The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and, as noted in the constitution, to satisfy “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.” Individuals continued to be detained and received prison sentences of up to five years for violations of blasphemy laws. One man was detained for reading the Quran disrespectfully in an online video. In Aceh Province, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, including one Buddhist man who accepted caning in lieu of imprisonment. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious observance, such as local regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice. In August authorities took action against two Pentecostal churches, revoking a permit for one and stopping worship activities for another. The Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office continued to use a smartphone app called Smart Pakem allowing citizens to file heresy or blasphemy reports against groups with what the government considered unofficial or unorthodox religious practices. Religious groups outside the six government-recognized religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam, the latter widely interpreted by the government and society to mean Sunni Islam), again reported problems with identifying their religion on their national identification cards (KTPs), although a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling allows for such a listing. Adherents of indigenous faiths cannot enter their specific names, however, because there are too many. Various jurisdictions agreed to use a common term, i.e., “Faith in One God.” Three jurisdictions began issuing KTPs that could list “Faith in One God” as the faith category, but the practice was not widely implemented. There were again instances in which local governments and police acceded to the demands of groups, such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front, Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, called “intolerant groups” in media, to close houses of worship for permit violations or otherwise restrict the rights of minority religious groups. Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. President Joko Widodo included six non-Muslims in his cabinet appointments announced on October 23, the same as during his previous administration.
Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media. In May prominent leaders from all of Surabaya’s principal faith communities participated in commemorations of the May 2018 suicide bomber attack on three churches. Local Islamic youth groups in coordination with police provided extra security outside Surabaya churches in conjunction with the anniversary. In March unknown individuals vandalized Jewish graves in Jakarta, and in April unknown individuals damaged several wooden crosses at a Christian cemetery in Mrican, Yogyakarta.
The Ambassador and U.S. embassy and consulate officials advocated for religious freedom with the government, including at the highest levels. Embassy and consulate officials engaged government officials on specific issues, including actions against religious minorities, closures of places of worship, access for foreign religious organizations, convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion, the importance of tolerance and rule of law, and the application of sharia to non-Muslims. Embassy and consulate officials also engaged civil society and religious leaders about tolerance and pluralism and spoke out publicly against discrimination and violence against minority religious communities. The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism – endorsed by both governments and comprising religious and civil society leaders, academics, and experts from both countries – met with the Ambassador to discuss religious freedom issues. The embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach to promote the message of respect for diversity and religious tolerance through events, media interviews, social media initiatives, digital and public speaking engagements, youth exchanges, and educational programs.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 264.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 87 percent of the population is Muslim, 7 percent Protestant, 3 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.5 percent Hindu. Those identifying with other religious groups, including Buddhism, traditional indigenous religions, Confucianism, Gafatar, and other Christian denominations, and those who did not respond to the census question comprise approximately 1.3 percent of the population.
The Muslim population is overwhelmingly Sunni. An estimated one to three million Muslims are Shia. Many smaller Muslim groups exist; estimates put the total number of Ahmadi Muslims at 200,000 to 400,000.
Many religious groups incorporate elements of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, making it difficult to disaggregate the exact number of followers. An estimated 20 million people, primarily in Java, Kalimantan, and Papua, practice various traditional belief systems, often referred to collectively as aliran kepercayaan. There are approximately 400 different aliran kepercayaan communities throughout the archipelago.
The Sikh population is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000, with approximately 5,000 in Medan and the rest in Jakarta. There are very small Jewish communities in Jakarta, Manado, Jayapura, and elsewhere, with the total number of Jews estimated at 200. The Baha’i Faith and Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong) communities report thousands of members, but independent estimates are not available. The number of atheists is also unknown, but the group Indonesian Atheists states it has more than 1,700 members.
The province of Bali is predominantly Hindu, and the provinces of Papua, West Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, and North Sulawesi are predominantly Christian.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees the right to practice the religion of one’s choice and specifies that freedom of religion is a human right that may not be limited. The constitution states, “The nation is based upon belief in one supreme God,” but it guarantees all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or belief, saying the right to have a religion is a human right that shall not be discriminated against.
The constitution also says the state is based on the belief in one God, and the state is obliged to guarantee the freedom of worship. It states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and to satisfy, as noted in the constitution, “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society. The law restricts citizens from exercising these rights in a way that impinges on the rights of others, oversteps common moral standards and religious values, or jeopardizes security or public order.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) extends official recognition to six religious groups: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. The government maintains a long-standing practice of recognizing Sunni Islam as the official version of Islam of local Muslims, although the constitution has no such stipulation.
The blasphemy articles in the criminal code prohibit deliberate public statements or activities that insult or defame any of the six officially recognized religions or have the intent of preventing an individual from adhering to an official religion. These articles also stipulate that in any case of defamation of the six officially recognized religions, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), the MORA, and the Attorney General’s Office must first warn the individual in question before bringing a defamation charge. The articles also forbid the dissemination of information designed to spread hatred or dissension among individuals and/or certain community groups based on ethnicity, religion, or race. Individuals may be subject to prosecution for blasphemous, atheistic, or heretical statements under either of these provisions or under the laws against defamation and may face a maximum prison sentence of five years. A separate law forbids the electronic dissemination of the same types of information, with violations carrying a maximum four-year sentence.
The government defines a religion as having a prophet, holy book, and deity, as well as international recognition. The government deems the six officially recognized religions meet these requirements. Organizations representing one of the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law are not required to obtain a legal charter if they are established under a notary act and obtain approval from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Religious organizations other than the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law must obtain a legal charter as a civil society organization from the MOHA. Both ministries consult with the MORA before granting legal status to religious organizations. The law requires all civil society organizations to uphold the national ideology of Pancasila, which encompasses the principles of belief in one God, justice, unity, democracy, and social justice, and they are prohibited from committing blasphemous acts or spreading religious hatred. By law, all religious groups must officially register with the government. Registration requirements for religious organizations include: (a) organizations may not contradict Pancasila and the constitution; (b) they must be voluntary, social, independent, nonprofit, and democratic; and (c) they must have a notarized articles of association (bylaws) and a specifically defined purpose. The organization then registers with the MORA. After MORA approval, the organization is announced publicly through the state gazette. Violations of the law may result in a loss of legal status, dissolution of the organization, and arrest of members under the blasphemy articles of the criminal code or other applicable laws. Indigenous religious groups must register with the Ministry of Education and Culture as aliran kepercayaan to obtain official, legal status.
A joint ministerial decree bans both proselytizing by the Ahmadi Muslim community and vigilantism against the group. Violations of the Ahmadi proselytizing ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy. According to the criminal code, vigilantism carries a maximum five and one-half-year prison sentence.
A joint ministerial decree bans proselytizing and other activities by the Fajar Nusantara Movement, known as Gafatar. Violations of the ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy.
There is no joint ministerial decree that bans proselytizing by other groups. The Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), a quasi-governmental Muslim organization, however, has issued fatwas that ban proselytizing by so called deviant groups such as Inkar al-Sunnah, Ahmadiyya, Islam Jama’ah, the Lia Eden Community, and al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah.
The government requires all officially registered religious groups to comply with directives from the MORA and other ministries on issues such as construction of houses of worship, foreign aid to domestic religious institutions, and propagation of religion.
A joint ministerial decree between the MORA and the MOHA states that religious groups may not hold services in private residences, and those seeking to build a house of worship are required to obtain the signatures of at least 90 members of the group and 60 persons of other religious groups in the community stating they support the construction. Local governments are responsible for implementing the decree, and local regulations, implementation, and enforcement vary widely. The decree also requires approval from the local interfaith council, the Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). Government-established FKUBs exist at the city or district level and comprise religious leaders from the six official groups. They are responsible for mediating interreligious conflicts.
The law requires religious instruction in public schools. Students have the right to request religious instruction in any one of the six official religions, but teachers are not always available to teach the requested religion classes. Under the law, individuals may not opt out of religious education requirements. In practice, however, students of minority religious groups are often allowed to opt out and attend study hall instead.
Under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a separatist conflict, Aceh Province has unique authority to implement sharia regulations. The law allows for provincial implementation and regulation of sharia and extends the jurisdiction of religious courts to economic transactions and criminal cases. The Aceh government states sharia in Aceh only applies to Muslim residents of the province, although nonresident Muslims and adherents to other faiths may accept sharia in lieu of punishment under the criminal code.
Aceh’s provincial sharia regulations criminalize consensual same-sex activity, adultery, gambling, consumption of alcohol, and proximity to members of the opposite sex outside of marriage for Muslim residents of the province. An Aceh governor’s decree forbids women from working in or visiting restaurants unaccompanied by their spouse or a male relative after 9 p.m. A Banda Aceh mayoral decree forbids women from working in coffee shops, internet cafes, or sports venues after 1 p.m. Sharia regulations prohibit female Muslim residents of Aceh from wearing tight pants in public, and they must wear headscarves. One district in Aceh prohibits women from sitting astride motorcycles when riding as passengers. The maximum penalties for violations of sharia regulations include imprisonment and caning. There are regulations intended to limit the amount of force that authorities may exert during a caning.
Many local governments outside of Aceh have enacted regulations based on religious considerations; most of these are in majority Muslim areas. Many of these regulations relate to matters such as religious education and only apply to a specific religious group. Some religiously inspired local regulations in effect apply to all citizens. For instance, some local regulations require restaurants to close during Ramadan fasting hours, ban alcohol, or mandate the collection of zakat (Islamic alms). Other local regulations forbid or limit the religious activities of religious minorities, especially Shia and Ahmadi Muslims.
The marriage law does not explicitly forbid interfaith marriage, but it contains an article stipulating that parties must perform the marriage ceremony according to the rituals of a religion shared by both the bride and groom.
The law requires the leader of an aliran kepercayaan group to demonstrate group members live in at least three regencies, which are administrative designations one level below a province, before the leader may officiate legally at a wedding. This constraint effectively bars believers of some smaller groups without such geographic presence from receiving official marriage services from a member of their faith, although groups may aid each other and facilitate marriages by a group with a similar faith tradition and rituals.
A joint ministerial decree requires domestic religious organizations to obtain approval from the MORA to receive funding from overseas donors and forbids dissemination of religious literature and pamphlets to members of other religious groups as well as going door-to-door for the purposes of converting others. Most religious groups may, however, proselytize in their own places of worship, except for some groups such as the Ahmadi Muslims.
Foreign religious workers must obtain religious worker visas, and foreign religious organizations must obtain permission from the MORA to provide any type of assistance (in-kind, personnel, or financial) to local religious groups.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In Aceh, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, despite a 2018 ban on public canings announced by Aceh’s governor. Government and sharia officials stated non-Muslim residents of Aceh could choose punishment under sharia or civil court procedures, but Muslim residents of Aceh must receive punishment under sharia. According to media reports and human rights activists, several non-Muslim residents of Aceh chose punishment under sharia, reportedly due to the expediency of punishment and the risk of prolonged and expensive trials and possible lengthy prison sentences.
In August authorities in Aceh caned a Buddhist man and his Muslim girlfriend 27 times after the couple spent time in a Banda Aceh hotel room. According to a local reporter, the man accepted sharia punishment as an alternative to a prison sentence. He was the third Buddhist and eighth non-Muslim to choose punishment under sharia law since its introduction in 2014. Authorities also caned four unmarried Muslim couples between eight and 33 times each for extramarital sex, and they caned two unmarried couples 100 times each in the northern Aceh city of Lhokseumawe after they were found guilty of premarital sex, while a third man received 160 lashes for having sex with a minor.
In March the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by Meliana, an ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman, who in 2018 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for blasphemy. The accusation came after she privately asked a local mosque caretaker’s daughter that the mosque lower its loudspeaker volume. Vice President Jusuf Kalla and some senior members of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, said her remarks should not be considered blasphemy. In May she was released on parole after serving the mandatory two-thirds of her prison term.
In April the Special Criminal Police of Bangka Belitung investigated and detained Daud Rafles, a resident of Sekar Biru Village, Bangka Island, for blasphemy. Village residents identified Rafles in a viral video in which he allegedly read the Quran disrespectfully.
In June, according to Human Rights Watch, authorities arrested a Catholic woman, Suzethe Margaret, and charged her with blasphemy after taking a dog into a mosque. Witnesses stated she was looking for her husband and accused individuals at the mosque of converting him to Islam to marry another woman. She allegedly kicked a mosque guard when asked to leave. Doctors stated the woman needed psychiatric treatment and did not understand what she did. Reports stated the woman faced up to five years in prison if convicted. At year’s end, prosecutors recommended the court sentence the woman to eight months in prison.
In April the Mayor of Malang, East Java, issued a circular urging non-Muslims not to “eat, drink, or smoke” in public places during Ramadan because it could hurt the feelings of fasting Muslims. The circular was posted on Malang’s municipal government twitter account.
In April the press reported that a Catholic family was forced to leave Karet Village in Bantul, Yogyakarta, after staying one night in a house the family rented; local residents protested the family’s presence and filed a report with Bantul regency officials. According to media reports, some villagers from Karet argued that under district law all newcomers must be Muslim. After mediation, the village chief and Bantul Regency government officials told the family they could stay in the village; press reports, however, stated the family chose to leave.
In March church leaders from the Christian church Gereja Bethel Indonesia in South Birobuli, Central Sulawesi, closed their place of worship due to objections from the local community. Media reported that church leaders, the head of the FKUB, local officials, and police met to discuss the fate of the church and that the church failed to receive approval from at least 60 members of the local community, as required by MORA regulation. Police told media that the land where the church was located was in dispute and the church did not have a building permit.
According to The Jakarta Christian Post, in August authorities revoked a recently issued permit for a Pentecostal church in Yogyakarta after protests and threats from Muslims in the area. The district chief stated he revoked the permit because the church did not meet requirements established by a ministerial decree regulating houses of worship, saying “a house of worship cannot be a home at the same time.”
In August according to media reports, the Indragiri Hilir District Civil Service Police Unit (Satpol PP) stopped worship activities at the Indonesian Pentecostal church Efata Church in Sari Agung Hamlet, Indragiri Hilir Regency, Riau. Worship activities had been proceeding there for five years. The head of Satpol PP said officials had to stop worship activities because they occurred at the pastor’s house and not in a house of worship. According to officials, the decision to stop services was made after the district government consulted with district leaders and the district FKUB, which included Christian representatives from Tembilahan, the district capital. A legal aid organization said the Sari Agung Hamlet pastor leading the congregation was not consulted during the process and therefore chose to continue to conduct religious services at a nearby tent. Local authorities identified an alternate worship site nine miles away from the pastor’s residence, but the congregation rejected this location due to its inaccessibility.
In September the regional secretary of Makassar Municipality in South Sulawesi released a government circular that stated, “Be wary of and not be influenced by Shia ideology and teachings.” The letter, issued on the day Ashura was observed, also asked persons to prevent dissemination of Shiism, calling it “deviant teaching.” Media reported the circular was based on an “illegal” circular issued by the South Sulawesi government in 2017. Dozens of human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists in Makassar issued a statement a week later criticizing the circular and demanding that the provincial and municipal governments stop issuing what they termed intolerant circulars and prevent intolerant actions in the community.
In September the Regent of Gowa, South Sulawesi, issued a decree disbanding Tarekat Taj Al-Khalwaty Syech Yusuf, a Sufi religious group with 10,000 followers across Gowa and Takalar Regencies. The decision followed a 2016 heresy fatwa issued by the Gowa branch of MUI against the group. MUI Gowa reported the group and its leaders to the police for blasphemy and defamation against MUI Gowa and money laundering. In November Gowa police arrested the group’s leader, Puang Lalang, on charges of financial fraud, embezzlement, and blasphemy for charging followers up to 50,000 Indonesian rupiah ($4) for membership. MUI also issued heresy fatwas against the group in Sinjai Regency and Takalar Regency, South Sulawesi.
In September the speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly disallowed a non-Muslim female member from reading a prayer at the legislature’s final session on September 27, which would have marked the first time a non-Muslim woman read the closing prayers.
The government continued to support a smartphone app called Smart Pakem allowing citizens to file heresy or blasphemy reports against individuals and groups with what the government considers unofficial or unorthodox religious practices. The Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office launched the app in December 2018 with the expressed goal of streamlining the heresy and blasphemy reporting system. Various human rights organizations continued to criticize the app, saying it could undermine religious tolerance and freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, the app identifies several religious groups and their leaders (including Ahmadi, Shia, and Gafatar), describes their “deviant teachings,” and provides their local office addresses.
The MORA maintained its authority at both the national and local level to conduct the “development” of religious groups and believers, including efforts to convert minority religious groups to Sunni Islam. In several West Java regencies, local governments continued efforts to force or encourage conversion of Ahmadi Muslims with a requirement that Ahmadis sign forms renouncing their beliefs in order to register their marriages or participate in the Hajj. According to the local Ahmadiyya community in Tasikmalaya and Banjar, local MORA offices obliged Ahmadis to sign forms stating they denounced Ahmadiyya teachings. This practice began in 2014.
According to religious groups and NGOs, government officials and police sometimes failed to prevent “intolerant groups” from infringing on others’ religious freedom and committing other acts of intimidation, such as damaging or destroying houses of worship and homes. These groups included the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council. For example, the FPI’s registration as a religious organization expired in June. Sources stated the FPI is known for violence against minority religious groups and forcing the shutdown of bars and entertainment establishments it deems immoral. In May an online petition was created demanding the MOHA not renew the FPI’s permit. As of year’s end, the MOHA did not indicate that it would renew the permit, despite the MORA endorsing the renewal of the permit in December, and the group had no legal status.
In March Setara Institute reported there were 202 cases of religious freedom abuses in 2018 (72 cases committed by government and the rest by society), compared with 151 cases in 2017. Abuses cited included discrimination, intolerance, and prohibitions on wearing hijabs in public school.
In September civil society organization The Wahid Foundation reported 276 cases of religious persecution in 2018, as defined by the foundation, including 130 from government-related institutions. The foundation recorded 265 cases in 2017, including 95 from government-related institutions. The foundation’s reported abuses included the issuance of sharia-based local regulations and prohibitions on building houses of worship.
In June the Pemalang police chief in Central Java conducted tolerance training for his police unit by having police officers and the public clean houses of worship of different faiths. In September NGO Madania conducted tolerance training called “Peace Initiative” for religious teachers.
In November FPI members intimidated the non-Muslim Regent of West Bangka, Bangka Belitung, to prevent his celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in his official residence.
More than 500 Shia Muslims from Madura remained displaced on the outskirts of Surabaya, East Java, after communal violence forced them from their homes in 2012. In Mataram, the capital of West Nusa Tenggara, 131 Ahmadi Muslims remained internally displaced in cramped apartments after a mob expelled them from their Lombok village in 2006.
Human rights organizations criticized a proposed bill, withdrawn after widespread protests, that would have revised the criminal code and expanded the 1965 blasphemy law. The bill proposed increasing the enumeration of “the elements of crime” to include items such as defaming religious artifacts. A coalition of local civil society organizations said the law would discriminate against non-Muslims, non-Sunni Muslims, local religious minorities, as well as women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.
Across the country, minority religious groups, including Muslim groups in non-Muslim majority areas, continued to state the official requirement for a specific number of supporters to build or renovate a house of worship served as a barrier to construction. In May a group of Hindus wanted to build a temple in Bekasi, West Java. Persons in the surrounding area rejected the project by saying the number of Hindus in the neighborhood was too low.
Local governments did not issue permits even when the worshippers obtained the requisite numbers if opponents of the construction pressured neighbors not to approve. In many cases, a few vocal opponents from the local majority religious affiliation were reportedly sufficient to stop construction approvals. State-recognized religious leaders in government-supported interfaith forums reportedly found ways to block aliran kepercayaan believers from constructing places of worship, largely through stringent permit requirements. Aliran kepercayaan adherents said they were fearful of atheism accusations if they were to contest this treatment in court. Christian leaders reported that local officials indefinitely delayed permit approval for requests to build new churches because these officials feared construction would incite protests. Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and Christians said they also faced problems when seeking approval to move to temporary facilities while a primary place of worship underwent renovation.
Local governments, police, and religious organizations reportedly tried to close religious minority groups’ houses of worship for permit violations, often after protests from “intolerant groups,” even if the minority groups had a proper permit. In July the Regent of Bantul, Yogyakarta, removed the building permit from a Pentecostal church in Sedayu, Bantul, following protests and pressure by the local community.
Many congregations could not obtain the requisite number of nonmember signatures supporting construction of a house of worship and often faced protest from “intolerant groups” during the application process, making permits nearly impossible to obtain. Even when authorities issued permits, they closed or forced construction to halt on some houses of worship after facing legal challenges and public protests. Protestant and Catholic churches also reported that “intolerant groups” forced them to pay protection money to continue operating without a permit. Some houses of worship established before the joint ministerial decree on house of worship construction came into effect reportedly were still obligated to meet the requirements or face closure. Many houses of worship operated without permits in office buildings, malls, private homes, and shops.
In August local residents stopped the construction project of an Indonesian Baptist church in Tlogosari Wetan, Semarang, Central Java. They argued that the building permit owned by the group had expired, and they subsequently blocked access to the project site where the church was being built. The Semarang administration subsequently decided to review the building permit. Semarang Mayor Hendrar Prihadi said the church construction would be halted until he verified the permit’s validity.
Church leaders in Jambi said they had been trying to obtain appropriate building permits from the city administration to build places of worship since 2003, but city authorities had not granted these due to opposition from community authorities. The head of the Jambi Municipal Civil Service Police Unit said three churches were shut down in 2018 because they violated regional regulations and did not have proper building permits. At year’s end, the three churches remained closed. In 2018 an activist created a petition online urging the government to reopen these churches. As of December, approximately 3,900 people had signed the petition.
Construction was completed on the Santa Clara Catholic Church in Bekasi, West Java. The congregation had waited more than 15 years for the approval of its construction permit before receiving it in 2015, and “intolerant groups” regularly targeted the construction site for protests. The church was formally opened by the Bekasi mayor on August 17.
Aliran kepercayaan followers continued to say teachers pressured them to send their children to a religious education class of one of the six officially recognized religions. Minority religious groups not among the six recognized religions said schools often allowed their children to spend religious education time in study hall, but school officials required parents to sign documents stating their children received religious education. Ahmadi Muslim students reported religion classes for Islam focused only on Sunni teachings.
In November media reported that a public school expelled two Jehovah’s Witness students after they declined to recite the national anthem, salute the national flag, and attend religious classes, citing their beliefs. The decision to expel the students was made in coordination with the local MORA branch, the Batam Education Authority, police, and the military. Following objections filed by a law firm representing the expelled students, the provincial Board of Education in Batam eventually ordered the cancelation of the expulsion letters. The two students returned to school after almost two months.
Although the government generally allowed citizens to leave the religion column blank on their KTPs, individuals continued to report difficulties accessing government services if they did so. Faced with this problem, many religious minority members, including those following indigenous beliefs, reportedly chose to identify as a member of an officially recognized religion close to their beliefs or reflecting the locally dominant religion. According to researchers, this practice obscured the real number of adherents to any particular religious group in government statistics. Following a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling, citizens were allowed to select indigenous faiths as an option on their KTPs. In 2018 MORA officials said they were planning on implementing this law in order to identify indigenous faiths on KTPs. Early in the year, three jurisdictions began issuing KTPs that allowed the faith category “Faith in One God” in South Sulawesi, Bandung, and Cirebon (West Java).
NGOs and religious advocacy groups continued to urge the government to remove the religion field from KTPs. Religious minorities reported they sometimes faced discrimination after others saw their religious affiliation on their KTPs. Members of the Jewish community said they felt uncomfortable stating their religion in public and often chose to state they were Christians or Muslims depending on the dominant religion where they lived, due to concern that local communities did not understand their religion.
Men and women of different religions who sought to marry reportedly had difficulties finding a religious official willing to perform a wedding ceremony. Some couples of different religions selected the same religion on their KTPs in order to marry legally.
Minority Muslim groups, including Ahmadis, Shia, and Gafatar, also continued to report resistance when they applied for KTPs as Muslims, effectively denying them access to public services if they could not secure KTPs.
Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. For example, the Mayor of Solo was Catholic. After beginning a second term in October, President Widodo’s new 34-member cabinet included six members of minority faiths, the same as during his previous administration.
Foreign religious workers from many religious groups continued to state they found it relatively easy to obtain visas, and some groups reported little government interference with their religious activities.
Police provided special protection to some Catholic churches in major cities during Sunday services and Christian holidays. Police also provided special protection to Buddhist and Hindu temples during religious celebrations.
According to the law, a marriage is legitimate if it has been performed according to the laws of the respective religions and beliefs of the parties concerned. Nevertheless, interreligious marriage was difficult unless the groom or bride was willing to be married according to the religious rituals of only one of the two religions. Many individuals who performed interreligious marriage preferred to go abroad for the marriage.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to an Ahmadiyya leader in Bandung, West Java, “intolerant groups” continued to use MUI fatwas to justify actions against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, even though the fatwas lacked legal standing. For example, in January a group of individuals disbanded a book discussion organized by Ahmadiyya in Bandung, West Java, saying the book promoted Ahmadiyya messages.
Individuals affiliated at the local level with MUI used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadis as deviant sects. In July 12 anti-Ahmadiyya groups protested against an Ahmadiyya annual event in Gowa, South Sulawesi, held by members to discuss their annual strategy. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media.
Throughout the year there were disputes between religious groups in the predominantly Christian province of Papua. Some religious leaders stated that many disputes between ethnic Papuans and migrants to Papua were based on ethnicity, economic competition, and political grievances rather than religion. In July a group called the Moral Guard Alliance Makassar forced the closure of two food stalls that sold pork at a shopping mall in Makassar. The organization’s leader told media the mall management closed the stalls in response to an alliance letter asking the mall to prohibit nonhalal food items. Mall management said it would try to find a more suitable location for the stalls. The two food stalls opened in January, and the mall management stated the stalls put up signs warning visitors that they sold nonhalal food.
In May prominent leaders from all of Surabaya’s principal faith communities participated in commemorations of the anniversary of the May 2018 suicide bomber attack on three churches. Local Islamic youth groups in coordination with police provided extra security outside Surabaya churches in conjunction with the anniversary. Christian leaders in Surabaya said they were encouraged by sympathy and support shown toward the affected Christians by the local Muslim community.
In August Ustadz Abdul Somad, a Muslim cleric from Riau, was reported to district police for blasphemy when a video recorded three years earlier had gone viral. In the video, Somad said a Christian cross contained a kafir (infidel) genie (demon) in response to a question from a worshipper. Members of Horas Bangso Batak (a North Sumatra ethnic-based organization that is mostly Christian) filed a complaint with the district police in Metrojaya, Jakarta. Members of Brigade Meo, a Christian-based organization in East Nusa Tenggara, also reported him to the local police. At year’s end, the case remained under police investigation.
In March German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that several Jewish graves in a public cemetery in Jakarta were desecrated.
In October the inaugural report on anti-Semitism by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed found that “over 57 percent of teachers and lecturers and 53.74 percent of students in Indonesia agreed with a survey statement claiming that ‘Jews are the enemies of Islam.’” Additionally, the report stated that local Jewish community leaders reported it was common for the public to equate all Jews with Israel.
According to AsiaNews, in April unknown individuals damaged several wooden crosses at a Christian cemetery in Mrican, Yogyakarta.
MUI supported a Christian funeral service taking place in front of a mosque in Jakarta in September.
Many individuals in the government, media, civil society, and general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism. In November Vice President Ma’ruf Amin and Grand Imam of Istiqlal Mosque Nasaruddin Umar stated that religious tolerance would be an increasing focus in the country’s education.
The largest and most influential religious groups and NGOs, including the two largest Islamic groups in the country – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – officially endorsed and advocated for tolerance, pluralism, and the protection of minority groups in many instances. For example, in February Haedar Nashir, Muhammadiyah chairman, called on all citizens to demonstrate tolerance and to live in peace with other religious communities. Said Aqil Siradj, Nahdlatul Ulama chairman, stated in August that tolerance was an important element of a proper attitude and a good personality.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The embassy in Jakarta, the consulate general in Surabaya, and the consulate in Medan regularly engaged with all levels of government on specific religious freedom issues, such as actions against religious minorities; closures of places of worship; access for foreign religious organizations; convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion; the undue influence of “intolerant groups” and the importance of the rule of law; the application of sharia to non-Muslims; the importance of education and interfaith dialogue in promoting tolerance; the equal protection of all citizens regardless of their religion; and promotion of tolerance in international forums. Specifically, the embassy met with legislators and other government officials to advocate against the expansion of blasphemy provisions in a bill to amend the criminal code.
The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism, a civil-society-led entity endorsed by both governments, includes a diverse group of experts, academics, and religious and civil society leaders from both countries established to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and tolerance. The Ambassador engaged its leadership to discuss ways to augment the council’s activity on issues affecting the country’s religious communities. In particular, the Ambassador urged council members to engage in activities with U.S. members and to use the council as a vehicle for joint collaboration between the two countries to combat violent extremism and promote religious freedom.
During Ramadan, the embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach throughout the country to highlight religious tolerance. The Ambassador promoted religious freedom and tolerance during his appearance on two of the country’s highest-rated television shows. A social media campaign used embassy-produced Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr videos to promote interfaith tolerance within the country.
The embassy’s annual “Ramadan in the U.S.” campaign promoted democratic values including tolerance, volunteerism, and strength in diversity. As part of the campaign, 4,000 high school and university students heard directly from U.S. government-sponsored exchange program former participants about their firsthand experiences of religious tolerance and diversity during their time in the United States. By highlighting the experiences of Muslim travelers and Muslim communities in the United States, the campaign celebrated interfaith tolerance.
In March embassy officials met with Muslim and Christian leaders, as well as with members of the local FKUB, in Jayapura, Papua, to discuss efforts to resolve disputes between religious groups in the province.
In April the Ambassador met with prominent Muslim leaders in Padang, hosted an iftar in an Islamic boarding school for women in Padang Panjang in West Sumatra, and discussed tolerance and religious freedom.
In October the consulate in Medan invited Muslim scholars from the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Cleric Coordination Body and Muslim academics from the North Sumatra Islamic State University De-Radicalization Research Center for dialogue on Islamic issues with visiting Washington-based officials.
The Ambassador met periodically with leaders of the country’s two largest Muslim organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, to discuss religious tolerance and pluralism and to further develop areas of cooperation.
The embassy implemented several professional exchange programs designed to foster and encourage religious tolerance. These included sponsoring a visit to the United States by eight influential imams (including the senior-most religious leader of the country and the imam of the largest mosque in Southeast Asia) to examine religious pluralism and promote tolerance. Other groups of civil society leaders, university officials, and the head of madrassah teacher training at the MORA attended programs focused on promoting pluralism and tolerance across religious divides and advancing interfaith relations.
The embassy created a new exchange program to expose emerging leaders within Islamic organizations to religious pluralism in the United States, in order to increase religious tolerance in Indonesia by showing how religious tolerance in the United States benefits the entire society.
The embassy sponsored four university students to participate in a Department of State-funded religious freedom program at Temple University. The embassy also sponsored the participation of five individuals in a program, which included a forum on “Tolerance and Coexistence” in November. During the forum, experts discussed topics such as “Interfaith Relations and Global Peace in the Digital Age” and “Making Sense of the New Information Space to Combat Divisions and Polarization.”
The embassy promoted participation in a parliamentary exchange program on religious tolerance and combating online hate speech. The program seeks to enhance the ability of members of parliament to utilize best legislative practices to combat hate speech and protect vulnerable groups against discrimination.
Embassy officials met regularly with counterparts from other embassies to discuss support for the freedom of religion and belief and to exchange information on areas of concern, programs being implemented, and possible areas of cooperation.
The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. On January 21, citizens of the five provinces and three major cities of western Mindanao ratified the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), creating a new Muslim-led autonomous region and abolishing the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The measure provided the area’s majority Muslim population a larger region of authority. Although the referendum was widely backed by national Muslim and Christian groups, some local religious minorities continued to express concerns about the new authority. On March 29, President Rodrigo Duterte led the inauguration ceremony of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The Office of the President’s National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) continued to promote the rights of Muslims at the national and local level. Catholic Church clergy continued to criticize the president’s policies, especially the drug war and his desire to reinstate the death penalty. Although the president agreed to stop denouncing the Church in 2018, he continued to express his displeasure with the conduct of its clergy. A number of priests critical of the government’s drug war received explicit death threats and raised concerns that the president’s negative statements promoted attacks against clergy. In July the government charged some members of the opposition, along with four Catholic bishops and three priests, with sedition, cyber libel, libel, and obstruction of justice because of their alleged involvement in the release of a supposed antigovernment video.
During the year, killings, bombings, and kidnappings by ISIS-affiliated and other militant groups continued. ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks, including a January suicide bombing at a cathedral in Jolo that killed 20 persons and wounded several others. In August a cathedral in Baguio received bomb threats, allegedly from ISIS affiliates. Following the attacks, members of the Catholic and Muslim communities gathered in the cathedral to show solidarity against terrorism. On December 22, an explosion occurred outside a Catholic church during its Sunday Mass. By year’s end no public claim of responsibility for the attacks had emerged, though authorities suggested ISIS-linked groups were the most likely perpetrators.
Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity. Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported some tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu. The NCMF reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year, but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country. Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination.
In a U.S. embassy-organized forum in June, Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) representatives and legislative branch staffers discussed implementation of the BOL, including its implications for religious minorities and the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas. In meetings with religious groups, the government, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), embassy representatives highlighted the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The embassy sponsored the visit to the United States of two scholars, who had advocated religious tolerance and social inclusion, for a three-week law and leadership program, and encouraged a local NGO to incorporate a religious tolerance module into its teaching curriculum.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 107.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2015 census (the most recent) conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), 79.5 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 9 percent belong to other Christian groups, including Seventh-day Adventists, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Bible Baptist Church, other Protestant churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other Christian groups include locally established churches such as the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan), Members Church of God International, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the Name Above Every Name. Approximately 6 percent of the population is Muslim, according to the PSA; the NCMF estimates that 10 to 11 percent of the population is Muslim. The NCMF attributes the higher estimate to a number of factors: the reluctance of Muslims to officially register with the civil registrar office or to participate in the formal survey, the community’s transience due to internal movement for work, and the government’s failure to survey Muslim areas and communities thoroughly. According to the PSA, approximately 4 percent of those surveyed in the 2015 census did not report a religious affiliation or belong to other groups, such as animism or indigenous syncretic faiths.
A majority of Muslims are members of various ethnic minority groups and reside in Mindanao and nearby islands in the south. Although most are practitioners of Sunni Islam, a small minority of Shia Muslims live in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur on Mindanao. An increasing number of Muslims are migrating to the urban centers of Manila, Baguio, Dumaguete, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Cotabato, and Davao, a trend that accelerated after the May-October 2017 siege of Marawi in which local residents fled to other provinces for their security.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. No religious test is required for the exercise of civil or political rights. The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state. The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law. The law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship, as well as any person “notoriously” offending religious feelings during such services or in a place of worship.
The law requires organized religious groups to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to establish tax-exempt status. Religious groups must submit their articles of faith and bylaws for SEC registration as religious corporations. The SEC requires religious corporations to submit annual financial statements. The law does not specify penalties for failure to register with the SEC. To register as a nonstock, nonprofit organization, religious groups must meet the basic requirements for corporate registration with the BIR and must request tax exemption from the BIR. The basic requirements for registration include a name verification of the religious corporation, articles of incorporation and bylaws, the name of a director, list of members, and a list of financial contributors. The BIR provides tax exemptions to newly established religious corporations that are then reviewed for renewal every three years. The BIR may fine religious corporations for the late filing of registrations or for failing to submit registration datasheets and financial statements.
The government permits religious instruction in public schools with written parental consent, provided there is no cost to the government. Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory, parents must express in writing a desire for their child to attend religious instruction for a specific denomination, and the various groups share classroom space. Students who do not attend religious instruction because no class was offered in their denomination or because their parents did not express a desire receive normal supervised class time. The government also allows groups to distribute religious literature in public schools. The law mandates that government agencies address religious issues and consult recognized experts on Filipino Muslim beliefs, as well as the history, culture, and identity of indigenous peoples, when formulating the national history curriculum.
By law, public schools must protect the religious rights of students. Muslim girls may wear the hijab and are not required to wear shorts during physical education classes.
The government recognizes sharia in all parts of the country through a presidential decree. Sharia courts are organized into five sharia districts, all located in the south of the country; Muslims residing in other areas must travel to these districts to pursue an action in a sharia court. Sharia courts handle only cases relating to personal laws affecting family relations and property. Sharia does not apply in criminal matters and applies only to Muslims. The state court system hears cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims, and national laws apply in those cases.
The BOL ratified on January 21 creates the BARMM, a new Muslim-led autonomous region. The BARMM replaces the former governing authority, the ARMM. The new entity has jurisdiction over five provinces and three major, noncontiguous cities. The BOL provides the framework for the transition to greater autonomy for the area’s majority Muslim population.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Some Catholic clergy who vocally criticized extrajudicial killings attributed to the war on drugs under President Duterte or who stated their opposition to the reinstatement of the death penalty reported being harassed, intimidated, and threatened with death by unknown perpetrators following Duterte’s threats against them in late 2018, which sources stated he and his government subsequently tried to walk back. In July following the release of a video linking President Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade, the government charged some members of the opposition, along with four Catholic bishops and three priests, with sedition, cyber libel, libel, and obstruction of justice concerning their alleged involvement in the video’s production and release. Various ecumenical groups condemned the charges, filed through the Philippine National Police (PNP) Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) received a complaint through its social media account saying a local government office in South Cotabato prohibited Balik-Islam (Philippine converts to Islam) from constructing mosques within its village. Initially, the local government stated that the structures did not meet building codes, but after public pressure, it relented and allowed the mosque projects to move forward. After conducting an investigation into a refusal to erect a mosque by local officials in Panagasinan, the NCMF determined that local officials halted construction because residents cited concerns that having the religious structure in their community might incite terrorism.
The CHR Mindanao regional office expressed concern over reported cases of church leaders and faith-based organizations being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. In February leaflets containing names of alleged NPA members, reportedly including some religious leaders, were posted and distributed in public places and private gatherings by unknown individuals; the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and PNP publicly denied any involvement.
In November media reported that the AFP included the National Council of Churches Philippines (NCCP) in a list of 18 organizations it described or “red-tagged” as communist terrorist groups or groups wittingly or unwittingly providing funds to such groups. The NCCP, one of the largest associations of Protestant and non-Roman Catholic denominations in the Philippines, described the listing as an “attack on [their] Christian faith and tradition.”
On several occasions, President Duterte expressed disapproval of the Catholic Church, despite his 2018 vow not to do so. In a public speech in February he said Catholicism may disappear in 25 years because of various criminal allegations, such as corruption and sexual abuse. Media reported that the criticism could relate more to the Church’s criticism of human rights abuses in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. Duterte added in a speech in September that he would not support the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) celebration in 2021 of 500 years of Catholicism in the country. Some clergy continued to raise concerns that the manner in which the president denounced the Church promoted violence against its priests and leaders.
The Department of Education continued to support its Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program for Muslim students in private madrassahs and public elementary schools with a Muslim population of 10 percent or greater. For the 2018-19 school year, 1,686 public elementary schools administered the voluntary ALIVE program for 145,591 students, compared to 1,622 schools and 158,093 students the previous year.
Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF and Department of Education, both, or neither. Registered madrassahs received government funding and produced curricula that were subject to government oversight. There were 85 private madrassahs registered with the Department of Education during the 2018-2019 school year. Many private madrassahs, however, choose to remain unregistered rather than allow government oversight, according to Department of Education representatives.
The Department of Education’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system. By law, only registered schools/madrassahs may receive financial assistance from the government. Madrassahs registered by the Department of Education followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for classrooms, facilities, and educators who taught the Revised Basic Education Curriculum. The overall funding for and attendance at private madrassahs increased by 25 percent from the previous year. During the year, the Department of Education provided funding of 90,960,000 pesos ($1.8 million) to 18,192 private madrassah students, compared to 67,510,000 pesos ($1.33 million) allocated to 13,502 private madrassah students in 2018.
A study by the Institute for Autonomy and Governance showed that 90 percent of 169 madrassahs surveyed in 2018 sought government recognition and support; however, the study stated that complicated accreditation processes and requirements hindered them from registering. The survey also conveyed the concerns of Muslim school leaders about the perception that terrorist groups used traditional madrassahs for recruitment, especially after the Marawi siege. The NCMF distributed books in April in order to alleviate community concerns that all traditional Muslim schools bred violent extremist ideologies.
On March 29, President Duterte led the inauguration ceremony of the BARMM. The results of a January plebiscite added Basilan and Cotabato City to BARMM territories. Although the move was widely backed by Muslims and Christians nationwide, some local religious minorities continued to express their concerns about the new authority. The BARMM government designated two seats, one for a Christian and one for an indigenous delegate, to its council to allay minority community concerns. BARMM authorities, an amalgamation of members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and presidential appointees, continued setting up their government, establishing budget priorities, staffing offices, and implementing infrastructure projects. The BARMM government continued to reinforce existing legislation that governed the application of sharia and provided an alternative dispute mechanism for non-Muslims seeking redress in the courts.
NCMF officials said that anti-Muslim discrimination continued to occur in government offices but cited no specific examples. Some Muslim leaders, including an NCMF official, expressed concern about the low percentage of Muslims in senior government and military positions. There were 13 Muslims in the 301-member House of Representatives and one Muslim cabinet appointee. No members of the Senate were Muslim. In October seven Muslim lawmakers of the House of Representatives and the Federation of Free Workers issued statements calling for President Duterte to appoint a Muslim justice to the 15-person supreme court for the first time since 1995.
The PSA estimated during the year that 40 percent of five million total unregistered residents were children aged between birth and 14, primarily among Muslim and indigenous groups. Citizenship derives from birth to a citizen parent. The government initiated a pilot program in Metro Manila that provides undocumented Muslim Filipinos with an identity card – the Muslim Filipino Identity Card– stating that it was intended to help them access services, since many in this population did not have a birth certificate. Sources stated that the lack of a birth certificate did not generally result in a denial of education or other services, but it could cause delays in some circumstances. Undocumented Filipinos could use this secondary identification when applying for jobs, schools, and for other government services in lieu of a birth certificate or formal registry. The NCMF noted that this secondary identification helped overseas Filipino workers who found themselves in precarious labor situations. If their employers confiscated their passports, these secondary IDs could speed the government’s citizenship assessment, thus providing fast repatriation services. Critics expressed reservations about the potential for abuse in similar initiatives in the past.
Muslim officials reported that while Muslim prison detainees were allowed to engage in religious observances, Roman Catholic Mass was often broadcast by loudspeaker to both Catholic and non-Catholic prison populations.
In March the NCMF, along with other religious leaders, participated in an interfaith dialogue in Cebu City to highlight the importance of youth involvement in curbing violent extremism. NCMF Secretary Saidamen Pangarungan stressed that an effective way of achieving peace was through interfaith collaboration.
In January the Department of Tourism announced plans to make the country a significant “religious pilgrimage destination” by restoring and developing historic churches and Christian shrines throughout the country.
The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment continued to administer logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims. The NCMF reported that 7,232 individuals made the pilgrimage during the year, lower than the 8,000-limit set by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj for pilgrims from the Philippines, but an increase of 1,419 persons from the previous year. The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee the establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects.
In February the senate adopted a resolution filed by Senate President Vicente Sotto declaring the first Thursday of February “Synchronized National Interfaith Prayers for Peace and Reconciliation.” The resolution aimed to encourage Filipinos of all religious groups to participate in a universal prayer for peace.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity.
Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported tensions among different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu. Social media comments denigrating the beliefs or practices of Muslims continued to appear.
The NCMF received several formal complaints of discrimination on the grounds of Muslim religious identity during the year. The organization reported that Muslims received stares in public for wearing hijabs, particularly in schools and banks. NCMF noted a successful legal intervention on behalf of a Muslim nursing student whose school, citing health concerns, initially prevented her from wearing a hijab. The NCMF also stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination continued to exist throughout the country, particularly among detainees in correctional institutions.
Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination. The CBCP collaborated with other Christian groups and civil society networks to prepare for the implementation of the BOL. Other interfaith efforts by the CBCP, but not limited to religious freedom issues, included multi-sectoral consultations and meetings with provincial and local governments on localizing humanitarian coordination and collaboration against human trafficking.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In June the embassy organized a forum with BTA representatives and legislative branch staffers to discuss the implementation of the BOL, including its implications for religious minorities and the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas, as the BARMM moved forward. Embassy officers also met with religious leaders, CHR, and the Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss religious freedom issues, including the BOL.
Cognizant of the vital role that faith and education play in fostering peace in Mindanao, the embassy continued outreach and training with madrassah educators through the Empowering Madrassah Educators (EmpoweringME) program. Since 2015, EmpoweringME has provided intensive teacher training for 325 madrassah educators and administrators in Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Cotabato City, and Basilan. During the year, EmpoweringME introduced a module on social inclusion, which added matters relating to religious tolerance to its curriculum. The embassy also sponsored the visit of two scholars known for their work on religious tolerance and social inclusion to the United States for a three-week course on law and leadership. The program educated its participants not only on the law, but also on how to mitigate gender and religious intolerance they may face in their work. The embassy supported a two-year grant to a former participant of an embassy program to develop and implement a peace education curriculum, which included aspects of religious tolerance, in the 11 schools that comprise the Mindanao State University system. The Philippine Commission on Higher Education expressed interest in integrating elements of this peace curriculum across its entire nationwide network of colleges and universities. The embassy featured all these programs in press releases and on social media.
A senior embassy official hosted an iftar reception in May at a public university in Manila attended by more than 100 guests from the NCMF, civil society organizations, higher education, and religious and community sectors. He spoke about the importance of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s support in rebuilding the Islamic city of Marawi, as well as other forms of assistance across conflict-affected areas of Mindanao. The embassy also supported an interfaith forum to highlight the plight of the internally displaced persons of the Marawi siege and international religious freedom issues. In addition, the embassy hosted an iftar in Davao that was attended by BARMM officials and Muslim scholars.
The embassy regularly highlighted support for religious freedom and the protection of civil liberties for people of all faiths on its various online platforms. It posted a tweet in observance of the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief on August 22. The Ambassador posted tweets for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, while the embassy posted Facebook and Twitter content for the celebrations. Other notable posts included an ambassadorial tweet and embassy Facebook and Twitter posts publicizing the statement of the Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; an embassy tweet on the confirmation of the identity of Maute group leader Abu Dar; ambassadorial and embassy tweets of condolences for the victims of the Jolo Cathedral Bombings; and an ambassadorial tweet on the Bangsamoro plebiscite and the establishment of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority.
In October the embassy hosted a U.S. Muslim for five days of speaking engagements in Manila and Mindanao and programs on conflict transformation. The individual spoke on university campuses and at American Centers to engage emerging leaders on current issues in the BARMM.
The constitution “prohibits discrimination based on religious belief” and “protects religious liberty, as long as the exercise of religious freedom is not harmful to the security of the State.” The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process, outside the national civil code, for Muslim residents of the “Deep South” for family law, including inheritance. The Muslim community in the Deep South – described as southernmost provinces near the Malaysian border – continued to express frustration with perceived discriminatory treatment by security forces and what it says is a judicial system that lacks adequate checks and balances. In September the Royal Thai Police requested universities nationwide supply information on Muslim-organized student groups in the wake of the arrest of three ethnic Malay Muslims from Narathiwat Province in connection with multiple bombings that injured three persons during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial in Bangkok. The decision sparked protests in the human rights community and authorities postponed enforcement. As in previous years, authorities arrested and detained migrants without stay permits, including some refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and asylum seekers. The government’s traditional position on these arrests is that they were not motivated by religious affiliation and that members of a multitude of different religious groups were detained. In some cases, UNHCR-recognized refugees (including those fleeing religious persecution) reported staying in immigrant detention centers (IDCs) in crowded conditions for multiple years. Media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported during the year that several dozen Uighur Muslims from China remained in IDCs across the country, most of them reportedly in detention for more than five years. In December the government approved a new screening mechanism that provides temporary protection from deportation to individuals determined by the government to be protected persons. UNHCR and some NGOs welcomed the new regulation, but others expressed concern the process may be subject to political interference.
Insurgency-related violence continued in the Malay Muslim-majority Deep South, where religious and ethnic identity are closely linked in a longstanding separatist conflict. Insurgents were blamed for a November 6 attack at a checkpoint in Yala Province that left 13 Buddhists and two Muslims dead, most of whom were village defense volunteers. An insurgent attack on security forces guarding a school in Pattani in January resulted in the death of four Muslim security guards.
U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met regularly with Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders, academics, and elected officials as part of the embassy’s effort to promote religious pluralism and reconciliation and to discuss complex religious issues in society, including ethnic identity and politics. In November the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with Buddhist, Muslim, and Catholic faith and civil society leaders to explore opportunities for and challenges to improve interfaith tolerance and religious freedom in the country. The embassy and consulate general organized workshops on peace and facilitated the presentation of speakers from the United States on religious freedom, engaging Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians in interfaith dialogue on the importance of protecting the rights of religious minorities to preserve freedom of religion for all.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 68.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The 2010 population census, the most recent available, indicated 93 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 percent Muslim. NGOs, academics, and religious groups state that 85 to 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 to 10 percent Muslim. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include animists, Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, and Taoists.
Most Buddhists incorporate Hindu and animist practices into their worship. The Buddhist clergy (sangha) consists of two main schools of Theravada Buddhism: Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika. The former is older and more prevalent within the monastic community.
Islam is the dominant religion in three of the four southernmost provinces (Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani) near the Malaysian border, commonly referred to as the Deep South. The majority of Muslims in those provinces are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population nationwide also includes descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as well as ethnic Thai. Statistics provided by the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) of the Ministry of Culture indicate that 99 percent of Muslims are Sunni.
The majority of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese practice either Mahayana or Theravada Buddhism. Many ethnic Chinese, as well as members of the Mien hill tribe, also practice forms of Taoism.
The majority of Christians are ethnic Chinese, and more than half of the Christian community is Roman Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states that all persons are equal before the law regardless of religious belief and allows all persons to profess, observe, or practice any religion of their choice as long as the exercise of these freedoms is not “harmful to the security of the State.” The constitution empowers the state to patronize and protect Buddhism as well as other religions, but it also provides for special promotion of Theravada Buddhism through education, propagation of its principles, and the establishment of measures and mechanisms “to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form.”
A special order issued by the former military government in 2016 and still in effect guarantees the state’s promotion and protection of “all recognized religions” in the country but mandates all state agencies to monitor the “right teaching” of all religions to ensure they are not “distorted to upset social harmony.” A law specifically prohibits the defamation or insult of Buddhism and Buddhist clergy. Violators may face up to one year’s imprisonment, fines of up to 20,000 baht ($670), or both. The penal code prohibits the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religious groups. Penalties range from imprisonment for one to seven years, a fine of 20,000 to 140,000 baht ($670-$4,700), or both.
The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. While there is no official state religion, the constitution continues to require the king to be Buddhist and declares he is the “upholder of religions.”
Religious groups associated with one of the five officially recognized religions may register to receive state benefits that include access to state subsidies, exemption from property and income taxes, and preferential allocation of resident visas for the registered organization’s foreign officials. Registration as a religious group is not mandatory, and religious groups may still operate without government interference whether or not they are officially registered or recognized. Under the law, the RAD is responsible for registering religious groups, excluding Buddhist groups, which is overseen by the National Buddhism Bureau, an independent state agency under direct supervision of the prime minister.
The RAD may register a new religious denomination outside one of the five recognized religious groups only if it meets the following qualifications: the national census indicates the group has at least 5,000 adherents, it possesses a uniquely recognizable theology, it is not politically active, and it obtains formal approval in a RAD-organized meeting of representatives from the concerned ministries and the five recognized umbrella religious groups. To register with the RAD, a religious group’s leader also must submit documentation on its objectives and procedures, any relationship to a foreign country, a list of executive members and senior officials, and locations of administrative, religious, and teaching sites. As a matter of policy, however, the government will not recognize any new religious groups outside the five umbrella groups.
The constitution prohibits Buddhist priests, novices, monks, and other clergy from voting in an election, running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate, or taking public positions on political matters. According to the National Buddhism Bureau, as of August there were 252,851 clergy who are thus ineligible to vote or run for office. Christian clergy are prohibited from voting in elections if they are in formal religious dress. Except for the chularatchamontri (grand mufti), imams are not regarded as priests or clergy and are thus allowed to vote in elections and assume political positions.
The Sangha Supreme Council serves as Thai Buddhism’s governing clerical body. The king has authority to unilaterally appoint or remove members from the Sangha Supreme Council irrespective of the monk’s rank and without consent or consultation with the supreme patriarch, whom the king also has legal authority to appoint.
The law requires religious education for all students at both the primary and secondary levels; students may not opt out. The curriculum must contain information about all of the five recognized umbrella religious groups. More instruction time is dedicated to teaching Buddhism than other religions. Students who wish to pursue in-depth studies of a particular religion may study at private religious schools and may transfer credits to public schools. Individual schools, working in conjunction with their local administrative boards, are authorized to arrange additional religious studies courses. There are two private Christian universities and one Catholic-run college, which provide religious instruction open to the public. There are approximately 350 Catholic- and Protestant-run primary and secondary schools, whose curricula and registration the Ministry of Education oversees. The Sangha Supreme Council and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand create special curricula for Buddhist and Islamic studies required in public schools, respectively.
The Central Islamic Council of Thailand, whose members are Muslims appointed by royal proclamation, advises the Ministries of Education and Interior on Islamic issues. The government provides funding for Islamic educational institutions, the construction of mosques, and participation in the Hajj. There are several hundred primary and secondary Islamic schools throughout the country. There are four options for students to obtain Islamic education in the Deep South: government-subsidized schools offering Islamic education with the national curriculum; private Islamic schools that may offer non-Quranic subjects such as foreign languages (Arabic and English) but whose curriculum may not be approved by the government; private Islamic day schools offering Islamic education to students of all ages according to their own curriculum; and after-school religious courses for children in grades one through six, often held in mosques.
The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process outside the national civil code for Muslim residents of the Deep South for family law, including inheritance. Provincial courts apply this law, and a sharia expert advises the judge. The law officially lays out the administrative structure of Muslim communities in the Deep South, including the process of appointing the chularatchamontri, whom the king appoints as the state advisor on Islamic affairs.
The RAD sets a quota for the number of foreign missionaries permitted to register and operate in the country: 1,357 Christian, six Muslim, 20 Hindu, and 41 Sikh. Registration confers some benefits, such as longer visa validity. Representatives of the five officially recognized religious groups may apply for one-year visas that are renewable. Foreign missionaries from other religious groups, as well as foreign staff and volunteers at secular NGOs, must renew their visas every 90 days.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of violence due to the Malay Muslim insurgency as being primarily based on religious identity.
According to the NGO Deep South Watch, insurgency-related violence from January to September resulted in at least 140 deaths – among them 102 Muslims and 36 Buddhists. Deep South Watch also reported 207 persons were injured during that period – 97 Muslims and 110 Buddhists. For all of 2018, Deep South Watch reported 171 Muslims, 43 Buddhists, and 4 unidentified persons were killed in the insurgency. Local NGOs reported insurgents often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, as affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets. According to the Chairman of the Southern Border Provinces Teacher Confederation and an official from the Southern Border Provinces Education Administration and Coordination Center, no teachers or students were killed in insurgent attacks during the year. An insurgent attack on security forces guarding a school in Pattani in January, however, resulted in the death of four Muslim security guards.
The Muslim community in the Deep South continued to express frustration with perceived discriminatory treatment by security forces and what they said was a judicial system lacking adequate checks and balances. According to the Prachathai news website, in January Bangkok police detained 16 men from the Deep South working at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport for fingerprinting and DNA collection – reportedly without a court order. All were subsequently released without charges.
Authorities continued to use the emergency decree and martial law provisions in effect in the Deep South since 2005 and 2004, respectively, that gave military, police, and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, including extending pretrial detention and expanding warrantless searches. Authorities delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, often resulting in accusations of unfair treatment by Muslims.
The Muslim news website “M-Today” in April published a report by the NGO Network of People Affected by the Implementation of the Special Laws that said a Muslim religious teacher from the Deep South, Marobi Buenae, was taken by security forces for interrogation and he was detained 34 days without charge.
Members of the Muslim community in the Deep South expressed frustration with a nighttime raid of a private Islamic day school in Pattani Province in January in which the military arrested multiple Cambodian Muslim students and one religious teacher. The military accused the students of being undocumented Cambodians receiving military-style combat training, while the school stated the students were merely playing and the raid was unjustified. The Cambodian students were deported to Cambodia after authorities found no links to insurgency in the Deep South but determined they were in the country illegally, according to press reports.
According to human rights groups and media reports, many of the refugees and asylum seekers in the country were fleeing religious persecution in their countries of origin. According to UNHCR, local law considered refugees and asylum seekers who entered the country without a valid visa to be illegal aliens, and thus they faced the possibility of arrest, detention, and deportation regardless of whether they had registered with the agency. As in previous years, immigration authorities conducted multiple raids targeting persons living illegally in the country, including some UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers. According to media reports, in July and December Bangkok authorities raided housing units and subsequently arrested dozens of Pakistani Christians, several of whom had asylum seeker or refugee status, according to UNHCR. The government said the raids did not target any specific religious group, and media coverage consistently highlighted the arrests were part of the broader immigration crackdown and not motivated by religion.
Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government generally allowed UNHCR access to detained asylum seekers and refugees. In some cases, UNHCR-recognized refugees (including those fleeing religious persecution) reported staying in IDCs in crowded conditions for multiple years. The government in most cases placed mothers and children in shelters in accordance with a policy to cease detention of migrant children; in practice, such shelters provided greater space than IDCs but still severely restricted freedom of movement.
Activists, including Human Rights Watch, expressed concerns about how the government might react to requests from China to extradite Chinese dissidents, including those associated with religious groups banned in China. Human rights activists reported during the year that Falun Gong practitioners who were recognized refugees in the country were periodically monitored or detained by police. For example, media and activists reported immigration authorities detained Falun Gong practitioner Leng Tao in November. UNHCR assessed the majority of Chinese asylum seekers and refugees, including those in detention, were not at risk of refoulement to China.
Media and NGOs reported during the year that several dozen Uighur Muslims remained in IDCs across the country, most of them reportedly in detention since 2015. In October press reported that the National Assembly’s House Standing Committee on Laws, Justice, and Human Rights visited Rohingya Muslims from Burma and Uighur detainees in an IDC near the country’s southern border. A Uighur detainee reportedly told the committee that he hoped to be released to a third country but was adamant against returning to China.
The government continued to investigate and prosecute embezzlement crimes allegedly committed by senior Buddhist monks and government officials from the National Buddhism Bureau (NBB). In September Minister of Culture Tewan Liptapanlop informed the House of Representatives that 32 corruption-related cases were completed, 51 cases remained in the courts, and 41 cases were under investigation by the Office of Anti-Money Laundering.
The Court of Justice on Anti-Corruption Litigation in April sentenced Rev. Kitti Phatcharakhun, the Abbot of Lad Khae Temple, to 26 years in prison for money laundering. Since the probes began in 2015, authorities arrested and tried more than 10 senior monks and NBB officials, uncovering the theft of at least 10 million baht ($336,000).
The government did not recognize any new religious groups and has not done so since 1984. Despite the lack of formal legal recognition or registration, civil society groups continued to report unregistered religious groups operated freely, and the government’s practice of not recognizing or registering new religious groups did not restrict their activities. Although registration provided some benefits, such as visas with longer validity, religious groups reported being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity, and many unregistered missionaries worked in the country without government interference. However, a leading member of Falun Gong reported security authorities closely monitored and sometimes intimidated practitioners distributing Falun Gong materials.
In the run-up to the national general elections in March, some political parties expressed support for easing restrictions on Buddhist monks’ political rights. Monks and temple authorities continued to comply with the 2018 Sangha Supreme Council order prohibiting the use of temple land for political activities or rallies, meetings, or seminars for purposes that violated the law or affected national security, social order, or public morals. While at least one monk publicly advocated the restoration of political rights, there were no media reports of monks defying the Council order by attempting to vote or otherwise participate in other political activities.
The law denying legal recognition to female monks remained in effect despite the National Human Rights Commission’s recommendation issued in June 2015 that the government amend the law. The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Of the approximately 253,000 Buddhist clergy in the country, 285 were women. Since a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” female monks (bhikkhunis) were excluded from gender equality protection by the government. Officials continued to neither formally oppose nor support female ordination. Officials allowed bhikkhunis to practice and establish monasteries and temples. Without official recognition, however, monasteries led by women continued to be ineligible for any of the government benefits received by other sanctioned Buddhist temples – primarily tax exemptions, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs. Unlike male monks, bhikkhunis received no special government protection from public verbal and physical attacks that sometimes involved male monks opposing the ordination of female monks. There were no reports of such attacks during the year, in contrast to previous years.
The only government-certified Islamic university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students, including instruction in Thai, English, Arabic, and Bahasa Malayu; a mandatory peace studies course; and the integration of religious principles into most course offerings. As of August, approximately 3,000 students and 210 academic personnel were affiliated with the school.
Muslim students attending a public school on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Muslim-majority Pattani Province in the Deep South continued to wear religious head scarves pending the outcome of a case before the Yala Administrative Court on the legality of their attire. The case was based on a 2018 challenge by Muslim parents to a new Ministry of Education regulation that barred students from dressing in accordance with their religious belief and required them to wear the uniform agreed to by the school and temple, without accommodation for personal religious attire. The case was pending at year’s end.
According to a senior member of a university in the Deep South, there were no reports of the military scrutinizing Muslim professors and clerics, in contrast to previous years.
In September the Royal Thai Police requested some universities nationwide to supply information on Muslim-organized student groups, including membership numbers, place of origin, and denomination affiliation. Human rights groups protested the action, and the government suspended its request on October 2 following protests by several Muslim organizations, including the Sheikhul Islam Office. Government officials, however, continued to state there was nothing wrong with the “routine request” for information, which was reportedly a response to multiple bombings during the ASEAN ministerial in Bangkok in August that were attributed to three ethnic Malay Muslims. Muslim leaders said the request represented religious discrimination because student groups from other religions were not asked for similar information. The leaders also stated the government’s action was a sign of anti-Muslim sentiment.
In May media reported the government canceled a scheduled sermon in Phuket by U Wirathu, a Buddhist monk in Burma and self-described nationalist, after migrant groups voiced concern that his talk could incite tensions between Buddhists and Muslims.
For the October 1, 2018-September 30, 2019 fiscal year, the government allocated RAD a budget of approximately 415 million baht ($13.94 million) to support non-Buddhist initiatives, compared with 410 million baht ($13.77 million) the previous fiscal year. Approximately 341.5 million baht ($11.47 million) of that allocation went to strategic planning for religious, art, and cultural development, including promotion of interfaith cooperation through peace-building projects in the Deep South, compared with 333 million baht ($11.19 million) the previous fiscal year. The budget included grants of approximately 16 million baht ($537,000) for the maintenance and restoration of non-Buddhist religious sites of the five officially recognized religious groups and 240,000 baht ($8,100) for the chularatchamontri’s annual per diem.
The NBB, funded separately from the RAD, received 4.85 billion baht ($162.9 million) in government funding, compared with 4.9 billion baht ($164.6 million) the previous fiscal year. Of that amount 1.87 billion baht ($62.81 million) went to empowerment and human capital development projects, compared with 1.6 billion baht ($53.75 million) the previous period. A total of 1.6 billion baht ($53.75 million) was allocated for personnel administration, 1.1 billion baht ($36.95 million) for education projects, including scripture and bookkeeping instruction for monks and novices, and 242 million baht ($8.13 million) for Deep South conflict resolution and development projects. Comparable figures for the previous fiscal year were 1.6 billion baht ($53.75 million), 1.2 billion baht ($40.31 million), and 256 million baht ($8.6 million).
The government continued to recognize elected Provincial Islamic Committees, which increased by one to 40 nationwide. Their responsibilities included providing advice to provincial governors on Islamic issues; deciding on the establishment, relocation, merger, and dissolution of mosques; appointing persons to serve as imams; and issuing announcements and approvals of Islamic religious activities. Committee members in the Deep South continued to report some acted as advisers to government officials in dealing with the area’s ethnonationalist and religious tensions.
Religious groups continued to proselytize without reported interference. Buddhist monks working as missionaries were active, particularly in border areas among the country’s tribal populations, and received some public funding. According to the NBB, there were 5,350 Buddhist missionaries working nationwide. Buddhist missionaries needed to pass training and educational programs at Maha Makut Buddhist University and Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council. In July the Sangha Supreme Council announced its goal of dispatching two missionary monks to every sub-district in the country, or approximately 15,100 monks nationwide, with implementation dependent on the availability of sufficient financial and human resources. None were dispatched under this program by year’s end. Per government regulations, no foreign monks were permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.
During the year, there were 11 registered foreign missionary groups with visas operating in the country: six Christian, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups, unchanged from the previous year. There were 1,357 registered foreign Christian missionaries. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus had smaller numbers of foreign missionaries in the country. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization. Non-Buddhist missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), which is not an officially recognized religious group, continued to exercise its special quota of 200 missionaries through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council. Church leaders reported their missionaries who previously received one-year work permits were only eligible for 90-day renewable visas in accordance with regulations applying to all foreign missionaries as well as to volunteers and staff of secular NGOs. In May church leaders petitioned the government to reconsider the new regulations, but government officials advised them to comply with the regulations.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Ethnic Malay insurgents continued to attack Buddhists and Muslims in the Deep South. Approximately 10 insurgents armed with assault rifles attacked Wat Rattananupab Temple in Narathiwat Province on January 18, killing three Buddhist monks – including the temple’s abbot – and injuring another. According to Reuters, this was the first time a monk had been killed in the southern violence since 2015. The attack followed the death of an imam in a shooting attack in Narathiwat on January 11 – the third imam to be killed in shootings in the preceding two months – leading some media sources to speculate the temple attack was a response to these attacks. The Sheikhul Islam Office and the national Human Rights Commission issued statements denouncing the killings of both religious leaders, as did several civil society organizations and Buddhist and Islamic groups. Some local Malay Muslims expressed frustration that the monks’ killing received more media attention than the imam’s.
Military officials blamed insurgents for a November 5 attack at a checkpoint in Yala Province that left 13 Buddhists and two Muslims dead, most of whom were village defense volunteers, according to local press. Following the attack, the nationalist Buddhism Protection Association urged Buddhists to rise up and called for a rally at the Buddha Monthon (Buddhism campus) in Nakhon Pathom. The NBB barred the group from using the venue and issued an official letter to all provincial chief monks asking them not to support the rally or allow monks under their supervision to join it, and to discourage Buddhist laypersons from participating.
The Duay Jai Group, a human rights organization based in the Deep South, stated the government prohibition on Islamic dress in certain schools, pending a final ruling by the Yala Administrative Court, further distanced the Muslim from the Buddhist population. Some Buddhist groups in turn expressed frustration with perceived special allowances for Muslims. In April the group Buddhist Power of the Land sent a letter protesting a special quota system for Muslim students from the Deep South at Mahidol University. A Buddhist group in Yala staged a rally during which it was stated Muslims received better treatment at state hospitals, including halal kitchens, and called for establishing corresponding special kitchens for Buddhists and special quarters for ill monks. The government continued to deny such oft-stated assertions and in January the Ministry of the Interior issued a press statement refuting claims that the government fully subsidized mosque construction and that Muslim clerics earned a higher per diem than Buddhist monks when performing religious and administrative functions.
In December the group “Buddhism Protection Organization of Thailand for Peace” convened approximately 50 monks and laypersons for a conference in the northeast of the country to discuss Islam’s perceived threat to Buddhism and to deplore the special treatment they alleged the government accorded Muslims. Following the conference the group submitted nine demands to the chularatchamontr including calls that the Muslim leader discourage mosque construction “to relieve minds,” stop issuing religious edicts that grant Muslims special protections, and help counter the “radical Islam disease” evidenced by insurgent violence and religious leaders who incite youth to violence against the state. In response, the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand wrote a letter to the House Standing Committee on Religions, Art, Cultures, and Tourism seeking members’ assistance toward reconciliation, but the committee did not respond by year’s end.
Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders stated a majority of their communities continued to advocate interfaith dialogue and cultural understanding.
Buddhist activists continued to campaign to designate Buddhism as the country’s official religion. The Pandin Dharma, or “Land of Dharma” Party, led by Buddhist nationalist Korn Meedee, whose platform advocates making Buddhism the state religion, fielded 145 constituency and 24 party-list candidates, winning 21,463 votes out of some 35 million votes cast. The party platform also calls for the establishment of segregated, Buddhist-only communities in the country’s three southern Muslim-majority provinces. The party’s Facebook page has approximately 10,000 followers. The Dharmmakaya Temple, often at the center of corruption scandals, has longstanding ties to Wirathu, the leader of Burma’s 969 movement, which has been described by leading human rights groups as anti-Muslim, and in December monks associated with the temple traveled to Mandalay, Burma for an annual New Year’s service.
In November Pope Francis conducted a three-day visit to the country, during which his messages of religious reconciliation and interfaith harmony were positively received by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy and consulate general officials regularly met Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders and academics as part of the embassy’s effort to promote tolerance and reconciliation and to discuss religious issues in society, including ethnic identity and politics. In March the Charge d’Affaires met with the chularatchamontri, Aziz Phitakkumpon, who served as the country’s Islamic spiritual leader, and discussed the embassy’s ongoing interfaith dialogue programs.
In November the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with Buddhist, Muslim, and Catholic faith and civil society leaders to explore opportunities for and challenges to improve interfaith tolerance and religious freedom in Thailand. The Ambassador also delivered the keynote address at the Fifth Annual Southeast Asian Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference, where he encouraged grassroots mobilization and the establishment of national roundtables to promote religious freedom as a fundamental human right.
As a follow-up to the embassy’s 2018 interreligious program on peace in Pattani Province, the embassy and consulate general in Chang Mai cohosted workshops in Bangkok and Chiang Mai with the NGO Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. The programs focused on using people-to-people engagement to bridge conflict. A U.S. Muslim associated with the program also delivered lectures on interfaith dialogue to multifaith audiences of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, the oldest Buddhist university in the country, and Payap University, the country’s oldest Presbyterian university. Local Muslim media outlets covered the events.
Embassy and consulate general staff regularly engaged with religious minority groups – including Muslims, Christians, the Church of Jesus Christ, and Hindus – through events such as interfaith dialogues to promote respect for individual rights to worship and the importance of religious pluralism, using social media to amplify the importance of these and other meetings and programs advancing religious freedom and tolerance.
In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar that was well attended by prominent Muslims. The embassy used the opportunity to promote the value of religious diversity and interfaith dialogue. Similar to the reactions from other policy-focused social media posts by the embassy, Facebook posts on the iftar by Muslim leaders generated a mix of positive and negative comments.
In July five prominent Buddhist and Muslim former participants in embassy-sponsored exchange programs participated in an academic exchange in the United States focused on religious freedom. During their three-city tour the participants engaged with other leaders from across Asia to advocate for interfaith dialogue, tolerance, and community development among religious and civic leaders. As a follow-on to the program, the participants organized a regional event in Bangkok in November focused on countering disinformation and extremist messages related to religion on digital communication and social media and increasing voices of tolerance and coexistence.