Historical and modern constitutional and legal documents provide for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and prohibit religious discrimination. The law bans public incitement to hostile acts against religious groups if perceivable by a larger number of persons. The law divides recognized religious groups into three categories with varying rights; 16 groups recognized as religious societies have the most benefits. Unrecognized groups may practice their religion privately if the practice is lawful and does not offend “common decency.” Muslim groups criticized a ban on face coverings that went into force in October; violators were subject to a fine of 150 euros ($180). Scientologists and some other religious minorities said several government-funded organizations continued to advise the public against associating with them, calling the groups “cults.” A government-funded study stated one third of mosques nurtured extremist views. The government worked with the Muslim community in a campaign against extremism and with a Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) to provide Holocaust training for teachers. Members of Muslim and Jewish groups and NGOs expressed concerns over what they considered anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment within the Freedom Party (FPOe), which became a junior partner in a coalition government in December. In April the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
The head of the Jewish Community – “Israelitische Kultusgemeinde” (IKG) – reported a record 503 anti-Semitic incidents, including five assaults, during the year, up slightly from 2016 and 97 percent more than in 2014. The Muslim community reported 253 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, a 62 percent increase over 2015. Most reported anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents involved threats, hate speech, and vandalism, and, in the case of Muslims, discrimination. In April an Afghan asylum seeker allegedly stabbed a Christian woman after she read from a Bible at a migrant center. An NGO attributed 61 percent of discrimination cases in the country to “Islamophobia.” Courts convicted seven individuals of anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi activity and two others for speaking out against Muslims or Islam, generally handing down fines or sentences, some of which they suspended. The Supreme Court upheld an injunction against a publication accused of slandering Holocaust victims for calling survivors of the Nazi-era Mauthausen concentration camp “criminals.” More than 300 imams issued a declaration in June condemning terrorism carried out in the name of Islam.
Embassy representatives met regularly with government officials to discuss religious groups’ concerns about issues of freedom of religion and religious intolerance and the integration of religious minorities, including with officials from the Departments of Integration and Dialogue of Cultures within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with the Ministry of Interior. Topics included measures to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. They also met with religious group representatives, such as the leadership of the Islamic Faith Community (IGGIO), the IKG, the Roman Catholic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Church of Scientology, to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue. Embassy representatives participated in the International Advisory Board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency to promote remembrance of the Holocaust and spoke on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance at public ceremonies.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law provides for freedom of religious belief and the rights of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from association with any religious community. It stipulates, “Duties incumbent on nationals may not be impeded by religious affiliation.”
Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, and treaties and conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which form part of the constitution. Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.
The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement is perceivable by “many people,” which an official government commentary on the law and the courts interpret as 30 or more individuals. The prohibition also applies specifically in the case of incitement in print, electronic, or other media available to a broad public. The law also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against religious groups if such action violates human dignity.
The law divides registered religious groups into three officially recognized legal categories (listed in descending order of rights and privileges): religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category possesses specific rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities. Members of religious groups not legally recognized may practice their religion at home “insofar as this practice is neither unlawful nor offends common decency.”
There are 16 recognized religious societies: the Catholic Church, Protestant churches – specifically Lutheran and Presbyterian, called “Augsburg” and “Helvetic” confessions – the IGGIO, the Old Catholic Church, the IKG, the Eastern Orthodox Church (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the New Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Methodist Church of Austria, the Buddhist Community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Alevi Community in Austria, and the Free Christian Churches.
The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs, to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members, and to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities, such as government-funded religious instruction in both public and private schools, which the government denies to confessional communities and associations. The government grants all recognized religious societies tax relief in two main ways: donations are not taxable, and they receive exemption from property tax for all buildings dedicated to the active practice of religion or administration of such. Additionally, religious societies are exempt from the surveillance charge, payable for instances where state security is required, and the administrative fee levied at the municipal level. Responsibilities of religious societies include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural activities that serve the common wellbeing and to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards.
Religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status for the first time must apply for recognition with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. Religious groups recognized as societies prior to 1998 retained their status. The government grandfathered in 14 of the 16 recognized religious societies under this provision of the law. In order to gain recognition as a religious society, religious groups not recognized prior to 1998 must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 17,400 persons) and have been in existence for 20 years, at least 10 of which must have been as an association and five as a confessional community. The government recognizes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Alevi Muslims as religious societies under these post-1998 criteria. Groups that do not meet these criteria may still apply for religious society status under an exception for groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active as an association in the country for 10 years. Groups sharing a broad faith with an existing society or confessional community, for example Christianity, may register separately as long as they can demonstrate that their group has a different theology.
The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. The government recognizes eight groups as confessional communities: the Bahai Faith, the Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians, the Pentecostal Community of God, Seventh-day Adventists, the Hindu Community, the Islamic-Shia Community, the Old-Alevi Community in Austria, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).
A recognized confessional community has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services, but it is not eligible for the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. Contributions to their charitable activities are tax deductible for those who make them, but confessional communities are not exempt from property taxes.
In order to gain government recognition as a confessional community, a group must have at least 300 members and submit to the Office for Religious Affairs its statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members, as well as membership regulations, a list of officials, and financing information. A group must also submit a written description of its religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The Office for Religious Affairs determines whether the group’s basic beliefs are consistent with public security, order, health, and morals, and with the rights and freedoms of citizens. A religious group seeking to obtain confessional community status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the chancellery. After this period, groups that have applied automatically receive the status unless the government issues a decree rejecting the application.
Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations, a status applicable to a broad range of civil groups. Some groups organize as associations while waiting for the government to recognize them as confessional communities.
The Church of Scientology and a number of smaller religious groups, such as Sahaja Yoga and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, have status as associations.
Religious groups registered as associations have the right to function in public, but they may not provide religious instruction in schools or pastoral care in hospitals or prisons.
According to the law, any group of more than two persons pursuing a nonprofit goal qualifies to organize as an association. Groups may apply to the Ministry of Interior to gain such status. In order to become an association, groups have to submit a written statement citing their common, nonprofit goal and commitment to function as a nonprofit organization. Associations have juridical standing and many of the same rights as confessional communities, such as the right to own real estate and to contract for goods and services.
The law governing relations between the government and the IGGIO and Alevi groups stipulates that funding for the day-to-day operations of mosques must be derived from domestic sources, Islamic teachings and practices must not violate federal law, and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. The law provides an explicit legal definition of, and legal protection for, Islamic practices, such as circumcision and preparation of food in conformity with religious rules, and states Muslims may raise children and youth in accordance with Islamic traditions. Muslim groups with at least 300 members and a theology that is not distinct from a pre-existing Islamic religious society or confessional community are considered cultural communities and fall under the umbrella of the pre-existing, legally recognized Islamic religious society or confessional community: the IGGIO and the Alevi Community in Austria, which are both religious societies, or the Islamic-Shiite Community or the Old-Alevi Faith Community in Austria, which have confessional community status. The law allows for Islamic theological university studies, which began for the first time at the University of Vienna in the fall.
Separate laws govern relations between the government and each of the other 14 state-recognized religious societies. The laws have similar intent but vary in specifics, given that they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years.
In May parliament adopted a law banning full-face covers in public places as a “violation of Austrian values,” with exceptions made only for artistic, cultural, or traditional events; in sports; or for health or professional reasons. The law went into effect on October 1. Failure to comply with the law is an administrative violation. The law prescribes a 150 euro ($180) fine but does not entitle police to remove the face covering.
The government funds religious instruction for children on a proportional basis in public schools, government-accredited private schools, and places of worship for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in religious classes is mandatory for all students unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students under the age of 14 require parental permission to withdraw from religious classes. The government funds the instruction, and religious groups provide the instructors. Religious instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups as comparative religious education.
The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory anti-bias and tolerance education, including religious tolerance, as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German-language instruction.
Holocaust education is part of history instruction and appears in other subjects such as civics.
The Equal Rights Agency, an independent agency falling under the jurisdiction of the women’s ministry, oversees discrimination cases on various grounds, including religion. The agency provides legal counseling and mediation services, and it assists with bringing cases before the Equal Treatment Commission, another independent government agency. In cases where it finds discrimination, the commission makes a recommendation for corrective action. In case of noncompliance with the recommendation, the case goes to court. Only a court may order corrective action and compensation.
The law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification of the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.
Foreign religious workers for groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment or family based, and is subject to a quota. The government requires a visa for visitors from non-visa waiver countries or individuals who would stay beyond 90 days, including religious workers of confessional communities or associations. Foreign religious workers belonging to religious societies do not require visas for either shorter visits or stays beyond 90 days.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: Police continued to protect Jewish sites. Muslims said the ban on face veils in public violated basic rights. The city government in Vienna increased inspections of city-subsidized Islamic kindergartens after a study found “Islamic political influence” in several of them. A federally funded office continued to offer the public negative views about religious groups, such as Scientology, which it described as “cults.” A government-funded study stated one third of mosques nurtured extremist views. The foreign ministry worked with the IGGIO on a campaign against extremism. The education ministry worked with the international NGO Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to provide Holocaust training for teachers. Jewish and Muslim groups and NGOs expressed concerns about what they regarded as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment in the FPOe, which joined a coalition government with the People’s Party in December. In April the government adopted the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, which the IKG called a milestone in fighting anti-Semitism.
Some religious minority groups, such as the Unification Church, continued to complain the three-tier system of categorizing legally recognized religious groups only granted them second- or third-class status.
The police continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions such as schools and museums. Law enforcement authorities stated the government provided the protection due to general concerns over the potential for anti-Semitic acts against Jewish institutions.
On various occasions, the IGGIO called on the Ministry of Justice to fund pastoral care for Muslims in prisons, where 46 IGGIO imams provided such care. According to the IGGIO, government funding would allow it to expand prison pastoral care. The ministry replied that it already funded social workers and representatives from the NGO De-radicalization Network to work with Muslim prisoners it considered extremists.
Muslim representatives expressed concern that the new ban on full-face coverings would push women wearing face veils into further isolation and, together with the Bar Association and Amnesty International, argued the law violated such basic rights as freedom of religion and expression. While characterizing the wearing of face veils in public as “socially undesirable,” the Catholic Church also criticized the ban as an “exaggerated legal prohibition.” A Viennese psychology student who was fined in October for covering her face while cycling announced she would challenge the ban before the Administrative Court.
On January 6, then-Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz of the People’s Party advocated for a ban on headscarves for public servants, including teachers, reigniting public debate over displays of religious symbols in public. Kurz stated Christian crucifixes in classrooms should be allowed, as they symbolized the country’s “historic culture.” A representative of the IGGIO and a representative of the IKG both publicly opposed the headscarf ban proposal as discriminatory.
Approximately 2,000 persons participated in a February 4 demonstration against the stipulation in the government’s agenda, announced January 30, that women working as uniformed police, judges, or prosecutors were to be prohibited from wearing headscarves. Several Muslim groups, some of them affiliated with the IGGIO, staged the protests. The President of the Islamic Faith Community, Ibrahim Olgun, said the proposed ban for police, judges, and prosecutors would “pull the rug” out from under efforts to create a good working relationship between the government and the Muslim community.
In remarks made to schoolchildren in March and broadcast on television in April, President Alexander Van der Bellen expressed opposition to restrictions on clothing, telling the students women had the right to dress how they wanted and that “if this rampant Islamophobia continues … we must ask all women to wear a headscarf – all – out of solidarity with those who do it for religious reasons.” The president’s office said he believed restrictions were justified when applied to all religious symbols in certain circumstances, such as for female judges, where religious dress could raise questions about neutrality.
The government continued to apply a policy of banning headwear in official identification documents with an exception for religious purposes as long as the face was sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.
In June the Vienna city government increased its inspections of the 150 Islamic kindergartens subsidized by the city after University of Vienna professor Ednan Aslan stated in a study of Islamic kindergartens he conducted in 2016 that there was political Islamic influence in several of them, and they were helping to create “parallel societies.”
The federal Office of Sect Issues continued to offer advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults.” The office was nominally independent but government funded, and the minister for family and youth appointed and supervised its head. Some Scientologists and representatives of the Unification Church continued to state the Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered societal discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities.
A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO working against some religious groups, such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to schools and the general public, and it provided counseling for former members of such groups. According to the website of the society’s founder, Friedrich Griess, the society received funding from the government of Lower Austria. Several other provinces funded family and youth counseling offices that provided information on “sects and cults,” which members of some minority religious groups, such as Scientologists or the Unification Church, stated they considered to be negatively biased.
An amendment of transportation regulations in June stipulated the use of public roads and sidewalks for non-traffic purposes must not violate public safety and security. Based on the amendment, government representatives stated police could ban proselytizing by religious groups. There were no reports that police blocked such activity.
According to a study by the Austrian Integration Fund, financed by the Ministry for Europe, Integration, and Foreign Affairs and based on 16 mosques examined by the authors, one-third of the mosques examined were actively countering efforts to integrate Muslims by nurturing extremist views.
According to a George Washington University study, “The Muslim Brotherhood in Austria,” the Muslim Brotherhood had “substantial connections and influence” in the country, including over key functions affecting Muslim immigrants, such as in the IGGIO’s training institute for Islamic religion teachers. The study, which the Austrian Security Services commissioned, was done in cooperation with the University of Vienna and the Austrian Integration Fund and released in September. An official involved with the study stated the Muslim Brotherhood represented values that stood in contrast to the rule of law and promoted a political Islam that divided society. In reaction, FPOe Chair Heinz Christian Strache called for stricter action against radical Islamist activities. A Muslim youth leader privately rejected the report’s conclusions and methodology and complained about what he described as the “continuous drip” of biased studies against Muslims in the country. The organization Muslim Youth of Austria also rejected the study’s findings, which stated the organization received financial support from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with the IGGIO, undertook an information campaign in mosques, Islamic organizations, and community centers, distributing written materials to convey the message that jihadism violated the principles of Islam.
The Ministry for Education and Women conducted teacher-training projects with the ADL. Seminars were available on Holocaust education, and Holocaust survivors talked to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.
Chancellor Christian Kern as well as Catholic and Jewish representatives attended an IGGIO-hosted iftar in June to express support for the Muslim Community.
In July FPOe Member of Parliament Johannes Huebner announced he would not seek reelection in the October parliamentary election, following widespread protests over a 2016 statement he made that critics said contained anti-Semitic undertones. In a speech on “mass migration to Austria,” Huebner had referred to “so-called Holocaust victims” who were criticizing the FPOe.
On September 13, Norbert Hofer, FPOe Deputy Chair, presented an election platform for the October 15 parliamentary elections with rhetoric including a statement that “Islam is not part of Austria.” At the presentation, FPOe Chair Strache stated, “We must not become strangers in our own home country.” The party campaigned against immigration and “Islamization,” and FPOe billboards carried the slogan “Islamization must be stopped.”
Speaking to the press in September, Vienna City Councilor, and previous integration representative for the Islamic Community Omar al-Rawi stated, “When parties address the issue of Islam, it’s always in a negative context.”
Some local Jewish groups expressed concern about anti-Semitism in the FPOe.
In November FPOe Chair Strache suspended a local FPOe councilor in Styria for giving a “Heil Hitler” salute.
NGOs and Jewish and Muslim community members called on the People’s Party, which came in first place in the parliamentary elections, not to form a coalition government with the FPOe, which came in third. In October the Mauthausen Komitee, a group commemorating Nazi camp victims, published a list of what it said were at least 60 anti-Semitic and racist incidents involving FPOe figures since 2013. Ramazan Demir, a Vienna-based imam and a leading representative of the IGGIO, stated, “This election result is something we feared … There’s never been this much Islamophobia in Austria.” The NGO SOS Mitmensch (SOS Fellow Human Being) released a letter it wrote to People’s Party leader Kurz, citing allegations of FPOe officials’ involvement in right-wing extremist, and neo-Nazi activities.
The People’s Party formed a coalition with the FPOe, and the new government assumed office on December 18, with Kurz as Chancellor and FPOe leader Strache as Vice Chancellor. The new government’s coalition agreement included acknowledgement of the country’s role in the Holocaust and a pledge to fight anti-Semitism. As party chair, Strache had repeatedly called for zero tolerance for anti-Semitism or glorification of Nazism, most recently in the context of the presentation of the coalition government’s program.
IKG Vienna President Oskar Deutsch continued to express concerns about the FPOe, which he said was an anti-Semitic party, and its attempts to appeal to Jewish voters by rebranding itself as an anti-Muslim party.
Then-Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter established the special prosecutor’s office for right-wing extremism in April. The office focused on enforcing the law banning neo-Nazi activity.
The government made the Mauthausen Memorial Agency an independent government agency on January 1, providing it with a legal base to implement tasks mandated in a 2016 law, which set the goal of Holocaust commemoration and education as the agency’s prime task. Mauthausen was the country’s largest concentration camp during the Nazi era and became a national monument.
Chancellor Kern, during an April visit to Israel, met with Holocaust survivors of Austrian background. In a speech he emphasized his country’s responsibility for the “darkest chapters in Austria’s history” and its commitment to learn from its Nazi past and to combat anti-Semitism.
On April 25, the cabinet adopted the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism. Then-Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz termed the decision an important signal to identify and combat anti-Semitism more easily with a commonly acknowledged definition. IKG Vienna President Deutsch welcomed the decision as a “milestone in combating anti-Semitism.”
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation. Federal law bans covering one’s face in public. The Wallonia and Flanders regional governments passed laws, scheduled to take effect in 2019, banning the ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning, effectively outlawing kosher and halal practices. In the continuing aftermath of 2016 terrorist attacks, the government extended its stated efforts to curb radical Islam, particularly following the release of a government report stating Wahhabism constituted a threat to the practice of moderate Islam in the country. A parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on Terrorist Attacks recommended oversight of the Great Mosque in Brussels be removed from the government of Saudi Arabia. Despite the federal government’s recommendation of mosques for recognition by the regional governments, the number of recognized mosques initially declined following the withdrawal of official recognition for one mosque in Flanders by the Flemish minister of home affairs due to the reported involvement of the Turkish government in the mosque’s operation. The government recognized several mosques near the end of the year, increasing the total of recognized mosques to 83 at year’s end – a net increase of two compared with 2016. Most public schools continued to ban headscarves as permitted by government policy. The government maintained its ban on Muslim women wearing headscarves in public sector jobs, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the law banning wearing a full-face veil (niqab) in public.
The number of reported anti-Semitic acts and threats almost doubled from 2015 to 2016, the most recent years for which complete data were available. In September in Antwerp, a Belgian convert to Islam verbally and physically attacked a Jewish man. Complaints of workplace discrimination based on religion almost doubled during the year compared with 2016. Most of these complaints involved reports of discrimination against Muslims, especially against Muslim women for wearing headscarves. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) upheld the right of private Belgian employers to ban headscarves.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination. Embassy officials continued discussions with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment, and to promote religious tolerance. The embassy supported programs that facilitated interfaith dialogue, raised awareness of religious minorities, and promoted resilience in religious communities.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of worship (including its public practice) and freedom of expression, provided no crime is committed in the exercise of these freedoms. It states no individual may be barred from religious ceremonies or from observing religious days of rest, and bars the state from interfering in the appointment of religious clergy or blocking the publication of religious documents. It obligates the state to pay the salaries and pensions of religious clergy certified by the official organizations of recognized religions and are officially employed in recognized houses of worship.
The law prohibits discrimination based on religious or philosophical (e.g., nonconfessional) orientation. Federal law prohibits public statements inciting religious hatred, including Holocaust denial. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year in prison.
The government officially recognizes Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Islam, Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity, and secular humanism.
The requirements to obtain official recognition are not legally defined. The legal basis for official recognition is composed of the constitution and other laws and interpretations, some of which predate the constitution itself. A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then recommends approval or rejection. The government evaluates whether the group meets organizational and reporting requirements and applies criteria based on administrative and legislative precedents in deciding whether to recommend that parliament grant recognition to a religious group. The religious group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order. The government does not formally define “sufficient number,” “long period of time,” or “social value.” Final approval is the sole responsibility of the federal parliament; however, parliament generally accepts the ministry’s recommendation.
The law requires each officially recognized religion to have an official interlocutor, such as an office composed of one or more representatives of the religion plus administrative staff, to support the government in its constitutional duty of providing the material conditions for the free exercise of religion. The functions performed by the interlocutor include certification of clergy and teachers of the religion, assistance in the development of religious curriculum, and oversight of the management of houses of worship.
The federal government provides financial support for officially recognized religious groups. The subsidies for recognized groups include payment of clergy salaries, maintenance, and equipment for facilities and places of worship, and tax exemptions. Denominations or divisions within the recognized religious groups (Shia Islam, Reform Judaism, or Lutheranism, for example) do not receive support or recognition separate from their parent religious group. Unrecognized groups outside of these recognized religions do not receive government subsidies but may worship freely and openly.
There are procedures for individual houses of worship of recognized religious groups to obtain recognition and state subsidies. To do so, a house of worship must meet requirements set by the region in which it is located and by the federal Ministry of Justice. These requirements include transparency and legality of accounting practices, renunciation of foreign sources of income for ministers of religion working in the facility, compliance with building and fire safety codes, certification of the minister of religion by the relevant interlocutor body, and a security check. Recognized houses of worship also receive subsidies from the linguistic communities and municipalities for the upkeep of religious buildings. Houses of worship or other religious groups that are unable or choose not to meet these requirements may organize as nonprofit associations and benefit from certain tax advantages (but not government subsidies). Houses of worship in this situation (i.e., not completing the recognition process) may still be affiliated with an officially recognized religious group.
There is a federal ban on covering one’s face in public. Women who wear the full-face veil in public face a maximum fine of 137.50 euros ($170).
The constitution requires teaching in public schools to be neutral with respect to religious belief. All public schools offer mandatory religious instruction or, alternatively, “moral” instruction (which is oriented towards citizenship and moral values), although parents in schools in Flanders may have their children opt out of such courses. A constitutional court ruling in 2015 allows francophone community parents to opt out of primary school religion and ethics classes for their children, pursuant to the court’s finding those classes not to be “objective, critical, and pluralistic.”
Schools provide teachers for each of the recognized religious groups, as well as for secular humanism, according to the student’s preference. The public education system requires neutrality in the presentation of religious views outside of religion classes. Teachers of religion are permitted to express their religious beliefs and wear religious attire, even if school policy otherwise forbids such attire. Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the linguistic community government’s education minister. Private, authorized religious schools following the same curriculum as public schools are known as “free” schools. They receive government subsidies for operating expenses, including building maintenance and utilities. Teachers in these schools, like other civil servants, are paid by their respective linguistic community governments.
UNIA, formerly the Inter-federal Center for Equal Opportunities, is a publicly funded but independent agency responsible for litigating discrimination cases, including those of a religious nature.
The justice minister appoints a magistrate in each judicial district to monitor discrimination cases and facilitate prosecution of discrimination as a criminal act.
The Walloon and Flanders regional governments, which have jurisdiction over animal welfare, passed laws in May and July, respectively, banning the ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning. In accordance with kosher and halal practices, ritual slaughter should take place only with unstunned animals. The bans are scheduled to take effect in 2019, ending the permission granted to certified permanent slaughterhouses in those regions to slaughter animals without prior stunning. Both regions ban animal slaughter without prior stunning in temporary slaughtering facilities in use during Islamic holidays.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In the continuing aftermath of 2016 terrorist attacks, the government maintained its efforts to curb what it termed radical Islam in the country’s mosques. In January the Ministry of Justice released a report that labeled Salafism a “societal problem” that can lead to jihadism in the country. In February a report by the government’s Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA) was leaked to the media in which CUTA was cited as stating an increasing number of mosques and Islamic centers were “controlled by Wahhabism,” which was the “Salafist missionary apparatus,” and constituted a threat to the practice of moderate Islam in the country.
In its final report issued in October, the parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on Terrorist Attacks recommended oversight of the Great Mosque in Brussels be removed from the government of Saudi Arabia, which had been granted a concession to oversee the mosque in 1967, and be transferred to the Muslim Executive, the official interlocutor between the government and the country’s Muslim community. The commission further recommended a broader cross-section of Islamic schools of thought should inform management of the mosque, beyond the Salafi/Wahhabi schools, which had been the previous dominant orientation at the mosque, but which the commission determined represented a possible source of radicalism.
The federal and regional governments stated they remained committed to their previously announced plans to encourage mosques to seek official recognition as a means of increasing government oversight. Although the federal government recommended several mosques for recognition by the regional governments, the number of recognized mosques initially declined during the year from 81 to 80 as the result of the withdrawal of official recognition from one mosque by the Flemish minister of home affairs following media reports that the Turkish government sought to determine the content of religious sermons and politically involve itself in the mosque’s operation. The minister also requested the investigation of another mosque. In the wake of these actions, which prompted a negative reaction from the federal minister of justice who was responsible for recognition at the federal level, the recognition of new mosques in Flanders reportedly remained gridlocked. The Walloon regional government later recognized several mosques, increasing the total of recognized mosques to 83 – two higher than the previous year.
Members of the Jewish community stated the public authorities were more aware and concerned about physical threats to the Jewish community following terrorist attacks in 2016. They stated that authorities had failed, however, to address what they termed “day-to-day” anti-Semitism in the country, including expressions of online hatred and the doubling of documented anti-Semitic acts and threats.
The Buddhist community’s previously filed application for recognition remained pending with the Ministry of Justice as of the end of the year. The government nonetheless continued to provide subsidies to the community in preparation for its recognition as a “nonconfessional philosophical community.”
The Hindu community’s previously filed request for recognition also remained pending with the Ministry of Justice at the end of the year.
The government maintained its ban on wearing religious symbols in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public.
In July in a case brought by two Muslim women challenging the law banning wearing the niqab in public, the ECHR upheld the government’s ban, ruling the ban was not discriminatory. The court agreed that the government had the right to consider the ban necessary in a democratic society in order to guarantee the concept of “living together” and the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Most public schools continued to ban headscarves, in accordance with the policy allowing individual schools to decide whether to impose such bans. At least 90 percent of public schools sponsored by the francophone community and virtually all Flemish public schools maintained such bans. Of the 98 Brussels public schools, three continued to allow headscarves.
A new institute for the education of Muslim clergy and scholars opened in Wallonia, following 2016 action by the regional government and the government of the francophone community to establish it.
According to Muslim groups, city and town administrations continued to withhold approval or continued to delay approval for the construction of new mosques and Islamic cultural centers. In Court-Saint-Etienne, city authorities denied an application for the construction of a new mosque for the fourth time in the past five years.
The Jewish community issued public statements criticizing the decisions by the Flanders and Walloon governments to ban slaughter without prior stunning as attacks on Jewish religious practices. The Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations stated the two regions had sent a negative political message because these laws did not respect the principle of equality. The Brussels regional government did not authorize any temporary slaughterhouse specifically for slaughter without prior stunning during Islamic holidays as it had done in previous years.
In September the government’s Committee for Bio-Ethics, after a three-year study, issued a report expressing opposition to circumcision for reasons other than medical necessity, which precluded circumcision based on religious custom. Its ruling stated the physical integrity of the child takes precedence over the belief system of the parents. The recommendation was not legally binding, and some members of the committee stated they recognized the practice of circumcision was also an issue of religious freedom. The report issued a unanimous recommendation to stop social security reimbursements for nonmedical circumcisions, valued at approximately 2.6 million euros ($3.1 million) per year.
The Ministry of Justice increased its annual allocation for clergy salaries and other financial support for recognized religious groups by four million euros to 104 million euros ($124.9 million). Catholic groups once again received approximately 85 percent of the total available funding for religious groups, followed by secular humanists (8 percent) and Protestant groups (2.5 percent). Muslims again received approximately 2 percent of the funding, which was not commensurate with their share of the population, and which observers said did not account for the actual level of services required for imams and mosques.
The ECHR upheld in July the 2013 conviction of Fouad Belkacem by the country’s highest court for hate speech in videos he made in 2011 inciting other persons to discriminate on the basis of faith and to commit violence against non-Muslims. Belkacem had argued his videos were protected under free speech. Belkacem made the appeal to the ECHR while in prison serving a separate 12-year sentence from 2015 for leading a terrorist group.
The Liege appeals court in January upheld the two-month prison sentence previously issued to French comedian Dieudonne for incitement to hatred, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust denial in a 2012 nightclub show. In June the country’s highest court upheld the appellate court decision, although media commentary suggested Dieudonne ultimately would not spend time in prison due to overcrowding but would have to pay the 9,000 euro ($10,800) fine levied by the court.
In November the mayors of Brussels and Molenbeek banned a so-called Islam safari that aimed to showcase the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek’s alleged connections to violent extremism. The event was organized by the leader of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party, Filip Dewinter, jointly with Dutch Freedom Party Leader Geert Wilders. Wilders held a press conference at the Belgian Parliament in response to the event’s banning, saying “Enough is enough. Parliamentarians should be able to travel freely in their own country. But mayors are telling us that this is forbidden, and they are saying Molenbeek no longer belongs to Belgium.”
In April the Forum of Jewish Organizations of the Flemish Region released a statement denouncing the city of Antwerp’s plan to move a 20-year-old Holocaust monument to a quieter neighborhood so the annual Holocaust commemoration and its required security would “have less of an impact on traffic.” The statement noted that the Jewish community was not consulted and that the proposed location had no historic connection to the Holocaust, during which German and Belgian officers concentrated thousands of Antwerp Jews at the Belgielei location ahead of their shipment to death camps. The statement said the move “would result in the loss of a historical, emotional, and educational dimension.” The mayor of Antwerp acknowledged the failure to consult the Jewish community and apologized.
In November the Jewish Museum of Belgium together with the Belgian State Archive, with support from the Jewish-Moroccan Cultural Center, mounted its first new exhibition since a terrorist attack killed four persons there in 2014. The exhibit “Belgium, Welcoming Land?” explores the history of immigration to the country, and its curator stated the aim was to emphasize cultural commonalities among immigrants as a means to counter intolerance.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and conscience. Religious groups may worship without registering, but registered groups receive certain benefits, including the right to receive state funding, operate schools and hospitals, and receive property tax exemptions. The constitution recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s “traditional” religion, and the law exempts the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) from registration. The retrial of 13 regional Muslim leaders charged with spreading Salafi Islam continued, as did the trial against 14 Romani Muslims charged with propagating antidemocratic ideology, inciting war, and aiding foreign fighters. In June the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government’s denial of a registration application by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community constituted a violation of religious freedom. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported continued assaults and harassment and a continuing campaign against them by members of the United Patriots coalition in the national assembly. Schools continued to ban the wearing of religious symbols. Minority religious groups reported increased local prohibitions on proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature. The Muslim community reported difficulty in obtaining construction permits for new places of worship and restitution of property confiscated by the communist regime. Protestants and other minority religious groups reported discrimination by government officials. Jewish organizations expressed concern over the government’s failure to prosecute growing anti-Semitism on social media. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and minority religious groups expressed concern over proposals for legislation restricting religious activities. The government established the position of national coordinator for combating anti-Semitism and adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism.
Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported multiple cases of physical assaults, harassment, and threats against members of their communities. Protestant pastors reported harassment from Orthodox priests, who said the pastors represented “sects.” The Office of the Grand Mufti blamed the government for financial difficulties resulting in its inability to pay imams. Despite protests resulting in denial of official permission to stage the annual march honoring pro-Nazi World War II (WWII) figure Hristo Lukov, the march took place. Jewish NGOs expressed concern over the increase of hate speech and other manifestations of anti-Semitism. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, some media outlets continued to misrepresent their activities and encouraged their harassment. Muslims, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported incidents of vandalism against their property. Christian and Muslim groups held commemorative events to promote religious tolerance.
The U.S. embassy regularly discussed cases of religious discrimination, the harassment of religious minorities, and legislative initiatives proposing restrictions on religious activities in meetings with government officials, including in the Directorate for Religious Affairs, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination, local government, and law enforcement. The U.S. Ambassador protested the march to commemorate Hristo Lukov, and the embassy issued a statement condemning hate speech and the incitement of violence. The Ambassador advocated tolerance and cited lessons from the Holocaust in speeches at public events and in meetings with religious groups and NGOs. The Ambassador discussed the restitution of historical property, draft legislation imposing restrictions on religious freedom, and other challenges facing the Muslim community with the grand mufti and the Kurdjali regional mufti. Embassy officials met with minority religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Armenian, and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities, to discuss their concerns over existing restrictions on their activities and proposals by political figures for further restrictions. In March the embassy cohosted a religious tolerance workshop, bringing together religious leaders, government officials, and NGOs. Also in March the Ambassador spoke on the importance of building on the country’s heritage of religious tolerance at a Tolerance and Mutual Understanding Day in Kurdjali.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states freedom of conscience and choice of religion or no religion are inviolable, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the state shall assist in maintaining tolerance and respect among believers of different denominations, as well as between believers and nonbelievers. It states the practice of any religion shall be unrestricted and religious beliefs, institutions, and communities shall not be used for political ends. It restricts freedom of religion to the extent that its practice would be detrimental to national security, public order, health, and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. It states no one shall be exempt from obligations established by the constitution or the law on grounds of religious or other convictions. The constitution also stipulates the separation of religious institutions from the state and the formation of political parties along religious lines, as well as organizations that incite religious animosity. The law does not allow any privilege based on religious identity.
The constitution names Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s traditional religion. The law establishes the BOC as a legal entity, exempting it from the court registration that is mandatory for all other religious groups wishing to acquire legal recognition.
The penal code prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for participants in attacks on individuals or groups based on their religious affiliation. Instigators and leaders of an attack may receive prison sentences of up to six years. Those who obstruct the ability of individuals to profess their faith or carry out their rituals and services or compel another to participate in religious rituals and services may be sentenced to up to one year in prison. Violating a person’s or group’s freedom of acquiring or practicing a religious belief is subject to a fine of between 100 and 300 levs ($60 to $180). If the infraction is committed by any legal entity, the fine can range from 500 to 5,000 levs ($305 to $3,050).
To receive national legal recognition, the law requires groups other than the BOC to register with the Sofia City Court. Applications must include: the group’s name and official address; a description of the group’s religious beliefs and service practices, organizational structure and bodies, management procedures, bodies, and mandates; a list of official representatives and the processes for their election; procedures for convening meetings and making decisions; and information on finances and property and processes for termination and liquidation. The Directorate for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers provides expert opinions on registration matters upon request of the court. Applicants may appeal negative registration decisions to the Sofia Appellate Court and, subsequently, the Supreme Cassation Court. The law does not require the formal registration of local branches of registered groups, only that branches notify local authorities of the national registration of their group. The law prohibits registration of different groups with the same name in the same location. There are 168 registered religious groups, in addition to the BOC.
The law requires the government to provide funding for all registered religious groups, although there is no legal requirement on how to allocate the funds among the groups. Registered groups have the right to perform religious services, own assets such as houses of worship and cemeteries, provide medical, social, and educational services, receive property tax exemptions, and participate in commercial ventures.
Unregistered religious groups may engage in religious practice, but they lack privileges granted to registered groups, such as access to government funding and the right to own property, establish financial accounts in their name, operate schools and hospitals, receive property tax exemptions, or sell religious merchandise.
The law restricts the wearing of face-covering garments in public places, imposing a fine of 200 levs ($120) for a first offense and 1,500 levs ($900) for repeat offenders.
The law allows registered, but not unregistered, groups to publish, import, and distribute religious media. The law does not restrict proselytizing by registered or unregistered groups. Some municipal ordinances, however, require local permits for distribution of religious literature in public places, and some municipalities have adopted local regulations that restrict proselytizing.
By law, public schools at all levels may, but are not required to, teach the historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of religion and introduce students to the moral values of different religious groups as part of the core curriculum. A school may teach any registered religion in a special course as part of the elective curriculum upon request of at least eight students, subject to the availability of books and teachers. The Ministry of Education and Science approves and provides books for these special religion courses. If a public school is unable to pay for a religion teacher, it may accept financial sponsorship from a private donor or a teacher from a registered denomination. The law also allows registered religious groups to operate schools and universities, provided they meet government standards for secular education.
The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent government body charged with preventing and protecting against discrimination, including religious discrimination, and ensuring equal opportunity. It functions as a civil litigation court adjudicating discrimination complaints; its decisions may be appealed to administrative courts. If the commission accepts a case, it assigns it to a panel and then reviews it in open session. If it makes a finding of discrimination, the commission may impose a fine of 250-2,000 levs ($150-$1,200). The commission may double fines for repeat violations. Regional courts may also try civil cases involving religious discrimination.
The law establishes an independent ombudsman to serve as an advocate for citizens who believe that public or municipal administrations or public service providers have violated their rights and freedoms, including those pertaining to religion, through their actions or inaction. The ombudsman may request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals for terminating existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request the Constitutional Court to abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.
The penal code provides up to three years’ imprisonment for forming “a political organization on religious grounds” or using a church or religion to spread propaganda against the authority of the state or its activities. It prohibits the propagation or incitement of religious or other discrimination, violence, or hatred “by speech, press or other media, by electronic information systems or in another manner,” as well as religiously motivated assault or property damage. Either offense is punishable by imprisonment for one to four years and a fine of 5,000-10,000 levs ($3,050-$6,100), as well as “public censure.” Desecration of religious symbols or sites, including places of worship or graves, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 3,000-10,000 levs ($1,850-$6,100).
The law allows foreign members of religious denominations to obtain long-term residency permits.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The retrial of 13 Muslim leaders charged with spreading an antidemocratic ideology (Salafi Islam, per the prosecution) continued at the Plovdiv Appellate court. The trial of 14 Romani Muslims on charges of propagating antidemocratic ideology and incitement to war and aiding ISIS continued in Pazardjik District Court. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported continued assaults and harassment, including an ongoing media campaign against them, by members of the United Patriots coalition in the national assembly. Schools continued to ban the wearing of religious symbols, including the hijab and cross. Jehovah’s Witnesses and other minority religious groups reported an increase in the number of municipalities with ordinances restricting their activities, especially proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature. The Muslim community reported difficulty in obtaining construction permits for new places of worship; its property restitution claims remained suspended, pending court review of whether the Office of the Grand Mufti was the rightful successor to confiscated properties. The ECHR ruled the government’s denial of registration of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community constituted a violation of the religious freedom clause of the European Convention on Human Rights. Jewish organizations expressed concern over the government’s failure to prosecute growing anti-Semitism on social media. NGOs and minority religious groups expressed concern over proposals for legislation restricting religious activities, including one that would criminalize “radical Islam.” The government established the position of national coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, and adopted the internationally accepted working definition of anti-Semitism.
At year’s end, the retrial of Ahmed Mussa and 12 other Muslims charged with spreading Salafi Islam (which the prosecution characterized as an antidemocratic ideology), remained ongoing at the Plovdiv Appellate Court. In July 2016 the Supreme Cassation Court had vacated the guilty verdict against Mussa for preaching Salafi Islam and rescinded the administrative punishment against the 12 other Muslims, ordering the Plovdiv Appellate Court to retry the case.
In a separate case, the trial of 14 Romani Muslims, including Ahmed Mussa, on charges of supporting ISIS, assisting foreign fighters, and propagating antidemocratic ideology and incitement to war, remained ongoing at year’s end at the Pazardjik District Court. Mussa, who had been in custody during the trial, was released on bail in November, while 12 other defendants continued to be under house arrest; the 14th defendant remained free, released on her own recognizance.
On June 15, the ECHR delivered a unanimous ruling that the Bulgarian government had violated Article 9 (freedom of religion) in light of Article 11 (freedom of association) of the European Convention on Human Rights by denying a registration application by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Rumen Metodiev, later joined by others, had first applied to register the group in 2007 and been denied by the Sofia City Court, following a negative report on the group by the government’s Department of Religious Affairs. According to the ECHR, the government’s report stated the Ahmadis were “known for their religious intolerance, refusal of modernity, and polygamy, and were regarded as a sect by Muslims.” Metodiev appealed to the ECHR in 2008 after the Sofia Appellate Court and the Supreme Cassation Court upheld the denial. The ECHR decreed the government should pay Metodiev 4,000 euros ($2,450) in damages. The ECHR ruled its finding of a violation constituted sufficient compensation for damages sustained by the other plaintiffs. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered at year’s end.
Members of minority religious groups, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report cases where the government failed to prosecute individuals, particularly members of the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) political parties, for the assault and harassment of their members.
On July 19, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, IMRO party member and Vratsa Municipal Councilor Marin Tsvetkov approached two Jehovah’s Witnesses on the street and tried to push over their cart containing literature. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, this was the ninth incident of harassment by Tsvetkov. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said police spoke with Tsvetkov but took no other action after the incident.
In August the Supreme Cassation Court vacated the Sofia Appellate Court’s 2015 decision upholding the challenge of former Grand Mufti Nedim Gendjev to the legitimacy of the 2011 extraordinary conference, which had elected Mustafa Alish Hadji as Grand Mufti. At year’s end Gendjev continued to pursue a court challenge of Hadji’s election, which a regular Muslim conference confirmed in 2016.
The Commission for Protection against Discrimination and most schools continued to interpret the law denying privileges based on religious identity as banning the display of all religious symbols in public schools, including wearing hijabs or displaying crosses.
The government stated it would continue to work closely with groups representing Orthodox Christianity, Hanafi Sunni Islam, Judaism, and Roman Catholicism, each of which it recognized as holding a historic place in the country’s culture.
The national budget allocated a total of 5 million levs ($3.1 million) for the construction and maintenance of religious facilities and related expenses, including: 3.76 million levs ($2.3 million) for the BOC; 360,000 levs ($221,000) for the Muslim community; and 50,000 levs ($30,700) each for the Roman Catholic Church, AAOC, and the Jewish community. The budget distributed 80,000 levs ($49,000) among 15 other registered denominations that had applied for funds to the Directorate for Religious Affairs. The directorate stated its goal was to make sure denominations that had not received funds previously received funding if they applied. The government’s budget also allocated 450,000 levs ($276,000) for the maintenance of religious facilities of national importance, 50,000 levs ($30,700) for the publication of religious books and research, and 15,000 levs ($9,200) to the National Council of Religious Communities. The budget kept 135,000 levs ($82,800) in reserve, including 15,000 levs ($9,200) for updating the electronic register and digital database of religious facilities in the country.
Minority religious groups reported at least 40 municipalities, a nearly 70 percent increase compared with 2016, had ordinances prohibiting door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature. Among these municipalities were the regional cities of Haskovo, Kurdjali, Kyustendil, Pazardjik, Pleven, Ruse, Shumen, Silistra, Sliven, Stara Zagora, Turgovishte, Varna, Vratsa, and Yambol.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, reported many municipalities had ordinances restricting their religious activities, including ones preventing them from expressing their religious convictions in public and carrying out what the ordinances termed “religious agitation on city streets” by distributing free printed materials, and from visiting individuals at their homes, which was often characterized as “religious propaganda.” They cited multiple instances in which police fined, threatened, warned, or issued citations to individual Jehovah’s Witnesses for violating these ordinances. For example, on July 19, two police patrol officers stopped two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were talking with people on the street in Obzor and told them their activity was illegal, threatening to arrest them if they continued.
Sometimes municipalities imposed fines on individual Jehovah’s Witnesses even though the city ordinances did not include restrictions on religious activities. Municipalities levied 10 fines on Jehovah’s Witnesses, who appealed nine of them, of which the courts annulled eight. For example, on June 23 and July 7, Sofia municipal officials issued citations for unauthorized commercial activity to Jehovah’s Witnesses distributing religious literature, imposing a 100 lev ($61) fine for violating the regulations for public sports, culture, and other mass events. On November 24, Sofia Administrative Court annulled the June fine; an appeal of the July fine was pending at year’s end.
Representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported recommendations by the Directorate for Religious Affairs or by the ombudsman against municipal restrictions on religious activities had no effect. Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged eight of the ordinances in administrative courts and won all eight cases. The courts ruled the ordinances had violated the country’s constitution, declaring the ordinances null and void. Municipalities appealed three of the eight cases; the appeals were pending at year’s end. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Asenovgrad municipality revoked its restrictions on door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature after learning about court decisions revoking ordinances in other localities.
Muslim representatives continued to report a lack of cooperation from authorities on the restoration and maintenance of historic mosques, such as the Makbul Ibrahim Pasa in Razgrad, that the Ministry of Culture managed as national cultural monuments.
Muslim community leaders reported the municipality of Gotse Delchev continued to withhold issuance of a construction permit to build a mosque, maintaining the plot remained zoned for a shopping center. They also said the Sofia municipal government continued to withhold permission to build a second mosque in Sofia on the grounds that the application for a building permit remained incomplete. In August IMRO declared it would oppose any attempts to build a new mosque in Sofia, which it said would “alter the skyline of the city as a capital which stands up for its history and values.” There were no reports of further developments in either case by year’s end.
Catholic community leaders complained about the Sofia municipality’s refusal to recognize the religious status of a monastery there, treating it instead as a residential building and imposing taxes that otherwise would be waived.
The Office of the Grand Mufti reported there had been no progress by year’s end with regard to its claim, lodged with the Sofia City Court, for succession to the properties of pre-1940s Muslim religious communities seized by the communist government. Pending court review of who the rightful successor to the confiscated properties was, the government continued to hold all restitution claims by the Office of the Grand Mufti in suspension.
The government did not restitute any properties to the Catholic Church during the year. The Church reported authorities had returned approximately 50 percent of the properties for which it was seeking restitution since the restitution law entered into force in 1992.
According to the United Evangelical Churches (UEC) – a group representing nine individual Protestant churches and three unions of Pentecostal, Baptist, and Congregational churches – the Chitalishte Union, a government-supported association of educational and cultural community centers throughout the country, prohibited its member cultural centers from renting their premises to Protestants for their religious activities because the union regarded them as “sects.”
In April the Kurdjali Administrative Court overruled the denial by the Commission for Protection against Discrimination of a complaint filed by Muslims about the failure of public kindergartens, schools, and hospitals to offer menu choices without pork in their eating facilities. The Ministry of Health and the Kurdjali Municipality had supported the commission’s position that health considerations should guide the dietary choices offered in those institutions. The court stated the commission had failed to document any negative health-related consequences of replacing pork with other meat and ordered the commission to review the case again.
The government continued to permit religious headdresses in official photos for national identity documents as long as both ears and one centimeter (2/5 of an inch) of hair were visible.
The local lodge of Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith made multiple statements to the media that leading politicians in the three political parties comprising the United Patriots coalition had carried out anti-Semitic acts and appointed to public service individuals professing neo-Nazi views. On May 17, Deputy Regional Development Minister Pavel Tenev resigned after a picture of him saluting a wax statue of a Nazi officer in a Paris museum nine years earlier was circulated on social media. Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov defended Tenev, commenting that, as a student in the 1970s, he himself had visited the Buchenwald concentration camp and might have taken “fun-poking pictures” there. Similar pictures of Ivo Antonov, head of a directorate at the Ministry of Defense, giving a Nazi salute in front of a German tank surfaced on May 18, but they did not result in his resignation. Antonov issued a public apology, and the defense minister refused to fire him despite the prime minister’s request to do so.
Jewish organizations reported the government declined to prosecute individuals or organizations for propagating anti-Semitism online, despite evidence collected by the police. For example, in December the group National Resistance, led by Blagovest Asenov, posted on its Facebook page a statement reading in part, “The Jews have done much evil to mankind, but the beginning … was the murder of Christ! … they have … been the greatest supporters of debauchery and evil … they have served as Satan’s edge against man and the Christian people.”
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the campaign mounted against them by the NFSB and the IMRO, two members of the United Patriots coalition, continued throughout the year. For example, in January in Elhovo, in February in Mezdra, and in July in Vratsa, IMRO members questioned the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries to distribute literature and threatened them, in one case telling the missionaries no one would “be able to save you.”
Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, who also served as the minister of defense and as the leader of IMRO, stated in several public interviews there should be a law prohibiting foreign financing of religious denominations and restricting the ability of foreigners to engage in religious activities in the country. He also proposed that the High Islamic Institute train imams according to a government-approved curriculum. The leaders of many religious groups, including Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Armenian Orthodox, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, all expressed concern over Karakachanov’s proposed restrictions.
On December 6, the national assembly passed on first reading a bill submitted by the United Patriots coalition amending the penal code to criminalize “radical Islam.” The draft amendments defined radical Islam as an ideology calling for establishing a caliphate, enforcing the rule of sharia, or forcing Islamic religious principles and norms on others. Muslim leaders and NGOs criticized the proposal, saying it stigmatized and discriminated against Muslims as well as religious faith in general. At year’s end, the proposal was pending a second reading in the national assembly, required before becoming law.
In May President Rumen Radev, continuing his predecessor’s tradition, hosted an iftar attended by religious leaders, politicians, academics, diplomats, and refugees. At the iftar, Radev told the participants different ethnic and religious backgrounds did not divide the country but enriched and further developed its identity.
In May the country advanced its status in the IHRA from observer to liaison. Pursuant to its application for full membership, on October 18, the government designated Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev as National Coordinator for Combating Anti-Semitism, and adopted the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism. Meeting with the Israeli Ambassador in November, Georgiev said authorities would continue to sanction manifestations of anti-Semitism “with all necessary severity,” adding that “such actions are not inherent to the Bulgarian people.” Also in November the foreign ministry issued a statement denouncing anti-Semitic acts and intolerance after vandals posted anti-Semitic graffiti on two Soviet Army monuments.
A Holocaust education program trained 20-25 history teachers annually, based on a 2016 memorandum between the Ministry of Education and Israel’s Yad Vashem. In the fall an interagency committee began working with textbook publishers on updating content related to the Holocaust and the history of Jews in the country.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. All religious communities receive the same religious protections, and are free to worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature. The government has written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that provide for state financial support and tax and other benefits; other registered religious communities with agreements with the state receive equivalent benefits. Registered religious communities without such agreements and unregistered religious groups receive fewer benefits. The ombudsman reported some health institutions denied operations to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions for religious reasons. The ombudsman recommended the two ministries concerned act to ensure Jehovah’s Witnesses received adequate medical care. The government did not resolve outstanding property restitution cases with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC). Senior government officials attended an annual commemoration of victims of the World War II (WWII)-era Jasenovac death camp, which Jewish and Serb (largely Orthodox) leaders boycotted to protest placement near the camp of a private plaque bearing a salute of the fascist Ustasha organization and the lack of government action to remove the plaque. Government leaders later condemned the plaque and moved it elsewhere. The government formed a council to make recommendations on the use of totalitarian symbols and slogans used during and after WWII.
Jewish community leaders continued to report concerns about Holocaust denial, distancing, and minimization and the use by some of Ustasha symbols and slogans. Some Jewish community leaders said there were incidents of significant historical revisionism and downplaying of the country’s role in the Holocaust, and expressed dissatisfaction with how the government responded to cases of anti-Semitism, such as the placement of the controversial plaque at Jasenovac. Jewish, Serb, and other groups organized separate commemorations for the victims of the Jasenovac death camp after boycotting the government’s ceremony. In February a nonparliamentary political party organized a demonstration in which marchers bore Ustasha symbols, and in August a singer led pro-Ustasha chants during a concert. SOC Patriarch Irinej of Serbia called on the government and Catholic clergy to respond to crimes against Croatian Serbs and to address what he described as the desecration of SOC churches in the country.
The U.S. embassy continued to encourage the government to restitute property seized during and after WWII, particularly from the Jewish community during the Holocaust, and advocated amendments to existing legislation that would allow for restitution and compensation claims with a revised deadline for new applications. The embassy sponsored a visit by four teachers to the U.S. for a Holocaust education exchange program.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for equality of rights regardless of religion, and freedom of conscience and religious expression. It prohibits incitement of religious hatred. According to the constitution, religious communities shall be equal under the law and separate from the state; they are free to publicly conduct religious services and open and manage schools and charitable organizations under the protection and assistance of the state.
The Catholic Church receives state financial support and other benefits established in four concordats between the government and the Holy See. These agreements allow state financing for salaries and pensions of some religious officials associated with religious education through government-managed pension and health funds. These agreements also stipulate state funding for religious education in public schools. The law stipulates the same rights and benefits as those specified for the Catholic Church in the concordats with other registered religious communities that have concluded agreements with the state.
The law defines the legal position of religious communities and determines eligibility for government funding and tax benefits; registered religious communities are exempt from taxes on the purchase of real estate, the profit/capital gains tax, and taxes on donations. According to the law, a religious community which was previously active as a legal entity before enactment of the current law need only submit its name, the location of its headquarters, information about the office of the person authorized to represent it, and the seal and stamp it uses to register. To register as a religious community, a religious group without prior legal status must have at least 500 members and have been registered as an association for at least five years. To register as an organization, a group submits a list of its members and documentation outlining the group’s activities and bylaws and describing its mission to the Ministry of Administration. Nonregistered religious groups may operate freely but without tax or other benefits. A contractual agreement with the state, which grants a registered religious community eligibility for further funding and benefits, defines the community’s role and activities and provides for collaboration with the government in areas of joint interest, such as education, health, and culture.
The state recognizes marriages conducted by registered religious communities that have concluded agreements with the state, eliminating the need for civil registration. Marriages conducted by registered communities that have not concluded agreements with the state, or by nonregistered religious groups, require civil registration. Registered religious communities that have not concluded agreements with the state and nonregistered religious groups may not conduct religious education in schools or access state funds in support of religious activities, including charitable work, counseling, building costs, and clergy salaries; however, they may engage in worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature. Only registered religious communities, with or without agreements with the state, may provide spiritual counsel in prisons, hospitals, and the military.
There are 54 registered religious communities, including the Catholic Church, SOC, Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Christian Adventist Church, Church of Christ, Church of God, Croatian Old Catholic Church, Evangelical Church, Macedonian Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Reformed Christian Church, Union of Baptist Churches, Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Union of Pentecostal Churches of Christ, Coordination of Jewish Communities in Croatia (an umbrella group of nine distinct Jewish communities), Jewish Community of Virovitica, Bet Israel (a Jewish group), and the Islamic Community of Croatia. Besides the Catholic Church, 19 religious communities have agreements with the state.
Public schools must offer religious education, although students may opt out without providing specific grounds. The Catholic catechism is the predominant religious text used. Other religious communities that have agreements with the state may also offer religious education classes in schools if there are seven or more students of that faith. Eligible religious communities provide the instructors and the state pays their salaries. Private religious schools are eligible for state assistance.
The law does not allow citizens whose property was confiscated during the Holocaust era to seek compensation or restitution, as it excludes the period of 1941-45 from claims. The law also does not allow noncitizens to file new property claims, since a legal deadline for such claims expired in 2003 and has not been renewed.
The ombudsman is a commissioner of the parliament responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The ombudsman examines citizens’ complaints pertaining to the work of state bodies, local and regional self-government, and legal persons vested with public authority. The ombudsman can issue recommendations to government agencies regarding human rights and religious freedom practices, but does not have authority itself to enforce compliance with recommendations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The ombudsman reported continued obstacles encountered by Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding their right to health care in accordance with their religious beliefs. The ombudsman stated that in 2016, the latest year for which figures were available, there were 22 cases in which 14 state healthcare institutions denied surgery to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions because of their religious beliefs. The Jehovah’s Witness community reported having to use its own finances to send patients to different hospitals for procedures, including hospitals outside of the country. The ombudsman’s 2016 report made recommendations for the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor to improve hospital procedures and policies in order to provide adequate health care to patients in accordance with their religious beliefs.
Representatives of the SOC reported the government did not resolve any of its outstanding property restitution cases during the year, including claims for land in Osijek County and properties in Vukovar, Vinkovci, and Epharchy Osijecko-Poljska.
On August 17, the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs issued a statement noting the government was engaged in dialogue with representatives of minorities and was committed to promoting tolerance, solidarity, and cooperation among minority and religious groups.
According to the Office of the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities, the Catholic Church received 299.5 million kuna ($48.1 million) in government funding during the year for salaries, pensions, and other purposes, compared to 285.7 million kuna ($45.9 million) in 2016. The government offered funding to other religious communities that had concluded agreements with the state, a portion of which was based on their size, in addition to funds provided to support religious education in public schools (all offered on an opt-in basis), as well as the operation of private religious schools. The government provided 20.6 million kuna ($3.31 million) to these groups, the same amount as the previous year.
On April 23, Prime Minister (PM) Andrej Plenkovic and other government ministers attended the annual official commemoration for victims of the WWII-era Jasenovac death camp. For the second year in a row, Jewish and Serb (largely Orthodox) leaders announced they would not participate in the official ceremony, but would hold separate commemorations. The leaders cited dissatisfaction with the government’s lack of response to a veterans group’s placement of a plaque, in November 2016, bearing the Ustasha-era salute “Za dom Spremni” (“For the Homeland, Ready,” ZDS) near the site of the camp. Following the boycott, PM Plenkovic said he regretted the placement of the plaque and that it was the lasting task of the government to develop a tolerant and democratic society. In September President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and PM Plenkovic both condemned the plaque, and the government relocated it to a veterans’ cemetery in the nearby town of Novska; the government did not make a determination on the legality of the use of the controversial Ustasha salute.
In March PM Plenkovic announced the creation of a special council, the Council for Dealing with Consequences of the Rule of Non-Democratic Regimes. According to the PM, the council would provide the government with legal and institutional recommendations regarding the use of symbols of totalitarian regimes during and after WWII, to include ZDS, that would be used for eventual legislation on the issue. The government directed the council, which consisted of legal experts, academics, and historians, to issue its recommendations by March 2018.
In January PM Plenkovic attended a traditional Orthodox Christmas reception organized by the Serb National Council (SNV) in Zagreb. He stated his government’s policy was one of stability, tolerance, dialogue, settlement of outstanding issues, and good relations with all minorities in the country. When he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in January, he committed to fight “any form of hatred, racism, and Holocaust denial” and said the country would continue to promote “values of mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance.”
On August 24, President Grabar-Kitarovic bestowed the Order of Ante Starcevic, a national decoration, upon the leader of the Islamic Community of Croatia, Mufti Aziz Efendi Hasanovic. Hasanovic was recognized for his contribution to the building of the contemporary state and promotion of religious liberties, tolerance, and human rights, as well as for his engagement in interreligious and intercultural cooperation. During the ceremony, the president stated Muslim citizens were included in all spheres of social life on an equal footing. The president emphasized the successful interreligious dialogue between the Christian majority and Muslim minority, commending the role of the Islamic Community of Croatia.
Members of the Islamic community reported they cooperated with the government to provide religious and cultural instruction to soldiers before they deployed to Muslim countries, particularly Afghanistan. The Mufti of Croatia, Aziz Hasanovic, accompanied President Grabar-Kitarovic on state visits to majority-Muslim countries.
The Office of the President continued to maintain a special advisor for Holocaust issues.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
READ A SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS (BELOW) | THE AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS
Since 1974, the southern part of Cyprus has been under the authority of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, while the northern part, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) in 1983. The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any country other than Turkey. A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island. A buffer zone, or “green line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom to worship, teach, and practice one’s religion. It grants the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and recognizes the Vakf, an Islamic institution that manages land Muslims have donated as an endowment for charitable purposes as well as sites of worship. The government granted Turkish Cypriots access to religious sites in the area it controls, including for visits by approximately 2,650 Turkish Cypriots and foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque on three occasions. Seven of the eight functioning mosques, with the exception of Hala Sultan Tekke, in the government-controlled area were open for all five daily prayers, and six had the necessary facilities for ablutions. Despite long-standing requests, the government did not grant permission to the Muslim community to make improvements at mosques. A representative of the Buddhist community reported authorities raised obstacles to the operation of a temple in a village outside of Nicosia and forced the community to relocate the temple. In July the government removed a requirement to designate a person’s religion on civil marriage applications and certificates. The ombudsman’s office reported it was investigating new complaints regarding Ministry of Education (MOE) regulations for exempting students from religious instruction. The government required those who objected to military service on religious grounds to perform alternate service for longer periods.
The Jewish community reported incidents of assault, verbal harassment, and vandalism. Some religious minority groups reported pressure to engage in religious ceremonies of majority groups. Members of the Greek Orthodox majority reported they sometimes faced social ostracism from the Greek Orthodox community if they converted to another religion, such as Islam. A hotel reportedly refused to hire Muslim women for a cleaning job because they wore a hijab. In June a bicommunal working group set up as part of the UN-facilitated settlement talks completed the restoration of Koprulu Mosque in Limassol and Mathiatis Mosque in Nicosia district, and in October the Department of Antiquities completed the restoration of Arnavut Mosque in Limassol. The United Nations introduced religious groups and civil society organizations to its “Faith for Rights” initiative, which aimed to strengthen and deepen the connections between religious groups and human rights. The religious and civil society groups reportedly received the initiative positively and discussed ways to engage the public in a dialogue on protecting human rights to promote freedom of religion. Leaders of the main religious groups on the island continued to meet and reaffirmed their commitment to the promotion of religious freedom across the island. In October the Office of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP) launched a pilot program offering Greek and Turkish language classes for priests, imams, nuns, and laypersons who worked for faith-based organizations.
U.S. embassy staff met with the government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom issues, including access to religious sites island-wide and discriminatory treatment of minority religious groups. Embassy officials encouraged religious leaders to continue their dialogue and hold reciprocal visits to places of religious significance on either side of the “green line.”
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the right of individuals to profess their faith and to worship, teach, and practice or observe their religion, individually or collectively, in private or in public, subject to limitations due to considerations of national security or public health, safety, order, and morals, or the protection of civil liberties. The constitution specifies all religions whose doctrines or rites are not secret are free and equal before the law. It protects the right to change one’s religion and prohibits the use of physical or moral compulsion to make a person change, or prevent a person from changing, his or her religion. The ombudsman is an independent state institution responsible for protecting citizens’ rights and human rights in general. The ombudsman has the power to investigate complaints made against any public service or official for actions that violate human rights, including freedom of religion, or actions exercised in contravention of the laws or the rules of proper administration. The ombudsman makes recommendations to correct wrongdoings but does not issue remedial steps.
The constitution states the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus (Church of Cyprus) has the exclusive right to regulate and administer the Church’s internal affairs and property in accordance with its canons and charter. By law, the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus pays taxes only on commercial activities.
The constitution sets guidelines for the Vakf, which is tax exempt and has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its laws and principles. According to the constitution, no legislative, executive, or other act may contravene or interfere with the Church of Cyprus or the Vakf. The Vakf operates only in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and does not administer mosques located in the government-controlled area. The Vakf acts as caretaker of religious properties in the Turkish Cypriot community. The government serves as caretaker and provides financial support to mosques in government-controlled areas.
Besides the Church of Cyprus and Islam, the constitution recognizes three other religious groups: Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and “Latins” (Cypriot Roman Catholics). Their institutions are exempt from taxes and eligible for government subsidies for cultural and educational matters, depending on the needs of each group, for example, to cover costs to operate their own schools, for school fees for members of the groups attending private schools, or for activities to preserve their cultural identity.
Religious groups not recognized in the constitution must register with the government as nonprofit organizations in order to engage in financial transactions and maintain bank accounts. To register, a religious group must submit through an attorney an application to the Ministry of Commerce stating its purpose and provide the names of its directors. Religious groups registered as nonprofit organizations are treated the same as any other nonprofit organization; they are tax-exempt, must provide annual reports to the government, and are not eligible for government subsidies.
The government requires Greek Orthodox religious instruction and attendance at religious services before major holidays in public primary and secondary schools. The MOE may excuse primary school students of other religious groups from attending religious services and instruction at the request of their guardians, but Greek Orthodox children in primary school may not opt out. The MOE may excuse any secondary school student from religious instruction on grounds of religion or conscience, and may excuse them from attending religious services on any grounds at the request of their guardians, or at their own request if over the age of 16.
Conscientious objectors on religious grounds are exempt from active military duty and from reservist service in the National Guard but must complete alternative service. There are two options available for conscientious objectors: unarmed military service, which is a maximum of four months longer than the normal 14-month service; or social service, which is a maximum of eight months longer than normal service but requires fewer hours of work per day. The penalty for refusing military or alternate service is up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 6,000 euros ($7,200), or both. Those who refuse both military and alternate service, even if objecting on religious grounds, are considered to have committed an offense involving dishonesty or moral turpitude and are disqualified from holding elected public office and ineligible for permits to provide private security services.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Ministry of Interior (MOI), which has oversight of Turkish Cypriot properties in the government-controlled area, granted Turkish Cypriots access to religious sites in the area it controlled; however, Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to withhold full access to 19 mosques located on cultural heritage sites and deny them any administrative authority over the sites. The ministry made available six of those 19 mosques, as well as two other mosques not located on cultural heritage sites, for religious services. Of the eight functioning mosques, seven were available for all five daily prayers, and six had the necessary facilities for ablutions. Bayraktar and Dhali Mosques had no ablution facilities and no bathrooms, and the government removed temporary bathrooms installed during Ramadan at Dhali Mosque. The Ministry of Communications and Works’ Department of Antiquities reported it provided bathroom facilities at a distance of approximately 330 feet from Bayraktar Mosque, because the mosque was part of the medieval Venetian wall of the city, making it impossible to install sewage pipes. According to the MOI, in 2016, the government approved architectural plans for ablution and bathroom facilities at the Dhali Mosque; construction had not begun by year’s end. The government again failed to respond to a long-standing request by the Muslim community for permission to make improvements at the functioning mosques, and there was no change from previous years in either the number of open mosques or the number of ablution and bathroom facilities available at those mosques.
The only one of the eight functioning mosques not open for all five daily prayers was the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque, the most important Islamic religious site in the country. The Department of Antiquities continued to keep it open during standard museum hours only, limiting access to the mosque to two of the five daily prayer times. The mosque’s imam had to ask permission of the MOI and Department of Antiquities to keep the mosque open after 5 p.m. in the autumn/winter months and after 7:30 p.m. in the spring/summer months. To cross the “green line” without identification checks to visit religious sites, Turkish Cypriots were required to submit their requests to UNFICYP, which then facilitated the approval process with the government.
The government continued to waive visa requirements for the movement of non-Turkish Cypriot pilgrims south across the “green line” to visit Hala Sultan Tekke to conduct prayers and services on special occasions. On June 27, approximately 1,000 pilgrims crossed into the government-controlled areas for a pilgrimage to Hala Sultan Tekke on Eid al-Fitr. On September 5, police escorted approximately 700 Turkish Cypriots, Turks, and other foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke for prayers on Eid al-Adha. On November 29, 950 more crossed the “green line” for a pilgrimage at Hala Sultan Tekke on the occasion of the Mawlid-al Nabi.
A representative of the Buddhist community reported it continued to encounter difficulties operating a temple due to the rigorous enforcement of laws not typically observed for majority religious and other groups. Authorities prevented the community from operating a temple in Pera, a village outside of Nicosia where the community owned a house, arguing the community should have applied first for permission to change the building’s use from a residence to a temple. Local authorities instructed the Buddhist monks to remove the temple sign and move statues inside. The Buddhist community did not apply for the permit to change the use of the house to a temple and abandoned the effort in that village. The community instead rented an apartment in Nicosia to use as a temple. A representative of the Buddhist community reported the Municipality of Nicosia sent a letter to the owner of the newly rented apartment warning that it could not be used for large gatherings because of insufficient parking. To prevent further action by the municipality, members of the community avoided parking outside the building. A 2015 government criminal case against the Buddhist priest for unlicensed alterations and additions to the building in Pera remained open, and the priest had to appear in court on several occasions. The Buddhist community also reported delays in the renewal of the same religious leader’s temporary residence permit.
In response to a 2016 recommendation by the ombudsman, in July the government removed the requirement to designate a person’s religion on civil marriage certificates and on applications for civil marriage.
The ombudsman’s office reported it received new complaints regarding MOE regulations for exempting students from religious instruction and from participation in school-organized Greek Orthodox religious ceremonies. Most of the complaints concerned rejection of exemption applications because the applicants, who objected to the requirement to state their religion on their application, did not do so and the schools therefore denied the exemption. Another parent complained the school indiscreetly handled the student’s exemption from a religious ceremony and traumatized the child. The ombudsman was examining the complaints at year’s end.
The military continued to require recruits to take part in a common prayer led by Church of Cyprus clergy during swearing-in ceremonies. Recruits of other faiths, atheists, and those who did not wish to take the oath for reasons of conscience could refrain from raising their hand during the ceremony. They instead gave a pledge of allegiance at a separate gathering.
Cyprus – the Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots
READ A SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS | THE AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS (BELOW)
Since 1974, the southern part of Cyprus has been under the authority of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, while the northern part, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) in 1983. The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any country other than Turkey. A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island. A buffer zone, or “green line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts.
The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” refers to the “state” as secular and provides for freedom of religious faith and worship consistent with public order and morals. It prohibits forced participation in worship and religious services and states religious education may be conducted only under “state” supervision. It grants the Islamic Vakf, which manages land Muslims have donated as a charitable endowment and sites of worship, the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs. Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to restrict access to religious sites. UNFICYP reported that of 112 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island during the year, the “TRNC Ministry of Foreign Affairs” (“MFA”) approved approximately 67. The “MFA” reported that, of 133 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated and non-UNFICYP-facilitated requests) to hold religious services during the year, it approved 83. Alevi Muslims said they lacked places to worship and funding to construct them and that authorities treated them and other religious minorities unequally. In May the “ombudsman” stated the “Ministry of Education” (“MOE”) was violating freedom of religion by imposing mandatory religion courses based on Sunni Islam at schools, without presenting alternatives to non-Sunnis. Some minority religious groups continued to report police surveillance and restrictions of their activities.
The Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association (TSPA) continued to report societal discrimination toward Protestants, and some minority religious groups said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths, particularly Christianity, faced criticism. A pastor of a church whose members were African students reported difficulties in securing a place of worship. The TCCH reported it had completed restoration of eight religious sites and was restoring another seven. The TCCH also reported completing five small cultural heritage activities, including religious sites, and completing project designs for another two sites. Religious leaders such as the mufti and the archbishop continued to promote religious dialogue by meeting and arranging visits to places of worship across the “green line.”
U.S. embassy officials met with Turkish Cypriot representatives to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at the sites without restrictions. Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from different religious groups to discuss freedom of worship and access to religious sites.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” states the territory is a “secular republic” and provides for freedom of conscience and religious faith and unrestricted worship and religious ceremonies, provided they do not contravene public order or morals. It prohibits forced prayer, forced attendance at religious services, condemnation based on religious beliefs, and compelling of individuals to disclose their religious beliefs. It stipulates religious education may only be conducted under “state” supervision. The “law” does not recognize any specific religion, and individuals cannot “exploit or abuse” religion to establish, even partially, a state based on religious precepts or for political or personal gain. The Vakf has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with Vakf laws and principles. Although the “constitution” states the Vakf shall be exempt from all taxation, its commercial operations are subject to applicable taxes. It also receives income from properties it manages. According to the “constitution,” the Turkish Cypriot authorities shall help the Vakf in the execution of Islamic religious services and in meeting the expenses of such services. No other religious organization is tax exempt or receives subsidies from Turkish Cypriot authorities.
The 1975 Vienna III Agreement covers the treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronite Catholics living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and the treatment of Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled area. Among other provisions, the agreement provides for facilities for religious worship for Greek Cypriots, stating they are free to stay and “will be given every help to lead a normal life, including facilities for education and for the practice of their religion.”
Turkish Cypriot “regulations” stipulate Greek Orthodox residents may conduct liturgies or masses led by three priests designated by the Orthodox Church at three designated functional churches in the Karpas Peninsula without seeking permission. Maronite residents may hold liturgies or masses at four designated functional Maronite churches by Maronite-designated clergy without seeking permission. These religious groups must submit applications to the authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than these seven designated churches. For the application to be considered, the date should be of significance to that religious group; the church or monastery must be structurally sound; it must not be located in a military zone; and it must not have a dual use, for example, as a museum. Permission is also necessary for priests other than those officially predesignated to conduct services. Specific permission is required for services in which Cypriots who are not residents in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, such as members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Churches, participate. UNFICYP coordinates some applications, which must be submitted 10 days before the date of the requested service.
The “Religious Affairs Department” represents Islam in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. Whereas the Vakf manages land that has been donated as an endowment by Muslims for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees how imams conduct prayers and deliver sermons in mosques.
Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations in order to assemble or worship, but only associations registered with the “Ministry of Interior” (“MOI”) have the right to engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts. Religious groups and nonreligious groups have the same registration process and are required to submit the founders’ names and photocopies of their identification cards to the “MOI,” along with a copy of the association’s rules and regulations. Associations do not receive tax-exempt status or any “government” benefits or subsidies. Religious groups are not permitted to register as associations if the stated purpose of the association is to provide religious education to their members.
There is compulsory instruction covering religion in grades four through eight in all schools. These classes focus primarily on Islam but also include sessions on comparative religion. The “MOE” chooses the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Turkey. Schools or teachers may excuse non-Muslim students from attending the course or taking the mandatory exam at the end of the semester on an individual basis at the request of their guardians, but there is no formal process to request such an exemption. At the high school level, religion classes are optional.
There are no provisions or “laws” allowing conscientious objection to mandatory military service, which includes a 12-15-month initial service requirement and a one-day annual reserve duty.
Authorities continued to restrict access to Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox places of worship, and the “MFA” continued to state Greek Cypriots were abusing the right to religious freedom and politicizing the situation. Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas Churches remained open for religious services throughout the year. Apostolos Andreas Monastery was open for prayer but still required special permission to celebrate liturgy.
Authorities continued restrictions on regular religious services in certain other churches. UNFICYP reported, of 112 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island during the year, the “MFA” approved approximately 67, compared with 139 requests and 84 approvals in 2016. The “MFA” reported that, of 133 requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated and non-UNFICYP-facilitated requests) to hold religious services during the year, it approved 83, compared with 163 requests and 109 approvals in 2016.
In April the “MFA” again did not allow Good Friday church services to take place at the St. George Exorinos Church in Famagusta.
Turkish Cypriot civil society organizations criticized authorities for not allowing Greek Cypriots to perform church services and urged greater access to religious sites.
In response to a complaint from an Alevi Muslim association that religion courses ignored their needs, the “ombudsman” published a report in May stating the “MOE” only offered Sunni Islam-based academic religion courses in schools and that the policy ran contrary to basic rights of equality, faith, and freedom of religion, as stated in the “TRNC constitution.” It advised the “MOE” to make religion courses optional and more inclusive. In a joint press conference, the Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi Muslim association, the Primary Education Teachers’ Union, and the Secondary Education Teachers’ Union also stated they were against mandatory religion courses in schools.
Some Christians, as well as Alevis, stated the mandatory religion classes in schools were overly focused on Sunni Islam, and they expressed concerns that their children had no formal recourse to opt out of the classes. Alevis reported the education system discriminated against them. For example, one Alevi representative reported all students at the Hala Sultan Religious High School, which offered additional classes in Sunni Islam, received scholarships, but students at other schools were not all eligible for scholarships.
According to a representative of the Maronite community, the Turkish military continued to grant Maronites limited access to their churches and villages located within Turkish military zones. The Turkish military allowed Maronites to celebrate Mass once a year in the Church of Ayia Marina. It denied Maronites access to the Church of Marki near Kormakitis/Kormacit. The Maronite Church of Archangelos Michael in the village of Asamatos/Ozhan was also located within a Turkish military zone but did not require permission to function regularly on Sundays.
A representative of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus stated 50-55 religious sites remained inaccessible due to being located within Turkish military zones.
On July 11, police in Turkey released “Director of the Religious Affairs Department” and Mufti Talip Atalay after four days of interrogation. “Acting Director of Religious Affairs” Fahrettin Ogdu told the press Atalay was not detained due to “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization”-related affiliations, but rather because of unfounded accusations made by the “MFA” in an attempt to punish Atalay for his participation in the Religious Track dialogue with other religious leaders.
In August local newspapers reported the “MFA” did not grant permission for Greek Cypriots to conduct a religious ceremony on September 1-3 at St. Mamas Church to celebrate the saint’s name day. The “MFA” stated that due to security concerns and the overlap with Muslim holiday Kurban Bayram in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots, it suggested postponing the religious ceremony one week. Main opposition Republican Turkish Party issued a written statement criticizing the “MFA” for preventing Greek Cypriots from holding Mass at St. Mamas, citing annual celebrations there since 2003. The Greek Cypriots declined to hold the religious ceremony a week later.
Some minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians, continued to report Turkish Cypriot authorities, including the police, monitored their activities. A Greek Orthodox priest reported heavy police presence during church services, including police inside the church videotaping services held by the enclaved Greek Cypriot community.
The TSPA again reported some of its members were frightened to attend religious services due to police pressure; TSPA representatives visited homes instead.
According to a Greek Orthodox official, police were instructing Greek Orthodox priests to limit the length of services, and there were instances when police intervened during the service to tell the priest to expedite it.
Heavy police escorts continued to accompany visiting Greek Orthodox worshippers. Turkish Cypriot authorities said the escorts were to provide security; Greek Orthodox officials said they were for surveillance.
The “Religious Affairs Department” staffed 192 mosques, all Sunni, with 225 imams. Members of the majority Sunni religious community continued to voice concerns the “government” was interfering with religious affairs by selecting imams.
Some non-Sunni Muslims continued to state they lacked places of worship and funding to construct such facilities. Alevi Muslims said the authorities treated them and other minority religious groups unequally. The Alevi Culture Association continued to report that due to the lack of a house of worship, Alevis were required to conduct funerals inside mosques, contrary to their traditions. They also said they perceived favoritism in “state” funding toward the Sunni Muslim population through financing of mosque construction and support for administration of mosques. One Alevi representative reported there were 196 [sic] “state”-funded mosques for Sunnis, but only one cemevi (place of worship) for Alevis, which had been under construction for several years and still not been completed. Consequently, Alevis had to worship at the unfinished cemevi or at some other location. Turkish Cypriot authorities earmarked three million Turkish liras ($792,000) in the “state” budget in 2016 for the completion of the cemevi but had not yet disbursed the funds. The tender process to complete construction of the cemevi was expected to begin the first half of 2018.
A representative of the Greek Orthodox Church again stated that some religious sites, to which Church officials had little or no access, were damaged or close to collapse due to decades of neglect. The representative did not cite specific examples.
Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to complain that authorities placed religious items, including icons, in storage rooms or displayed them in museums, against the wishes of the communities to whom they were sacred.
In August Turkish Cypriot local authorities cancelled a TSPA-organized theatrical performance, even though the authorities had previously issued all necessary permits. The TSPA stated it believed local authorities, who reportedly did not provide a justification, cancelled the event because they deemed the performance Christian propaganda.
The TSPA also reported Turkish Cypriot authorities had prevented it from opening an office in Famagusta for the previous two years.
The TSPA said the police paid monthly visits to the association to check on the group and monitor its activities.
The TSPA reported it sent a letter to “President” Mustafa Akinci in September requesting the abolishment of mandatory religion courses in schools, a place to worship, and an opportunity to broadcast Christmas or Easter programming on a “state” television channel. By year’s end, the president had not responded, according to the TSPA.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplementary document to the constitution, guarantees the freedom of religious conviction and states every individual has the right to change religion, abstain from religious belief, and freely practice religion. Two registration applications by religious groups were pending with the government at year’s end. The government rejected an application by the Path of Guru Jara (PGJ) and an appeal of that decision by PGJ, whose leader was one of two PGJ members for whom government-issued arrest warrants remained pending at the end of the year. PGJ filed a court appeal of the rejection. The Community of Buddhism in the Czech Republic and the Cannabis Church appealed, respectively, to the Ministry of Culture (MOC) and in court after the government suspended their registration applications. The Lions of the Round Table Order of the Lands of the Czech Crown was appealing the 2016 rejection of its registration application in court. In the first three months of the year, the government addressed hundreds of claims by religious groups for property confiscated during the communist period; as of April 1, more than 1,000 cases remained pending or on appeal in the courts. The mayor of Prostejov opposed the efforts of a foreign donor to restore the former Jewish cemetery in that city. In May the government approved its annual Strategy to Combat Extremism, including religiously motivated extremism, which outlined tasks for various ministries. The president and prime minister continued to make critical remarks about Muslim immigration. Several political groups, including the Freedom and Direct Democracy party (FDD), which won more than 10 percent of the vote in October parliamentary elections, campaigned on an anti-Muslim platform.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) In Iustitia reported 34 religiously motivated hate incidents during the year, 22 against Muslims, 10 against Jews, and two against Christians. The government reported 28 anti-Semitic and seven anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, the most recent year for which figures were available, compared with 47 and five, respectively, in the previous year. PGJ reported what it characterized as media bias and societal discrimination against the group and its members. Groups, including extraparliamentary political parties, held anti-Muslim rallies and published internet blogs that included anti-Semitic statements, including Holocaust denial and neo-Nazi propaganda and anti-Muslim sentiments. A group of minors vandalized a symbolic tombstone designated as a cultural monument at the site of the former Jewish cemetery in the city of Prostejov.
U.S. embassy officials met with government officials to discuss religious freedom issues and monitored the process of restitution of religious properties, participating in meetings on restitution with representatives from the MOC, Ministry of Interior (MOI), the Catholic and Protestant Churches, and the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC). Embassy officials responded to two requests for assistance from U.S. citizen Holocaust victims seeking compensation for property seized in the past. Embassy officials and a representative from the U.S. Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues (SEHI) met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reiterate continuous support for the goals of the 2009 Terezin Declaration, aimed at providing assistance and redress to, and remembrance of, victims of Nazi persecution. Embassy officials met with Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim religious leaders to reaffirm U.S. government support for religious freedom and tolerance.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution does not explicitly address religious freedom, but the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplementary constitutional document, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and the fundamental rights of all regardless of their faith or religion. It states every individual has the right to change religion or faith; to abstain from religious belief; and to freely practice religion, alone or in community, in private or public, “through worship, teaching, practice, or observance.” The charter defines religious societies, recognizing their freedom to profess their faith publicly or privately and to govern their own affairs, independent of the state. It stipulates conscientious objectors may not be compelled to perform military service and that conditions for religious instruction at state schools shall be set by law. The charter states religious freedom may be limited by law in the event of threats to “public safety and order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.”
The law states the MOC Department of Churches is responsible for religious affairs. While religious groups are not required by law to register with the government and are free to perform religious activities without registering, they have the option to register with the MOC. The law establishes a two-tiered system of registration for religious groups. The MOC reviews applications for first- and second-tier registration with input from other government bodies, such as the Office for Protection of Private Data, and outside experts on religious affairs. The law does not establish a deadline for the MOC to decide on a registration application. Applicants denied registration can appeal to the MOC to reconsider its decision and, if again denied, to the courts.
To qualify for the first (lower) tier, a religious group must present the signatures of at least 300 adult members permanently residing in the country, a founding document listing the basic tenets of the faith, and a clearly defined structure of fiduciary responsibilities. First-tier registration confers limited tax benefits, including exemptions from a tax on the interest earned on current account deposits and taxes on donations and members’ contributions, and establishes annual reporting requirements on activities, balance sheets, and use of funds.
For second-tier registration, a group must have been registered with the Department of Churches for 10 years, have published annual reports throughout the time of its registration, and have membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the population, or approximately 10,700 persons. The group must provide this number of signatures as proof. Second-tier registration entitles religious groups to government subsidies. In addition, only clergy of registered second-tier religious groups may perform officially recognized marriage ceremonies and serve as chaplains in the military and at prisons. Prisoners who belong to unregistered religious groups or groups with first-tier status may receive visits from their own clergy, outside of the prison chaplaincy system.
Religious groups registered prior to 2002 have automatic second-tier status without having to fulfill the requirements for second-tier registration.
There are 38 state-registered religious groups; 16 groups are first tier and 22 are second tier.
Unregistered religious groups are free to assemble and worship but may not legally own property. The law provides unregistered groups the option of forming civic associations to manage their property.
The law authorizes the government to return to 17 religious groups (including the FJC) land and other property confiscated during the communist era and still in the government’s possession, the total value of which is estimated to be approximately 75 billion koruna ($3.59 billion). It also sets aside 59 billion koruna ($2.83 billion) for financial compensation for lands that cannot be returned, to be paid over 30 years to 17 second-tier religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, FJC, Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, and Hussite Church, that received state subsidies prior to the enactment of the restitution law. Using a mechanism prescribed by law based on an agreement among the religious groups concerned, the government allocates slightly more than 79 percent of the financial compensation to the Catholic Church. Religious groups had a one-year window, which ended in 2013, to make restitution claims for confiscated land and other property, which the government is processing. If the government rejects a property claim, the claimant may appeal the decision in the courts. The law also contains provisions for phasing out direct state subsidies to second-tier religious groups over a 17-year period, ending in 2029.
The law permits second-tier registered religious groups to apply through the MOC to teach religion in state schools; 11 of the 22 second-tier groups have applied and received permission. The teachers are supplied by the religious groups and paid by the state. If a state school does not have enough funds to pay for its religious education teachers, teachers are paid by parishes or dioceses. Although the law makes religious instruction in public schools optional, school directors must provide instruction in the beliefs of one of the 11 approved religious groups if seven or more students of that religious group request it, in which case the school provides the religious instruction only to the students who requested it.
The government does not regulate instruction in private schools.
The penal code outlaws denial of Nazi, communist, or other genocide, providing for prison sentences of six months to three years for public denial, questioning, approval of, or attempts to justify the genocide committed by the Nazis. The law also prohibits the incitement of hatred based on religion and provides for penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment.
Foreign religious workers must obtain long-term residence and work permits to remain in the country more than 90 days. There is no special visa category for religious workers; foreign missionaries and clergy are required to meet the conditions for a standard work permit.
The law designates January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The MOC did not register any religious groups during the year. Registration applications by Theravada Buddhists in May and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X in 2016 remained pending at year’s end. In January the ministry rejected PGJ’s registration application on grounds of what it characterized as abuse of personal information, incitement of hate, and the primarily for-profit character of the group’s activities. In February the group appealed the decision to the MOC. In September Minister of Culture Daniel Herman upheld the rejection. Following that decision, PGJ appealed to the municipal court in Prague. PGJ said it expected the court to begin hearing the case in early 2018.
In February the Lions of the Round Table – Order of the Lands of the Czech Crown – appealed in court against the MOC’s rejection of its first-tier registration application in May 2016. The case was pending at year’s end. In June the Community of Buddhism in the Czech Republic appealed to the MOC, asking it to reconsider its decision in May to halt the group’s 2016 registration application. The MOC rejected the appeal in December. In December 2016, the Cannabis Church appealed in court the MOC’s halting of its registration procedure. The case remained pending at year’s end. The MOC said it had halted the applications of both these groups because they had not provided sufficient information in their registration applications as required by law.
The government provided 17 second-tier religious groups with approximately 3.4 billion koruna ($162.8 million), with approximately 1.3 billion koruna ($62.25 million) given as a subsidy and 2.1 billion koruna ($100.6 million) as compensation for communal property in private and state hands that would not be returned to churches. Five of the 22 second-tier groups declined all state funding. While accepting the state subsidy, the Baptist Union opted not to accept the compensation for unreturned property. The MOC provided 4.0 million koruna ($192,000) in grants for religiously oriented cultural activities in response to applications from a variety of religious groups.
PGJ leader Jaroslav Dobes and PGJ member Barbora Plaskova remained in immigration detention in the Philippines, where they had been seeking asylum since 2015. International arrest warrants issued by Czech authorities for Dobes and Plaskova remained outstanding, as criminal proceeding against Dobes and Plaskova for alleged sexual abuse remained pending in the Zlin Regional Court.
In January the Prague 10 District Court ruled in favor of a state nursing school which a former Muslim student had sued in 2013 for discrimination because the school barred her from wearing a hijab during classes. The court ruled there was no evidence of discrimination. In September the appellate senate of the Prague Municipal Court upheld the ruling. The appellate court found the school’s prohibition did not constitute discrimination because it applied to all head coverings and not just to hijabs.
The government addressed hundreds of religious communal property restitution cases, restituting property to 17 religious groups during the year. These included claims of the Roman Catholic authorities and other religious groups concerning property seized during the communist era. Although the government returned most Catholic churches, parishes, and monasteries in the 1990s, much of the land and forests the Church had previously owned remained in state possession and were being returned in the framework of 2012 restitution legislation. Between January and March the government settled 735 claims with religious groups for agricultural property and 106 claims for nonagricultural property. As of March 31, there were 65 agricultural and 120 nonagricultural property claims that had not been adjudicated. At that time, there were also 1,203 pending lawsuits religious groups had filed in the courts to appeal government restitution decisions.
In August the South Moravian Regional Court in Brno overturned a decision by the municipal court that had ruled in February in favor of the Brno Jewish Community (BJC), holding that it had legal title to a property in possession of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The ministry had appealed the municipal court’s decision to the regional court. In reaction to the revocation by the regional court, the BJC appealed to the Supreme Court. The appeal was pending at year’s end. The BJC filed its claim in 2013 based on church restitution legislation, and the ministry rejected the claim in 2014.
The MOI continued to cooperate with the Jewish community on protection of Jewish sites in Prague and across the country.
In January the MOC designated as items of cultural heritage 12 tombstones and tombstone fragments originally from a former Jewish cemetery in Prostejov that the MOC designated as a cultural monument in 2016. The Prostejov local mayor supported a local petition against privately funded efforts to restore the Prostejov cemetery, which the Nazis had destroyed, and which the city later converted into a public park. In November 2016, 10 percent of the city’s voters signed the petition. According to the petition and the mayor, the park provided needed access to a nearby school and residential parking; according to the national media, planners said the reconstruction would not restrict access or impede parking. Soon thereafter, anti-Semitic statements appeared in social media, and a local tabloid, Prostejovsky vecernik, characterized the dispute as an Orthodox Jewish attack on the city. In February Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka appointed his chief advisor, Vladimir Spidla, to mediate the dispute, which was continuing at year’s end.
President Milos Zeman and Prime Minister Sobotka continued to make public statements against Muslim immigration. For example, in September President Zeman stated at a press conference after meeting with his German counterpart that Muslim culture was not compatible with European culture. He stated integration of Muslims into national society was “practically impossible.” In August Prime Minister Sobotka told the Austrian newspaper Die Presse, “We do not want any more Muslims in the Czech Republic.” In June citing “the aggravated security situation and the dysfunctionality of the whole [relocation] system,” Interior Minister Milan Chovanec announced the government had approved a decision to halt acceptance of refugees under the EU’s refugee relocation program. At the time, the country had accepted 12 of approximately 2,700 refugees, whom the EU had allotted to the country and many of whom came from Muslim-majority countries.
In September Tomio Okamura, the leader of the opposition FDD, and other members of the party leadership issued a public statement calling for a ban on Islam as “an ideology incompatible with freedom and democracy.” The party ran on an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform, posting billboards reading, “No to Islam” before October parliamentary elections. The party won more than 10 percent of the vote.
In May the government approved the annual Strategy to Combat Extremism, which outlined tasks for various ministries, such as the MOI, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education, and MOC, in fighting extremism, including religiously motivated extremism. The document outlined primary strategic goals, including better communication with the public regarding extremist activities and MOI countermeasures, education programs at schools, crime prevention, specialized training for law enforcement to counter extremism, and assistance to victims of crimes, especially victims from minority groups. The MOI continued to monitor the activities of groups and political parties espousing anti-Semitic views, including National Democracy, National Revival, and the Workers’ Party of Social Justice.
In April Deputy Chairman of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera and Minister of Culture Herman sponsored and participated in an annual march and concert against anti-Semitism, which opened the 14th Culture against Anti-Semitism Festival. Approximately 750 people attended the event.
At year’s end the government was continuing to review the 2016 applications of 92 Chinese Christians on grounds of religious persecution in China.
The government funded religiously oriented cultural activities, including the 2017 Night of Churches in several cities, the annual National Pilgrimage of St. Wenceslaus, the Culture against Anti-Semitism Festival, the 2017 Hussite Festival, and the 13th International Festival of Sacral Music, as well as a series of ecumenical services that included Romani religious music.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution guarantees the right of individuals to worship according to their beliefs. It establishes the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the national church, which has privileges not available to other religious groups. Other religious groups must register with the government to receive tax and other benefits. In June parliament repealed a blasphemy law that, according to various media reports, citizens had largely seen as limiting freedom of speech. Prosecutors invoked the blasphemy law for the first time in 46 years when they charged a man for inciting mockery of religion after he burned a Quran and posted a video of it online. In October a proposal for a parliamentary resolution calling on the government to ban masks and full-body clothing generated significant public discussion and commentary. In May the government added six individuals to a “hate preachers” list that prevented those individuals from entering the country.
There were reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents in major cities and asylum centers, including assaults, threats, demonstrations, attacks against property, harassment, and language denigrating religious groups. In January the Muslim and Jewish communities expressed concern about public pressure to ban male circumcision. In March an imam gave a sermon at the Al-Faruq Mosque in which he called for the killing of Jews. In May a young woman was sentenced to six years in prison for planning a terrorist attack against a Jewish school in 2016; charges against her alleged accomplice were dropped. In November, after an appeals process, her sentence was increased to eight years in prison. In March five or six men attacked a couple for eating pork. In separate incidents, a woman was fined for insulting Muslims, and unknown individuals vandalized Muslim graves.
U.S. embassy officials regularly met with representatives from government, political parties, and nongovernmental organizations to stress the importance of religious tolerance and diversity and to share best practices and new ideas to promote religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, including identifying programs and objectives at the local level. After meeting with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, the embassy met with government officials on several occasions to discuss the religious practice of male circumcision among other issues that affected those communities. The embassy met regularly with Muslim and Jewish religious communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares the ELC as the established Church, which shall receive state support and to which the reigning monarch must belong. The constitution also states individuals shall be free to form congregations to worship according to their beliefs, providing nothing “at variance with good morals or public order shall be taught or done.” It specifies that “rules for religious bodies dissenting from the Established Church shall be laid down by statute.” It stipulates that no person may be deprived of access to the full enjoyment of civil and political rights because of religious beliefs, and that these beliefs shall not be used to evade compliance with civic duty. It prohibits requiring individuals to make personal financial contributions to religious denominations to which they do not adhere.
The law prohibits hate speech, including religious hate speech that is directed at individuals or groups; the maximum penalty for hate speech is a fine or two years’ imprisonment. On June 2, parliament repealed, effective June 9, a blasphemy law, which had prescribed a maximum of four months in prison and a fine for those who mocked or insulted a legally recognized religion.
The law permits the government to prevent religious figures who are foreign nationals and do not already have a residence permit from entering the country if the Ministry of Immigration determines their presence poses a threat to the public order. In such cases the ministry places the individuals on a national sanctions list and bars them from entry into the country for a two-year period, which may be renewed.
The ELC is the only religious group that receives funding through state grants and voluntary taxes paid via payroll deduction of its members. Members receive a tax credit for their donations to the ELC. The voluntary taxes account for an estimated 86 percent of the ELC’s operating budget; the remaining 14 percent is provided through a combination of voluntary donations by congregants and grants from the government. Members of other recognized religious communities may donate to their own community voluntarily and receive a credit towards their personal income tax liability. The ELC and other state-sanctioned religious communities carry out registration of civil unions, births, and deaths for their members.
The Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs has responsibility for granting official status to other religious groups in addition to the ELC through recognition by historic royal decree or through official registration. According to the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs, there are a total of 314 religious groups and congregations: 205 Christian groups, 66 Muslim groups, 15 Buddhist groups, nine Hindu groups, three Jewish groups, and 16 miscellaneous groups and congregations including the Bahai Faith, the Alevi Muslim community, and followers of the indigenous Norse belief system, Forn Sidr. Of this number, some groups are officially recognized while others are affiliated with recognized groups.
Recognized religious groups have the right to perform legal marriage ceremonies, name and baptize children with legal effect, issue legal death certificates, obtain residence permits for foreign clergy, establish cemeteries, and receive tax-deductible financial donations and various valued-added tax exemptions. For religious communities that do not perform baptisms, paper forms provided on the citizen services website are filled out and delivered to the clergy member or office of the religious community, who in turn registers the child in the population register. Individuals unaffiliated with a registered religious group may opt to have birth and death certificates issued by the health authority.
Groups not recognized by either royal decree or a government registration process, such as the Church of Scientology, are entitled to engage in religious practices without any kind of public registration, but members of those groups must marry in a civil ceremony in addition to any religious ceremony. Unrecognized religious groups are not granted fully tax-exempt status, but they have some tax benefits; for example, contributions by members are tax-deductible.
In order for a religious community to be registered, it must have at least 150 members, while a congregation, which the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs considers as a group within one of the major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam), must consist of at least 50 adult members to be approved. For congregations located in sparsely populated regions, such as Greenland, a lower population threshold is used. The threshold number varies, depending on the total population of a given area. The guidelines for approval of religious organizations require religious groups seeking registration to submit a document on the group’s central traditions; descriptions of its most important rituals; a copy of its rules, regulations, and organizational structure; an audited financial statement; information about the group’s leadership; and a statement on the number of adult members permanently residing in the country. Groups must also have formal procedures for membership and make its teachings available to all members. The Ministry of Justice makes the final decision on registration applications after receiving recommendations from a group consisting of a lawyer, a religious historian, a sociologist of religion, and a nonordained theologian.
The law bans judges from wearing religious symbols such as headscarves, turbans, skullcaps, and large crucifixes while in court.
All public and private schools, including religious schools, receive government financial support. Public schools must teach Evangelical Lutheran theology; the instructors are public school teachers rather than provided by the ELC. The religion classes are compulsory in grades 1-9, although students may be exempted if a parent presents a request in writing. No alternative classes are offered. The curriculum in grades 1-6 focuses on life philosophies and ethics, biblical stories, and the history of Christianity. In grades 7-9, the curriculum adds a module on world religions. The course is optional in grade 10. If the student is 15 years old or older, the student and parent must jointly request the student’s exemption. Private schools are also required to teach religion classes in grades 1-9, including world religion in grades 7-9. The religion classes taught in grades 1-9 need not be about ELC theology. Noncompulsory collective prayer in schools is allowed if it does not include proselytizing. Prayers are optional at the discretion of each school. They may consist of ELC, other Christian, Muslim, or Jewish prayers, and students may opt out of participating.
Military service is compulsory, but there is an exemption for conscientious objectors, including for religious reasons. Those who do not want to serve in the military may apply for either alternative civilian service or not to serve at all. The period of alternative service for a conscientious objector is the same as the period required for military service. An individual must apply to perform service as a conscientious objector within eight weeks of receiving notice of military service. The application must go to the Conscientious Objector Administration and must show that military service of any kind is incompatible with the individual’s conscience. The alternative service may take place in various social and cultural institutions, peace movements, organizations related to the United Nations, churches and ecumenical organizations, and environmental organizations throughout the country.
The law prohibits ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning, including kosher and halal slaughter. The law allows for slaughter according to religious rites with prior stunning and limits such slaughter to cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens. All slaughter must take place at a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouses practicing ritual slaughter are obliged to register with the Veterinary and Food Administration. Violations of this law are punishable by fines or up to four months in prison. Halal and kosher meat may be imported.
A law that came into force on May 1 requires clergy members with legal authorization to officiate at marriages to complete a two-day course on family law and civil rights, administered by the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs. The law also includes a requirement that religious workers “must not behave or act in a way that makes them unworthy to exercise public authority.” Religious workers perceived as not complying with the new provisions may be stripped of their right to conduct marriage ceremonies.
According to European Union legislation, companies are allowed to fire employees for wearing religious symbols if their conditions of employment preclude employees from wearing such symbols.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Prosecutors invoked the country’s blasphemy law on February 22 for the first time in 46 years over a 2015 incident in which a man burned a Quran and posted a video to a Facebook group called “Yes to Freedom – No to Islam.” The individual’s lawyer stated the burning was in “self-defense” of potential Muslim aggression and cited the precedent of individuals who were not prosecuted for burning Bibles. He was charged on the grounds of inciting “public scorn or mockery of religion.” Prosecutors dropped the case as a result of the repeal of the blasphemy law in June.
The government continued to provide armed security for Jewish sites it considered to be at high risk of terrorist attack, including Copenhagen’s synagogue, community center, and schools as it had since terrorist attacks in 2015. During the summer, the military began assisting the police in protecting Jewish sites in Copenhagen.
In October the Danish People’s Party (DPP) proposed a resolution that parliament instruct the government to draft legislation making it illegal to wear masks or total body-covering clothing, for example, burqas and niqabs, in public. The resolution cited as possible penalties for wearing these items fines, jail, and/or an obligatory course on national values, drawing on similar legislation in Belgium and France. By year’s end, the resolution had not passed, and no draft legislation had been produced, although parliamentarians from the governing coalition and the Social Democratic Party voiced support for the DPP resolution. Members of smaller political parties expressed concerns that if the ban were adopted, it would appear to target specific religious groups and make it harder to integrate immigrants belonging to those groups.
A Social Democratic Party councilman on the Ishoj Town Council, Seyit Ahmet Ozkan, resigned in August after he stated on Facebook that Zionists, and not radical Muslims, were behind ISIS. In a later interview, Ozkan said he did not equate Zionists with Jews. Local Social Democratic Party representatives insisted on having his name removed from the ballot for the November 21 local election. Another councilman in Ishoj, Niels Roskov from the Unity List Party, stated it was commonly known Zionists were heavily involved in ISIS. According to radio and television news reports, the Unity List Party leadership said there was nothing to substantiate Roskov’s claim, but the Unity List Party declined to take any further action.
In May the government barred six religious figures, including a pastor and an imam who were U.S. citizens, from entry into the country for a two-year period. The Ministry of Immigration and Integration deemed these individuals threats to the nation’s values and public security.
In February Aarhus Municipality ended gender-segregated swimming at its pools, despite the popularity of the segregation policy within the Muslim community.
The constitution declares there is no state church and protects the freedom of individuals to practice their religion. It prohibits the incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. The law provides the procedure for registration of religious associations and religious societies and regulates their activities. Unregistered religious associations are free to conduct religious activities but are not eligible for tax benefits. The government continued to provide funds for the Council of Churches for ecumenical activities. Government officials participated in annual memorials for victims of the Holocaust and continued their sponsorship of programs on the best classroom practices for teaching about the Holocaust. On January 27, the government held its annual commemoration at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, during which a government representative emphasized the Holocaust’s universal relevance and the need to continue studying its lessons. The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia’s (EKRE) platform for local elections in Tallinn included a promise not to allow the construction of a mosque in the capital city.
In 2016, the latest year for which data was available, police registered six hate crime cases involving religion.
U.S. embassy officials continued meeting with government officials to promote religious tolerance and diversity. The Ambassador and embassy staff continued to support dialogue on anti-Semitism and Holocaust education in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares there is no state church and stipulates freedom for individuals to belong to any religious group and practice any religion, both alone and in community with others, in public or in private, unless doing so is “detrimental to public order, health, or morals.” The constitution also prohibits incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. The law states that violations are punishable by fines or up to three years in prison. The constitution recognizes the right to refuse military service for religious reasons but requires conscientious objectors to perform alternative service as provided by law.
The law regulates the activities of religious associations and religious societies. Religious associations are defined as churches, congregations, unions of congregations, and monasteries. Churches, congregations, and unions of congregations are required to have a management board; only citizens and legal residents who are eligible to vote in local council elections may be members of the board. The elected or appointed superior of a monastery serves as the management board for the monastery. Religious societies are defined as voluntary organizations whose main activities include religious or ecumenical activities relating to morals, ethics, culture, and social rehabilitation activities outside the traditional forms of religious rites of a church or congregation and need not be connected with a specific church or congregation.
The registration office of the Tartu County Court registers religious associations and religious societies.
In order to register, a religious association must have at least 12 members, and its management board must submit a notarized or digitally signed application, the minutes of its constitutive meeting, and a copy of its statutes. The law treats registered religious associations as nonprofit entities entitled to some tax benefits if they apply for them, such as a value-added tax exemption. There are more than 550 religious associations registered with the government.
The law does not prohibit activities by unregistered religious associations. Unregistered religious associations, however, may not act as legal persons. Unlike registered religious associations, unregistered associations are not eligible for tax benefits.
Religious societies are registered according to the law governing nonprofit associations and are entitled to the same tax benefits as religious associations. In order to register as an NGO, a religious society must have a founding contract and statutes approved by its founders, who may be physical or legal persons. The minimum number of founders is two. The society must submit its registration application either electronically or on paper to the Tartu County Court registry department.
The law requires the commanding officer of each military unit to provide its members the opportunity to practice their religion. Prison directors must also provide the opportunity for inmates to practice their religious beliefs. The state funds police and border guard, military, and prison chaplains, who may belong to any registered religious denomination and must guarantee religious services for individuals of all faiths.
Optional basic religious instruction is available in public and private schools, funded by the state. All schools must provide religious studies at the primary and secondary levels if students request these studies. The courses offer a general introduction to different faiths. Religious studies instructors may be lay teachers or clergy provided by religious groups. There are also private religious schools. All students, regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation, may attend religious schools. Attendance at religious services at religious schools is voluntary. The majority of students attending a private religious school are not associated with the school’s religious affiliation. Most congregations have Sunday schools.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the NGO register, at least two religious associations registered during the year, including evangelical Protestant groups.
The government increased its allocation of funds to the Estonian Council of Churches by approximately 50,000 euros ($60,000) to 710,000 euros ($852,000) from 646,000 euros ($776,000) in 2016. The council, which comprises 10 Christian churches – including the Lutheran Church and both Orthodox churches – continued to serve as an organization joining the country’s largest Christian communities. Funds provided by the state were given to the Council of Churches for ecumenical activities, including ecclesiastical programs aired on the Estonian Broadcasting Company, youth work by churches, activities promoting interreligious dialogue, and religious publishing. The government did not play a role in determining how the council distributed the funds.
The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia’s (EKRE) platform for local elections in Tallinn included a promise not to allow the construction of a mosque in the capital city.
A political candidate from EKRE posted a platform for the 2019 European Parliament elections that included decriminalizing Holocaust denial and implementing the “correct teaching of the history of the Third Reich.” Although his statements received coverage from international media, he received only 91 votes (0.6 percent of the total votes cast in the district in which he competed) in October local elections and was not supported by his party.
On January 27, the government held its annual commemoration for International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. Schools throughout the country also participated in commemorative activities. The Ministry of Education and Research, in cooperation with the Unitas Foundation, Estonian NATO Association, and Jewish community, sponsored a seminar for history and civics teachers from across the country to introduce them to best practices in the classroom for teaching about the Holocaust.
On September 19, the president of the parliament, Eiki Nestor, laid a wreath to commemorate approximately 1,800 to 2,000 persons, mostly Jews, killed at the Nazi concentration camp at Klooga. In his remarks, Nestor said it was necessary to continue to “commemorate the innocent people that had been murdered” and to recognize that “the evil that murdered people had not disappeared from the world.”
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason,” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to decline to be a member of a religious community. The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blaspheming against God, defaming or desecrating to offend what a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. Religious communities must register to receive government funds. Jewish and Muslim community leaders continued to express concern about a law banning certain types of animal slaughter, including slaughter carried out in accordance with Jewish and Muslim traditions. Some politicians again made negative remarks against Muslims in social media. The Ministry of Education and Culture again awarded 80,000 euros ($96,000) in grants to religious organizations to promote interfaith dialogue. In November a district court ruled in favor of a police proposal to ban the Nordic Resistance Movement (Vastarantaliike or PVL), widely characterized as neo-Nazi, and its activities. On September 6, Prime Minister Juha Sipila and parliamentary party chairs issued a joint statement that condemned terrorism, violence, and hate speech related to religion.
Members of immigrant minority religious communities reported encountering societal discrimination, including in the workplace and when searching for employment. The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 34 complaints of religious discrimination from January to June, compared with 23 cases during the same period in the previous year and 37 cases during all of 2016. The website Magneettimedia and the PVL continued to post anti-Semitic content online that advocated discrimination against persons based on their religion. The PVL made statements, particularly on its website, promoting discrimination or violence against persons based on their religion. The Finnish Ecumenical Council established a dialogue with the immigration service regarding best practices for interviewing Muslim asylum seekers who had recently converted to Christianity.
U.S. embassy staff met with various ministry officials to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, religious instruction in schools, and the rights of conscientious objectors. Embassy staff also met with religious leaders from the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss concerns about the law banning certain forms of animal slaughter and the government guidelines discouraging male circumcision. They also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities as well as with other religious minority groups, researchers, and the Finnish Ecumenical Council.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.” It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community. It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion. The law criminalizes the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes blaspheming against God, publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment for up to six months. Authorities have rarely applied the law, most recently in 2009.
The law explicitly prohibits religious discrimination and prescribes a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law. The ombudsman investigates individual cases of discrimination and has the power to levy fines on violators, offers counseling and promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities. Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal or through the district court system. The decisions of the tribunal and the district court system may be appealed to the higher Administrative Court.
Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government. In order to be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community. To register as a community, a group must have at least 20 members, have as its purpose the public practice of religion, and be guided in its activities by a set of rules. A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims. Nonprofit associations, including registered and unregistered religious groups, are generally exempt from taxes. According to the Ministry of Education and Culture, there are approximately 130 registered religious communities, most of which have multiple congregations. Persons may belong to more than one religious community.
All citizens who belong to either the ELC or Orthodox Church pay a church tax, collected together with their income tax payments. Congregations collectively decide the church tax amount, now set at between 1 to 2 percent of member income. Those who do not want to pay the tax must terminate their ELC or Orthodox congregation membership. Members may terminate their membership by contacting the official congregation or the local government registration office, either electronically or in person. Local parishes have fiscal autonomy to decide how to use funding received from taxes levied on their members.
Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Orthodox Church are also eligible to apply for state funds. The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements (a minimum of 20 members and the ability to collect fees) may receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.
The ELC is required to maintain public cemeteries and account for the spending of government funds. Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries. All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy. The law authorizes the ELC and Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Population Register Center. State registrars do this for other persons.
Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is under 12 years of age. The parents of a child between the ages of 12 and 17 must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate religious affiliation.
All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion. All classes may include information about ethics and world religions. Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community. Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available, may study ethics. Students age 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or ethics. If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates.
Religious education focuses on familiarizing students with their own religion, other religions, and general instruction in ethics. Although teachers of religion must have the required state-mandated training for religious instruction, the state appoints them and they are not required to belong to any religious community. The National Board of Education provides a series of textbooks about Orthodox and Lutheran Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a textbook on secular ethics.
The government allows conscientious objectors to choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service; only Jehovah’s Witnesses are specifically exempt from performing both military and alternative civilian service. Other conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service. Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.
The law bans certain types of animal slaughter, requiring that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be killed and stunned simultaneously.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In March the National Police Board filed a suit against the PVL with the Pirkanmaa District Court. According to national broadcaster Yle, the police accused the PVL of being “violent and racist” and aimed to outlaw the group and ban it from demonstrating, recruiting, or disseminating material. Court proceedings began on August 29. On November 30, the court ruled in favor of the police. It was the first such court-ordered ban on an organization since the 1970s. The PVL appealed the ruling, and the appeal remained pending at year’s end.
The Helsinki police created a 10-person unit with a mandate specifically to address crimes that involved infringements of the right of individuals to practice their religion. Nationwide, municipal police departments designated and trained 42 officers to become anti-hate crime instructors, and the National Bureau of Investigation created five new positions to investigate hate speech online.
According to the Ministry of Defense, there were 38 objectors to both military and alternative civilian service during 2016, the most recent year for which complete statistics were available. The ministry did not indicate how many of these individuals objected to service for religious reasons.
Leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities continued to raise concern about the long-standing ban against certain types of animal slaughter, which they said prevented them from killing the animals in a religiously prescribed manner. Because the animals could not be slaughtered in a religiously approved manner domestically, members of these communities imported meat at higher prices. Government officials stated a provision in the law allowing simultaneous stunning and slaughter of animals was meant to accommodate religious slaughter.
Ministry of Social Affairs and Health guidelines discouraged circumcision of males, including through dialogue with religious communities, and continued to withhold public healthcare funding for such procedures. In its guidelines, the ministry stated that nonmedical circumcision of boys should only be performed by licensed physicians, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent. There was no formal legislation prohibiting circumcision of boys and no criminal liability for individuals who did not follow the ministry’s guidelines. Religious communities, including members of Muslim and Jewish communities, expressed disagreement with the guidelines; however, the ministry stated it had not received any protest from religious representatives regarding the requirement that only a licensed doctor perform circumcision.
There were at least two incidents in which politicians made discriminatory remarks aimed at Muslims on social media. In January a district court in Jyvaskyla found Member of Parliament Teuvo Hakkarainen (from the opposition Finns Party) guilty of incitement of racial hatred for a post he wrote on Facebook in 2016 that stated, “All Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.” The court ordered Hakkarainen to pay a 1,160 euro ($1,400) fine and required him to remove the Facebook post. On multiple occasions, Juusi Halla-aho, Chair of the Finns Party, posted public comments on his Facebook profile criticizing Muslims in the country.
According to a September reporting by Yle, more than 400 (mostly Lutheran) priests signed a petition requesting the immigration service consult with them during the asylum application process regarding applicants who had converted to Christianity (Yle estimated in July that several hundred Muslim asylum seekers had converted to Christianity in “recent years”). The priests stated they feared asylum applicants who converted to Christianity while in the country could face persecution if returned to some majority-Muslim countries of origin. Additionally, media reports and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) raised concerns that some officials at the immigration service who conducted asylum interviews lacked adequate knowledge about the converts’ religions. The Finnish Ecumenical Council, an organization that described itself as aiming to promote unity among Christian denominations, established a dialogue with the Finnish Immigration Service on this issue, which it characterized as “constructive.”
News reporting and NGOs also stated there was a need for improved interpreting services for asylum seekers, particularly during interviews that included religious terminology. In response, the immigration service published press releases in June and July titled “How does converting to Christianity affect asylum applications?” and “Converting to Christianity will not automatically result in the granting of asylum.” The press releases highlighted the country’s commitment to freedom of religion and stated officials examined each asylum application individually.
The government again allocated 114 million euros ($136.85 million) to the ELC and 2.5 million euros ($3 million) to the Orthodox Church. The Ministry of Education and Culture allotted 524,000 euros ($630,000) to 28 religious organizations for various projects.
In May the Ministry of Education and Culture awarded a total of 80,000 euros ($96,000) to promote interfaith dialogue. Four organizations received funding for their projects: The National Forum for Cooperation of Religions in Finland (CORE); Filoksenia, an organization promoting cultural tolerance; Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization; and Ad Astra, a multicultural organization for youth.
Prime Minister Juha Sipila and all of the parliamentary party chairs signed a joint statement on September 6 that condemned terrorism, hate speech, including speech motivated by discrimination against religion, and violence.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. The president and other government officials condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government deployed 7,000 security forces to protect sensitive sites, including religious ones. On November 1, the government ended the state of emergency in place since 2015. The government replaced it with legislation allowing prefects to close down a place of worship for up to six months if they found it promoted violence, hatred, discrimination, or terrorism. The government reported 11 of 19 Muslim religious sites it had closed over the previous two years remained closed. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said government authorities had interfered with their proselytizing activities in 20 cases. The government continued to enforce a ban on full-face coverings in public and the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. The government announced a national plan to combat anti-Semitism.
There were crimes and other religiously motivated incidents against Jews, Muslims, and Christians, including killings or attempted killings, beatings, threats, hate speech, and vandalism. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) registered 121 anti-Muslim crimes, consisting of threats or violence, a 35 percent decline from 2016; anti-Semitic hate crimes fell by 7 percent to 311. The government, however, reported an increase in violent hate crimes against both Muslims and Jews: anti-Muslim violent hate crimes increased to 72 from 67 in 2016, while anti-Semitic violent hate crimes rose to 97 from 77 in 2016. In one incident involving the killing of a Jewish woman, Jewish groups criticized the government’s delay in filing an indictment and initially excluding anti-Semitism as a motive. Jehovah’s Witnesses cited five incidents of physical assault against their members, four of which involved injuries. According to an Ipsos poll, 22 percent of respondents thought Jews had too much power in the country, and 46 percent thought Islam was a threat to national identity. Attacks on religious sites declined to 978, an 8 percent drop from 2016.
The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American Presence Posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and with the country’s Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights and Holocaust Issues. U.S. officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss their religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance, often hosting events, such as a reception by the Ambassador for faith leaders and an iftar by the Charge d’Affaires, to discuss these topics. The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and advance tolerance. The embassy also funded visits to the United States for government officials, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) directors on three different programs that included themes of interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.
The law, as well as international and European covenants, which carry the force of law in the country, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with the freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,800) and imprisonment of one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.
Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Penalties for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000-75,000 euros ($54,000-$90,000), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($54,000). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.
Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities, defined as liturgical services and practices. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories. For example, Mormons perform religious activities through their association of worship and operate a school through their cultural association.
Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. In order to qualify, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include religious training and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. Among excluded activities are those purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the MOI, approximately 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status.
The law states “detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They can practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”
On October 18, parliament passed counterterrorism legislation to succeed the state of emergency law, which had been in effect since 2015 and expired on November 1. The legislation incorporated several provisions of the emergency law. In particular, it grants prefects (representatives of the central government) in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($9,000).
The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. Police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($180) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of 30,000 euros ($36,000) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the victim is a minor.
By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.
There are three classes of territories where the law separating religion and state does not apply. Because Alsace-Lorraine was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings and paying the salaries of local religious leaders. The overseas department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction, except in Alsace-Lorraine and overseas departments and territories. Public schools, however, do teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction in school may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.
By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of an individual child’s religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools or whether students must be allowed to opt out of such instruction.
Missionaries from countries not exempted from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government reported deploying 7,000 security forces to provide reinforced security throughout the country at sensitive sites, including religious ones. At year’s end, 11 of 19 Muslim religious sites the government had deemed “radical” and closed over the previous two years, remained closed. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a French Muslim NGO, said the state of emergency the government ended on November 1 had disproportionately targeted Muslims, and the law that replaced it made the discrimination permanent. The government continued to enforce the ban on full-face coverings in public. The city of Lorette added “headscarves” to the list of banned clothing by bathers in a public swimming pool, and immigration authorities required a U.S. citizen to remove her headscarf to enter the country. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 20 incidents in which authorities interfered with the door-to-door religious proselytizing of its members. The mayor of Clichy-la-Garenne, a suburb of Paris, did not renew the lease on a city-owned space used as a mosque and encouraged its members to use a new mosque the city had helped open in May 2016. The members of the closed mosque protested the mayor’s decision by praying in front of city hall. The military increased the number of Muslim chaplains by 25 percent, to 270. The president and other government officials condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts and “Islamist extremism.” In October the prime minister announced a national plan to combat anti-Semitism. Authorities expelled a Swiss Muslim preacher, saying he posed a risk to public order.
According to statistics released by Interior Minister Gerard Collomb and Defense Minister Florence Parly on September 14, the government deployed 7,000 security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sites and other places of worship.
The Paris public prosecutor’s office concluded there was “sufficient evidence” against Lebanese Canadian academic Hassan Diab to justify a trial. Authorities charged Diab with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four persons and injuring 40 others. The prosecutor’s decision meant the court would decide on whether Diab was in fact in the country at the time of the attack, according to media reports on December 13. An investigating magistrate was scheduled to make the final decision on whether the case would go to trial on charges of murder, attempted murder, and destruction of property as part of a criminal conspiracy. On November 14, according to media reports, Paris’ Court of Appeals extended his pretrial detention for another six months.
On February 1, then-Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux issued a statement crediting a decline in reports of religiously motivated incidents in 2016 to the results of the government’s action plan to fight racism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination linked to origin or religion. Le Roux cited the effectiveness of measures for protection of places of worship introduced in January 2015 and the successful mobilization of the country’s institutions, especially its schools, after the attacks of 2015 and 2016. According to Le Roux, “Faced with racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian acts, we must not relax the guard, on the contrary … we continue, and will always continue to fight against those absolutely intolerable acts which tarnish the Republic.”
According to the Ministry of Justice, as of May the penitentiary system employed the following number of chaplains: 700 Catholic (compared with 690 in 2016), 350 Protestant (349 in 2016), 270 Muslim (217 in 2016), 50 Jewish, and 50 Orthodox Christian. The most recent figures from other groups were from January 2015, when there were 111 Jehovah’s Witness and 10 Buddhist chaplains, and 50 from other religious groups. In the general detainee visiting area, any visitor could continue to bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Policies remained in place allowing prisoners to pray individually in their cells, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported 20 cases of authorities interfering with the community’s public proselytizing. In all of these instances, the Jehovah’s Witnesses continued with their proselytizing. In nine of the incidents, according to Witnesses, local police and mayors banned the community’s public proselytizing. For example, on June 20, in the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comte, a mayor prohibited Witnesses from preaching door-to-door, saying he was concerned about the security of the town’s citizens. The group’s lawyer wrote to the mayor, stating the law did not prohibit such activity, and the Witnesses continued their religious activity. In two other occurrences, municipalities enacted ordinances prohibiting or restricting door-to-door proselytizing. In the nine other cases, town mayors and local police required Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain authorization for door-to-door proselytizing and to show their identity cards as soon as they arrived in the community. For example, on April 15 in Saint-Ambroix, Centre-Val de Loire, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Gendarmerie asked them to obtain authorization from the mayor to participate in their door-to-door canvassing. The mayor also stated he did not want the Witnesses to proselytize within his community. The lawyer for the Witnesses wrote to the chief of staff of the Gendarmerie and to the mayor, stating the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were legal. Neither the mayor nor the Gendarmerie responded.
On October 6, the administrative appeals court of Nantes ruled the annual installation of a nativity scene in the hall of the General Council of the Vendee was a festive “local cultural use” of more than 20 years and thus did not violate the principle of secularism. In November 2016, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, had ruled nativity scenes were permissible in town halls and other public buildings if the intent was “cultural, artistic, or festive.”
On June 16, an American citizen said security agents at Nice Airport required her to remove her headscarf, despite her objections, in order to enter the country. The woman said authorities held her in an airport security room until she consented to removing her headscarf in front of a female security agent. In response to the incident, French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud said the woman should take legal action to allow a French court to assess her charges of harassment based on her religious identity. The Nice border police office and Nice Airport authorities declined to comment on the incident. The woman reportedly filed suit in a French court, according to media reports.
According to media reports, the city of Lorette issued rules prohibiting full-body swimwear and veils that partially or totally concealed the face at a new public outdoor swimming pool opened on June 23. The rules required a woman to wear a one-piece or two-piece bathing suit to access the pool. According to media outlets, Aldo Oumouden, the Spokesperson for the Grand Mosque in the nearby city of Saint Etienne, said, “The mayor does not realize that this decision will further increase stigma. It is not only unnecessary but also devastating for community harmony.”
On October 6, the MOI reported that, since November 2015, authorities had closed 19 mosques or prayer rooms it deemed “radical” under the state of emergency, 11 of which remain closed.
In November 2016, the Council of State upheld a lower court’s decision to allow the town of Clichy-la-Garenne near Paris not to renew a lease for a space the Union of Clichy Muslim Associations (UAMC) was using as a mosque, according to media reports. The UAMC refused to vacate the space and continued to use it until March. On March 22, town officials changed the locks to the space, and worshipers could no longer enter it, according to press reports. During a March 24 demonstration against the closure, media outlets reported one of the imams of the former mosque said, “We demand from the mayor a dignified [prayer] space and a durable solution.” Mayor Remi Muzeau said he planned to transform the closed prayer space into a library and told the UAMC and worshippers they could use a new 1,500-square-meter (16,000 square-foot) Muslim cultural and religious center, opened in May 2016, near the old location, run by a different Muslim association. The UAMC, however, stated the new space was too far from the town center, could not accommodate a sufficient number of worshippers, and was not easily reachable via public transportation, although the city established a bus stop in front of the mosque.
Throughout the year, according to media reports, the UAMC led street prayers on Fridays in front of city hall to protest the mayor’s decision not to renew the lease. On November 10, media reported approximately 100 lawmakers, singing the national anthem and wearing tricolor sashes of office, marched on a street and disrupted approximately 200 Muslim men from praying in a road. Police kept the two sides apart and made no arrests. Valerie Pecresse, President of the Ile-de-France Regional Council and a protest organizer, said, “Public space cannot be taken over in this way.” Mayor Muzeau stated, “I want to assure the tranquility and freedom of the people of my city,” and called on the government to “ban street prayers.” On November 19, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, referring to the November 10 incident, stated, “We will prevent street praying,” but added, “Muslims must have a place to pray.”
On October 25, the Council of State ordered the removal of a cross from a 25-foot-tall statue of Saint Pope John Paul II on public land in Ploermel, a town in Brittany. The court ruled the statue could remain but the cross must be removed within six months because it violated the religion-state separation law. The National Federation of Free Thought, a grouping of humanist associations, and two residents of the town brought the case to court. Some Christians and politicians criticized the decision, calling it another example of efforts to erase the country’s Christian heritage.
In August a Dijon administrative court ruled that schools must provide an alternative to pork school lunches in the interest of Muslim and Jewish children who do not eat pork. The Muslim Legal Defense League (LDJM) had brought the case against a town council in the Burgundy region that stopped providing a choice for school lunches in 2015. The LDJM stated the town’s decision to stop providing nonpork meals was “illegal, discriminatory, and a violation of freedom of conscience and religion.” The administrative court stated it did not accept the LDJM’s argument about religious freedom but considered the “greater interest of the child.” The judge stated the town previously had provided alternative nonpork meals since 1984 “with no argument whatsoever.”
In March a primary school in the town of Malicornay in the central part of the country suspended a teacher after he reportedly read Bible passages to his students. A group of parents requested an investigation to determine if the teacher was attempting to proselytize his students or violating the country’s secular principles.
The CCIF stated the state of emergency in effect until November 1 had disproportionally targeted Muslims, conflating fighting terrorism with promoting anti-Muslim policies. In response to the legislation succeeding the state of emergency, the CCIF issued a statement on November 2 saying the new security legislation made the abuses permitted under the state of emergency a permanent element of the law.
On April 7, the Observatory for Secularism, a body comprised of 15 senior civil servants, parliamentarians, legal experts, and intellectuals who advise the government on the implementation of the “principle of secularism,” released its fourth annual report evaluating secularism in schools, public spaces, and hospitals. The report urged media and elected representatives to cover religious matters responsibly and not sensationalize them. The Observatory also recommended greater financial transparency for religious associations.
On December 21, President Macron received leaders of major religious communities to discuss secularism, theology degrees in universities, and the placement of religious chaplains in hospitals, the military, schools, and prisons. Protestant and Jewish representatives stressed the importance of welcoming migrants.
On January 5, at an annual New Year’s meeting with religious leaders, then- President Francois Hollande thanked a group of seven religious leaders, including Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist leaders, for calling for unity following a difficult year marked by terrorist attacks in Nice and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. Hollande warned of the threat of radicalization from traditional and online platforms and said it was necessary “to eliminate at the outset any amalgam between the religion of peace practiced by the Muslims of France and the odious uses of Islam by the assassins sponsored by Da’esh.” He also praised the work of religious-inspired organizations that brought “solidarity with the most deprived and also with the migrants who reach our soil after having survived terrible ordeals.”
On October 2, at an annual event celebrating the Jewish New Year at the country’s largest synagogue, Prime Minister (PM) Edouard Philippe announced a new national plan (2018-2020) to combat anti-Semitism. According to PM Philippe, the government would work closely with civil society and Jewish organizations to develop and implement the plan. He stated “a sustainable fight against anti-Semitism” must use all available preventive tools, including convention of the country’s largest Jewish umbrella organization, the culture and education. He said the plan would address online anti-Semitic activities and postings such as those that had “overrun social media.” On December 10, at the eighth Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), PM Philippe said the government was protecting 822 Jewish schools in the country, as well as religious sites.
On March 10, the Republican Party (LR) published on Twitter an anti-Semitic caricature of then-presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron showing him with a long hooked nose, wearing a top hat, and using a sickle to cut a cigar. The image resembled anti-Semitic propaganda from World War II (WWII), when the country’s Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis and their deportation and extermination of Jews, according to media reports. After heavy criticism, the LR removed the tweet. A day after the tweet, LR presidential candidate Francois Fillon denounced the “unacceptable” cartoon, saying he would not tolerate dissemination of caricatures with markers of “anti-Semitic propaganda” and calling it “totally contrary to our values.” Then-president of the NGO International League Against Anti-Semitism and Racism Alain Jakubowicz also condemned the tweet, saying, “It is absolutely terrifying. I don’t know if I want to scream, cry, or give up.” Macron filed a complaint in March against the LR for publishing the tweet; however, the Paris prosecutor abandoned the case on June 13 on grounds the case was an “insufficiently characterized offense.” Although the LR launched an internal investigation, the identity of the publisher remained unknown.
On April 25, the Paris Criminal Court fined Mayor Robert Menard of Beziers 2,000 euros ($2,400) for inciting hatred and discrimination by making anti-Muslim comments. The court convicted Menard for comments he made in a September 2016 interview when he stated the number of Muslim children in Beziers was “a problem” and for tweeting in the same month his regret at witnessing “the great replacement,” an allusion to a term used by writer Renaud Camus to describe the country being overtaken by foreign-born Muslims. The fine was higher than the 1,800 euros ($2,200) initially sought by the public prosecutor. The court also ordered the mayor to pay damages of up to 1,000 euros ($1,200) to each of the seven antiracism organizations that had originally filed the suit against him.
On January 9, then-Minister of Interior Le Roux attended a memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where two years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 others hostage.
Former President Hollande, President Macron, and government ministers on many occasions condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education. These occasions included the February 22 annual CRIF dinner; the March 19 commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; the June 1 French Judaism Day observance; and the July 21 anniversary of the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup of Jews during WWII. At the July 21 event, President Macron said, “We will never surrender to the messages of hate; we will not surrender to anti-Zionism because it is a reinvention of anti-Semitism.”
On September 13-14 in Paris, government officials and their Israeli counterparts held their third annual bilateral working group meeting to review efforts and best practices to counter anti-Semitism in France. Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights François Croquette led the country’s delegation, which included the head of the Interagency Delegation to Counter Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Anti-LGBT Hatred (DILCRAH) and Ministry of Education and CRIF representatives.
On June 20, President Macron and Interior Minister Collomb attended an iftar hosted by the CFCM. At the event, President Macron met with CFCM leaders Ahmet Ogras and Anouar Kbibech, as well as Rector of the Great Mosque of Paris Dalil Boubakeur. In his remarks, President Macron, the first president to attend a CFCM iftar since 2007, said the country must counter individuals who twisted the Muslim faith to justify terrorist acts, better integrate Muslims, and strive to train imams domestically to ensure they represented and conveyed values of the country. Macron encouraged the CFCM’s leaders to focus on increased dialogue with the different domestic Muslim communities. He also praised what he called the strong cooperation among the MOI, CFCM, and DILCRAH in countering anti-Muslim hate crimes.
As part of an established exchange program, the government continued to host 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams to work temporarily in the country to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities, according to the latest available data published in a 2016 French Senate report. The report said the imams’ countries of origin paid their salaries.
On October 2, PM Philippe said the government would not question the practice of ritual slaughter. His announcement followed the creation of a commission formed by Muslim and Jewish community leaders in 2016 to protect the practice of religious slaughter, which they said was under threat.
On April 8, authorities expelled Swiss Muslim preacher Hani Ramadan for posing a serious threat to public order, according to an MOI statement. Authorities escorted him from the eastern city of Colmar, where he was participating in a conference, to the Swiss border. The statement said Ramadan had in the past adopted behavior posing a threat to the country and that “the forces of law and order … will continue to fight ceaselessly against extremism and radicalization.” Press reports said authorities had cancelled several of Ramadan’s conferences in the country during the year, notably in Roubaix in January.
In March Mayor of Montpellier Philippe Saurel joined Mayors United against Anti-Semitism, an international initiative calling on municipal leaders to publicly address and take concrete actions against anti-Semitism. As members of this initiative, mayors “pledge to pursue a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitism, ensure that anti-Semitic incidents are thoroughly investigated, raise public awareness of the problem, and make the physical security of Jewish communities a priority.” Other participating cities in the country included Paris, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Nice, Sarcelles, and Nancy.
In June the government announced the Pithiviers train station would become a Holocaust educational and memorial site. The station was the country’s first concentration camp during WWII, housing approximately 3,500 Jews in May 1941 before their deportation to Nazi death camps.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the practice of one’s religion. The country’s 16 states exercise considerable autonomy on registration of religious groups and other matters. Unrecognized religious groups are ineligible for tax benefits. The federal and some state offices of the domestic intelligence service continued to monitor the activities of certain Muslim groups, and authorities shut down a Berlin mosque for what they said were its links to terrorism. Authorities also monitored the Church of Scientology (COS), which reported continued government discrimination against its members. Certain states continued to ban or restrict the use of religious clothing or symbols, including headscarves, particularly for teachers and courtroom officials. North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) became the last state to grant the Jehovah’s Witnesses public law corporation (PLC) status, which makes religious groups eligible for public subsidies and other benefits. While some senior government leaders continued to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, some politicians from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party again made anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements. A report commissioned by parliament found Jews felt increasingly threatened and recommended establishing a federal commissioner on anti-Semitism. Rhineland-Palatinate announced it would establish an anti-Semitism commissioner to take office in early 2018, the first such state-level position in the country, and federal government officials indicated support for appointing one at the federal level. The interior minister said the burqa contradicted European custom. The government accepted the definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
There were reports of multiple anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents. These included assaults, verbal attacks, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Most anti-Christian incidents involved actions by Muslim migrants against migrant converts. In September migrants stabbed a Christian convert, and in January a court sentenced a man to life in prison for killing his Christian roommate in 2016 after expressing regret he could not kill more Christians. Jews expressed security concerns after widespread protests in December, some of which were anti-Semitic. In response to the protests, senior government officials condemned anti-Semitism, and some politicians warned Muslims not to engage in it. A survey by the Universities of Bielefeld and Frankfurt found three quarters of Jews felt anti-Semitism had increased. According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), most anti-Semitic incidents were carried out by right-wing groups, but a study by Indiana University and the University of Potsdam for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) pointed to the potential for anti-Semitism among Muslim migrants. Another cited anti-Semitism among Muslim students in Berlin schools. In March two men attacked and kicked a Muslim girl, and a speaker at a protest against a mosque called the Prophet Muhammad a pedophile. A European Union (EU) survey reported 16 percent of Muslims said they had experienced religious discrimination during the previous five years. There were demonstrations expressing anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment and to protest radical Islam. The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) continued to oppose the COS and some other religious groups publicly.
The U.S. embassy and five consulates general monitored the government’s responses to incidents of religious intolerance and expressed concerns about anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Muslim acts. Embassy representatives met regularly with the Commissioner for Relations with Jewish Organizations and anti-Semitism Issues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). In February the Charge d’Affaires hosted a gathering of 100 religious, community, and government leaders to discuss ways to promote religious tolerance and condemn anti-Semitism. The embassy also hosted a meeting with members of the diplomatic community to review best practices in efforts to promote religious freedom. The embassy and consulates general maintained a dialogue with a broad spectrum of religious communities and human rights NGOs on their concerns about religious freedom and on ways to promote tolerance and communication among religious groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution (also known as the basic law) prohibits discrimination on the basis of religious opinion and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed and to practice one’s religion. The constitution also prohibits an official state church. It stipulates people shall not be required to disclose their religious convictions or be compelled to participate in religious acts. The constitution states religious instruction shall be part of the curriculum in public schools and that parents have the right to decide whether children shall receive religious instruction. It recognizes the right to establish private denominational schools. The constitution guarantees the freedom to form religious societies and states that groups may organize themselves for private religious purposes without constraint. It allows registered religious groups with PLC status to receive public subsidies from the states and to provide religious services in the military, at hospitals, and in prisons.
Religious groups wishing to qualify as nonprofit associations with tax-exempt status must register. State-level authorities review registration submissions and routinely grant tax-exempt status; if challenged, their decisions are subject to judicial review. Religious groups applying for tax-exempt status must provide evidence through their statutes, history, and activities that they are a religious group.
A special partnership exists between the states and religious groups with PLC status, as outlined in the constitution. Any religious group may request PLC status, which, if granted, entitles the group to levy tithes (averaging 9 percent of income tax) that each state collects on its behalf, separately from income taxes, but through the state’s tax collection process. PLCs pay fees to the government for the tithing service, but not all groups utilize the service. PLC status also allows for tax exemptions (larger than those given to groups with nonprofit status), representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations, and the right to special labor regulations, for example, requiring employees in hospitals, kindergartens, or NGOs run by a religious group be members of that group. State governments subsidize institutions with PLC status providing public services, such as religious schools and hospitals.
According to the constitution, the decision to grant PLC status is made at the state level. Individual states base PLC status decisions on a number of varying qualifications, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals. An estimated 180 religious groups have PLC status, including Catholics, EKD, Bahais, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mennonites, Methodists, Mormons, Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists. Ahmadi groups have PLC status in the states of Hesse and Hamburg; no other Muslim communities have PLC status. The COS does not have PLC or nonprofit status in any state.
According to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, general headscarf bans for teachers at public schools are a violation of religious freedom, but implementation is left to the states to determine if special circumstances apply. For example, Bavaria and Saarland render decisions on a case-by-case basis. NRW changed its laws to enable headscarf-wearing women to work as teachers. Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Bremen do not prohibit headscarves for teachers. A law in Berlin bans visible signs of religious affiliation for police, lawyers, judges, law enforcement staff, and primary and secondary public school teachers. The Berlin law permits teachers at some categories of institutions, such as vocational schools, to wear headscarves. Other states use other laws to restrict religious attire in certain circumstances.
In May the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg passed a law that prohibits judges, state prosecutors, and judicial trainees from wearing religious symbols such as kippahs and headscarves in court. Jurors are exempt from the law.
In April the federal parliament approved a law which prohibits civil servants and soldiers from wearing a full-face veil; the law took effect in June. The law further specifies that faces of all individuals must be visible during identity checks.
In August the Lower Saxony state parliament unanimously approved banning full face veils for teachers and students at schools in the state.
The federal criminal code prohibits calling for violence or arbitrary measures against religious groups or their members or inciting hatred against them. It also prohibits assaulting the human dignity of religious groups or their members by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming them. The federal criminal code prohibits disturbing religious services or acts of worship. Infractions are punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred.
All states offer religious instruction and ethics courses in public schools. Religious communities with PLC status (or a special agreement with the state that grants them this right despite the lack thereof) appoint religion teachers and work with the states to set the basic curriculum in line with the constitution; the states pay the teachers’ salaries. Most public schools offer the option of Protestant and Catholic religious instruction in cooperation with those churches, as well as instruction in Judaism if enough students (usually 12, although regulations vary state to state) express an interest. The states of Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saarland also offer some religious instruction in Islam. Students who do not wish to participate in religious instruction may opt out; in some states those who opt out may substitute ethics courses. State authorities generally permit religious groups to establish private schools as long as they meet basic curriculum requirements. Schooling is constitutionally mandated, and homeschooling, including for religious reasons, is prohibited.
The law permits the federal government to characterize “nontraditional” religious groups as “sects,” “youth religions,” and “youth sects,” and allows the government to provide “accurate information” or warnings about them to the public. The law does not permit the government to use terms such as “destructive,” “pseudo-religious,” or “manipulative” when referring to these groups. Several court decisions have ruled the government must remain neutral towards a religion and can provide a warning to the public only if an “offer” by a religious group would endanger the basic rights of an individual or place the individual in a state of physical or financial dependence.
Some federal and state laws affect religious practices. Federal animal protection laws prohibit the killing of animals without anesthesia, including when part of halal and kosher slaughter practices, although some exceptions exist. For example, pursuant to a federal administrative court decision, trained personnel may kill animals without anesthesia in a registered slaughterhouse under observation of the local veterinary inspection office, if the meat is for consumption only by members of religious communities requiring slaughter without anesthesia.
According to federal law, religious groups may appoint individuals with special training to carry out circumcision of males under the age of six months. After six months, the law states circumcisions must be performed in a “medically professional manner” and without unnecessary pain.
Legislation barring hate speech, including religiously motivated hate speech, in social media, became effective on October 1. The law requires operators of social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to delete or block “obviously illegal content” within 24 hours after notification or, in more complex cases, within seven days. Operators must name a representative in the country who can react to complaints within 48 hours. Operators who fail to comply systematically are subject to fines of up to 50 million euros ($60 million).
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: A report commissioned by the federal parliament stated Jews in the country felt increasingly threatened. The report also recommended establishing a federal commissioner on anti-Semitism. In December senior government officials from the two largest political parties expressed support for creating such a position, and Rhineland-Palatinate announced it would establish an anti-Semitism commissioner at the state level in early 2018. Police established “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Christian” as separate categories of hate crime; anti-Semitic hate crime already had its own category. Authorities continued to monitor the COS and some Muslim groups and closed a Berlin mosque they linked to terrorism. In February NRW became the final state to grant the Jehovah’s Witnesses PLC status. The COS continued to report instances of government criticism and employment discrimination. In Bavaria, a preschool/kindergarten dismissed a COS member after the state government threatened to withhold public funding, and a Munich museum dismissed a long-time employee after his COS membership became public. A court upheld the dismissal of a Muslim caregiver in Mannheim for refusing to wash male patients due to her religion. Various courts upheld restrictions on wearing religious garb or symbols at schools and in courtrooms or for safety reasons, but a Berlin labor court awarded monetary damages to two teachers not hired because they wore headscarves. Some senior government officials condemned anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. The interior minister said burqas contradicted European custom. AfD politicians used anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric, including during the national election campaign in August and September. One AfD leader called the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin “a monument of shame,” and the party’s election platform included a section titled “Islam Is Not Part of Germany.” The state of Berlin initiated cooperation on Holocaust education with Israel’s Yad Vashem. The federal government accepted the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, and state governments continued to provide funds to support Jewish organizations and synagogues and other properties.
In April an “Independent Experts Group on Antisemitism,” composed of scientists and NGO representatives, constituted by the federal parliament in December 2014, presented its report on current developments in anti-Semitism in the country. The report stated Jews had felt increasingly threatened during the previous five years, and this could possibly be due to the growing centrality of social media as platforms for hate speech and anti-Semitic rhetoric. It also stated Jews were increasingly concerned for their safety due to everyday experiences of anti-Semitism, such as “provocations, vulgar comments, threats, and insults” which they seldom reported, and that law enforcement often did not recognize such incidents as anti-Semitic. The report cited concern about anti-Semitism by Muslims, especially among refugees and migrants. It did not provide statistics about anti-Semitic incidents. It called for improved documentation and punishment of anti-Semitic crimes, better advisory services for those affected by anti-Semitism, and a federal commissioner on anti-Semitism. The government had not implemented the report’s recommendations by year’s end.
In December Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told the media he supported the establishment of an anti-Semitism commissioner, and the Deputy Chairman of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) caucus in the parliament, Gitta Connemann, said that she and CDU parliament caucus Chairman Volker Kauder supported the idea of establishing an anti-Semitism commissioner right after the formation of the next government. In December Integration and Migration Commissioner Aydan Ozoguz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) also expressed support for the position’s creation.
In December Rhineland-Palatinate Minister President Malu Dreyer announced her state would establish an anti-Semitism commissioner in early 2018, the first such state-level position in the country. Dreyer said the decision was a clear signal the country would not tolerate an increase in anti-Semitic crimes.
Beginning in January police added “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Christian” as separate categories of hate crime to their criminal statistics. “Anti-Semitism” was already a category of hate crime.
In February NRW granted the Jehovah’s Witnesses PLC status, giving the group PLC status in all 16 German states.
In April NRW granted PLC status to a Hindu Temple based in Hamm.
According to reports from the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (OPC) – the domestic intelligence service – and state OPCs and COS members, the federal and state OPCs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, NRW, and Thuringia continued to monitor the activities of the COS, reportedly by evaluating Scientology publications and members’ public activities to determine whether they violated the constitution. According to the OPC’s 2016 report, “Scientology aspires to a society without general and fair elections and rejects the democratic legal system.” At least four major political parties (the CDU, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the SDP, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP)) continued to exclude Scientologists from party membership.
Federal and state OPCs continued to monitor a number of Muslim groups, including Salafist movements, ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jama’at, and Milli Gorus. The website of the NRW OPC stated the Muslim Brotherhood “rejects democracy.” According to the federal OPC, the Muslim Brotherhood had more than 1,040 members in the country. The federal OPC 2016 report also stated the Milli Gorus Islamic Community, an organization of the Turkish diaspora, undertook reforms and had become “less connected to extremism.” As a result, the report stated the group’s members “are no longer to be classified as belonging to the extremist scene.” The group’s membership dropped significantly from approximately 31,000 in 2013 to an estimated 10,000, possibly in response to these reforms, according to the report.
Groups under OPC observation said the monitoring could trigger police investigations, and their status as meriting OPC scrutiny implied they were extremist and constrained their ability to apply for publicly funded projects.
In February authorities shut down the “Fussilet 33” mosque in Berlin, which they called a center for radicalizing Muslims and collecting funds for terrorist activities. More than 400 police officers took part in 24 raids connected to activities at the mosque. Anis Amri, who carried out a bombing attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, had reportedly frequented the mosque.
In January the Osnabruck Administrative Court in Lower Saxony rejected a teacher’s claim for compensation after the Lower Saxony school department withdrew her job offer in 2013 upon learning she intended to teach wearing a headscarf. The administrative court found the department’s 2013 decision could not have taken into account a later verdict by the Constitutional Court that a general headscarf ban for teachers contradicted the constitution.
In March a female Muslim caregiver from Mannheim in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg was fired from her job because she refused to wash men due to her religious principles. She filed a lawsuit against her employer at the Mannheim labor court; the court found she had violated her work contract and her dismissal was justified.
In April a school in Berlin instructed a teacher not to wear a necklace with a cross when in the school, citing the state law prohibiting public school teachers from wearing religious symbols at work. The woman removed the cross from her necklace.
A May decision by the higher administrative court in the state of Hesse confirmed that judicial trainees were not permitted to wear headscarves while appearing in public courts. In July the Federal Constitutional Court confirmed the Hesse court decision, stating the prohibition was a “temporary infringement” on religious freedom.
In May federal Interior Minister de Maiziere told the media he believed it appropriate for churches to play a role in religious freedom discussions: “I would like to see churches become involved in controversial issues … including what an enlightened European Islam should look like and where religious freedom ends.” In the same interview, he said the burqa “contradicts our European customs of showing the face.”
In July a judge of the Luckenwalde local court in Brandenburg ordered a Syrian refugee to remove her headscarf while attending a court hearing about her divorce. The woman’s lawyer challenged the order, stating his client was not a civil servant and the law barring headscarves in court therefore did not apply to her. In August the judge was dismissed from the case for bias; the new judge, the director of the court, allowed the woman to wear a headscarf.
In September an administrative court in Mannheim in Baden-Wuerttemberg ruled that a Sikh from Konstanz must wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle and that the man’s religious freedom to wear a turban was not of greater importance than ensuring the safety of all road users. The man had sued the city of Konstanz for denying him an exception on religious grounds.
In Berlin, three female teachers filed separate lawsuits accusing Berlin schools of not hiring them because they wore headscarves. In February one defendant received 8,680 euros ($10,420) after the Berlin labor court concluded the school had violated equal opportunity laws. In July the Berlin labor court awarded the second defendant 7,000 euros ($8,400). The third case was pending. The schools had invoked the Berlin law prohibiting teachers from wearing religious symbols at work. The labor court said it would consider the law and the merits of each lawsuit on a case-by-case basis.
The federal government provided 6.0 million euros ($7.2 million) and 2.5 million euros ($3.0 million), respectively, in support of the Augsburg and Luebeck synagogues and 2.0 million euros ($2.4 million) for the enlargement of the Chabad Lubawitsch Jewish educational center in Berlin. The federal government and the state of Saxony provided 3.7 million euros ($4.4 million) for the renovation of the Goerlitz synagogue. According to the Federal Agency for Civic Education, the construction of mosques was usually financed by Muslim organizations and associations themselves.
The government continued to subsidize some Jewish groups. Based on an agreement between the federal government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the federal government provided 10 million euros ($12 million) annually to help maintain Jewish cultural heritage, restore the Jewish community, and support integration and social work. In addition, the federal government provided financial support to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, the Rabbi Seminar at the University of Potsdam, and the Leo Baeck Institute, an international research group on the history and culture of German Jewry.
State governments provided funds to Jewish communities and organizations in various amounts, for such purposes as the renovation and construction of synagogues. The federal government continued to cover 50 percent of maintenance costs for Jewish cemeteries. State and local police units continued to provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
In May Stuttgart Airport opened a prayer booth that featured 300 prayers from various religions in 65 languages.
In May the University of Essen-Duisburg, NRW, in response to a Muslim student group’s appeal for a prayer room, established “a room of silence” open to students of any religion at both its campuses for a trial period of several years.
Unlike Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups, the Muslim community did not have a sole representative body to work with states to plan curricula for religious education classes. Some states, such as Baden-Wuerttemberg, formed advisory councils with representation from several Muslim groups to assist in planning the curriculum for Islamic classes. The Alevi Muslim community continued to offer separate religious lessons in schools in seven federal states for approximately 1,500 students.
In February an administrative court in Muenster, NRW, upheld a 2012 lower court ruling against the Jewish community in Essen for its refusal to allow a non-Jewish woman to be buried in a local cemetery. The woman and her Jewish husband had purchased a burial plot together at the cemetery, which later changed its statutes to restrict burials only to Orthodox Jews.
The COS continued to report governmental discrimination. “Sect filters,” signed statements by potential employees to confirm they had no contact with the COS, remained in use in the public and private sectors.
According to a COS spokesperson, in the summer a preschool/kindergarten in Munich dismissed a nurse who was a member of the COS after the city government announced it would cut the kindergarten’s public funding due to the employee. The COS reported the House of Art, a public art museum in downtown Munich, dismissed a long-time employee in March after his COS membership became publicly known. The COS reported the former employee filed a complaint at the Munich labor court. Information on the status of the case was unavailable at year’s end. The media reported the House of Art began using sect filters for new employees in April.
The COS said firms owned or operated by its members also suffered discrimination. According to the COS, some of its members who suffered discrimination refrained from taking legal action because they felt a trial would be time-consuming and because they feared being stigmatized and losing business contracts.
Opposition parties, internet companies, and civil rights groups criticized the law restricting online hate speech. At a parliamentary hearing in March, eight out of 10 experts testifying about the law raised constitutional concerns, particularly the provision assigning responsibility for deciding on the legality of content to content operators. Although operators could refer difficult cases to an independent commission for adjudication, critics said details on the commission or the process remained unclear. They stated the uncertainty and the high fines for noncompliance would lead to “overblocking” out of an abundance of caution and thus would limit freedom of expression.
In January Bjorn Hoecke, the AfD’s state leader in Thuringia, denounced the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin as a “monument of shame.” The comment sparked national debate about anti-Semitism and free speech. Then-SPD party leader and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, “Hoecke despises the Germany I am so proud of. Never, never, ever must we leave the demagogic comments by Hoecke without objection.” A member of parliament from the Left Party filed legal charges against Hoecke that the Dresden public prosecutor’s office dropped in March. Hoecke received some criticism from within his party but remained an active member. Leaders of the CDU/CSU, SDP, Greens, and Left Party denounced the remarks.
In April deputy AfD chairman Albrecht Glaser said during a speech at an AfD party convention in Oestrich-Winkel, Hesse that “Islam is a construct that neither knows nor respects religious freedom itself…Who treats a basic right in this manner needs to be excluded from this basic right.” Glaser was elected to parliament in September, and the AfD caucus nominated him as its candidate for vice president of parliament. According to parliamentary procedure, normally each party in parliament is allotted at least one vice presidential position. In this case, however, all other parties expressed concerns about Glaser’s nomination due to his remarks on Islam, and he failed to get the necessary majority of parliamentary votes in three ballots in October. At year’s end, the AfD’s vice presidential position in parliament remained unfilled.
In its election platform for the September federal parliamentary elections, the AfD called for abolishing Islamic theology at universities and Islamic classes at schools. One section of the party platform was titled, “Islam is not part of Germany.” Justice Minister Heiko Maas commented that parts of the AfD election platform violated the constitution.
In September just after the federal parliamentary elections, the Central Council of Jews expressed fears about the success of the AfD and its entry into the federal parliament for the first time. The council’s president said, “A party that tolerates right-wing extremist thinking in its ranks and incites hatred against minorities … will now be represented in parliament and nearly all state legislatures … I expect our democratic forces to expose the true nature of the AfD and its empty, populist promises.”
During the final federal cabinet meeting before the September elections, the government officially acknowledged the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The Central Council of Jews welcomed this decision as an important step towards combating anti-Semitism. The Ministry of Interior stated on its website that it hoped the definition would be used to educate teachers, police, and legal experts. Interior Minister de Maiziere stated, “We Germans are particularly vigilant when our country is threatened by an increase in anti-Semitism. History made clear to us, in the most terrible way, the horrors to which anti-Semitism can lead.”
During festivities that celebrated the 100th anniversary of a synagogue in Augsburg, Bavaria in June, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called upon Germans to fight anti-Semitism. He stated anti-Semitism was present not only as demagogic slogans but also in side conversations between intellectuals, adding that one should not accept “immigrants from Muslim countries importing their concepts of the enemy.”
In June Berlin announced it would become the 11th state to cooperate on Holocaust education with the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. Berlin Senator for Education Sandra Scheeres said anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism were issues in Berlin schools and vowed to send 20 teachers to Israel annually for training on Holocaust education. State officials were to develop new teaching materials jointly with Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.
In April the Cologne Labor Court in NRW dismissed a lawsuit brought by two imams against the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB). A Turkish ministerial decree in 2016 had ordered the imams to leave their positions and return to Turkey. The court found the government of Turkey employed the imams and the DITIB was therefore not liable.
In May Foreign Minister Gabriel hosted a meeting of 100 religious leaders from 53 countries to establish “long-term and trusting relations between religious representatives around the globe” and to “showcase positive examples of active peace work by religious communities,” according to the foreign ministry’s website.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship with some restrictions. The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” The law prohibits offenses against “religious peace,” including blasphemy and religious insult, punishable by prison sentences of up to two years. The government continued enforcing the blasphemy laws, leading to the arrests of at least five citizens in four separate cases. The constitution prohibits proselytizing, and no rite of worship may “disturb public order or offend moral principles.” At least 28 different religious communities are officially registered with the government under various laws, and a 2014 law outlines the procedures for other groups to obtain government recognition. Religious groups without legal recognition are able to function but may face administrative difficulties and additional tax burdens. The Greek Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, the Muslim minority of Thrace and the Catholic Church receive some government benefits not available to other religious communities. A court granted legal recognition to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community. The government granted a permit for the first time for a polytheistic group to operate a house of prayer. Some members of the Thrace Muslim community opposed the government’s appointment of muftis, advocating that the community elect them. The government amended a series of laws to allow private citizens and municipal authorities to apply for permits to operate crematory facilities for those whose religious beliefs do not permit burial in Greek cemeteries; to allow Muslim students in primary and secondary schools to be absent from school on Islamic religious holidays; and to establish an administrative committee for a mosque in Athens. The law also allowed for the descendants of deceased Greek Jews born in the country prior to May 9, 1945 to obtain Greek citizenship. The government improved the process for mosque modifications in Thrace. Jehovah’s Witnesses said, the government did not approve their requests to be exempted from military service in several instances. The criminal trial of 69 members and supporters of the Golden Dawn (GD) political party, widely considered anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, continued. They were charged with multiple attacks, including several against Muslim migrants, from 2011 to 2014. GD members of parliament (MPs) continued to make anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments. The government continued to fund Holocaust education programs and commemorate Greek Holocaust victims.
Media reports of incidents of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim discrimination and hate speech continued, including some directed at immigrants. Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report incidents of discrimination by some private citizens while preaching or when distributing information material in Athens and in other cities. There were reports of vandalism against religious properties, including Holocaust memorials and a Greek Orthodox church. Police launched investigations and made some arrests; however, the prosecutor had not filed charges in these cases by the end of the year.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate representatives met with officials and representatives from the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, including the minister of education and the secretary general for religious affairs. They confirmed minority communities could apply for and establish houses of worship, learned about government initiatives that affect the Muslim minority in Thrace and immigrants, and expressed concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric. Embassy officials also engaged the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church and other metropolitans, as well as members of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Bahai, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah’s Witness communities to promote religious tolerance and encourage interfaith dialogue. The embassy sponsored two international exchange participants for a program on minority migrant integration and tolerance. The embassy promoted religious tolerance through the Ambassador’s remarks via social media, including his remarks at the Conference on Religious Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship under the protection of the law with some restrictions. The constitution prohibits proselytizing, and no rite of worship may “disturb public order or offend moral principles.” The constitution allows prosecutors to seize publications that offend Christianity or other “known religions.” The law prohibits offenses against “religious peace,” including blasphemy and religious insult, which are punishable by prison sentences of up to two years. Blasphemy cases may be brought before civil and criminal courts. Development of religious conscience among citizens is listed as one of the goals of state education according to the constitution. Greek Orthodox priests and government-appointed muftis and imams in Thrace receive their salaries from the Greek government but are not considered to be state officials.
The constitution stipulates ministers of all known religions shall be subject to the same state supervision and the same obligations to the state as clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church. It also states individuals shall not be exempted from their obligations to the state or from compliance with the law because of their religious convictions.
The Greek Orthodox Church, the Jewish community, and the Muslim minority of Thrace have long-held status as official religious legal entities. The Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, two evangelical Christian groups, and the Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian Apostolic, and Assyrian Orthodox Churches automatically acquired the status of religious legal entities under a 2014 law. The same law also provides for groups seeking recognition to become religious legal entities under civil law. The recognition process involves filing a request at the civil court, providing documents proving the group has open rituals and no secret doctrines, supplying a list of 300 signatory members who do not adhere to other religious groups, demonstrating that there is a leader who is legally in the country and is otherwise qualified, and showing that their practices do not pose a threat to public order. Once the civil court recognizes the group, it sends a notification to the Secretariat General for Religions.
With legal status, the religious group may legally transfer property and administer houses of prayer and worship, private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities. Some religious groups have opted to retain their status as civil society nonprofit associations that they acquired through court recognition prior to the 2014 law. Under this status, religious groups may operate houses of prayer and benefit from real estate property tax exemptions, but they may face administrative and fiscal difficulties in transferring property and operating private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities.
The law allows religious communities without status as legal entities to appear before administrative and civil courts as plaintiffs or defendants.
A religious group that has obtained at least one valid permit to operate a place of prayer is considered a “known religion” and thereby acquires legal protection, including a tax exemption for property used for religious purposes. Membership requirements for house of prayer permits differ from the requirements for religious legal entities. The granting of house of prayer permits is subject to approvals from local urban planning departments attesting to the compliance of a proposed house of prayer with local public health and safety regulations, and the application requires at least five signatory members of the group. Once a house of worship receives planning approvals, a religious group must submit a file including documents describing the basic principles and rituals of the religious group, as well as a biography of the religious minister or leader; the file must be approved by the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs. The leaders of a religious group applying for a house of prayer permit must be Greek citizens, European Union nationals, or legal residents of the country and must possess other professional qualifications, including relevant education and experience. A separate permit is required for each physical place of worship.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne gives the recognized Muslim minority of Thrace the right to maintain mosques and social and charitable organizations (auqafs). Government-appointed muftis are allowed to practice sharia and render religious judicial services in the area of family law for those members of the Muslim community in Thrace who opt to use the services of a mufti instead of civil courts. The government, in consultation with a committee of Muslim leaders, appoints three muftis in Thrace to 10-year terms of office, with the possibility of extension. Civil courts in Thrace routinely ratify the family law decisions of the muftis. The muftis also appoint imams to serve in the community’s mosques.
The law protects an individual’s right to predetermine his or her form of funeral service and burial location in the presence of a notary. Individuals are allowed to designate the location and the method of funeral service under conditions that relate to public order, hygiene, or moral ethics, as well as a person responsible for the execution of funeral preferences. On July 28, the parliament amended existing legislation to allow private citizens and municipal authorities to apply for permits to operate crematory facilities to benefit those whose religious beliefs do not permit burial in Greek cemeteries. On October 18, the parliament passed an amendment changing the use of land in Eleonas region, in central Athens, thus paving the way for the construction by the local municipality of a crematory facility.
All religious groups are subject to taxation on their property used for nonreligious purposes. Property used solely for religious purposes remains exempt from taxation, as well as municipal fees, for groups classified as religious legal entities or “known religions.”
A law passed by parliament on August 8 exempts monasteries on the peninsula of Mount Athos from paying pending property tax on any properties owned inside or outside Mount Athos.
Home schooling is not permitted for children. The law requires all children to attend nine years of compulsory education in state or private schools and one year of compulsory preschool education in accordance with the official school curriculum. Greek Orthodox religious instruction in primary and secondary schools is included in the curriculum. School textbooks focus mainly on Greek Orthodox teachings; however, they also include some basic information on some other “known” religions – ones the courts define as having “open rituals and no hidden doctrines.” Students may be exempted from religious instruction upon request, but parents of students registered as Greek Orthodox in school records must state the students are not Greek Orthodox believers in order to receive the exemption. There are no private religious schools, although certain foreign-owned private schools and individual churches may teach optional religious classes on their premises, which students may attend on a voluntary basis. The law provides for optional Islamic religious instruction in public schools in Thrace for the recognized Muslim minority and optional Catholic religious instruction in public schools on the islands of Tinos and Syros.
A law passed on August 4, effective for the 2017-2018 school year, enables members from the Muslim minority and Catholic communities who teach in state schools to retain these positions if they are also called to serve as muftis or bishops. The law also provides for excused absences for Muslim students in primary and secondary school for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha and the following day.
The government operates secular Greek-Turkish bilingual schools and two Islamic religious schools in Thrace. The law in Thrace provides for Islamic religious instructors to teach Islam to the Muslim minority in Greek-language public schools in lieu of mandatory twice weekly Greek Orthodox religious courses. Muslim students in Thrace wishing to study the Quran may also attend after-hours religious classes in mosques.
The law establishes an annual 0.5 percent quota for admission of students from the recognized Muslim minority to universities, technical institutes, and civil service positions. Two percent of students entering the national fire brigade school and academy should be from the Muslim minority in Thrace. On February 14, the parliament amended existing legislation to standardize and simplify the certification process for teaching staff from the Muslim minority in Thrace.
The law provides for alternative forms of mandatory service for religious conscientious objectors in lieu of the nine-month mandatory military service. Conscientious objectors are required to serve 15 months of alternate service in state hospitals or municipal and public services.
The law prohibits discrimination and criminalizes hate speech on the grounds of religion. Individuals or legal entities convicted of incitement to violence, discrimination, or hatred on the basis of religion, among other factors, may be sentenced to prison terms of between three months and three years and fined 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($6,300 to $24,000). Violators convicted of other crimes motivated by religion may be sentenced to an additional six months to three years, with fines doubled. The law criminalizes approval, trivialization, or malicious denial of the Holocaust and “crimes of Nazism” if that behavior leads to incitement of violence or hatred, or has a threatening or abusive nature towards groups of individuals. The National Council against Racism and Xenophobia, an advisory body under the Ministry of Justice, Transparency, and Human Rights, is charged with preventing, combating, monitoring, and recording racism and intolerance and protecting individuals and groups targeted on several grounds, including religion. The National Commission for Human Rights, comprised of government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) members, serves as an independent advisory body to the government on all human rights issues.
An amendment passed by the parliament on March 28, allows the descendants of deceased Greek Jews born in the country prior to May 9, 1945 to obtain Greek citizenship.
The law requires all civil servants, including cabinet and parliament members, to take an oath before entering office; individuals are free to take a religious or secular oath in accordance with their beliefs. Witnesses in trials must also take oaths before testifying in court, and can also select between a religious and a secular oath in both civil and criminal cases.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government continued enforcing the blasphemy laws, leading to the arrests of at least five citizens in four separate cases. All blasphemy cases during the year related to statements against Orthodox Christianity. Charges against six of the organizers of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex (LGTBI) group Thessaloniki Pride for malicious blasphemy were dropped, but the case remained open as authorities continued to search for the individuals who created the artwork cited in the complaint. A soccer player was suspended for several games because he “cursed the divine.” An appeals court annulled the sentence of a blogger convicted in 2014 of “habitual blasphemy and offense of religion.” The criminal trial of 69 party members and supporters from the GD political party, widely considered anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim by scholars, media, and other observers, on charges including murder, membership in a criminal organization, conspiracy, weapons possession, and racist violence, continued through the end of the year. Some of the victims were Muslim migrants. A court granted legal recognition to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community. The government approved, for the first time, a permit to operate a prayer house for the Supreme Council of Ethnic Greeks (YSEE). Two religious groups – an Old Calendarist and an evangelical Christian – applied to courts seeking legal recognition. Religious groups without religious entity status and no house of prayer permits were still able to function as registered nonprofit civil law organizations. The government continued to provide funding and other benefits to the Greek Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, the Muslim community of Thrace and the Catholic Church. Muslim leaders continued to criticize the lack of Islamic cemeteries outside of Thrace and the absence of a mosque in Athens. Deputy Foreign Minister Ioannis Amanatidis issued a statement on May 25 supporting the opening of an Athens mosque. GD MPs made anti-Semitic references, portraying Jewish individuals as those with the most decision-making and economic power.
In January police announced the arrest of two individuals in Epirus who each accused the other of committing multiple crimes, including malicious blasphemy. In April police in Volos reported that a suspect refused to comply with police instructions. He was charged with resisting arrest, insulting an officer, and malicious blasphemy, and sentenced to a 17-month suspended prison sentence, only to be served if he repeats the offense within three years. According to police statistics, another individual in central Greece was charged with malicious blasphemy in March; additional details were not available in this case. In May, according to local press reports, coast guard officials in Rafina charged a 17-year-old with resisting arrest, criminal threats, physical injury to an officer, and malicious blasphemy. In February a soccer player was suspended for four games by the soccer association in northern Greece because he “cursed the divine.” On March 2, an appeals court annulled the 10-month sentence of a blogger convicted in 2014 of “habitual blasphemy and offense of religion” for creating a satirical page on social media mocking a dead Orthodox monk who was later proclaimed a saint. The acquittal was the result of a legal provision that cleared a backlog of misdemeanor offenses committed up until March 31, 2016.
According to research conducted by the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM), in 2016 the Hellenic (national) Police opened 254 cases for malicious blasphemy involving 328 defendants, 312 of whom were Greeks and 16 foreigners. The Hellenic Police arrested 159 of these suspects; in the vast majority of cases, malicious blasphemy was not the only charge. Additionally, in 2016 police opened 43 cases for disturbing the religious peace; 46 individuals were arrested in these cases.
In October, according to GHM, authorities dropped malicious blasphemy charges against the organizers of Thessaloniki Pride after concluding that the group was not responsible for producing the poster cited in the case. In 2016 Metropolitan of Kalavryta Amvrosios and five private citizens had filed separate police complaints for malicious blasphemy and offending religion against a group of six individuals involved in the organization of the Thessaloniki Pride. The complaint centered on an unofficial version of the 2016 Thessaloniki Pride poster, which featured an artistic depiction of Jesus on a cross with the text, “He was crucified for us too.” At the end of the year, the case remained open and had been referred to the cyber police to identify the creators of the poster.
The criminal trial of 69 GD party members and supporters, including 18 of its current and former MPs, continued through the end of the year, with the examination of witnesses. The charges were related to a string of attacks, including against Muslim migrants and Greeks; they included murder, conspiracy, weapons possession, and membership in a criminal organization.
On April 12, the media reported that the national police took precautionary measures to protect the three Coptic churches in Athens following attacks against Copts in Egypt. Measures included adding undercover police, frequent patrolling around the churches’ locations, and contacting the churches’ leaders to urge them to establish direct communication with police if they noticed something unusual or suspicious.
Early in the year a court granted legal recognition to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community as a religious entity. Two religious groups – an Old Calendarist and an evangelical Christian – applied to courts seeking legal recognition as religious entities. Rulings for these two applications were pending at year’s end.
Religious groups without religious entity status and no house of prayer permits, including Scientologists and the ISKCON, were still able to function as registered nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by members of those religious groups, whose only option was a civil marriage.
The government approved permits for 18 houses of prayer, including the first prayer house for the YSEE, a polytheistic group revering the ancient Hellenic gods. The government did not deny any applications for permits during the year. The government granted 12 permits to Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also granted a permit to a group of Muslims from Bangladesh and three permits to Pentecostals. The government revoked one permit at the request of a small religious community that no longer wished to operate its house of prayer. There were no pending applications at year’s end.
The government continued to provide funding for religious leaders’ salaries and other benefits to the Greek Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, to the Muslim community of Thrace and the Catholic Church. The government also supported seminars for teachers to raise awareness of the Holocaust among students and funding for educational visits for students to Auschwitz.
The government continued to provide direct support to the Greek Orthodox Church, including for religious training of clergy and funding for religious instruction in schools. Greek Orthodox priests continued to receive their salaries from the state. Some Greek Orthodox officials stated this direct support was given in accordance with a series of legal agreements with past governments, and in exchange for religious property previously expropriated by the state. The Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs continued to partially fund retirement pensions of Orthodox monks and monitor vocational training for Orthodox clergy.
The government continued to state that Muslims not part of the recognized minority created by the Treaty of Lausanne were not covered by that treaty and therefore did not have the rights related to it, such as the right to bilingual education, special quotas for university entry and jobs in the public sector, the optional use of sharia in family and inheritance matters, and optional Islamic religious classes in public schools.
Some members of the Thrace Muslim community continued to object to the government’s practice of appointing muftis, pressing for direct election of muftis by the Muslim community. The government continued to state that government appointment was appropriate because the muftis had judicial powers and the constitution requires the government to appoint all judges. Academics and activists said the ability of courts in Thrace to provide judicial oversight of muftis’ decisions was limited by the lack of translation of sharia into Greek and lack of familiarity with sharia in general. On November 13, the prime minister announced the government’s plans to make the use of sharia in Thrace optional and consensual by all parties. The Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs subsequently issued a draft legislative amendment and an explanatory framework. The bill was approved in principle by the relevant parliamentary committee on December 21 and scheduled for a plenary vote after the end of the year.
On November 13, the media reported that a Thessaloniki Misdemeanor Court convicted the unofficial mufti in Xanthi of impersonating a public authority and an unofficial local imam of disturbing the peace for unlawfully and violently preventing the official mufti from performing the funeral service for a Muslim soldier in Glafki village in 2016. The sentences were suspended for three years, only to be served if the defendants commit a repeat offense during this time. The defendants appealed the decision.
On March 28, the minister for education, research and religions issued a decision establishing a working group on the upgrading and modernization of the muftiates in Thrace. The group comprised four employees of the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs – three from the Directorate for Religious Administration under the Secretariat General for Religions and one from the General Directorate of the ministry’s Financial Services. The minister tasked the working group with drafting an analytical report on the existing situation and compiling recommendations for operational improvements. The decision also called for assistance from other individuals, including the head of the Directorate for Minority Education and the school advisor for the minority program in minority schools, a member of the Muslim minority. The group was granted full access to all archives, information, books, and financial data kept in the muftiates, with guarantees to respect data protection laws.
Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to criticize the appointment by the government, rather than the election by the Muslim community, of members entrusted with the administration of the auqafs, which oversee endowments, real estate, and charitable funds of the minority community. Muslim leaders also continued to criticize the lack of Muslim cemeteries outside of Thrace, stating this obliged Muslims to transport their dead to Thrace for Islamic burials. They also continued to state that municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years because of shortage of space contravened Islamic religious law. Several MPs supported the Muslim leaders’ complaints. On May 19, 34 MPs from the ruling political party SYRIZA submitted a question in the parliament asking about the delayed implementation of a 2016 decision by the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church, which had been made at the request of the government, to grant 20,000 square meters (215,000 square feet) inside an existing cemetery at Schisto, in greater Athens, for the burial of Muslims. The MPs also inquired about the status of a similar government proposal to the Holy Synod for the granting of land inside the cemetery of Evosmos, in Thessaloniki. At least three sites continued to be used unofficially on an ad hoc basis for the burial of Muslim migrant and asylum seekers on Lesvos Island, in Schisto, and near the land border with Turkey in Evros.
At year’s end, there were still no crematories in the country. In 2016, three municipalities – Athens, Thessaloniki, and Patras – had initiated the process to establish crematories by searching for suitable land and seeking approval of the necessary municipal committees. The cities of Athens and Patras reportedly had identified suitable plots of land. The latter had also requested the issuance of a presidential decree pre-certifying the land transfer as constitutional in an effort to deter potential legal complaints.
The Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs continued to have three Islamic experts assigned to offer religious services in camps hosting Muslim refugees and migrants in the region of central and eastern Macedonia. The three included an imam from Xanthi, the director of one of the two Islamic religious schools in Thrace, and a scholastic expert in Islamic law and studies. Government authorities again issued directives to managers of reception facilities hosting migrants and refugees, instructing them to alter food distribution times and the type of food served to allow Muslims to observe the Ramadan fast.
A law passed by parliament on May 30 provided for the establishment of an “administrative committee for the Athens Islamic Mosque” as a nonprofit legal entity under private law, supervised by the minister of education, research and religions. Media and government sources reported progress on the construction of an official mosque in Athens, originally expected to be completed in August, but the mosque was not operational at year’s end. GD held protests against the mosque in January and throughout the year. MP Ilias Panagiotaros said at the January rally that GD would step up protests, and that “this mosque will not have a good end.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Amanatidis issued a statement on May 25 supporting the opening of the Athens mosque, commenting that such a measure would allow Greeks and other EU Muslims to perform their religious duties unhindered. He encouraged to vote in favor of the draft education bill with provisions for the operation of the mosque, which he said would enhance the country’s international image with respect to human rights. Passed on May 25, the law provided for the establishment of a seven-member administrative committee for the Athens Mosque as a nonprofit legal entity under private law, to be supervised by the minister of education, research, and religions and to include at least two Muslim community representatives. Committee members were officially named on August 21 and began their work soon after. The administrative committee was tasked with selecting the imams who will preach at the mosque, de-conflicting requests from various communities to use the space, and overseeing the general administration of the property.
On September 8, the Migration Ministry transferred 82 Yazidi Kurds from the Yiannitsa Migrant Center to an all-Yazidi migrant camp located at a former agricultural training facility in Serres. Yazidis at Yiannitsa had stated Syrian Sunni Arabs were harassing them because of the Yazidis’ religious beliefs. According to the NGO The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children, as of September 7, there were 2,535 Yazidis migrants in the country, with the majority living in an open air camp at the base of Mount Olympus.
On April 3, the Ministries of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs; Environment and Energy; and Culture and Sports issued a joint circular codifying the process for construction, expansion, repair, and demolition of existing or new mosques in Thrace. The government stated this codification was necessary to provide an accessible, transparent, unified, and coherent framework. Some religious groups, including Muslims, reiterated complaints from previous years that the house of prayer permit process – for example, requirements that buildings used for prayer have fire exits – constrained freedom of religion by making it difficult to find a suitable location.
Central and local government authorities continued to provide public space free of charge to groups of Muslims whose members requested places of worship during Ramadan and for other religious occasions.
On June 27, following discussions between the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs and the Greek Orthodox Church, the Standing Holy Synod of the Church of Greece approved guidelines provided by the ministry in 2016 on religious instruction. According to the guidelines, religious education should not be based solely on the official textbook, which primarily covers Greek Orthodox doctrine. The government stated students needed to become more familiar with other religions present in the country and the world. Some Greek Orthodox Church leaders had objected to the new guidelines, stating the government was disrespectful to the constitution and to the faith of the majority of the country’s citizens.
The government continued to provide funding to the Muslim minority in Thrace to select and pay salaries of teachers of Islam in state schools and the salaries of the three official muftis and some imams, in accordance with Greece’s obligations under the Lausanne Treaty. It also continued to fund Catholic religious training and teachers’ salaries in state schools on the islands of Syros and Tinos, as well as to fund awareness raising activities and trips for non-Jewish students to Holocaust remembrance events, and for Holocaust education training for teachers.
Some leaders of the recognized Muslim minority continued to press for fully bilingual kindergartens in Thrace, modeled after the already operating bilingual primary schools. Government authorities historically asserted that Greek-language kindergartens helped students to better integrate into the larger society, and that kindergarten classes are not mentioned in the Lausanne Treaty. In response to the Muslim community’s concerns, the Institute for Educational Policy, an agency supervised by the minister for education, research, and religious affairs, announced in March a plan to fund, under a pilot project, assistant teachers in kindergarten classrooms fluent in the child’s native language to facilitate the children’s integration into school life. This program had not yet begun at year’s end.
Some religious groups and human rights organizations continued to state the discrepancy between the length of mandatory alternate service for conscientious objectors (15 months) and for those serving in the military (nine months) was discriminatory. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in several instances, government committees, tasked with examining requests for exemption from military service as conscientious objectors on religious grounds, denied requests for unbaptized members of their community. The committees, consisting of two army officials, one psychologist, and two academics, decided that unbaptized individuals, despite studying the Bible and attending sessions jointly with Jehovah’s Witnesses, “are not yet ready to fully embrace their teachings.” The committees ordered the immediate conscription of those individuals into the armed forces and did not allow the applicants to defend their cases in person to the committee.
The Union of Atheists filed a complaint on August 1 with the Data Protection Authority and the ombudsman objecting to the listing of students’ religion on school transcripts; the inclusion of religion in the administrative school databases and university records; and the need for parents to officially declare and justify their request to have their children exempted from religion classes. The union argued that religious and philosophical beliefs constitute sensitive personal data and should not be recorded.
GD MPs, as well as the GD official website and weekly newspaper, continued making references to conspiracy theories portraying Jewish individuals as those with the most decision-making and economic power. On October 5, GD MP Elias Panagiotaros stated during an interview on the web-based television channel “Eleftheri Ora” that nonperforming business and household loans in the country would be administered by a company headed by the President of the Jewish Community in Athens, whom he incorrectly categorized as the President of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS). Panagiotaros also said the company was successful because of the Jewish community’s connections to the minister of finance.
There continued to be numerous instances of anti-Semitism online. In May the European Jewish Press estimated there were at least 48 active anti-Semitic blogs in the country and called GD, which had issued more than 30 cases of anti-Semitic speeches and multiple anti-Semitic articles, “one of the most dangerous neo-Nazi parties in Europe.”
On July 18, the secretaries general for human rights and for religious affairs each independently referred the case of an excommunicated Old Calendarist monk, Father Kleomenis, to the public prosecutor, the racist crimes department of the police, and the cybercrime police department for investigation. The monk had posted a video on July 17 on social media showing him in front of the Jewish Martyrs Holocaust Monument in Larissa, cursing the Jews, denying the Holocaust, spitting, kicking, and throwing eggs at the monument, and calling for its destruction. The Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church and the local Metropolitans of Larisa and Tyrnavos issued statements disassociating themselves from Kleomenis and condemning his actions. The Municipality of Larissa also issued a statement denouncing the attack. On July 19, the prosecutor in Larissa filed charges against Kleomenis and three more individuals for vandalizing the Holocaust memorial and for violating the law against racism.
On May 2, GHM announced it had filed a lawsuit against Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus on hate speech grounds. GHM’s lawsuit also referred to legislation about “aggravating” conditions when a “state official” commits a hate speech offense. The lawsuit was in response to a statement Seraphim publicized on the official website of the Archdiocese of Piraeus on April 28, in which he complained he had been selected by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece to light the holy light of Easter at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, but that he was replaced because Israel declared him as persona non grata. In the statement, he quoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and referred to Freemasonry and other organizations as “the arms used by Zionism to secure infiltration and state manipulation.” He accused Israel of interfering with the Church’s issues. The KIS denounced Seraphim’s statement.
On January 26, the minister of education, research, and religious affairs, the president of the Jewish Museum of Greece, and the president of Yad Vashdem cosigned a memorandum of understanding regarding the implementation of programs on the teaching of Holocaust. One program entailed a July 9-12 seminar for 39 public high school teachers. The seminar was organized by the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights in cooperation with the Jewish Museum of Greece, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs.
On January 27, the minister for education, research, and religious affairs unveiled in a school in Athens an honorary plaque in memory of the Greek Jewish children killed in concentration camps during World War II. During the German occupation, German troops had ordered the school’s closure, and the pupils, along with their parents, had been arrested and sent to concentration camps in central Europe. Also on January 27, the Department for Preschool Education of the University of Thessaly, the local Jewish community, and the Piraeus Bank Foundation organized an event entitled “Approaching the Holocaust in the School and in the Museum.”
The head of the central board of Jewish communities, David Saltiel, welcomed the amendment passed in March allowing all descendants of deceased Greek Jews, mostly Holocaust survivors, to apply for citizenship as “a moral victory” and a “fresh step forward in the recognition of the history of the Holocaust and of Greek Jews.” The GD, the fourth largest party in the parliament, voted against the legislation.
On January 21, opposition MP Adonis Georgiadis posted on social media the following announcement: “In the past I’ve coexisted with and tolerated the views of people who showed disrespect to Jewish co-patriots, and for this reason I feel the need to apologize to the Jewish Community. I feel even sorrier for supporting and promoting the book of Kostas Plevris, which is insulting for the Jews. The Holocaust of the Jewish people constitutes the greatest disgrace of our contemporary culture and its sacrifice strengthened democracy, anti-racism, and the belief in the equality and freedom of nations.”
The Secretariat General for Religious Affairs funded in May an annual commemorative trip to Auschwitz for 82 high school students and 10 teachers from schools throughout the country. The students took part in a contest organized by the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, which involved producing a video on “The Kid and the Holocaust.” Participating schools were from the Athens, Thessaloniki, Chania, Arcadia, Aetoloakarnakia, and Evrytania regions.
On March 22, the minister for education, research, and religious affairs issued a statement expressing his sorrow for the damages caused to a mosque of historic significance in Thrace from a fire. The minister committed to take steps for the prompt investigation of the fire’s causes and to restore the mosque. Although no official report was made public, firefighters on the scene told local press that electric welding during restoration likely caused the fire.
The Inter-Orthodox Center of the Greek Orthodox Church organized a training program under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and funded by the German government entitled, “Getting to know and teaching Judaism through the coexistence of Christians and Jews in Greece.”
On September 8, in the garden of a former middle school in Thessaloniki and the location of the cultural foundation of the National Bank of Greece, a metal commemorative plate was placed in memory of 40 Jewish students sent to concentration camps in 1943.
On September 27, the Aristotle University Law School, the Aristotle University School of Theology, and the Religious Studies Institute of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople organized a conference on “Church and the Constitution: The issue of Constitutional Reform.” Participants discussed Greek Orthodox Church relations with the state, including whether constitutional reform should encompass continued reference to Orthodox Christianity as the official and dominant religion; whether the state should be involved with administrative matters of the Greek Orthodox Church; whether state officials should appoint priests or determine their number; and whether the Church should be involved with civil issues it opposes, such as the cremation of the dead.
From October 19-21, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, the Holocaust Memorial of the Jews in Skopje, and the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, organized a training seminar on Holocaust education. The seminar, entitled “The Holocaust as a Starting Point: Comparing and Sharing” involved 40 teachers.
On October 29 and 30, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized for the second time an international summit on the protection of religious communities and civilizations in the Middle East, hosted by the minister of foreign affairs, with the participation of the Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, several Greek Orthodox metropolitans, representatives of Jewish, Catholic, Protestant communities from abroad, and two Muslim muftis from Thrace.
The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and to manifest religion or belief through religious acts, ceremonies, or other means; the constitution’s preamble states the nation recognizes “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood” and values the country’s “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community. The constitution stipulates separation of religious communities and state and the autonomy of religious communities. According to law, the incorporation of religious groups, which provides for financial benefits and government support, requires the approval of two thirds of parliament. Parliament again did not vote on pending applications for incorporation status by religious groups, in violation of its own legal procedures and despite a finding by the Constitutional Court that the body’s failure to vote was unconstitutional. In July the Constitutional Court ruled parliament must amend the law to allow individuals to donate the same proportion of their taxes to unincorporated religious groups as to incorporated ones; parliament had not done so by year’s end. The government launched a criminal investigation of the Church of Scientology (COS) and again barred it from moving into new headquarters. The Constitutional Court overturned a local law in Asotthalom prohibiting the wearing of burqas. Muslim groups criticized the government for anti-Muslim remarks by Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orban and other senior officials. Jewish leaders expressed concern the government’s continuing campaign against a prominent Jewish Hungarian American business executive could incite anti-Semitic acts.
There were incidents of assault and hate speech against Muslims and Jews, including Holocaust denial, and vandalism of religious properties. Muslim groups cited attacks on Muslims, which they attributed largely to the government’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, and said victims were often afraid to report incidents to the police. Jewish groups reported the level of verbal anti-Semitic incidents remained approximately the same as the previous year. According to a poll by Zavecz Research, 60 percent of respondents considered Muslims to be very dangerous for the future of the country, and 27 percent considered Jews to be very dangerous. Another survey reported that in 2016, one third of respondents had what it termed extreme or moderately anti-Semitic views, while 53 percent downplayed the extent of the Holocaust. In February approximately 600 members of extremist organizations, including neo-Nazis, marched in Budapest and elsewhere to commemorate victims of the fight of Nazi and Hungarian army divisions against the Soviets. The leader of one group at the rally shouted praise of the Waffen SS. In November The Action and Protection Foundation (TEV) organized a conference on anti-Semitism.
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. officials met with senior government officials, including cabinet ministers at the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC), to advocate religious freedom and urge the government to reconsider the law on religion and amend those provisions which resulted in restrictions and discrimination against certain minority religious groups. U.S. officials also expressed concern about anti-Muslim rhetoric by government officials and about the COS investigation. U.S. officials met with various religious groups to discuss rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and hosted meetings with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worshipping, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community.
The constitution’s preamble states that “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and state and the autonomy of religious groups. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.
Implementing legislation provides for a dual system of religious communities, consisting of “incorporated churches” with which the state cooperates on community goals as outlined in the constitution, and “organizations engaged in religious activity” (religious organizations). Neither category is limited to Christian organizations.
Religious organizations acquire incorporated church status through an application submitted to the MHC and, if found eligible, by a subsequent two-thirds vote of parliament. The church is then by law entered onto a list of incorporated churches. The MHC has 60 days following the initial application to assess whether the group fulfills all the administrative criteria, which include a variety of documentation and qualification requirements. To qualify for incorporated church status, a religious group must have existed as a religious organization in the country for 20 years, in which case it must have a membership of 0.1 percent of the total population, (approximately 10,000 persons) or be registered as a religious organization and have existed for at least 100 years internationally, in which case its foreign affiliation must be certified by at least two other churches of “similar doctrine” recognized in foreign countries. Its activities must not conflict with the constitution or other laws or violate the rights and freedoms of other communities. A group must also prove that its primary purpose is to conduct religious activity; have a formal statement of faith and rites, bylaws and internal rules, and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies; and officially declare that its activities are not in violation of the laws or the freedom of others. The MHC is obligated to consult with a qualified lawyer, historian of religions, scholar of religions, or sociologist with an academic degree prior to issuing its decision. Applicants may appeal the MHC’s decision in the Budapest Public Administration and Labor Court and, ultimately, to the Curia, the country’s highest judicial authority.
Following a favorable MHC decision on the applicant’s eligibility, the MHC submits the application to parliament’s Judiciary Committee, which has 60 days to invite the applicant to a public hearing and to submit an assessment to parliament on the group’s compliance with additional criteria. These criteria include an assessment that the group poses no threat to national security (provided by parliament’s National Security Committee), that it does not violate the right to physical and mental health or the protection of life and human dignity, and that the group is suitable for long-term cooperation with the state in promoting community goals based on its founding documents, number of members, network of institutions providing public services, and access by larger societal groups to such services.
Approval of a request for incorporated church status requires a two-thirds majority vote by parliament, which must take place within 60 days of a motion by parliament’s Judiciary Committee. If a religious group receives such parliamentary approval, the state must grant specific licenses to the group to support its participation in tasks to achieve community goals. If parliament rejects the application, a detailed explanation is required and the applicant may challenge parliament’s decision in the Constitutional Court within 15 days. The law does not prescribe any consequences if parliament does not act within the 60-day period, nor is there opportunity for appealing parliamentary inaction.
A 2011 law on religion automatically deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations which had previously had incorporated church status. Those organizations are required to reapply if they wish to regain incorporated church status; their applications are also subject to the approval of a two-thirds majority of parliament.
The law lists 27 incorporated churches, including the Catholic Church, a variety of Protestant denominations, a range of Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army, several Jewish groups, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole registered Hindu organization. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups, bringing the total number on the registered list of incorporated churches to 32.
The law authorizes the Budapest Metropolitan Court to register a group as a religious organization if it has at least 10 founding individual members whose primary objective is to conduct religious activities that do not violate the constitution, other laws, or the rights and freedom of other communities. The organization’s membership may consist only of individuals; no “legal persons” such as corporations or other associations may be members. The court must approve applications that meet all of these criteria. Applicants must submit the name and address of the organization, names and addresses of founding members, identifying information on the group’s legal representative and the term of his or her appointment, the founding documents of the group, and a statement that the primary objective of the organization is to conduct religious activities. If the court rejects an organization’s application, the decision is subject to appeal to the Budapest Metropolitan Court of Appeals.
Every registered (but not unregistered) religious community may use the word “church” in its official name regardless of whether it is officially recognized by parliament as an “incorporated church.” Officials from both incorporated churches and registered religious organizations not recognized by parliament are not obligated to disclose information shared with them in the course of their faith-related service, such as during rites of confession.
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) reports that unregistered religious organizations enjoy protection for faith-related services. Unregistered groups are allowed to function and to worship but lack legal status and the rights and privileges granted exclusively to registered religious communities.
By law, no state office may determine or supervise a registered religious community’s faith-based activities. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Their names, symbols, and rites are protected by copyright law, while buildings and cemeteries are protected by criminal law. Unregistered groups, according to HCLU, enjoy copyright and at least some other protections, but the law is unclear about the extent of those other protections.
The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsman). The ombudsman investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy.
Incorporated churches have certain privileges not available to religious organizations, such as greater access to state funding and exemption from state oversight of their financial operations connected to religious activities. Incorporated churches and their associated institutions (classified as “internal religious legal entities”) that provide public services, such as healthcare, education, or other social services, are automatically eligible for full state subsidies (a subsidy based on the number of persons receiving services coupled with a supplementary subsidy) for all their public service activities. Religious organizations may also take over or establish public service institutions and are entitled to receive a per capita state subsidy to cover the wages of the staff employed by these institutions. They may also apply for additional funding from an additional budgetary allocation.
For incorporated churches and religious organizations that operate their own schools, the state provides subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee wages, but only incorporated churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. According to the law, religious organizations may apply to the MHC for a supplementary operational subsidy covering approximately 30 percent of their total costs for schools, and the MHC decides on a case-by-case basis whether to grant it.
Taxpayers may allocate 1 percent of their personal income taxes to a nongovernmental organization (NGO), including a religious organization, and another 1 percent to an incorporated church (but not to any other religious organization), and the church then receives additional matching funds from the government. On July 14, the Constitutional Court ruled the provision prohibiting taxpayers from making an additional 1 percent allocation to unincorporated religious organizations was unconstitutional. According to the decision, all religious communities – including unincorporated religious organizations – should be eligible to collect the 1 percent personal income tax donations for churches. The court did not clarify whether its decision covered unregistered religious groups. The court set a deadline for parliament to modify the law by December 31. The Constitutional Court said the state can differentiate between religious communities and make its own decision about which ones it wants to support; however, it may not force its decision on citizens and constrain their religious choices. The ruling was a result of a citizen’s suit against the National Tax Authority.
Both incorporated churches and religious organizations are free to use taxpayer donations as they wish. Only officials of incorporated churches are exempt from personal income tax under certain conditions. Land owned by a religious group deregistered in 2011 may be retained by the religious organization that is the deregistered group’s legal successor. Both religious organizations and incorporated churches are prohibited from purchasing agricultural land. Incorporated churches, but not religious organizations, may acquire new agricultural land as a gift or an inheritance.
If incorporated churches or religious organizations cease to exist (e.g., by dissolving themselves) and have no legal successor, their assets become state property that must be used to finance public services. This may also occur if, upon the initiative of the government, the Constitutional Court issues an opinion that the activity of the incorporated church violates the constitution, and parliament confirms the decision by a two-thirds majority vote. The Constitutional Court also issues opinions upon the request of the Budapest Metropolitan Court on whether a religious organization is in violation of the constitution.
Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and the settlement of claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, the Hungarian Lutheran Church, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (MAZSIHISZ), and four Orthodox Churches.
Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Catholic Church, the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church, and Jewish congregations receive automatic authorization to provide chaplain services to the military; other incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission.
Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion, including providing them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. All incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission to offer pastoral services in prisons. Rejection of access requests may be appealed to the National Prison Service, the prosecutor’s office, or the ombudsman. Detainees have the right to participate in communal religious services three times a week and to contact without supervision representatives of incorporated churches or religious organizations having permission to access the facility. Detainees in special security regimes may only receive individual spiritual care and are excluded from community spiritual programs. In the case of pretrial detainees, during the course of the criminal investigation a public prosecutor or judge may restrict personal interaction with a religious representative but not participation in communal religious services.
Incorporated churches receive automatic authorization to provide pastoral services in hospitals, while religious organizations must seek permission.
One-hour-per-week faith-and-ethics or ethics-only education is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Students and their parents choose between the faith-and-ethics class provided by an incorporated church of their choice or a generic ethics course taught by public school teachers. Religious groups are entitled to prepare their own textbooks and determine curricula for their faith-and-ethics classes. Private schools are not obligated to introduce faith-and-ethics or ethics classes. Unincorporated religious organizations are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools, but they may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools if requested by students or parents.
Incorporated churches and religious organizations have the right to open their own schools. In addition, the law affords incorporated churches and religious organizations the right to assume operation of public schools through a formal agreement with the MHC. In these cases, the government continues to fund the schools. Religious communities, school teachers, the affected parents, or the operator of the school may initiate such transfers, but they can only be executed if the designated religious community is able to collect the signatures of more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The government inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to government standards.
The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law includes a prohibition of “calling for violence” – in addition to inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion. Abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Physical assault motivated by the victim’s actual or suspected religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is similarly punished with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the arrow cross in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by detention for a period ranging from five to 90 days.
The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious communities or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph. By year’s end parliament had not amended the law as mandated by the Constitutional Court in July to allow individuals to donate a portion of their taxes to religious organizations in the same way they could to incorporated churches. The government paid a fine to a religious group as ordered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) as compensation for losses incurred by the government’s revocation of the group’s status as an incorporated church. Parliament also did not vote on any of 14 pending applications by religious groups previously found eligible for incorporation, despite a legal obligation to do so. The government launched a criminal investigation of the COS and denied for a second time permission for the group to move into headquarters in Budapest. The Constitutional Court ruled an Asotthalom law banning burqas and restricting the activities of muezzins was unconstitutional. Incorporated churches reported their reliance on financial support from the government inhibited their ability to speak out on matters of public concern. Muslim groups complained about anti-Muslim statements by PM Orban and other government officials. Jewish groups expressed concerns about PM Orban’s praise for a World War II (WWII)-era politician who signed anti-Jewish laws. The government continued its campaign and public messaging against a prominent Jewish Hungarian American business executive, which Jewish leaders said could incite anti-Semitic acts.
By year’s end, parliament had not complied with the July ruling by the Constitutional Court to amend the provisions of the religion law which the court found unconstitutional that allowed individuals to allocate an additional 1 percent of their income tax to incorporated religious groups but not to unincorporated ones. In addition, parliament again failed to revise other provisions of the religion law the Constitutional Court had previously found unconstitutional in 2015, namely that the short (four months) and peremptory legal deadline for religious groups to fulfill requirements for a change of legal status violated religious freedom. Separately in 2015, the Constitutional Court had also ruled, in agreement with a 2014 ECHR decision, that the law’s criteria for incorporated church eligibility related to the minimum membership (0.1 percent of the population) and length of operation (20 years domestically or 100 years internationally) of a religious organization violated the ECHR’s finding of an obligation of neutrality and impartiality.
In December 2016, the government’s Data Protection Authority (DPA) launched a data protection investigation of the COS. According to the COS, the DPA seized various documents and files from its offices in Budapest and Nyiregyhaza, including “preclear folders” (PCs) containing what the COS called confidential communications between penitents and their minister. The COS stated the seizure of the PCs constituted a violation of privacy and of members’ right to freedom of religion. In the same month the Church filed a legal complaint contesting the seizures, and individual COS members filed complaints with the ombudsman. On October 17, the DPA issued a report which, according to the COS, portrayed the Church’s spiritual practices as mind manipulation, a portrayal which the COS denied.
According to the COS, the DPA then filed a complaint against the Church, alleging criminal abuse of personal data, and turned over its seized materials to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). On October 18, 60 NBI agents raided the COS headquarters in Budapest, seizing documents and sealing off the building. On October 19, the criminal section of the tax office, investigating possible financial crimes, executed search warrants and seized documents at COS offices in Budapest and 15 other locations. According to the COS, the authorities also froze the Church’s bank accounts and placed a lien on its Budapest headquarters. The Church’s spokesperson called the search “religious suppression under the guise of data protection.” State authorities said their actions stemmed from concerns with methods of personal information collection and storage, and not from the COS’s religious views. The COS said Church members demonstrated in front of the DPA, the tax office, and parliament following the raid. The government did not recognize the COS as an incorporated church but had approved its registration as a religious organization.
On April 25, the ECHR ordered the government to pay 3 million euros ($3.6 million) to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (MET) as compensation for losses in 2012-14 resulting from the government revocation of MET’s incorporated church status. The government and MET had failed to reach agreement on compensation by December 28, 2016, as ordered by the ECHR. The government made the payment on October 16, before the ECHR’s October 25 deadline.
Parliament failed again to vote on any of the 14 applications by religious groups which the MHC had previously found eligible for incorporation, despite the 60-day legal deadline for action on an MHC referral. On December 20, the Constitutional Court ruled parliament’s failure to act within the 60-day legal deadline for action violated the constitution. The MHC reported no religious groups submitted new applications for incorporated church status during the year.
The Constitutional Court ruled in April that the ban passed in 2016 by the town of Asotthalom on the wearing of burqas and chadors and on the call to prayer by muezzins was unconstitutional. The court said local authorities could not pass regulations directly affecting a basic right or restricting it.
In January the government denied for the second time a COS application for a certificate of occupancy for its headquarters and place of worship in Budapest. The government had denied the first application in May 2016 and subsequently issued an order requiring the COS to vacate the building. In January the COS challenged the denial of the certificate of occupancy in the Administrative and Labor Court of Budapest and requested a stay of the order to vacate the site. On October 12, the court denied the request for a stay of the order. The Church appealed the denial, and the appeal was pending at year’s end. COS lawyers said they believed the city of Budapest was acting “in bad faith” and that the Church remained gravely concerned the city could take away its headquarters and place of worship.
The government continued to provide approximately 94 percent of its total financial support to incorporated churches and other religious groups to the Roman Catholic Church, the Hungarian Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Jewish community, which it considered to be the country’s four “historical” religious groups, an unofficial designation the media also used. The government said more than 94 percent of citizens who reported a religious affiliation were affiliated with the four historical religious groups.
As of November 9, the government had provided 59.2 billion forints ($229 million) to incorporated churches for a range of activities, including maintenance of buildings, support for religious instruction and culture, support for community programs and investments, and wages of church employees. The government allocated additional funding for churches providing public educational and social services. Of this amount, the Catholic Church received 38.7 billion forints ($150 million), the Reformed Church 9.4 billion forints ($36.4 million), the Lutheran Church 2.9 billion forints ($11.2 million), MAZSIHISZ 2.7 billion forints ($10.4 million), and the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) 762 million forints ($2.95 million). The government support for incorporated churches also included funding to a dozen churches for renovating their buildings and organizing community programs. As part of this support the government made two allocations totaling 2.4 billion forints ($9.3 million) to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which according to census data had approximately 2,400 members. Press reports speculated that members of the ROC, who did not have a place to worship in the western part of the country, would be able to build their own church in the town of Heviz.
Some incorporated churches expressed concern that if they spoke out on issues of public importance, the government would withdraw some of its financial support, which in many cases constituted two thirds or more of the churches’ total funding.
On December 27, the government awarded an additional 88 billion forints ($340.5 million) to some incorporated churches and religious organizations, with the Reformed Church receiving almost 59 billion forints ($228.3 million) of this total.
According to tax authorities tracking the 1 percent tax allocations designated to incorporated churches, all major churches suffered significant losses both in terms of the value and number of donations. Donations to the Catholic Church decreased from 2.6 billion forints ($10.1 million) in 2016 to 2.2 billion forints ($8.5 million). The three large historic churches – Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran – combined lost almost 450 million forints ($1.7 million) and 120,000 tax contributors. Church leaders expressed fears that if this trend continued, the dependence of churches on the state might increase, weakening their religious autonomy. The government modified the law during the year so that, effective January 1, 2018, these declarations would not have to be submitted by individuals on a yearly basis but would be valid until the taxpayer changed them.
The number of church-run schools slightly increased. Of elementary and secondary schools, 14.3 percent were operated by incorporated churches and 0.1 percent by religious organizations in the 2016-17 school year. Of preschools (ages 3-7), 7.2 percent were operated by incorporated churches and 0.1 percent by religious organizations. Approximately 207,600 students studied at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by registered religious communities (incorporated churches and religious organizations), compared to 204,000 in the 2015-16 school year. Approximately half of these students were in schools operated by the Catholic Church.
Religious entities provided social services to 107,918 persons and child protection services to 8,992 persons over the year (32.4 percent by the Catholic, 27.1 percent by the Reformed, and 12.96 percent by the Hungarian Baptist churches).
On September 14, the ECHR dismissed a 2009 complaint by a former pastor, whom the Hungarian Reformed Church had dismissed for disciplinary reasons, alleging that Hungarian courts had failed to deal with a monetary claim by the pastor against the Reformed Church. The pastor had filed a suit and subsequent appeals in 2007-09, which ended with a Supreme Court finding that the dispute involved ecclesiastical law and was outside of the court’s jurisdiction. The ECHR ruled that the domestic courts’ conclusion that the case was governed by ecclesiastical rather than domestic law was not unreasonable.
There were numerous reports of perceived anti-Muslim rhetoric by government officials and politicians, including at the highest levels. Muslim groups criticized as anti-Muslim the government’s statements portraying asylum seekers and migrants, most of whom were Muslim, as dangerous for the future of the country and Europe and unable to integrate into European society. On November 3, governing Fidesz Party parliamentary group leader Gergely Gulyas said, “There will be no mosques in Hungary; that is how we respond” to acts of terrorism. In response to this comment, Zoltan Bolek, President of the Hungarian Islamic Community (HIC) issued a statement reading in part, “We have been experiencing Islamophobia for years and it is regrettable that … other churches did not stand by us against statements directed against us!”
In his remarks in Baile Tusnad, Romania on July 22, PM Orban said Europe was being de-Christianized and that “European Union leaders … are seeking a new, mixed, Muslimized Europe.” HIC President Bolek, whose members he said were almost all citizens, attributed public hostility toward the community largely to the anti-Muslim and antimigrant rhetoric of senior government officials and some media outlets. Jewish groups expressed fear that public discourse targeting certain societal groups, in this case migrants and Islam, could spread to include other minorities or religious groups.
At the European Parliament in May, PM Orban described a Jewish Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, U.S. citizen, and business executive as a “financial speculator attacking Hungary” who had “destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans.” Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission, stated he found that language anti-Semitic, after which Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto stated the government’s disputes with the businessman had “absolutely nothing to do” with his Jewish origins.
In July the government launched a billboard campaign featuring a picture of this businessman, with text stating he should not be allowed to “have the last laugh.” MAZSIHISZ President Andras Heisler called on PM Orban in an open letter to end the campaign, which he said was not anti-Semitic, but could lead to anti-Semitic acts. Vandals spray painted a bus stop and bench with the words “Die, rotten Jews” followed by the businessman’s name, and billboards in Budapest and elsewhere were defaced with the graffiti “stinking Jew” written on the businessman’s face; images of the graffiti circulated widely on the internet and social media. The graffiti recalled the “dark periods of Hungarian history,” Heisler declared.
At a June 21 ceremony, PM Orban called WWII Regent and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy, who signed anti-Jewish laws into effect in the interwar period, an “exceptional statesman.” MAZSIHISZ President Heisler said in a statement that due to the era of anti-Semitism that was associated with Horthy’s name and his responsibility for the deaths of 600,000 Hungarian Jews and tens of thousands of Hungarian soldiers in the Don army, his era “cannot be put as an example for future generations.”
On July 18, during a visit of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, PM Orban declared Hungary’s failure to protect its Jewish citizens during WWII was a crime. He again stated the country had “zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism.” During his visit to the Dohany Street synagogue (the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world) with PM Orban and PM Netanyahu, MAZSIHISZ President Heisler welcomed Orban’s remarks about the country’s war-time collaboration with the Nazis, but commented there were still “two-faced assessments of the Holocaust.”
On February 14, PM Orban met with Heisler following demonstrations earlier that month in Budapest and elsewhere by extreme-right groups that included neo-Nazis. Heisler called the demonstrations “unacceptable,” and the PM agreed the government should seek a legal solution to stop them. The two men also reportedly discussed possible government assistance to rebuild the Zuglo Synagogue in Budapest, which burned down in 2016.
Speaking at the 150th anniversary of the act on the political and civil emancipation of Jewry on November 21, Under Secretary for Social and Heritage Protection and Special Cultural Investment Projects Csaba Latorcai said Jewish culture was undergoing a renaissance in the country, and the government regarded the more-than-5,000-year-old intellectual and spiritual heritage of Jews as valuable. According to Latorcai, “The survival and strengthening of Europe, and Hungary in it, should be sought in the depths of the faith rooted in the Jewish-Christian traditions and in sincere dialogue.”
On July 5, the Chabad-affiliated EMIH presented a new Hungarian translation of the Talmud to the public. EMIH Rabbi Slomo Koves thanked the government for its “support and cooperation in preserving spiritual heritage.” MHC State Secretary Miklos Soltesz urged a return to religious and cultural traditions, referencing the flourishing Jewish cultural life in the country and enumerating political and financial support for the reconstruction of many synagogues.
In July Minister of Agriculture Sandor Fazekas officiated at the opening in Csongrad County of Europe’s largest kosher slaughterhouse for geese.
In an interview on December 15, Jobbik Party Chairman Gabor Vona stated that he had pushed his party in a more centrist direction, and that it would not return to its far-right origins or to making anti-Semitic remarks. According to Vona, “The kind of anti-Semitic expressions which took place in Jobbik earlier are impossible to imagine. Or if they did, they would naturally draw the most severe sanctions.”
The government again took no action to advance the plan to open a new Holocaust museum and education center, the House of Fates; the project remained pending, although the physical infrastructure of the museum had been completed by the end of 2016. Some Jewish groups and historians criticized the museum as an attempt to obscure the involvement of Hungary and Regent Horthy in the Holocaust and stress instead the role of Hungarian rescuers. Senior government officials repeatedly issued assurances that the museum would be opened only if Jewish community representatives reached a consensus agreement on the content of museum exhibits.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion. Based on a constitutional provision, the law makes blasphemy a punishable offense. The government confirmed it would schedule a constitutional referendum on this issue in 2018. The government continued to finance private religious schools, which constituted the vast majority of primary and half of secondary schools; it permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. The law permits religious schools to use religion as a basis for admission. Some parents of children not belonging to the denomination of a religious school, usually Catholic, could not enroll their children in oversubscribed schools. According to a survey, almost a quarter of parents said they baptized their children to ensure they could enroll in school. The government said it planned to encourage an increase in the number of nondenominational primary schools from 109 to 400 by 2030.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) again lobbied for more stringent hate crime legislation, including for incidents motivated by religion. An international NGO and a national group of Muslim women protested a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling allowing workplaces to prohibit women from wearing the hijab. In June unknown assailants attacked a mosque in Galway, throwing stones through mosque windows during evening prayer services.
On several occasions, U.S. embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Education and Skills, and the national police. Underscoring the importance of tolerance, diversity, and religious freedom, embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs to discuss their concerns. The Charge d’Affaires hosted a Thanksgiving reception bringing together religious leaders for a discussion on religious freedom and tolerance.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees the free profession and practice of religion, subject to public order and morality. The constitution references “the Most Holy Trinity” and “our divine Lord, Jesus Christ,” and stipulates the state shall hold the name of God in reverence and honor and respect religion. It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief and guarantees not to endow any religion. The constitution stipulates every religious denomination has the right to manage its own affairs, own and acquire property, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes. It states legislation providing for government aid to schools shall not discriminate among schools under the management of different religious denominations nor affect the right of a child to attend any school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.
The constitution makes blasphemy a punishable offense, although the government last prosecuted such a case in 1855. The law defines blasphemy as uttering or publishing language “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion,” when the intent and result are “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” Violations are punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros ($30,000).
There is no legal requirement for religious groups to register with the government, nor is there any formal mechanism for government recognition of a religious group. Religious groups may apply to the Revenue Commissioners (the tax authority) and register as a charity or an NGO to receive tax exemptions. To qualify, groups must operate exclusively for charitable purposes. Constituted organizations that operate for exclusively charitable purposes and provide a clear public benefit may register as charities. The law requires all charitable organizations carrying out activities in the country to register with and to provide certain information relating to their organization to the Charities Regulator, a government-appointed independent authority. The Regulator maintains a public register of charitable organizations and ensures their compliance with the law. Organizations must apply their income and property solely toward the promotion of their main charitable object, as set out in their governing instruments (such as constitution, memorandum and articles of association, deed of trust, or rules).
Under the constitution, the Department of Education and Skills provides funding to “national” schools, which are privately owned and managed. The government pays most of the building and administrative costs, teachers’ salaries, and a set amount per pupil. In funding schools, the constitution stipulates the state shall have due regard “for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.”
Almost all primary schools and approximately half of secondary schools (vocational schools are state run and nonreligious) are religiously affiliated. At the primary level, 90 percent of all schools are Catholic, 6 percent Church of Ireland, 2 percent multidenominational,1 percent other religious groups, and 1 percent not religiously affiliated. Patrons, who are usually members of the religious groups and affiliated with religious organizations with which the school is affiliated, manage the school themselves or appoint a board of management to do so. Patrons often provide land for schools and contribute to building and administrative costs. The law permits schools with a religious patron to use religion as a basis for admissions, even if it is not oversubscribed.
The government permits, but does not require, religious instruction, faith-based classes, or general religion classes, in “national” schools. Although religious instruction is part of the curriculum of most schools, parents may exempt their children from such instruction. Religious schools teach about their religion but multidenominational schools generally teach about religion in a broader context. Students may opt out and sit in another classroom. The government funds salaries for those teachers who teach religion classes in “national” schools.
The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), an independent statutory body, hears cases of reported workplace discrimination, including claims based on religion. The WRC may refer cases for mediation, investigate these cases, or decide the case itself. If the adjudication officer finds there has been discrimination, he or she can order compensation for the effects of discrimination and/or corrective action. Litigants may appeal WRC decisions in the courts.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is an independent public body accountable to parliament, whose purpose is to protect and promote human rights and equality and to build a culture of respect for human rights, including religious freedom. The commission works at the policy level to review the effectiveness of human rights and equality law, as well as public policy and practice. It also works with communities, including religious groups, and other civil society groups to monitor and report on the public’s experiences of human rights, religious freedom, and equality.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In September Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar confirmed the country would hold a constitutional referendum in October 2018 on the question of whether to revoke the constitutional provision making blasphemy a punishable offense.
In January Education Minister Richard Bruton announced new plans aimed at increasing the number of multidenominational and nonreligious primary schools from 109 to 400 by 2030 by encouraging nonreligious or multidenominational patrons to open new schools and through an “accelerated process” of divestment – one by which religiously affiliated patrons of denominational schools transfer ownership to nondenominational or multidenominational patrons. In July Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said the process of divestment was too slow and there was “a stubborn reluctance” within the Church to divest. He also stated he believed it was inappropriate for school enrollment to depend on a baptismal certificate.
The government continued to encourage patrons to open more schools with nonreligious or multidenominational patronage. The government’s New Schools Establishment Group advised Bruton on the patronage of the new schools, but no new schools were established during the year.
School patrons, generally affiliated with religious denominations, continued to define the ethos of schools and to determine the development and implementation of the religious education curriculum in primary schools. Curricula varied by school and could include teaching about the patron’s religion, the religious history of the country, or an overview of world religions.
Parents of unbaptized children continued to report difficulty enrolling their children in some local, religiously based schools that were oversubscribed and gave priority admissions to children of that religion. In rural areas, parents said finding alternatives to schools with Catholic patrons was especially difficult. The NGO Equate released the results of a survey conducted during the year in which 72 percent of respondents agreed the government should change the law so baptism could no longer be a requirement for school admission in state-funded schools. According to the survey, 24 percent of parents who baptized their children reported they would not have done so if it had not been a requirement for school admission.
Several state agencies, including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) and the Garda (national police) Racial and Intercultural Office (GRIO), continued to enforce equality legislation and work on behalf of minority religious groups. These agencies organized community events to include individuals of diverse faiths. The IHREC reviewed and made recommendations to draft legislation to ensure drafts met human rights and equality standards. The GRIO’s liaison officers continued to engage with immigrant minority religious groups on a regular basis to inform them of police services and educate them on their rights.
On January 29, Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone, and other senior government officials participated in the national Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration. The event was organized by the NGO Holocaust Education Trust Ireland in association with the Department of Justice and Equality, the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration, and Dublin City Council.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution protects freedom of religion and the right of religious communities to establish their own institutions. The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent, their relations governed by treaties, which include a concordat granting the Church a number of privileges and benefits, as well as financial support. Other religious groups must register to receive tax and other benefits. Registered groups may request an accord with the state that provides most of the same benefits granted the Catholic Church. Muslims continued to report difficulties in acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques or keep them open. In February the Ministry of Interior (MOI) signed an agreement with the country’s largest Muslim organization with the stated purpose of preventing radicalization and promoting the training of imams to manage funds transparently and deliver sermons in Italian. Following the ruling, Milan municipal officials continued to withhold authorization to build two new mosques and a Protestant church, citing limited capability to identify proper venues as required by the law. Local governments closed Bangladeshi informal “garage” mosques in Mestre and in Rome, and a group sought a referendum to block a new mosque in Pisa. In separate rulings, a Lazio court ordered authorities to reopen the five garage mosques that Rome officials had closed down in 2016.
There were anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents, including threats, hate speech, graffiti, and vandalism. In 2016, the most recent year for which data were available, the quasi-governmental National Office against Racial Discrimination (UNAR) reported 240 cases of discrimination based on religion, compared with 28 the previous year. UNAR attributed the large increase in the number of reported cases to an increased awareness on how to report discrimination online. An Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report cited 32 incidents against Christians, 11 against Jews, and eight against Muslims in 2016, including two attacks against Jews and two against Muslims. According to the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center Foundation (CDEC), a nongovernmental organization, there were 109 incidents of anti-Semitism reported during the year, compared with 130 in the previous year. Online hate speech constituted more than half of the incidents. The head of Rome’s Jewish community protested a Rome court’s acquittal of two men on charges of incitement and racial hatred for chanting anti-Semitic slurs at a soccer match in 2013. On October 22, individuals posted anti-Semitic stickers of Holocaust victim Anne Frank and anti-Semitic slogans during a soccer match at Rome’s Olympic Stadium. A Milan appeals court overturned a 2016 conviction by a lower court and acquitted a former editor of the newspaper Libero of instigating racial hatred for printing a 2015 opinion piece with the headline “Muslim Bastards.”
Representatives from the U.S. embassy and consulates general met with national and local government officials to encourage respect for religious freedom and equal treatment for all faiths. Embassy and consulate general representatives discussed the integration of asylum seekers and newly arrived migrants, many of whom were Muslim. They also discussed the state of efforts to reach a formal agreement governing relations between the state and Muslim groups. The embassy and consulates met with civil society groups and religious leaders to promote interreligious dialogue and social inclusion of immigrants, including those belonging to religious minorities.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law regardless of religion and are free to profess their beliefs in any form, individually or with others, and to promote them and celebrate rites in public or in private, provided they are not offensive to public morality. According to the constitution, each religious community has the right to establish its own institutions according to its own statutes as long as these do not conflict with the law. It stipulates the state may not impose special limitations or taxes on the establishment or activities of groups because of their religious nature or aims. The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent of each other, and their relations are governed by treaties, which include a concordat between the government and the Holy See.
The law considers insults against any divinity to be blasphemy, a crime punishable by a fine ranging from 51 to 309 euros ($61-$370). The government generally does not enforce the law against blasphemy.
The constitution states all religious groups are equally free and relations between the state and non-Catholic groups are governed by law based on agreements (“accords”) between them. Representatives of a non-Catholic faith requesting an accord must first submit their request to the Office of the Prime Minister. The government and the group’s representatives then negotiate a draft agreement, which the Council of Ministers must approve. The prime minister then signs and submits the agreement to parliament for final approval. Once parliament approves the implementing legislation, the accord governs the relationship between the government and the religious group, including state support. Groups with an accord include the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, Mormons, the Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, the Italian Apostolic Church, the Buddhist Union, Soka Gakkai Buddhists, and Hindus.
The law provides religious groups with tax-exempt status and the right to recognition as legal entities, as long as they have completed a registration process with the MOI. Legal recognition is a prerequisite for any group seeking an accord with the government. A religious group may apply for recognition of its legal status by submitting to a prefect, the local representative of the MOI, a request including the group’s statutes; a report on its goals and activities; information on its administrative offices; a three-year budget; certification of its credit status by a bank; and certification of the Italian citizenship or legal residency of its head. To be approved, a group’s statutes must not conflict with the law. If approved, the group must submit to MOI monitoring. The MOI may appoint a commissioner to administer the group if it identifies irregularities in its activities. The Catholic Church is the only legally recognized group exempted from MOI monitoring, in accordance with the concordat between the government and the Holy See.
An accord grants clergy automatic access to state hospitals, prisons, and military barracks; allows for civil registry of religious marriages; facilitates special religious practices regarding funerals; and exempts students from school attendance on religious holidays. Any religious group without an accord may request these benefits from the MOI on a case-by-case basis. An accord also allows a religious group to receive funds collected by the state through a voluntary 0.8 percent set-aside on taxpayer returns. Taxpayers may specify to which eligible religious group they would like to direct these funds. The government set aside 986 million euros ($1.18 billion) via this mechanism in 2017; of that total, more than 81 percent went to the Catholic Church.
On June 27, the Veneto regional council adopted a regulation banning the use of burqas and niqabs in public institutions such as hospitals.
The law allows the Catholic Church to select teachers, paid by the state, to provide instruction in weekly “hour of religion” courses taught in public schools. The courses are optional, and students who do not wish to attend may study other subjects or, in certain cases, leave school early with parental consent. Church-selected instructors are lay or religious, and the instruction includes material determined by the state and relevant to non-Catholic religious groups. Government funding is available only for these Catholic Church-approved teachers. If a student requests a religion class from a non-Catholic religious group, that group must provide the teacher and cover the cost of instruction, but it is not required to seek government approval for the content of the class. Some local laws provide scholarship funding for students to attend private religiously affiliated schools, usually but not always Catholic, that meet government educational standards.
Hate crimes, including those motivated by religious hatred, are punishable by up to four years in prison. The law applies also to denial of genocide or crimes against humanity.
All missionaries and other foreign religious workers must apply for special religious activity visas before arriving in the country.
This country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government and groups representing 70 percent of the country’s Muslims signed a text pledging cooperation to combat radicalism and promote social cohesions and integration among Muslims, to include training of imams to manage funds transparently and deliver sermons in Italian. In a precedent-setting decision, the country’s highest court upheld the conviction of a Sikh man for carrying a kirpan (a ceremonial knife), who had defended the action due to its religious significance. Muslims continued to encounter difficulties obtaining permits for new or existing mosques. The city council of Sesto San Giovanni blocked construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque, and Milan municipal officials continued to withhold authorization to construct two new mosques, as well as a Protestant church. Mestre and Rome each closed a Bangladeshi “garage” mosque, and a citizens’ group sought a referendum to block construction of a new mosque in Pisa. In Rome, a regional court in Lazio ordered authorities to reopen five garage mosques police had shut down 2016. In Bologna, for the first time in 20 years, authorities barred Muslims from using the local stadium to celebrate Eid al-Adha. Politicians from several parties made statements criticizing Islam, and one called for the expulsion of an imam for statements he made about women.
Although the government had reportedly negotiated draft agreements with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Romanian Orthodox Church, and the Episcopal Church governing its relations with those groups, the government did not submit the draft agreements to parliament for approval.
Muslim groups had also not reached an accord specifying their relations with the state. In February the MOI reached a preliminary agreement with Muslim groups but failed to finalize an accord, reportedly due to the absence of a single legal group representing all Muslim communities. Paolo Naso, an academic and independent advisor who acted as chairman of the committee that drafted the agreement, stated it was an important step toward a formal accord between the government and the Muslim community. There was no further progress on a final accord after the preliminary agreement. As a result, mosques remained ineligible for state funding through the taxpayer set-aside program available to religious groups with such agreements, and Muslim employees were not guaranteed the right to take the day off on religious holidays. According to government and other officials, a formal accord was unlikely to be finalized absent the establishment of one umbrella group representing all the Muslim associations. At year’s end, the only Muslim group legally recognized as a religious entity by the MOI was the Cultural Islamic Center of Italy, which ran the Great Mosque of Rome. Other Muslims groups were recognized as nonprofit organizations.
On February 1, Minister of Interior Marco Minniti and nine Islamic federations and associations, including the three largest federations – the Union of Italian Muslim Communities, Italian Islamic Confederations, and Italian Muslim Youth Community, collectively representing almost 70 percent of Muslims in the country – signed an agreement to jointly combat radicalism and advance social cohesion and integration of Muslims, especially the second generation. It included provisions for training imams to deliver sermons in Italian, but without specifying who would fund the training, and stipulated that communities must transparently manage funds and donations from domestic followers and from abroad.
On May 15, the Cassation (Supreme) Court upheld the conviction of a Sikh man, an Indian citizen, for carrying a kirpan. The defendant, who had been sentenced to pay a 2,000 euro ($2,400) fine, argued that wearing a knife, like wearing a turban, amounted to respecting a religious precept sacred to Sikhs. In what judicial analyst Alessandro Negri said was an important, precedent-setting decision, the court disagreed, arguing that a “multiethnic society is a necessity, but cannot be conducive of conflicting cultural visions, as in the cultural and judicial context of a country [Italy] where public security is a general goal to protect by means of banning arms.”
Muslims continued to encounter difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. As of November there were five officially recognized mosques, one each in Ravenna, Rome, Colle Val D’Elsa, Milan, and Forli (inaugurated in May), compared with more than 800 unofficial, informal places of worship for Muslims, known colloquially as “garage” mosques. Local officials, who were entitled to introduce rules on planning applicable to places of worship, continued to cite a lack of zoning plans allowing for the establishment of places of worship on specific sites as a reason for denying construction permits. Although municipalities, such as Milan, could and did withhold construction permits for other religious groups, the shortage of formal places of worship appeared to be most acute for Muslims. Local politicians from the Northern League Party, including Jacopo Alberti, a Lombardy regional councilor, expressed concerns for Muslim communities that hoped to build their own mosques.
On October 10, the city council of Sesto San Giovanni near Milan blocked the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque, on the grounds that the center did not comply with all the requirements stipulated in two documents signed in 2013 and 2015. In particular, the council said the center failed to allot funds to build parking and other services, as previously agreed.
On September 1, local authorities in Bologna prohibited the use of a stadium for the celebration of Eid al-Adha. The President of the Islamic Cultural Center, Boubakeur Gueddouda, expressed his regret and disappointment, stating the Muslim community had used the arena to celebrate Eid al-Adha for the previous 20 years.
On March 20, Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala stated the Lombardy regional law requiring strict construction standards for places of worship, as part of urban planning codes, significantly limited the possibility of municipal authorities to authorize new mosques.
On April 7, the Constitutional Court upheld the provision of a 2016 Veneto regional law restricting the location of new places of worship to urban peripheries. The court overturned another provision of the same law that required use of the Italian language during religious services, ruling the provision affected freedom of worship.
In Florence, Mayor Dario Nardella and Imam Izzeddin Elzir continued discussions but did not identify a suitable location to construct a mosque for the Muslim community. The estimated 30,000 local Muslims continued to pray in three small locations across the city, which were not large enough to accommodate demand. In June the mayor proposed to the local Muslim community that they could establish a mosque in a former barracks on the outskirts of the city in Scandicci, but the local authorities there blocked the initiative. The local Muslim community was also looking into raising private funds for acquisition of space for use as a mosque, but the community leaders stated lack of authorization remained the main impediment to mosque construction. On December 22, Archbishop of Florence Giuseppe Betori signed an agreement with Imam Elzir for the construction of a mosque on land the Church sold to the Muslim community in Sesto Fiorentino, outside of the Florence city limits. According to press reports, if built, the mosque, with a capacity for several hundred worshippers, would not be able to accommodate all of greater Florence’s Muslim community, which numbered approximately 30,000 persons.
The city of Milan continued to withhold authorization, as it had in 2016, to build two new mosques and a Protestant church, citing limited capability to identify proper venues, as required by Lombardy regional law under which local governments may apply urban planning rules to restrict the location of places of worship.
The Muslim community of Thiene in the Veneto region began the construction of a mosque for which they had received a building permit in 2015 in accordance with the region’s legal requirements. The mosque was still under construction at year’s end.
Citing a lack of construction permits or inadequate safety standards, the city of Mestre, on April 5, and the city of Rome, on October 6, each closed down a garage mosque run by a Bangladeshi religious community. Community representatives organized public demonstrations of 100-200 persons in Mestre and Rome in October, stating they had no legal means of establishing new places of worship. The city of Mestre pledged to authorize the community to open a new mosque elsewhere but had not done so by year’s end.
In separate decisions, a Lazio regional court ordered Rome authorities to reopen five garage mosques police had closed in 2016 because they lacked proper authorization. The mosques reopened.
Local governments continued to rent out public land at discounted rates to religious groups, usually Catholic, for constructing places of worship. Government funding also helped preserve and maintain historic places of worship, which were almost all Catholic.
An association of local citizens requested a referendum on the construction of a new mosque in Pisa on the grounds that there was already an Islamic place of worship and “the money for the new mosque might come from Qatar, which funds the Muslim Brotherhood.” The referendum request was pending at year’s end.
On April 29, Veneto Regional Council member Elena Donazzan of the Forza Italia Party called for the expulsion from the country of Nuhi Krasniqi, an imam and head of the Sunna Muslim association in Bassano del Grappa, after Krasniqi called for the submission of women to God and the Prophet Muhammad during a television interview. Referring to Krasniqi, Donazzan said, “If the imam does not like the idea that a woman … can stroll on the streets of her city without a veil, he can pack up his bags and go back to where he came from.”
Politicians from several political parties, including the Northern League, Brothers of Italy, and CasaPound, made statements critical of Islam. Interviewed by the daily newspaper Die Welt on January 3, Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said, “The culture of Islam is backward, and not compatible with our society.” CasaPound organized a September 27 march in Rome calling for the closure of garage mosques. Giorgia Meloni, President of the Brothers of Italy Party, tweeted on October 9, “We can’t deny there is a process of Islamization going on in Europe.”
The government held a series of events in commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27. President Sergio Mattarella hosted a ceremony in which he stressed the need “to learn, study, and think. Nothing can stop our will to remember.” On January 18 and 19, Minister of Education Valeria Fedeli accompanied a group of 100 students to visit Auschwitz in cooperation with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI). She also signed an agreement with the union to promote training for teachers and programs for students to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. On January 19, Mayor Sala led a ceremony by the Milan city government to dedicate a stolpersteine, a commemorative cobblestone for Holocaust victim Dante Coen, the first of six such commemorative cobblestones for Italian Holocaust victims.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution provides every person the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and specifies the separation of church and state. By law eight “traditional” religious groups receive rights and privileges that other groups do not. Religious groups registered for fewer than 10 years must reregister every year. Thirty religious groups reregistered during the year, and six groups registered for the first time. Several high-ranking politicians spoke against anti-Semitism throughout the year and also participated in various Holocaust memorial ceremonies.
On March 16, approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 SS veterans and three members of parliament from the All for Latvia Party, participated in an annual march commemorating Latvians who fought in the Waffen SS against the Soviet Union in World War II. Police arrested five persons protesting the march. Organizers said the march remembered those who fought for independence and was not a glorification of Nazism. Various groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, again condemned the march. Jewish and Muslim community members reported instances of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet.
The U.S. embassy engaged with government officials, including representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, and Department of Religious Affairs, on the importance of restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community, religious tolerance, and Holocaust education. It also engaged with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Latvian Center for Human Rights, and representatives of various religious groups, such as the Old Believers, Jewish community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims, on the role they could play in promoting religious tolerance. The embassy funded two projects designed to address Holocaust issues.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and “the church shall be separate from the state.” It allows restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs in order to protect public safety, welfare, morals, the democratic structure of the state, and others’ rights. The law gives eight “traditional” religious groups – Lutherans, Catholics, Latvian Orthodox Christians, Old Believers, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jews – some rights and privileges not given to other religious groups, including the right to teach religion courses in public schools and the right to officiate at marriages without obtaining a civil marriage license from the MOJ. These eight groups are also the only religious groups represented on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body established by law and chaired by the prime minister that meets on an ad hoc basis to comment and provide recommendations on religious issues. These recommendations do not carry the force of law.
Separate laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups. The rights and activities of other religious groups are covered by one law on religious organizations.
Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious groups a number of rights and privileges, including legal status to own property and conduct financial transactions, eligibility to apply for funds for religious building restoration, and tax deductions for donors. Registration also allows religious groups to perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units and hold services in public places such as parks or public squares with the agreement of the local government. The law accords the same rights and privileges to the eight traditional religious groups, which it treats as already registered.
Unregistered groups do not possess legal status and may not own property, conduct financial transactions, or receive tax-free donations. They may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units, and generally may not hold worship services in public places without special permission. The law stipulates fines if an unregistered group carries out any of these activities.
The law stipulates that, in order to register as a congregation, a religious group must have at least 20 members aged 18 or older. Individuals with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may count as members for the purpose of registration only during the authorized period of their residency permits. To apply, religious groups must submit statutes stipulating their aims and tasks; a list of all group members (full name, identification number, and signature); the names of the persons who will represent the religious organization; minutes of the meeting founding the group; confirmation that members voted on and approved the statutes; and a list of members of the audit committee (full name, identification number, and title). The audit committee is responsible for preparing financial reports on the group and ensuring it adheres to its statutes. The MOJ determines whether to register a religious group as a congregation. The ministry may deny an application if it deems registration would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, public safety, welfare, or morals. Groups denied registration may appeal the decision in court.
Ten or more congregations – totaling at least 200 members – of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association or church. Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish theological schools or monasteries. The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association of a single faith or denomination, or of more than one religious group with the same or similar name. For example, the law prevents any association other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name. Independent Orthodox groups, such as Old Believers, are registered as separate religious associations.
The law requires religious groups registered for fewer than 10 years to reregister every year. Reregistration requires an MOJ evaluation of the group’s activities in the previous year and submission of the same documentation as first-time registrants.
According to the law, all traditional and registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the MOJ by March 1 regarding their activities and goals. They must additionally provide other data, including congregation size, number of clergy, number of weddings and other ceremonies performed, and details of group governance and financial status.
The law criminalizes hate speech and the incitement of hatred on the basis of religious affiliation but requires legal proof, determined at trial, of substantial harm for conviction. Penalties range from community service to up to 10 years of imprisonment. Committing a crime for religious reasons may also be considered an aggravating factor at trial.
The government funds religion and ethics classes in public schools. The school must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold religion classes; if such approval is not obtained, students take courses on general ethics. The Center for Educational Content at the Ministry of Education must review the content of the classes to verify they do not violate freedom of conscience. First through third-grade public school students must take either a class on religious beliefs of one of the eight traditional groups or an ethics class; starting in fourth grade, religious subjects are incorporated into elective ethics and social science classes. If there is demand, schools are permitted to teach classes on the history of religion. Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.” Other nontraditional religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools. Religion courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved government-certified instructors (usually at the lower grades), to nondenominational Christian teachings or overviews of major world religions by certified teachers who are proposed by a religious group, and approved by the Ministry of Education (usually at higher grades).
The law establishes an independent ombudsman’s office for human rights. Its mandate includes helping to resolve cases of religious discrimination through collaboration with authorities. While it does not have enforcement powers, it can issue recommendations to specific authorities. Parliament appoints the ombudsman.
The law stipulates foreign missionaries may be issued a residency permit, hold meetings, and proselytize only if a registered domestic religious group invites them to conduct such activities. Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation, typically from a religious organization, and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Thirty religious groups, all of those that applied, reregistered during the year, and the MOJ approved the applications of six other religious groups that applied to register for the first time.
President Raimonds Vejonis and other senior government officials, including the prime minister’s legal advisor, the president’s legal advisors, representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and members of parliament, met with Jewish groups to discuss property restitution. Despite the talks, the government did not take any additional steps to restitute property in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which called for measures to provide for assistance, redress, and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution. There were differing views about the number of properties that remained to be restituted.
The new prayer center of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Latvia (ICCL) again failed to open. In 2016, the Riga City Construction Board said the center failed to meet fire and other safety requirements because of an increase in the number of persons who would use the building. The leader of the ICCL, Janis Hamza Lucins, stated the delays were unwarranted but addressing them was not a priority, and the ICCL did not act to satisfy the construction board by year’s end.
Authorities continued to monitor ICCL activities, according to the annual report of the Security Police. ICCL leader Lucins again said he did not view government monitoring of his group to be discrimination or a violation of ICCL members’ rights.
President Vejonis and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis, and Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis, attended or spoke at Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre Memorial.
On October 15, the Bauska County Municipality and the Council of Jewish Communities unveiled the Memorial Synagogue Garden at the site of the destroyed Bauska synagogue, burned down by the Nazis in 1941. The Jewish community reported that, after 15 years of appealing without success to former city authorities to establish the memorial, the current municipality administration fully supported and expedited the project.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom of religious practice, and state recognition of religious organizations, provided they do not contradict the constitution or the law. The government extends special benefits to nine “traditional” religious groups and more limited benefits to four “recognized” religious groups, one of which received recognition status from the parliament in March. Religious groups must register with the government to gain legal status. The government continued to provide restitution or compensation to religious groups for property seized during World War II or by the communist regime. It funded Jewish education and culture projects, allocating 448,000 euros ($538,000) for the renovation of synagogues in three towns, and participated officially in Holocaust remembrance events. Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis gave remarks at commemoration events at the Paneriai Holocaust site on April 26, and for the annual March of the Living on September 26; he stressed Jewish history was integral to the country’s history and called for more discussion about how collaborators took part in the Holocaust, calling it the “darkest page” in the country’s history. The government registered the Jewish Ghetto Library in Vilnius and the underground remains of the Vilnius Great Synagogue as cultural heritage sites. In May the Martynas Mazvydas National Library opened the Judaica Research Center. Senior government officials at public commemorations spoke out against anti-Semitism.
A television program was cancelled after a judge on a game show gave a Nazi salute while contestants sang a song made popular by a Jewish singer. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported Muslim refugees faced discrimination in their applications for housing and employment. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim postings on the internet were common, such as statements that all Jews collaborated with the Soviet Union and equating Muslims with terrorists. Nationalists organized demonstrations in Kaunas and Vilnius in which some of the participants wore fascist symbols and carried anti-Semitic signs.
U.S. embassy officials and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with government officials, including at the prime minister’s office, and community leaders to discuss ways to combat intolerance and anti-Semitism and to encourage resolution of the remaining issues regarding compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi and Soviet eras, as well as the integration of Muslim refugees. Embassy representatives met with government officials, religious leaders, and NGOs to continue to encourage resolution of concerns such as property restitution, cultural preservation, and greater inclusion of religious minorities – including Muslim refugees – in society. The embassy provided funding for a museum on religious and ethnic tolerance named after a Holocaust victim. The Ambassador and Charge d’Affaires spoke on the importance of tolerance at an anti-Semitism conference and a Holocaust commemoration.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there is no state religion and provides for the right of individuals to choose freely any religion or belief, to profess their religion and perform religious practices, individually or with others, in private or in public, and to practice and teach their beliefs. It states no one may compel another person (or be compelled) to choose or profess any religion or belief. The constitution allows limits on the freedom to profess and spread religious beliefs when necessary to protect health, safety, public order, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. It restricts freedom of expression if it incites religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. It stipulates religious belief may not serve as justification for failing to comply with laws.
The constitution acknowledges the freedom of parents or guardians to oversee the religious and moral education of their children without interference and stipulates public education shall be secular, although schools may provide religious instruction at the request of parents. The constitution grants recognition to “traditional” religious groups and provides for recognition of other religious groups if they have support in society and their teachings and practices do not conflict with law or public morals. It states the status of religious groups shall be established by agreement or law, and recognized religious groups shall be free to carry out their activities as long as they are not in conflict with the constitution or laws.
The law defines religious groups as (1) religious communities, (2) religious associations, which comprise at least two religious communities under common leadership, and (3) religious centers, which are higher governing bodies of religious associations.
The law recognizes as “traditional” those religious groups able to trace back their presence in the country at least 300 years. The law lists nine “traditional” religious groups: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Old Believer, Jewish, Sunni Muslim, and Karaite. Traditional religious groups have a simplified registration procedure. They may perform marriages that are state-recognized, establish joint private/public schools, provide religious instruction in public schools, and receive annual government subsidies. Their highest ranking leaders are eligible to apply for diplomatic passports, and they may provide chaplains for the military, social care institutions, and hospitals. The state provides social security and healthcare insurance contributions for clergy, religious workers, and members of monastic orders of the traditional religious groups. Traditional religious groups are also not required to pay social and health insurance taxes for clergy and most other religious workers and members of monastic orders.
Other religious associations may apply to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) for state recognition if they have been officially registered in the country for at least 25 years. Parliament votes whether to grant this status upon recommendation from the MOJ. The Evangelical Baptist Union of Lithuania, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Pentecostal Evangelical Belief Christian Union, and the New Apostolic Church of Lithuania are the only state-recognized nontraditional religious groups.
Recognition entitles nontraditional religious groups to perform marriages and provide religious instruction in public schools. Unlike traditional groups, however, they are not eligible for annual subsidies from the state budget, and their clergy and theological students are not exempt from military service. The law provides recognized nontraditional religious groups with legal entity status, but they do not qualify for certain social security and healthcare contributions by the state.
The MOJ handles official registration of religious communities, associations, and centers. Unrecognized nontraditional groups must submit an application and supporting documentation to the MOJ, including their bylaws describing their religious teachings and governance, minutes of the founding meeting, and a list of the founders, at least 15 of whom must be citizens. Upon approval of its application, a religious community, association, or center is registered as a legal entity with the State Enterprise Center of Registers. Religious communities and associations associated with traditional religious groups have a simpler registration procedure, needing to submit only an application, decisions of their governing body on the appointment of their leader, and their headquarters address.
Traditional religious communities and associations are registered free of charge, while nontraditional communities pay a fee of 32 euros ($38). The MOJ may refuse to register a religious group if full data are not included in the application; the activities of the group violate human rights or public order; or a group with the same name has already registered. As of November 1, there were 1,114 traditional and 189 nontraditional religious communities, associations, and centers officially registered in the register of legal entities.
Official registration is a prerequisite for opening a bank account, owning property, and acting in a legal or official capacity as a community. The law allows all registered religious groups to own property for use as prayer houses, homes, and other functions, and permits construction of facilities necessary for religious activities. All registered groups are eligible for public funds from municipalities for cultural and social projects.
Unregistered communities have no legal status; however, the constitution allows them to conduct worship services and seek new members.
The Interministerial Commission to Coordinate Activities of Governmental Institutions that Deal with Issues of Religious, Esoteric, and Spiritual Groups coordinates investigations of religious groups if there is a concern a group’s actions may be inconsistent with what the commission perceives to be “principles that stress respect for human freedom of expression and freedom of religion.”
The Journalist Ethics Inspectorate investigates complaints under a law that bars publishing material that instigates hatred, including religious hatred. The inspectorate may levy administrative fines on newspapers under administrative law or refer cases for criminal prosecution.
Under the constitution, the government may temporarily restrict freedom of expression of religious belief during a period of martial law or a state of emergency, although it has never invoked this right.
The Soviet Union nationalized all religious buildings, some of which it redistributed, while others continued to serve religious communities. The law permits registered groups to apply to the MOJ for the restitution of, or compensation for, religious property owned before June 19, 1948. Religious communities may also register a claim for property not officially registered under their name but which they used during the Soviet period. If the ministry determines the claim is legitimate, it drafts a resolution officially returning the property to its original owner. Religious groups may appeal the decisions of the ministry in court.
A compensation fund for Jewish-owned communal property nationalized under totalitarian regimes is designed to support Jewish educational, religious, scientific, cultural, and healthcare projects with public benefits. Pursuant to the law, the government is committed to disbursing 37 million euros ($44.4 million) over the course of the decade ending March 1, 2023. Funds go to the Foundation for the Disposal of Good Will Compensation for the Immovable Property of Jewish Religious Communities, a public institution governed by national and international Jewish leaders.
The country has no law for the restitution of heirless private property.
The government allocates funds to traditional religious communities for refurbishing houses of prayer and other needs. Each traditional religion group receives 3,075 euros ($3,690) as a base fund plus a variable component that depends on the number of believers of each community. Traditional religious communities received 697,000 euros ($837,000) during the year, of which approximately 90 percent went to the Catholic Church.
The law permits and funds religious instruction in public schools for traditional and other state-recognized religious groups. Most religious instructors are regular state-employed teachers, but some are priests, seminarians, or monks. Parents may choose either religious instruction or secular ethics classes for their children. Schools decide which of the traditional religious groups will be represented in their curricula on the basis of requests from parents of children up to age 14, after which students present the requests themselves.
There are 30 private religious schools with ties to Catholic or Jewish groups, although students of different religious groups may attend these schools. All accredited private schools (religious and nonreligious) receive funding from the Ministry of Education and Science through a voucher system based on the number of pupils. This system covers only the program costs of school operation. Founders generally bear responsibility for covering capital outlays; however, per an agreement the government signed with the Holy See, the Ministry of Education and Science funds both the capital and operating costs of private Catholic schools, and the Vilnius municipality funds the Jewish gymnasium (high school), with support from the Jewish community.
The criminal code prohibits discrimination based on religion and provides penalties of up to two years in prison for violations. The code penalizes interference with religious ceremonies of recognized religious groups with imprisonment or community service and penalizes inciting religious hatred with imprisonment of up to three years.
The Office of the Equal Opportunities (OEO) ombudsperson investigates complaints of discrimination based on religion directed against state institutions, educational institutions, employers, and product and service sellers and producers.
The parliamentary ombudsperson examines whether state authorities properly perform their duties to serve the population. The law on the parliament ombudsperson specifically includes religious discrimination within the purview of the office. The OEO and parliamentary ombudspersons may investigate complaints, recommend changes to parliamentary committees and ministries regarding legislation, and recommend cases to the prosecutor general’s office for pretrial investigation.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On March 30, parliament granted the status of state-recognized religious association to the Lithuanian New Apostolic Church, which had submitted its application in 2003. The United Methodist Church of Lithuania continued to await parliamentary approval of its application for state-recognized religious association status, which it submitted in 2001.
In March the Ministry of Finance returned a Catholic monastery in Vilnius to the Franciscan Conventual Order after a four-year dispute with the former private owners and lengthy deliberations as to applicability of the law. In accordance with its 10-year agreement with the Foundation for the Disposal of Good Will Compensation for the Immovable Property of Jewish Religious Communities, the government again provided the fund with 3.62 million euros ($4.35 million) during the year. Since 2011, the foundation had received a total of 19 million euros ($22.8 million) from the government.
In October 2016, the government approved the restoration of ownership rights to seven religious buildings, three Old Believer and four Catholic, in different towns around the country. At year’s end the government had adjudicated all such claims that were submitted before the deadline of July 2015.
The government provided 697,000 euros ($837,000) to traditional religious groups to reconstruct religious buildings seized during the Nazi or Soviet eras and to support other religious community activities. As in previous years, the Roman Catholic Church received 626,500 euros ($750,000), 90 percent of the total; the Russian Orthodox community 33,000 euros ($39,600); and the remaining 36,000 euros ($43,200) was divided among the Old Believer, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Sunni Muslim, Jewish, Greek Catholic, and Karaite communities.
In August President Dalia Grybauskaite stated in response to concerns about the planned renovation of the Vilnius Sports Palace, which was built on a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius in 1971, that “decisions on Jewish cemeteries are taken together with the Lithuanian Jewish community (LJC) and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe,” both of which expressed support for the renovation. Some Jews in and outside the country opposed the project and an online petition against it garnered approximately 40,000 signatures.
In September Member of Parliament Emanuelis Zingeris said it was time that the country remove monuments to citizens who had written anti-Semitic propaganda or were suspected of having collaborated with the Nazis. Members of the Jewish community stated street names and monuments honoring Kazys Skirpa and Jonas Noreika were their primary concern.
The government continued to support Jewish educational, cultural, and historical projects, including exhibitions, youth camps, such as a project in Mazeikiai for high school students to explore Jewish history in their community, and synagogue restoration, for both historical purposes and current use. In May the Martynas Mazvydas National Library opened the Judaica Research Center to study the country’s Jewish heritage and organize educational projects for the public. In September the government’s cultural heritage department organized a program of activities on the theme of “Diaspora and Heritage: the Shtetl” to mark the European Days of Jewish Culture. Tours, lectures, concerts, exhibitions, conferences and other events took place in 24 cities and towns, including Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, Alytus, Jurbarkas, Kelme, Siauliai, Silale, Jonava, Joniskis, Kupiskis, Seduva, Sveksna, Ukmerge, and Zarasai. The government’s cultural heritage department allocated 448,000 euros ($538,000) for the renovation of synagogues in Vilnius, Alytus, and Ziezmariai, with local municipalities contributing 54,840 euros ($65,800) to the latter two projects.
In July the Constitutional Court ruled there were no legal grounds to exempt clergy of traditional religious groups from mandatory military or alternative service. Previously, the government had granted exemptions to clergy and theological students from the military service requirement. The decision stemmed from a court case filed by a Jehovah’s Witness, who had sought an exemption from military service on religious grounds.
Government officials took part in ceremonies to commemorate the Holocaust organized by the government’s Jewish State Museum and the Jewish community. On January 26, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Darius Skusevicius and Vice Speaker of Parliament (Seimas) Rima Baskiene participated in International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a program including a candle-lighting ceremony and the chanting of the El Malei Rachamim prayer at the Choral Synagogue of Vilnius. On February 16, President Dalia Grybauskaite gave an award to Holocaust survivor Fania Brantsovsky for her work in the field of Holocaust education. On March 22, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Skusevicius participated in an International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance event in Vilnius entitled “As Mass Murder Began: Identifying and Remembering the Killing Sites of Summer-Fall 1941.” On September 4, Minister of Culture Liana Ruokyte-Jonsson and Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius gave opening remarks at a conference to discuss future plans for the Vilnius great synagogue.
On September 25, parliament held a conference on Jewish heritage, which was opened by Speaker Viktoras Pranckietis and accompanied by an exhibition on the country’s Jewish past. Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis gave remarks at commemoration events at the Paneriai Holocaust site on April 26, and for the annual March of the Living on September 26. At the September 26 event, the prime minister stressed that Jews were integral to the country’s history and called for more discussion about how Lithuanian collaborators took part in the Holocaust, calling it the “darkest page” in the country’s history. On September 27, President Grybauskaite presented 43 non-Jews who rescued Jews during World War II with awards, thanking them for having “passed the test of humanity in the most difficult of years.” On November 16, Minister of Culture Ruokyte-Jonsson and Vilnius Mayor Simasius spoke at the opening of a museum and center for the promotion of religious and ethnic tolerance, named in honor of a Jewish artist, who survived the Holocaust in Vilnius.
The government’s cultural heritage department registered two new Jewish sites as culturally valuable: the Jewish Ghetto Library in Vilnius on March 22, and the underground remains of the Vilnius Great Synagogue on May 9. On October 13, Vilnius city municipality began a project to deliver more than 1,000 tons of Jewish gravestone fragments, which were taken from the historic Olandu and Snipiskiu cemeteries and used for construction material during the Soviet era, to the site of a former Jewish cemetery on Olandu Street in Vilnius.
The government and civil society continued to work together to promote Holocaust education and tolerance in schools with the local Jewish community and NGOs such as the Human Rights Center. Students across the country participated in Holocaust commemoration events and marches: on April 26, they marked Holocaust Memorial Day at Paneriai; on September 22, they participated in the national Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust at Paneriai, Kaunas, Panevezys, Alytus, and Siauliai and performed Jewish plays and Yiddish songs at the Sauletekio School in Vilnius. A total of 194 educational institutions took part in the Holocaust-remembrance initiative “Memory Road,” in which students carried stones bearing names of Jews who lived in their communities to commemorate the Jewish communities exterminated in the Holocaust. On April 24, the government-appointed International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Research Institute organized a Holocaust workshop for educators.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, including the right to public religious practice and to manifest religious opinions, and prohibits compulsory participation in religious services or observance of religious groups’ days of rest. Although, pursuant to 2016 legislation reorganizing the relationship between the state and six religious communities, the government no longer appointed or removed clergy from these communities or paid the salaries or pensions of newly appointed clergy, parliament had not yet voted on the comprehensive constitutional reform package reflecting these changes. Local governments and the Catholic Church reached agreements on the disposition of Church properties, but local Church councils opposed the agreements, and by year’s end parliament had not enacted legislation formalizing them. The government proposed legislation banning the burqa in public buildings and on public transportation, which generated considerable debate among political parties; parliament had not voted on the proposal by year’s end.
In September the Bar Association changed its internal regulations to ban lawyers from wearing headscarves while practicing law. Leaders of the six recognized religious communities agreed to formally maintain the structure of an interfaith council they established in 2016 to negotiate the law revising their relationship with the government but to meet only on an ad hoc basis in the future. They did not meet during the year.
U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues with government officials at the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of State, as well as with leaders and representatives of religious groups, including reactions to the draft law banning facial coverings and implementation of the law reorganizing the relationship between religious communities and the state. The Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving lunch on the International Day of Tolerance, at which she facilitated guests’ discussion of interfaith tolerance and respect and delivered remarks supporting religious freedom.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, including the freedom to public religious practice and to manifest religious opinions, as long as no crime is committed in exercising that freedom. While the constitution guarantees the right to assemble peacefully without prior authorization, it stipulates that open-air religious or other meetings are subject to regulation by police. The constitution prohibits compulsory participation in or attendance at church services or observance of religious days of rest and stipulates that a religious marriage ceremony must be preceded by a civil marriage ceremony to be recognized by the state. The constitution provides for the regulation of relations between religious groups and the state, including the role of the state in appointing and dismissing religious clergy and the publication of documents by religious groups, through conventions between the state and individual religious groups. These conventions are subject to review by parliament.
The government has formally approved conventions with six recognized religious communities, which it supports financially based on the number of adherents of each group. The six recognized communities are: the Catholic Church; the Greek, Russian, Romanian, and Serbian Orthodox Churches as one community; the Anglican Church; the Reformed Protestant Church of Luxembourg and the Protestant Church of Luxembourg as one community; the Jewish community; and the Muslim community. To qualify for a convention with the state, a religious community must be a recognized world religion and establish an official and stable representative body with which the government can interact. Groups without signed conventions, such as the Bahai Faith, may operate freely but do not receive state funding.
Under the law, newly hired religious workers do not receive government-funded salaries and pensions, but clergy of recognized religious groups hired in 2016 or earlier continue to receive their salaries from the government and are grandfathered into the government-funded pension system.
Not counting the government-paid salaries for religious workers hired in or before 2016, the funding levels agreed to in the conventions with the six recognized religious groups are as follows: 6.75 million euros ($8.1 million) to the Catholic community; 315,000 euros ($378,000) to the Jewish community; 285,000 euros ($342,000) to the Orthodox community; 450,000 euros ($540,000) to the Protestant community; 450,000 euros ($540,000) to the Muslim community; and 125,000 euros ($150,000) to the Anglican community.
Under the conventions, government funding to a religious community may be cancelled if the government determines that the religious community is not upholding any of the three principles upon which they mutually agreed: respect for human rights, national law, and public order.
Effective in the 2016-17 academic year for secondary schools and in 2017-18 for primary schools, religious education in public schools is abolished and replaced by an ethics course called “Life and Society.” Religious instructors affected by the change may teach the new Life and Society course if they qualify under the new provisions (including holding a bachelor’s degree), agree to adhere to the new curriculum, and participate in a “reorientation” course.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Pursuant to instructions from the central government to local administrative districts known as communes, the communes and the Catholic Church negotiated agreements on the disposition of Church properties in each commune. Previously, the properties had been under the control and responsibility of local Catholic Church councils, which operated independently. Under the agreements, control was transferred to the communes or the central Church authority. The Church at the national level developed a list of buildings needed for worship, and local Church councils negotiated the disposition of each building with the communes. In some cases, the Church transferred ownership of properties it did not need to communes for a symbolic fee of one euro ($1.20); in others, the communes leased properties they owned to the Church for nominal rental fees of 1,000-2,500 euros ($1,200-$3,000) per year. The government had initially set a January 1 deadline for these agreements but later extended it to June 1, a deadline which all of the communes and Church councils met. In addition, the government and Catholic Archbishop of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Hollerich agreed that the upkeep of two historical Church properties, the Basilica of St. Willibord in Echternach and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg, would be cofinanced by the government and the Catholic Church.
The Syndicate of Church Councils, an association representing the interests of 270 of the 285 local Catholic Church councils in the country, opposed the legislation on church properties and the property agreements signed between the Church councils and the communes. The syndicate, with the support of 118 of its Church councils, filed a lawsuit in December 2016 against Minister of Religion (also Prime Minister) Xavier Bettel, Minister of the Interior Dan Kersch, and Archbishop Hollerich. The lawsuit challenged the right of the archbishop to represent the Catholic Church in signing the 2015 convention that laid out the parameters for separating church and state and required that property ownership be negotiated between the local Church councils and the communes. The lawsuit remained pending at year’s end.
In addition to filing the lawsuit, the syndicate gathered 12,000 signatures on a petition, allowing it to gain a parliamentary hearing in January, at which it insisted it be included in the negotiation process on issues related to the separation of church and state. At the hearing, Interior Minister Kersch stated the archbishop was the government’s official negotiating partner and objections to the law advanced by the syndicate pertained to internal Church matters. The hearing ended without a vote.
On July 14, the Council of State, an advisory body of parliament, published an opinion stating Church councils, as public institutions, could be abolished by the state, and the transfer of assets from the councils to a common Catholic Church fund did not constitute an expropriation. The Council of State recommended amendments to the proposed law governing the management of church buildings, including one allowing local communes to fund renovations of church buildings that were transferred to the central Catholic Church fund. Interior Minister Kersch agreed to the Council of State’s recommended amendments and in October resubmitted the draft legislation to the council for another review. By year’s end parliament had not voted on the legislation.
On August 7, parliament passed a law outlining a framework for former religious instructors to continue working in public schools. Under the law, secondary school teachers who were formerly religious educators may teach nonreligious subjects in which they hold a bachelor’s degree after completion of a 16-hour training course. These secondary school educators are employed by the Ministry of National Education. Primary school educators who formerly taught Catholic classes and rejoin the public schools as teachers of other subjects continue to be officially employed by the Catholic Church.
Of the 140 Catholic primary teachers affected by the new law affecting former religious instructors, 100 became substitute teachers after meeting the minimum qualifications to teach elementary education; the remaining 40 were receiving training to serve as education assistants in primary schools or day-care centers.
On August 8, Minister of Justice Felix Braz presented a bill to parliament proposing the prohibition of facial coverings in public buildings and on public transportation. He stated the motivation was not religious, but rather that fellow citizens should be able to recognize each other. Although two opposition political parties, the Christian Social People’s Party and the Alternative Democratic Reform Party, had in previous years initially called for a nationwide ban only of the burqa to be enforced everywhere, they changed their position during the year to favor a ban on all facial coverings. The ruling coalition, consisting of the Democratic Party, the Liberal Socialists Workers Party, and the Greens, took a compromise position favoring a ban on facial coverings in public spaces and introduced the draft bill. By year’s end the Council of State had not yet issued an advisory opinion on the draft legislation, required prior to a parliamentary debate and vote. A total of 47 local municipalities banned facial coverings, but police did not enforce these communal bans.
According to the Assembly of the Muslim Community (the Shoura), approximately 16 women in the country wore the niqab or burqa. The Shoura criticized the proposed law banning face coverings as unnecessary, in view of the small number of women who wore burqas, and stated the debate was counterproductive in an “open and tolerant society.” The Shoura also criticized Justice Minister Braz for not consulting the affected population prior to announcing his proposal.
In October the pastor of Trinity Church, the historic Protestant church in Luxembourg City, stated mounting court costs for an ongoing civil court case could potentially bankrupt his church under the new Church funding arrangement. The pastor stated the judge should have dismissed the case, because it pertained to an internal church matter.
According to data provided by the prime minister’s office, through October the government had granted refugee status to 938 individuals, the majority of whom were Muslim. The Organization for Welcome and Integration (OLAI), an entity of the Ministry of Family and Integration, stated the government sought to be proactive in assuring refugee access to mosques, halal meals, and same-sex housing for those who requested it. OLAI reported no complaints or concerns by refugees related to the practice of their religion.
The country held the presidency of the International Tracing Service (ITS) during the year and hosted the 80th session of the International Commission of the International Tracing Service in June in Luxembourg City. The ITS is an archive and center for documentation, research, and information on Nazism, forced labor, and the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and its occupied regions.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious worship and prohibits religious discrimination. It establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion, mandates Catholic religious education in state schools, but allows students to opt out of the classes. The government expanded its program to offer ethics classes as an alternative to Catholic instruction in public schools and initiated discussions with various denominations to introduce voluntary classes in Islam and possibly other minority religions in public schools.
After the Muslim community announced plans to close an Islamic secondary school, the Catholic archbishop offered to teach Islam as a subject in Catholic schools, an offer that led to protests by the self-styled nationalist group and political party, the Maltese Patriots. On another occasion, the Maltese Patriots tore down a poster featuring an altered version of the painting The Last Supper used as an advertisement for fast food. The University of Malta published a study in October that found negative views toward Muslim migrants and a tendency to confound ethnicity and religion.
In meetings with the president, prime minister, government officials in several ministries, civil society, and religious leaders, the U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed religious tolerance. During an iftar, the Ambassador stressed the importance of religious tolerance.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates full freedom of conscience and religious worship, subject to restrictions in the interests of public safety, order, morality, or health, or protection of the rights and freedoms of others. It prohibits discriminatory treatment on the basis of creed. The constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion and declares the Catholic Church has “the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.”
The government does not require religious groups to be registered. A religious group has the option to register as a voluntary organization with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organizations. To qualify for registration, the organization must be nonprofit, autonomous, and voluntary; provide a resolution letter signed by all its committee or board members requesting registration; provide its authenticated annual accounts and annual report; and pay a 40 euro ($48) registration fee. The law does not provide registered groups with tax reductions or exemptions, but allows them to make collections without obtaining any further authorization. It also allows them to receive grants, sponsorships, and financial aid from the government and the Voluntary Organizations Fund, an entity financed through the government and the European Union. The minister of education appoints the governing council of the fund, which comprises representatives from voluntary organizations and a government official and supports enrolled voluntary organizations.
Religious groups not registered as voluntary organizations with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organizations do not receive funding from the government or the Voluntary Organizations Fund and require approval from the Commissioner of Police to collect contributions from the public. Approval is not required for collections from members or congregants. Groups that do not register as voluntary organizations otherwise have the same legal rights as registered groups.
The criminal code prohibits individuals from wearing “masks or disguises” in public, unless explicitly allowed by law; there is no specific reference – or exception – to coverings worn for religious reasons. Violations are subject to a reprimand, fine, or jail sentence.
All religious groups may own property, including buildings. Groups using property for a particular purpose, including religious worship, must obtain a permit for that purpose from the Planning Authority. All religious groups may organize and run private religious schools, and their religious leaders may perform marriages and other functions.
The constitution and law make Catholic education compulsory in public schools, although non-Catholic teachers may teach the course. Students, with parental consent if the student is under the age of 16, may opt out of these classes and instead take an ethics course if one is available. If a school does not offer an ethics course, students may still opt out of the religion class.
Students may enroll in private religious schools. The law does not regulate religious education in private schools. The law does not allow homeschooling for religious or other reasons except for physical or mental infirmity.
The law allows criticism of religious groups but prohibits incitement of religious hatred; violators are subject to imprisonment for a term of six to 18 months.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued its practice of not enforcing the legal ban on face coverings or disguises, including those worn for religious purposes.
During a congress in March of the European People’s Party (EPP) – a coalition of parties represented in the European Parliament – held in the town of St. Julian’s, members adopted a resolution that included a call for a ban on face veils, such as burqas and niqabs, in public places. Simon Busuttil, then-leader of the opposition Nationalist Party (PN, affiliated with the EPP), told The Malta Independent on Sunday newspaper in April that he endorsed the EPP’s resolution and favored banning face veils in public spaces. Another PN representative, Member of Parliament Clyde Puli, posted the Malta Independent article, citing Busuttil’s endorsement of a face veil ban on his Facebook page, with the comment, “Ban the Burqa.”
The Ministry of Education continued to expand a pilot program to offer ethics education in state schools as an alternative to the 6 percent of students who reportedly did not attend Catholic religious classes. During the 2016-17 school year, 1,073 primary and secondary level students, approximately 3 percent of all students, enrolled in the ethics classes, compared with 419 students in the previous year.
The government advanced plans to introduce the voluntary study of Islamic religious education in an after-school program in a number of state primary- and secondary-level schools, although the government had yet to release a specific timeline for the program’s implementation. Discussions were also underway, although not as well developed, to explore similar programs for other religious groups.
The discussions on after-school Islamic education began when Mohammed el-Sadi, the Imam of the Mariam Al-Batool Mosque, the country’s leading mosque in Paola, announced in March plans to close the Islamic Center’s Mariam Al-Batool Secondary School, citing financial reasons. El-Sadi appealed to the government to provide Islamic religious instruction to approximately 60 Muslim students who would have to transfer to state schools following the school’s closure. Minister of Education Evarist Bartolo responded there should be no problem with Muslim children receiving Islamic religious teaching, as long as it was accredited and treated equally with other subjects, including requiring students enrolled in such classes to take O level exams in Islamic studies.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief. It is a crime to engage in public speech inciting religious hatred. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (NIHR) and municipal antidiscrimination boards continued to address individual complaints of discrimination, such as the denial of internships or employment to female Muslim students who refused to remove their headscarves. The government implemented its national action plan to counter discrimination, which included specific measures to counter anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment. Local governments provided security to all Jewish institutions and, upon request, to Islamic institutions. Amsterdam authorities replaced on-site police surveillance of more than 30 Jewish cultural sites with cameras. The leader of the Political Calvinist Party (SGP) and the Israeli Ambassador filed complaints against a member of The Hague City Council for making anti-Semitic statements about Israeli students visiting parliament.
The government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported hundreds of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents in 2016, the most recent year for which data were available. Most incidents included verbal or written harassment or insults, threats, and vandalism. There were also several cases of violence and instances of discrimination. An EU survey found 72 percent of Muslims believed religious or ethnic discrimination was widespread in the country. An NGO called for measures to stop anti-Semitic chanting at soccer matches and expressed concern about the common use of “Jew” as a term of insult. Two nationalist groups regularly staged protests against Islamic institutions. Members of religious groups and NGOs engaged in activities and conducted outreach programs to counter prejudice against Jews and Muslims.
The U.S. embassy in The Hague and consulate general in Amsterdam emphasized to government officials, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, parliamentarians, and police in formal meetings and informal conversations, support for refugees of all faiths, the importance of integration for newcomers, and the value of interfaith dialogue. Embassy and consulate general representatives discussed religious freedom issues with different faith communities and civil society activists and pursued public outreach to youth, academics, and women to increase interfaith understanding and tolerance. The embassy also discussed religious tolerance with refugees.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and provides for the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief, individually or in community with others, without affecting their responsibilities under the law. The constitution allows the government to restrict the exercise of religious beliefs outside of buildings or enclosed spaces to protect health, for traffic safety, or to prevent disorder.
The law makes it a crime to engage in public speech that incites religious hatred, and provides a penalty of imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to 8,100 euros ($9,700), or both. To qualify as hate speech, the statements must be directed at a group of people; the law does not consider statements targeted at a philosophy or religion, such as “Islam” as opposed to “Muslims,” as criminal hate speech.
The law permits employees to refuse to work on Sundays for religious reasons, but employers may deny employees such an exception depending on the nature of the work, such as employment in the health sector. Members of religious communities for whom the Sabbath is not Sunday may request similar exemptions.
The law does not require religious groups to register with the government. If the tax authorities determine the groups meet specific criteria, they grant the groups exemptions from all taxes, including income, value added, and property taxes. Under the tax law, institutions must be “of a philosophical or religious nature,” contribute to the general welfare of society, and be nonprofit and nonviolent to qualify for tax exemptions.
A number of national institutions, including the Council of State and the NIHR, are responsible for reviewing complaints of religious discrimination. Additionally, the NIHR advises the government on issues involving religious discrimination.
Local governments appoint antidiscrimination boards that work independently under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. These local boards provide information on how to report complaints and mediate disputes, including those pertaining to discrimination based on religion. Acceptance of mediation decisions by parties involved in disputes is voluntary.
The government provides funding to religious schools, other religious educational institutions, and religious health-care facilities. To qualify for funding, institutions have to meet government educational standards as well as minimum class size and health-care requirements. The constitution stipulates that standards required of religious or ideology-based (termed “special”) schools, financed either in part or fully by the government, shall be regulated by law with due regard for the freedom of these schools to provide education according to their religion or ideology.
The constitution stipulates public education shall pay due respect to the individual’s religion or belief, and the law permits, but does not require religious education in public schools. Regular teaching staff teach religion classes. All schools are obligated to familiarize students with the various spiritual movements in society, regardless of the school’s religious affiliation. Religion-based schools are free to shape religious education, as long as the education inspectorate agrees that such education does not incite criminal offenses.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: The government provided security to all Jewish institutions and to Muslims institutions upon request and established a working group to discuss mosque security. It barred religious groups from proselytizing at asylum centers. The government and Jewish and Muslim groups amended an agreement to allow for better protection of animal welfare while preserving the groups’ requirements of ritual slaughter. Party for Freedom (PVV) parliamentarian Geert Wilders continued calls for “de-Islamization” of the country. The government issued a report expressing concerns about Salafist groups. It continued to require Muslim religious leaders recruited from Islamic countries to complete an integration course before engaging in religious work in the country. The government also announced measures to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment as part of an updated action plan to combat discrimination. A Muslim member of The Hague City Council called Israeli students visiting parliament “future child murderers.”
The national government established a special working group to discuss security questions concerning mosques, which included representatives of the Muslim community, National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security, police, and Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. Following a January 29 attack on a mosque in Canada, members of the working group convened and adopted a “Safe Mosque” manual. The manual helped bolster local cooperation among local government, police, and mosque officials. The mayors of Amsterdam and Rotterdam also met with representatives of various mosques in their cities to discuss security.
Local governments, in consultation with the national government, continued to provide all Jewish institutions with security and to provide security to Muslim institutions at their request. Amsterdam authorities were finalizing the replacement of 18 police-manned booths in favor of camera surveillance in Jewish sites throughout the city.
The NIHR and municipal antidiscrimination boards continued to address individual complaints of discrimination, such as the denial of internships or employment to female Muslim students who refused to remove their headscarves. The rulings generally maintained that any restriction on wearing headscarves should be limited and based on security or other carefully delineated grounds pertaining to the nature of the work, for example, applied to members of the military and medical personnel on operating floors. In practice, headscarves were permitted almost everywhere, including in schools.
According to several religious community leaders, the government did not allow religiously affiliated organizations to proselytize at asylum centers. The government agency charged with overseeing asylum centers, the Central Body for Accommodating Asylum Seekers, said it instituted this policy to avoid inflaming any tensions among different religious groups housed together in an already sensitive environment. Some members of religious groups said they had difficulty gaining access to the centers, even as volunteers. One member of an evangelical church said its members prayed in front of asylum centers but were not allowed to pray inside.
In July Jewish and Muslim organizations signed an agreement with the government and slaughterhouses amending a 2012 accord allowing ritual slaughter, to better protect animal welfare while preserving the requirements of ritual slaughter.
PVV leader and opposition parliamentarian Geert Wilders, whose party won 20 of the 150 seats in parliament in March elections, continued to call for the “de-Islamization” of the country. He advocated refusing all asylum seekers and immigrants from Islamic countries, banning the burqa in all public spaces, closing all mosques and Islamic schools, banning the Quran, and prohibiting any Islamic expression that violated public order. On November 3, Wilders called for mass protests against Islamization. He tweeted “Enough is enough. It is time to resist. Organize mass demonstrations. Reclaim our country. Fight back Islamization.”
Wilders appealed a December 2016 court conviction for inciting discrimination and insulting a racial group for his remarks about Moroccans at a 2014 rally. He argued his statements were protected free speech. The appeal hearing was scheduled for 2018.
In September the Ministry of Justice and Security’s Research and Documentation Center issued a report stating Salafist organizations were growing in the country and propagating intolerance toward others. In a letter submitting the report to parliament, then-Minister of Justice and Security Stef Blok and then-Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher expressed concern that Salafist doctrines triggered intimidation, incited hatred against others, and undermined democratic institutions and the rule of law. The letter, however, opposed banning Salafist organizations as contrary to freedom of religion. The ministers said they were not taking a position on what individuals believed but “on preservation of an open society.” The ministers stated national and local authorities could take actions against undesirable conduct by groups such as Salafists, especially with regard to public security, while seeking interaction and dialogue with those and other groups. In the fall the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it was working closely with its embassies abroad to ensure transparency in the foreign funding of Salafist mosques in the country.
Government ministers, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the annual Auschwitz and Kristallnacht commemorations, regularly spoke out against anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in speeches. On February 3, then-Deputy Prime Minister Asscher stated, “We are working with the religious communities on a society in which everyone can practice his religion in freedom and safety.”
Then-Ministers Blok and Asscher met regularly with the Jewish community to discuss measures to counter anti-Semitism. The government worked with youth and relevant NGOs on several projects addressing anti-Semitism. These projects included making anti-Semitism a subject of discussion within the Turkish community; establishing a help desk to facilitate projects combating anti-Semitism; organizing roundtables with teachers to train them to deal with anti-Semitic prejudice and Holocaust denial; holding discussions with social media organizations on countering anti-Semitism among Islamic youth; promoting an interreligious dialogue primarily between Muslims and Jews; and renewing a public information campaign against discrimination and anti-Semitism.
In the spring, the government announced specific measures to counter anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment in the update to its national action plan to counter discrimination. The plan cited a need for more Jewish and Muslim role models from business, education, and government to promote dialogue between members of those two communities. In a June 22 letter to parliament, then-Ministers Blok and Asscher said, as part of the action plan, the government was supporting community projects to strengthen interreligious dialogue between Jews and Muslims. The ministers said six cities (which they did not identify) were assessing best practices for advancing interreligious dialogue that could serve as an example for other cities.
As part of the action plan, the government consulted the Royal Netherlands Soccer Association, local authorities, police officials, the prosecutor’s office, and soccer clubs, on ways to counter anti-Semitic chanting, salutes, and other behavior directed against religious groups during soccer matches. Participants agreed on measures to prosecute offenders or ban them from stadiums. The Anne Frank Foundation, an NGO, organized government-sponsored projects, such as the “Fan Coach” project to counter anti-Semitic chanting by educating soccer fans on why their actions were anti-Semitic, and the “Fair Play” project to promote discussion on discrimination, including religious discrimination.
To combat anti-Muslim discrimination, the national action plan focused on enhancing the readiness of the Muslim community to report incidents, reinforcing the resilience of Muslim organizations, and improving local cooperation between the Muslim community and local authorities. As part of this effort, authorities conducted regional meetings in which representatives of local governments, police, antidiscrimination bureaus, and Muslim communities discussed ways to improve collaboration.
In June the leader of the SGP, Kees van der Staaij, and the Israeli Ambassador filed complaints with the police against The Hague City Council member Abdoe Khoulani of the Islamist Party of Unity, after he characterized Israeli students visiting parliament as “Zionist terrorists” and “future child murderers.” Reacting to Van der Staaij’s complaint, Khoulani called him “a spokesman of Zionism, hypocrite to the bone, Islamophobic, Christian Zionist.” On November 8, the prosecutor’s office in The Hague announced it would not prosecute Khoulani because it concluded the statements did not constitute a criminal offense.
The government continued to require asylum seekers seeking to obtain a residence permit to sign a statement of participation in civic integration. The statement informed immigrants of their rights and obligations and of fundamental values, including freedom of religion.
According to the NGO Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI), Jewish community leaders stated the school curriculum lacked sufficient coverage of the Holocaust. On March 21, Deputy Minister for Education Sander Dekker spoke at a conference underscoring the importance of Holocaust education. He viewed schools as a safe place for children to hear “the right story,” because “we see that they [students] are taught the wrong facts and ideas in other places.” Dekker stated it could be difficult for teachers to discuss the Holocaust, especially at schools with a high percentage of minorities.
The government continued to require imams and other spiritual leaders recruited from Islamic countries to complete an integration course before preaching religion in the country. This requirement did not apply to approximately 140 Turkish imams appointed by that country’s religious affairs directorate. The government also sponsored leadership courses, with the declared intention of facilitating imam training in the Dutch language free of foreign interference.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states that religion is a personal choice, and all churches and religious organizations have equal rights. An agreement with the Holy See determines relations with the Roman Catholic Church and grants it privileges not accorded to other religious groups. Statutes adopted because of agreements between the government and other churches and religious organizations determine relations with those groups. The criminal code prohibits public speech offensive to religious sentiment. The Supreme Administrative Court dismissed an appeal that, if successful, would have led to the deregistering of the Union of Progressive Jewish Communities in Poland. The government made a final determination on 60 communal property restitution cases involving claims by religious communities during the year, out of approximately 3,600 outstanding. The leader of the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) met with Jewish groups after they wrote to him expressing concerns over growing anti-Semitism. Parliament asked the interior minister to respond after Muslim groups wrote to the speaker of the lower house asking him to protect the Muslim minority. The interior minister ordered an investigation after Holocaust survivor groups discovered that a 1999 video of naked people laughing and playing tag in a concentration camp gas chamber had been filmed in the former Nazi Stutthof concentration camp. PiS members made statements against Muslim migrants, and one party parliamentarian tweeted an anti-Semitic comment. The PiS leader denounced anti-Semitism, and President Andrzej Duda said the country had a duty to speak out about the extermination of its Jewish population by the Nazis during WWII.
According to government figures from 2016, which civil society groups said were not comprehensive, anti-Muslim incidents almost doubled to 360 compared with 2015, while anti-Semitic incidents declined by 23 percent to 160. Jewish groups reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents during the year but did not cite figures. In June German Muslim students reported harassment in Lublin, and the Muslim Cultural Center in Warsaw cancelled an open house after online threats. A Pew Research Center poll found two thirds of respondents held negative views of Muslims, and a Warsaw University study reported a rise in anti-Semitic attitudes in the country. In November some marchers chanted Nazi and anti-Semitic slogans at a nationalist Independence Day march attended by tens of thousands of persons in Warsaw. In April some participants chanted anti-Muslim slogans at a demonstration in Warsaw by several hundred supporters of a group widely described as extremist. In March a group burned an effigy of a Jewish woman in Warsaw. There were incidents of vandalism at Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant sites.
The U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government representatives met with government officials and representatives of Jewish groups to discuss the status of private and communal property restitution and anti-Semitism. The Ambassador appealed to extend the provisions of draft private property restitution legislation to cover American citizens and Holocaust victims, survivors, and their heirs. The Ambassador, other embassy staff, and visiting U.S. government delegations raised concerns with government officials that draft legislation criminalizing the attribution of Nazi Third Reich crimes to the Polish state or nation could undermine free speech and media freedom, and inhibit discussion of the Holocaust. The embassy and consulate general in Krakow engaged with Jewish and Muslim leaders on countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and sponsored events, including exchange programs, roundtable discussions, cultural events, and education grants, that promoted interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion. It states freedom of religion includes the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest that religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing rites, or teaching. It states freedom to express religion may be limited only by law when necessary to defend state security, public order, health, morals, or the rights of others. The constitution states “churches and other religious organizations shall have equal rights.” It stipulates the relationship between the state and churches and other religious organizations shall be based on the principle of respect for autonomy and mutual independence. The constitution specifies that relations with the Catholic Church shall be determined by an international treaty concluded with the Holy See and by statute, and relations with other churches and religious organizations by statutes adopted pursuant to agreements between representatives of these groups and the Council of Ministers.
According to the constitution, freedom of religion also includes the right to own places of worship and to provide religious services. The constitution stipulates parents have the right to ensure their children receive a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions and their own religious and philosophical beliefs. It states religious organizations may teach their faith in schools if doing so does not infringe on the religious freedom of others. The constitution acknowledges the right of national and ethnic minorities to establish institutions designed to protect religious identity. The constitution prohibits parties and other organizations whose ideologies are based on Nazism.
The criminal code outlaws public speech that offends religious sentiment. The law prescribes a fine, typically 5,000 zloty ($1,400), or up to two years in prison for violations.
Specific legislation governs the relationship of 15 religious groups with the state, outlining the structure of that relationship and procedures for communal property restitution. The 15 religious groups are the Roman Catholic Church, Polish Orthodox Church, Evangelical-Augsburg (Lutheran) Church, Evangelical Reformed Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Polish National Catholic Church, Pentecostal Church, the Union of Jewish Communities, Mariavite Church, Old Catholic Mariavite Church, Old Eastern Orthodox Church, Muslim Religious Union, and Karaim Religious Union. Marriages performed by officials from 11 of these groups do not require further registration at a civil registry office; however, the Mariavite Church, Muslim Religious Union, Karaim Religious Union, and Old Eastern Orthodox Church do not have that right. An additional 165-registered religious group and five aggregate religious organizations (the Polish Ecumenical Council, Polish Buddhist Union, Biblical Society, Evangelical Alliance, and Council of Protestant Churches) do not have a statutorily defined relationship with the state.
The law provides equal protection to all registered religious groups. In accordance with the law, the government and the Roman Catholic Church participate in the Joint Government-Episcopate Committee, co-chaired by the minister of interior and administration and a bishop, currently the Archbishop of Gdansk, which meets regularly to discuss Catholic Church-state relations. The government also participates in a joint government-Polish Ecumenical Council committee, co-chaired by a Ministry of Interior and Administration (MIA) undersecretary and the head of the Polish Ecumenical Council (an association composed of six denominations and two religious associations, all of them non-Roman Catholic Christian), which meets to discuss issues related to minority Christian churches operating in the country.
Religious groups that are not the subject of specific legislation may register with the MIA, but registration is not obligatory. To register, the law requires a group to submit a notarized application with the personal information of at least 100 citizen members; details about the group’s activities in the country; background about its doctrine and practices; a charter and physical address; identifying information about its leaders; a description of the role of the clergy, if applicable; and information on funding sources and methods of new member recruitment. If the ministry rejects the registration application, organizations may appeal to an administrative court. By law, the permissible grounds for refusal of an application are failure to meet formal requirements or inclusion in the application of provisions that may violate public safety and order, health, public morality, parental authority or freedom and rights of other persons. Unregistered groups may worship, proselytize, or publish or import religious literature freely and bring in foreign missionaries, but they have no legal recognition and are unable to undertake certain functions such as own property or hold bank accounts in their name. The 185 registered and statutorily-recognized religious groups receive privileges not available to unregistered groups, such as selective tax benefits – they are exempt from import tariffs and property taxes and income tax on their educational, scientific, cultural, and legal activities, and their official representatives are also exempt from income and property taxes – and the right to acquire property and teach religion in schools.
Four commissions oversee communal religious property restitution claims, one each for the Jewish community, the Lutheran Church, and the Orthodox Church, and one for all other denominations. The commissions function in accordance with legislation providing for the restitution to religious communities of property they owned and that was nationalized during or after WWII. The law does not address communal properties the government sold or turned over to new private owners after WWII. A separate commission overseeing claims by the Catholic Church completed its work several years ago. The MIA and the respective religious community each appoint representatives to the commissions. The law states decisions by the commission ruling on communal property claims may not be appealed, but the Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2013 that parties could appeal commission decisions in administrative courts. There have been no reports of parties filing such appeals.
The law authorizes Warsaw city authorities to expeditiously resolve long-standing restitution cases affecting Warsaw properties now being used for public purposes. Warsaw city officials must post a notification of specific public properties for a six-month period during which original owners of the property must submit their claims. At the end of the six-month period, Warsaw city authorities may make a final determination on the disposition of the property, either declaring that the property shall remain public and not be subject to any future claims, or returning the property or equal compensation to the original owner.
In accordance with the law, all public and private schools teach voluntary religion classes. Schools must provide instruction in any of the registered faiths if there are at least seven students requesting it. Each registered religious group determines the content of classes in its faith and provides the teachers, who receive salaries from the state. Students may also request to take an optional ethics class instead of a religion class; the ethics class is optional even if students decline to take a religion class.
Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom, and the law prohibits discrimination or persecution on the basis of religion or belief.
The constitution recognizes the right to conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds but states such objectors may be required to perform alternative service as specified by law.
The human rights ombudsman is responsible for safeguarding human and civil freedoms and rights, including the freedom of religion and conscience, specified in the constitution and other legal acts. The ombudsman is independent from the government, and appointed by the parliament.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The Supreme Administrative Court dismissed an appeal that, if successful, would have led to the deregistering of the Union of Progressive Jewish Communities in Poland. Warsaw city authorities began implementing a private property law, specific to that city, that observers said could extinguish potential claims by private individuals, including Jews and members of other religious minorities, of public properties seized in WWII or the communist era. The government made a final determination on 60 communal property claims of religious groups during the year, out of approximately 3,300 cases pending. Then-Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak ordered a follow-up investigation after Holocaust survivor groups determined a 1999 video of naked persons laughing and playing tag was recorded in the gas chamber of the former Nazi Stutthof concentration camp. PiS members made statements criticizing Muslim migrants, and one party member wrote an anti-Semitic comment on his Twitter account. Some government officials called for the resignation of the human rights ombudsman after he said on television that the nation had taken part in implementing the Holocaust. President Duda stated the country had a duty to speak out about the extermination of Jews, and the leader of PiS denounced anti-Semitism.
On April 3, the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed an appeal of the court’s own 2014 decision reversing a lower court ruling that would have led to the deregistration of the Union of Progressive Jewish Communities in Poland (Beit Polska). The appeal had been brought by another Jewish organization which had filed the original deregistration.
The MIA approved the registration of one religious group during the year, the Evangelical Methodist Church in the Republic of Poland.
According to MIA statistics, the religious community property commissions made a final determination (“resolved”) on 60 communal property claims during the year, out of approximately 3,300 pending communal property claims by religious groups. The commission handling Jewish communal property claims had partially or entirely resolved 2,770 of the 5,554 claims the Jewish community had submitted by its 2002 filing deadline. The commission handling Lutheran property claims had partially or entirely resolved 946 of the 1,200 claims filed by its 1996 filing deadline. The commission handling Orthodox Church restitution had partially or entirely resolved 264 of 472 claims filed by the 2005 deadline, and the property commission for all other denominations had partially or entirely resolved 87 of 170 claims.
Critics continued to state the laws on religious communal property restitution did not address the issue of disputed communal properties now privately owned, and the government left several controversial and complicated cases unresolved. For example, in a number of cases, buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries destroyed during or after WWII. The Jewish community continued to report the pace of Jewish communal property restitution was slow, involved considerable legal expense, and often ended without any recovery of property or other compensation for claimants.
The European Shoah Legacy Institute, an independent think tank that monitored restitution issues, stated in April that Poland was the only country in the EU that had not established a comprehensive restitution regime for private property taken during the Holocaust or the communist era.
Warsaw city authorities began implementing the 2015 law that critics stated might extinguish potential claims by private individuals, including Jews and members of other religious minorities, on public properties seized in WWII or the communist era. By year’s end, the city had listed 63 public properties for which the six-month public notification period had expired. No individuals submitted prior ownership claims for 54 of the 63 public properties. Of the nine other properties for which individuals did submit prior ownership claims, the city refused four and was still reviewing the remaining five claims at year’s end. The city determined that the 58 properties for which there were no claims or for which it rejected prior ownership claims would remain public property and would not be subject to any future claims. The public properties involved included schools, preschools, a park, and a police command unit site. There was no information available as to the identity of the prior ownership claimants or whether any belonged to religious minorities.
In June a special government commission formed during the year under Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki to investigate accusations of irregularities in restitution of private property in Warsaw called Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz and other officials to testify on several occasions. Waltz refused to appear before the commission and questioned its authority. One of the cases about which the commission called Waltz involved a property for which her husband’s family received compensation and was reported as formerly owned by a Jewish Holocaust victim. The mayor’s husband returned the compensation paid to him as required by a December 22 ruling of the commission, which required all beneficiaries of the property to return a total of more than 15 million zloty ($4.3 million) to city authorities.
On October 11, the Ministry of Justice announced comprehensive private property restitution draft legislation that would block any physical return of former properties, whether the properties were currently privately or publicly owned, provide compensation of 20-25 percent of the property’s value at the time of taking in cash or government bonds, and set a one-year claims filing period. The legislation drew intense media coverage and public scrutiny. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups expressed concern the legislation would exclude foreign potential claimants, many of whom were Holocaust survivors or their heirs. At year’s end, the justice ministry had not submitted the draft legislation to the Council of Ministers (cabinet) for review and approval before sending to parliament.
In February the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage financed the restoration of 21 historic gravestones at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.
In December parliament voted to allocate 100 million zloty ($28.7 million) to restore the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, and the Ministry of Culture transferred the funds to the Cultural Heritage Foundation, which was to oversee the restoration project in cooperation with the Warsaw Jewish Community. Warsaw Jewish Community president Anna Chipczynska stated the donation was “the most important gesture of the Polish state aimed at protecting Jewish heritage.”
By year’s end, draft legislation was pending in parliament that made it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to attribute to the nation or the state any responsibility for Nazi crimes or war crimes or other crimes against peace or humanity. Government officials stated the legislation was designed to deter public use of phrases like “Polish death or concentration camps,” instead of “Nazi German concentration camps in occupied Poland during World War II.” These officials said the former contradicted historical truth and harmed the country’s good name. Critics stated the law would violate freedom of expression, stifle academic freedom, harm Holocaust remembrance, and strain relations with Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
Crucifixes continued to be displayed in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as in many other public buildings, including public school classrooms.
In October President Duda signed into law a bill creating the National Freedom Institute – Center for Civil Society Development to support NGOs, including Catholic and other religiously affiliated groups. In response to a request by the human rights ombudsman, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights issued an opinion on the law. The OSCE office stated the legislation was discriminatory because it contained language focused on Christian heritage and “nurturing Polishness,” which might imply that “associations focusing on these issues may receive preferential treatment as opposed to other religious or believer communities or organizations.”
On August 4, the Union of Jewish Communities sent a letter to PiS Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski expressing deep concern over increased anti-Semitic attitudes, hate speech, and violent behavior, which it said left the group fearing for Jews’ future in the country, and asking for intensified government action. On November 17, Kaczynski met with Jewish community leaders to discuss their concerns. He stated he had been shocked upon hearing of recent anti-Semitic incidents and promised to help set up a meeting between Jewish community representatives and then Interior and Administration Minister Blaszczak.
In June the Muslim Religious Union, Muslim League, Muslim Association of Cultural Education, and Association of Muslim Students in Poland sent a written appeal to Sejm (lower house of parliament) Speaker Marek Kuchcinski to take actions to protect the Muslim minority. The letter stated negative references to Islam in media and political debate reinforced anti-Muslim attitudes and might increase anti-Muslim behavior. On September 21, the Sejm Committee on National and Ethnic Minorities reviewed the letter and asked the minister of internal affairs and administration to provide it with information on the scale of the problem and government actions to address it. At year’s end, the committee was waiting for a detailed response from the ministry.
On December 1, then-Interior and Administration Minister Blaszczak requested prosecutors review a 1999 video, “Game of Tag,” showing naked men and women playing tag and laughing in the gas chamber of the former Nazi Stutthof concentration camp, located approximately 22 miles east of Gdansk. In November several groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, wrote in protest to President Duda, asking who had authorized the video, what rules of conduct existed at the site, and whether the government had conducted an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the making of the video.
Piotr Tarnowski, the director of the state-run Stutthof Museum and Memorial, said one of his predecessors had given permission for the video based on a different script. An Israeli lawyer who helped identify the site where the video was recorded, David Schonberg, told the BBC that more important than the video itself was the “apparent indifference” to it in Poland.
Member of the European Parliament and PiS member Ryszard Czarnecki said on June 6, following a terrorist attack in London, that officials needed to protect the country from terrorist attacks by barring the entry of Muslim migrants. He added that the children of Muslim migrants, many of whom were European citizens, often carried out terrorist attacks after being trained by ISIS.
On June 8, in reference to a music festival in the country whose organizer said it was open to migrants in Germany, PiS posted on its official Twitter account, “Do you really want to have an event in Poland with the participation of Muslim immigrants?” and encouraged people to retweet the message.
On August 2, PiS member Bogdan Rzonca tweeted, “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust.” Several politicians, including a PiS deputy Sejm speaker, condemned the statement. Rzonca later apologized.
In June Human Rights Ombudsman Adam Bodnar acknowledged on state-run television channel TVP Info that his nation took part in the Holocaust, saying, “there is no doubt that the Germans were responsible for the Holocaust, but many nations took part in its implementation. Among them – and I say this with regret – the Polish nation.” Some government officials called for his resignation, and Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Dziedziczak called Bodnar’s comment “scandalous.” Bodnar later said he had meant “some Poles had committed crimes against Jews.”
On January13, President Duda hosted a holiday meeting with Jewish community leaders, including Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich. The president said he was extremely pleased Jewish culture was reviving and that so many Poles supported this resurgence. He added that the Jewish and Polish people had coexisted in the country for more than a thousand years, and Jews had contributed greatly to the development of the country’s culture and science.
In August Krystyna Pawlowicz, a PiS Member of Parliament, wrote on Facebook that the government should seek help for its claim for German reparations from “the best American Jewish law firms.”
On September 18, PiS leader Kaczynski denounced anti-Semitism as a dangerous phenomenon expressed through hostility toward Israel and praised the state of Israel at a ceremony honoring Poles who had protected Jews during the Holocaust.
In February the government’s Institute of National Remembrance published online what it described as the most complete list of Auschwitz extermination camp Nazi SS commanders and guards. The institute said it hoped some of the persons listed could still be brought to justice.
On June 15, then-Prime Minister Beata Szydlo attended and spoke at the 77th anniversary of the first deportation of Poles to Auschwitz at a ceremony at the site of the Nazi death camp.
On October 11, President Duda hosted a 75th anniversary commemoration of the establishment of the Zegota Council to Aid Jews. The council was an underground organization established for rescuing Jews in the German-occupied part of the country during WWII.
On November 15, speaking at the opening of the Jewish Historical Institute’s new exhibition on the Warsaw Ghetto’s Underground Archive, President Duda stated, “Our duty is to speak the truth about the extermination of Jews.” Historian and social activist Emanuel Ringelblum, who gathered documentary evidence of life in the Warsaw Ghetto and the fate of Jews under the Nazi occupation, created the archive in 1940.
On July 3-7, the Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre Center in Lublin, a local government institution that worked to preserve Jewish heritage in the city, held the first international reunion of Jewish Lublin residents and their descendants as part of a celebration of the 700th anniversary of the city’s founding. The gathering included a conference, workshops, and artistic events. Before WWII, Jews constituted one third of Lublin’s population.
On December 12, parliament hosted a ceremony in which newly sworn-in Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lit a candle in a “hanukiah,” or nine-branched candelabra, with Rabbi Shalom Stambler from the Chabad community in honor of the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The government continued to fund exchanges with national participants and U.S. and Israeli Jews to foster dialogue on restitution, the Holocaust, and interfaith issues.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. The evangelical Christian Mana Church stated a Setubal court’s imposition of a fine against the church and its founder violated its freedom of expression. An EU report issued in August stated non-Catholic religious groups encountered problems in ministering to persons in hospitals and prisons, and state schools had not adjusted their menus to accommodate religious minorities, especially Muslims. The government High Commission for Migration (ACM) sponsored activities to promote religious tolerance and acceptance, published religious texts, and organized education for teachers and workers interacting with persons of diverse religious backgrounds. The government Commission for Religious Freedom (CLR) established an annual prize for research on religious freedom in the country. The government granted citizenship during the year to 1,406 Sephardic descendants of Jews expelled during the Inquisition and to a total of 1,837 Sephardic descendants since the program’s inception in 2015. The government rejected one Sephardic citizenship application, and 6,962 other applications remained pending at year’s end. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa advocated religious tolerance and harmony at several public events.
With support from the EU, the Catholic Church launched the first private Catholic cable television channel in April, which broadcast domestically and to other Lusophone countries. There were two complaints of religious discrimination to a government-appointed religious advisory body in 2016, the most recent year for which data were available. The advisory body was still investigating the two complaints at year’s end.
U.S. embassy representatives met regularly with CLR and ACM officials and discussed the importance of mutual respect and understanding among religious communities and the integration of immigrants, many of whom belonged to religious minority groups. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with leaders of the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim communities to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, which may not be violated even if the government declares a state of emergency. It states no one shall be privileged, prejudiced, persecuted, or deprived of rights or exempted from civic obligations or duties because of religious beliefs or practices. The constitution states individuals may not be questioned by authorities about religious convictions or observance, with the exception of gathering statistical information that does not identify individuals, and in such cases individuals may not be prejudiced by refusal to reply. Churches and religious communities are independent from the state and have the freedom to determine their own organization and perform their own activities and worship. The constitution affords each religious community the freedom to teach its religion and use its own media to disseminate public information about its activities. It bars political parties from using names directly associated with, or symbols that may be confused with those of, religious groups. The constitution and the law recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds; they require conscientious objectors to perform equivalent alternative civilian service.
Religious groups may be organized in a variety of forms that have national, regional, or local character. A denomination may choose to organize as one national church or religious community or as several regional or local churches or religious communities. An international church or religious community may set up a representative organization of its adherents separate from the branch of the church or religious community existing in the country. A registered church or religious community may create subsidiary or affiliated organizations, such as associations, foundations, or federations.
All religious groups with an organized presence in the country may apply for registration with the registrar of religious corporate bodies in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). The requirements include providing the organization’s official name, which must be distinguishable from all other religious corporate bodies in the country; the organizing documents of the church or religious community associated with the group applying for registration; the address of the organization’s registered main office in the country; a statement of the group’s religious purposes; documentation of the organization’s assets; information on the organization’s formation, composition, rules, and activities; provisions for dissolution of the organization; and the appointment method and powers of the organization’s representatives. Subsidiary or affiliated organizations included in the parent group’s application are also registered; if not, they must register separately. The MOJ may reject a registration application if it fails to meet legal requirements, includes false documentation, or violates constitutional rights of religious freedom. In the case where an application is rejected by the MOJ, religious groups may appeal to the CLR within 30 days of receiving the MOJ’s decision.
The CLR is an independent, consultative body to parliament and the government, established by law. Its members include representatives of various religious groups in the country, such as the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, Evangelical Alliance, Israelite Community of Lisbon, Islamic Community of Lisbon, Hindu Community of Lisbon, and Aga Khan Foundation, as well as laypersons appointed by the MOJ. The Council of Ministers appoints its president. The CLR reviews and takes a position on all matters relating to the application of the law on religious freedom, including proposed amendments. It alerts the competent authorities, including the president, parliament, and others in the government, to cases involving religious freedom and discrimination, such as restrictions or prohibitions on the right to assembly and the holding of religious services; the destruction or desecration of religious property; assaults against members and clergy of religious groups; incitement of religious discord; hate speech; and violations of the rights of foreign missionaries. The CLR may file formal complaints at the national level with the ombudsman, an official position created by the constitution and supplemental legislation to defend the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, and at the international level with the European Court of Human Rights. The ombudsman has no legal enforcement power, but he or she is obligated to address complaints and provides an alternative remedy for dispute resolution.
Religious groups may register as religious corporations and receive tax-exempt status. They also receive the right to minister in prisons, hospitals, and military facilities; provide religious teaching in public schools; participate in broadcasting time on public television and radio; and national recognition of religious holidays. The government certifies religious ministers, who receive all the benefits of the social security system. Chaplaincies for military services, prisons, and hospitals are state-funded positions open to all registered religious groups. A taxpayer may allocate 5 percent of his or her tax payment to any registered religious group.
Religious groups may also register as unincorporated associations or private corporations, and in that form they may receive the same benefits granted to religious corporations. The process for registering as unincorporated associations or private corporations involves the same procedures as for religious corporations. There are no practical differences between associations and private corporations; the different categories distinguish how the groups are internally administered. Unregistered religious groups are not subject to penalties and may practice their religion but do not receive the benefits associated with registration.
By law, religious groups registered in the country for at least 30 years or internationally recognized for 60 years may obtain a higher registration status of “religion settled in the country.” To show they are established, religions must demonstrate an “organized social presence” for the required length of time. These groups receive government subsidies; may conclude “mutual interest” agreements with the state on issues such as education, culture, or other forms of cooperation; and may celebrate religious marriages that have effect in the state legal system. The government has mutual interest agreements with Jewish and Islamic religious bodies and a concordat with the Holy See that serves the same function for the Catholic Church.
Public secondary schools offer an optional survey course on world religions taught by lay teachers. Optional religious instruction is available at government expense if at least 10 students attend the class. Religious groups are responsible for designing the curriculum of the religious classes and providing and training the teachers, who are lay. Private schools are required to offer the same curriculum as public schools but may provide instruction in any religion at their expense. All schools, public and private, are required to accommodate the religious practices of students, including rescheduling tests if necessary.
The law prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of religion and requires reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious practices. According to the labor code, employees are allowed to take leave on their Sabbath and religious holidays, even if these are not nationally observed.
The law provides for the naturalization of Jewish descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In October the Mana Church, an evangelical Christian group, stated the Judicial Court of Setubal’s decision to fine the church and its founder, Apostle Jorge Tadeu, violated Tadeu’s freedom of expression. The court fined Tadeu after he spoke out against religious persecution, the closure of Christian churches, and local government corruption. According to the Mana Church, it appealed the Setubal court’s decision to the Superior Council of the Judiciary, but the council declined to reopen the case.
The EU’s nondiscrimination report on the country for 2016, issued in August, stated non-Catholic religious groups faced greater problems in ministering to persons in hospitals and prisons. According to the report, state schools had also not adapted their meals to meet the needs of students from minority religions, particularly Islam.
The ACM hosted events, activities, and debates, published books on religion to promote religious tolerance and acceptance, and provided education for teachers and workers interacting with individuals of diverse religious backgrounds. The ACM dedicated the month of January to the theme of “Migrations and Religions” in tribute to World Religion Day, celebrated annually on the third Sunday in January. The ACM highlighted harmony between religions through the development of closer relationships and better understanding among religious groups. The ACM made available a collection of documents, statistics, and other contents on this topic at its documentation center during the month. In May the ACM sponsored a study by Lusofona University on “Religious and Spiritual Worldviews – Educational Guide of Traditions in Portugal.” Available on the ACM website, the study highlighted the different religions in the country and was intended for use as a teaching tool to foster knowledge of religious diversity.
The state-run television channel RTP continued to air a half-hour religious program five days a week, with segments written by different registered religious groups and a weekly half-hour program highlighting activities of diverse religious groups. Participants in the programs included the Evangelical Alliance, Orthodox Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Islamic Community of Lisbon, Bahai Community, Old Catholic Church, Orthodox Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church, and Hindu Community.
The government reported that, of 8,800 applications received since 2015, it had approved the naturalization of 1,837 Sephardic descendants of Jews expelled from the country during the Inquisition, including 1,406 applications approved in 2017. The government had rejected one application, and 6,962 others remained pending. Beneficiaries of the program included individuals from Turkey (171), Israel (56), and Brazil (39). The Jewish community in Lisbon or Porto vetted each application, checking existing documentation of the applicants’ ancestors and making recommendations to the government.
On January 7, President Rebelo de Sousa participated in an ecumenical Presbyterian ceremony at St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland in Lisbon. The president joined the congregations of the Church of Scotland, Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and Romanian Orthodox Church to celebrate the Julian calendar Christmas. The president told reporters the visit was a “great honor in a spirit of unity, peace, and reunion.” Ukrainian priest Vasyl Bundzyak said the president’s attendance reflected his respect for the religious communities in the country, calling it a “grand gesture.”
On March 20, during a visit to an exhibition on the Jewish presence at the national archives in Lisbon, President Rebelo de Sousa praised the importance of the Jewish communities throughout the country’s history, calling the Inquisition and the persecution of Jews “a historical mistake.”
On April 27, President Rebelo de Sousa visited the Lisbon Central Mosque, hosted by Head Imam Sheikh David Munir and President of the Lisbon Islamic Community Abdool Magid A. Karim Vakil. The president praised the Islamic community as an example of a religious group that was integrated in society and said religious tolerance was ingrained in the country and its people.
In May the CLR announced the establishment of an annual Religious Freedom Prize for research in the area of religious freedom. The CLR committed to publishing the winning research paper and awarding the winner 5,000 euros ($6,000).
On May 26, the president’s office released a Ramadan statement to Muslims, conveying “fraternal greetings, sharing the universal values of tolerance and peace, and respect for diversity.”
The constitution prohibits restrictions on freedom of conscience and belief, as well as forcing an individual to espouse a religious belief contrary to the individual’s convictions. It stipulates all religions are independent from the state and have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes.” According to law, the state recognizes the “important role” of the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the history of the country. The law specifies a three-tiered classification of religious organizations, although civil associations wishing to perform religious functions may organize under a separate provision of the law. Religious organizations recognized as religious denominations under the law receive state support and permission to minister to persons in the armed forces, hospitals, retirement homes, public schools, mass media, penitentiaries, and orphanages. Religious minorities continued to report registration requirements limited their ability to function and restricted where they could bury their dead. There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially to the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community. As of December the government rejected 980 restitution claims for confiscated religious properties and approved 26. Minority religious groups continued to state that the national and local governments gave preference to the ROC, to report incidents of discrimination against them, and to object to government implementation of laws regarding religious instruction in schools. The naming of some streets, organizations, schools, and libraries after persons convicted of war crimes or crimes against humanity continued. Holocaust education remained optional in schools. Government leaders continued to speak out against anti-Semitism.
In October self-declared anti-Muslim activists interrupted a performance in the Cluj-Napoca Opera House during the recital of the Islamic call to prayer. Several mainstream media outlets depicted refugees and asylum seekers as Muslim “invaders.” Minority religious groups reported continued harassment of their congregations by ROC priests and adherents, including the denial of access to cemeteries. According to a report on hate speech, a considerable number of users and groups on social media advocated for the extermination of Jews or other violent acts. Members of the ROC praised convicted war criminals and Legionnaires. The media and the Jewish community reported several instances of vandalism of Jewish religious properties, including the destruction by unidentified vandals of 10 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Bucharest.
In meetings with the general secretary of the government, U.S. embassy officials raised continued concerns about the slow pace of the restitution process and the low number of properties restored to minority religious groups. Embassy officials facilitated meetings between the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and government officials to help speed the processes of property restitution and pensions for Holocaust survivors. The embassy supported the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Institute) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in their efforts to establish a museum of Jewish history. The Ambassador participated in commemorations of the Holocaust, speaking out against the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the country. Embassy representatives continued to meet with Greek Catholic priests to discuss ROC-Greek Catholic relations and incidents of discrimination. The Ambassador hosted several events for religious leaders to facilitate interreligious dialogue and understanding.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits restricting freedom of thought, opinion, conscience or religious beliefs, as well as forcing individuals to espouse a religious belief contrary to their convictions. It stipulates all religions are independent from the state and have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes” under terms defined by the law. The law specifies the state’s recognition of the “important role of the Romanian Orthodox Church” as well as the role of “other churches and denominations as recognized by the national history” of the country.
The constitution also states religious denominations shall be autonomous and enjoy state support, including the facilitation of religious assistance in the army, hospitals, penitentiaries, retirement homes, and orphanages. The law forbids public authorities or private legal entities from asking individuals to specify their religion, with the exception of the census.
The provisions of the law devoted to religion stipulate a three-tier system of religious classification with “religious denominations” at the highest level, followed by “religious associations,” and “religious groups” at the most basic level. Organizations in the top two tiers are legal entities, while religious groups are not. Under separate provisions of the law governing associations and foundations, civil associations may also engage in religious activities and have the status of legal entities.
By law, there are 18 religious organizations recognized as “religious denominations,” all of which were in existence at the time the specific law on religion was enacted in 2006. They include the ROC; Orthodox Serb Bishopric of Timisoara; Roman Catholic Church; Greek Catholic Church; Old Rite Russian Christian (Orthodox) Church; Reformed (Protestant) Church; Christian Evangelical Church; Romanian Evangelical Church; Evangelical Augustinian Church; Lutheran Evangelical Church; Unitarian Church; the Baptist Church; Pentecostal Church; Seventh-day Adventist Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Federation of Jewish Communities; Muslim Denomination (Islam); and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For additional organizations to obtain recognition as religious denominations, the law specifies they must demonstrate 12 years of continuous activity since the law’s passage, which cannot occur before 2018. After it demonstrates 12 years of continuous activity, a religious association is eligible to apply for the status of religious denomination if it has a membership of 0.1 percent of the population (approximately 21,500 persons) or more.
The law defines a religious association as an organization of at least 300 citizens who share and practice the same faith and that has attained legal status through registration with the Registry of Religious Associations in the office of the clerk of the court where the main branch of the association is located. To register, religious associations must submit to the government their members’ personal data (e.g., names, addresses, personal identification numbers, and signatures), which the law says may not be shared with other public institutions or used in any other way. To operate as religious associations, organizations also require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations, which is subordinated to the Prime Minister’s Office. At year’s end, 33 entities with diverse religious affiliations were registered as religious associations, up from 27 in 2016.
The law defines a religious group as a group of individuals who share the same beliefs. Religious groups do not have to register to practice their religion and do not need approval from the national secretariat to operate.
Civil associations engaged in religious activities function like secular associations and foundations; however, they do not receive the same benefits as religious denominations or religious associations. Civil associations may not qualify under the numerical/administrative criteria (300 members) for recognition as religious associations or may choose not to apply for such recognition. These associations do not require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations to operate. Their registration falls under the provisions of law governing the establishment of foundations, associations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which require a minimum membership of three individuals. Such civil associations are not required to submit their members’ personal data.
Religious denominations are eligible for state financial and other support. They have the right to teach religion classes in public schools, receive government funds to build places of worship, partially pay clergy salaries with state funds, broadcast religious programming on radio and television, and apply for broadcasting licenses for their own stations. Under the law, the amount of state funding a denomination receives is determined by the number of adherents reported in the most recent census, as well as by “the religious denomination’s actual needs.”
Religious associations do not receive government funding, but both they and religious denominations receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes. Religious groups do not receive either government funding or tax exemptions.
Both religious denominations and religious associations may own or rent property, publish or import religious literature, proselytize, establish and operate schools or hospitals, own cemeteries, and receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes. Religious groups have no legal status to engage in such activities; however, they may practice their religious beliefs, including in public.
Civil associations engaged in religious activities may engage in religious worship. While they do not receive the same tax exemptions or other benefits granted to religious denominations and religious associations, they may receive the tax advantages and other benefits accruing to civil associations and foundations.
Legal provisions allow local authorities to fund places of worship and theological schools belonging to religious denominations, including providing funding for staff salaries and building maintenance, renovation, and conservation or construction of places of worship. No similar provisions exist for religious associations or other associations engaged in religious activities; however, these associations may receive funding through legal provisions for civil associations and foundations.
The law entitles all types of religious organizations to bury their deceased members in cemeteries belonging to other religious organizations – with the exception of Jewish and Muslim cemeteries – in localities where they do not have cemeteries of their own and where there is no public cemetery. Public cemeteries must have separate sections for each religious denomination if requested by the denominations operating in the locality.
The law allows clergy from recognized religious denominations to minister to military personnel. This includes the possibility of clergy functioning within the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, Intelligence Service, Foreign Intelligence Service, Protection and Guard Service, Special Telecommunications Service, and General Directorate for Penitentiaries. Under various other arrangements, clergy of recognized religious denominations, and in some cases religious associations, may enter hospitals, orphanages, and retirement homes to undertake religious activities. Religious denominations and religious associations may undertake activities in penitentiaries, subject to approval by the director of the detention facility.
The law provides for the restitution of religious properties confiscated between 1940 and 1989, during World War II (WWII) and the ensuing communist regime, as long as the properties are in the possession of the state. These two regimes confiscated the property of both individuals and religious denominations. The Jewish community was forced to “donate” property during WWII and afterward. In accordance with communist-era legislation on the status of religions, if the majority of a “local community of believers” changed their religion, the properties of the church they had left followed them to the new church. The communist regime also outlawed the Greek Catholic Church, forced church members to convert to Orthodoxy, and confiscated all church property. It transferred all places of worship and parish houses to the ROC and most other properties (land and buildings) to the state.
Under the law, if a confiscated property is used “in the public interest,” such as for a school, hospital, or museum, and is returned to its previous owner, the current occupants are allowed to stay in it for 10 years after the restitution decision and pay a capped rent. The law does not address the general return of properties currently used as places of worship. Although the provisions of the law on restitution state a separate law will be adopted to address such cases, to date there is no such law.
A separate statute on the reinstatement of the Greek Catholic Church regulates the restitution of properties to the Greek Catholic Church from the ROC. Restitution decisions are made by a joint commission representing the two churches and based on “the will of the believers from the communities that possess these properties.” The Greek Catholic Church may pursue court action if attempts to obtain restitution of its properties through dialogue are unsuccessful.
The law establishes a points system of compensation in cases where in-kind restitution is not possible. Religious groups may use the points only to bid on other properties in auctions organized by the National Commission for Real Estate Compensation (NCREC). The NCREC also validates compensation decisions of other local or central authorities, including those of the Special Restitution Commission (SRC), which decides on restitution claims filed by religious denominations and national minorities. The law establishes a 240-day deadline by which claimants must submit additional evidence in their cases at the specific request of the entity in charge of resolving their restitution claim. If a claimant does not meet the deadline, the administrative authority may reject the case. The authority may extend the deadline by an additional 120 days if the claimants prove they made a concerted effort to obtain the evidence, usually in the possession of other state authorities, but were unable to do so.
The law nullifies acts of forced “donations” of Jewish property during WWII and the communist era, and lowers the burden of proof for the previous owners or their heirs to obtain restitution. The law designates the present-day Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania as the legitimate inheritor of forfeited communal Jewish property and accords priority to private claims by Holocaust survivors. The law does not address heirless or unclaimed property left by Holocaust victims.
By law, religious education in schools is optional. Each of the 18 legally recognized religious denominations is entitled to offer religion classes, based on its own religious teachings, in schools. A denomination may offer classes regardless of the number of students adhering to the denomination in a school. The law allows for exceptions where the right of students to attend religion classes cannot be implemented “for objective reasons,” without specifying what these reasons may be.
Under the law, parents of students under 18 years of age are required to request their children’s participation in religion classes, while students 18 and older may themselves ask to attend religion classes. Although a student normally takes a school course based on the religious teachings of the denomination to which the student belongs, it is also possible for a student to take a religion course offered by his or her denomination outside the school system and bring a certificate from the denomination to receive academic credit.
Religion teachers are government employees, but each religious denomination approves the appointment and retention of the teachers of its religion classes.
The law forbids religious proselytizing in schools. If teachers proselytize, the school management decides the punishment based on the conclusions of an internal committee.
The law states the religion of a child who has turned 14 may not be changed without the child’s consent, and from age 16 an individual has the right to choose her/his religion.
The law bans discrimination on religious grounds in all areas of public life. It also bans religious defamation and stirring conflict on religious grounds, as well as public offenses against religious symbols. Penalties may include fines varying from 1,000 to 100,000 lei ($260 to $25,800), depending on whether the victim is an individual or a community.
The law prohibits establishment of fascist, Legionnaire, racist, or xenophobic organizations, which it defines in part as groups that promote violence, religiously motivated hatred, or anti-Semitism. Penalties for establishing such organizations range from three to 10 years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights. Criminal liability is waived if the person involved in establishing such an organization informs authorities before the organization begins its activity; penalties are halved if the individual helps authorities with the criminal investigation. Legislation also makes manufacturing, selling, distributing, owning with intent to distribute, and using Legionnaire symbols illegal. Penalties range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment.
Publicly denying, contesting, approving, justifying, or minimizing, in an “obvious manner” as determined by a judge, the Holocaust is punishable by six months’ to three years’ imprisonment or by a fine, depending on circumstances, of up to 200,000 lei ($51,500). Publicly promoting the cult of persons convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes may incur fines and prison terms ranging from six months to three years and from six months to five years if done online. The same penalties apply to publicly promoting fascist, Legionnaire, racist, or xenophobic ideas, worldviews, or doctrines.
The law allows religious workers from legally recognized religious organizations to enter and remain in the country under an extended-stay visa. Visa applicants must receive approval by the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs and submit evidence they represent religious organizations legally established in the country. The secretariat may extend such visas for up to five years.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). On May 25, the government approved a memorandum to clarify how the government would include the working definition of anti-Semitism into professional training programs and in the civics studies curricula, adopted by consensus at the IHRA Plenary meeting in Bucharest one year earlier.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government approved recognition of several religious groups as religious associations but rejected the applications of others. Minority religious groups, in particular, continued to object to the legal classification system for religious organizations. There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially reports from the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community, and the number of agency and court decisions returning properties remained low. Minority religious groups continued to state that the national and local governments gave preference to the ROC, to report incidents of discrimination against them, and to object to government implementation of laws regarding religious instruction in schools. The naming of some streets, organizations, schools, and libraries after persons convicted of Nazi-era war crimes or crimes against humanity continued. Prosecutions for anti-Semitic speech and Holocaust denial remained rare, while Holocaust education remained optional in schools. Government leaders continued to speak out against anti-Semitism, and the government transferred property to the Wiesel Institute to establish a museum on the history of Romanian Jewry.
As of December, the government approved six applications for religious association status during the year, all of which were Christian associations. In one case, the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations did not issue an advisory opinion because the submitted documentation did not meet the criteria established by law. The establishing act and the statute of the association that did not receive the advisory opinion expressed the will of only seven members and not 300, as required by law, and the official name of the association was not used consistently in all the documents submitted. Groups whose applications were rejected could reapply once they had prepared the necessary documents to complete their applications.
Bahai leaders continued to seek amendment of the law to include provisions for the burial of deceased persons who did not belong to one of the 18 recognized denominations; Bahais were registered as a religious association and not as a denomination.
Religious groups continued to state they viewed the 300-person membership requirement and the need to submit their members’ personal data for registration as a religious association as discriminatory because other types of associations only required three members and did not have to submit the personal data of their members. They also continued to criticize the three-tier classification system for religious organizations.
In May the media reported two persons found dead in their home in Dobresti, a village in Dolj County, were swiftly buried without any religious ceremony following a decision by the mayor. The vice mayor reportedly transported the bodies in plastic bags via bulldozer and dumped them into an unmarked grave on the outskirts of the cemetery. The mayor stated he was concerned about health risks associated with decaying bodies and there was not enough time to call a priest or buy a coffin and a cross.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in several areas of the country, some members encountered opposition to their activities and threats from ROC priests, police, and public authorities. In July the mayor of Balilesti village in Arges County and a local ROC priest threatened representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and forced them out of the village. Following a complaint, police instructed the mayor and the priest to respect the law on religious freedom. In July an ROC priest from the village of Tonea, Calarasi County, accused two members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses of distributing religious “propaganda” and threatened to use physical violence against them.
The same month two ROC priests from the village of Radacineni, Valcea County, said to members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses the priests would “protect their parish with their own blood” and threatened to use a sword against them if they came again to the village. Following complaints submitted by Jehovah’s Witnesses, police fined the priests. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also said a local police agent from Margineni, Prahova County, had asked two members of the religious group to identify themselves and said in front of a crowd gathered by an ROC priest the two could be terrorists. After escorting the members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to police headquarters, the Jehovah’s Witnesses said a police agent disapproved of their “activity” and took no measures when the ROC priest threatened to force them out of the village with the help of locals. The prosecutor’s office attached to the Prahova Tribunal dismissed the criminal complaint submitted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the case. Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that in the village of Raucesti, Neamt County, agents of the National Police urged two of the religious group’s representatives to leave the village and told them they needed a permit from local authorities to carry out religious activities. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a criminal complaint regarding this case. At the end of the year, the case remained pending before the prosecutor’s office attached to the Neamt Tribunal.
A Roman Catholic official said the National Audio-Visual Council, a government-appointed entity that monitors broadcast content and issues broadcasting licenses, repeatedly rejected requests for local radio licenses to allow the Catholic “Radio Maria” network to expand the number of stations on which it broadcast.
In 2016, a former city hall candidate, Catalin Berenghi, filed a court case to annul the 2015 government decision transferring land in Bucharest to the Muslim community in order for it to build a mosque. Beginning in May, an online campaign generated approximately 8,000 motions from individuals desiring to become additional plaintiffs in the court case, thereby delaying the court’s consideration of the original motion. As of December, the case was pending before the Bucharest Court of Appeal.
In May the Roman Catholic Archbishopric of Bucharest criticized the mayor’s office for not enforcing court rulings to demolish a 19-story building constructed within the protected zone around the Roman Catholic Saint Joseph Cathedral, a designated historical monument. According to media reports, Mayor Gabriela Firea stated on a television show she would ask the residents of Bucharest, via an opinion poll, if they agreed to spend millions of euros to demolish the building.
In September the Bucharest City Council allocated one million euros ($1.2 million) for the continued construction of the Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral, the patriarchal cathedral of the ROC. The president of Save Romania Union in Bucharest criticized the decision, stating the cathedral did not represent a priority for Bucharest due to more pressing needs, such as addressing the city’s traffic congestion; several journalists agreed with her opinion.
As of December, the National Authority for Property Restitution (NAPR), the government agency responsible for overseeing the restitution process, reported the SRC had approved the restitution of three “immovable properties” (land or buildings) to religious denominations, approved compensation in 26 cases, and rejected 980 other claims during the year. In 231 cases, the filers withdrew, redirected, or attached their claims to other files. According to data provided by NAPR and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of cases NAPR reviewed decreased 37 percent from 1,955 in 2016 to 1,227.
According to the NAPR, as of December religious groups appealed 85 decisions by the SRC to the courts during the year. The Roman Catholic Church made 31 appeals; the ROC made 16; the Greek Catholics made eight appeals; the Reformed Church made four appeals; and the Jewish community made 12 appeals. Information concerning court decisions on these cases was unavailable.
The NAPR reviewed 744 claims submitted by the Greek Catholic Church during the year but did not restore any property to the church or grant it compensation in any cases. The NAPR continued to report the reason for the SRC’s rejection of some claims for restitution of Greek Catholic properties was that the previous transfer of those properties to the ROC occurred under the communist regime. According to the NAPR, these properties did not belong to the state and therefore the state could not return them.
The Greek Catholic Church reported continued court delays on restitution lawsuits. Two court decisions on Greek Catholic restitution cases were reported during the year. In both cases, the courts rejected restitution claims, but a final decision was pending at year’s end.
Restitution of a property in Bixad, previously restored to the Greek Catholic Church by the government and confirmed by earlier court decisions, continued to be delayed while courts considered the case anew, following a 2016 decision by the Alba Tribunal, a county-level court, allowing the Satu Mare County Council to revive its claim for ownership of the property. At year’s end, the case was still pending.
Two cases filed in 2016 by the Greek Catholic Church with the European Court of Human Rights for restitution of churches in Bistrita and Breb remained pending. In each case, the Church’s complaint concerned court decisions awarding Greek Catholic property to the ROC based on census data showing Greek Catholics as a minority.
Although the government did not issue regulations for implementing new property restitution legislation passed in 2016, which granted priority to cases involving Holocaust survivors, the NAPR approved priority status for the 50 such applications it had received by August. The NAPR awarded compensation to Holocaust survivors in two cases and requested additional documents for the remaining 48 cases.
The Caritatea Foundation, the NGO established by the Federation of Jewish Communities and the WJRO to oversee Jewish communal property claims, reported the SRC had approved nine pending claims as of August – all via compensation – and rejected 107 others. In 62 other cases, claimants withdrew their requests. No new claims were submitted during the year. The foundation stated the SRC continued to fear assuming responsibility for restitution and preferred to pass decisions on to the courts. The foundation also continued to state the claims procedure was overly bureaucratic and unreasonable, in particular because the SRC often requested the submission of numerous additional documents, giving Jewish claimants little time to meet the 120-day deadline for document submission.
The Caritatea Foundation also said the NCREC continued to invalidate previous positive decisions for compensation by the SRC, citing the case of a Jewish community property in Galati, which remained pending following the NCREC’s denial of previously awarded compensation due to a name change of the street where the property had been located.
The Reformed, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, and Evangelical Lutheran churches said the government continued to reject their restitution claims on the grounds the entities registered as the former property owners were not the contemporary churches. Church leaders said the communist regime had dismantled the former church entities while confiscating their property, meaning the former property owners no longer existed as such but the contemporary churches, as the successors to the dismantled churches, were in effect the same entities whose property had been seized. Fifty claims submitted by the Roman Catholic Church were resolved as of year’s end. The government decided to grant compensation in three cases, 38 claims were denied, and in nine cases the claimants renounced, redirected their claims, or annexed them to other files. Twenty-five claims submitted by the Reformed Church were reviewed and 17 were denied; in seven cases, the plaintiffs either renounced, redirected their claims, or annexed them to other files; in one case, the government granted compensation. During the year, the government reviewed and denied the four pending claims of the Unitarian Church. One claim for restitution filed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church was resolved as of December, and the government granted compensation.
The Roman Catholic Church’s appeal of the SRC’s 2015 rejection of its claim for restitution of the Batthyaneum Library and an astronomical institute in Alba Iulia remained pending with the court. Greek Catholic priests continued to state that local authorities did not grant construction permits for places of worship, even though there were no apparent legal grounds for denying them. Greek Catholics attributed the delayed issuance of permits to pressure from the ROC.
The percentage of schoolchildren opting to take religion classes remained at almost 90 percent and, according to the media, NGOs, and parents’ associations, continued to be the result of manipulation and pressure by the ROC as well as the failure of school directors to offer parents alternatives to the religion classes. Observers reported school inspectorates did not enforce a ministerial order mandating annual submission of requests to take religion classes and instead considered children’s initial requests to be valid for an entire four-year study cycle.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church reported schools continued to schedule exams on Saturdays without providing the option for Seventh-day Adventist students, for whom Saturday is the Sabbath, to take the exams on another day.
In September, 20 NGOs sent a public letter to the Ministry of Education requesting a ban on religious services during the opening of the school year. The NGO letter stated children were “forced” to take part in religious services organized in schools, which represented a “serious violation of religious freedom.”
Minority religious groups, including the Christian Evangelical Church, reported authorities continued to allow only the ROC to play an active role in the annual opening ceremonies at schools and other community events and usually did not invite other religious groups to attend such ceremonies.
In public speeches, some politicians and the media continued to equate Romanian Orthodoxy with national identity. A National Liberal Party deputy, Daniel Gheorghe, said in October that the Orthodox Church was the “spinal column of the Romanian nation.”
Religious groups reported military chaplains continued to be ROC priests with the exception of one Roman Catholic priest and one pastor from the Evangelical Alliance.
The government-established Elie Wiesel Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania reported prosecution of anti-Semitic speech and Holocaust denial remained a rare occurrence. According to statistics released by the government, during the year, the national-level Prosecutor General’s Office compiled a list of 42 cases to be resolved. Of those cases, the office reportedly resolved one case through a waiver of criminal prosecution (defined as there being no public interest in prosecution) and dropped 12 other cases.
According to the Wiesel Institute, the delay in the prosecution of cases continued due to lengthy investigations. As of October, Gorj police, under the supervision of the Targu Jiu prosecutor’s office, continued to investigate a case from 2014 based on a complaint from the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism (MCA), an independent NGO, concerning a lampshade posted for sale online and advertised as being made of “Jewish skin.”
The Wiesel Institute reported local authorities continued to name some streets, organizations, schools, and libraries after persons convicted of Nazi-era war crimes or crimes against humanity and to allow the erection of statues and busts depicting persons convicted of war crimes. The Wiesel Institute asked city authorities in Cluj-Napoca to rename a street named after Radu Gyr, a commander of the Legionnaire movement and apologist for anti-Semitism who was convicted of war crimes. As of December the local government had not changed the name of the street.
According to the Wiesel Institute, the committee for renaming streets within the Bucharest prefect’s office recommended against the renaming of a street honoring Mircea Vulcanescu, a cabinet member in the government of WWII leader Ion Antonescu who supported anti-Semitic policies and was convicted as a war criminal. In May the Bucharest Tribunal ruled Vulcanescu’s conviction for war crimes in 1948 was politically motivated because he had opposed the communist regime. Several academics criticized the tribunal’s decision, stating Vulcanescu’s original conviction was based on his activity as a member of the Antonescu cabinet and not on his opposition to the communist regime. In October the Ministry of Finance appealed the decision; the case remained pending in the Court of Appeal at the end of the year.
The government continued to implement the recommendations of the 2004 International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Commission) Report and to cooperate with the USHMM in promoting Holocaust education. The Wiesel Institute continued to organize training sessions for history teachers, carry out educational activities for students, and inform the public about the Holocaust.
Despite the government’s commitment to cooperate with the USHMM to promote Holocaust education, observers reported the general history curricula continued not to provide a mandatory class on the country’s Holocaust history. The high school course “History of the Jews – The Holocaust” remained optional. During the 2016-17 school year, 2,894 students in 75 schools enrolled in this course, a number that observers considered extremely low when compared with the total student population.
In May the Wiesel Institute took possession of a building in central Bucharest transferred to it by the Bucharest General Council for establishment of a new museum on the history of the country’s Jewish community. The Ministry of Defense promised to facilitate the transfer of historical artifacts to the Wiesel Institute for use in the museum.
Pursuant to its pledge to implement the recommendations of the 2004 International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Commission) Report, the government again commemorated the annual National Holocaust Remembrance Day in October, marking the day when the Romanian authorities began deporting the country’s Jews to Transnistria, with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest. The president and other government officials made public statements against anti-Semitism during the year.
Following vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in Bucharest in April, then-Prime Minister Grindeanu said, “I firmly condemn the serious act of vandalism that occurred at the beginning of this week in the greatest Jewish cemetery in Bucharest. Anti-Semitic acts and vandalism are unacceptable.” In June President Iohannis participated in an awards ceremony in the United States hosted by the Global Forum of the American Jewish Committee. After receiving the “Light Unto the Nations” distinction, he said, “We cannot allow Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism to affect the health of democracies.”
The Wiesel Institute continued to organize training courses on the history of the Holocaust for teachers, police officers, and other professionals. In April the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a conference on the recently adopted working definition of anti-Semitism by the IHRA. During the conference, NGO representatives, leaders of the Jewish community, and academics discussed the implications of the working definition and the way law enforcement, academics, and educators can use it. On May 25, the government approved a memorandum stipulating measures to be taken by the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior, law enforcement authorities, and Ministry of Education to include the working definition in their professional training programs and in the civics studies curricula.
In an article published by the privately owned Adevarul newspaper, Radu Preda, who is the executive president of the government-sponsored Institute for Investigating Communist Crimes, which studies the former communist regime, said the dismantling of the Greek Catholic Church by Stalin was “God’s pedagogy.”
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and states the country is not bound to any particular faith. In March the requirement for registering a new religious group rose to 50,000 adherents from 20,000 following a parliamentary vote overturning a previous presidential veto of the new membership requirement. The 50,000-member requirement prevented some groups from attaining official status as religious groups. Some of these groups were able to utilize the registration procedures for civic associations to obtain the legal status to perform economic and public functions. Unregistered groups, especially Muslims, continued to report difficulties in ministering to their adherents and in obtaining permits to build places of worship. Members of parliament, especially from opposition parties, continued to make anti-Muslim statements. At several times during the year, police filed charges against members of the People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) for producing materials defaming minority religious beliefs and for Holocaust denial.
Muslim community members continued to report anti-Muslim hate speech on social media. Christian groups and other organizations described in the press as far-right continued to organize gatherings and commemorations of the World War II fascist state and to praise its leaders, although without statements formally denying the Holocaust. The Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia (UZZNO) and the minister of culture criticized a video produced by the Matica Slovenska cultural heritage organization about the founding of the fascist World War II Slovak state for downplaying its crimes against Jews. According to human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the legal requirements for registration of religious groups continued to make it difficult for unregistered groups to alter negative public attitudes toward minority religious groups.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials to continue discussions of the treatment of minority religious groups, including the new law requiring 50,000 members for a religious group to qualify for registration, as well as the increase in public expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with registered and unregistered religious organizations and NGOs to discuss hate speech directed against Muslims and the impact of the new membership requirement for registration of religious groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and affiliation, as well as the right to change religious faith or to refrain from religious affiliation. The constitution states the country is not bound to any particular faith and religious groups shall manage their affairs independently from the state, including in providing religious education and establishing clerical institutions. The constitution guarantees the right to practice one’s faith privately or publicly, either alone or in association with others. It states the exercise of religious rights may be restricted only by measures “necessary in a democratic society for the protection of public order, health, and morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The law prohibits establishing, supporting, and promoting groups dedicated to the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms as well as “demonstrating sympathy” with such groups. These crimes are punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law requires religious groups to register with the Department of Church Affairs in the Ministry of Culture in order to employ spiritual leaders to perform officially recognized functions. Clergy from unregistered religious groups do not officially have the right to perform weddings or to minister to their members in prisons or government hospitals. Unregistered groups may not establish religious schools or receive government funding.
In January the parliament voted to override a presidential veto of legislation originally passed in 2016 to raise the registration requirement for new organizations seeking to register as religious groups to 50,000 adherents from the 20,000 previously required. The new 50,000 requirement entered into force in March. The 50,000 must be adults, either citizens or permanent residents, and must submit an “honest declaration” attesting to their membership, knowledge of the articles of faith and basic tenets of the religion, personal identity numbers and home addresses, and support for the group’s registration to the Ministry of Culture. All groups registered before these requirements came into effect were grandfathered in as officially recognized religions; no new religious groups attained recognition since then. The law makes no distinction between churches and registered religious groups but recognizes as “churches” those registered groups calling themselves churches.
Registration confers the legal status necessary to perform economic functions such as opening a bank account or renting property, and civil functions such as presiding at burial ceremonies. The 18 registered churches and religious groups are: the Apostolic Church, the Bahai Community, The Brotherhood Unity of Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Brotherhood Church, Czechoslovak Hussite Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, Evangelical Methodist Church, Greek Catholic Church, Christian Congregations (Krestanske zbory), Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church, Reformed Christian Church, Roman Catholic Church, Old Catholic Church, and Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities. Registered groups and churches receive annual state subsidies. All but the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, Greek Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Reformed Christian Church, and Roman Catholic Church have fewer than 50,000 members, as they registered before this requirement came into effect.
The Department of Church Affairs of the Ministry of Culture oversees relations between religious groups and the state and manages the distribution of state subsidies to religious groups and associations. The ministry may not legally intervene in the internal affairs of religious groups or direct their activities.
A group without the 50,000 adult adherents required to obtain status as an official religious group may seek registration as a civic association, which provides the legal status necessary to carry out activities such as operating a bank account or entering into a contract. In doing so, however, the group may not call itself a church or identify itself officially as a religious group, since the law governing registration of citizen associations specifically excludes religious groups from obtaining this status. In order to register a civic association, three citizens are required to provide their names and addresses and the name, goal organizational structure, executive bodies, and budgetary rules of the group.
A concordat with the Holy See provides the legal framework for relations between the government and the domestic Catholic Church and the Holy See. Two corollaries cover the operation of Catholic religious schools, the teaching of Catholic religious education as a subject, and Catholic priests serving as military chaplains. An agreement between the government and 11 of the 17 other registered religious groups provides similar status to those groups. The unanimous approval of the existing parties to the agreement is required for other religious groups to obtain similar benefits.
The law does not allow burial earlier than 48 hours following death, even for religious groups whose traditions mandate an earlier burial.
All public elementary school students must take a religion or an ethics class, depending on personal or parental preferences. Individual schools and teachers decide what material to teach in each religion class. Although the content of the courses in most schools is Catholicism, parents may ask a school to include teachings of different faiths. Private and religious schools define their own content for religion courses. In both public and private schools, religion class curricula do not mention unregistered groups or some of the smaller registered groups, and unregistered groups may not teach their faiths at schools. Teachers from a registered religious group normally teach about the tenants of their own faith, although they may teach about other faiths as well. The government pays the salaries of religion teachers in public schools.
The law criminalizes issuance, possession, and dissemination of extremist materials, including those defending, supporting, or instigating hatred, violence, or unlawful discrimination against a group of persons on the basis of their religion. Such criminal activity is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment.
The law requires public broadcasters to allocate airtime for registered religious groups but not for unregistered groups.
The law prohibits the defamation of a person or group’s belief as a criminal offense punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law prohibits Holocaust denial, including questioning, endorsing, or excusing the Holocaust. Violators face sentences of up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits denial of crimes committed by the prior fascist and communist regimes.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Political parties, including the largest party represented in parliament, Direction – Social Democracy (Smer), stated they supported the new law increasing the number of members of religious groups required for registration. They also stated they had overridden the presidential veto due to explicit concern over Islam. In January Prime Minister Fico stated a “unified Muslim community” within the country’s territory would be a “constant source of security risk,” which justified a refusal to accept migrants under the European Commission’s refugee resettlement program.
Opposition parties continued to express anti-Muslim views. In a February print interview, Richard Sulik, the leader of Freedom and Solidarity, the second largest political party in parliament and the largest opposition party, stated Christianity was “better” than Islam; Islam was an “aggressive religion,” it was not compatible with Slovak culture, and “we are not all equal.”
In February LSNS Member of Parliament (MP) Milan Mazurek stated in parliament that Islam was “nothing other than the work of the devil” and claimed Islam allowed pedophilia, zoophilia, and necrophilia.
In April during a parliamentary debate on a proposed ban on mosques, Sme Rodina MP Milan Krajniak stated most European Muslims wanted to change the political system in Europe into “something totalitarian,” or an Islamic theocracy. He said practicing Muslims who visited mosques condoned terrorist attacks significantly more than nonpracticing Muslims. During the same parliamentary debate, LSNS Chairman and MP Marian Kotleba said the real problem was “Zionist” politicians, “many of them raised in synagogues,” who he said had brought the Muslims into the country.
During November regional elections, the LSNS won two of 416 seats in regional assemblies, and Kotleba lost his reelection campaign for the Banska Bystrica governorship. Kotleba and other LSNS candidates received more than 100,000 votes in total and retained 14 of 150 seats in the national parliament. In May prosecutors took steps to ban the party as a threat to the country’s democratic system. At year’s end, the Supreme Court was addressing the prosecutor general’s move to dissolve the LSNS for violation of the constitution and other laws.
There continued to be no resolution to the registration application of the Christian Fellowship as of the end of the year. The Ministry of Culture reportedly continued its consideration of additional expert opinions over whether it should reverse its 2007 rejection of the original application, which was based on expert opinion saying the group promoted hatred toward other religious groups.
The government again allocated approximately 40 million euros ($48 million) in annual state subsidies to the 18 registered religious groups. The basis for each allocation was the number of clergy each group had, and a large portion of each group’s subsidy continued to be used for payment of the group’s clergy. The Expert Commission on Financing of Religious Groups and Societies, an advisory body within the Ministry of Culture, continued discussions with representatives of registered religious groups about changes in the model to be used for their future funding, with the stated aim of developing a new financing model based on the principles of “justice, transparency, solidarity, and independence.”
NGOs and unregistered religious groups reported they continued to have difficulties altering negative public attitudes towards smaller, unregistered religious organizations, because of the social stigma associated with not having the same legal benefits accorded to registered religions.
Members of registered Christian churches said stringent registration requirements limited religious freedom by preventing dissent within churches. Dissenting members stymied in attempts to reform official theological positions might normally split off to form their own church, but the difficulty in registering a new religion prevented such an action.
The Muslim community reported the lack of registration meant it continued to be unable to employ an imam formally. Muslim community leaders stated prisons and detention facilities continued to prevent their spiritual representatives from gaining access to their adherents. Members of the Muslim community also continued to report the lack of official registration made obtaining the necessary construction permits for prayer rooms and religious sites more difficult, although there was no law prohibiting unregistered groups from obtaining such permits.
The Ministry of Culture’s cultural grant program continued to allocate money for the upkeep of religious monuments.
Jewish community leaders continued to criticize the Nation’s Memory Institute (UPN), a state-chartered institution, for reportedly downplaying the role of prominent World War II-era figures in supporting anti-Semitic policies.
In January LSNS MP Stanislav Mizik issued a statement on LSNS social media criticizing President Andrej Kiska for giving state awards to individuals of Jewish origin. Mizik’s statement said important Slovak historical figures had a negative perception of Jews, “because they impoverished the Slovak nation, and because of usury.” In April police charged Mizik with producing extremist materials and defamation of nation, race, and belief, in connection with the comments. Criminal proceedings were pending at year’s end.
In July police charged LSNS Chair Kotleba with supporting movements that promoted the suppression of rights and freedoms and spread religious hatred, after he made an 1,488 euro ($1,800) donation from the party in March to a family in need. Experts stated the amount was a symbolic representation of a 14-word white supremacist phrase and the numeric representation of a salute to Hitler.
In August police charged Marian Magat, who ran as an LSNS candidate in the 2016 parliamentary elections and was described by the press as a far-right radical, with Holocaust denial related to online content published between 2013 and 2016, which praised Adolf Hitler and downplayed the Holocaust. Criminal proceedings were pending at year’s end.
In September parliament rejected a liberal opposition amendment to reduce the minimum waiting period for burial following death, from 48 hours to 24 hours, specifically designed to accommodate the rights of the Jewish community.
In March President Kiska and Prime Minister Robert Fico participated in a commemoration at the Poprad train station of the 75th anniversary of the first transport of Slovak Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In his speech, Prime Minister Fico said the World War II Slovak state had been a puppet of Hitler’s Germany and remained unworthy of admiration today because key representatives of the regime had helped facilitate the deportation of Slovak citizens, including women and children, to Nazi death camps.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs in public and private. It declares all religious communities shall enjoy equal rights and prohibits the incitement of religious hatred or intolerance. The law does not require religious groups to register with the government to engage in religious activities, but registration is necessary to obtain status as legal entities, preferential tax treatment, and social benefits, such as social security contributions for clergy. Representatives of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) visited the country in March and continued to engage the government regarding remaining unresolved Jewish claims for restitution. The Ministry of Culture (MOC) sponsored two interfaith dialogues, one on providing spiritual services in hospitals and the other on circumcision and the spiritual needs of Muslims in the military.
In April Bernard Brscic, an economist and former state secretary in a previous prime minister’s cabinet, made inflammatory anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim remarks during a television interview, referring to the “so-called” Holocaust and “an invasion of Muslim…hordes.” The state prosecutor was investigating whether he should have been prosecuted for hate speech. In January vandals defaced a Catholic chapel on Smarna Gora hill above Ljubljana with graffiti reading, “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic). Police had not made any arrests in the case by year’s end. Muslim and Catholic leaders condemned the act, and National Assembly Speaker Milan Brglez condemned the vandalism as an “outrageous act of intolerance against believers.” Construction continued in Ljubljana on the country’s first mosque, but completion was delayed due to a shortage of funds. The Muslim community anticipated opening the mosque in 2018.
U.S. embassy officers continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for upholding religious freedom, including the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities. In observance of Religious Freedom Day in January, the Ambassador hosted a luncheon for leaders of the major religious communities, including representatives from the Roman Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish communities, to discuss ways to protect religious freedom and promote religious tolerance. Other issues included religious communities’ response to the 2015-16 immigrant and refugee crisis, concerns about hate speech and vandalism of religious structures, and their interactions with the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights’ Religious Dialogue Council.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their beliefs in public and private. It declares all religious communities shall have equal rights and provides for the separation of religion and state. The constitution guarantees equal human rights and fundamental freedoms to all individuals irrespective of their religion; it also prohibits incitement of religious discrimination and inflammation of religious hatred and intolerance. The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons.
The law states individuals have the right to freely select a religion; the freedom of religious expression (or rejection of expression); the right – alone or in a group, privately or publicly – to express their religious beliefs freely in “church or other religious communities,” through education, religious ceremonies, or in other ways; and the right not to be forced to become a member or to remain a member of a religious group, nor to attend (or not attend) worship services or religious ceremonies. In addition, the law guarantees the right to refuse to comply with legal duties and requirements that contradict an individual’s religious beliefs, provided such refusals do not limit the rights and freedoms of other persons.
The law requires churches and other religious communities to register with the government to obtain status as legal entities, but it does not restrict the religious activities of unregistered religious groups. According to the law, the rights of religious groups include autonomy in selecting their legal form and constituency; freedom to define their internal organization as well as name and define the competencies of their employees; autonomy in defining the rights and obligations of their members; latitude to participate in interconfessional organizations within the country or abroad; authority to provide religious services to the military, police, prisons, hospitals, and social care institutions; and freedom to construct buildings for religious purposes. The law states religious groups have a responsibility to respect the constitution and the legal provisions on nondiscrimination.
The rights of registered religious groups as recognized legal entities include eligibility for rebates on value-added taxes, government cofinancing of social security for clergy, and authorization to request social benefits for their religious workers.
To register legally with the government, a religious group must submit an application to the MOC providing proof it has at least 10 adult members who are citizens or permanent residents; the name of the group in Latin letters, which must be clearly distinguishable from the names of other religious groups; the group’s address in the country; and a copy of its official seal to be used in legal transactions; it must pay an administrative tax of 22.60 euros ($27). The group must also provide the names of the group’s representatives in the country, a description of the foundations of the group’s religious beliefs, and a copy of its organizational act. If a group wishes to apply for government cosponsorship of social security for clergy members, it must show it has at least 1,000 members for every clergy member.
The government may only refuse the registration of a religious group if the group does not provide the required application materials in full or if the MOC determines the group is a “hate group” – an organization engaging in hate crimes as defined by the penal code.
By law MOC’s Office for Religious Communities monitors and maintains records on registered religious communities and provides legal expertise and assistance to religious organizations. The MOC establishes and manages the procedures for registration, issues documents related to the legal status of registered communities, distributes funds allocated in the government’s budget for religious activities, organizes discussions and gatherings of religious communities to address religious freedom concerns, and provides information to religious groups about the legal provisions and regulations related to their activities.
In accordance with the law, citizens may apply for the return of property nationalized between 1945 and 1963. The state may provide monetary compensation to former owners who cannot receive payment in kind; for example, the state may authorize monetary compensation if government institutions are using the property for an official state purpose or public service such as education or healthcare.
According to the constitution, parents have the right to provide their children with a religious upbringing in accordance with the parents’ beliefs. The government requires all public schools to include education on world religions in their curricula, with instruction provided by school teachers. The government allows churches and religious groups to provide religious education in their faiths in both private and public schools and preschools, on a voluntary basis outside of school hours.
The law mandates Holocaust education in schools. This instruction focuses on the history of the Holocaust inside and outside of the country. Schools use a booklet published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the Holocaust education curriculum to create awareness of the history of Jews and anti-Semitism in Europe before World War II (WWII) and of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The booklet emphasizes the responsibility of everyone to remember the victims of the Holocaust.
The constitution provides for an independent Office of the Ombudsman for the Protection of Human Rights to investigate and report on alleged human rights violations by the government. The national assembly appoints the ombudsman and allocates the office’s budget, but otherwise the ombudsman operates independently of the government. Individuals have the right to file complaints with the ombudsman to seek administrative relief regarding abuses of religious freedom committed by national or local authorities. The ombudsman’s office may forward these complaints to the state prosecutor’s office, which may then issue an indictment, call for further investigation, or submit the claim directly to a court, whereupon the complaints become formal. The ombudsman also submits an annual human rights report to the national assembly and provides recommendations and expert advice to the government.
The Ombudsman for the Protection of Human Rights has issued an opinion that, based on the constitution and the law, “circumcision for nonmedical reasons is not permissible and constitutes unlawful interference with the child’s body, thereby violating his rights.”
The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter, which effectively bans Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter.
The penal code’s definition of hate crimes includes publicly provoking religious hatred and diminishing the significance of the Holocaust. Punishment for these offenses is imprisonment of up to two years, or, if the crime involves coercion or endangerment of security – defined as a serious threat to life and limb, desecration, or damage to property – imprisonment for up to five years. If an official abusing the power of his or her position commits these offenses, he or she may be subject to imprisonment of up to five years. Members of groups that engage in these activities in an organized and premeditated fashion – hate groups, according to the law – may also receive a punishment of up to five years in prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Representatives from the WJRO visited the country in March for continued talks on property restitution issues involving the Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the WJRO discussed carrying out a research project to determine the scope of heirless and unclaimed Jewish-owned property, and negotiations were continuing at year’s end. Restitution efforts for property seized during the Holocaust were complicated by the timeframe (1945-63) covered by the law on property nationalization claims, which excluded property seized from Jewish families prior to 1945.
The Constitutional Court continued its review of a case the Slovene Muslim Community filed in 2014 that alleged a 2012 law prohibiting the slaughter of animals without prior stunning violated religious freedom. The Slovene Muslim Community was not affiliated with the larger Islamic Community of Slovenia. The Jewish community had reportedly also raised concerns over the prohibition. The government defended the law as necessary to comply with EU regulations to prevent “unnecessary suffering” to animals.
In a January 27 speech to parliament commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Speaker of the National Assembly Brglez told parliamentarians they must never forget the Holocaust and said the inalienable rights to religious freedom enshrined in international conventions and the country’s constitution were intended to protect against such horrors in the future.
The Council of the Government of the Republic for Dialogue on Religious Freedom conducted two interfaith dialogue meetings with representatives of the country’s largest religious communities. The government established the council under the auspices of the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities to promote transparency between religious groups and the government, while encouraging dialogue on issues of concern among the country’s religious communities. Although the dialogues were closed to the media and general public, the Office for Religious Communities subsequently published transcripts online.
In January the council organized a dialogue on providing spiritual care in hospitals. While many hospitals had Roman Catholic chapels, members of other faiths had more limited opportunities to attend religious services while hospitalized. Council participants agreed clergy and members of other religious faiths should be free to use the Roman Catholic chapels for worship and religious services. The October meeting focused on providing spiritual care for Muslims in the military. The armed forces (SAF) employed full-time Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy to provide religious services, but no Muslim imams. While Muslims in the SAF had access to their local religious communities while serving domestically, such access could be limited during foreign missions or training abroad. The council came to no conclusion on this issue but stated it would continue the search for possible solutions in future dialogues. The SAF also did not employ Orthodox Christian or Jewish clergy.
Council participants at the October dialogue also discussed religious objections to the human rights ombudsman’s 2012 opinion that “ritual circumcision of boys for religious reasons…is unacceptable for legal and ethical reasons and doctors should not perform it.” The ombudsman, who reviewed the issue in 2012 at the request of the country’s medical ethics committee, told the council participants new legislation would be necessary to make religious circumcision legal and regulate how the procedure was would be carried out in the public health system. The government, however, did not make any changes to the law or the constitution pertaining to circumcision. As a result, many Muslims had the procedure performed in Austria. There were no reports that the prosecutor’s office had received any complaints or prosecuted any cases regarding illegal circumcision.
The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights received one formal complaint pertaining to religious freedom concerning an incident in September in which local school administrators invited two Roman Catholic clergy to offer a religious blessing for a new primary school building near Grosuplje. The complaint alleged the blessing, in which the clergy read from religious scriptures and invited the audience to join in prayer, violated the law prohibiting organized religious ceremonies and confessional activities in public schools. The ombudsman’s office chose not to forward the complaint to prosecutors pending an investigation by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Sport.
In May authorities in the country’s second-largest city, Maribor, banned performances by Croatian singer Perkovic Thompson, citing security risks. The mayor of Maribor, Andrej Fistravec, said Thompson’s concert, scheduled for May 20, should not take place, because the singer promoted fascism, which the mayor could not condone. Fistravec cited Thompson’s use of the Croatian WWII Ustasa fascist chant “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the Home (land)”) and his use of the names of Ustasa concentration camps in his songs. Several other mayors, including Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Jankovic, said they agreed with Fistravec, and more than 800 citizens signed an online petition stating Thompson’s concert breached the constitution and the criminal code by “glorifying fascism, Nazism, and intolerance.”
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution protects freedom of religion and states the government shall consider the religious beliefs of society and form cooperative relations with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious faiths. The government has a bilateral agreement with the Holy See that grants the Roman Catholic Church special benefits not available to other groups. Organizations representing Protestants, Muslims, and Jews also have agreements with the state, providing them with benefits. Other groups lack agreements but receive some benefits if registered with the government. Registration is not required. In November the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) issued its 2016 annual report on religious freedom, which cited concerns of religious groups over such issues with the government as equal treatment and access to state institutions, access to religious education in schools, and responses to attacks on religious sentiment and incitement to hatred. As of July the government had granted citizenship to approximately 1,091 descendants of Jews the country expelled in 1492. A court upheld a ban on the wearing of the hijab by prisoners. Protestant religious leaders said regional and local governments applied unfair regulations, which could potentially close some churches or prevent the opening of others. The Muslim community in Getafe had to repurpose its mosque for non-worship activities after the city threatened to close it for building code violations. The Muslim and Jewish communities reported progress with municipalities over cemetery access; several cities signed agreements to expand or establish new cemeteries for these communities, although none had implemented the agreements by year’s end. Leaders of other religious groups said the state favored Catholicism, allowing citizens to allocate part of their taxes to the Catholic Church or charities, but not other religions, and paying pensions to retired Catholic priests. In November the Supreme Court ruled the state should relax government pension eligibility requirements for Protestant pastors. The decision applied to Protestants only, not other religious groups. The MOJ began to compile a list of recognized religious clergy authorized to perform legal ceremonies such as marriages. The government began outreach to Muslim leaders and youth to combat radicalization and religious discrimination and promote religious freedom and integration. The Barcelona city government initiated a program to combat anti-Islamic sentiment, the first such program in the country.
There were incidents of assaults, threats, and incitement to violence against Muslims and Jews during the year, including attacks on four Moroccan children in two separate incidents, which resulted in injuries. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Observatory for Religious Freedom and Conscience (OLRC), there were 100 religiously motivated hate crimes during the year, eight fewer than in 2016, 74 percent of which were against Christians. Crimes included three incidents of violence, threats, and vandalism. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) documented 47 incidents of hate crimes with religious motivations in 2016, compared with 70 in 2015. Citizens’ Platform against Islamophobia, an NGO, reported 573 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, compared with 278 the previous year. There were reports of anti-Semitic discrimination at universities, and anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements in social media and public speech continued. There were reports of vandalism of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic facilities; Islamic facilities were particular targets after August 17-18 terrorist attacks in Catalonia. The government prosecuted several cases of religiously motivated hate crimes that occurred in the previous year.
U.S. embassy and consulate officials met regularly with the MOJ’s Office of Religious Affairs and the governmental Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation (the Foundation). Topics discussed included anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, anticlerical sentiment, the failure of some regional governments to comply with legal requirements pertaining to equal treatment of religious groups, concerns about societal discrimination against religious minorities, access to religious education and cemeteries for religious groups, and pensions for clergy. The consulate general in Barcelona supported the creation of a national network of young Muslim leaders that discussed problems of identity, relations with security forces, prevention of radicalization, Islamic education, and other issues important to Muslim youth. In June the embassy hosted an iftar at which the Charge d’Affaires introduced the new network to national government officials. The embassy supported the formation of a group of former participants of U.S. exchange programs, which included Muslims, members of the security forces, and academics, and helped the group win a Department of State grant in July to improve government-Muslim community relations, including promoting respect for religious freedom and reducing religious discrimination. As part of the initiative, the group held the first of seven planned sessions around the country on October 20-21 in Madrid, and held roundtable discussions at a conference on December 18 at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion and guarantees freedom of religion and worship for individuals and communities, but allows limits on expression if “necessary to maintain public order.” According to the Foundation, reasons would include overcrowding in small facilities or public spaces. A law restricts public protest, but authorities have not used it or the constitutional limits on expression against religious groups.
The constitution states no one may be compelled to testify about his or her religion or beliefs. The constitution also states, “No religion shall have a state character;” but “public authorities shall take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and consequently maintain appropriate cooperative relations with the Catholic Church and other denominations.” The Catholic Church is the only religious group explicitly mentioned in the constitution.
The government does not require religious groups to register, but registering confers religious groups with certain legal benefits. Groups registered in the MOJ’s Registry of Religious Entities have the right to autonomy; may buy, rent, and sell property; and may act as a legal entity in civil proceedings. Registration entails completing forms available on the MOJ’s website and providing notarized documentation of the foundational and operational statutes of the religious group, its legal representatives, territorial scope, religious purposes, and address. Any persons or groups have the right to practice their religion whether or not registered as a religious entity.
Registration with the MOJ and notorio arraigo (“deeply rooted” or permanent) status allows groups to establish bilateral cooperation agreements with the state. The government has a bilateral agreement with the Holy See, which is executed in part by the Episcopal Conference. The government also has cooperation agreements with FEREDE, which represents Protestants, CIE, which represents Muslims, and FCJE, which represents Jews. These agreements are legally binding and provide the religious groups with certain tax exemptions, the ability to buy and sell property, open a house of worship, and conduct other legal business; grant civil validity to the weddings they perform; and permit them to place teachers in schools and chaplains in hospitals, the military, and prisons. Groups with cooperation agreements are also eligible for independently administered government grants.
The agreement with the Holy See covers legal, educational, cultural, and economic affairs; religious observance by members of the armed forces; and the military service of clergy and members of religious orders. The later cooperative agreements with FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE cover the same issues.
Registered groups who wish to sign cooperative agreements with the state must acquire notorio arraigo status through the MOJ. To achieve this status, groups must have an unspecified “relevant” number of followers; a presence in the country for at least 30 years; and a “level of diffusion” that the MOJ considers demonstrates a “social presence,” not further defined. Groups must also submit documentation demonstrating the group is religious in nature to the MOJ’s Office of Religious Affairs, which maintains the Register of Religious Entities.
The Episcopal Conference deals with the government on behalf of the entire Catholic community. Per the state’s 1979 agreement with the Holy See, individual Catholic dioceses and parishes are not required to register with the government. In addition to FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Federation of Buddhist Communities (FCBE), Mormons, and the Orthodox Church are registered religions with notorio arraigo status. New religious communities may register directly with the MOJ, or religious associations may register on their behalf.
If the MOJ considers an applicant for registration not to be a religious group, the group may be included in the Register of Associations maintained by the MOI. Inclusion in the Register of Associations grants legal status, but offers no other benefits. Registration itself simply lists the association and its history in the government’s database. Registration as an association is a precursor to requesting that the government deem the association to be of public benefit, which affords the same tax benefits as charities, including exemption from income tax and taxes on contributions. For such a classification, the association must be registered for two years and maintain a net positive fiscal balance.
The government funds religious services within the prison system for Catholic and Muslim groups. Examples of religious services include Sunday Catholic Mass, Catholic confession, and Friday Muslim prayer. The cooperation agreements of FCJE and FEREDE with the government do not include this provision; these groups provide religious services in prisons but at their own expense. Other religious groups registered as religious entities with the MOJ may provide services at their own expense during visiting hours upon the request of prisoners.
The regions of Madrid and Catalonia have agreements with several religious groups which have accords with the national government that permit activities such as providing religious assistance in hospitals and prisons under regional jurisdiction. According to the MOJ, these subnational agreements may not contradict the principles of the federal agreements, which take precedence. The Catalan government has agreements with Catholics, FEREDE, and CIE. The Madrid region has agreements with Catholics, FEREDE, FCJE, and CIE.
The government guarantees religious workers of groups with cooperative agreements with the state access to refugee centers, known as Foreign Internment Centers, so that these groups may provide direct assistance to their followers in the centers. According to the MOJ, other religious practitioners may enter the internment centers upon request.
Military rules and prior signed agreements allow religious military funerals for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims, should the family of the deceased request it. Other religious groups may conduct religious funerals upon request.
The government recognizes religious marriages for all religious communities that have notorio arraigo status, not only those that have a specific agreement with the state.
Religious groups must apply to local governments for a license to open a place of worship, as with other establishments intended for public use. Requirements for licenses vary from municipality to municipality. The MOJ states documentation required is usually the same as other business establishments seeking to open a venue for public use and includes information such as architectural plans and maximum capacity. Religious groups must also inform the MOJ after opening new places of worship.
Local governments are obligated to consider requests for use of public land to open a place of worship. If a municipality decides to deny such a request after weighing factors such as availability and value added to the community, the city council must explain its decision to the requesting party.
As outlined in agreements with religious groups, the government provides funding for salaries for teachers for Catholic, Protestant, and Islamic instruction in public schools when at least 10 students request it. The Jewish community is also eligible for government funding for Jewish instructors but has declined public school Judaism education. The courses are not mandatory. Those students who elect not to take religious education courses are required to take an alternative course covering general social, cultural, and religious themes. The development of curricula and the financing of teachers for religious education is the responsibility of the regional governments, with the exception of Andalusia, Aragon, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, and the two autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, which leave the curricula and financing of education to the national government in accordance with their individual regional statutes. Religious groups that have an agreement with the state are responsible for providing a list of approved teachers for their particular religion. Either the national Ministry of Education (MOE) or the regional entity responsible for education certifies teachers’ credentials.
Autonomous regions develop the requirements for religious education instructors. For example, prospective instructors must provide personal data, proof that the educational authority of the region where they are applying to work has never dismissed them, a degree as required by the region, and any other requirement as stipulated by the religious association to which they correspond. The associations are required to provide a list of approved instructors to the government. MOE-approved guidelines, prepared by the CIE, stress “moderate Islam” in worship practices, with emphasis on plurality, understanding, religious tolerance, conflict resolution, and coexistence. Instructors are also required to have a certificate of training in Islamic education.
Catholic clergy may include time spent on missions abroad in calculations for social security, and to claim retirement pension credit for a maximum of 38.5 years of service. Protestant clergy are eligible to receive social security benefits, including health insurance and a government-provided retirement pension with a maximum credit of 15 years of service, but pension eligibility requirements for these clergy are stricter than for Catholic clergy. The law allows Protestant ministers to count towards retirement time worked prior to 1999, the date of a prior decree, only if these pastors adjusted their status in 1999 and does not allow Protestant pastors to claim retirement credit for time worked abroad. Protestant pastors must also pay back pension contributions in one lump sum rather than via monthly salary deductions as Catholic clergy do. Clergy from the Russian Orthodox Church, CIE, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are also eligible for social security benefits. The benefits for clergy from these groups depend on the specific terms of separate social security agreements that each of these groups negotiated with the state.
The penal code definition of hate crimes includes acts of “humiliation or disrespect” against victims because of their religion, with penalties of one to four years in jail. By law authorities may also investigate and prosecute criminal offenses committed by neo-Nazi groups as “terrorist crimes.” Genocide denial is a crime if it incites violent attitudes, such as aggressive, threatening behavior or language.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: In November the MOJ issued its 2016 annual report on religious freedom in the country, which had the stated objective of gathering data on problems as a starting point to resolving them. The report cited concerns of religious groups, including seeking authorization to provide services in hospitals, prisons, refugee centers, and the military and equal treatment in establishing and retaining places of worship. Several groups complained about obstacles to providing religious education in schools. Groups said they received unequal benefits and treatment from the government. Multiple groups asked the government to be more responsive to offenses against religious sentiment and incitement to hatred. FEREDE criticized the report because it lacked a plan of action. The Foundation worked to educate local governments on their responsibilities towards minority religious groups. Between January and July the government granted citizenship to 1,091 descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country in 1492. A court upheld a regulation banning prisoners from wearing the hijab. Protestant leaders expressed concerns about difficulties in obtaining permits to operate or build places of worship. Jews and Muslims had still not obtained access to additional land for cemeteries, although they said they had made some progress. Muslims stated there were not enough Muslim religious teachers in public schools and cited discrimination against women wearing hijabs. Religious minorities called for the government to allow their members to allocate a portion of their taxes to their churches in the same way that Catholics could. The MOJ began compiling a list of recognized religious clergy who could perform religious acts with civic impact, such as marriages. The MOI launched an outreach effort to Muslims to seek their collaboration in combating religious discrimination and integrating the Muslim community.
The interagency Religious Freedom Advisory Committee, led by the minister of justice, continued to hold plenary and standing committee sessions to review issues pertaining to religious freedom in the country. The committee comprised representatives from the Office of the Presidency; the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Interior, Education, Employment, and Health; academics; and religious leaders from the Catholic Church, FEREDE, FCJE, CIE, the Mormon Church, the Federation of Buddhist Communities, and the Orthodox Church. It had working groups to address the following issues: the annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country, issued by the MOJ and approved by the committee; the establishment of places of worship; the scheduling of school exams on religious holidays and establishment of dress codes in public administration employment; cemeteries for minority faiths; and religious dietary requirements.
FEREDE executive secretary Mariano Blazquez said he was the only committee member to withhold his signature on the 2015 and 2016 reports by the MOJ on the state of religious freedom in the country. Blazquez said he had withheld his signature because the reports lacked a plan of action. Citing Article 9 of the constitution, he stated that the state failed to protect the liberty and equality of the individual by not acting on the problems described in the report. FEREDE, according to the religious freedom report, recommended the committee undertake its own analysis of the state of religious freedom in the country and make its own proposals for advancing religious freedom. Commenting on the 2015 report, the director of the NGO Movement Against Intolerance, Esteban Ibarra, said the government attributed little importance to the commission due to internal strife within the group. A Foundation representative, however, stated the government valued the contributions of the commission.
The Barcelona Prosecutor Against Hate Crimes and Discrimination, Miguel Angel Aguilar, distributed a manual on investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, including religiously motivated crimes, for the Catalan region’s penal judges and prosecutors and to all the hate crimes prosecutors in the country. The manual defined hate crimes and the obstacles to prosecuting such crimes and cited best practices. It called for more training, greater institutional coordination, the updating of protocols, and the tracking of statistics. Officials used the manual in administering training for judges, legal aides, law enforcement, academics, and others.
Movement Against Intolerance Director Ibarra stated authorities should apply the criminal code pertaining to hate crimes, including religiously motivated crimes, more widely. He criticized public prosecutors and police, saying they were not prepared to combat intolerance.
On November 7, the Madrid Municipal Police Diversity Management Unit opened a headquarters office, staffed by 32 agents, to respond to victims and pursue criminal complaints related to hate crimes, including religiously motivated crimes. The launch was accompanied by an awareness campaign to fight hate crimes in the capital and encourage victims to report them.
The Foundation informed local governments of the rights of minority religious groups and the governments’ responsibilities toward those groups, especially in cases of local regulations or restrictions interfering with the right to worship. It also provided local governments with research about religious communities, met with religious leaders, fostered dialogue between municipalities and local religious leaders, and provided lists of local places of worship and religious cemeteries for Jewish and Islamic burial. The Foundation completed rounds of legal assistance with eight municipalities during the year, including the cities of Santander, Logrono, Albacete, Guadalajara, and Toledo. Movement Against Intolerance Director Ibarra described the Foundation’s role as “weak,” suggesting it could do more to combat anti-Islamic sentiment with public information campaigns.
FCJE Director Carolina Aisen reported implementation of the law allowing descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country in 1492 the right to gain citizenship ran more smoothly during the year, following prior technical problems with the online application. According to Aisen, who said she met monthly with the MOJ to discuss progress, 1,091 Sephardi descendants had obtained citizenship between January and July, compared with only one in all of 2016. Approximately 5,000 Sephardis had started the application process. Applicants were from more than 100 countries, with the bulk of recent applicants coming from Venezuela. Other applicants were from Israel, other countries in Latin America, and the United States. The Jewish community said burdensome financial and administrative requirements, such as a requirement to self-fund a trip to the country for the personal interview, reduced the response to the law. Aisen said MOJ officials had assured her the law would be extended beyond its scheduled 2019 expiration date.
The Office of Religious Affairs continued to maintain an online portal for information about registered minority religious groups to aid new immigrants or citizens moving into a community to find his or her locally registered religious community and place of worship. The MOJ reported the tool provided no personally identifiable information and abided by the information protection law.
Religious groups reported progress with state and local governments to accommodate the needs of religious minorities in hospitals, the military, and public cemeteries, according to representatives of FCJE, CIE and UCIDE’s Andalusian Observatory, and FEREDE. According to the MOJ’s 2016 report on religious freedom, however, FEREDE, FCJE, and the Romanian Orthodox Church all called on the government to guarantee or facilitate access for all religious groups so they could provide religious services in such locations as hospitals, penitentiaries, refugee centers, and in the armed forces.
In July the National Court prohibited a Muslim prisoner, Soukaina Aboudrar, from wearing the hijab in jail. The court stated the prohibition did not violate her right to religious freedom. Citing security concerns at penitentiaries, the court said the hijab “…only leaves visible a reduced part of the face, which makes identification difficult, going against security protocols, and the possibility of hiding prohibited objects.” The court also based the prohibition in part on “the use made by the prisoner of such garment as a jihadist claim in the work of radicalization of other inmates of her own religion, as appears from the reports.” The court left the door open to wearing a veil smaller than a hijab. The case set a precedent for similar cases that might arise in the future, according to media reports. In an agreement with prosecutors in July, Aboudrar pled guilty to being a member of ISIS and received a three-year prison sentence.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, several groups cited local government restrictions on their ability to proselytize or manifest their faith in public spaces. FEREDE said religious group members had received fines and penalties for carrying out religious activities in public or distributing leaflets with religious content. According to FEREDE, city councils were increasingly willing to restrict these actions through their municipal bylaws. As an example, it cited the Huelva City Council, which in 2016 excluded religious bodies from using public municipal spaces. In addition, according to the report, Mormons said their missionaries faced obstacles in disseminating their ideas through banners or stalls at book fairs. Jehovah’s Witnesses cited some problems in preaching in public spaces, although they said the number of city councils placing obstacles had decreased.
Protestants stated again that city governments imposed burdensome and unequal regulations on religious groups seeking licenses or permits for places of worship. FEREDE Executive Secretary Blazquez said obtaining city permits to construct new churches or keep current churches open, especially in Madrid, remained a challenge. FEREDE estimated that about half its places of worship did not have a permit because the process of obtaining one was so difficult. For example, FEREDE stated its churches must meet the same soundproofing building codes as nightclubs. Blazquez said this requirement was too burdensome for new churches and put existing ones at risk of closure.
The government’s report on religious freedom cited a call by FEREDE for the government to take into account the needs of religious groups when engaging in urban planning to ensure all religious groups received equal treatment in the establishment of places of worship. According to the report, FCJE asked for clear norms to guarantee religious groups the right to open places of worship, while CIE called for the government to take steps to overcome obstacles to the opening of mosques. The report also stated FCBE outlined a need for legislative action to protect minority religious groups from forced expulsion from, or expropriation of, places of worship.
Muslim and Jewish communities reported improved collaboration with municipalities over cemetery access and establishment, although no new cemeteries were opened or expanded to include access during the year. CIE negotiated a 108,000 square-foot parcel of the Carabanchel Cemetery in Madrid for Islamic burials, and was in final negotiations at year’s end regarding maintenance costs before interment could begin. CIE reported Muslims could already receive a religious burial at Grinon Cemetery in Madrid. CIE reported there still were no Islamic cemeteries in the regions of Galicia and Extremadura. FCJE reached agreement with the cities of Valencia and Alicante under which the cities would provide Jewish cemeteries. FCBE President Luis Morente said an agreement reached with the government in 2016 for refrigerating bodies prior to Tibetan burials in order to abide by health regulations was functioning well.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, FCJE said there was still room for improvement in its access to parcels of land for use as burial plots, and the CIE called for regulations governing burials without coffins and the granting of land parcels for Islamic burials in municipal cemeteries.
In July the city of Getafe threatened to close the local mosque for building code violations, citing overcrowding on prayer days because of the growth of the Muslim community. After negotiations with CIE and the Foundation, the city and local Muslim community agreed to repurpose the building for activities other than worship, such as religious education, where participants would not exceed the maximum building capacity. Muslims were reportedly worshipping at another location in the city.
The Catalan Muslim community stated the Barcelona city government supported the building of a mosque, unlike in previous years, when there was both local and neighborhood opposition to a mosque. The Muslim community, however, lacked the necessary funding. Both city and regional government officials said that, as with other religious groups, the Muslim community was responsible for raising the necessary funding to buy land and build the mosque and submitting a request to the city.
Regional commitments to provide religious education to minorities, as prescribed in 1992 agreements, remained problematic, according to Gabriel Jairodin Riaza, the author of the annual report on Islamophobia in Spain by the Andalusian Observatory, an NGO under UCIDE auspices. He said that whether a region fulfilled its obligation to provide religious education to children depended on the will of local politicians. Riaza also stated that some politicians deliberately stalled Muslim initiatives by, for example, failing to contract Islamic education instructors.
Jairodin stated the fundamental problem with the regional governments’ failure to provide Islamic education instructors was difficulty in implementing the national protocol for collecting the minimum of 10 requests from parents for religious education. The NGO Al Ihsan Women’s Association in Melilla reportedly met with the provincial education director in the city in 2016 to discuss religious education. It then educated Muslim parents of their rights under the law to request religious education in secondary schools. The NGO’s director, Mimuntz Mohamed Hammu, said more than 10 requests were submitted in each of the city’s seven secondary schools; in every case, the school refused to receive the letters, stating it did not have necessary authorization from the provincial education office of the MOE. Mohamed said the provincial education director had not yet responded to a formal letter of complaint.
Federal and regional governments employed 56 Islamic education instructors nationwide, according to CIE, which certified teachers. CIE stated this number only allowed for religious education for 20 percent of the Muslim students whose parents desired such education for their children. CIE again emphasized the need to extend Islamic education to secondary schools, targeting adolescent Muslims, who it said otherwise sought answers about Islam on the internet and might become susceptible to radical influences. CIE Secretary Mohamed Ajana commended the region of Castille and Leon for adding five Islamic education instructors during the year. The MOJ said it worked with CIE to intercede with regional governments that were not providing Islamic education instructors, helping to forge agreements that avoided costly and lengthy court battles.
On November 3, a Muslim family won an appeal of a suit filed in 2016 on behalf of a group of Muslim students against the region of La Rioja for not providing Islamic education in public schools. The La Rioja High Court ruled the regional education authority was required to provide religious education to the students, overturning a lower court decision in April in favor of the local government, which stated the CIE had failed to provide a list of instructors. Muslim leaders stated the region of La Rioja had long opposed providing Islamic education in public schools. Before the higher court decision in November, the MOJ said it had mediated between the CIE and the La Rioja education counselor after the April ruling. It stated the region had expressed willingness to incorporate Islamic religious instruction in schools. The region would pay for the instructors and use the national government’s Islamic education curriculum.
The MOJ’s report on religious freedom also cited complaints by several religious groups, including the Catholic Church, FEREDE, FCJE, and CIE, about the inability to provide religious education and the integration of religious teachers in schools.
Holocaust education in secondary school curricula continued to expand in accordance with an MOE mandate contained in two existing royal decrees. The subject was included in fourth-year compulsory geography and history class and first-year contemporary history of the world class. Jewish community members, however, described the Holocaust education provided in public schools as inadequate, especially in regions outside Madrid. Regional governments compiled Holocaust and Sephardi history curricula with input from the FCJE and the MOE.
Approximately 40 teachers from across Spain whose responsibilities included Holocaust and Sephardi education traveled to Jerusalem in July using funds from the state-supported cultural center “Centro Sefarad-Israel”, the MOE, and the Madrid regional government. They completed coursework at the study center of the Israel Museum of the Holocaust to enhance their classroom instruction. Centro Sefarad-Israel said more than 600 instructors had taken part in the program.
FEREDE said that because of the stricter pension eligibility requirements for Protestant ministers, no retired Protestant clergy member had yet been able to access a government pension. In November the Supreme Court ruled in favor of FEREDE in a suit the group had filed in 2015, protesting the unequal pension eligibility requirements. The court decreed FEREDE clergy should be eligible for pensions under the same terms as Catholic priests. The ruling was not retroactive to clergy who were already retired and applied only to Protestant ministers. FEREDE said it hoped government promises to modify the law in the wake of the Supreme Court decision would rectify the pension problem for both its retired and active clergy.
Representatives of FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE stated they did not receive all of the benefits to which they were entitled under their cooperative agreements with the government. Mormons, according to the MOJ report on religious freedom, said groups with notorio arraigo status, but which had no cooperative agreement with the government, did not receive the same benefits, such as tax exemptions and the right to provide religious assistance and instruction in public institutions, as religious groups that had concluded such agreements. FCBE and the Romanian Orthodox Church also noted the disparate treatment in tax exemptions, according to the report.
Protestant representatives stated the government favored Catholicism over other religious groups in various practices, including by permitting citizens to allocate 0.7 percent of their taxes due to the Church. The tax designation yielded an estimated 250 million euros ($300 million) in annual donations to the Catholic Church, according to news reports.
Equal opportunity to allocate a portion of an individual’s taxes to a chosen religious group remained an issue of debate; several religious groups, including Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and Mormons, continued to express their desire to have their groups included on the tax form so they could be eligible to receive the 0.7 percent allocation from taxpayers. In June during the Second University Conference of the Association of Young Researchers on Religious Sciences, representatives of FEREDE and FCJE stated they did not oppose the voluntary income tax payments to the Catholic Church, but would like to see the same benefit provided to minority religious groups. FEREDE Executive Secretary Blazquez said, “It is better to collect through the income taxes box than through a direct assignment. Evangelicals [i.e., Protestants] do not want that money to be used to pay pastors’ salaries, but for solidarity activities.” FEREDE said possible uses of such revenue could include support for a food bank, residences for victims of violence or refugees, worker training programs, and social reinsertion programs for ex-convicts. Isaac Querub, president of FCJE, said, “I do not mind the tax allocation to the [Catholic] Church, since 90 percent of Spaniards are Catholics, but the same allocation should be studied for Jews.”
Religious groups said government support for social programs through the Foundation was inadequate. Religious representative bodies, including FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE, indicated that they depended on governmental support through the Foundation (70 percent of their operating budget or more) to cover administrative and infrastructure costs. The Foundation had a budget of 1.4 million euros ($1.7 million) to support religious groups. Of the total budget, 900,000 euros ($1.1 million) went to religious communities for social projects, down from 992,000 euros ($1.2 million) in 2016. Most of the grants (780,000 euros, or $936,000) went to the federations representing religious groups with agreements with the state (Jews, Muslims, and Protestants). Another 120,000 euros ($144,000), down from 200,000 euros ($240,000) in 2016, was divided into small grants of less than 5,000 euros ($6,000) awarded to dozens of local religious associations. According to the Foundation director, the 2016 grants were unusually large because they included carryover funds from winning projects not executed in 2015. Foundation grants to minority religious groups also funded projects promoting tolerance and dialogue, conferences on religious diversity, research about religious minorities, and cultural projects to increase knowledge of minority religious groups.
In June the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that certain tax exemptions to the Catholic Church might constitute unlawful state aid. The case involved a municipal tax refund a Catholic school was seeking in connection with the construction of a school building. The congregation filed a legal suit after local tax authorities denied the refund, and the courts referred the case to the ECJ. The ECJ declared that the tax exemption would use state resources to give a selective economic advantage to the congregation running the school. It referred the case back to Spanish courts to determine whether the exemption would meet the minimum threshold for unlawful state aid.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, the CIE asked the government to take steps to prevent discrimination against some Muslim women, particularly in schools and in the workplace, for wearing the hijab.
Members of the large Muslim community in the North African exclave of Ceuta reported widespread discrimination. A Muslim merchant in the Muslim-majority neighborhood of Principe opined that Catholics had limited the opportunities and influence of minorities so they could “take back Spain for Spaniards.” Representatives from the federal and city governments denied there was discrimination against Muslims. One government official said the two Muslim-majority political parties in Ceuta used a message of exclusion and victimization to rally supporters and extract political concessions.
In August the MOJ began working with religious entities to compile a list of clergy, including imams, to be included within a Register of Religious Entities. This would identify religious officials from all groups empowered to perform religious acts with civil effects, such as marriages. The new registry, completed in November, was a voluntary, comprehensive, and private list of all clergy belonging to religions with notorio arraigo status, according to the MOJ. The MOJ added that while contribution to the list was voluntary, groups were required to submit the names of clergy authorized to perform religious weddings with civil effects. CIE secretary Ajana said the list would protect believers by ensuring that imams were registered and the marriages they officiated were legal.
On September 6, the MOJ again denied the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Pastafarianism, recognition as a religious group. The group took its case against the MOJ to the national court, which has national jurisdiction and hears cases affecting more than one region. At year’s end the case was pending. The Office of Religious Affairs and the Foundation said the Church had never requested a meeting.
The Attorney General for Hate Crimes launched an investigation in January and initiated a legal process in October to determine the criminal responsibility of municipalities that supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, considered by FCJE as an Anti-Semitic movement. In November a district court in Seville issued a writ of interim injunction against the City Council of La Roda de Andalucia, suspending its participation in BDS, which it had joined in 2014. The court’s injunction was the result of a suit brought by the NGO The Lawfare Project in Spain.
On January 26, politicians on the city council of Valencia voted down a BDS motion introduced by the Valencia en Comu coalition. The anti-BDS NGO Action and Communication about the Middle East had told the council that participating in BDS proposals was illegal, based on convictions against those participating in similar actions in several other municipalities. Xeraco, a town of 6,000 inhabitants near Valencia, was under investigation by local prosecutors for BDS support. On January 26, Judicial Court 10 of Valencia halted Xeraco’s Israel boycott.
The Parliament of Catalonia approved a motion July 27 requesting the regional government to submit within 90 days an action plan to combat anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Semitism. The government had not presented the plan by year’s end. Based on a 2016 report on the religious practices of Muslim communities in Barcelona, Mayor Ada Colau and the city administration announced a “Plan of Action against Islamophobia” on January 17 to address rising anti-Muslim sentiment. As part of the plan, the first of its kind in the country, municipal authorities conducted seminars and training and published educational materials to sensitize the population to anti-Muslim sentiment and its impact. The plan also outlined a communications campaign, in partnership with Muslim communities, to highlight anti-Islamic sentiment as a form of discrimination, but the city had not launched that campaign by year’s end.
In July the MOJ, the Foundation, and the Center for Intelligence Against Terrorism and Organized Crime (CITCO) held their first meeting with CIE leadership to explain the government’s National Plan Against Radicalization (PNCR). Although the central government announced the PNCR in 2015, it had implemented little programming under the plan since its passage, relying instead on local municipalities to implement their own counter-radicalization and community engagement measures with guidance from CITCO. The CIE offered to collaborate on radicalization detection and on the plan’s implementation, specifically offering religious sensitivity training to help rectify what it described as racial profiling by police at the local level. CIE Secretary Ajana said security forces often relied erroneously on aspects of physical appearance such as a beard, or the wearing of a hijab, as indicators of radicalization. By year’s end, the government had not responded to CIE’s offer to provide sensitivity training related to the PNCR. CIE confirmed it had longstanding programs to conduct such training for new Civil Guard cadets and UN Peacekeepers before their deployment.
On September 9, representatives from MOJ, the Foundation, and CITCO met with approximately 30 young Muslims in Madrid to discuss problems in the Muslim community and to explain the PNCR to Muslim youth. An MOJ official and the Foundation’s director said Muslim youth were able to share their opinions about the PNCR and discuss problems related to anti-Islamic sentiment, religious freedom, and preventing radicalization in their communities. The group included men and women ages 18-30 and converts to Islam. The CIE president later said he believed such meetings would be more effective if they targeted all youth, not just Muslim youth.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, FEREDE and FCJE called for greater neutrality on the part of the national and local governments in conducting certain official activities, for example by not organizing Catholic state funerals. FCBE called for better training of civil servants pertaining to the treatment of religious minorities under the law, for example in the registration of religious marriages. The report cited concerns by the Catholic Church of acts by local governments the Church considered to be anti-Catholic, for example, a prohibition against the celebration by police of a local patron saint’s feast day or the cancellation of religious festivities or limitations on Catholic liturgical acts.
On October 2, the national government, in collaboration with Menendez Pelayo International University, held a celebration in Cuenca to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of a 1992 state pact with leaders of the three principal minority religions: Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism. The all-day ceremony and workshops included participation by the government and religious leaders, including a roundtable discussing how to fully execute the 1992 accords and best practices in ensuring religious freedom.
In April Criminal Court 16 of Barcelona convicted Barcelona bookstore owner Pedro Varela of intellectual property crimes for selling Mein Kampf without authorization from the state of Bavaria, Germany. The court sentenced Varela to six months in prison and ordered him to pay Bavaria 67,637 euros ($81,200), the total profit obtained from the sale of the book. Varela had edited and sold more than 4,300 copies of the book between 1997 and 2010 through his bookstore in Barcelona and other establishments in the country and abroad. Authorities continued to investigate Varela on criminal charges that he sold books promoting religious hatred and discrimination. Authorities had arrested Varela and closed down his bookshop and websites in 2016, the first time the government had acted against a business in connection with religious hate crime charges. The judge and Barcelona Prosecutor Against Hate Crimes and Discrimination Miguel Angel Aguilar called Varela an active neo-Nazi. Varela remained free pending an appeal of his intellectual property violation conviction.
According to FCJE Director Aisen, while membership in ultra-right parties had not increased, the parties had gradually expanded their online and public presence, including through public meetings, marches, and statements in the press. She said that even though they had gradually increased incidents of hate speech – which included propagating anti-Semitic hate speech, writing, and cartoons through social media – her organization still viewed the parties as marginal. She said far-left parties were generally intolerant of the role of religion in any aspect of public life. Aisen emphasized the connection between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism. She stated, however, that politicians had reduced their casual use of historical Spanish phrases that were critical of Jews. She added that police generally pursued violators of laws against religiously motivated hate speech.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, the Catholic Church stated the government was not responding to a growing number of attacks on Catholic religious sentiments as called for by law, while CIE recommended the government take measures to combat an increase in offenses against religious sentiment and hate crimes. The report also cited FEREDE’s call on the government to pay greater attention to a growing number of cases of offenses and incitement to hatred against Christianity, many of which involved vandalism, but that the government did not classify as religiously motivated, according to FEREDE.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The constitution protects “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others” and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government facilitated revenue collection for 17 religious groups through the taxation system and distributed publicly funded grants to 42 applicant religious groups in proportion to their membership. The government also provided grants to religious groups for religious education, spiritual work in the healthcare sector, refugee reception and integration, and security measures. The government continued to implement a plan to combat hate crimes, including religiously motivated ones. The plan resulted in additional funding and training for police and funding for civil society to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments. The Living History Forum, a government-funded agency, trained 2,500 teachers and other school personnel on preventing and combating intolerance, including anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments. Leading national and local politicians, including the prime minister, condemned anti-Semitic incidents in December. After a television broadcaster aired footage of a government-funded Muslim school seemingly segregating its pupils by gender on a school bus, the prime minister called the separation of the students “despicable.” Jewish groups criticized the police for approving an application by the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), widely characterized as a neo-Nazi group, for a protest march that would have passed near a Gothenburg synagogue on Yom Kippur. A court later changed the routing of the march. Several representatives of the Sweden Democrats (SD) political party made anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic remarks. The prime minister and other national and local officials stated their public support for religious freedom and the protection of religious groups.
According to the government, there were 1,177 suspected religiously motivated hate crimes reported to the police in 2016, a 24 percent decline from 2015. As in previous years, Muslims were the most frequently targeted group and Jews the most targeted relative to the size of the community. Incidents included acts of violence, illegal threats, discrimination, defamation, hate speech, vandalism, and graffiti. The government’s National Council for Crime Prevention (NCCP) stated it was likely all hate crimes continued to be significantly underreported, and a suspect was charged in just 4 percent of cases reported in 2015. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Open Doors reported 123 Christian immigrant interviewees, the majority from Muslim-majority countries, had been the victims of at least 512 anti-Christian incidents, including violence, sexual assault, death threats, social exclusion, insults, and other threats between 2012 and 2017. Assailants threw flaming objects at the synagogue in Gothenburg and at the Jewish cemetery in Malmo in December, and protesters in Malmo yelled “shoot all the Jews.” Government officials, including the prime minister, condemned the Gothenburg and Malmo incidents. A Jewish association in Umea closed in April after repeated harassment, which it tied, at least in part, to the NRM. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups expressed concern about the increase in NRM activities. In what police suspected were cases of arson, the country’s largest Shia mosque, in Jarfalla, was severely damaged in a fire in April, and another mosque in Orebro was destroyed by fire in September. In September, 10 Muslim groups called for action to guarantee the safety of the country’s mosques and their visitors.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to engage regularly with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Culture, members of parliament, the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities (SST), the office of the national coordinator to combat violent extremism, and national and local police on issues related to religious freedom, including reports of tensions between religious groups, reports of antireligious acts against immigrants and other minorities, and the increased activity of neo-Nazi groups. Embassy officials spoke to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Gothenburg, Malmo, Stockholm, Umea, and Uppsala about their ability to practice their faiths freely and safely, and raised the concerns of specific religious groups with political leaders.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others.” The law mandates there be no limitation of rights or freedoms on the grounds of religious opinion.
The constitution instructs public institutions to combat discrimination based on religious affiliation. According to law, complaints about discrimination for religious reasons in the private sector, in the government, or by a government agency or authority must be filed with the Discrimination Ombudsman. The ombudsman represents an individual in the event of legal proceedings.
The constitution states that “the opportunities of religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own shall be promoted.” No one is obliged to belong to a religious community or “divulge religious beliefs in relations with public institutions.”
There is no requirement in the law to register or recognize religious groups. Faith communities registering with the SST, however, receive tax exemptions similar to those of nonprofit organizations and are eligible to receive government funding. In order to register with the SST, a religious group must submit an application to the Ministry of Culture demonstrating the group fulfills certain requirements, including that it be stable and have operated in the country for at least five years, have a clear and stable structure, be able to function on its own, serve at least 3,000 persons (with exceptions), and be present in different locations in the country.
According to the law, animal slaughter must be preceded by stunning and/or the administration of anesthetics to minimize the animal’s suffering.
The law stipulates that male circumcision may be performed only by a licensed doctor or, for boys under the age of two months, by a person certified by the National Board of Health and Welfare. The board certifies mohels (individuals who conduct ritual Jewish circumcisions) to perform the operations on boys younger than two months but requires the presence of a medical doctor, who must administer anesthesia to the infant.
The government facilitates fundraising by religious groups by offering them the option of collecting contributions through the internal revenue service in exchange for a one-time fee of 75,000 Swedish kronor (SEK) ($9,200) and an annual fee of SEK 21 ($2.60) per member per year. The Church of Sweden is exempted from the annual fee as it, unlike the other religious groups participating in the scheme, does not receive financial support from the SST. Only religious groups registered with the SST may participate in the scheme. Religious groups freely choose what percentage of members’ annual taxable income to collect, with a median collection rate of 1 percent. When an individual joins a registered religious organization, the organization informs the Tax Agency that the new member wants to participate in the scheme. The Tax Agency subsequently begins to subtract a percentage of the member’s gross income and distributes it to the religious organization. The contribution is then noted on the member’s annual tax record. The member’s contribution is not deductible from income tax. Seventeen religious organizations participate in the scheme, including the Church of Sweden, the Roman Catholic Church, four Muslim congregations, and two Syriac Orthodox churches.
The government provides publicly funded grants to registered religious groups through the SST, which is under the authority of the Ministry of Culture. The grants are proportional to the size of a group’s membership. Registered religious groups may also apply for separate grants for specific purposes, such as security expenses.
The military offers food options compliant with religious dietary restrictions. Each military district has a chaplain who holds the position regardless of his or her religious affiliation. According to the law, chaplains may be of any religious affiliation, but all chaplains seconded to the armed forces belong to the Church of Sweden. Regardless of religious denomination, chaplains are required to perform religious duties for other faiths or refer service members to spiritual leaders of other faiths if requested. Jehovah’s Witnesses are exempt from national military service. Armed forces guidelines allow religious headwear. Individuals serving in the military may observe their particular religious holidays in exchange for not taking leave on public holidays.
Religious education to include all world religions is compulsory in public and private schools. Teachers use a curriculum that encompasses lessons about the major world religions without preference for any particular religious group. Parents may send their children to independent religious schools, which are supported by the government through a voucher system and which must adhere to government guidelines on core academic curricula, including religious education. Such schools may host voluntary religious activities outside the classroom, but these activities may not interfere with government guidelines on core academic curricula.
Hate speech laws prohibit threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on several factors, including religious belief. Penalties for hate speech range from fines to a sentence of up to four years in prison, depending on the severity of the crime.
Law enforcement authorities maintain statistics on hate crimes, including religiously motivated hate crimes. Authorities may add a hate crime classification to an initial crime report or to existing charges during an investigation, as well as at the trial and sentencing phase of a crime. In such cases, the penalties would increase.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Swedish Police Authority (SPA) continued to strengthen efforts to combat hate crimes, including antireligious hate crimes, in response to government directives from 2014. The police expanded its designated hate crime investigation units in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo and conducted training for police across the country throughout the year. The National Police Commissioner announced in September that an additional SEK 10 million ($1.22 million) would be spent over the following year to prevent and investigate hate crimes. A follow-up report the SPA issued in February assessed “that it is still too early to comment on the effect with regard to the increased ability to investigate hate crimes.”
The SST offered security training to all 42 religious communities in its network and carried out such training for 75 religious representatives throughout the year. The training sessions taught the community leaders to evaluate and respond to threats, deal with hate crimes, and improve physical security.
The Jewish congregation in Malmo welcomed security grants from the SST that, for the first time, could be spent on hiring security personnel. The share of the congregation’s budget spent on security decreased significantly during the year as a result. The congregation also commended the Malmo police for providing increased protection during religious services and the municipal government for funding public tours of the synagogue. The Stockholm Jewish congregation similarly welcomed the new security grants but nevertheless reported that it spent 20-25 percent of its budget on security.
Several Christian churches and organizations criticized the Swedish Migration Agency for its treatment of asylum seekers who risked religious persecution in their home countries. According to a representative of an ecumenical organization, Migration Agency staff routinely evaluated asylum seekers’ claims to be Christian using questions that cast undue doubt on the asylum seekers’ faith and required an unreasonable level of knowledge about scripture, denominations, and other aspects of Christianity. The Christian newspaper Dagen reported in July and August that the Migration Agency had denied asylum requests of nine self-professed Christians who risked religious persecution in Iran and Pakistan. The representative of the ecumenical organization estimated that the actual number of Christians who risked religious persecution in their home countries after being denied asylum was “much higher.” The Migration Agency announced in July that it would review its procedures, investigate alleged wrongful denials of asylum, and increase religious training for its staff.
In April the Swedish Labor Court ruled against a midwife who had sued the regional administration of Jonkoping for discrimination on religious grounds. Hospitals in the region did not hire the midwife because she refused to participate in abortions, citing her Christian faith. The court ruled the regional administration’s decision to employ other candidates willing to carry out all the duties of a midwife and participate in abortions did not constitute a violation of her religious rights.
The government continued to implement its “national plan to combat racism, similar forms of hostility, and hate crimes,” launched in late 2016, including a focus on Holocaust remembrance. In accordance with the plan, the government gave the Living History Forum an additional SEK 14.1 million ($1.72 million) to promote tolerance, including religious tolerance. Throughout the year, the forum and the National Agency for Education carried out college-accredited training for 1,200 teachers and other school personnel to prevent and combat intolerance, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. The forum also arranged five conferences across the country attended by 1,500 school personnel on the same topics and conducted regular training for police, social workers, and other civil servants. In October the forum launched an online training platform to assist teachers in classes about anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
After the Jewish Association in Umea closed in April following threats and harassment, the Governor of Vasterbotten, Magdalena Andersson, and leading municipal politicians joined a “kippah (yarmulke) walk” in support of the city’s Jewish community. Minister for Home Affairs Anders Ygeman commented, “It is of course completely unacceptable that any person is subjected to threats based on his or her religion. We must therefore ensure that the association has all the support it needs.”
The SST regularly educated municipalities about how to support and communicate with religious minorities and promote religious tolerance on the local level, for example, in conjunction with the planned construction of a mosque in Karlstad.
The SST held courses throughout the year for foreign-educated religious leaders and religious youth leaders to inform them about their rights and responsibilities in accordance with national laws and norms and strengthen their ability to safeguard religious freedom in their communities.
An imam and a Christian leader separately expressed concern about calls from leading politicians for increased government control over government-supported independent schools run by religious groups, as well as calls by some politicians to ban such schools outright. The governing Social Democratic Party decided at a party congress in April to support a prohibition on all religious activities at schools receiving government funds, including independent schools. “I want all children to attend schools free of religious aspects,” stated Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. In April the leader of the Left Party, Jonas Sjostedt, called for a ban on all independent religious schools, adding that “it is completely wrong that schools exist in Sweden that indoctrinate children into a specific religion. To learn about religion is one thing – you should learn about all faiths. But to practice religion in school is another thing; it does not belong there.” The Liberal Party and the SD decided at their respective party congresses in November to support a prohibition on establishing new independent religious schools. Three SD Members of Parliament (MPs) – Jeff Ahl, Johan Nissinen, and Marcus Wiechel – introduced a bill in parliament in September to ban all such schools outright. By year’s end, the government had not taken any action to propose such a prohibition.
In April television broadcaster TV4 aired secretly recorded footage showing a government-funded independent school with a self-identified “Muslim profile” in Stockholm seemingly segregating its pupils by gender on a school bus. Some students and teachers said the school had separated the boys from the girls because the former were being disruptive. Reacting to the broadcast, Prime Minister Lofven said, “I think this is despicable. This doesn’t belong in Sweden,” adding, “We take the bus together here, regardless if you’re a girl or a boy, woman or a man.” The school’s vice principal said it had no intention of separating the children by gender and said, “This is not something that has been known or sanctioned by school management.”
According to a survey conducted by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in April, there were 71 independent schools that self-identified as religious, of which 59 were Christian, 11 Muslim, and one Jewish.
Schools continued to sponsor visits to Holocaust sites such as Auschwitz as educational tools. Students participated in such trips regardless of religious background.
The SST distributed grants totaling SEK 88.8 million ($10.84 million) to 42 religious groups in 2016, the latest year for which figures were available, consisting of SEK 53.5 million ($53.5 million) for operating expenses, SEK 10.6 million ($1.29 million) for theological training and spiritual care in hospitals, SEK 15 million ($1.83 million) for building renovations and refugee assistance, and SEK 9.7 million ($1.18 million) to install physical security measures and hire security personnel. Other than for operating expenses, the SST allocated funds based on grant applications for specific projects, which several religious groups often carried out jointly.
Financed in part by a grant of SEK 1.2 million ($147,000) from the Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF) and supported by the City of Malmo, the city’s Jewish congregation and NGO Xenofilia carried out training to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of religious intolerance in schools. A total of 256 teachers, librarians, student counselors, and youth leaders in Malmo and the broader Skane region participated in the project during the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017; 87 percent of participants stated the course had improved their ability to counteract anti-Semitism.
The MUCF distributed SEK 1.4 million ($171,000) to civil society to combat anti-Muslim sentiment in 2016, the most recent year for which figures were available. For example, the MUCF awarded the NGO Fritidsforum SEK 811,000 ($99,000) to counter anti-Muslim attitudes at youth recreation centers.
Some Muslim groups and the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities continued to state they considered the law requiring stunning of and/or administration of anesthetics to animals prior to slaughter to be in conflict with their respective religious rituals. The Muslim community remained divided over whether the requirement conformed to halal procedures. The Jewish community reported the law effectively prevented the production of kosher meat. Most halal and all kosher meat was imported.
The Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, the U.S. NGO Anti-Defamation League (ADL), media, politicians, and others criticized the Gothenburg police for approving an application by the NRM for a protest march that would have passed within 500 yards of the Gothenburg synagogue on Yom Kippur (September 30). The Administrative Court of Gothenburg subsequently ruled to move the NRM’s protest further from the synagogue.
There were multiple reports that representatives of the SD, the country’s third largest political party, made denigrating comments about religious minorities. The newspaper Expressen and other media outlets reported in April that Susanne Larsen, the SD’s party chairperson in Halland and a member of the Halmstad municipal council, had made denigrating comments about Muslims on social media and shared articles from anti-Muslim online sources. Larsen denied allegations that in 2014, she wrote, “Muslims are evil and dangerous. What the Swedish government is doing today with the construction of mosques is to recognize Islam as a religion, and then the Muslims have received what they need to continue their mission … War is being imported to all of Europe in the form of Muslims.” Larsen resigned in August, citing personal reasons, and the SD expelled her from the party in September.
In Fargelanda, the SD expelled a local politician and party member after public broadcaster Radio Sweden reported in February that he had made anti-Muslim comments on social media in December 2016: “We should begin by placing pig’s blood and pig’s offal in places where Muslims congregate. When they subsequently get angry and attack us, we can take the next step and claim self-defense as permitted by the law.”
In January the SD forced a local politician to resign from the party after she told a newspaper she “hated all Muslims” and posted other derogatory comments about them online. The local SD leadership condemned her statements.
The SD expelled a local politician in Borlange in February after he referred to a party colleague as a “[expletive] Jew whore” in an audio clip that was circulated in the media.
In September Mattias Karlsson, an SD MP and the party’s former interim leader, called the Church of Sweden’s practice of occasionally inviting imams to read from the Quran in its churches “absurd, directly deplorable, and sickening.” He added, “Reading from the Quran in a Christian church – when the Quran states that Christians should be killed – is almost comparable to reading aloud from Mein Kampfin a synagogue.”
Speaking at the SD’s party congress in November, Martin Strid, a local party representative from Borlange stated, “There is a scale from one to 100. At one end of the scale, you are 100 percent a human, humane. At the other end of the scale, you are 100 percent ‘Mohammedan.’ All Muslims are somewhere along that scale. If you are ISIS, you are pretty close to 100 percent ‘Mohammedan.’ If you are an ex-Muslim, you have come pretty far toward being fully human.” He added, “[Islam] is a religion based on hatred, lies, and bondage … The punishment for leaving Islam is death, the punishment for criticizing Islam is death, and the punishment for making jokes about Islam is death.” SD leader Jimmie Akesson threatened to expel Strid from the party and called his statements “completely unacceptable” and “the worst thing I have ever heard in such a context.” Strid left the SD shortly after the party congress, and members of the public reported him for hate speech to the police and the discrimination ombudsman.
An SD-owned online newspaper, Samtiden, featured authors who made denigrating comments about Islam and Muslims. For example, on May 29, columnist Olof Hedengren called Islam an “existential threat,” and on April 25, he stated, “Islam is nondemocratic, homophobic, segregationist (us versus ‘the infidels’), and demeaning to women.”
In conjunction with International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Minister for Home Affairs Ygeman and Minister for Culture and Democracy Kuhnke spoke at separate events to commemorate victims of the Holocaust and call for religious tolerance. Prime Minister Lofven condemned the Holocaust during a visit to Auschwitz in June accompanied by a survivor.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church and the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church. The law prohibits “incitement to religious hatred” as well as discrimination on the grounds of religion. The government stepped up security for Muslims and said it would spend 13.4 million pounds ($18.1 million) over the following year to protect Jewish sites. The government outlawed groups Scottish Dawn and National Socialist Anti-Capitalist Action (NS131) as aliases for banned neo-Nazi group National Action. The Labour Party adopted new rules on anti-Semitism after the party came under criticism for anti-Semitic rhetoric by some of its members at the party’s annual conference. The Labour Party extended the suspension of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone for saying Hitler had supported Zionism. Jewish leaders issued a manifesto calling on the government to take steps to promote religious freedom and tolerance and ensure the rights of the Jewish community. The government adopted the working definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The government reported significant increases in religiously motivated hate crimes and incidents in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Community Security Trust (CST), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) monitoring anti-Semitism, reported 767 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of the year, a record high for that period. Incidents included 80 assaults. The 1,346 anti-Semitic incidents CST recorded in 2016 was a record for a calendar year. London police reported significant increases in anti-Muslim attacks, to 1,260 in the year through March 2017, compared with 343 in the same period just four years earlier. Tell MAMA, an NGO fighting anti-Muslim sentiment, cited a rise in anti-Muslim crimes following terrorist attacks and after the EU Brexit referendum. There were multiple incidents of violence, arson, threats, and vandalism against religious groups. In June a man killed one Muslim and injured several others when he drove his vehicle into a group of worshippers leaving a mosque. Muslims were also victims of an acid attack and a stabbing. According to a National Union of Students survey, more than a quarter of Jewish students were afraid of becoming victims of an anti-Semitic attack. Another survey by two Jewish groups reported low levels of anti-Semitism, although 30 percent of respondents either held an unfavorable view of Jews or endorsed at least one of seven anti-Semitic statements in the survey. There were incidents of religiously motivated hate speech against Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
U.S. embassy and Department of State officials engaged with multiple Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) representatives and officials at the Ministry of Defense, as well as with Church of England leaders and civil society to assess common goals of engaging religious minority populations at risk of radicalization and building religious tolerance. The Consulate General in Edinburgh hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner with representatives of the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Bahai communities in which participants discussed ways to promote religious tolerance in their communities.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland do not have state religions. Legislation establishes the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church, but it is not dependent on any government body or the queen for spiritual matters or leadership.
As the supreme governor of the Church of England, the monarch must always be a member of, and promise to uphold, that Church. The monarch appoints Church of England officials, including lay and clergy representatives, on the advice of the prime minister and the Crown Appointments Commission. Aside from these appointments, the state is not involved in the Church’s administration. The Church of Scotland is governed by its General Assembly, which has the authority to make the laws determining how it operates. The General Assembly consists of 850 ministers and clergy members and meets once a year for a week in May.
In England and Wales the law prohibits religiously motivated hate language, and any acts intended to incite religious hatred through the use of words or the publication or distribution of written material. The law defines religious hatred as hatred of a group because of its religious belief or lack thereof. The police are responsible for investigating criminal offenses and for gathering evidence; the Crown Prosecution Service, which is an independent body and the main public prosecution service for England and Wales, is responsible for deciding whether a suspect should be charged with a criminal offense. The maximum penalty for inciting religious hatred is seven years in prison. If there is evidence of religious hostility in connection with any crime, it is a “religiously aggravated offense” and carries a higher maximum penalty than the underlying crime alone. In Scotland the law requires courts to consider the impact of religious bias when sentencing.
By law the General Register Office for England and Wales governs the registration and legal recognition of places of worship in England and Wales. The law also states buildings, rooms, or other premises may be registered as meeting places for religious worship upon payment of a fee; the General Register Office for England and Wales keeps a record of the registration, and the place of worship is assigned a “Worship Number.” Registration is not compulsory, but it provides certain financial advantages and is also required before a place of worship can be registered as a venue for marriages. Registered places of worship are exempt from paying taxes and benefit from participating in the country’s Gift Aid program. Gift Aid allows charities to claim back the 25 percent basic rate of tax already paid on donations by the donor, boosting the value of a donation by a quarter.
Throughout the country the law requires religious education (RE) and worship for children between the ages of three and 13 in state-run schools, with the content decided at the local level. Specialist school teachers, rather than religious groups, teach the syllabus. Parents may request to exempt their children from RE. At age 13, students themselves may choose to stop RE or continue, in which case they study two religions. Nonreligious state schools require the RE curriculum to reflect “Christian values,” be nondenominational, and refrain from attempts to convert students. It must also teach the practices of other principal religions in the country. Students and, unless they are employed by faith-based schools, teachers may decline participation in collective worship, without prejudice.
Nonreligious state schools in England and Wales are required to practice daily collective prayer or worship of “a wholly or mainly…Christian character.” School teachers lead these assemblies; however, parents have the legal right to request their children not participate in collective prayer or worship. The law permits sixth form students (generally 16- to 19-year-olds in the final two years of secondary school) to withdraw from worship without parental permission or action. Nonreligious state schools are free to hold other religious ceremonies as they choose.
In Scotland only denominational (faith-based) schools practice daily collective prayer or worship.
In Bermuda the law requires students attending state schools to participate in collective worship, characterized by educational officials reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but prohibits worship “distinctive of any particular religious group.” At the high school level, students are required to take a course that explores various religions until year 9 (ages 11-14); in years 10 and 11 (ages 15-16), courses on religion are optional.
The government determines whether to establish a faith-based school when there is evidence of demand, such as petitions from parents, religious groups, teachers, or other entities. If a faith-based school is not oversubscribed, then the school must offer a place to any child, but if the school is oversubscribed it may use faith as a criterion for acceptance. Nonstate faith-based schools are eligible to claim “charitable status,” which allows for tax exemptions.
Almost all schools in Northern Ireland receive state support, with approximately 90 percent of the students attending Protestant or Catholic schools. Approximately 7 percent of school-age children attend religiously integrated schools with admissions criteria designed to enroll equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children without the intervention of the state, as well as children from other religious and cultural backgrounds. These integrated schools are not secular, but are “essentially Christian in character and welcome all faiths and none.” RE – a core syllabus designed by the Department of Education, the Church of Ireland, and the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches – is compulsory in all government-funded schools, and “the school day shall include collective Christian worship whether in one or more than one assembly.” All schools receiving government funding must teach RE; however, students may request to opt out of the classes and collective worship. Catholic-managed schools draw uniquely on the Roman Catholic tradition for their RE, while other schools may draw on world religions.
An estimated 30 sharia councils operate parallel to the national legal system. They adjudicate Islamic religious matters, including religious divorces, which are not recognized under civil law. Participants may submit cases to the councils on a voluntary basis. The councils do not have the legal status of courts, although they have legal status as mediation and arbitration bodies. As such, rulings may not be appealed in the courts.
The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “religion or belief” or the “lack of religion or belief.” The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – a body sponsored by the Department of Education’s Government Equalities Office – is responsible for enforcing legislation prohibiting religious discrimination. The EHRC researches and conducts inquiries into religious and other discrimination in England, Scotland, and Wales. The minister for women and equalities appoints the members. If the commission finds a violation, it can issue a notice to the violator and seek a court order to enforce the notice. The EHRC receives government funds and must account for its use of those funds, but it operates independently. The Northern Ireland equivalent to the EHRC is the Equality Commission.
In Northern Ireland the law bans discrimination on the grounds of religious belief only in employment; however, schools may discriminate on the grounds of religion when recruiting teachers. In the rest of the country, the law prohibits any discrimination, including employment discrimination, based on religious belief, unless the employer can show a genuine requirement for a particular religion.
Citing a limited broadcast spectrum, the law prohibits religious groups from holding national radio licenses, public teletext licenses, more than one television service license, and/or radio and television multiplex licenses, which would allow them to offer multiple channels as part of a single bundle of programming.
Twenty-six senior bishops of the Anglican Church sit in the House of Lords as representatives of the state Church. Known as the Lords Spiritual, they read prayers at the start of each daily meeting and play a full role in the life and work of the upper house.
The law requires visa applicants wishing to enter the country as “ministers of religion” to have worked for at least one out of the previous five years as a minister and to have at least one year of full-time experience or, if their religion requires ordination, at least two years of part-time training following their ordination. A missionary must also be trained as such or have worked previously in this role.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: The government stepped up protection for Muslim communities following a June attack outside a mosque and said it would spend 13.4 million pounds ($18.1 million) to protect Jewish sites in the following year. The government banned two groups whose names it said were aliases of previously banned neo-Nazi group National Action, and police arrested 11 of their members. The government instructed prosecutors to treat online hate crimes, including religiously motivated ones, as seriously as other crimes and coauthored a guide for victims and witnesses of anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and other hate crimes. The House of Commons ended its examination of the role of sharia councils without issuing a report of its findings. In September the Labour Party adopted new rules against anti-Semitism after the founder of Jewish Voice for Labour, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, chaired an event where a speaker said people should be allowed to question whether the Holocaust happened. The Labour Party extended the suspension of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone for saying Hitler had supported Zionism. Jewish leaders issued a “Ten Commandments” manifesto calling on the government to take steps to promote religious freedom and tolerance and defend Jewish practices, culture, and heritage. Political leaders responded to the manifesto by expressing support for the Jewish community and pledging to combat anti-Semitism, intolerance, and extremism. The government adopted the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism.
In March Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the government would provide 13.4 million pounds ($18.1 million) to protect Jewish sites during the coming year. She said Jews had been identified as a “legitimate and desirable target,” and called anti-Semitism a “deplorable form of hatred.”
Police forces around the country stepped up protection for Muslim communities in following the June 19 attack on Muslim worshippers outside a Finsbury Park mosque, and the government assigned more officers to patrol near churches, mosques, and synagogues. Home Secretary Rudd pledged the extra resources would remain in place for as long as needed.
In June the Scottish government responded to a report on religiously motivated crimes that its Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crimes issued in 2016. The Scottish government accepted the recommendations in the report, which included the development of clearer terminology and definitions related to hate crimes and prejudice, as well as a public education program to improve understanding of the nature and extent of hate crimes. The report had found “facing prejudice and fear remained part of the everyday life of too many people.”
On August 21, the Crown Prosecution Service issued new guidance to prosecutors to treat online hate crimes, including religiously motivated ones, as seriously as face-to-face hate crimes. The guidance did not require changes to existing laws. The move followed an unprecedented number of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes in the previous year.
In August the Crown Prosecution Service and the Department of Communities and Local Government coauthored a guide for victims and witnesses of hate crimes, particularly those motivated by anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim sentiment, with CST and Tell MAMA. The guide aimed to protect the rights of victims and explained the processes and procedures for reporting these crimes and how statutory bodies, such as the police and Crown Prosecution Service, worked with victims.
In September Home Secretary Rudd banned the Scotland-based Scottish Dawn group and National Socialist Anti-Capitalist Action (NS131) under the antiterror laws, and police arrested 11 of their members. The government said it had identified their names as aliases of the previously banned neo-Nazi group, National Action. Members or anyone found supporting the group could face up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Rudd stated, “National Action is a vile…anti-Semitic group which glorifies violence and stirs up hatred…I will not allow them to masquerade under different names.” On September 13, three alleged members of National Action – two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Mikko Vehvilainen and Private Mark Barrett, and a civilian, Alexander Deakin – appeared in court charged with terror offenses.
The government continued to provide religious accommodation for employees when it considered such accommodation feasible. Muslim employees of the prison service regularly took time off during their shifts to pray. The prison service recognized the rights of prisoners to practice their faith while in custody. The pastoral needs of prisoners were addressed, in part, through chaplains paid for by the Ministry of Justice, rather than religious groups. All chaplains worked as part of a multifaith team, the size and breakdown of which was determined by the size of the prison and the religious composition of the prisoner population. Prison service regulations stated that “chaplaincy provision must reflect the faith denomination requirements of the prison.”
The military generally provided adherents of minority religious groups with chaplains of their faith. As of 2007 there were approximately 280 recruited chaplains in the armed services, all of whom were Christian, but the armed forces retained civilian chaplains to care for their Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Muslim recruits. The Chaplaincy Council monitored policy and practice relating to such matters.
The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee continued its inquiry into the role of sharia councils, examining how they operated within the legal system and resolved disputes and whether they discriminated against women by legitimizing forced marriages or issuing unfair divorce settlements. It also looked at best practices among sharia councils; however, due to disruption caused by the snap general election in June, the committee closed the inquiry early and did not issue a report on its findings. In parallel, The Home Office conducted its own inquiry and was expected to issue a report in early 2018.
As of January there were 6,813 state-funded faith schools in England. Of these, 6,176 were primary (ages 3 through 11) schools (37 percent of all state-funded primary schools), and 637 secondary (ages 11 through 16) schools (19 percent of all state-funded secondary schools). Church of England schools were the most common type among primary schools (26 percent of all primaries); Roman Catholic schools were the most common at secondary level (9 percent). Additionally, at either the primary or secondary level, there were 26 Methodist, two Greek Orthodox, one Quaker, one Seventh-day Adventist, one United Reform, 145 other Christian, 48 Jewish, 27 Muslim, 11 Sikh, and five Hindu state-funded schools. There were 370 government-funded denominational schools in Scotland: 366 Catholic, three Episcopalian, and one Jewish. The government classified schools with links to the Church of Scotland as nondenominational.
In August a campus serving both Catholic and Jewish primary school children opened in East Renfrewshire, Scotland. The East Renfrewshire council built the joint campus, which brought together Catholic St Clare’s Primary and the Jewish Calderwood Lodge, to address an increasing demand for Catholic education.
The government continued to require schools to consider the needs of different religions when setting dress codes for students. This included wearing or carrying specific religious artifacts, not cutting hair, dressing modestly, or covering the head. Guidance from the Department of Education required schools to balance the rights of individual students against the best interests of the school community as a whole; it noted schools could be justified in restricting individuals’ rights to manifest their religion or beliefs when necessary, for example, to promote cohesion and good order.
In April the Church of England said parents should not be allowed to withdraw their children from religious education classes. Derek Holloway, the Church’s lead on RE policy, stated students “must learn about other religions and world views so that they know how to get along with people from different backgrounds and beliefs,” and those withdrawing children from RE lessons wanted to “incite religious hatred.”
In September the Labour Party adopted new rules against anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech, including “Islamophobia.” According to the new rules, “no member of the Party shall engage in conduct which…is prejudicial, or in any act which…is grossly detrimental to the Party.” The change was approved by 98 percent of voters and was expected to make it easier for the party to expel members who breached the new rules. The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), a formal party affiliate comprised of Labour-supporting members of the Jewish community, proposed the change, backed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour Party made the rule change after Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, founder of the group Jewish Voice for Labour, a network for Jewish members of the Labour Party which describes itself as “standing for rights and justice for Jewish people…and against wrongs and injustice to Palestinians and other oppressed people,” chaired a side event at the party’s annual conference in September. At that event, a speaker compared Zionists to Nazis and said people should be allowed to question whether the Holocaust happened, and participants cheered calls for Jewish and pro-Israel groups to be expelled from the party. During the same meeting, Michael Kalmanovitz of the “International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network” called for the JLM and the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) to be expelled, stating, “What are JLM and LFI doing in our Party? It’s time we campaigned to kick them out.”
Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson said the side event had “nothing to do with the official Labour Party Conference,” and that he was sure the party would investigate the allegations made. Watson added that he would attempt to reassure colleagues in the JLM that the Party had no tolerance for anti-Semitism. Jeremy Newark, JLM’s chair, told Sky News, “[Labour] allowed their meeting to become an arena for what effectively amounts to a call for Jews and Jewish groups to be purged from the party.” Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, called for members who made “disgusting” anti-Semitic comments to be expelled from the party. In response to these events, EHRC Chief Executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said, “Anti-Semitism is racism, and the Labour Party needs to do more to establish that it is not a racist party.”
During a hearing in April Labour’s National Constitutional Committee extended the suspension of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone for another year, until April 27, 2018. The Labour Party first suspended Livingstone in April 2016 after he said in a radio interview that Hitler had supported Zionism.
In January the Labour Party readmitted Ilya Aziz , a counselor in the city of Nottingham, after suspending him in May 2016 for calling for Jews in Israel to “relocate” to America.
In June a Labour Party election campaign banner in Bristol superimposed a Star of David as an earring on Prime Minister Theresa May, provoking accusations that Labour had tapped into anti-Semitic sentiment. A designer of the banner, Nina Masterson, told the press the earring referenced May’s support of Israel and was not anti-Semitic.
In July Member of Parliament (MP) John Mann, leader of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, called for action to be taken against “racists,” following the publication of a report written by pro-Israel blogger David Collier and funded by Jewish Human Rights Watch citing links between the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and anti-Semitism in Scotland. The report stated there was a correlation between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel attitudes. Jewish Human Rights Watch commissioned the report in 2016 after protestors at a festival in Edinburgh celebrating Israeli culture chanted, “No to Brand Israel.”
In May the Board of Deputies of British Jews, representing Jews in the country, issued a manifesto in the form of “10 Commandments” to the government. The manifesto had the professed aim of informing policymakers about the most important interests and concerns of the Jewish community. The manifesto asked policy makers to: oppose extremism and hate crime, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred; promote good relations among all communities; defend the right to a Jewish way of life, including kosher meat, religious clothing, circumcision, and accommodation for holy day observances; support efforts to remember the Holocaust and prevent any future genocide; advocate a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; promote peace projects and resist boycotts; affirm the importance of faith schools; support religiously sensitive youth and social care services; promote a just and sustainable future; and celebrate and support Jewish heritage and cultural institutions. The manifesto also highlighted that in 2016, the country recorded the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents since 1984.
Leaders of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish National Parties all delivered responses to the manifesto. Prime Minister May cited the Conservative Party’s “zero-tolerance” approach to anti-Semitism and efforts to counter extremism and committed to delivering a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center in London. She also denounced the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement against Israel. Labour leader Corbyn said, “We should all be deeply troubled by the rise of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and other racially motivated hate crimes,” and stated his intention to work with the Jewish community to tackle discrimination. Liberal Democrats Leader Tim Farron reiterated his party’s opposition to hate crime and proposed increasing money spent on policing. Scottish National party leader Nicola Sturgeon emphasized the importance of a safe and thriving Jewish community in Scotland and the collective responsibility to ensure there was no place for anti-Semitism in Scotland.
On December 12, 2016, the government adopted the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, which included examples of discourse that could be considered anti-Semitic. This definition was subsequently adopted by the Labour Party, the National Union of Students, the Scottish and Welsh governments, several local authorities, and used by the Crown Prosecution Service when assessing potential prosecutions for anti-Semitic hate crime.
The government is a member of the IHRA.