The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. On October 2, President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a broad set of policies to combat “Islamist separatism,” which he described as a “methodical organization” to create a “countersociety” in which Islamists impose their own rules and laws on isolated communities, and defend state secularism against radical Islam. Among the measures in a draft law to be taken up by parliament, which Macron said were directed against radical Islamists that undermined French values rather than at Muslims broadly, were ending foreign financing of imams and abolishing unaccredited schools. On November 2, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced the government had closed 43 mosques for extremism since May 2017. Catholic Church officials criticized government COVID-19 restrictions that, they said, inordinately affected religious groups. In May, the country’s highest administrative court ordered an end to the ban on religious gatherings, calling freedom of worship a fundamental right. In November, the same court denied an appeal by Catholic bishops to overturn a new government prohibition on masses after a new wave of COVID infections. In June, the Constitutional Council invalidated core provisions of a law against online hate speech that parliament had enacted in May as part of the government’s plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism. In June, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the government had violated the free speech rights of Palestinian activists advocating for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. In January, demonstrators in Paris protested a 2019 court ruling that the killer of a Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, in 2017 was not criminally responsible. Jewish groups protested the Paris prosecutor’s decision not to charge a man with anti-Semitism after he painted swastikas on a landmark Paris street. President Macron and other government officials condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy security forces to protect religious and other sensitive sites.
There were instances of religiously motivated crimes and other abuses, including killings, attempted killings, assaults, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism. On October 29, a Tunisian man killed three Christian worshippers in a church in Nice. In October, a teenage Chechen Muslim refugee beheaded teacher Samuel Paty after he showed his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a discussion on freedom of expression. In September, a Pakistani man stabbed two persons outside the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, shortly after the magazine had republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Although 2020 statistics on anti-Christian incidents were not yet available, most incidents involved vandalism or arson of churches and cemeteries. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) reported 235 incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 154 in 2019. The Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ) reported 339 anti-Semitic incidents – a decrease of 50 percent compared with the 687 in 2019 – including a violent assault on a Jewish man and desecration of Jewish cemeteries. In October, authorities charged two women with assault and racist slurs for stabbing two women wearing Islamic headscarves. A January survey for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found 70 percent of Jewish respondents said they had been the targets of at least one anti-Semitic incident in their lifetimes. In the same survey, 47 percent of Jewish and non-Jewish respondents (and two-thirds of Jews) said the level of anti-Semitism in the country was high.
The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American presence posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and the Interministerial Delegation to Fight Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hate (DILCRAH). The Ambassador designated combating anti-Semitism as one of four key “pillars” of enhanced embassy outreach. The Ambassador and embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance. The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and religiously motivated hate crimes, such as projects bringing together youth of different faiths and roundtable events with religious leaders, and regularly used social media to convey messages highlighting issues pertaining to religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 67.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate).
Because the government does not collect religious or ethnic data on the population, there is no official count of the numbers of persons belonging to different religious groups. A report released in January by the Observatory for Secularism, a government-appointed commission, based on a poll conducted in cooperation with polling company Viavoice, presented estimated figures of persons who identify as part of a religion or feel tied to a religion. According to the report, whose figures are consistent with other estimates, 47 percent of respondents identify as Catholic, 3 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 2 percent Buddhist, 1 percent Jewish, 1 percent Christian Orthodox, and 1 percent other religious groups; 34 percent said they have no religious affiliation and 8 percent preferred not to respond. The observatory’s 2019 report estimated there are 140-150 thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses and 150-300 thousand Hindus. In a separate question about religious belief, 35 percent said they are believers, 29 percent nonbelievers or atheist, 17 percent agnostic, and 12 percent indifferent. Most observers, including the observatory in its 2019 report, estimate the number of Muslims in the country at three to five million.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and shall respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.
The law, as well as international and European covenants to which the country adheres, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,800) and imprisonment for one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.
Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Additional penalties beyond those for the underlying crime for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000 to 75,000 euros ($55,200-$92,000), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, defined as an allegation of fact that affects the honor of a person or body, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($55,200). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.
Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both categories. For example, Catholics perform religious activities through their associations of worship and operate schools through their cultural associations.
Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. In order to qualify as an association of worship, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include liturgical services and practices, religious training, and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. The association must also engage in public worship and respect public order. Among excluded activities are those that are purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. To apply for tax-exempt status, the association must provide to the prefecture its estimated budget for the year, annual accounts for the previous three years or since the association’s creation, whichever is shorter, a written justification of eligibility for the status, and the number of members of the association. In Paris, the association must have a minimum of 25 members. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the Ministry of Interior, 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status. The number of cultural associations, many of which are not associated with religious groups, is in the thousands and changes frequently. Cultural associations may be declared using an online form through the government’s public administration website. Cultural associations, even if associated with religious groups, may operate without applying for government recognition. Under the law, the Church of Scientology has the status of a secular and not a religious association. Parliamentary reports (most recently in 1996) have labelled Scientology as a “cult,” and multiple Scientology officials have been convicted of crimes in the country.
The law states, “Detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They may practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”
Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find that comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. A place of worship that has been closed may remain closed beyond the six-month maximum if it does not replace its chief cleric and/or management. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($9,200). On December 17, parliament voted for the extension of the legislation until the end of July 2021.
The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. According to the law, police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($180) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($36,800) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.
The law prohibits agents of the administration, public services, and companies or associations carrying out public services from demonstrating their religion through visible signs of religious affiliation, such as the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, or Christian cross. The prohibition applies during working hours and at the place of employment.
By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.
The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories. Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the Interior Ministry, and the country’s President, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg. The Prime Minister appoints the Chief Rabbi and the presidents of the Jewish and Protestant consistories (the administrative governance bodies of these groups) in Alsace-Moselle, and the Interior Minister appoints ministers of the three Christian churches (Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant Reformed Church of Alsace and Lorraine) in the region. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings. The Overseas Department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees from wearing visible signs of religious affiliation and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories. In Alsace-Moselle, religious education regarding one of the four recognized faiths (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Protestant Reformed Church of Alsace and Lorraine, and Judaism) is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents. Religious education classes are taught by laypersons who are trained and nominated by the respective religious groups but are paid by the state. Elsewhere in the country, public schools teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.
By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of their religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools. According to the education code, religious instruction is allowed but optional in government-subsidized private schools. Students are not required to attend religion classes, and other activities are available for students who opt out.
Missionaries from countries not exempt from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries from nonexempt countries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The law criminalizes the BDS movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During his October 29 emergency visit to Nice, shortly after a Tunisian national entered the Basilica of Notre Dame and stabbed three Catholic worshippers to death, President Macron offered his condolences to the country’s Catholics and urged people of all religions to unite and not “give in to the spirit of division.” In a November 7 national memorial, Prime Minister Jean Castex paid tribute to the three victims. Castex said, “We know the enemy. Not only is he identified, but he has a name: It is radical Islamism, a political ideology that disfigures the Muslim religion by distorting its texts, its dogma, and its commands.” He concluded, “We will not allow the France that we love to be disfigured.”
On October 19, Interior Minister Darmanin ordered a six-month closure of the mosque in Pantin, a suburb of Paris, following the October 16 beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a lesson on freedom of expression. The mosque’s imam had posted on social media calls to retaliate against Paty for showing the cartoons. The mosque appealed the Minister’s decision before the Montreuil administrative court, which on October 27, validated the government’s decision to close the mosque. The court ruled authorities had committed no “serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms” in temporarily closing the mosque “for the sole purpose of preventing acts of terrorism.”
On August 30, Junior Minister for Citizenship Marlene Schiappa reported that since February 2018, when it launched a nationwide program to counter “Islamism and communitarianism,” the Ministry of Interior had closed 210 restaurants and cafes (mostly kebab restaurants), 15 places of worship, 12 cultural establishments, and four schools. According to Schiappa, those establishments, which the government did not specifically identify, “were gathering places to organize Islamist separatism.” Independent online investigative website Mediapart requested the list of closed sites through the Administrative Documents Access Commission (Commission d’acces aux documents administratifs, CADA), an independent government agency providing administrative documents and public records. In December, CADA upheld the Ministry of Interior’s decision not to make public specific names of institutions.
On November 2, Interior Minister Darmanin announced at the National Assembly that the government had closed 43 mosques since May 2017. The Ministry of the Interior reported that, as of December 29, it was in the process of investigating for closure 76 mosques, including 16 in the Paris region, because of suspected separatism. The al-Kawthar Mosque in Grenoble reopened in August 2019 after the legal maximum closure period of six months.
On February 18, President Macron, together with his Ministers of Interior, Housing, Youth, and Sports, visited the eastern city of Mulhouse to introduce a plan, which would require parliamentary approval, to fight “Islamist separatism.” Macron said “political Islam” had no place in the country and stressed national unity. He proposed specific measures, including an end to the practice of foreign-financed imams, referring to the 300 imams whom foreign governments had sent to the country, adding they would be replaced by French-trained imams. According to Macron, the strategy aimed to reduce Islamist influence in sensitive neighborhoods and to abolish structures, such as unaccredited schools that paralleled or replaced government structures and undermined state secularism. In public schools, Macron proposed abolishing foreign language and culture programs taught by individuals appointed and/or funded by foreign governments. Macron also announced the reinforcement of oversight of foreign-funded religious sites.
Further to his February announcement, on October 2, President Macron introduced the outlines of a draft law that he said aimed to counter “Islamist separatism.” The government introduced the full draft law in December, and parliament was scheduled to consider it in 2021. Macron reaffirmed state secularism, calling it “the cement of a united France,” and said, “What we must attack is Islamist separatism.” Macron stated that all religious practice must comport with the law. He said, “Islam is a religion … that is being infected by radical impulses,” adding, “External influences … have pushed these most radical forms,” citing their effect on Wahabism, Salfafism, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Macron described Islamic separatism as a project “…serving as a pretext for teaching principles which are not in accordance with the Republic’s laws,” in which Islamists impose their own rules and laws on isolated communities and negate national “principles, gender equality, and human dignity.” Macron stated his campaign targeted radical Islamists and not Islam or Muslims and that he offered an “inclusive message” to millions of Muslims who were integrated “full citizens.” He added, “Our challenge today is to fight against this abuse that some perpetrate in the name of religion, by ensuring that those who want to believe in Islam are not targeted.”
Prior to this speech, President Macron, Prime Minister Castex, and Interior Minister Darmanin held consultations with the CFCM on September 16, 25, and 26 to present the government’s plan. The CFCM stated it was in agreement with the President’s measures.
Jehovah’s Witness officials reported one case in which authorities interfered with proselytizing during the year. On February 8, municipal police in Erstein, Bas-Rhin Department, citing a municipal decree, prohibited Jehovah’s Witnesses from engaging in door-to-door activity. Jehovah’s Witnesses sent a letter to the mayor, referencing the laws recognizing their right to proselytize, but did not indicate they received a response.
Between March 16 and May 11, the government implemented a nationwide lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic that included a ban on religious gatherings and worship and door-to-door proselytizing. While the government lifted restrictions on freedom of movement on May 11, it extended the ban on gatherings in places of worship – except for funerals which it limited to 20 persons – and gatherings with more than 10 persons until June 2. The Catholic Church was the most vocal in expressing opposition to these measures.
On April 28, after then-Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told the National Assembly religious services would not resume before June 2 (although churches remained open for individual prayer), the Bishop’s Council of the Catholic Church responded that the continuing measures did not incorporate its proposal to resume religious services with social distancing measures in place. On April 30, then-Interior Minister Christophe Castaner met with Archbishop Eric de Moulins Beaufort, president of the Conference of Bishops of France, to discuss Catholic concern. Bishop of Nanterre Matthieu Rouge publicly criticized the government’s restrictions, which he said fell disproportionately on religious groups, stating that many shops and some museums were allowed to reopen on May 11. He called the delay for churches a sign of “anti-clericalism” or “anti-Catholic orientation” in the presidency. While expressing disappointment with the restrictions, Archbishop de Moulins Beaufort said Catholic officials would “adapt.”
In a May 18 ruling, the Council of State – the country’s highest administrative court – ordered the government to lift within eight days the ban on religious meetings, calling it a “disproportionate measure.” The council, responding to a lawsuit brought by NGOs and individuals, said such a ban on freedom of worship caused “serious and manifestly illegal damage.” The council highlighted that the government had previously authorized public gatherings of up to 10 persons in other settings and that a complete and total ban on worship was “disproportionate to the objective of preserving public health.” The ruling stipulated freedom of worship was a fundamental right that “includes among its essential components the right to participate collectively in ceremonies, in particular in places of worship,” and that the government’s decree “constitutes a serious and manifestly unlawful interference with it.” On May 23, the government issued a decree allowing services to resume.
On April 21, President Macron held a virtual meeting with religious leaders to thank them for implementing COVID-19 safety measures and celebrating religious holidays, including Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, “without gatherings” and to express the need to continue the collaboration.
On April 19, armed police interrupted a Mass at Saint-Andre de l’Europe, a Catholic church in Paris, to enforce social distancing. The police did not fine the priest or others involved with having the Mass go forward. The Mass had been scheduled to be broadcast later that weekend. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit said police entered the church armed, an act he described as generally not permissible unless there was a threat to public order. He compared the COVID-19 climate to the World War II occupation of France.
Police fined the priest of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, a church under the authority of the Society of St. Pius X, 135 euros ($170) for conducting an Easter Vigil Mass with approximately 40 attendees.
On October 30, authorities reintroduced measures restricting freedom of movement, religion, and worship to combat a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Places of worship remained open for individual prayer during the second nationwide lockdown, but authorities did not permit worship services, only authorizing funeral services attended by a maximum of 30 persons and weddings attended by a maximum of six persons. Five bishops announced on November 2 they had lodged appeals with the Council of State to demand the ban on masses be lifted, stating that the most recent COVID-19 restrictions violated freedom of worship and were disproportionate in relation to other COVID-19 lockdown measures. On November 7, the Council of State rejected the bishops’ appeal. The ruling judge stated churches remained open, despite not being able to hold services, and that Catholics could go to a church near their homes, provided they carried the necessary paperwork. Priests were also allowed to visit persons in their homes, and chaplains to visit hospitals. The judge also stated current rules would be the subject of review by the government by November 16 to evaluate their pertinence and proportionality. On November 26, Prime Minister Castex announced only 30 persons at a time would be allowed at prayer services inside places of worship and with stringent sanitary measures.
In October, members of the Church of Scientology reported that the Court of Montreuil overturned the 2019 municipal decree by the mayor’s office in Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, refusing a permit allowing the Church to renovate a building it had purchased in the municipality for the purpose of converting it into its headquarters and a training center. According to the Scientologists, the court found that “the mayor had exercised his powers for a purpose other than the preservation of the safety and accessibility of the premises.” The court ordered the government to pay the Church of Scientology damages (amount as-yet unspecified). The municipality of Saint-Denis announced its intention to appeal the decision, and the case was pending at year’s end.
A May 10 article in The Washington Post reported that “many Muslims, religious freedom advocates, and scholars see a great deal of irony” that the French ban on face coverings such as burqas remained in effect despite the country’s adoption of mask requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the year, there were no reports of police enforcing the face covering ban or of protests or public comment concerning the ban by Muslim groups. French media rejected the premise of the article. Newspaper Le Figaro, for example, called it “a misunderstanding and a mistake,” adding that the “antiburqa” ban did include exceptions for health, professional, or legislative requirements and that COVID-19 mask requirements were compatible with the law.
In a December 3 interview, Interior Minister Darmanin said the country had deported 66 radicalized foreign Islamists since the end of September. The 66 were part of a list of 231 foreigners on the FSPRT (fichier des signalements pour la prevention de la radicalisation a caractere terroriste) – a list of individuals suspected of radicalization – under orders of deportation. Darmanin also traveled in early November to Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, Malta, and Algeria to meet counterparts and discuss means to reinforce cooperation to fight terrorism and the return of their suspected radicalized nationals. According to the Ministry of Interior, approximately 300 imams, or 70 percent of all imams in the country, were trained in foreign countries such as Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria.
The government maintained the deployment of security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic sites and other places of worship. Following the October 29 terrorist attack at the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, President Macron announced an increase, from 3,000 to 7,000 troops across the country, in domestic counterterrorism patrols under the Ministry of Defense’s Operation Sentinel. On October 30, Defense Minister Florence Parly told the Defense Council the deployment would focus on protecting schools and places of worship.
On September 25, following a terrorist attack in which two persons were wounded in a stabbing near the former headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Interior Minister Darmanin announced the kosher supermarket that was targeted by a coordinated attack after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015 “will now be permanently guarded.” Darmanin also announced he had ordered extra protection of Jewish sites for Yom Kippur. On September 27, Darmanin visited a synagogue in Boulogne-Billancourt, a western suburb of Paris. During the visit, he said, “Jews remain the target of Islamist attacks,” adding that the government had mobilized more than 7,000 police and soldiers to protect Jewish places of worship on Yom Kippur.
On December 16, the Special Criminal Court delivered its verdict on the terrorism trial related to the January 2015 terrorist attacks, finding all 14 defendants guilty of providing support to the three deceased terrorists who carried out the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, police in Montrouge, and a kosher supermarket. They received sentences ranging from four years to life in prison. The court dropped terror qualifications for six of the defendants, convicting them instead of providing material support without knowledge of the terrorist intent. Three of the defendants, including Hayat Boumeddiene (the wife of one of the shooters, Amedy Coulibaly) were tried in absentia. At least one defendant expressed his intent to appeal the court’s decision.
On October 29, following investigative work by the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs and the Louvre and d’Orsay Museums, the government restituted to the heirs of Marguerite Stern seven paintings stolen by the Nazis in Paris during World War II.
At year’s end, the Paris Appeals Court had not issued a ruling in the case of Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four persons and injuring 40. In 2018, investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Diab and ordered his release. Prosecutors appealed the case’s dismissal, and the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling. Upon his release, Diab returned to Canada, where he remained at year’s end.
On October 13, during a meeting with administrators of the guidelines in the country’s schools and colleges, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer promised to support teachers, pupils, and parents who exposed breaches of the country’s law on secularism in schools, including wearing religious symbols. His comments came after the Ministry of Education reported 935 infringements of the secularism law between September 2019 and March 2020. Middle schools for 11- to 15-year-olds accounted for 45 percent of incidents, while primary schools accounted for 37 percent. More than 40 percent of violations were in the form of religiously motivated insults or other verbal aggression, while 15 percent involved the wearing of religious symbols, such as a crucifix, veil, or turban.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the penitentiary system employed Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Orthodox Christian, and Buddhist chaplains. In detainee visiting areas, visitors could bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Prisoners could pray in their cells individually, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.
The government continued to implement its 2018-20 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism, which had a strong focus on countering online hate content. The government said it would assess the results of the plan in 2021. On June 18, the Constitutional Council invalidated core provisions of a new law against online hate speech, adopted by parliament on May 13, that was part of the 2018-20 plan. The “Avia Law,” introduced at the direction of then-Prime Minister Philippe, required online platforms to remove, within 24 hours, material they determined to be hateful content based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and religion; language trivializing genocide or crimes against humanity; and content deemed sexual harassment. Social media companies faced fines up to 1.25 million euros ($1.53 million) if they failed to remove the content within the required timeframes. The Constitutional Council ruled these provisions of the law infringed on freedom of speech and were “not appropriate, necessary, and proportionate.” Parliamentary committees were drafting replacement legislation at year’s end.
On June 10, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the country had violated Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights when it convicted a group of 12 pro-Palestinian activists for incitement to economic discrimination. The group had distributed leaflets calling for a boycott of Israeli products as part of the BDS movement in 2009 and 2010. While France’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, had upheld the conviction, the European court ruled the activists’ actions were forms of political expression, protected by the human rights convention. In a final judgment on September 11, the court ordered the government to pay a total of 101,000 euros ($124,000) in damages to the group. The government had three months to appeal the court’s decision or make the payment but did not do either. At year’s end, the fine remained unpaid.
On January 4, several thousand demonstrators gathered in Paris and a number of other cities to protest the December 2019 court ruling that deemed Kobili Traore “criminally not responsible” for Sarah Halimi’s killing in 2017 because he was under the influence of cannabis at the time of the attack. On January 23, during his visit to Israel, President Macron criticized the Paris Appeals Court ruling. In a January 27 statement, Chantal Arens, the senior judge of the Court of Cassation, and Prosecutor General Francois Molins responded to Macron, stating, “The independence of the justice system, of which the president of the Republic is the guarantor, is an essential factor in the functioning of a democracy.” At year’s end, Traore was held in a psychiatric hospital. The case was pending at the Court of Cassation.
On September 17, prosecutors opened an investigation into the song lyrics of Freeze Corleone, a rapper who was accused by several officials and organizations of promoting anti-Semitism. Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said Corleone was being investigated for “inciting racial hatred” based on the content of his songs and videos posted online. Frederic Potier, the interministerial delegate (head) of DILCRAH, had earlier reported the rapper to the public prosecutor’s office after identifying what he characterized as nine illegal passages in his music. In his lyrics, Corleone declared that he “arrives determined like Adolf in the 1930s,” that he does not “give a damn about the Shoah,” and that “like Swiss bankers, it will be all for the family so my children can live like Jewish rentiers.”
On July 28, police arrested Alain Bonnet, also known as Alain Soral, on charges of incitement of hatred against Jews and actions that “endanger the fundamental interests of the Republic” after comments he made on his website, Equality and Reconciliation. At the end of September, the Paris Appeals Court sentenced Soral to pay 134,400 euros ($165,000) to the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) as punishment for releasing Salvation Through The Jews, a work by Leon Bloy (died 1917) that the court found to be anti-Semitic. On October 6, the court sentenced Soral to a 5,400 euro ($6,600) fine for blaming Jews for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Soral was convicted four times in 2019, following previous violations for Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic insults, and publishing an anti-Semitic video.
The Paris prosecutor’s October 14 decision to prosecute a man for vandalism rather than anti-Semitism for spray-painting dozens of large red swastikas along Paris’s landmark Rue de Rivoli the weekend of October 10-11 sparked protests among members of the Jewish community. The prosecutor’s office stated there was no legal basis for charging the man with a crime aggravated by religious or racial hatred and that “the damage was committed without specifically targeting buildings identified as being linked to the Jewish community.” In a tweet, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) expressed “total incomprehension,” asking, “How can you spray 20 swastikas without being prosecuted for anti-Semitism?” Dorothee Bissacia-Bernstein, the lawyer representing LICRA in the case, tweeted after the decision, “Major moment of indignation and anger yes. Stupefaction.” Leader of the far-left France Unbowed Party Jean-Luc Melenchon criticized the “lamentable” decision. The suspect, a man from the country of Georgia, remained in pretrial detention. His trial was rescheduled and remained pending at year’s end.
On January 27, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister of National Education and Youth, and Armin Laschet, German Plenipotentiary for Cultural Affairs under the Franco-German Cooperation Treaty, visited the Shoah Memorial in Paris. In public remarks, they stated the fight against racism and anti-Semitism was and would remain a priority of educational cooperation between the two countries.
On January 9, then-Interior Minister Castaner, then-Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, and then-Junior Minister for the Interior Laurent Nunez attended a CRIF-organized memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where five years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other persons hostage.
On July 10, Interior Minister Darmanin attended the Shabbat service at the Great Synagogue of Paris. “The Jews of France had to suffer many unspeakable acts. Attacking the Jews of France, is attacking the Republic,” he said at the end of the visit.
On July 19, Secretary of State for the Armed Forces Genevieve Darrieussecq held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup in which 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps. “There is no space for ambiguity, the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup is an issue belonging to France,” Darrieussecq said in her statements, adding, “Two dangers lie in wait for us and must constantly be fought: oblivion and hatred. It is because the Nation knows where it comes from, looks at its past without ambiguity, that it will be intractable in the face of racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination.”
President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions, including a February 19 visit to the Shoah Memorial; the March 19 commemoration of the eighth anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 Judaism Day observance. On April 26, as the country held private or virtual ceremonies (because of COVID-19 restrictions) for the thousands of persons deported to Nazi death camps during World War II, President Macron tweeted, “Seventy-five years on, we have not forgotten.” On the same day, Secretary of State for the Armed Forces Darrieussecq laid a wreath at the Shoah Memorial and the Memorial of the Martyrs of The Deportation in central Paris.
On July 26, Interior Minister Darmanin participated in a tribute for Father Jacques Hamel, the Catholic priest killed in an attack for which ISIS claimed responsibility at his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in 2016. In his remarks, Darmanin said Father Hamel was “killed by the Islamist barbarism,” and “killing a priest is like trying to assassinate a part of the nation’s soul.”
On July 29, Interior Minister Darmanin visited Douaumont Cemetery at the Verdun battlefield to pay tribute to Muslim soldiers who died for the country during World War I. Speaking in front of the graves, he warned against “any deviation of the spirit … that evokes the purported incompatibility between the fact of [religious] belief and being a republican.” He added, “The [French] Republic does not prefer any religion, does not combat any religion.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government postponed the visit of 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams whom it has regularly hosted to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The CFCM reported 235 registered incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 154 in 2019. The Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ) reported a total of 339 anti-Semitic incidents, of which 295 were threats and 44 violent acts, compared with 687 total incidents in the previous year. Statistics on anti-Christian incidents were not yet available; most of these incidents involved vandalism of churches and cemeteries.
On October 29, a man entered the Basilica of Notre Dame in the southern city of Nice and killed three Catholic worshippers with a knife. Local press reported one of the two women killed was “practically decapitated.” Municipal police intervened, shooting and seriously injuring the attacker. The attacker, according to local press reports, said, “Allahu Akbar (God is great),” repeatedly as he was being arrested and taken to the hospital. The man was identified as Brahim Aouissaoui, an asylum seeker from Tunisia who entered France in early October. The national counterterrorism prosecutor’s office was treating the attack as a terrorist incident. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
On October 16, an 18-year-old Muslim Russian refugee of Chechen ethnicity, Abdoullakh Anzorov, beheaded a French middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty, in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Paty had shown his students Charlie Hebdo’s 2012 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as part of a lesson on freedom of expression; Paty advised students they could turn away if they did not want to see the images. Police shot and killed Anzorov soon after Paty’s killing and charged 10 other persons, including an imam, with assisting him. President Macron visited the school where Paty had worked, calling the incident “a typical Islamist terrorist attack” and stating that “our compatriot was killed for teaching children freedom of speech.”
On October 18, media reported two women stabbed two other women wearing Islamic headscarves and tried to rip off their veils near the Eiffel Tower in 2019. The women were charged with assault and racist slurs. The main suspect was placed in pretrial detention while the second was released on bail, legal sources reported.
On August 6, two men shouted anti-Semitic insults and assaulted a Jewish man, stole his watch, and beat him unconscious in the hallway of his parents’ apartment building in Paris. Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti tweeted, “I know the immense emotion that besets the entire Jewish community. It is the emotion of the whole nation and of course mine.” Authorities charged the two men with violent theft motivated by religious reasons and placed them in pretrial detention on August 28. At year’s end, a trial had not been scheduled, and the two men remained in detention.
In January, a 16-year-old student in the Lyon region received death threats and withdrew from school due to security concerns after she posted a vulgar anti-Islam video that led to national controversy. The student appeared on television and defended her right to blaspheme, saying her comments came in response to a vulgar online attack on her sexual orientation by a Muslim. The government provided her police protection, and President Macron defended her, telling newspaper Le Dauphine Libere that children needed to be “better protected” against “new forms of hatred and harassment online,” adding, “The law is clear: we have the right to blaspheme, to criticize, to caricature religions.” In the ensuing public debate, however, public personalities and officials made a range of statements criticizing the girl for hate speech or defending her right to free speech and French secularism. Abdallah Zekri, general delegate of the CFCM, told Sud Radio that he was against the death threats, but that “who sows the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.” CFCM president Mohammed Moussaoui, in the CFCM’s official response, said, “Nothing can justify” death threats.” Then-Justice Minister Belloubet, in comments she later acknowledged as “maladroit,” called the death threats unacceptable but characterized the video as “an attack on freedom of conscience.”
On May 14, the Paris prosecutor indicted the two suspects in the 2018 killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll on charges including intentional homicide and targeting the victim based on religion. On July 10, investigative judges affirmed the prosecution of the suspects on charges of murder “of a vulnerable person, committed because of the victim’s religion.” The two individuals remained in pretrial detention and a trial date had not been set at year’s end.
Authorities charged a man with “extortion on account of religion” with aggravated circumstances following an August 26 incident in Strasbourg in which an individual assaulted a young artist hired by the city to decorate a public building for wearing a t-shirt with “Israel” printed on it. After ordering the artist to leave the site, the assailant stole a spray-paint can and wrote on the pavement, “Interdit aux juifs et aux salopes” (“Jews and sluts forbidden”). Both the victim and a local Jewish association filed a complaint. On November 30, the Strasbourg Criminal Court sentenced the assailant to six-months’ imprisonment and ordered him to pay 500 euros ($610) in compensation to the victim and 1,000 euros ($1,200) to antiracist groups that had also filed a lawsuit.
On May 26, Agence France Presse and other media reported security forces arrested a man, identified only as Aurelien C., in the central city of Limoges. The security forces said they suspected the man, a former member of both the military and the Yellow Vest protest movement, was planning an attack against the Jewish community. On social media, Aurelien C. had posted white supremacist conspiracy theories and both anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic comments, while glorifying terrorists such as the 2019 Christchurch and 2011 Oslo attackers. On May 12, the Antiterrorism National Prosecutor’s Office reportedly began investigating him for “association of criminal terrorist wrongdoers.” In his home, investigators reportedly found incendiary tools that could be used as mortars. He had researched when Jewish religious sites would reopen in his town. Aurelien C. had previously been arrested in December 2018 and convicted of illegal arms possession.
In September, two men carried out an armed robbery against a man wearing a Star of David in a suburb of Paris and called him a “dirty Jew.” The victim was reportedly an Arab convert to Judaism. One of the robbers, identified only as Mohammed, received a one-year jail sentence.
Also in September, a court in Brest sentenced a man to two months in prison for calling a woman at an office where the man collected his welfare check a “dirty Jewess” and performing a Nazi salute in December 2019.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported six incidents during the year. In one case, they reported a man punched a Jehovah’s Witness in the face while he was evangelizing in Le Petit Quevilly, a suburb of Rouen, on March 1. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with police. At year’s end, authorities had not filed charges.
The Jewish Agency for Israel reported in June approximately 2,000 persons began the process of emigrating to Israel in the previous month, compared with 200 in May 2019.
On January 20, the AJC released a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in partnership with the Fondapol think tank. The survey, which polled 505 French Jews between October 14 and November 19, 2019, found that 70 percent said they had been the target of at least one anti-Semitic incident in their lifetime, 64 percent had experienced anti-Semitic verbal abuse at least once, and 23 percent had suffered physical abuse on at least one occasion; 10 percent said they had been attacked several times. The poll found 37 percent refrained from using visible Jewish symbols, 25 percent avoided revealing their Jewish identity in the workplace, and 52 percent had considered leaving the country permanently. Overall, 44 percent said the situation for French Jews was worse than a year earlier, 11 percent said it was better, and 42 percent said it was unchanged. Among respondents aged 18-24, 84 percent had been the target of at least one anti-Semitic act, 79 percent had experienced verbal abuse, and 39 percent had suffered physical aggression. Jews self-identifying as “religious” felt the most vulnerable; 74 percent said they had been a target of at least one act of verbal abuse. Anti-Semitic incidents occurred most frequently on the street and in schools. Fifty-five percent said they had been insulted or threatened, and 59 percent said they had been physically abused on the street. In schools, 26 percent said they had suffered physical abuse and 54 percent had experienced verbal abuse. In the workplace, 46 percent said they had experienced anti-Semitic verbal abuse.
The poll also questioned 522 non-Jewish citizens. Of this total sample of 1,027 Jewish and non-Jewish persons, 73 percent (and 72 percent of Jewish respondents) considered anti-Semitism a problem that affected all of society; 47 percent (and 67 percent of Jews) reported the level of anti-Semitism in the country was high, while 27 percent (and 22 percent of Jews) said it was low. Fifty-three percent of non-Jews, but 77 percent of Jewish respondents, said they had the feeling that anti-Semitism in the country was increasing.
A poll of youths conducted by IFOP, carried out on September 4-9 and released on September 13, showed 87 percent of respondents had heard about the Holocaust and 95 percent had heard about the gas chambers; 80 percent reported learning these facts at school. One in 10 students said it was impossible to teach about the Holocaust in their class (among the reasons cited was a refusal by some students to listen to the lesson), and 21 percent cited criticisms from other students during lessons about the subject. The survey also revealed the influence of Holocaust denial on online video platforms and social media networks; nearly one in three (29 percent) respondents said they had already read or viewed content questioning the existence of the Holocaust. Of these, 57 percent had encountered denial theories on YouTube and 40 percent on Facebook.
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 52 percent of French respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important” but ranked it the lowest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the Prime Minister, released on June 18, included the results of an Ipsos poll conducted in November 2019 and involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,323 residents over the age of 18. The results were almost identical to a poll Ipsos conducted a year earlier. According to the more recent poll, 34.2 percent (1.8 percent fewer than in 2018) of respondents believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 18.6 percent (1.4 percent fewer than the previous year) thought Jews had too much power in the country. The poll found 35.5 percent (29 percent in 2018) of respondents had a negative image of Islam, and 44.7 percent (44 percent in the previous year) considered it a threat to national identity. The commission’s report again cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as women wearing a veil (45.5 percent).
In June, during an antiracism protest in Paris attended by 15-20,000 persons, a video of at least one man repeatedly shouting “Dirty Jews” at a counterprotesting white identity group went viral. Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited CRIF as stating that anti-Semites had infiltrated the protest, “using a noble cause, the fight against racism, to spread hatred against Jews and Israel.” According to the report, CRIF President Francis Kalifat asked, “How can this type of incitement be shouted again and again without people reacting and demanding that those people leave?”
According to press reports, April Benayoum, runner-up in the 2021 Miss France competition, became the subject of “a torrent” of anti-Semitic comments on social media after revealing that her father was Israeli during the televised competition on December 19. One message read, “Hitler forgot about this one.” On December 20, Interior Minister Darmanin tweeted that he was “deeply shocked” and promised law enforcement would investigate the incidents. Others, including the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the Israeli embassy in Paris, and the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, also denounced the comments. The Paris Prosecutor’ Office opened an investigation on December 21.
Facebook confirmed on August 3 it had banned French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala from its platforms for repeatedly violating its policies by posting anti-Semitic comments and for his “organized hatred.” In June, YouTube also banned Dieudonne, who had more than one million followers on Facebook and 36,000 on Instagram. Elisabeth Moreno, the Minister in Charge of Gender Equality, Diversity, and Equality of Opportunities welcomed the bans, tweeting, “All forms of speech inciting hatred and racism must be banned on social media.” Dieudonne was convicted multiple times for hate speech, including anti-Semitism. In October, in contravention of COVID-19 confinement orders, Dieudonne held an unauthorized gathering near Strasbourg attended by approximately 300 supporters, where he repeated the same anti-Semitic comments and spread disinformation relating to Jews about the pandemic.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency cited other instances of disinformation blaming Jews for COVID-19. For example, in March, a caricature of a Jewish former Health Minister, Agnes Buzyn, showing her poisoning a well, was shared tens of thousands of times on social media. Alain Soral posted on YouTube that the virus was being used by “the luminary community, which we are forbidden to name … to weaken French people by the sheer weight of the death toll.” According to the agency, Soral’s post was viewed 406,000 times. The same report cited Marc Knobel, a historian with CRIF, as stating, “…the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that Jews will be blamed whenever there’s an epidemic, be it today or 1347.”
On January 5, vandals damaged several headstones, burial vaults, and a memorial to a young child deported to Auschwitz at the oldest Jewish cemetery in the country, located in Bayonne. The cemetery contained Jewish burial sites dating to the late 17th century. The president of the Bayonne/Biarritz Jewish community condemned the desecrations, stating, “When it comes to attacking the dead, I don’t think there is anything more cowardly.”
On August 7, unknown persons set fire to the Omar Mosque in Bron, a suburb of Lyon. President of the regional CFCM Kamel Kabtane denounced the act. He had said previously the country trivialized anti-Muslim speech and acts. Regional and religious leaders, such as Interior Minister Darmanin and Mohammed Moussaoui, President of the Union of Mosques of France, expressed solidarity against the suspected arson and stated the country was experiencing a “rise of hatred.” They called for the creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate and address these issues.
A fire broke out at the Essalam Mosque in the city of Lyon on August 12, only days after the suspected arson at the Omar Mosque in Bron. The mayor of Lyon’s 2nd Arrondissement, Pierre Oliver, condemned the burning of the mosque, which a preliminary investigation suggested was also the result of arson. Hackers also changed the website link to the Essalam Mosque on the Google Maps site to a pest control site.
On April 15, the president of the Turkish Cultural Association (ACTS) of Saint-Etienne discovered a death threat written on the association door that he called “clearly Islamophobic.” Saint-Etienne Mayor Gael Perdriau expressed support for all ACTS members. The mayor highlighted the group’s societal contributions, including a recent donation of masks to nursing staff at the local teaching hospital.
On January 19, unknown individuals in Bordeaux and Talence defaced eight churches and two Catholic schools with graffiti. Several of the “tags” referred to pedophilia. Archbishop of Bordeaux Jean Paul James expressed his “profound sadness in the face of such acts,” condemned “this form of violence against Christians,” and offered to support “those who felt injured by these … obscene insults.” A police investigation was ongoing.
On April 22, members of the far-right group Generation Identitaire projected pictures denouncing calls to prayer onto the facade of the Grand Mosque of Lyon. The text read, “Lyon, Strasbourg, Marseille, Germany, Spain. Stop! The song of the muezzin will not resonate in Europe. Generation Identitaire.” The group claimed responsibility on Twitter. Marine Le Pen, president of the National Rally Party, had also publicly complained to the Interior Ministry about the Grand Mosque of Lyon’s daily broadcasts of the calls to prayer.
The hashtag #sijetaitunjuif (If I were a Jew) trended on Twitter France on May 18 before the company took it down, following condemnation by officials and Jewish and antihate organizations. The hashtag originated with six coordinated individual users and was amplified by other users and groups who deployed it with anti-Semitic smears and references to the Holocaust. The author of one of the original tweets, a 16-year-old boy, told media outlet BFM he had posted the material “to see if people would defend Jews.” Twitter France told BFM it took the hashtag off its list of trending topics for violating the company’s hate speech rules.
On June 23, anti-Semitic graffiti and drawings were found on campaign posters for Lyon Metropolis President David Kimelfeld. Also on June 23, anti-Muslim stickers were found on campaign posters of Nordine Gasmi, the Vaudais Independent Party mayoral candidate, in nearby Vaulx-en-Velin. Kimelfeld denounced the graffiti, and local Member of Parliament Thomas Rudigoz called the anti-Semitic tags “despicable,” saying they recalled dark times in the country’s history.
In the early hours of July 26, a mosque in the southwestern French city of Agen was vandalized with graffiti that included a swastika and obscene messages. Interior Minister Darmanin tweeted supported for Agen’s Muslim community and condemned “hateful actions that are contrary to the values of the Republic.” Agen Mayor Jean Dionis du Sejour denounced the vandalism as “absolutely unacceptable … insulting [and] senseless.”
Anti-Islam graffiti was discovered on September 2 on the walls of a mosque in the southwestern city of Tarbes, according to media reports. The incident occurred on the opening day of the trial for the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Interior Minister Darmanin tweeted, “These acts have no place in our Republic.” Regional officials, including the president of the Occitanie Region and the prefect of the Hautes-Pyrenees Department, also publicly condemned the act. Mayor of Tarbes Gerard Tremege visited the site and said he was “outraged by these heinous acts of desecration.” The CFCM also expressed “firm condemnation” and “full solidarity and total support to the faithful and officials of the mosque.”
On October 2, the Association of Jewish Students tweeted a video of a kosher restaurant in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris that had been vandalized with many swastikas and the words “Hitler was right” spray-painted on furniture and walls.
The Nour El Mohamadi Mosque in central Bordeaux was vandalized on October 14 and October 20. Unknown individuals broke exterior windows and defaced it with graffiti that included Celtic crosses and the phrase “Mahomet = Lache” (Mohammed = Coward). Interior Minister Darmanin asked local authorities to put the mosque under police protection, stating on Twitter, “Such actions are unacceptable on the soil of the Republic.” A police investigation was ongoing at year’s end. Mosque Vice President Abdelaziz Manaa noted a recent increase in anti-Muslim hostility: “There are people who insult us from the street … but now, we feel that it is getting worse. We’ve never had insults against the Prophet.”
On January 10, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with police after they found a graffito, “God kills,” on the door of a Kingdom Hall in Paris on January 10. At year’s end, law enforcement had not identified any suspects.
On April 17, the Angouleme criminal court found an 18-year-old man guilty of, but not responsible for, desecrating numerous graves in a Christian cemetery in Cognac in 2019. A psychiatric evaluation of the man before his trial concluded his judgment was impaired at the time of the incident. The court ordered his emergency hospitalization in a specialized center following the verdict.
Authorities closed the case against Claude Sinke, who died on February 26, before the case could go to trial. Sinke was arrested and charged with attempted murder after he allegedly shot and injured two Muslim men and set fire to the door of a mosque in Bayonne in 2019.
At year’s end, there was no information available on the status of a case involving four men arrested in 2019, who were part of a larger group of approximately 10 men alleged to have beaten and robbed a Jewish driver for a ride-sharing company. At the time, authorities said they considered the anti-Semitic nature of the attack to be an aggravating circumstance.
Authorities were still investigating a case from 2019 in which they charged a man with attempted murder and degrading a place of worship after he crashed his car into a mosque in Colmar. According to some press reports, the man was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which might lead to dismissal of the case.
On September 9, the G9, a Lyon-based interfaith group, founded following terrorist attacks in 2015 with the aim of promoting understanding among religious groups and fighting against violent extremism, wrote an open letter with calling for fraternity after multiple acts of vandalism at places of worship. In the letter, entitled “More than ever determined to work for the Common Good,” the G9 challenged citizens and authorities to be vigilant and create strong connections wherever possible.
The Council of Christian Churches in France, composed of 10 representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, continued to meet four times a year, twice in plenary session and twice at the working level.
The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). It restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” The government held 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing on religious grounds to complete mandatory national service. In December, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) detained a 16-year-old Christian male for planning to attack two mosques using a machete on the anniversary of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings. According to the ministry, the individual had been self-radicalized through online material, including the Christchurch attacker’s manifesto and ISIS videos of violence against Christians. The government stated the individual acted alone and did not try to influence or involve others in his attack plans. In February, the MHA launched an investigation into a local, unregistered chapter of the South Korean Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (Shincheonji Church), which resulted in the deportation of five South Koreans and the dissolution of affiliated organizations. In November, authorities arrested 21 individuals for resuming activities of the church “covertly.” In June, police detained a permanent resident for posting comments to Instagram about wanting to kill Muslims. In September, police issued a warning to Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan for social media posts she made in 2018 and May 2020, before she was a candidate for parliament, accusing the government of discrimination against religious and racial minorities. Authorities investigated messages individuals posted to social media that were considered offensive to Muslims and Christians, for which the individuals later apologized. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony and respect for religious differences. It actively reached out to religious communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasized the role of faith leaders in promoting solidarity during the pandemic. Government organizations initiated interfaith programs and funded community-led interfaith initiatives to promote religious tolerance and build interfaith understanding.
Multiple religious groups held virtual interfaith events and celebrations during the year. Religious groups and civil society organizations continued to promote interfaith and intrafaith understanding. In April, the then-Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth joined 100 members of the nongovernmental organization Inter-Religious Organization (IRO) to celebrate the annual IRO Day virtually and pledged to maintain interfaith solidarity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officers promoted religious diversity and tolerance throughout the year. In November, the Charge d’Affaires met with Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Communication and Information and Health and chairman of the community-level organization OnePeople.sg, to discuss religious harmony and diversity. Throughout the year, the embassy used its website and social media channels to highlight outreach and demonstrate respect for the country’s religious diversity. The Charge d’Affaires delivered video speeches and best wishes for Ramadan in May, Deepavali in November, and the Christmas and Hanukkah season in December. Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of groups, including the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), to support religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Of the four million individuals the local government counts as citizens or permanent residents, 81.5 percent stated a religious affiliation in the 2015 General Household Survey. According to the data, approximately 33.2 percent of the population of citizens and permanent residents are Buddhist, 18.8 percent Christian (including 6.7 percent Catholic), 14 percent Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 10 percent Taoist, 5 percent Hindu, and 18.5 percent identify as having no religion. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Unification Church. Although estimates varied widely, the government estimates there are 2,500 members in the Jewish community.
According to a 2020 report by the Department of Statistics, 74.3 percent of the resident population is ethnic Chinese, 13.5 percent ethnic Malay, 9.0 percent ethnic Indian, and 3.2 percent other, including Eurasians. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim. According to a 2016 national survey, among ethnic Indians, 59.9 percent are Hindu, 21.3 percent Muslim, and 12.1 percent Christian. The ethnic Chinese population includes Buddhists (42.3 percent), Christians (20.9 percent), and Taoists (12.9 percent).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief, as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to, or employment in, any office under a public authority. It states every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs, and it does not prohibit restrictions on employment by a religious institution. The constitution states no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own.
The government maintains a decades-long ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds the religion was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the ban and stated that individuals (including members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) have the right to profess, practice, and propagate their own beliefs, but may not act as members of an unlawful society or attend meetings of same. In practice, the government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish or import their literature. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on the grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) authorizes the Minister for Home Affairs to issue a “restraining order” (RO) against a person in a position of authority within a religious group if the Minister ascertains the person is causing feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promoting political causes, carrying out subversive activities, or encouraging disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. An RO places various restrictions on public activities in which a religious authority can participate. Under the MRHA, the Minister must provide individuals or religious groups 14 days to make written representations before an RO may be issued against them, and the Minister must also consult and take into consideration the views of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH) as to whether an RO should be issued. In addition, under the penal code, “Wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious or racial groups” may result in detention or imprisonment. Imprisonment may last up to five years. Since passing the MRHA in 1990, the government has never invoked the law or issued an RO.
The PCRH reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred to it by the MHA or by parliament. The President appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires that two-thirds of PCRH members be representatives of the major religions in the country.
The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore,” and it requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The Islamic Religious Council (MUIS), established under the Ministry for Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY), administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, preparation of Friday sermons, and Hajj arrangements. The MUIS includes representatives from the Sunni majority and Muslim minority groups, including Shia. Use of MUIS sermons is not compulsory, but imams who use their own content are responsible for it and may be investigated by the government if there are complaints.
The government appoints all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board and nominates four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards manage various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.
The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows registered groups to own property, hold public meetings, and conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enables them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemptions. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered group may be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 SGD ($3,800), imprisonment of up to three years, or both.
Prisoners, including those in solitary confinement, are allowed access to chaplains of registered religious groups. Members of unregistered religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Christian Conference of Asia, and Shincheonji Church, do not have this right.
Citizens require a permit to speak at indoor gatherings open to the public that are outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests or they can be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.
By law, a publication is considered objectionable if it describes, depicts, expresses, or deals with, among other things, matters of race or religion in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility among racial or religious groups. The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. For offenses involving the publication of objectionable material, an individual may be liable upon conviction to a fine not exceeding 5,000 SGD ($3,800), imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both. A person in possession of a prohibited publication may be fined up to 2,000 SGD ($1,500) and imprisoned for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.
The Ministry of National Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The ministry and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in an allotted zone or not exceeding the maximum plot ratio and building height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups; they apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or exclusively leased to religious organizations or limited to religious use and must also be available to rent out for nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.
Registration with the MUIS is compulsory for all Muslim religious teachers and centers of learning. Registration requires adherence to minimum standards and a code of ethics, as well as the fulfilment of certain training requirements.
The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law is used, but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has exclusive jurisdiction over marriage issues where both parties are or were married as Muslims, including divorce, nullification, or judicial separation. The sharia court has concurrent jurisdiction with the family court and family division of the high court over disputes related to custody of minors and disposition of property upon divorce. The President of the country appoints the president of the sharia court. A breach of sharia court orders is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment of up to six months, and an individual may file a complaint about a breach in the family justice courts. The sharia court does not have jurisdiction over personal protection orders or applications for maintenance payments, as these are treated as orders made by a secular family court. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeals board, which is composed of three members selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of at least seven Muslims nominated every three years by the President of the country. The ruling of the appeals board is final and may not be appealed to any other court.
The law allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives, reviewing the husband’s financial capability, and evaluating his ability to treat the wives and families fairly and equitably. By law, the President of the country appoints a “male Muslim of good character and suitable attainments” as the Registrar of Muslim Marriages.
Under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam. This includes publicly teaching or expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law, which carries a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD ($1,500), maximum imprisonment of 12 months, or both. It is also a criminal offense for Muslims to cohabit outside of marriage, but that law has not been enforced in decades.
Under the law, Muslim couples in which one or both parties are under the age of 21 must complete a marriage preparation program and obtain parental or guardian consent before applying for marriage. Each party to the marriage must be at least 18.
According to legal experts in inheritance, Islamic law governs Muslims in the context of inheritance issues by default, but under certain circumstances, civil law takes precedence when invoked. Islamic law may result in a man receiving twice the share of a woman of the same relational level. A man may also incur financial responsibilities for his female next of kin, although this provision is not codified in the country’s law.
The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-subsidized religiously affiliated schools (mostly Christian but including three Buddhist schools). Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time and must not include proselytization; students have the right to opt out and be given alternatives, such as civics and moral education, in lieu of religious instruction. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not subsidized by the government. At the primary level, however, the law allows only seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to provide religious education to citizen students; these schools must also continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools. Public schools finish early on Fridays, which enables Muslim students to attend Friday prayers, or administrators allow Muslim students to leave early to attend prayers. Secondary school students learn about the diversity of the country’s religious practices as a component of their character and citizenship education.
The law empowers the Ministry of Education (MOE) to regulate primary and secondary schools. MOE rules prohibit students (but not teachers) in public schools from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform, including hijabs or headscarves. Schools have discretion to grant a child dispensation from wearing the official uniform based on health but not religious requirements. International and other private schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, which are all under the purview of the MUIS, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning.
The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service, including for religious reasons. Male citizens or second-generation permanent residents are required to complete 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service. Conscientious objectors are generally court-martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months. Although they remain technically liable for national service, men who refuse to serve on religious grounds are generally not called up for reservist duties. They do not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharges them from reservist duties.
The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group the parliament or the government refers to it.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that at year’s end, 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses were held in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing on religious grounds to complete national service.
In December, the MHA detained a 16-year-old male under the Internal Security Act for planning to attack two mosques using a machete on the anniversary of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings. According to the ministry, the minor, identified as a Protestant Christian, had been self-radicalized through online material, including through the Christchurch attacker’s manifesto and ISIS videos of violence against Christians. Reportedly, the suspect was writing a manifesto detailing his hatred of Islam, as well as a document drafted after the October 2020 church stabbings in Nice, France, calling on the French to “stand up” against Muslims. The government stated the individual acted alone and did not try to influence or involve others in his attack plans.
In February, the MHA announced it was investigating a local unregistered chapter of the South Korean Shincheonji Church under the authority of national security legislation that would ban the organization’s activities in the country. The ministry then repatriated five South Korean nationals for holding key positions in the local chapter and dissolved the group’s affiliated organizations. The ministry said the group had used deceptive recruitment methods and misled individuals. Because of the group’s links to COVID-19 clusters in South Korea, the ministry said it would accelerate its investigations, given potential local health risks. In November, the ministry announced police arrested 21 members of the organization for being members of an “unlawful society” under the Societies Act and for resuming activities “covertly” despite warnings from the ministry to cease. The ministry said it “will not allow members of unlawful societies or persons associated with them to threaten Singapore’s public safety, peace and good order.”
In June, police arrested a 19-year-old permanent resident for inciting violence and posting comments with the deliberate intent to wound religious feelings. The man had posted comments on Instagram about wanting to kill Muslims. A police investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
Media reported that on September 17, police issued a “stern warning” to Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan for promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion or race. This came after a police report was filed against then-parliamentary candidate Khan during the general election campaign in July for social media posts she made in 2018 and 2020, before she was a candidate, accusing the government, law enforcement authorities, and courts of racial and religious discrimination against minorities, including Muslims. After the police reports were filed, Khan and the Workers’ Party leadership gave a press conference on July 5 at which Khan apologized to any racial group or community hurt by her comments and said she did not mean to cause social division, but rather wanted to raise awareness about minority concerns. On September 17, Khan posted to Facebook that she had learned to be “more considerate” in framing difficult conversations and apologized once again.
Media reported that on March 18, a group calling itself the NUS Atheist Society posted to its Facebook page an image of the Bible and Quran with a caption reading, “For use during toilet paper shortages.” Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam publicly criticized the post as “very offensive” to two religions and the police began an investigation, which remained ongoing at year’s end. On March 20, Shanmugam wrote on his Facebook page, “We [the government] take a serious view of these type of statements….We highlighted [for Facebook] how such offensive remarks have no place in multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore.” Facebook blocked domestic access to the post, per the government’s request. Media reported the Progress Singapore Party expelled Jan Chan, who was responsible for the Facebook page, from the party, saying the party “will not tolerate any of its members showing disrespect to any religion.” In a separate post to its official Facebook page, the National University of Singapore (NUS) said it was not linked to the NUS Atheist Society or the group’s Facebook page and said the page’s contents “do not represent the views, opinions and position” of the university. Chan told media he did not have malicious intent and regretted making the posting.
In January, the MHA and MUIS investigated Abdul Halim Abdul Karim, a Muslim religious teacher, for posting offensive comments on Facebook. Abdul Halim called COVID-19 “Allah’s retribution” against the Chinese for the oppression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, China. In a separate private post, Abdul Halim said Chinese did not wash properly after defecating and were less hygienic than Muslims. Minister Shanmugam called the posts “simply unacceptable,” and MUIS said the posts “express…views that do not represent the Muslim community.” Abdul Halim apologized for the posts, saying his meaning had been misunderstood and the government took no further action against him.
The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived. The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and to prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.
Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab and President Halimah Yacob also wore it. Some in the Muslim community continued to petition for a change in government policy and called the practice discriminatory.
The government continued to prohibit religious content from being broadcast on television “in order to maintain a secular public broadcast service.”
The government denied the request of members of the Malay Muslim community that the communal call to prayer call and special sermon at the end of Ramadan be broadcast on television during COVID-19 restrictions. The communal call to prayer and Ramadan sermon continued to be broadcast on radio and available on the internet.
While there was no law prohibiting proselytization, the government continued to discourage its practice through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly, based on what authorities said were concerns that proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations.
As part of the MOE’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. Secondary school students visited diverse religious sites, including Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, churches, and synagogues. All schools celebrated the annual Racial Harmony Day in July, which was intended to promote understanding and acceptance of all races and religions within the country. On that day, children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were also encouraged to recite a “Declaration of Religious Harmony,” which repeatedly affirmed the importance of religious harmony for the country.
The MOE announced it was training more teachers to facilitate discussions on contemporary issues, including religion, and then-Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung encouraged principals to hold more in-depth conversations in schools on these topics.
President Halimah, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong, and government ministers regularly stressed the government’s commitment to the country as a multiracial and multireligious society and cited religious harmony as an important policy goal.
Cabinet members repeatedly acknowledged that COVID-19 affected religious groups and emphasized the importance of religious harmony during the pandemic. PM Lee released a video as the country entered its COVID-19 lockdown on April 9, on the eve of Good Friday, in which he acknowledged sacrifices required to contain the pandemic. In the video, he said, “For Christians, it is a special time to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ. For Singaporeans, it is a time to acknowledge the sacrifices of our frontline workers since COVID-19 broke out in Singapore.” PM Lee also posted a message to the Muslim community on Facebook on April 23, at the beginning of Ramadan, and participated in a virtual breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan. On May 23, PM Lee posted a video message telling Muslims, “This pandemic will eventually pass, but the spirit of Hari Raya [Eid al-Fitr] will endure.” In November, he wished Hindus a happy Diwali on his Facebook page and reminded people that the COVID-19 pandemic was not over. Ministers frequently gave speeches on strengthening religious pluralism and participated in virtual interfaith dialogues led by societal organizations.
The government issued strong condemnations and emphasized the importance of religious harmony in response to foreign incidents of terrorism, including terrorist attacks in France in October and in Austria in November. Following the attacks in France, Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said in a speech, “Singapore is fortunate that its religious teachers guide Muslims here to understand the true principles of Islam in the way they practice the religion.”
During her opening speech to the new parliament in September, President Halimah said multiracialism and diversity would remain core elements of society. Halimah said, “Younger Singaporeans prefer to talk about these issues more candidly and openly, which is a positive development. But the conversation needs to be conducted with restraint and mutual respect, because race, language, and religion will always be visceral subjects.”
Under the auspices of the MCCY, local government and government-affiliated organizations advocated for interreligious understanding and support for followers of other religions.
Interfaith activities occurred in each of the country’s five mayoral districts through programs such as Common Sense for Common Spaces, while 89 Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) continued to operate in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. The IRCCs conducted a variety of local interreligious dialogues, counseling, and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities.
The government continued to work with religious groups through the Community Engagement Program, which trained community leaders in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony. In January, the MCCY launched a new Crisis Preparedness for Religious Organizations (CPRO) program, also managed by the IRCCS, to help prepare religious organizations for terror threats and other crises by improving their ability to protect their premises and congregants, prepare emergency plans, and help the larger community during a crisis. The CPRO formed a key component of the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response and its coordination with religious groups, providing guidelines on allowed religious activities during the pandemic. The MCCY also consulted religious leaders and the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony when planning the introduction and relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions. It also worked through the BRIDGE initiative (Broadening Religious/Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education), which provided financial support for community-based initiatives that fostered understanding of different religious practices and beliefs.
The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was established to promote greater interfaith understanding. The Harmony Center housed artifacts and information about Islam and nine other major religious groups in the country. It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from different religious groups.
In September, all 10 members of the PCRH were reappointed to a new, three-year term. Seven members represented the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Sikh communities, and three members, including the chair, were laypersons.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In July, employees at a local shopping center reportedly told a part-time employee to remove her hijab while working. After public pressure, the shopping center announced it would standardize its practice to allow all employees to wear religious headgear while working. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, compromising the Ministry of Manpower, the National Trades Union Congress, and the Singapore National Employers Federation, investigated the case for possible workplace discrimination. Several Malay Muslim policymakers and political office holders criticized the shopping center for its behavior, and President Halimah said, “Discrimination of any form and against anyone has no place at all in our society and, most certainly, not at the workplace.”
In February, approximately 11,500 Hindus took part in the live Thaipusam festival. Subsequently, due to COVID-19 safe-distancing measures, many interfaith activities and religious festivals were conducted virtually, but still proceeded. In September, the Muslim volunteer welfare organization Jamiyah Singapore held a webinar on the role of faith leaders in helping communities during the COVID-19 pandemic that included leaders from different religious groups inside and outside the country. President Halimah said at the event that faith can be a source of strength, solace, and solidarity during the pandemic.
In July, OnePeople.sg held its annual HarmonyWorks! conference virtually to engage different communities and youth. In June, IRO held a virtual interreligious prayer for the safe reopening of the country after a two-month partial COVID-19 lockdown that ended June 1.
In April, then-Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth Grace Fu joined 100 IRO members to celebrate the annual IRO Day virtually, and she pledged to maintain interreligious solidarity amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The IRO, which included leaders of the 10 major religious groups in the country, had the stated objective of inculcating a spirit of friendship among various religious groups by conducting interreligious prayer services, seminars, and public talks throughout the year. IRO released a public statement in April urging citizens and residents to stay united, safeguard social cohesion, and remain connected with people from other faiths amid the pandemic.
Religious groups and civil society organizations continued to promote interfaith and intrafaith understanding. Ahead of Easter and Ramadan, Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir and Bishop Terry Kee, president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore, exchanged letters conveying the well wishes of their communities to the other community as they celebrated these holidays. Throughout the year, the Center for Interfaith Understanding, chaired by a Muslim and a Taoist, hosted a range of webinars, including on such subjects as Christian-Muslim relations and interfaith dialogue.
Shia and Sunni Muslims continued to cooperate and to share Sunni mosques. The interfaith organization Roses of Peace released a Facebook video in cooperation with the local community organization Interfaith Youth Circle to promote harmony amid the COVID-19 pandemic and cooperated with OnePeople.sg on a “Regardless of Race” webinar series. Interfaith Youth Circle organized virtual meetings throughout the year to provide support to vulnerable communities and to offer interfaith exchanges while in-person meetings were not possible. Throughout the year, the Harmony Center promoted religious diversity through its #knowyoursingapore series on Facebook, where it featured different religious sites in the country.
The SGUnited Buka Puasa initiative, coordinated by MUIS and involving mosques, Roses of Peace, the chamber of commerce, and other organizations, provided 20,000 meals daily to healthcare frontline workers and families in need throughout the month of Ramadan. In April, IRO donated 10,000 masks to the Migrant Workers’ Center to fight the COVID-19 outbreak among migrant workers.
Following terrorist attacks in France in October, Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir wrote an open letter to leaders of the Christian community condemning the attacks and reinforcing the importance of interfaith harmony and shared values, saying, “We will continue to work tirelessly with the Christian community to affirm our commitment to the bonds of faith and friendship. We are confident that by strengthening the trust and confidence in each other, we will be able to prevent such incidents from ever taking place here.” Christian churches responded with individual letters to the mufti in which they said they appreciated the religious harmony and peace in the country.
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church and the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church. The law prohibits “incitement to religious hatred” as well as discrimination on the grounds of religion. The Emergency Coronavirus Bill was amended in March in response to concerns from Muslim and Jewish advocacy groups that the bill would permit cremation of COVID-19 victims “against the wishes of the deceased.” In January, the Welsh government announced plans to make relationships, sexuality, and religion a mandatory part of the curriculum for all students over the age of five by 2022. In September, Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Rehman Chishti resigned from his position as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Religious Freedom. Conservative MP Fiona Bruce was appointed his successor in December. In July, Imam Qari Asim, the Deputy Chair of the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, was appointed independent advisor to propose a working definition of Islamophobia. On the one-year anniversary of the March mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, the government announced that funding for the Places of Worship Scheme, which provides physical security measures to Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Hindu places of worship, would double from the previous year to 3.2 million pounds ($4.37 million) in 2020-2021. In April, the government provided 14 million pounds ($19.13 million) via a nongovernmental organization (NGO) to provide security at Jewish institutions, including schools and synagogues. In January, the Scottish government announced 500,000 pounds ($683,000) to fund security at places of worship. In January, the government renewed its commitment to the founding principles of the 2000 Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust (Stockholm Declaration). To mark International Holocaust Memorial Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the UK government announced a one-million pound ($1.37 million) grant to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to help preserve the site of the former concentration camp. The main political parties and party members continued to face numerous accusations of religious bias. The Conservative Party faced allegations of anti-Muslim incidents, with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) submitting a dossier of 150 cases of alleged anti-Muslim incidents by party members to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The party announced it would conduct a review into how complaints were handled and the EHRC accepted the party’s terms of reference for the investigation, but the MCB criticized the scope of the inquiry. In October, the EHRC released a report calling on the Labour Party to reform its handling of allegations of anti-Semitism within the party. In light of his negative reaction to the report, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from both the wider Labour Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party and was forced to sit as an independent MP, a first for a former leader. While his wider-party membership was later reinstated in November, he continued to serve as an independent MP. In December, the Labour Party published a plan to implement the EHRC’s recommended reforms.
The government reported a 5 percent decline (from 8,566 to 7,203 offenses) in religiously motivated hate crimes in England and Wales in the 2019-2020 period compared to the same period one year prior. This was the first period of decline in religiously motivated hate crimes since 2012-2013. Where the perceived religion of the victim was recorded (in 91 percent of cases), 50 percent (3,089 offenses) of religious hate crime offenses targeted Muslims, and 19 percent (1,205 offenses) targeted Jews. The annual report of the NGO Community Security Trust (CST) recorded 1,668 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, an 8 percent decline from 2019, yet still the second-highest ever annual figure recorded by the organization. Among the incidents were 97 assaults and three incidents classified as “extreme violence.” (Due to privacy laws, CST did not provide details on cases of extreme violence.) There were a further 1,399 incidents of nonviolent abusive behavior. CST recorded 634 anti-Semitic online incidents, a 9 percent decline from the previous year. In September, the NGO Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), which monitors anti-Muslim activity, released its annual report for 2018. The report disclosed 3,173 reports of anti-Muslim hate incidents in 2018, including 1,891 recorded by police. This was the highest number since the NGO’s founding in 2011. Several religiously motivated conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic circulated online. According to a report by the Henry Jackson Society think tank, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories included claims that Jews used global lockdowns to “steal everything.” Both Jewish and Muslim communities were vilified by media commentators such as Katie Hopkins, who alleged that Muslims were flouting lockdown restrictions and spreading COVID-19 by continuing Friday prayers at mosques.
U.S. embassy and consulate staff engaged with government officials, political parties, and religious groups to advance religious freedom issues, with a strong emphasis on digital engagement and use of social media in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. In May, the Ambassador, along with the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, gave remarks at virtual iftars, which were part of the largest such series in the UK, entitled #RamadanatHome. In June, the Ambassador hosted a virtual meeting with representatives of the Jewish community, and separately, with Labour Leader MP Sir Keir Starmer, to discuss the Labour Party’s plan to confront the issue of anti-Semitism within the party. In April, the Ambassador spoke to the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogues to extend his best wishes for Passover and to show support for the British Jewish communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in May, the Ambassador called Dr. Ahmad al-Dubayan of the Central London Mosque to commemorate Ramadan and discuss how the Muslim community was faring, given COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on gatherings. In December, a senior embassy official delivered remarks and conducted a virtual candle lighting in honor of Diwali, in partnership with the Hindu Forum of Europe. In January, a senior embassy official represented the United States at the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration Ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and met with Trustees of the Holocaust Day Memorial Trust. To mark National Religious Freedom Day in January, the consulate general in Belfast hosted an interfaith dialogue. Throughout the year, the embassy’s social media messaging on international religious freedom reached approximately 400,000 persons.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 65.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Census figures from 2011, the most recent, indicate 59.3 percent of the population in England and Wales is Christian. Of the remaining population, 4.8 percent identified as Muslim; 1.5 percent Hindu; 0.8 percent Sikh; 0.5 percent Jewish; and 0.4 Buddhist. Approximately 25 percent of the population reported no religious affiliation in the 2011 census, and 7 percent chose not to answer. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate there are 137,000 members in the country, and the Baha’i community estimates it has more than 7,000 members.
According to the 2019 British Social Attitudes survey, an annual survey conducted by the independent National Center for Social Research, 52 percent of those surveyed UK-wide described themselves as having no religion, 12 percent as Anglican, 7 percent as Catholic, and 9 percent as belonging to non-Christian religious groups. The survey showed 6 percent of individuals identified as Muslim, less than 0.5 percent as Jewish, and 3 percent as “other non-Christian.”
The Muslim community in England and Wales is predominantly of South Asian origin, but it also includes individuals from the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as a growing number of converts of British and other European descent. Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists are concentrated in London and other large urban areas, primarily in England.
Census figures for Scotland in 2011 indicate 54 percent of the population is Christian, comprising the Church of Scotland (32 percent), Roman Catholic Church (16 percent), and other Christian groups (6 percent). The Muslim community constitutes 1.4 percent of the population. Other religious groups, which together make up less than 1 percent of the population, include Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists. Persons not belonging to any religious group make up 36.7 percent of the population, and the remainder did not provide information on religious affiliation.
A 2017 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found 58 percent of those surveyed did not identify with any religion, 18 percent identified as part of the Church of Scotland, 10 percent as Roman Catholic, 11 percent as other Christian, and 2 percent as non-Christian.
Census figures from Northern Ireland in 2011 indicate 41.5 percent of the population is Protestant – consisting of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (19 percent), Church of Ireland (14 percent), Methodist Church in Ireland (3 percent), and other Protestant groups (6 percent) – and 41 percent Roman Catholic. Less than 1 percent of the population belongs to non-Christian religious groups, and approximately 10 percent professes no religion; 7 percent did not indicate a religious affiliation.
In his 2019 ‘Sectarianism in Northern Ireland’ report, Ulster University Professor Duncan Morrow found there is a “clear statistical trend towards a change in the religious minority-majority structure of Northern Ireland.” His research illustrates a consistent decline of Protestants in all 26 district council areas of Northern Ireland since 2001, contrasted with an increased Catholic population in 19 of 26 council areas in the same time period. Morrow’s analysis of 2011 census figures also illustrates this trend is likely to continue. Census figures show a Protestant majority in the over-60 age bracket and a Catholic majority in the under-20 age bracket. Professor Paul Nolan of Queen’s University Belfast stated based on current statistical trends, there will be a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland by 2021, when the next census will be conducted.
Census figures from Bermuda in 2010 cite 22 religious groups in the population of 71,000; 78 percent identifies as Christian, including 16 percent Anglican, 15 percent Roman Catholic, 9 percent African Methodist Episcopal, and 7 percent Seventh-day Adventist. Approximately 2 percent identifies with other religious groups, including approximately 600 Muslims, 200 Rastafarians, and 120 Jews. Approximately 20 percent did not identify with or state a religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland do not have state religions. Legislation establishes the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church, but it is not dependent on any government body or the Queen for spiritual matters or leadership.
The Human Rights Act 1998 protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” The Human Rights Act reaffirms the European Convention of Human Rights, Article 9, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society.”
As the supreme governor of the Church of England, the monarch must always be a member of, and promise to uphold, that Church. The monarch appoints Church of England officials, including lay and clergy representatives, on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Crown Appointments Commission. Aside from these appointments, the state is not involved in the Church’s administration. The Church of Scotland is governed by its General Assembly, which has the authority to make the laws determining how it operates.
Blasphemy and blasphemous libel remain criminal offenses in Northern Ireland under common law. To date, however, there have been no convictions for blasphemy or blasphemous libel there. Northern Ireland Humanists continues to run a campaign to repeal blasphemy laws originating from the 1888 Law of Libel Amendment Act and the 1819 Criminal Libel Act, which remain in force in the region. These laws prohibit “composing, printing or publishing any blasphemous libel or any seditious libel tending to bring into hatred…any matter in Church or State.”
In England and Wales, the law prohibits religiously motivated hate speech and any acts intended to incite religious hatred through the use of words or the publication or distribution of written material. The law defines religious hatred as hatred of a group because of its religious belief or lack thereof. Police are responsible for investigating criminal offenses and for gathering evidence; the Crown Prosecution Service, which is an independent body and the main public prosecution service for England and Wales, is responsible for deciding whether a suspect should be charged with a criminal offense. The maximum penalty for inciting religious hatred is seven years in prison. If there is evidence of religious hostility in connection with any crime, it is a “religiously aggravated offense” and carries a higher maximum penalty than does the underlying crime alone.
Blasphemy is an offense under common law in Scotland. It is a crime against public order and decency and has two aspects: whether an individual’s spoken or written words against God or religion occurred, and the words are spoken or written with intent to cause disorder. The law relates only to Christianity and is punishable by fines or imprisonment or both. The law requires courts to consider the impact of religious bias when sentencing.
Northern Ireland does not have specific hate crime laws, but current legislation allows for increased sentencing if offenses are judged to be motivated by hostility based on religion, among other aggravating factors.
By law, the General Register Office for England and Wales governs the registration and legal recognition of places of worship in England and Wales. A representative of the congregation, for example, a proprietor, trustee, or religious head, must complete and submit an application form and pay a fee of 29 pounds ($40) to a local registrar. The General Registrar Office typically provides registration certificates to the local superintendent registrar within 20 working days. The law also states buildings, rooms, or other premises may be registered as meeting places for religious worship upon payment of a fee; the General Register Office for England and Wales keeps a record of the registration, and the place of worship is assigned a “worship number.” Registration is not compulsory, but it provides certain financial advantages and is also required before a place of worship may be registered as a venue for marriages. Registered places of worship are exempt from paying taxes and benefit from participating in the country’s Gift Aid program. Gift Aid allows charities to claim back the 25 percent basic rate of tax already paid on donations by the donor, boosting the value of a donation by a quarter. The law only applies in England and Wales and does not cover the Church of England or in Wales.
The law requires religious education (RE) and worship for children between the ages of three and 18 in state-run schools, with the content decided at the local level. Specialist schoolteachers, rather than religious groups, teach the syllabus. Parents may request to exempt their children from RE, and in England and Wales, students may opt out themselves at age 14, although religious worship continues until students leave school at either age 16 or 18. State schools that are not legally designated as religious require the RE curriculum to reflect “Christian values,” be nondenominational, and refrain from attempts to convert students. It must also teach the practices of other principal religions in the country. Students and teachers, unless they are employed by faith-based schools, may decline participation in collective worship, without prejudice. All schools not designated as religious, whether private or state-run, must maintain neutrality in their interpretation of the RE syllabus and must avoid presenting one faith or belief as greater than another.
State schools in England and Wales that are not legally designated as religious are required to practice daily collective prayer or worship of “a wholly or mainly…Christian character.” Schoolteachers lead these assemblies; however, parents have the legal right to request their children not participate in collective prayer or worship. The law permits sixth form students (generally 16- to 19-year-olds in the final two years of secondary school) to withdraw from worship without parental permission or action. State schools not designated as religious are free to hold other religious ceremonies as they choose.
The government requires schools to consider the practices of different religious groups when setting dress codes for students. This includes wearing or carrying specific religious artifacts, not cutting hair, dressing modestly, or covering the head. Guidance from the Department of Education requires schools to balance the rights of individual students against the best interests of the school community as a whole; it acknowledges schools could be justified in restricting individuals’ rights to manifest their religion or beliefs when necessary, for example, to promote cohesion and good order.
In Scotland, only denominational (faith-based) schools practice daily collective prayer or worship; however, religious observance at least six times per year is compulsory in all Scottish schools. Religious observance is defined as “community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school’s community.” Examples of religious observance include school assemblies and events to recognize religious events, including Christmas and Easter. Parents may make the decision to opt out their children from this requirement, but children may not make this decision themselves.
In Bermuda, the law requires students attending state schools to participate in collective worship, characterized by educational officials as reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but it prohibits worship “distinctive of any particular religious group.” At the high school level, students are required to take a course that explores various religions until year 9 (ages 11-14); in years 10 and 11 (ages 15-16), courses on religion are optional.
There are two faith-based private schools in Bermuda that operate from kindergarten through high school. One follows the guidance of the North American division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The other follows principles of the Catholic Church.
The government determines whether to establish a faith-based school when there is evidence of demand, such as petitions from parents, religious groups, teachers, or other entities. If a faith-based school is not oversubscribed, then the school must offer a place to any child, but if the school is oversubscribed, it may use faith as a criterion for acceptance. Nonstate faith-based schools are eligible to claim “charitable status,” which allows for tax exemptions.
Almost all schools in Northern Ireland receive state support, with approximately 90 percent of students attending Protestant or Catholic schools. Approximately 7 percent of school-age children attend religiously integrated schools with admissions criteria designed to enroll equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children without the intervention of the state, as well as children from other religious and cultural backgrounds. Students of different faiths are able to attend Protestant or Catholic schools but tend to gravitate toward the integrated schools. These integrated schools are not secular but are “essentially Christian in character and welcome all faiths and none.” RE – a core syllabus designed by the Department of Education, Church of Ireland, and Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist Churches – is compulsory in all government-funded schools, and, “The school day shall include collective Christian worship whether in one or more than one assembly.” All schools receiving government funding must teach RE; however, students may request to opt out of the classes and collective worship. Catholic-managed schools draw uniquely on the Roman Catholic tradition for their RE, while other schools may draw on world religions.
An estimated 30 sharia councils operate parallel to the national legal system. They adjudicate Islamic religious matters, including religious divorces, which are not recognized under civil law. Participants may submit cases to the councils on a voluntary basis. The councils do not have the legal status of courts, although they have legal status as mediation and arbitration bodies. As such, rulings may not be appealed in the courts.
The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “religion or belief” or the “lack of religion or belief” and requires “reasonable” religious accommodation in the workplace for employees. The EHRC – a body sponsored by the Department of Education’s Government Equalities Office – is responsible for enforcing legislation prohibiting religious discrimination. The EHRC researches and conducts inquiries into religious and other discrimination in England, Scotland, and Wales. The Minister for Women and Equalities appoints the members. If the commission finds a violation, it may issue a notice to the violator and seek a court order to enforce the notice. The EHRC receives government funds but operates independently. The Northern Ireland equivalent to the EHRC is the Equality Commission.
In Northern Ireland the law bans discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in employment; however, schools may be selective on the grounds of religion when recruiting teachers. In the rest of the country, the law prohibits any discrimination, including employment discrimination, based on religious belief, unless the employer can show a genuine requirement for a particular religion.
Citing a limited broadcast spectrum, the law prohibits religious groups from holding national radio licenses, public teletext licenses, more than one television service license, and/or radio and television multiplex licenses, which would allow them to offer multiple channels as part of a single bundle of programming.
Twenty-six senior bishops of the Anglican Church sit in the House of Lords as representatives of the state Church. Known as the Lords Spiritual, they read prayers at the start of each daily meeting and play a full role in the work of the upper house.
The law requires visa applicants wishing to enter the country as “ministers of religion” to have worked for at least one of the previous five years as a minister and to have at least one year of full-time experience or, if their religion requires ordination, at least two years of part-time training following their ordination. A missionary must also be trained as such or have worked previously in this role.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On March 23, Muslim and Jewish advocacy groups issued statements in response to proposed burial measures in the Emergency Coronavirus Bill ahead of its debate in the House of Commons. The draft bill allowed designated local authorities to disregard the section of public health legislation designed to “prevent a local authority from being able to cremate a body against the wishes of the deceased.” Religious groups, including the Muslim Engagement and Development advocacy group and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, strongly criticized the bill, which they said would give medical professionals the ability to override the religious beliefs of the deceased and their families in regard to the treatment of their body after death. Labour MP Naz Shah proposed an amendment to the bill intended “to ensure if local authorities reach their capacity, they do not proceed to cremate the deceased from faith backgrounds automatically” without appropriate consultation. In response, the government agreed to amend the bill to reflect Shah’s concerns, negating the need for a vote.
On January 21, the Welsh government announced that relationships, sexuality, and religion will be compulsory for all children over the age of five as part of the new “Curriculum for Wales Framework,” being developed and refined before use in schools in 2022. On March 12, Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced the establishment of a Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) working group to agree on topics to be covered by schools and to prepare detailed guidance on the proposed changes. The working group includes key stakeholders, teachers, teachers unions, and faith organizations, and is cochaired by the government and regional consortia. Religious objections include concerns that children will be taught values that contradict their parents’ beliefs or religion, such as LGBTQI+ relationships, constituting an erosion of parental rights. Expressing concerns surrounding the lack of detail on what will be in the RSE curriculum and at what age children will learn various aspects, religious groups stated that young children should be allowed a childhood free of “sexualization.” Humanists UK and the National Secular Society supported ending of the right to withdraw children from classes, in principle. They argued that religious worldviews must be taught impartially before the right to withdraw is removed.
In September, MP Rehman Chishti resigned from his position as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, which he had held for one year. Chishti said his resignation was not related to differing views on religious freedom, but instead on his opposition to economic legislation dealing with internal markets. Conservative MP Fiona Bruce was appointed to the role in December. Bruce is also vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Groups including Humanists UK and the Council of Christians and Jews expressed concerns over Bruce’s previous support of mandatory prayer in schools and hope that the government would not pursue a Christians-only agenda.
In July, Imam Qari Asim, Deputy Chair of the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, was appointed independent advisor to propose a working definition of Islamophobia after an existing definition came under question for potentially undermining freedom of speech. The Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group was established in 2012 to develop and implement proposals to address anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. The group is made up of representatives from Muslim communities, independent experts, academics, and a range of government departments, including the Attorney General’s Office, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), and the Home Office. The Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group did not agree on a working definition by year’s end. Separately, the London Metropolitan University became the first UK university to adopt the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ working definition of Islamophobia in November. The APPG’s definition states, “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expression of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
On February 25, the All-Party Parliamentary Humanists Group (APPHG) published a report entitled “Time for Reflection: A report of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group on religion or belief in the UK Parliament.” The report called for parliamentary prayers to be replaced with a “time for reflection”; for the House of Commons Speaker to consider introducing additional forms of religious and pastoral support alongside that already provided by the Anglican chaplain; and for an end to automatic seats in the House of Lords for Anglican bishops. The report highlighted the exclusive nature of “Prayers,” a parliamentary tradition to open the day’s proceedings, which also serves as a way to obtain a seat for the day, since these are not formally reserved. The report argued that MPs who chose not to participate in the religious prayers could miss out on seats in the parliamentary chambers for key debates including during the Prime Ministers Questions and the Budget sessions. The report also revealed details of nine cases in which bishops in the House of Lords changed the outcomes of votes, including two votes that directly benefited the Church of England.
Timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque attacks, on March 15, the government’s Home Office announced that during 2019-2020, the Places of Worship Scheme provided 1.6 million pounds ($2.19 million) to fund physical security measures at 27 mosques, 13 churches, five Sikh gurdwaras, and four Hindu temples. This was the highest level of funding for the scheme since it was established in 2016. The government announced that funding for the period covering March 2020-2021 would be doubled to 3.2 million pounds ($4.37 million).
The government simultaneously launched an eight-week public consultation period, from March 15 to June 28, to improve the government’s response to religiously motivated hate crimes at places of worship. Consultation results were not published at year’s end.
On April 1, the Home Office granted the CST 14 million pounds ($19.13 million) for the Jewish Community Protective Security Grant to cover protective security at Jewish institutions, including schools and synagogues.
In 2019, the government simplified the application system for the Places of Worship security funding scheme by commissioning a central contractor to install physical security measures. Applicants were no longer required to show they had already experienced a hate crime, and became eligible to apply if they showed they were vulnerable to hate crime. Associated faith community centers were also eligible to apply. The Chair of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group welcomed the developments and said, “The simplified process will hopefully make it even easier for mosques to improve their security and will go some way in building community confidence.”
In January, the Scottish government announced 500,000 pounds ($683,000) of funding for security at places of worship. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf and Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell announced the new scheme on Holocaust Memorial Day during a visit to a synagogue in Glasgow. Yousaf said the government was committed to ensuring “safety and security for our faith communities” and he hoped the “scheme will provide reassurance to all faith communities and their places of worship that hate crime and prejudice will not be tolerated.”
On January 19, the government renewed its commitment to the founding principles of the 2000 Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust (Stockholm Declaration). As part of the commemorations to mark the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration, and to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration and extermination camps, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister for Human Rights, represented the country at an International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) meeting held to adopt a renewed commitment. Lord Ahmad said, “It is important that we reaffirm our collective commitment to combatting prejudice and intolerance, and pledge to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust that they will never be forgotten.”
On January 27, to coincide with International Holocaust Memorial Day, the government announced a one-million pound ($1.37 million) grant to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation endowment fund to help preserve the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In a statement, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “The government is supporting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation because we must never forget history’s darkest moment, and we must educate future generations so it can never be repeated.” Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said, “The UK stands shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish countrymen and women.” Separately, the City of London committed 300,000 pounds ($410,000) to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to support the preservation of the gas chambers, crematoria, barracks, and other exhibits.
In January, the royal family and members of the cabinet marked Holocaust Remembrance Day via social media. Additionally, Prince Charles delivered a speech at the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, on January 23. At the event to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, Prince Charles warned, “Hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart” and, with lessons of the Holocaust still “searingly relevant,” he called on the 40 world leaders in attendance to be “fearless in confronting falsehoods” and violence.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust hosted a remembrance service at which Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince William spoke. The Prime Minister said, “I feel a deep sense of shame that here in Britain – in 2020 – we seem to be dealing with a resurgence of the virus of anti-Semitism – and I know that I carry responsibility as Prime Minister to do everything possible to stamp it out.” He also committed to constructing the National Holocaust Memorial and Education Centre, which was announced in 2015 but remains in planning stages. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and cities and towns across the United Kingdom also hosted Holocaust Memorial Day events, with many focusing on this year’s theme, “Stand Together,” to promote interfaith engagement.
The pastoral needs of prisoners were addressed, in part, through chaplains paid for by the Ministry of Justice, rather than by religious groups. All chaplains worked as part of a multifaith team, the size and breakdown of which was determined by the size of the prison and the religious composition of the prisoner population. Prison service regulations stated that “…chaplaincy provision must reflect the faith denomination requirements of the prison.”
The military generally provided adherents of minority religious groups with chaplains of their faith. There were approximately 240 recruited chaplains in the armed forces, all of whom were Christian. The armed forces also employed five civilian chaplains as full-time civil servants to care for Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Muslim recruits. During the year, the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Policy Board reviewed how chaplain services were provided to minority religious groups and was considering the use of suitable chaplains in the reserve forces.
In January 2019 (the latest data available), there were 6,802 state-funded faith-based schools in England, representing 34 percent of all state-funded mainstream schools and serving approximately 1.9 million students. Church of England schools were the most common type among primary schools (26 percent); Roman Catholic schools were the most common at the secondary level (9 percent). Additionally, at the primary and secondary levels, there were 72 “other Christian,” 36 Jewish, 25 Methodist, 14 Islamic, six Sikh, five Hindu, and two multifaith state-funded faith-based schools. There were 370 government-funded denominational schools in Scotland: 366 Catholic, three Episcopalian, and one Jewish. The government classified schools with links to the Church of Scotland as nondenominational.
The Conservative Party faced allegations of anti-Muslim sentiment. In March, the MCB submitted a dossier of 150 cases to the EHRC that catalogued alleged anti-Muslim incidents attributed to members of the Conservative Party, increasing pressure on the EHRC to launch a formal investigation. The dossier was in addition to 150 cases submitted in 2019, making a total of 300 cases. The submission catalogued evidence of what the MCB stated were anti-Muslim comments and actions by hundreds of party activists, local councillors, MPs, and advisors to the Prime Minister. Examples include MP Sally Ann Hart, who in 2017 posted on Facebook a claim by an anti-Islamist activist that a women’s march had been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood to promote the “Muslim agenda.” Hart publicly apologized for her comments.
In May, the EHRC dropped plans for an inquiry into “Islamophobia” in the Conservative Party after the party announced it would conduct its own review of how complaints were handled. On May 12, the party established the terms of reference for the investigation, which were formally supported by the EHRC. The party confirmed that the review would examine the “nature and extent” of complaints of anti-Muslim statements by party members since 2015 and would also consider what sanctions could be taken against members who quit the party before being investigated. Furthermore, the investigation would consider allegations of discrimination relating to all “protected characteristics” in the 2010 Equalities Act, including not only religion, but also age, race, sexual orientation, and disability.
The MCB criticized the scope of the inquiry. On May 12, MCB Secretary General Harun Khan said, “By restricting the terms to an inquiry merely into the complaints received, the party is choosing to summarily dismiss all the issues of the toxic culture of racism that have been raised by the Muslim Council of Britain.” MP Amanda Milling, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, said that having the terms of reference agreed upon was a positive step forward. She said the party is “committed to this investigation, to ensure that any abuse that is not fit for public life is stamped out.”
In September, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Hope Not Hate political action group found that 47 percent of Conservative Party members surveyed in July believed Islam is “a threat to the British way of life.” The poll of 1,213 Conservative Party members found that more than 33 percent believed that Islamist terror attacks reflected a widespread hostility towards Britain among the Muslim community, and that 58 percent thought “there are no-go areas in Britain where Sharia Law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter.” However, 53 percent of those asked thought it was wrong to blame all Muslims for the actions of a violent minority. Former Conservative Party Chair Baroness Warsi said, “This latest poll is further evidence that the party has a real and serious issue with racism directed at Muslims.”
Media reported in October that Rakhia Ismail, the former ceremonial mayor of the London district of Islington, resigned from the Labour Party and joined the Conservative Party, citing the anti-Muslim sentiment she experienced within Labour as her reason for leaving.
In January, all five Labour Party leadership candidates signed the “Ten Pledges to End the Anti-Semitism Crisis,” a document prepared by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The 10 pledges included an agreement to resolve outstanding cases, to reform the party disciplinary process to ensure complaints were properly handled, and to engage the British Jewish community on a way forward. The move was criticized by the left-wing paper Morning Star and far-left Labour members, who said it was wrong for an outside body to interfere in the party’s leadership election. In a parallel deputy leadership contest, two candidates – Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgnon and Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler – refused to sign the declaration.
After winning the Labour Party leadership election on April 4, Sir Keir Starmer used his victory speech and his first op-ed as leader in The Sunday Times to apologize publicly to the British Jewish community concerning previous allegations of anti-Semitism on the part of Labour Party leaders and members. On April 7, both Starmer and newly elected deputy leader Angela Rayner held a virtual meeting with representatives of Jewish community organizations to discuss ways to repair the party’s relationship with the British Jewish community. In a joint statement, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the NGO CST, and Jewish Labour welcomed Starmer’s commitment, describing it as a “good start,” and praising him for achieving “in four days more than his predecessor did in four years.” Starmer also outlined a plan to rid the party of anti-Semitism and rebuild trust between Labour and the Jewish community.
In July, newly appointed Labour Party General Secretary David Evans formally apologized and settled a defamation case brought by seven whistle-blowers who appeared in a 2019 BBC Panorama documentary accusing the party of mishandling cases of anti-Semitism. The whistleblowers had previously sued the Labour Party for attempting to undermine their reputations after it released a statement referring to them as “disaffected former staff” with “personal and political axes to grind.”
In October, the EHRC completed an 18-month investigation and published its final report into complaints of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. The report found the party had allowed “unlawful harassment,” political interference in the party’s complaints process, and a lack of education and training for staff handling the complaints process. Targeted recommendations included commissioning an independent process to handle anti-Semitism complaints; implementing clear rules and guidance to prohibit and sanction political interference in the complaints process; publishing a comprehensive policy and procedure setting out how anti-Semitism complaints will be handled; commissioning and providing education and training for all individuals involved in the anti-Semitism complaints process; and monitoring and evaluating improvements to ensure lasting change. In addition to the targeted recommendations that the EHRC has a legal mandate to enforce, the commission urged changes to both the party culture and its processes.
The EHRC report heavily criticized the former party leadership under Jeremy Corbyn and found that the party breached the Equality Act by committing “unlawful harassment” in several cases in which Labour MPs were found to have used “anti-Semitic tropes and suggesting that the complaints of anti-Semitism were fakes or smears.” A case cited in the report involved former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who said “the Israel Lobby,” which aimed “to undermine Corbyn’s leadership,” was responsible for allegations of anti-Semitism against fellow Labour MP Naz Shah. Livingstone later resigned from the party. The EHRC found a further 18 “borderline cases” involving local councillors, election candidates, and branch officials. It also noted several incidents of political interference by the Leader of the Opposition’s Office in addressing complaints of anti-Semitism. The EHRC’s report provided recommendations, and the watchdog requested that the Labour Party submit an implementation plan.
During a press briefing following the release of EHRC’s report, Labour Party leader Starmer said an action plan would be submitted to the EHRC before year’s end, apologized formally to the Jewish community and Jewish Labour party members, and provided assurances that Labour accepted the report without qualification. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn released his own statement decrying anti-Semitism, but he suggested the findings of the report were “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and media. Party leaders subsequently suspended Corbyn from the Labour Party and removed him from the Parliamentary Labour Party, forcing him to sit as an independent MP – a first for a former leader. Corbyn contested the suspension and his wider-party membership was subsequently reinstated, but he continued to sit as an independent MP at year’s end.
British Jewish organizations and some Labour figures welcomed the EHRC report, while expressing concern about existing conditions within the Labour Party. The Campaign Against Antisemitism said, “The EHRC’s report utterly vindicated Britain’s Jews, who were accused of lying and exaggerating, acting as agents of another country, and using their religion to ‘smear’ the Labour Party.” In December, Labour published the anticipated action plan for tackling anti-Semitism within its ranks. The plan was developed within six weeks of the EHRC report’s publication and sent to Parliament on December 10, after the National Executive Committee, Labour’s ruling body, unanimously agreed. The plan commits the party to establish an independent complaints process by December 10, 2021 and to deal with the backlog of existing anti-Semitism complaints. Labour also committed to establish an advisory board of Jewish members and develop educational material on anti-Semitism. The EHRC approved the plan before publication.
In January, Conservative Party Councillor in Dudley, Colin Elcock, was suspended indefinitely from the party and was removed from the Conservative Group of councillors after tweeting that Islam was “domination not integration,” and asking if people in Iran were “all on the dole.” Council leader Patrick Harley described the comments as “inappropriate” but did not rule out a return for Elcock.
Also in January, media criticized Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, for approving the publication of a cartoon in 2006 that depicted the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb under his turban on The Spectator website at a time when he had “overall responsibility” for the website. In February, Andrew Sabisky, an advisor to the Prime Minister, resigned after media uncovered a 2014 book review of Tatu Vanhanen’s Ethnic Conflicts, in which Sabisky questioned whether the growing Muslim population in the UK should be met with violent resistance.
On February 3, The Jewish Chronicle reported that a Labour member was expelled from the party for accusing television presenter Rachel Riley of “prostituting” her Jewish heritage. Bob James, from North Wales, was suspended from the party in March 2019 over a series of tweets aimed at Riley that included the claim that her campaign against anti-Semitism under Corbyn was “poisoning the memory of your ancestors.” He also tweeted, “Judaism is a religion but what Israel does in the name of God is pure Satanic.” The Jewish Chronicle commended Steve Cooke, a member of the Stockton North Labour Party and a party political education officer, for being “instrumental in demanding the party launch an investigation into Mr. James’s conduct.” According to the article, during the disciplinary process, it emerged that James had been subject to an earlier complaint over social media posts in which he said, “Israel is using the Holocaust as an excuse for murder.” A party source confirmed that James had been expelled and commented, “Under the previous administration, some complaints weren’t dealt with adequately,” and “Since Jennie Formby became General Secretary [in 2018], we’ve used a comprehensive, central complaints system.”
In late June, the Labour Party removed MP Rebecca Long-Bailey from her position as Shadow Education Secretary for tweeting her support for an interview that contained anti-Semitic rhetoric. Individuals described as party moderates praised Long-Bailey’s dismissal, but those characterized as more leftist within the party criticized the move.
In August, Care NI, a Christian charitable organization, stated that since 2015, 601 cases of criminal damage to religious buildings had occurred in Northern Ireland, one every three days. Care NI called for the Places of Worship security scheme to be introduced in Northern Ireland, the only region of the UK where it did not apply.
The Northern Ireland Humanists group continued to publicly call for the repeal of the region’s blasphemy laws, passed in 1891 and 1888. All major political parties supported repeal except for the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which stated, “Anti-discrimination and hate crime legislation did not provide adequate protection for Christians.”
During the year, the Scottish Parliament agreed to support the principles of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, and the legislature’s Justice Committee was scrutinizing and amending the legislation at year’s end. The bill would repeal Scotland’s blasphemy laws. However, the National Secular Society warned that the replacement legislation risked creating a more wide-ranging definition of blasphemy, describing the bill as a “de facto clampdown on freedom of expression.”
In June, Northern Ireland Justice Minister Naomi Long announced that new hate crime legislation, including measures covering hate crimes based on religion, would not be brought forward for at least two years. An independent review into hate crime legislation, including religious hate crime, concluded in November, with 34 recommendations made to improve support for victims, widen the range of protections, as well as opportunities for restorative justice. Northern Ireland Justice Minister Long welcomed the review report, stating the recommendations will help to strengthen and update Northern Ireland’s hate crime legislation.
In July, the Christian Institute, a nondenominational Christian charity dedicated to the “furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom,” criticized the hate crime legislation review and said the report would propose extending the definition of hate crime to apply to religious practitioners opposed to same-sex marriage ceremonies. In September, the Northern Ireland Office confirmed that legislation passed in July providing for religious same-sex marriages also included equality law protections, which shield religious bodies and officiants from charges of discrimination against same-sex couples should they refuse to officiate.
In July, the legal regulations required to hold the next census in England and Wales on March 21, 2021 were passed into law. Humanists UK raised concerns, arguing that “What is your religion?” is a leading question, as it presumes respondents have, or should have, a religion. Humanist UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Public Policy Richy Thompson said, “We are hugely disappointed that the ONS [Office for National Statistics], despite its own admission that the Census religion question is leading, has chosen to continue with it for the 2021 Census.” He said “Census data is used across the country to determine religion or belief provision in public services; from school places, to hospital services, to the provision of public services.” Humanists UK conducted a public outreach campaign to ensure that individuals identifying as nonreligious understood they should mark the “no religion” box when responding.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to Home Office figures for the 12 months ending in March, there were 6,822 recorded offenses of religiously motivated hate crimes in England and Wales, a 5 percent decrease from the previous year (7,203 in 2018/19). This marked the first decrease in religious hate crimes since the year ending March 2013, when there was a 1 percent drop. There was no breakdown by type of crime. Where the perceived religion of the victim was recorded (in 91 percent of cases), 50 percent (3,089 offenses) of religious hate crime offenses targeted Muslims, and 19 percent (1,205 offenses) targeted Jews. Of the other offenses where perceived religion was recorded, 9 percent (531 offenses) targeted Christians, 3 percent (202 offenses) Sikhs, and 2 percent (114) Hindus. According to Tell MAMA, a national project that records anti-Muslim hate crimes, figures rose sharply in March 2019 immediately following the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. Tell MAMA recorded 95 incidents in the week following the attack; in a typical week the total was 30-35.
In Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) reported 660 religiously motivated crimes in the 12 months ending in March, a 24 percent increase from the 529 crimes recorded in the same period in 2018-19. The COPFS cautioned against making direct comparisons with previous data sets due to a change in methodology.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) reported 15 religiously motivated hate crimes committed in 41 incidents during 2019-20, a decrease from 22 crimes reported in the previous period. The PSNI additionally reported 622 sectarian crimes, described as religion being among the motivating factors, in 640 incidents during 2019-20.
The CST recorded 97 violent anti-Semitic assaults during the year, a 39 percent decrease from the 158 reported in 2019. The report noted that this was unsurprising, given that COVID-19 pandemic restrictions greatly reduced social interactions. An additional three incidents were classified by CST as “extreme violence,” meaning the incident involved potential grievous bodily harm or a threat to life, compared to one such recorded incident in 2019. There were 72 incidents of damage and desecration of Jewish property; 1,399 incidents of abusive behavior, including verbal abuse, graffiti, social media, and hate mail; 85 direct anti-Semitic threats; and, 12 cases of mass-mailed anti-Semitic leaflets or emails. Of the 72 incidents of damage and desecration of Jewish property, 45 (63 percent) involved damage to the homes and vehicles of Jewish people, compared to 53 percent in 2019. All of the listed totals were lower than those recorded over the same period in 2019. Approximately two-thirds of the 1,668 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in the Greater London and Greater Manchester administrative regions – which are home to the two largest Jewish communities in the UK. The CST recorded 941 anti-Semitic incidents in Greater London, a decrease of 1 percent compared with 2019. The CST recorded a decrease of 31 percent in anti-Semitic incidents in Greater Manchester. The CST reported that the decrease in reported incidents was likely correlated with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but might also be due to lapses in information sharing between CST and the Greater Manchester Police. CST observed a broader geographical spread of anti-Semitic incidents in 2020 than in 2019. Elsewhere in the UK, CST recorded at least one anti-Semitic incident in 42 of the 43 national police regions. Several of the incidents were reported to CST by police via a national data-sharing agreement.
In July, Heshmat Khalifa, a trustee of the country’s largest Muslim charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide, stepped down after media reported his Facebook postings from 2014 and 2015 described the President of Egypt as a “pimp son of the Jews,” and Israeli authorities as “grandchildren of monkeys and pigs.” The entire board of the organization resigned in August when media reported that Khalifa’s successor, Almoutaz Tayara, and senior director Tayeb Abdoun had also posted anti-Semitic and pro-Hamas content online. Following the revelations, the Charity Commission initiated a compliance review that was ongoing at year’s end.
An attacker stabbed the muezzin of the London Central Mosque during prayers at the mosque premises on February 20. The victim survived the attack and was treated for non-life threatening wounds. London’s Metropolitan Police confirmed the attack would not be treated as a terror-related incident. The assailant, Daniel Horton, was apprehended by worshippers until police arrived. Witnesses to the attack said the assailant had been praying behind the muezzin before the attack and that he had attended the mosque previously. In response to the attack, the Muslim Council of Britain stated, “It is deeply concerning that this has happened. Given other recent attacks elsewhere, many Muslims are on edge.” Prime Minister Johnson tweeted that he was “deeply saddened,” and that his “thoughts are with the victim and all those affected.” Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced that the Metropolitan Police would be “providing extra resources in the area,” adding, “Every Londoner is entitled to feel safe in their place of worship.” On October 12, Horton, who had converted to Islam and had been attending the mosque in recent years, pleaded guilty to charges of wounding with intent and possession of an offensive weapon. No motive has been established for the stabbing; however, when arrested, Horton told police officers, “This is not a religious attack and is not a racist attack.”
In January, a 17-year-old from northeast England was sentenced to six years and eight months for planning terrorist acts between October 2017 and March 2019, becoming the youngest person in the UK to be convicted for this crime. In November 2019, following a six-week trial, he was found guilty of planning terrorist acts, disseminating a terrorist publication, possessing an article for a purpose connected to terrorism, and three counts of possessing documents useful to someone preparing acts of terrorism. During his sentencing, the court heard of his “admiration” for Adolf Hitler and fixation on the Columbine high school massacre. His attorneys argued that the defendant was autistic, citing a psychiatric assessment in which a doctor stated that the defendant’s “cognitive age was significantly affected by his disability.” At sentencing, the judge described the defendant as a “highly intelligent” boy who had “contempt for Jewish people, black people, gay people, and disabled people.” The teenager was also sentenced to five years’ parole after his release.
On October 2, the Birmingham Crown Court convicted a 17-year-old of plotting neo-Nazi terrorist acts between April and September 2019. The individual, who was a member of the neo-Nazi group Feuerkrieg Division, was found guilty for researching how to create a firearm capable of “smashing heads.”
On January 13, a Muslim woman was assaulted outside a youth center in East London. The assailants physically assaulted the victim and pulled her hijab while shouting anti-Muslim slurs. The assault was reported to Tell MAMA and the Metropolitan Police.
On January 16, a teenager who was found guilty of committing an anti-Semitic attack on a bus in March 2018 was sentenced to a four-month youth rehabilitation program, ordered to write a letter of apology to the victim, and fined 100 pounds ($140) in compensation to the victim. The incident took place on a bus in Muswell Hill, North London, when the adolescent was 14 years old. The youth lit the victim’s hair on fire, and when confronted by the victim, asked, “Are you Jewish? You can’t be Jewish because you don’t have horns. Do Jews keep money under their caps?” The teenager also threatened to beat up the victim and destroy his laptop. The teenager pled guilty to racially and religiously aggravated common assault at Highbury Corner Youth Court. He expressed remorse and was required to complete eight hours of “activities” and one-to-one behavioral sessions with educational staff.
In August, a man in a pub in Leeds was recorded making anti-Semitic comments to a Jewish student. The victim, Danielle Greyman, said the altercation began over COVID-19 pandemic regulations on social distancing when the man questioned, “Are you Jewish?” Greyman then began recording on her cell phone. The man, Stephen Smith, appeared on video saying the victim “looks like a Jew,” that he is “German,” and then said, “We should have gassed the lot of you.” A spokesman for West Yorkshire police told press police were summoned to the pub following “a report of a hate crime.” In September, the UK Lawyers for Israel reported Smith received a criminal caution and was required to “attend offence related sessions” to address his behavior.
On January 23, several Jewish pedestrians were verbally abused in Stamford Hill, North London. The incident, in which a man screamed “Hitler did a great job in Auschwitz by killing all the Jews,” was reported by Stamford Hill Shomrim, the Jewish volunteer neighbourhood patrol.
Throughout the year, several “sticker” campaigns targeted Armagh in Northern Ireland and Liverpool in the northwest of England. On January 30, the PSNI responded to calls complaining of anti-Islam stickers in Armagh. The stickers depicted a skull and crossbones that included the phrase “No Islamic Takeover,” followed by an email address and website for the Neo-Nazi group “Combat 18.” In February, stickers allegedly from the “Hundred-Handers” white supremacist group were placed around St. Helens, near Liverpool. The stickers, found in public spaces including a bus station, featured captions such as “This is our land,” “No to Halal,” other anti-Muslim messages and anti-Semitic messages. Local police stated that the incident was being investigated as a racially aggravated hate crime. In August, Hope Not Hate stated that Sam Melia, a former member of a number of far-right organizations who had become a supporter of the government-proscribed organization National Action, was behind “Hundred Handers,” which it said “was an anonymous network seeking to provide a faceless avenue for far-right activism.” In October, similar stickers were found on street furniture across Liverpool. The stickers included anti-Semitic messaging such as “Britain is under occupation,” written across a Star of David and, “They are sexualising your CHILDREN.”
Several religiously motivated conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic circulated online. According to a report by the Henry Jackson Society think tank, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories included claims that Jews used global lockdowns to “steal everything,” that Jewish public leaders used the crisis “to test the population’s willingness to comply,” and that Israel had developed a vaccine but was withholding it from other nations. Both Jewish and Muslim communities were vilified by media commentators such as Katie Hopkins, who alleged that Muslims were flouting lockdown restrictions and spreading COVID-19 by continuing Friday prayers at mosques. In July, the independent government advisory Commission for Countering Violent Extremism published a report in the wake of increased accounts of extremists exploiting the crisis to sow division among religious groups in the UK. The commission found that British far right activists and neo-Nazi groups were promoting antiminority narratives by encouraging users to deliberately infect minority groups, including Jewish and Muslim communities.
In late January, venues in Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham, Newport, Milton Keynes, and London cancelled events associated with U.S. evangelical Christian preacher Franklin Graham’s tour. The Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow cancelled his appearance following pressure from its primary shareholder, Glasgow City Council. Referencing what they said was Graham’s preaching against Islam and LGBTQI+ people, Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament Patrick Harvie commented that for “Glasgow’s biggest publicly owned venue” to provide a “platform of hatred” would be “an offence against the values that make this city so great.” An online petition started by a Church of Scotland minister stated that hosting the preacher would “have the real potential of alienating a large number of the population that they serve.” The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) then began legal proceedings against the venue, stating that the decision discriminated against the preacher’s Christian following. The BGEA asked the Glasgow Sheriff Court to grant an interim order requiring the venue to hold the event; however, the venue refused to respond and the court case did not proceed.
In January, Port Vale Football Club (FC) soccer player Tom Pope was widely criticized on social media for posting an anti-Semitic tweet predicting the course of a hypothetical Third World War: “We invade Iran then Cuba then North Korea then the Rothchilds [sic] are crowned champions of every bank on the planet – the end.” Port Vale FC published the following statement from Pope: “Following the reaction to my response on Twitter about the Rothschilds, I was unaware of any link between the Rothchild [sic] family and the Jewish community. If I have caused offence to anyone, I’d like to apologise enormously as this was never my intention.” The UK Footballing Association (FA) found Pope guilty of an aggravated breach of its regulation on abusive speech and sentenced him to a six-game ban and a 3,500-pound ($4,800) fine.
In July, music artist Wiley made a series of anti-Semitic comments on Twitter, including: “Listen to me Jewish community Israel is not your country I’m sorry….The Star of David that’s our thing.… Some people have gotten too comfortable on lands that don’t belong to them”; “There are 2 sets of people who nobody has really wanted to challenge #Jewish & #KKK;” and “Jewish people are the law….Work that out.” His tweets were widely criticized, and Twitter’s initial lack of action was followed by a 48-hour boycott of the platform by many leading journalists and politicians. Wiley’s tweets were reported to the Metropolitan Police as potential hate speech, and both Twitter and Facebook banned him for violating policies on hateful content. The rapper’s Jewish then-manager, John Woolf, later “cut ties” and said he no longer represented the artist. Wiley later rejected the claims of anti-Semitism, saying, “My comments should not have been directed to all Jews or Jewish people.” He went on to apologize for “generalizing” and said he wished to “apologise for comments that were looked at as anti-Semitic.”
In October, women’s lifestyle magazine Grazia fired its “Diversity Champion,” author and blogger Stephanie Yeboah, for posting anti-Semitic comments. Yeboah tweeted on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau: “There have been bigger and more horrific genocides. They happened to brown people, though, so I guess it doesn’t matter, huh?” Other tweets included, “Every Jew has an attic but not every attic has Jews,” and “AUSCHWITZ Gas Chamber Music LMAO SMH.” Yeboah issued an apology that suggested her intention was to “highlight the lack of visibility surrounding many genocides,” but she acknowledged she “ended up diminishing the seriousness of the tragedies that the Jewish community have faced.”
In late August, sectarian rioting between Catholic and Protestant groups took place in Glasgow. A police officer was left with hearing loss and burns after being struck by a firework thrown during the rioting. On October 13, a Protestant man was sentenced to 16 months in prison for throwing the projectile, which was intended to disrupt an Irish Republican march.
In July, the Sikh Federation withdrew a threat of legal action against the Scottish government after receiving assurances that Sikhs would be listed as a distinct ethnic group on Scotland’s 2022 census. According to the Sikh Federation, the push for designation of Sikhs as an ethnic group was motivated by the fact that “ethnic group categories defined in the census” are used by public bodies in different sectors in Scotland to meet their legal duties under “equalities legislation,” whereas religious group categories are not.
On January 26, a swastika and a Celtic cross were painted on a Caribbean food shop in Greenwich, in southeast London, while another Celtic cross, the Star of David, and the word “Jews” were written across the facade of a Barclay’s bank half a mile away. The leader of Greenwich Council, Danny Thorpe, condemned the “totally appalling and horrific” messages, adding that local residents were “worried and upset” but that the community would come together. The Greenwich council quickly removed the graffiti, and the Metropolitan Police opened an investigation. On February 4, more than 150 members of the local community staged a rally against anti-Semitism and racism. One of the organizers told the local newspaper that the incident was not “just an attack on the Jewish and West Indian communities, it is an attack on all of us.”
COVID-19 pandemic regulations greatly limited opportunities for interfaith collaboration from March through the end of the year. In January, faith and belief communities came together to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Chelsea FC hosted a Holocaust Remembrance reception on January 15 to unveil a commemorative mural painted on the Chelsea stadium by British-Israeli street artist Solomon Souza commemorating soccer players imprisoned in Auschwitz. The event brought together prominent members of the Jewish community, parliamentarians, and players and leading figures from the Chelsea organization. In January, Chelsea became the first sports team in the world to formally adopt the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. Five other Premier League clubs subsequently adopted the IHRA definition: West Ham United, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Burnley, and Brighton.
Throughout the year, a number of universities adopted the IHRA definition; however, several from the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, fell short of adopting the working definition in its entirety, despite pressure from the government to do so before the year’s end. In September, freedom of information requests submitted by the Union of Jewish Students found that only 29 of 133 higher education institutions had done so. In October, Secretary for Education Gavin Williamson wrote to vice chancellors stating it was “frankly disturbing” that not all had adopted the IHRA definition and accused them of “dragging their feet.” Williamson warned that the Office for Students could take regulatory action against the noncompliant, which could include suspending funding streams. Speaking to the House of Commons Education Select Committee in October, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said she wanted “every university to adopt this definition.” An end-of-year tally by the Union of Jewish Students found that 48 of the 133 higher education institutions had adopted the IHRA definition.
In commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust ran a school project entitled “75 Memorial Flames.” The trust encouraged schools, organizations, and community groups to submit designs featuring a flame. More than 300 groups from across the country registered for the project, which aimed to bring persons from all backgrounds together to remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Seventy-five memorial flames were chosen by an expert panel of artists, Holocaust survivors, and the CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Olivia Marks-Woldman. Of the final 75 designs, only one was from a Jewish school.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews hosted a roundtable discussion in January, bringing together representatives from across the Jewish community to meet Dolkun Isa, the President of the World Uyghur Congress. The Board of Deputies Vice-President Amanda Brown said, “In the week that we are marking International Holocaust Memorial Day,” it is “intolerable that the Uyghur Muslims are being persecuted on this scale.” She added, “It is the responsibility of all of us in the Jewish community to stand up and make our voices heard in their support.”
On March 3-5, the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, an interfaith organization, hosted a two-day interreligious conference entitled “Towards a Christian Theological Understanding of Inter-religious Participation: Challenges, Risks, and Opportunities.” The conference focused on situations in which members of faith communities cross the boundaries between their traditions to engage in the practices of other traditions, or to share in ritual activity with members of other faiths. In September, representatives from the Catholics Bishops Conference said that a number of interfaith initiatives occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. These consisted mainly of information sharing, in addition to working together to ensure that charitable efforts continued throughout the pandemic.