police responded to the rioters, who they stated were armed with shotguns, and used lethal force in what they stated was self-defense, which resulted in four deaths. More than 100 people were injured in the riots. The two Muslims accused of the hacking remained under arrest, as did the Hindu student who reported to police the hacking and subsequent extortion attempt.
In November according to several media reports, unidentified persons broke into a Hindu Kali temple in Tangail and vandalized five idols. A local Hindu leader said the perpetrators acted in this manner to damage communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims in the area. Local authorities and law enforcement said they opened an investigation into the incident.
Actress Saba Kabir, according to media reports, was pressured to apologize after making remarks taken by some to be admitting to atheism. After heavy social media criticism, she apologized on her Facebook page for offending the religious beliefs of others.
The human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra said at least 101 people were injured in violence against religious minorities in the first 10 months of 2019. Apart from this figure, said the group, at least 65 temples/monasteries or statues were attacked and 53 homes of religious minorities were attacked and set on fire. Some Buddhists continued to say they feared local Muslims would commit acts of vengeance against them in reaction to Buddhist mistreatment of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma.
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. The government continued its efforts to resolve land ownership disputes affecting indigenous non-Muslims, using a 2017 amendment to the law providing for more inclusive decision making and a harmonization of the law with the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord. According to some members of the indigenous community, procedural issues had delayed resolution of many of their property disputes.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials 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 interface among religions, religious freedom, and violent extremism, and the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights in security policy. Embassy officials stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from extremist attacks. The Ambassador’s visits and remarks were broadly covered in the country’s major national television networks and print media.
The embassy successfully urged government officials not to charge a Hindu activist with sedition.
The U.S. government has provided more than $669 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled Burma since August 2017. More than $553 million of that total has gone to assist Rohingya refugees and host communities in the country.
As part of U.S.-funded community policing training, the embassy 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 one held on August 25. Embassy officials attended several religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. In October the Ambassador attended festivals and events for all three major religious communities. At these events, the Ambassador and other embassy officials emphasized the importance of religious tolerance and respect for diversity.
The embassy conducted a social media campaign throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance. In July the embassy posted photographs on its social media platform of religious and civil society leaders at a meeting with the Ambassador before they left to attend the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, DC. On August 23, the embassy released a public statement on Facebook and Twitter recognizing the UN’s first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. In October the embassy published two Facebook posts highlighting the Ambassador’s participation in Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist events, with text and photographs.
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, Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, 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 meetings, embassy and other U.S. government officials and representatives from the various groups discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, identified challenges religious minorities encountered, and discussed the importance of religious tolerance.
Embassy officials met regularly with a working group of 11 foreign missions to discuss a broad range of human rights concerns, including religious freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The revocation sparked protests, criticism from Muslim leaders, and challenges filed in the Supreme Court from opposition politicians, human rights activists, and others. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region, shut down many internet and phone lines, and had not restored full service by year’s end. The government also closed most mosques in the area until mid-December. Seventeen civilians and three security personnel were killed during the protests. In December parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which accelerates citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who entered the country on or before December 31, 2014, but not for similarly-situated migrants who are Muslims, Jews, atheists, or members of other faiths. The law generated widespread media and religious minority criticism, including legal challenges in the Supreme Court. Protests and violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Uttar Pradesh and Assam following the passage of the law resulted in 25 civilian deaths and hundreds of injuries. Issues of religiously inspired mob violence, lynching, and communal violence were sometimes denied or ignored by lawmakers, according to a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets. There were reports by NGOs that the government sometimes failed to act to prevent or stop mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government. Some officials of Hindu-majority parties, including from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts against minority communities. Mob attacks by violent Hindu groups against minority communities, including Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef. Authorities often failed to prosecute perpetrators of such “cow vigilantism,” which included killings, mob violence, and intimidation. According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution and filed charges against victims. In July Madhya Pradesh became the first state to set fines and prison sentences for cow vigilantism. Attacks on religious minorities in some cases included allegations of involvement by law enforcement personnel. According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six people, including the female pastor, who was beaten by the officers. In November the Supreme Court awarded the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya to Hindu organizations to build a temple there, while providing five acres of land elsewhere in the city for Muslims to build a new mosque. Leading national Muslim organizations and some Muslim litigants petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque, which was destroyed by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992, to be rebuilt on its original site. In December the Supreme Court dismissed these petitions and maintained its ruling. The government continued its challenge in the Supreme Court to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions, which affords them independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In November the Supreme Court took up challenges to its 2018 reversal of a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.
There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data, 7,484 incidents of communal violence took place between 2008 and 2017 in which more than 1,100 people were killed. MHA data for 2018-2019 was not available, but incidents of communal violence continued through the year. On June 18, a mob in Jharkhand killed Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to declare allegiance to Hindu deities. NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that through 2019, Hindu groups characterized as extremist, some of which, according to HRW, had links with BJP supporters, continued to perpetuate mob violence against minorities, especially Muslims, amid rumors they traded or killed cows for beef. According to NGO Hate Crime Watch, 123 incidents of cow-related mob violence, in which Muslims comprised 50 percent of the victims, took place between 2010 and the first half of 2019. Lower-caste Hindus were also victims of cow vigilantism. Hate Crime Watch reported 10 cow vigilante attacks, with one person killed between January and June. On April 10, Prakash Lakda of Jurmu village in Jharkhand was killed by a mob, and three others seriously injured, reportedly for butchering a dead ox. All four victims were Christians who were Scheduled Tribe members. On September 22, according to media reports, individuals from Suari Village in the Khunti District of Jharkhand beat three tribal Christians suspected of selling beef in the village market. One died in the hospital, while the other two sustained serious injuries. Media reported that local police arrested several individuals following the attack. Amnesty International (AI) in October recorded 72 incidents of mob violence in the first half of the year, of which 37 were directed at Muslims. AI recorded 181 alleged hate crime incidents overall in the first half of the year, compared with 100 during the same period in 2018. According to the NGO Persecution Relief’s annual report, 527 incidents of persecution of Christians took place through the year. In August Parvati Devi was killed by her husband’s relatives reportedly because she was a Dalit (lower caste) and the couple had converted to Christianity. In February Anant Ram, a Christian, was taken from his home in Odisha and beheaded.
U.S. government officials underscored the importance of respecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance and mutual respect throughout the year with the ruling and opposition parties, civil society and religious freedom activists, and religious leaders belonging to various faith communities. In their engagement with government officials, media, interfaith harmony organizations and NGOs, U.S. officials emphasized the need to address the legitimate concerns of the country’s religious minorities, condemn communal rhetoric, and ensure full protection of minorities as guaranteed under the constitution. In March the embassy organized a speaking tour by a U.S. religious harmony expert to the northern cities of Lucknow, Allahabad, and Varanasi. In late May the Ambassador hosted a Ramadan iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties at which he stressed the importance of religious diversity and demonstrating empathy and mutual respect for members of other faiths. In July the Department of State senior bureau official for South and Central Asian Affairs met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and representatives from civil society groups advocating for the rights of religious minorities. In August the Deputy Secretary of State conducted a roundtable with religious leaders and religious freedom experts to hear their perspectives on conditions in the country. In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, in meetings with senior government officials raised concerns over violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, including communal violence. He also shared concerns he received from foreign religious leaders and religious institutions about challenges in acquiring visas. In meetings with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society groups, he raised concerns over the treatment of religious minorities, including cow-related lynchings, anticonversion laws, and communal violence. Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador to India routinely engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, to hear their perspectives and concerns.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 billion (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially classifies more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice animism and indigenous religious beliefs – as Hindus in government statistics, although an estimated one-third of those listed as Scheduled Tribe members have converted to Christianity.
According to government estimates, there are large minority Muslim populations in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala. Muslims constitute 68.3 percent of the population in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state in which Muslims constituted a majority. Most of the Muslim population is concentrated in the Kashmir Valley, while Jammu and Ladakh have a Hindu and Buddhist majority, respectively. On August 5, the government divided the state into two union territories. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims in the country are Sunni; most of the rest are Shia. Christian populations are found across the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast, as well as in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three small northeastern states have large Christian majorities: Nagaland (90 percent of the population), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of Punjab’s population. The Dalai Lama’s office estimates that there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and media reports, there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country. Media report that approximately 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as any religion-based restrictions on individuals’ access to public or private facilities or establishments that are open to the general public. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits compelling anyone to pay taxes to promote or maintain any specific religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.
Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand. Such legislation in Rajasthan, passed in 2008, was rejected by the central government in 2017 and remains unimplemented. In August the Himachal Pradesh state legislature added “coercion” to the list of conversion crimes, which also includes conversion by “fraud,” “force,” and “inducement.” The definition of “inducement” was broadened to include “the offer of any temptation.”
Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means,” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government. Violators, including missionaries and other religious figures who encourage conversion, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if the converts are minors, women, or members of government-designated, historically disadvantaged groups (Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes). Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes “forced” conversions with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($700). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment and/or fines of 25,000 rupees ($350). Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may consist of prison sentences rather than fines.
According to the Supreme Court, converting from Hinduism to another religion may deny those converting from lower castes the government benefits available to them if they had remained Hindu, such as placement in educational institutions or job training.
Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near another religion’s place of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($70).
The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.
There are no direct requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funds, and federal law requires religiously-affiliated organizations to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.
A federal law regulates foreign contributions to NGOs, including faith-based organizations. Organizations with “definite cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” must receive a federal government certificate of registration to receive foreign funds. The federal government may also require that certified organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject an application for a certificate of registration or a request for prior permission to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be prejudicially affecting “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”
The constitution states that any reference to Hindus in law is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a blanket category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i, and Jains, but clarifies that these are separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.
Federal law provides minority community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region and designate them as minorities under state law. Minority status makes these groups eligible for several government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government will protect the existence of religious minorities and will encourage conditions for the promotion of their individual identities.
Personal status laws determine rights for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national- and state-level legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If the law board or community leaders cannot offer satisfactory solutions, the case is referred to the civil courts.
Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions, however, face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.
The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages, but there are no divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas (in most cases, 50 percent) for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For instance, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.
Twenty-four of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In the majority of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14-$140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. The law in Gujarat mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts for manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.
As of July, one state (Madhya Pradesh) penalizes cow vigilantism by setting fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($350-$700) and prison sentences of six months to three years for committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the first law of its kind in the country.
The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These bodies have no enforcement powers, but launch investigations based on written complaints by plaintiffs charging criminal or civil violations and submit their findings to law enforcement agencies for action. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.
The constitution allows for a form of affirmative action for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities, and the “Other Backward Class,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. Since the constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists shall be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste, the only means through which Christian and Muslim individuals may qualify for affirmative action benefits is if they are considered members of the “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
A video that circulated widely on the internet showed a mob near Kharsawan in Jharkhand violently attacking 24-year-old Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” (allegiance to Hindu deities). Members of the mob accused Ansari of stealing a motorcycle. Ansari died in a hospital several days later. On September 10, the Jharkhand police dropped murder charges against all 11 individuals accused of the attack, citing the initial autopsy report that stated that Ansari had died of cardiac arrest. On September 18, the police reintroduced murder charges against all the accused after a detailed postmortem exam revealed grievous injury to Ansari’s skull. The Jharkhand government set up a special investigation team and suspended two policemen for not reporting the seriousness of the issue to a higher authority and for failure to report a case of lynching.
On December 12, parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which amends the 1955 Citizenship Act to provide an expedited path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered India on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly-situated Muslims, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths from these three countries were excluded from the CAA. The legislation – the first-ever to use religion as a criterion for citizenship – was criticized heavily by domestic and international media, NGOs, religious groups, intellectuals, and some political parties. Opponents stated it was unconstitutional because it violated the tenets of a secular state. Passage of the legislation was followed by widespread protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Assam, but they soon spread to university campuses and cities nationwide. The government deployed police, severely limited public gatherings, imposed a curfew, and cut internet service, primarily in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir. As of the end of December, domestic and international media had reported 25 deaths, hundreds of injuries and thousands of detentions, with 5,500 detained in Uttar Pradesh alone. There were multiple reports of excessive force by police against protesters, particularly against Muslim university students. For example, in December police moved onto the campus of Jamia Millia University in New Delhi to end a protest, deploying tear gas and beating protesters with batons, according to witnesses who spoke to the media.
Government critics, civil liberty activists, NGOs, and political organizations, including the Congress party, filed more than 100 legal challenges to the CAA in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it added a religious qualification to the country’s historically secular citizenship laws. Some opposition leaders said the CAA was part of an ongoing BJP effort to marginalize Muslim communities throughout the country. The government defended the CAA by saying that it was legislation aimed at facilitating citizenship for illegal refugees from six religious minorities who had fled three neighboring countries due to religious persecution and that Muslims could still apply for citizenship through the normal, non-expedited route. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the CAA was an act to provide citizenship and not to take it away from legal Indian citizens. In November he stated that the constitution should be revered as a “holy book and a guiding light.” Some officials linked the CAA with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a process used to identify illegal immigrants in the state of Assam. On December 22, Modi disavowed any discussion of implementing the NRC nationwide, including earlier comments from Home Minister Amit Shah that a nationwide NRC should be in place so “we will detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.” Some opposition leaders and protestors stated they feared that a national NRC could disenfranchise Muslims in the country.
According to a number of NGOs and media outlets, lawmakers sometimes denied or ignored incidents of mob violence, lynching, and communal violence, which often had a religious component. On September 18, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said in an interview that there had been no incidents of mob lynching in Uttar Pradesh during his tenure, which began in 2017. According to the Uttar Pradesh Law Commission in July, however, 50 incidents of mob violence had taken place in the state between 2012 and 2019, resulting in 11 deaths. Adityanath also used the term “love jihad,” a derogatory term suggesting a deliberate effort by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into a relationship and coerce them to convert to Islam, which analysts stated proved to be a crucial election issue for the ruling BJP.
In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, splitting it into two union territories, one for Jammu and Kashmir and the other for Ladakh. Opposition political parties and other critics condemned this decision; the central government pledged to hold assembly elections in the new territories. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region and shut down internet and phone lines just before announcing the decision. Many of these restrictions were gradually reduced by December. The government also closed most mosques in the area, including the Jamia Masjid, the main mosque in Srinagar, from August 5 until mid-December. Muslim leaders criticized the move. The government’s actions sparked protests. Several politicians belonging to opposition parties, human right activists, journalists, and retired army personnel filed petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s actions. Government and media reported there were incidents of violence and intimidation carried out by militants. In November the government told parliament that 20 persons, including 17 civilians and three security personnel, were killed in terror-related incidents in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5. On November 21, Home Minister Shah told the media, “Not a single person has died by police firing” in Jammu and Kashmir.
On July 20, Maharashtra police arrested one person the day after a group accosted and allegedly tried to lynch Muslim youth Imran Patel, forcing him to say “Jai Shri Ram” (allegiance to a Hindu deity). Patel said a Hindu family residing nearby rushed to his rescue and saved his life.
By year’s end, parliament had not acted on a July 2018 Supreme Court order that it enact a federal law to outlaw mob violence. The court also ordered all state governments to designate a senior police officer in every district to prevent mob violence and ensure that the police act promptly in such cases. Only Rajasthan and West Bengal had partially followed the Supreme Court order.
In July Rajasthan passed an anti-lynching law, but its implementation remained pending at the end of the year. The law defines lynching as “any act or series of acts of violence or aiding, abetting, or attempting an act of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, by a mob on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, [or] ethnicity.” Penalties include up to life in prison. The law followed attacks on Muslims and was a state-level response to the Supreme Court order directing state legislatures to pass laws to address lynching and mob violence. In August the West Bengal state legislature passed a bill that made lynching punishable by life in prison or the death penalty. The bill defined lynching as any mob violence on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, ethnicity, or any other ground. The West Bengal bill had not been implemented by year’s end.
HRW said that since May 2015, 50 people have been killed and over 250 injured in mob violence. HRW reported that Muslims were also beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans and that the police failed to properly investigate these incidents, instead filing criminal cases against witnesses in order to intimidate them. The NGO Alliance for Defending Freedom India (ADF India) reported that less than 40 of more than 300 cases of “cow vigilantism” that it had documented were prosecuted by the police. At the same time, according to HRW, the government failed to properly enforce Supreme Court directives designed to prevent and investigate mob attacks on religious minorities and other vulnerable communities, which, according to HRW, were sometimes linked to BJP supporters.
On April 14, according to the website AsiaNews, 200 men attacked a church in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh as police officers looked on without intervening. The report stated that the church’s clergy fled while the men attacked members of the congregation with sticks.
A police investigation continued into a May 2018 communal clash in Aurangabad in Maharashtra in which a Muslim youth was shot and killed by police and a Hindu man died in his burning shop. The clash followed allegations that authorities were cracking down on illegal water connections in a discriminatory manner. Police briefly arrested two city councilors, but they were released on bail.
On August 22, authorities arrested a fourth individual for the 2018 cow vigilante killing of Rakbar Khan in Rajasthan, who was assaulted by villagers who suspected him of cattle smuggling. Khan died when police took at least three hours to transport him to a local hospital that was 2.5 miles away. According to media reports, the police stopped for tea along the way. The case of the fourth individual was pending trial at year’s end.
On July 24, the Uttar Pradesh government dropped charges in 22 cases tied to riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 that claimed at least 65 lives and displaced thousands. By year’s end, the state government had dropped charges in at least 70 cases related to the riots. Since 2017, Muzaffarnagar courts have acquitted the accused in 40 of 41 cases involving attacks against Muslims. A BJP state legislator from the region said there were 93 other (pending) cases involving false allegations of Hindu attack against Muslims, which he said were brought for political reasons. By year’s end, there was one conviction related to the riots that followed the killings of two Hindu youths.
On April 23, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay a Muslim woman five million rupees ($70,400) in compensation for being gang-raped during the 2002 Hindu-Muslim communal riots in that state. Fourteen members of her family, including her two-year-old daughter and mother, were killed during the riots.
On July 27, Gujarat police arrested four persons on charges that they beat a 17-year-old Muslim youth to death because they objected to his relationship with a tribal girl in Ankleshwar District.
A Special Investigation Team formed in 2018 to assess 186 cases related to anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and Punjab in 1984 submitted its report to the government in April; the government presented it to the Supreme Court in November. Supreme Court action, which could include an order to reopen some of the cases, was pending at year’s end.
On September 8, Jharkhand police arrested Catholic priest Binoy John and lay leader Munna Handsda for allegedly trying to convert villagers in Jharkhand’s Godda District. The accused had also reportedly asked villagers to donate their land to the church. They were arrested under a 2017 Jharkhand law that criminalizes religious conversion by inducement or coercion, following a complaint lodged by a villager. Both men were released on bail later in the same month.
Media reported that many of the 271 Christians charged by police in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh in September 2018 with “spreading lies about Hinduism” remained in prison at year’s end. Authorities said the Christians violated national laws against spreading enmity among different religious groups and causing social disharmony.
NGOs International Christian Concern (ICC) and ADF India stated authorities pursued charges against Christians in several states, especially Uttar Pradesh, under religious conversion laws or laws prohibiting “insults” to religion or religious belief, such as Section 259A of the national penal code. In September ICC reported that eight persons were arrested and several house churches closed down in Lakhimpur Khere District. Those arrested were charged under Section 259A, then released a few days later on bail.
According to ICC, Christian pastors, their families, and their congregations were threatened by police and Hindu residents in Jharkhand, with some fleeing their villages out of concern for their safety. ICC reported pastors receiving death threats, mobs attacking Christian worship services, and Christians being detained by police for not giving money for Hindu ceremonies. ICC said that “an atmosphere of impunity” (for attacking Christians) had “been allowed to gather” in the state.
According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six persons, including the female pastor, Sindhu Bharti. According to the NGO and media accounts, the pastor was beaten by police officers and had boiling tea poured down her throat to ensure she was not feigning unconsciousness.
In September activists from the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), disrupted a Christian prayer meeting held by the New Life Fellowship Association in a public school in the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai, accusing it of being a cover for religious conversion. Mumbai police issued a notice to the association, warning that it had not sought the required advance permission to gather in a public place and would face prosecution if it did so again without permission. The police also warned the Bajrang Dal not to disrupt the fellowship’s meetings. The church pastor stated that he objected to the police action and said it violated the right to worship.
According to the website AsiaNews, in June police detained four Christians in Uttar Pradesh for organizing prayer meetings following reports that they were conducting “forced conversions.” The police released the men the same day without charges.
In May the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that police in Uttar Pradesh arrested Reverend Gyan Singh and another Pentecostal Christian in the village of Bugauliya Block, Basti District, for forced conversions. Police told GCIC that they would release the two without charges. In June authorities arrested Uttar Pradesh pastor Dependra Prakash Maleywar of the Church of North India after he was accused of the forced conversion of 16 persons. Police originally arrested Maleywar after a local Hindu activist accused him of an assault against Bajrang Dal activists. A judge ordered Maleywar held in custody for 14 days pending an investigation; after a week, authorities released him on bail. Police in Jharkhand arrested Dalu Soren, a Christian veterinarian, on October 16, after a 13-year-old girl’s father filed a complaint alleging forced conversion of his daughter by Soren.
On April 11, in Jamadha Village in Uttar Pradesh, according to the NewsClick website, members of a Christian group were detained under a section of the criminal procedure code that gives local magistrates the authority to prohibit the gathering of four or more persons or the holding of public meetings. The action came after a Hindu nationalist group interrupted the Christians’ prayer meeting and called the police.
In August a judge of the Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu said that coeducational study in Christian institutions was “unsafe for girls.” The judge made his remarks in the context of a case involving allegations of sexual assault against a professor in a Christian college that was not linked to conversion. After strong protests from the Tamil Nadu Catholic Bishops’ Council, other Christian organizations, and civil society groups, the judge removed his comments from the court order.
On September 2, Uttar Pradesh police launched a smartphone-based intelligence-gathering system that they said was designed to alert them to flare-ups of communal tensions, so-called “anti-social elements,” and land disputes. According to reports, 10 individuals in every village across the state agreed to provide information on communal tensions. Cross-referencing among the informants was meant to help combat rumors.
On November 9, the Supreme Court awarded the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh – which was destroyed in a riot by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992 – to Hindu organizations to build a temple. Hindus stated the site of the mosque was the birthplace of the god Ram, and that the mosque had been built in the 16th century by destroying a Hindu temple there. Muslims stated they rejected this account and claimed ownership of the mosque. The court decision provided five acres of land elsewhere in Ayodhya for Muslims to build a new mosque. In December Muslim litigants, the prominent Muslim organization Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, and the AIMPLB petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque to be rebuilt on its original site. The Hindu Mahasabha organization filed a petition against the decision to provide five acres for the mosque. Prominent Muslim community members signed a petition to accept the court ruling, but also stated that the judgment gave precedence to the Hindu faith. Others criticized the court for not addressing Muslim grievances concerning the violent destruction of the mosque. On December 12, the Supreme Court dismissed all review petitions and upheld its original decision.
On August 10 in New Delhi, the Delhi Development Authority demolished the Guru Ravidas Hindu temple and its idols on the grounds that it had been built illegally on government-owned property. The demolition, which had been delayed by court challenges from Dalit groups since 1986, was followed by protests in Punjab and other parts of North India. On August 21, large groups of mostly Hindu Dalit protesters came to New Delhi from Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and other states to demand that the government hand over the concerned plot of land to the community and rebuild the temple. Police armed with batons dispersed the crowd, and some were detained. Representatives of several Muslim organizations supported the demand for reconstructing the temple. In September the management of the temple petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene again in the matter. In October the Supreme Court accepted the government’s plan to rebuild a smaller temple at the same site.
In April, according to AsiaNews, the High Court in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) ordered Uttar Pradesh to reopen a church in Siddharth Nagar District, protect the church members, and allow them to conduct religious observances in peace. Authorities shut down the church in 2018 when a Hindu group filed a complaint against it.
In March the Kerala Law Reforms Commission circulated a draft of a proposed “Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill” for public review. The draft bill proposed the state set up a tribunal to intervene in any property disputes in which a church was involved (such disputes were not further specified). The proposed bill elicited a strong reaction from Christian churches in Kerala, as it would have eroded the authority of a church’s leadership in managing the affairs of the church. Officials in the Kerala state government later stated the government had no intention to move forward with the bill following strong opposition from leading churches in the state.
On August 31, Assam authorities published the final state-level NRC, which listed the citizens residing there. The NRC list excluded 1,906,657 residents, compared to four million in the earlier draft NRC of July 2018. Excluded residents were able to appeal to foreigners’ tribunals, and subsequently to the high court and the Supreme Court. Although the religious profile of those excluded was not contained in the NRC list, the BJP’s Assam unit stated it was concerned that more Bengali Hindus were excluded than Muslims, and that the results “favor the illegal Bangladeshi migrants.”
A report released in August by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found evidence of anti-Muslim bias among police in the country. In Uttarakhand, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand, two-thirds of police surveyed felt that Muslims were more prone to commit crimes than other religious communities. In Uttarakhand, 80 percent of police personnel expressed this opinion. One-third of those surveyed felt that it was natural for a mob to resort to violence in cases of cow slaughter. Almost one-third of respondents said they felt that religious minorities were not given equal treatment with police forces. Sikh individuals were most likely to hold this opinion.
In September the newly-elected Andhra Pradesh state government began implementing a Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party election pledge to provide a salary supplement of 10,000 to 35,000 rupees ($140-$490) a year to Hindu priests who conducted regular rituals in rural temples and a 25 percent increase in the salaries of priests working in temples with “meager revenues.” The new government also pledged an additional 15,000 rupees ($210) to imams and muezzins, and 5,000 rupees ($70) to Christian clergy each year.
The BJP criticized the Andhra Pradesh government’s initiative to conduct a survey of Christian clergy using state resources, stating that under its chief minister, a Christian, the government was acting in a biased manner. A journal affiliated with a Catholic church near Delhi criticized the state government, stating that it was the responsibility of religious boards and communities, and not secular state governments, to support religious activities.
On August 25, Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary L.V. Subrahmanyam declared that non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions in Andhra Pradesh’s Hindu religious temples board, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), would be removed from their positions. He said their presence in the TTD, which manages several Hindu temples in Tirupati city in southern Andhra Pradesh, “hurts the sentiments” of Hindu pilgrims. The chief secretary stated that non-Hindu employees must not conceal their religious beliefs, and that inspections of employees’ residences would be conducted if needed to discern their religious affiliations. According to media reports, the state government decided to remove the non-Hindu employees because of public criticism that tickets given to Hindu pilgrims visiting the Tirumala temple on state-run buses had details of a Jerusalem tour on the back. The TTD stated it was not involved with producing the tickets. According to media reports, however, the TTD may have acted against the non-Hindus because of alleged Christian proselytization on temple premises in the past. The TTD had tried to remove 42 non-Hindu employees in 2018, but the Hyderabad High Court stayed the order. In the wake of the state’s August announcement, the court asked the state government to provide an explanation for the removal of non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions. Ultimately, no non-Hindus were removed from the TTD during the year.
In May, July, and November, the Supreme Court granted bail to all seven Christians convicted by a trial court in 2013 in the 2007 killing of VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda. The Odisha High Court had deferred bail hearings for more than two years. Christian legal aid organizations and an independent journalist lobbied for their release on bail, stating the seven individuals were innocent and that the trial court had convicted them on “flimsy evidence.”
According to NGO sources, authorities reportedly denied three U.S. citizens entry under non-missionary visas due to concerns that they intended to engage in missionary activity, although the U.S. citizens denied that this was their intention.
An 86-year-old Spanish missionary nurse from the Daughters of Charity left the country on August 20 after the Ministry of External Affairs refused to renew her visa and informed her that she would have to depart within 10 days. She had worked among the poor in the Gajapati District of Odisha for 50 years. The ministry did not disclose the reason for the denial, but a member of parliament said the decision may have been motivated by the ministry’s “unstated policy of denying visas to foreign nationals who indulge in religious activities.”
In April Hindu Mahasabha Party (HMP) Vice President Deva Thakur called for the forced sterilization of Muslims and Christians. Media also reported that the HMP continued to operate unsanctioned “courts” based on the principles of Hindutva (Hindu cultural, national, and religious identity) after it unsuccessfully petitioned the prime minister in 2018 to close sharia courts around the country. The Hindu “courts” dealt with a range of issues, including interreligious relationships. A self-styled Hindu judge told the media in October that her court sought to “cleanse a girl’s mind and even get the police involved” in cases where a Hindu woman is involved with a Muslim man.
According to data compiled by news channel NDTV, there were 25 instances of public officials engaging in hate speech in December after the president signed the CAA into law, the highest number recorded in a single month since the Modi government came to power in 2014. NDTV said of the 25 instances, 23 were comments were made by BJP leaders. Formal requests to open investigations had been filed for three of those instances by year’s end. On December 15, referring to anti-CAA protesters, the prime minister said that people could make out who was spreading violence by the clothes they wore. Media outlets and editorial commentary criticized the statement for implying that individuals in Muslim attire were responsible for the violence.
On September 18, Telangana state lawmaker T. Raja Singh of the BJP released two videos announcing the creation of a vigilante army to “deal with traitors inside the country” and to create a Hindu Rashtra (nation). He stated, “Whichever traitor is hidden inside India will be dragged out and worn down, and sent outside India – or even directly to Jahannum (Urdu for hellfire).”
In August a bill criminalizing “triple talaq,” the practice by which a Muslim man may divorce his wife instantly by saying the Arabic word for divorce (talaq) three times, became law. This followed a 2018 government executive order that set a fine and prison sentence for the practice, and a 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the practice was unconstitutional and inconsistent with Islamic law. Some Muslim organizations, including the AIMPLB, and Muslim politicians, including MP Asaduddin Owaisi, criticized the new law. In October the AIMPLB filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the new law.
Using Aligarh Muslim University as an example, the government continued its 2016 challenge to a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the minority status of Islamic educational institutions and their resulting independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In February the chief justice referred the challenge to a seven-judge panel for action.
Unlike in 2018, no state or local jurisdiction with an Islamic-origin name was renamed during the year.
In July 49 celebrities and activists wrote Prime Minister Modi a letter asking him to intervene to stop rising incidents of attacks on minorities, misuse of religion by Hindu hardliners, and intolerance against dissent in the country. News accounts suggested the letter was timed to imply that Hindu nationalist supporters of Modi’s BJP might feel emboldened by their electoral victory in May to increase actions against religious minorities. According to HRW, Bihar state authorities filed a sedition case against the writers of the letter in October. Following a public outcry, including by 180 celebrities and activists in addition to those who endorsed the July letter, the case was closed. By year’s end, there was no reaction from the government to the letter.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Hate Crime Watch, an initiative of media data project IndiaSpend, recorded a significant increase in overall religious identity-motivated hate crimes between 2014 and 2018. These included acts of communal violence, attacks on interfaith couples, and violence related to cow protection and religious conversions. According to Hate Crime Watch, 123 incidents of cow-related violence took place between 2010 and 2019 in which 50 percent of the victims were Muslim. AI’s “Halt the Hate” report recorded 181 hate crime incidents in the first half of 2019, 121 against Dalits, 40 against Muslims, and the remainder against Christians, indigenous peoples, and other groups. The AI report showed 100 hate crime incidents over the same period in 2018. The report included 37 cases of mob attacks against Muslims in the first half of the year, including five lynchings.
Uttar Pradesh accounted for 869 of 2,008 incidents of harassment against religious minorities and Dalits between 2016 and mid-2019, according to an analysis of National Human Rights Commission data conducted by the publication India Today. Most of them took place in Hindu-majority areas. According to the analysis, Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state with more than 200 million inhabitants, had more incidents than any other state, but such incidents had decreased in the last two years, from 42 cases in 2016-17 to 19 in 2018-19. Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand comprised 75 percent of incidents recorded by the commission.
On February 6, the MHA presented data in the lower house of parliament showing a 9 percent increase in incidents of religious violence nationwide from 2015 to 2017 (the most recent government yearend statistics available). In 2017 there were 822 incidents, resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries.
According to news articles, on July 30, a 17-year-old male Muslim in the Chandauli District of Uttar Pradesh died from burn injuries after he was set on fire for not chanting “Jai Shri Ram.” Police denied that he was forced to chant the religious slogan, and the Chandauli superintendent of police said the victim gave inconsistent statements, that CCTV footage was inconsistent with his statements, and that a witness had seen the victim set himself on fire.
On April 10, according to media reports and the survivors, a group of Hindu individuals from a neighboring village attacked and killed tribal Christian Prakash Lakda of Jurmu Village in Jharkhand. Three other tribal Christians sustained severe injuries. The four men were reportedly attacked for butchering an ox.
On September 22, according to media reports, individuals from Suari Village in Khunti District of Jharkhand beat three tribal Christians suspected of selling beef in the village market. One died in the hospital following the attack, while the other two sustained serious injuries. Villagers told the media that the attackers were affiliated with the Bajrang Dal. The police arrested five persons.
According to an Asia News report, on August 27, Parvati Devi was killed by her husband’s relatives in Jharkhand because she was a Dalit and the couple had converted to Christianity.
In February, according to a report from NGO Persecution.org, Anant Ram, a Christian, was taken from his home in Odisha and beheaded. The report stated that his family believed local Hindus attacked him because of his conversion. Police stated they believed he was killed by Maoist rebels.
Persecution.org reported that on July 14, persons affiliated with what it described as Hindu radical groups seriously injured individuals from eight Christian families in an attack in Belchori Village in Jharkhand. The incident took place after the families reportedly refused to recant their faith.
On June 22 in New Delhi, Muslim cleric Maulana Momin reportedly was told to chant “Jai Shri Ram” by three Hindus in a car. When Momin refused and started to walk off, he was hit by the vehicle. Momin suffered injuries on his head, face, and hands. The police registered a criminal complaint and searched for the alleged assailants, but the investigation was pending at year’s end.
On April 7, according to an India Today report, attackers in Biswanath Chariali, Assam, beat 68-year-old Shaukat Ali, accusing him of selling beef. The crowd also reportedly forced Ali to eat pork. The police arrested one person.
On July 9, local media widely reported an incident involving a Muslim man from a Tamil Nadu village who posted a video of himself eating beef soup. After four young Hindu men living in the same village saw the video, they found the man and stabbed him. The assailants and the man who filmed the video were later arrested for “disturbing communal harmony.”
According to an Asia News report, in September a crowd of 500 persons armed with knives and clubs attacked a Jesuit-run school in Jharkhand, beating several students and injuring at least two severely. They also damaged the school to such an extent that the principal said he believed he would be unable to reopen it. The attackers were reportedly motivated by rumors of forced conversions. By year’s end, there were no reports of arrests or convictions in the case.
According to a Hindustan Times report, on June 6, a group of Muslims attacked Hindu worshipers in a temple in Rohanya, Uttar Pradesh. The report stated that the attackers arrived at the temple and asked worshipers to stop using the loudspeaker. They reportedly said that as the next day was Eid al-Fitr, the temple should stop broadcasting devotional songs. The report further said that after the worshipers refused, the Muslim group cut the loudspeaker wire, removed religious idols, and fought with the Hindu worshipers. Five of the attackers were arrested and faced criminal charges. Police returned the idols to the temple.
On July 17, according to police, 60 to 70 individuals attacked a madrassah and pulled down its boundary wall at Behta Village in Uttar Pradesh after beef was allegedly found in the vicinity. Police filed two criminal complaints, one against a person for cow slaughter and another against the persons who attacked the madrassah.
On August 14, a court in Rajasthan acquitted six individuals accused in the 2017 mob killing of Muslim cattle trader and dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Alwar, citing contradictions in the police investigation. On June 29, the police had charged Khan (posthumously) and his sons under the state’s cow protection laws. In September the government established a special unit to carry out a fresh investigation into the case and identify lapses made by the police. In October the Rajasthan state government challenged the verdict in the state high court, which dropped the charges against Khan and his sons.
During the year, police arrested and began the prosecution of 33 individuals for killing a police officer and setting fire to the Chingrawati police station in Uttar Pradesh during a cow vigilante incident in December 2018. Those arrested were part of a crowd protesting an incident of cow slaughter. The police charge sheet said the slain police officer had tried unsuccessfully to pacify the mob, which pelted the police with stones when the latter tried to use force against them. In the clash, one villager died of a bullet wound. As of August, seven of the 33 had been released on bail, and five suspects were still at large.
According to ADF India, the helpline of the United Christian Forum recorded more than 300 cases of mob violence against Christians of all denominations in the country during the year.
The NGO Persecution Relief reported 527 incidents of persecution against Christians in its 2019 annual report, compared with 477 in 2018. Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number – 109 – followed by 75 in Tamil Nadu and 32 in Karnataka. The NGO reported that the most common forms of persecution were “threats, harassment, and intimidation,” which accounted for 199 of 527 incidents. It also stated that the number of incidents during year was 60 percent higher than the number reported in 2016.
On August 18, members of Hindu Munnani, a Hindu nationalist organization, attacked 40 Christians near Vellore in Tamil Nadu, according to the GCIC. The Christian group was on a pilgrimage from Karnataka to the Marian shrine in Velankanni. The GCIC report stated that the attackers physically assaulted the pilgrims and destroyed their posters of Jesus and Mary. On August 19, the police identified six of the Hindu Munnani members, who were charged with rioting, attempted murder, and “disturbing religious peace,” although according to a law enforcement official, the police never placed the accused in custody to bring formal charges.
On February 2, according to media reports, police arrested three BJP party workers for assaulting a Christian pastor and two other persons in Ariyalur District of Tamil Nadu. The reports stated that the BJP members forced the three Christians to lie prostrate in a Hindu temple and smeared sacred ash and vermillion on their foreheads in accordance with Hindu temple practice before releasing them. The BJP party workers circulated a video of the incident on social media.
According to a report in the Indian Express, in Kanpur District in Uttar Pradesh on July 28, members of the VHP youth wing allegedly beat a pastor, accused him of attempting conversion and handed him over to the police. The pastor said he had neither been beaten nor had tried to convert anyone, and that he had been called to pray for a sick individual.
According to media reports, in the Ramamurthy Nagar neighborhood near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, approximately 30 Christian families were still being ostracized for their conversion from Hinduism decades ago. The reports stated that community members were denying the Christians access to public water sources, refusing to serve them in village shops, and were boycotting Christian-owned shops and stalls. Sixty lower caste Hindu families from the area converted to Christianity in the 1980s, with approximately one-half converting back in 2018, reportedly under pressure from Hindu Munnani.
On May 5, according to media reports, Hindus and Muslims threw stones at each other in Amberpet, Hyderabad after municipal authorities demolished a mosque to widen a road, which prompted a group of Muslims to attempt to erect a temporary structure at the same location. The police used batons on protestors and prevented BJP state lawmaker T. Raja Singh from visiting the location.
The 2019 Jehovah’s Witnesses annual report listed 41 incidents of harassment around the country from January through May, including 11 instances of mobs confronting Jehovah’s Witnesses and accusing them of forced conversion. The report included three cases of physical assault, with minor injuries. The report stated that in 18 of the 29 incidents reported to police, the members involved were initially detained and then released without incident. According to the report, a Jehovah’s Witness house of worship was broken into in February in Rourkela, Odisha. The members filed a report with the local police, but there was no follow-up by year’s end.
On August 18, a court in Pune court denied bail to two suspects arrested for the 2013 killing of Narendra Dabholkar, leader of the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith (MANS), an anti-superstition movement.
On August 21, Mumbai police arrested three teenage boys after a Muslim motorist complained that they used religious slurs and had assaulted him in the Vikhroli neighborhood.
On August 24, police in Vadodara, Gujarat arrested three men after they assaulted a uniformed Muslim police official during his off-duty hours and reportedly insulted him regarding his faith following an interpersonal dispute.
In July four men were arrested for uploading a clip onto YouTube following complaints that it was a “hate song” targeting non-Hindus. The songwriter, Santosh Yadav, was among those arrested. Yadav denied that the song targeted anyone and said it was only meant to express his love for Hinduism. He blamed “anti-Ram” elements in the media for his arrest. The organizers of the YouTube channel removed the clip and apologized.
In August seven persons accused of involvement in an incident of communal violence that resulted in the 2018 killing of a police inspector in Bulandshahr District in Uttar Pradesh were welcomed by their supporters with patriotic slogans and flower garlands after being released on bail. All those accused of rioting were released, but none of the individuals arrested for murder were granted bail. The violence took place on December 3, 2018, after a cow carcass was found in a field in Bulandshahr, where thousands of Muslims had gathered for a religious event.
In a May 1 editorial, the official newspaper of the Shiv Sena Hindu nationalist party urged Prime Minister Modi to ban the burqa following Sri Lanka’s decision to do so in the wake of Easter bomb attacks in Colombo. According to media reports, following public protests from Muslim leaders, the Shiv Sena spokesperson later clarified that the editorial was not the party’s official line, and the BJP spokesperson added that under PM Modi’s leadership, “India is safe,” and that a ban on face coverings therefore was not required.
Several acts of vandalism and arson targeting Christian sites and symbols occurred during the year. According to the NGO Persecution Relief, 17 church buildings were attacked around the country, including in Belgaum District, Karnataka, where a group of men set fire to a church under construction on December 17. The NGO said the pastor filed a complaint with police, but a group returned on December 22 to finish burning the building. The police provided protection to the pastor and church members after the incident. According to NGO Open Doors, on January 9, Hindus tore down a church building in Guntur District, Andhra Pradesh, because it was built in a location “which violated Hindu principles of placement and positioning.”
On July 10, in New Delhi’s historic Old Delhi area, Muslims and Hindus joined for a public feast and to install a new idol in a Hindu temple that had been vandalized the prior week during a brief period of communal tensions. According to media, a significant police presence in the area helped calm tensions. A Muslim member of the community told the media, “We don’t support such things (communal violence) and want peace in the area.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Throughout the year, representatives from the embassy and consulates met with government officials to discuss challenges faced by religious minorities, especially Christians and Muslims, incidents of cow vigilantism, the status of religious freedom in the country, and religiously motivated violence. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, engaged with members of parliament and politicians from the ruling and opposition parties to understand their positions on the CAA. They emphasized the need to address the legitimate concerns of the country’s religious minorities, to condemn communal rhetoric, and to ensure full protection of minorities as guaranteed under the constitution. Representatives from the embassy and consulates also met with Muslim politicians, NGOs, civil society members, academics, and interfaith harmony leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities.
In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom raised concerns with senior government officials about violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. He also shared concerns he received from foreign religious leaders and religious institutions about challenges in acquiring visas. In December the Ambassador at Large used social media to express concern about the implications of the CAA and the hope that the government would “abide by its constitutional commitments, including on religious freedom.”
In August the Deputy Secretary of State conducted a roundtable with religious leaders and religious freedom experts.
In October the Ambassador at Large met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society groups in New Delhi and raised concerns over the treatment of religious minorities, including cow-related lynchings, anti-conversion laws, and communal violence. The Ambassador at Large also met with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, where he delivered remarks at the 60th anniversary celebration of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.
In July the Department of State senior bureau official for south and central Asian affairs met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society interlocutors engaged in pursuing cases of religious persecution.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador routinely engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, to discuss their concerns. In late May the Ambassador hosted an iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties, at which he stressed the importance of religious diversity and the need to demonstrate empathy and mutual respect for members of other faiths.
In March the embassy hosted the dean of religious life of a U.S. university for a five-day outreach program on religious freedom. The dean traveled to New Delhi, Varanasi, and Lucknow and highlighted the importance of religious inclusion with representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, as well as youth leaders, intellectuals, students, and civil society groups. Discussions centered on challenges to religious reconciliation in the country’s northern areas, and also provided opportunities for members of different faiths to discuss their interests and concerns.
Embassy and consulate officers continued to meet with religious organizations, missionary communities, and NGOs of all religious backgrounds to discuss religious freedom; understand concerns related to an increase in attacks against religious minorities and the perceptions of diminishing space for religious freedom; and monitor cases involving reports of religious persecution and religiously motivated attacks. Embassy representatives specifically reached out to civil rights NGOs, media representatives reporting on minority affairs, interfaith harmony groups, Muslim religious leaders and Muslim politicians to understand their fears concerning the CAA and its likely impact on the Muslim population in the context of potential government plans to draft the National Register of Citizens. The embassy also organized roundtable discussions involving civil society representatives and visiting U.S. government officials on these subjects.
Embassy and consulate representatives continued to meet with the imam of the Jama Masjid, leaders of several other mosques, Hindu priests, and Christian and Catholic leaders, as well as with representatives of the India Islamic Cultural Center, the All India Imams’ Organization, the Parsi community, and Sikh leaders.
The embassy and consulates hosted celebrations marking major religious holidays, including Ramadan, Holi, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter, to bring together leaders from different religious groups and to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. In April the Consul General in Hyderabad hosted a Passover seder and discussed with representatives of principal faiths the need for promoting religious freedom and interfaith understanding.
The constitution and other laws and policies prohibit religious discrimination and protect religious freedom, including the freedom to practice any religion or belief through worship, teaching, or observance and to debate religious questions. The constitution provides for special qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law. Human rights and Muslim religious organizations stated that certain Muslim communities, especially ethnic Somalis, continued to be the target of government-directed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention. The government denied directing such actions. The Registrar of Societies again did not register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end, and approximately 4,400 religious group applications remained pending. In January the Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that required a publicly funded school to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab, citing faults in the petition process but encouraging the parties to file a new suit using correct procedures so the court could rule on the merits of the case. The judgment directed the board of the school to provide exemptions for students to wear clothing in accordance with their religious beliefs, but some Muslims interpreted the ruling as permission for officials to ban the hijab. A court ruled in September that a secondary school broke the law by asking a student to shave her dreadlocks, stating that Rastafarianism is a religion.
The Somalia-based terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab) again carried out attacks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu Counties in the northeastern part of the country and said the group had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith. On February 16, media reported that al-Shabaab killed three Christian teachers at a primary school in Wajir County, a predominantly Muslim region. There were again reports of religiously motivated threats of societal violence and intolerance, such as members of Muslim communities threatening individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity. In February a group of men believed to be Somali Muslims reportedly beat and raped a Somali mother of four in Dadaab refugee camp because she converted to Christianity. In April a pastor in Garissa, who ministered to former Muslims in an underground church, was reportedly beaten unconscious by a group of Muslims and hospitalized. Muslim minority groups, particularly those of Somali descent, reported continued harassment by non-Muslims. Some religious and political leaders, however, stated tolerance improved during the year, citing extensive interfaith efforts to build peace between communities. Prominent religious leaders representing the main faiths in the country issued a joint statement condemning the January 15 attack at the Dusit D2 hotel in Nairobi by five al-Shabaab terrorists that killed 21 persons, including one U.S. citizen. Unlike the 2013 terrorist attack at Westgate Mall, there were few reports of reprisal attacks against Muslim communities. A survey by the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK), a national interfaith umbrella group, examined the extent of freedom of religion and belief in two coastal counties, Mombasa and Kwale. The study targeted youth, community members, teachers, women, religious leaders, government officials, and peace organizations. Findings indicated the perceived level of religious tolerance was 37.3 percent, and the perceived level of government intolerance to religions was 46.4 percent.
U.S. embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, especially underscoring the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance and countering violent extremism related to religion. In June embassy representatives participated in an interfaith iftar as part of an embassy-sponsored program to support efforts by IRCK to strengthen understanding, respect, and acceptance within multifaith communities in Nairobi and Mombasa Counties. In September the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable to build relationships with religious leaders and discuss efforts to improve tolerance and inclusion. The embassy hosted roundtables and other events that brought individuals of diverse faiths together to discuss religious tolerance and build mutual understanding.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 49.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate), of which approximately 83 percent is Christian and 11 percent Muslim. Groups constituting less than 2 percent of the population include Hindus, Sikhs, and Baha’is. Much of the remaining 4-5 percent of the population adheres to various traditional religious beliefs. Nonevangelical Protestants account for 48 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 23 percent, and other Christian denominations, including evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals, 12 percent. Most of the Muslim population lives in the northeast and coastal regions, where religion and ethnicity (e.g., Somali and Mijikenda ethnic groups) are often linked. There are approximately 217,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the Dadaab refugee camps, mostly ethnic Somali Muslims. The Kakuma refugee camp has approximately 193,000 refugees, including Somalis, South Sudanese, and Ethiopians, who practice a variety of religions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there shall be no state religion and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief individually or in communities, including the freedom to manifest any religion through worship, practice, teaching, or observance. The constitution also states individuals shall not be compelled to act or engage in any act contrary to their belief or religion. These rights shall not be limited except by law, and then only to the extent that the limitation is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society.”
The constitution requires parliament to enact legislation recognizing a system of personal and family law adhered to by persons professing a particular religion. The constitution also specifically provides for qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law, including questions relating to personal status, marriage, divorce, or inheritance in cases in which “all the parties profess the Muslim religion.” The country’s secular High Court has jurisdiction over civil or criminal proceedings, including those in the qadi courts, and accepts appeals of any qadi court decision.
Although there is no penal law referring to blasphemy, a section of the penal code states that destroying, damaging, or defiling any place of worship or object held sacred with the intention of insulting the religion of any class of persons is a misdemeanor. This offense carries a penalty of a fine or up to two years in prison but is reportedly rarely prosecuted using this law. Crimes against church property are more likely to be treated as malicious destruction of property, which is also a misdemeanor.
According to the law, new religious groups, institutions or places of worship, and faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Registrar of Societies, which reports to the Attorney General’s Office. Indigenous and traditional religious groups are not required to register, and many do not. To register, applicants must have valid national identification documents, pay a fee, and undergo security screening. Registered religious institutions and places of worship may apply for tax-exempt status, including exemption from duty on imported goods. The law also requires that organizations dedicated to advocacy, public benefit, the promotion of charity, or research register with the NGO Coordination Board.
All public schools have religious education classes taught by government funded teachers. The national curriculum mandates religious classes, and students may not opt out. Some public schools offer religious education options, usually Christian or Islamic studies, but are not required to offer both.
The law establishes fees for multiple steps in the marriage process, which apply to all marriages, religious or secular. All officiants are required to purchase an annual license, and all public marriage venues must be registered. Officiants must be appointed by a registered religious group to conduct marriages in order to purchase the license.
The Ministry of Information, Communications, and Technology must approve regional radio and television broadcast licenses, including for religious organizations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Human rights groups and prominent Muslim leaders and religious organizations continued to state the government’s antiterrorism activities disproportionately impacted Muslims, especially ethnic Somalis and particularly in areas along the Somalia border. According to these groups, the government’s actions reportedly included extrajudicial killing, torture and forced interrogation, arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, and denial of freedom of assembly and worship. The government denied directing such actions. The government took steps, described by human rights organizations as limited and uneven, to address cases of alleged unlawful killings by security force members. The governmental Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), established to provide civilian oversight of the work of police, continued to refer cases of police misconduct to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution for prosecution.
In August Kenya Defenses Forces personnel killed ethnic Somali Muslim Abdullahi Kasim Yusuf, allegedly after he entered a Garissa military camp. The death led to local protests, and human rights defenders in the area called for an investigation, alleging other abuses by security forces in the region and stating there had been little accountability. In September security officers shot and killed two Muslims in Mombasa and Kwale whom they alleged were connected to terrorism and criminal activities. The men’s relatives and the NGO Muslims for Human Rights said the men were victims of extrajudicial killings and called for IPOA to investigate.
The Registrar of Societies continued not to register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end, and approximately 4,400 religious group applications remained pending.
In January the Supreme Court overturned on procedural grounds a lower court decision that required a publicly funded school in Isiolo County to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab, citing faults in the petition process. While the court’s decision included language recognizing the importance of accommodating religious dress in schools, some Muslims interpreted the ruling as permission for officials to ban the hijab. The court invited interested parties to file a new lawsuit following correct procedures so that it could rule on the merits of the case. The decision further directed the board of the school involved in the original petition to consult with parents and provide exemptions for students to wear clothing in accordance with their religious beliefs. The court also urged the secretary for education to establish new guidelines to better protect religious freedom in schools. In public statements, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims highlighted what it called positive messages in the court’s ruling in what observers stated was an effort to defuse anger in the Muslim community.
The High Court ruled in September that a secondary school broke the law by asking a student to shave her dreadlocks, stating they were a manifestation of her religious beliefs as a member of the Rastafarian religion. The court ruling contained a permanent injunction restraining the school’s administration from interfering with the student’s education based on her religious beliefs, specifically mentioning her dreadlocks. The school had previously expelled the student for wearing her dreadlocks in a turban, after which her family sought redress and the court in January ordered the school to allow her to return pending a verdict in the case.
Christian televangelist Paul Makenzi of the Good News International Ministries, who was arrested in 2017 with his wife Joyce Mwikamba and charged with radicalizing children in Malindi, remained free on bail and resumed preaching while awaiting a court ruling on his case.
Muslim leaders continued to state that police often linked the whole Muslim community to al-Shabaab. IPOA reported numerous complaints from predominantly Muslim communities, particularly in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, regarding intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and extortion by police. Some complainants stated police accused them of being members of al-Shabaab.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab again carried out attacks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu Counties in the northeastern part of the country and said the group had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith. Authorities received numerous reports of terrorist attacks in the northeast of the country bordering Somalia by al-Shabaab and its sympathizers that targeted non-Muslims. On February 16, media reported that al-Shabaab killed three Christian teachers at a primary school in Wajir County, a predominantly Muslim region. Al-Shabaab remained the focus of government antiterror and police efforts throughout the northeast and coastal region.
In April a group of men believed to be Somali Muslims, according to Christian media, reportedly beat unconscious a pastor in Garissa who ministered to former Muslims in an underground church. Following his hospitalization, media reported the pastor moved with his family to a safer location.
In August a group of Muslims reportedly prevented an attack against Christians in the northern part of the country. According to Christian media, individuals affiliated with al-Shabaab planned to attack Christians working at a construction site for a new hospital in Kutulo. Muslims who heard of the planned attack went to the site to warn Christian workers to flee and confronted the gunmen when they arrived. The attackers reportedly opened fire, but there were no injuries.
According to NGO sources, some Muslim community leaders and their families were threatened with violence or death, especially individuals who had converted from Islam to Christianity and those of Somali ethnic origin. In February, according to Christian media, Somali Muslims beat and raped a Somali mother of four in Dadaab refugee camp because she converted to Christianity. They reportedly threatened her for more than a year to return to Islam.
Some interreligious NGOs and political leaders said religious tensions were not as high as in previous years, citing extensive interfaith efforts to build peace between communities. For example, the national interfaith umbrella group IRCK implemented several programs to promote interfaith acceptance in diverse communities. In several instances, national religious leaders representing the IRCK used their influence to help resolve violent conflicts, particularly among youths. Other community-level religious leaders came together to learn about each other’s faiths. Following the January 15 al-Shabaab attack at the Dusit D2 hotel in Nairobi that left 21 persons dead, including one American, Muslim, Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal, and other religious leaders condemned the attack in a joint press release that conveyed a united stance against terrorism and appealed for peace. Threats of reprisal against Muslim communities after the incident appeared largely on social media, in contrast to the widespread physical attacks against Muslims that occurred after the 2013 Westgate terrorist attack.
There were reports that, in general, non-Muslims continued to harass or treat with suspicion persons of Somali origin, who are predominantly Muslim. Police officers often did not serve in their home regions, and therefore officers in some Muslim majority areas were largely non-Muslim.
A survey by IRCK examined the extent of freedom of religion and belief in two coastal counties, Mombasa and Kwale. The study targeted youth, community members, teachers, women, religious leaders, government officials, and peace organizations. Findings indicated the perceived level of religious tolerance was 37.3 percent, and the perceived level of government intolerance to religions was 46.4 percent. Those surveyed cited extrajudicial killings of suspects of terror activities as a primary driver of marginalization and intolerance. Most respondents, 56.9 percent, believed attacks on other religions were responsible for hatred between religious groups. Less than half, 41.2 percent, believed the government “treated religions well.”
In February the National Council of Churches of Kenya proposed constitutional changes to limit the role of qadi courts, triggering claims of intolerance by some Muslim organizations and causing a significant rift for much of the year. IRCK leadership finally resolved the issue through discussions and mediation.
Religious leaders representing interfaith groups, including the Anglican, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu communities, continued to engage with political parties and the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission in the national reconciliation process initiated after violent 2017 presidential elections. In December representatives of a number of religious organizations participated in a National Dialogue Reference Group conference to promote national healing and identify social cohesion challenges.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, including senior police officials and local governments in the coastal region, especially stressing the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance and countering religiously based violent extremism. Embassy staff continued to engage senior officials to underscore the importance of addressing human rights abuses by security forces, including those limiting freedom of worship, and supported a number of programs to improve police accountability.
The Ambassador and embassy staff met frequently with religious leaders and groups, including the IRCK, Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, Interfaith Council of Kenya, Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, Hindu Council of Kenya, National Muslim Leaders Forum, Alliance of Registered Churches & Ministries Founders, and National Council of Churches of Kenya. Topics of discussion included the importance of religious groups in countering religiously based extremism and seeking guidance from religious leaders on human rights issues.
The Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable in September to build relationships with national leaders from various faiths, including representatives of the Christian, Muslim, and Hindu faiths. Participants discussed building tolerance between and among faiths and the critical role religious leaders play in peacebuilding efforts. The Ambassador encouraged the religious leaders to counter the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric of politicians and focus on building bridges between ethnic and religious groups as the nation prepares for 2022 national elections.
Embassy officials met individually with religious and civic leaders to urge them to continue to work across sectarian lines to reaffirm the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity. The embassy encouraged faith communities and other societal figures to see religious diversity as a national strength rather than a source of strife and division.
The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion. Throughout the year, Shia Muslims, under the auspices of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), conducted a series of demonstrations – including several in July against the ongoing detention of IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky – resulting in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces, which left as many as 30 dead, including protesters and police. Security forces fired on Shia religious processions for Ashura in September, killing 12, according to the IMN. Following the July violence, the government banned the IMN and declared the group a terrorist organization. The IMN stated it planned to legally contest the ban. In July the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, criticized the government’s action banning the IMN as a threat to religious freedom for all believers, according to local and Catholic media. The government continued its detention of El-Zakzaky despite a December 2016 court ruling that he be released by January 2017. The government launched new security operations in the North West states and continued ongoing operations in the North Central states that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources, which frequently involved predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian. There were several incidents of violence involving these groups in the North Central and North West. In July local communities reacted to news of a government plan to resettle the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country by threatening violence against Fulani communities in South West and South East states; the plan was later annulled. Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.
Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out person-borne improvised explosive device (IED) bombings – many by young women and girls drugged and forced into doing so – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques. In July ISIS-WA abducted six Action Against Hunger (AAH) aid workers from a convoy heading to deliver food in Borno State. In July 65 people returning from a funeral in a predominantly Muslim community in Borno State were killed by Boko Haram. In September ISIS-WA released a video depicting the beheading of two Christian aid workers; in the video one of the killers vowed to kill every Christian the group captured in “revenge” for Muslims killed in past conflicts. In October ISIS-WA filmed and publicly released its killing of one of the six abducted AAH aid workers, who was Muslim. On December 24, Boko Haram killed seven people and abducted a teenage girl in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State. On December 26, ISIS-WA released a video of the execution of 10 Christians and one Muslim to avenge the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Conflicts between predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in the North Central states continued throughout the year, although the violence was lower than during the 2017-2018 spike, reportedly due to government intervention and efforts of civil society to resolve conflicts. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern that this conflict took on increasingly religious undertones. In addition to religious differences, local authorities, scholars, and regional experts pointed to ethnicity, politics, lack of accountability and access to justice, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources among the key drivers of the violence. Attacks and killings by Fulani herdsman continued during the year, although according to the publicly available Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the number of civilian victims fell dramatically, from over 1,500 in 2018 to approximately 350 in 2019. According to international media, in February 131 Fulani and 11 Adara were killed in Kaduna State. On April 14, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed 17 Christians who had gathered after a baby dedication at a Baptist church in the central part of the country, including the mother of the child, sources said. Some domestic and international Christian groups stated that Fulani were targeting Christians on account of their religion. Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized the government’s perceived inability to prevent or mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities.
U.S. embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials regularly promoted principles of religious freedom and religious coexistence in discussions throughout the year with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society organizations. The Ambassador, Consul General, and other senior U.S. officials hosted interfaith dinners, participated in interfaith conferences, and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue. The embassy sponsored training sessions for journalists who report on ethnoreligious conflicts to help reduce bias in their reporting and prevent tensions from becoming further inflamed. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator visited Abuja, Bwari Local Government Area, and Lagos to highlight U.S. government support for interfaith cooperation and conflict mitigation efforts.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nigeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 208.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). While there are no official indicators of religious affiliation in the country, most analysts say it is roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, while approximately 2 percent belong to other or no religious groups. Many individuals syncretize indigenous animism with Islam or Christianity.
A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identifies as Sunni, the vast majority of whom belong to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, though a sizable minority follows Shafi’i fiqh. The same study found 12 percent of Muslims in the country self-identify as Shia, with the remainder declining to answer or identifying as “something else” (5 percent) or “just a Muslim” (42 percent). Included among the Sunnis are several Sufi brotherhoods, including Tijaniyah, Qadiriyyah, and Mouride. There are also Izala (Salafist) minorities and small numbers of Ahmadi and Kalo Kato (Quraniyoon) Muslims. A 2011 Pew report found among Christians, roughly one quarter are Roman Catholic and three quarters Protestant, with small numbers of Orthodox or other Christian denominations. Among Protestant groups, the Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches maintain the largest populations, while evangelicals, Pentecostals, Anabaptists (EYN Church of the Brethren), Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, New Apostolics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses report tens of thousands of adherents each. Other communities include Baha’is, Jews (including significant numbers of Judaic-oriented groups), Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, animists, and individuals who do not follow any religion.
The Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri ethnic groups are most prevalent in the predominantly Muslim North West and North East states. Significant numbers of Christians, including some Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri, also reside in the North East and North West. Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the North Central and South West states, including Lagos, where the Yoruba ethnic group – whose members include both Muslims and Christians – predominates. In the South East and South states, where the Igbo ethnic group is dominant, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority. In the Niger Delta region, where ethnic groups include Ijaw, Igbo, Ogoni, Efik, Ibibio, and Uhrobo among others, Christians form a substantial majority; a small but growing minority of the population is Muslim. Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the North Central and South East, South, and South West regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja. The Shia Muslim presence is heavily concentrated in the North West states of Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Zamfara, and Kano.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation. The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other virtues, as a distinct “national ethic.”
The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law courts. Sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction. The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for “civil proceedings”; such courts do not have the authority to compel participation, whether by non-Muslims or Muslims. At least one state, Zamfara, requires sharia courts to hear civil cases in which all litigants are Muslim and provides the option to appeal any decision to the common law court. Non-Muslims have the option to have their cases tried in the sharia courts if they wish.
The constitution is silent on the use of sharia courts for criminal cases. In addition to civil matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for hudud (serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide punishments such as caning, amputation, and stoning). Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal statutes through common law appellate courts. The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, may seek advice from sharia experts.
Kano and Zamfara’s state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license imams, and attempt to resolve religious disputes between Muslims in those states. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs ministries or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.
To build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($55).
Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution prohibits schools from requiring students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders have stated students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also says no religious community will be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place that community wholly maintains.
Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools for registered religious groups. In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,400) for operating without a license.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Throughout the year, Shia Muslims, under the auspices of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), conducted a series of demonstrations, some of which resulted in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces. IMN was the largest Shia organization in the country and was led by Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky who, according to his writings and online communications, draws inspiration from the Iranian revolution and from the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Between March and July, members of the IMN conducted daily protests in Abuja to contest the continued detention of El-Zakzaky, despite a December 2016 Abuja High Court ruling that he be released by January 2017. The protests continued until his temporary release due to illness in August. During an initially peaceful IMN demonstration in Abuja on July 9, an IMN member sparked an exchange of gunfire between police and IMN protestors when he grabbed an officer’s holstered pistol, resulting in the deaths of the officer, 15 IMN members, and a security guard, according to press reports. IMN members also broke through police barricades at the National Assembly and police dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Following the July 9 events, the Senate called for the arrest of IMN members involved in the violence, while the House of Representatives called on the government to urgently engage the IMN to resolve the conflict and expressed fears the Shia group was fast evolving “the way Boko Haram started.”
Human Rights Watch reported that on July 22, police opened fire on peaceful IMN protesters and killed 11 protesters, a journalist, and a police officer, while dozens of others were wounded or arrested, according to witnesses and authorities. On November 27, police arraigned 60 IMN members arrested at the July 22 protest on charges of culpable homicide, destruction of public property, and public disturbance.
On July 26, the Federal High Court ruled IMN’s activities amounted to “acts of terrorism and illegality” and ordered the government to proscribe the “existence and activities” of the group. On July 28, the government complied, officially banning the IMN as an illegal organization and thereby prohibiting its meeting or activities. In its announcement, the government emphasized its proscription of the IMN “has nothing to do with banning the larger numbers of peaceful and law-abiding Shiites in the country from practicing their religion.” Following the ban, then-Archbishop of Abuja Cardinal Oneiyekan defended the country’s Shia Muslims and criticized the government’s action banning the IMN as a threat to religious freedom for all believers, according to Catholic media. On September 10, despite the government prohibition, the IMN sponsored Ashura religious processions in Bauchi, Kaduna, Gombe, Katsina, and Sokoto States. The IMN reported as many as 12 participants in the processions died in clashes with security forces, with media sources reporting between three and nine killed.
In August the government granted El-Zakzaky temporary release to seek medical treatment in India; he traveled but reportedly refused treatment in India after stating armed Indian guards had been posted in his room during his medical treatment. Upon his return home the government returned him to custody, where he remained through the end of the year.
On November 27, police broke up an IMN protest and arrested 12 members and two journalists. The journalists later were released.
Local and international NGOs continued to criticize the lack of accountability for soldiers implicated in a December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. Approximately 100 IMN members arrested after that clash remained in detention.
In June the Kaduna state legislature approved a bill to regulate religious preaching. While the government said the new law would protect against “hate speech,” religious leaders said it infringed on freedom of speech and the rights of Christians and Muslims. The law required all preachers to be licensed by a state-level body composed of religious leaders, government officials, and security agencies. Later in June Kaduna’s highest court nullified the law, stating that it was inconsistent with the constitution’s guarantees for freedom of expression, association, and religion. The state government announced it would appeal the decision at the federal level.
In May the Kano state Hisbah Board arrested 80 Muslims accused of eating in public rather than fasting during Ramadan. The Kano hisbah spokesman said they were all eventually released since it was their first offense but noted they would be taken to court if detained again. In October the Kano state hisbah arrested four men for organizing a false online wedding to a young woman over Facebook, stating it “mocked Islam” as well as demeaned the “sanctity of the institution of marriage.”
Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.
Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized the government’s perceived inability to prevent or effectively mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities in the Middle Belt region.
In June some ethnoreligious organizations in the South West and South East reacted with threats of violence to news of a government plan to resettle predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country. In the South West, both Muslim and Christian groups threatened violence against members of the Fulani ethnic group. The government later abandoned the plan.
In June President Muhammadu Buhari announced plans for the eventual ban of Almajiri Quranic schools due to their reported practice of forcing students to beg in the streets and their perceived association with urban crime and violence; he said the government first would consult with states, which have jurisdiction over the schools, and others in the education community. In July the Kaduna State Commissioner for Education announced that Quranic schools would be integrated into the formal education system. In October the Kano state government announced a “free and compulsory education initiative” that would abolish the payment of school fees and integrate all Almajiri pupils into the formal education system in 2020.
In October police raided four Islamic schools in Kaduna and Katsina States and freed over 1,000 men and boys living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions, including being chained and physically abused, according to international media. In November police freed 259 men, women, and children from an Islamic school in Oyo State and rescued 15 people chained in a church in Lagos. In November Human Rights Watch reported its investigators found individuals chained in 27 of 28 institutions they visited, which included psychiatric hospitals, general hospitals, traditional healing centers, Christian churches, and both Islamic and state-owned rehabilitation centers. Following the raids, President Buhari issued a statement saying, “No responsible democratic government would tolerate the existence of the torture chambers and physical abuses of inmates in the name of rehabilitation of the victims.”
In January Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III and then-Archbishop of Abuja Onaiyekan organized a conference with religious leaders from throughout the country to promote peaceful elections.
In September the Kaduna State Urban Planning Development Agency served the 110-year-old St. George Anglican Church a notice to vacate its premises within seven days on the grounds that the church did not have a certificate of occupancy. A week later the Kaduna state government issued a statement saying the church would remain because of its historical value.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Numerous fatal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Fulani Muslim herders. Scholars and other experts, including international NGOs, cited ethnicity, politics, religion, lack of accountability and access to justice, increasing competition over dwindling land resources, population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from crime and other forms of violence all as drivers contributing to the violence. Several international and domestic experts noted that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought herder groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they are unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups. Similarly, internal transhumance (movement of livestock) to the North Central and Southern parts of the country has increased in recent years due to demographic and ecological pressures, according to the UN.
Multiple Christian NGOs stated that religious identity was a primary driver of the conflict. A Le Monde op-ed in December, however, stated “reducing the violence in the center of the country to sectarian confrontation is an extreme simplification,” and other analysts noted that the same conflict dynamics exist across the region where both herders and farmers are Muslim, including the North West, but had received less media attention.
According to a report released by the U.K.-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), “Fulani militia” killed over 1,000 Christians throughout the year. The report noted that the “underlying drivers of the conflict are complex,” and stated that violence targeting predominantly Christian communities, the targeting of church leaders, and the destruction of hundreds of churches suggested religion and ideology were key factors. It also stated that retaliatory violence by Christians occurred, though “we have seen no evidence of comparability of scale or equivalence of atrocities.” According to various secular and Christian media outlets, from February to mid-March, Fulani herders and Boko Haram terrorists killed 280 individuals in predominantly Christian communities. ACLED data, however, documented 350 total civilian deaths by “Fulani militia” in 2019.
A study by the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel noted that within the country, “there are many different Fulani clans, sub-clans, local Fulani cultures and dialects, and variations in herding practices.” Experts stated there was no evidence to suggest the Fulani had an explicit Jihadist agenda or were mobilized behind a common ethnic agenda, and noted there are between 30-40 million Fulani in Africa.
On February 10, on the eve of general elections, as many as 131 members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani ethnic group and 11 members of the predominantly Christian Adara ethnic group were reportedly killed and some 10,000 were internally displaced in clashes in Kajuru. In response, the Kaduna governor arrested the Adara leaders and elder statesmen, a move which local Christian leaders condemned. The governor also announced there were 131 casualties of the attacks and said, “The more the police dig into this matter, the more it is clear that there was a deliberate plan to wipe out certain communities.” Christian leaders disputed the casualty figures announced by the governor, while Fulani leaders later released a list of what they said were the names of the 131 Fulani killed. A Fulani herder told The Los Angeles Times, “There is no effort to protect our villagers,” and added that “bandits” were responsible for a deadly attack on [farmers in] Ungwan Barde, not herders; “We don’t know why [the farmers] blamed us.”
On March 14, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that Fulani militia members had killed 120 persons since February 9 in the Adara chiefdom of South Kaduna. According to the Adara Development Association, on March 11, Fulani militia killed 52 persons in attacks on Inkirimi and Dogonnoma villages in Maro, Kajuru Local Government Area, while the Kaduna Police Command reported 16 deaths.
According to local and international media, in May the discovery of two dead boys at the border between a Christian village and a Hausa Muslim community in Plateau state sparked ethnic-based riots against Hausas, resulting in from five to as many as 30 deaths. In August and September, local media reported armed, ethnicIgbo Christian criminal gang members posing as Fulani Muslim herdsmen killed two priests in the South East in an attempt to incite religious conflict. According to international media, on April 14, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed 17 Christians who had gathered after a baby dedication at a Baptist church in the central part of the country, including the mother of the child, sources said. Pastor Samson Gamu Yare, community leader of the Mada ethnic group in Nasarawa State, called on the federal government to take measures towards curtailing these attacks on his people.
During the year, media and religious groups reported several cases of priests and other Christian clergy and their families who were attacked, killed, or kidnapped for ransom, often by attackers identified as of allegedly Fulani ethnicity. These cases included, among others, the killing of Father Paul Offu and Father Clement Ugwu and the beating of an evangelical Christian pastor from Kaduna State and kidnapping for ransom of his wife, who died in her captors’ custody. Authorities stated these incidents were criminal acts and not religiously motivated, reportedly due to the ethnicities of those arrested for the crimes, although many Christian civil society groups pointed to such incidents as examples of religiously motivated persecution. In August 200 Catholic priests marched through the streets of Enegu city, protesting insecurity and what they characterized as “Fulani attacks on Christians.” Muslim religious figures were also the victims of kidnapping. In March Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Sulaiman was kidnapped in Katsina State and released after 15 days.
According to international media, in October in Chikun, Kaduna State, Fulani gunmen kidnapped six school girls and two teachers from Engravers College Kakau, a high school with a Christian perspective that has a secular curriculum and enrolls both Christian and non-Christians. Shunom Giwa, vice principal of Engravers’ College, told Morning Star News that security issues led to some parents withdrawing their children from the school. Media reported the abductors stormed the boarding school when most of the students and teachers were asleep. The individuals were released after authorities paid a ransom.
In its report, “Nigeria: The Genocide is Loading,” NGO Jubilee Campaign stated that it had documented at least 52 Fulani militant attacks between January and June 12. HART, in its report, stated the situation between Fulani herdsman and farmers amounted to genocide and governments worldwide should recognize and respond to it as such. Other longtime observers, however, including those with the Africa section of the French National Center for Scientific Research, expressed concern that describing the situation as one of “pre-genocide” was inaccurate, and ran the risks of “misrepresenting the facts, discrediting the media, and making the situation on the ground worse.” In a Le Monde op-ed on conflict in Nigeria, scholars stated that the term “genocide” allows some Nigerian politicians to “vindicate one group and instrumentalize another.” Other international observers warned against framing the issue as an attack on one group, since such a claim ignored the complexity of the issue and could deepen and perpetuate the conflict.
In July local communities reacted to news of a government plan to resettle the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country by threatening violence against Fulani communities in South West and South East states; the plan was later annulled.
In November student protests took place after the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in predominantly Christian Enugu State, announced it would host a conference on witchcraft and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria called for Christians to pray against the event. The event took place as scheduled after the university removed the term “witchcraft” from the title of the conference.
On February 23, interfaith leaders and members of the Strength and Diversity Development Center held a “Weekend of Prayer and March for Peace” in seven states across the country.
On January 10, the NGO 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative organized the first of three international religious freedom roundtables. Participants included representatives of several Muslim and Christian communities. The group formed an interfaith steering committee to guide its efforts to promote religious tolerance.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals on the basis of religion and religious tension issues in the country in discussions throughout the year with government officials, including the vice president, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. They also discussed government and government-supported grassroots efforts to reduce violence and promote religious freedom and interreligious tolerance. In August the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development visited Abuja and Lagos, engaging with government and religious leaders as well as NGOs, to highlight U.S. support for interfaith cooperation and to encourage greater efforts to combat ethnoreligious violence. The Administrator met with the vice president, local government officials, and members of the Interfaith Mediation Center, the Islamic Education Trust, the Christian Association of Nigeria, and the Federation of Muslim Women’s Association.
Embassy and consulate general officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith relationship-building with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials hosted interfaith dinners and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue. They also participated in multiple interfaith conferences and summits throughout the year encouraging religious, traditional, government, and community leaders to continue to engage in dialogue and work towards sustainable peace. They also emphasized these messages in media interviews during multiple trips to states affected by ethnoreligious conflict, including Kaduna, Plateau, Benue, Taraba, and Adamawa.
In March the embassy held an event celebrating the heroism of Imam Abdullahi Abubakar of Barkin Ladi, Plateau, who in 2018 sheltered his Christian neighbors in his home and in the mosque while his village was attacked, confronted the attackers, and refused them entry. The embassy also featured Abubakar on the cover of the April/May edition of its outreach magazine. In July Abubakar received the Department of State’s 2019 Religious Freedom Award.
In June and July the consulate general engaged southern socio-cultural groups, religious leaders, and politicians to reduce tensions emerging from reports of government-sponsored programs to resettle Fulani communities to southern areas of the country. The embassy and consulate general also worked with a wide range of organizations, including religious groups, to promote peaceful, free, and fair elections in 2019.
In September a senior U.S. government official visited a U.S. jointly funded peacebuilding camp for young people in Nasawara State.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nigeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The constitution and other laws accord Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. According to representatives of minority religious communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials continued to engage in systematic discrimination against religious minorities. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against minorities. Religious minorities reported government officials and police often sided with religious majorities and did not prevent harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. On Easter Sunday, April 21, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a local Islamic group swearing allegiance to ISIS, carried out suicide attacks on three churches and four luxury hotels, killing more than 250 civilians and injuring more than 500. In the aftermath, the government banned three organizations it labeled Muslim extremists, including NTJ, and temporarily banned face coverings. Although the government deployed security forces and police to control subsequent anti-Muslim violence, Muslim religious and civil society leaders reported some police stood idly by while attacks occurred. On May 12-13, mobs led by Buddhist monks and encouraged online by Sinhalese nationalist politicians from small parties affiliated with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party attacked and vandalized mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and homes in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and Puttalam Districts, resulting in the death of one Muslim man and extensive property damage. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found, “Mobs appear to have had a free hand to engage in the destruction of mosques” in several Northwestern Province towns, as well as in destruction of Muslim homes, businesses and vehicles. These attacks started to subside in May. NGOs reported in April police arrested writer Shakthika Sathkumara and held him for four months after a group of Buddhist monks said a short story he published had insulted Buddhism. Religious rights groups reported police continued to prohibit, impede, and close Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing government regulations, which legal scholars said did not apply. Media reports stated police and military personnel were complicit in allowing Buddhists to build religious structures on Hindu sites.
During the year, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 94 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services, compared with 88 in 2018. According to NCEASL, on September 21, a group of approximately 10 villagers assaulted six Christians from the Berea Prayer House in Kalkudah, Batticaloa District while on their way to church. Five individuals were hospitalized. According to civil society groups, highly visible social media campaigns targeting religious minorities continued to fuel hatred and incite violence. According to media, on May 15, Gnanasara Thero, a senior Buddhist monk, called for the stoning to death of Muslims, and propagated an unfounded allegation that Muslim-owned restaurants put “sterilization medicine” in their food to suppress the majority Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate. Buddhist nationalist groups, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force), used social media to promote what it called the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities. Media reports said some Muslim businesses were failing due to anti-Muslim boycotts.
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the U.S. Ambassador issued a statement condemning the attacks and urging the country’s citizens to remain unified. Embassy officials repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue and hosted a national Youth Forum workshop in November, bringing together religiously diverse youth from across the country. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 22.7 million (midyear 2019 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 constitute 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. When a woman of any religion marries a Muslim, she must convert to Islam and is identified as Muslim. 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. An estimated 82 percent of Christians are Roman Catholic. Other Christian groups include 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
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 (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.
Specific government ministers are responsible for addressing the concerns of each major religious community. Departmental and ministerial assignments are based on the religion of the respective incumbent minister and change when a new minister of a different faith takes office – a customary political tradition that has spanned the past several governments.
Religion is a compulsory subject at 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, including private schools founded by religious organizations, teaching the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus 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. According to civil society groups in the Northern Province, civil law governs marriages, while the Thesawalamai (Hindu) customary law often governs the division of property. Similarly, civil society activists report that for Sinhalese, Kandyian personal law 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, 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. Punishments range from fines to up to 10 years imprisonment.
On Easter Sunday, April 21, the NTJ, a local Islamic group swearing allegiance to ISIS, carried out suicide attacks targeting Easter Sunday services attendees at three churches and patrons of four luxury hotels that cater to foreign tourists. According to the government, more than 250 civilians were killed and more than 500 were injured.
On April 22, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency, during which it banned face coverings, such as the burqa and niqab, citing national security and public safety. It also banned three Islamist organizations described by the government as extremist: NTJ, Jamathe Millathe Ibrahim, and Vilayath As Seylani. The state of emergency expired on August 22, but the government continued to ban the three Islamist groups under the Prevention of Terrorism. The ban on face coverings lapsed with the end of the state of emergency.
In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, media reported several days of mob violence occurred in towns primarily across Northwestern Province; mosques and Muslim-owned homes and businesses were attacked. One man was killed with a sword. Through emergency regulation, the government restricted access to social media and deployed police and security forces to prevent anti-Muslim violence. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, however, stated, “There appeared to be no preventive measures taken although retaliatory violence against the Muslim communities was a distinct possibility after the terror attacks,” and noted also that despite many villagers in affected areas phoning police and requesting protection in the hours prior to the mob violence, “No preventative measures were taken.”
Damage estimates from the May mob violence varied widely, with former government minister Nalin Bandara conservatively estimating the damage to include the destruction of 14 mosques, 86 houses, and 96 shops. In the ethnically and religiously mixed area of Minuwangoda, Gampaha alone, the local government divisional secretariat reported 12 houses, 64 business places, one mosque, and nine vehicles damaged. At the same time, in the mostly Sinhala Buddhist area of Kurunegala, the NGO Muslim Aid assessed that 147 houses, 132 business places, 29 mosques, 52 vehicles, and two common facilities were damaged due to the anti-Muslim violence.
Police reported a total of 60 persons were arrested in connection with the mob violence, but there were only nine arrests in Hettipola, 10 in Kuliyapitiya, and 14 in Minuwangoda, despite traditional and social media video reports showing that mobs were far larger in these areas. Among those arrested were leaders of the Sinhalese nationalist groups: Amith Weerasinghe of Mahason Balakaya, Dan Priyasad of New Sinha Le, and Namal Kumara of the “Anti-Corruption Front.” All were subsequently released. Weerasinghe was previously arrested for inciting violence during anti-Muslim riots in Kandy district in March 2018. In a May 15 interview with the Daily Mirror, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary and Member of Parliament Dayasiri Jayasekara admitted he took the arrested rioters in his personal car from one police station to another police station, where they were later released on bail. At year’s end, there were no prosecutions related to the May mob violence. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka investigation found police inappropriately released suspects detained for mob violence and concluded this “clearly prevented equal protection of the law to affected citizens and also to the public at large.”
At year’s end, no convictions were reported in the 2018 anti-Muslim attacks in Kandy District that left two dead and 28 injured and resulted in significant damage to mosques, houses, shops, and vehicles. Media reported 81 arrests in connection with the violence.
Media reported Amith Weerasinghe, leader of Mahason Balakaya, who was arrested in March 2018 in connection with the Kandy riots, stayed six months in pretrial remand before authorities released him on bail in October 2018. He was arrested again in May for organizing anti-Muslim mob violence, and the Colombo additional magistrate granted him bail of two million rupees ($11,000) on June 4. The magistrate advised him to refrain from making statements that could be identified as hate speech or statements that could result in public unrest. Authorities also banned Weerasinghe from attending political rallies.
By year’s end, the government had not fully compensated owners for property damage they sustained during the March 2018 riots in Kandy District, even though the prime minister instructed that all compensation should be paid by July 2018. Media reports and public statements from Muslim politicians affirmed many victims of the 2018 violence continued to await compensation.
NCEASL said Christian evangelical groups continued to state police and local government officials were complicit in physical attacks on and harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. Christian groups said officials and police often sided with the religious majority.
On April 14, Aadara Sevana (Abode of Love), a social service and prayer center run by the Methodist Church in Kundichchaankulama, Anuradhapura, came under attack during its Palm Sunday service. According to media reports, a group of 20-25 Sinhalese Buddhists shouted death threats and threw stones and firecrackers. The attackers then locked the gates and held the 15 congregants and two clergy for nearly two hours until police arrived. Police requested the church not permit worshippers from other villages attend their services; no arrests were made. A similar group led by SLPP Party Pradeshiya Sabha (local council) Councilor Nalin Siriwardene previously attacked the same church in March, with no arrests made. According to press reports, at an April 18 public meeting with then-prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Bishop Asiri Perera, president of the country’s Methodist Church said, “I wonder if the police act only for a segment of society, and don’t believe it must protect everyone equally. Each time a church comes under attack, we hear about how the church was barely able to make a complaint to the police. Victims go seeking protection and return feeling utterly insecure.”
According to Christian, Hindu, and Muslim civil society groups, official harassment often occurred in concert with harassment by local Buddhist monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations. According to civil society sources, on February 24, a group of approximately 200 individuals led by four Buddhist monks forcibly entered the Christian Family Church premises in Galgamuwa. They demanded the pastor stop her worship service and threatened congregants using obscene language. The Buddhists damaged furniture and vandalized the building. Some of them seized a female congregant, dragged her into the street, threw her at the feet of the monks, and beat her. The pastor lodged a police complaint against the assailants; the Buddhist monks also filed a police complaint stating the pastor had breached the peace in the area. At year’s end, the breach of peace case was dismissed; however, the assault case continued.
Media reported that on April 1, police arrested writer Shakthika Sathkumara and held him for four months after a group of Buddhist monks, led by Agulugalle Siri Jinananda Thero of the Buddhist Information Centre, filed a complaint under the ICCPR Act, which has thus far only been used to arrest individuals deemed to have offended Buddhism. Sathkumara had published a fictional short story Ardha (Half) that referred to homosexuality and child abuse at a Buddhist temple. Sathkumara was released on bail on August 5; the charges against him remained pending at year’s end. On July 29, Amnesty International declared Sathkumara a prisoner of conscience. Sathkumara filed a fundamental rights petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest, which the court scheduled to review on July 28, 2020.
Media reported that on October 17, the police Organized Crimes Prevention Division (OCPD) questioned playwright Malaka Devapriya for four hours about a series of radio dramas he directed. Police acted after Buddhist monk Jinananda Thero of the Buddhist Information Center filed a complaint under the ICCPR Act, stating the dramas were a blasphemous distortion of Buddhist terminology.
Commenting in October on the Sathkumara and Devapriya cases, representatives of NGO Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice said, “The readiness of the police to pursue spurious complaints against artists perceived to have insulted Buddhism lies in stark contrast to the shocking lack of action against the hate speech of Buddhist extremists, including those who have incited physical violence against Muslim communities and other minorities in Sri Lanka in recent times.”
Despite a public awareness campaign by the Department of Christian Religious Affairs that began in 2016 to encourage local congregations of nondenominational groups to register as religious organizations, at year’s end the government did not register any new groups. 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 majority 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 Christian religious affairs for assistance, with limited success.
On January 12, according to NCEASL, the pastor of Foursquare Church, Kalkudah, Batticaloa District, filed a police complaint stating that neighbors were shouting obscene threats at the church. On January 22, Kalkudah police officials, after recording statements from both parties, sided with the pastor’s neighbors and ordered him to stop his religious worship activities until he registered his church. According to NCEASL, the congregants moved their service to a different location for a few weeks but moved back to Kalkudah and continued their services without further reports of harassment.
NCEASL reported that on October 26, two officers in civilian clothes from Deniyaya Police Station arrived at the Hokma Bible Center in Deniyaya, Matara District, ordered the pastor to stop the prayer service immediately, and told the congregants to leave. According to the NCEASL report, the police stated the church was unauthorized and needed to be registered if the pastor wished to continue. Police verbally ordered the congregants to leave, but the pastor asked police to convey this order in writing, which they did on October 27. On October 28, while the pastor and his family were away, police and three villagers surveyed the perimeter of the pastor’s home and took a series of photographs, but no police action followed.
Media reported that on June 3, crowds gathered in Kandy District in support of an influential Buddhist monk, Athuraliye Rathana, who began a hunger strike and called for the resignation of three Muslim politicians whom he accused of having links to the Easter Sunday attackers. Rathana did not provide any evidence to support his accusation. Two Muslim provincial governors and all Muslim ministers resigned from their posts to protest threats they said the community faced. All nine Muslim ministers subsequently returned to their posts. Media reported on May 22, then-president Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Buddhist monk and general secretary of the BBS Gnanasara Thero, who served less than one year of a six-year prison sentence for intimidating human rights activist Sandya Eknaligoda on court premises during a hearing at which military intelligence officers were accused of abducting her husband, journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda.
According to government gazette notifications, the ban on face coverings instituted by the government following the April 21 bombings lapsed when the state of emergency ended on August 27. Due to confusion about the status of the ban, police arrested four women in Colombo on August 31 for wearing the niqab, but released them the same day. Media reported the cabinet discussed legislation to permanently ban full-face covering in public places but delayed any decision after Muslim political leaders asked for time for deliberation within the community.
Muslims widely reported being harassed by security forces, especially at police and military checkpoints set up after the April 21 attacks. Media reported that in June in Marichchukaddi, Mannar, Muslim women were forced to remove their abayas in front of male military personnel. In another incident at the same location, female military officers cut off a Muslim woman’s head covering.
Human Rights Watch reported that Abdul Raheem Masaheena, a resident of Kolongoda, was arrested on May 17 for wearing a kurta (a loose collarless tunic) decorated with an image of a ship’s wheel, which police mistook for a Buddhist sacred symbol, the dharmachakra. In a fundamental rights petition filed with the Supreme Court, Masaheena said her arrest was arbitrary and malicious, she suffered degrading treatment in custody, and she had been “singled out and subjected to hostile inimical discrimination based on both grounds of race and religion.” Her petition remained pending at year’s end.
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 2011 government circular requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities. The Ministry of Buddha Sasana, however, revoked the 2011 circular in 2012. Police also reportedly cited the 2008 circular on construction of religious facilities to prohibit, impede, and close Christian and Muslim places of worship. According to some legal experts, however, there was no explicit basis in national law for compulsory registration of places of worship with the state.
According to NCEASL, in early September during a meeting at the Koralaipattu Divisional Secretariat to discuss issues surrounding the Berea Prayer House in Pasikuda, Batticoloa, the divisional secretary (DS) said the prayer house was unauthorized and further stated the 2008 circular empowered him to intervene. The DS also demanded an end to the pastor’s religious worship activities. Subsequent to advocacy from NCEASL and an inquiry by the SLHRC, the DS verbally told the pastor he could continue his activities, and authorities allowed the church to continue operating.
According to NCEASL, on June 6, approximately 50 villagers, 12 Buddhist monks, and six members of the Divulapitiya local council in Gampaha District protested outside an Assemblies of God church, demanding it stop its religious activities. Buddhist monks and members of the council threatened the pastor and her husband in the presence of police. On June 9, the pastor and her lawyer filed a complaint with police. When they went to record a statement on June 10, the acting inspector general of police, the officer-in-charge, six Buddhist monks, and four members of the Divulapitiya council were present. The acting inspector general instructed the pastor’s lawyer to register the church with the Department of Christian Religious Affairs through the Divulapitiya Divisional Secretariat, stating it was a requirement under the 2008 circular. He further instructed the pastor to cease her religious worship activities until the church was registered. According to NCEASL, the pastor continued her religious worship activities in the area despite opposition. Five Christian families from her church, however, left the village following this incident.
Civil society groups and local politicians continued to state the construction of Buddhist shrines by Buddhist groups and the military in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim Northern and Eastern Provinces constituted religious intimidation, as some shrines were built in areas with few, if any, Buddhist residents. According to local politicians in the north, the military sometimes acted outside its official capacity and aided in the construction of Buddhist shrines. Reports published by various civil society groups indicated security forces continued to be involved in constructing Buddhist religious sites, citing archeological links in places where there were no Buddhist populations. In July prominent Tamil twitter activist Garikaalan posted on Twitter that soldiers had constructed a Buddhist shrine on private land in Thyiddy, Jaffna.
Media reported that on September 23, a Buddhist group led by BBS monk Gnanasara Thero defied a Mullaitivu Magistrate Court order by cremating the body of a Buddhist monk in an open field next to the Neeraviyadi Pillayar Hindu temple in Mullaitivu District in the north of the island. BBS supporters shouted insults at the lawyers representing the temple association when they questioned police officers for failing to implement the court order. On October 21, the Court of Appeal ordered Gnanasara to appear before the court on November 8 for violating the Mullaitivu magistrate’s order. At year’s end Gnanasara remained free on bail while the case continued.
In May the Mullaitivu Magistrate’s Court ruled in favor of the Neeraviyadi Pillaiyar Hindu Temple, which a Buddhist monk occupied in 2013 and subsequently constructed a Buddhist shrine on the site. With the endorsement of the government archeological department, the monk said the site was an ancient Buddhist temple. In its ruling, the court said the monk should no longer interfere with the temple’s operation by expanding the shrine, and any future building work on the shrine should only take place with the permission of the local government.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, 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 Tourism Development and Christian Affairs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year the ministry again did not issue any approvals for building applications, even when local authorities had no objections. Applications to construct new houses of worship in Pugoda and Nattandiya were submitted to local councils in July and August 2015 and forwarded to the ministry. Relevant authorities did not reply to those applications, which remained pending at year’s end.
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 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 requires government and private schools receiving government funding, some religiously affiliated, to accept students of all faiths.
On August 21, the Cabinet of Ministers approved amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 to end child marriages in the Muslim community. These amendments awaited parliamentary approval at year’s end. The proposed changes would set the minimum age of marriage at 18, and marriages of anyone between the ages of 16 and 18 would require permission from a sharia court judge. Further amendments included stipulations for mandatory written consent from the bride and for the religious marriage ceremony and marriage registration to take place concurrently. According to Muslim human rights activists, lack of this requirements created difficulties during divorce and child support cases.
On October 8, a video featuring well-known singer and politician Madhumadhawa Aravinda using derogatory language to describe the Muslim community at a village meeting went viral. Aravinda was the deputy leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, a small political party aligned with the ruling Podujana Peramuna Party. In the video, Aravinda said, “You [Muslims] will not be able to practice sharia for as long as the Sinhalese live in this country.” On October 8, he announced he had resigned from the party. Authorities questioned Aravinda but did not arrest him for anti-Muslim social media postings that civil society groups said incited anti-Muslim riots in Northwestern Province in May.
On June 24, chairman of the Wennappuwa local council K.V. Susantha Perera issued a directive temporarily banning Muslim traders from participating in the Sunday farmers’ market in Dankotuwa, 30 miles north of Colombo. He told media the Sinhalese traders were afraid to work with Muslims. Following a police complaint against the chairman, a magistrate court on June 28 ordered Muslim vendors to be allowed in the market.
Media reported that on July 16 in Kanniya, regular police, riot police, and military personnel blocked several hundred Hindu protesters from worshipping at the site where a Buddhist temple was to be built on the ruins of a Hindu temple. Police allowed Sinhalese merchants and counterprotesters to enter the site. According to media, Sinhalese counterprotesters assaulted members of the Hindu crowd while police looked on. When police allowed Hindu priests and the landowner onto the site for mediation talks, the Sinhalese merchants pelted them with objects and hot tea. Police took no action against the assailants. On July 18, then-president Sirisena announced a ban on construction of the Buddhist temple and appointed five Tamil archeologists to the board of the government archeological department. The president also ordered the staff of the archeological department to permit Tamils into the area. On July 22, the Trincomalee High Court issued an order banning construction of the Buddhist temple and permitted the Hindu temple trustees to enter the area to maintain the Maariyamman Kovil Hindu Temple at the site. The court ordered that Hindu devotees be allowed to engage freely in religious activities.
On July 18, the Court of Appeal set aside the 2016 judgment of the Jaffna High Court in a case brought by Hindu temple leadership prohibiting ritual animal sacrifice at Narasimma kovil in Kavunawatte in Northern Province.
Religious rights advocates said across all religious categories, 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 many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred and incited violence. 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 violence against the Muslim community.
On June 16, prominent monk Gnanasara Thero delivered a nationally televised speech in which he said Muslim-run restaurants were seeking to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate by putting “sterilization medicine” in their food. “Don’t eat from those [Muslim] shops. Those who ate from these shops will not have children in future,” he said. “Some female devotees said that they [traitors] should be stoned to death. I don’t say this, but what should be done is this.”
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, often making similar claims that the small Muslim population was plotting to outnumber the Buddhist population. Human rights activists pointed to social media calls for the country’s Muslims to be “erased,” and praise for atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Burma.
On May 24, media reported police in Kurunegela arrested obstetrician Shihabdeen Shafi. The initial justification for his detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was an investigation of allegedly suspicious assets. According to a fundamental rights petition filed on his behalf and numerous media reports, however, a newspaper article and social media posts then immediately insinuated Shafi had been responsible for sterilizing thousands of Sinhalese women during caesarean section operations. Police invited women to come forward to make allegations against Shafi, who was free on bail. These allegations were echoed by anti-Muslim preachers such as Gnanasara Thero. Shafi’s hospital colleagues and medical experts said the allegations were highly unlikely. In June lawyers representing police conceded in court that they found no evidence against Shafi. In a December hearing, lawyers representing police argued that a new investigation was required, and stated there had been political interference in the previous investigation that had absolved Shafi. In the December hearing, the magistrate ordered an expert panel of physicians and academics from University of Colombo to evaluate all available medical evidence to determine if the charges had merit. The court was scheduled to reconvene in January 2020 to review the findings of the expert panel.
NCEASL documented 94 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year, compared with 88 cases in 2018.
According to the NCEASL, on September 21 a group of approximately 10 villagers beat six Christians from the Berea Prayer House in Kalkudah, Batticaloa District while the individuals were on their way to church. Five of the victims were admitted to the Batticaloa and Valachchenai hospitals. According to NCEASL, both hospitals discharged the victims before they had fully recovered from their injuries, denying them adequate medical care. The Valachchenai Hospital also refused to issue them reports on their injuries. Police arrested two perpetrators on September 22, with no trial date set at year’s end. The pastor and his congregants faced continuous harassment throughout the year from the same group of individuals, according to NCEASL.
On May 14, NCEASL issued a statement condemning attacks on Muslims in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and the Puttalam Districts following the April 21 church bombings. The statement said, in part, “We are extremely troubled that some of the incidents were reportedly perpetrated by mobs during police curfew…we request authorities to speedily compensate the losses suffered by these communities and take proactive action to prevent any further violence.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported multiple incidences of discrimination and abuse. For example, on February 23, they reported that four Jehovah’s Witnesses were speaking to individuals about their religious beliefs in a neighborhood in Adikarimulla, Divulapitiy, when two men walked over to the group and assaulted them. When the wife of one Jehovah’s Witness arrived, the two men held her and punched her. The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint on the same day and police arrested the two men. Charges were downgraded, and the case remained pending at year’s end. On March 17, the 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 group confronted another group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, confiscated their literature, and assaulted them, resulting in the hospitalization of two. The Jehovah Witnesses filed complaints in both instances, which remained pending at year’s end. Multiple cases from previous years also remained pending.
There were multiple reports of Muslim businesses failing due to anti-Muslim boycotts. In May video footage emerged on social media showing Buddhist monks entering a Muslim-owned shop in Padiyathalawa, Ampara District and chasing out Sinhalese customers. The monks also threatened the Muslim shop owner not to operate his business in the area.
According to representatives of a Muslim Sufi community of approximately 10,000 based in the Eastern Province town of Kathankudy, the majority Sunni community discriminated against them by harassing them, vandalizing religious and community centers, and denying them access to local government resources. The Sufis noted the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the country’s main body of Islamic theologians, issued a directive labelling the group as nonbelievers. The Sufis said members of the NTJ assaulted them and vandalized their community centers on multiple occasions.
On July 18, media reported that a Buddhist monk raised a Buddhist flag over the Madasami Hindu Temple in Kanthapallai, Nuwara Eliya City. He also tried to remove the statues of Hindu deities from the temple. After local politicians and police intervened, temple custodians removed the flag from the temple.
Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to lead peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees that consisted of religious and civic leaders and laypersons from different faith traditions and ethnicities. The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an NGO founded in 1995, created these 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.
In September Colombo hosted the Ashara Mubaraka, an annual global Dawoodi Bohra Muslim Convention, five months after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks and four months after incidents of anti-Muslim violence occurred throughout the country. The convention, titled “We Believe in Sri Lanka,” proceeded peacefully, drew 21,000 Bohra Muslims from 40 countries, and generated an estimated 10 billion rupees ($55.2 million).
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with the president, prime minister, and other senior government officials, the Ambassador emphasized the need for respect for and inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities as part of the post-conflict reconciliation process. Following the April 21 bombing, the Secretary of State condemned the terror attacks “in the strongest possible terms.” The Ambassador issued a statement saying, “These terrible attacks are the work of a few individuals and not of an entire community. Sri Lankans of all backgrounds and faiths have come together to condemn these atrocities. Unity is the most powerful answer to terrorism.” During times of heightened religious and ethnic tensions, such as during the May Kurunegala, Puttalam, and Gampaha riots, the Ambassador urged political leaders to defuse the immediate crisis and called on citizens to disavow religious violence. Embassy officers also met regularly with cabinet ministers holding religious portfolios to encourage them to build ties across religions. The Ambassador also conducted numerous television and print media interviews addressing the attacks and the aftermath and held a Facebook live chat on the topic.
Embassy officials met with Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu civil society activists and victims of reported attacks across the country to gauge the climate for religious minorities. In addition, embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with religious groups, civil society organizations, and government officials to express concern about harassment of, attacks on, and government and societal discrimination against members of religious minority groups.
Three participants representing National Peace Council, NCEASL, and the District Interreligious Committee-Kandy took part in a two-week religious freedom and interfaith dialogue exchange program in the United States July 17-28.
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. In November it held a national Youth Forum workshop where youth from across the country representing different religions and ethnicities gathered for interreligious dialogue. A senior embassy official encouraged the youth “to nurture inclusive, thoughtful, and courageous leadership” and to “understand the experiences and perspectives of Sri Lanka’s diverse communities.” Embassy representatives supported the work of civil society organizations to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to foster peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building through the National Peace Council.