The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states that citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. In February authorities launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS in part to respond to the November 2017 attack on a mosque in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals; the mosque was reportedly targeted because it was frequented by Sufis. In November a court sentenced an alleged supporter of ISIS to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017. In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta in 2016 and 2017 that killed more than 80 persons. According to multiple sources, prosecutors employed charges of denigrating religion to arrest anyone who appeared to criticize Islam or Christianity, with a disproportionate number of all blasphemy charges brought against the country’s Christian population. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 783 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings out of 5,415 applications for licensure, and authorized the building of 14 new churches since September 2017. Local authorities frequently responded to sectarian attacks against Christians through binding arbitration sessions rather than prosecuting perpetrators of violence, leading to complaints by members of the Coptic community. In December President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree creating the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents and to address them as they occur, applying all relevant laws. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications to imams, and register and license all mosques. In May, based upon a 2015 policy, the ministry announced a ban on imams from Friday preaching at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques. In October the ministry announced the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse. In January Minister of Awqaf Mokhtar Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches was “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church are “martyrs.” On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed two Christian governors, including the country’s first-ever female Christian to hold the position, the first such appointments since April 2011.
On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19. Attacks continued on Christians and Christian-owned property, as well as on churches in the Upper Egypt region. On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers. Reports of anti-Semitic remarks on state-owned media, as well as sectarian and defamatory speech against minority religious groups, continued during the year. Al-Azhar, the country’s primary institution for spreading Islam and defending Islamic doctrine, held conferences on interfaith dialogue, and gave statements condemning extremism and supporting improved relations between Muslims and Christians.
The President discussed religious freedom and the treatment of the Coptic community during his meeting with President al-Sisi during the UN General Assembly meetings in September. U.S. officials, including the Vice President, the Secretary of State, Charge d’Affaires, visiting senior-level delegations from Washington, and embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy and consulate general officers and visiting U.S. officials emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.
The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom from religious coercion and requires the government to maintain the sanctity of religious sites. Institutional and societal restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against minority groups remained widespread, according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) focused on religious freedom. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Community leaders continued to state forced conversion was the de facto outcome of the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, even children born as a result of rape, be listed as Muslim. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces closed some roads between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and areas subject to territorial disputes between the KRG and the country’s central government for much of the year, impeding the movement of Yezidis between Dohuk Province and the Sinjar area. Most roads were reopened by year’s end. Yezidis, Christian leaders, and NGOs reported harassment and abuses by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias, which also includes Sunni and other minority units originally formed to combat ISIS. Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous PMF-operated checkpoints, restricting their movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians in PMF-controlled towns reported harassment of Christian women by PMF members. They also said elements of the central government in Baghdad were attempting to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but some faced harassment and restrictions from local authorities. Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.
According to Yazda, an NGO focused on Yezidi issues, more than 3,000 Yezidis still remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. In November the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the United Nations Human Rights Office documented the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar, and cautioned that there may be “many more.” The UN offices stated they believed the graves held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”
Although according to media and human rights organizations security conditions in many parts of the country improved somewhat from 2017, there were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. On July 23, three gunmen, who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group, forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil. Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion, before police killed the attackers. In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad. Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Louis Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime; others said the killers sought to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property. In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad. According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood. Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies. In Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit such abuses. Armed groups continued to target Sunnis for execution-style killings and the destruction of homes and businesses. Christian leaders in the Ninewa Plain reported multiple instances of theft and harassment of Christians by the PMF.
The U.S. government continued to raise religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, speeches, coordination groups, and targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. Visits by the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, representatives of the office of the Vice President, and other senior U.S. officials to minority areas reinforced the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and Shia, Sunni, and minority group representatives, to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. The Department of State issued a press statement on U.S. support for vulnerable minorities in Iraq on June 11, saying, “This Administration has made the protection of Iraq’s diversity of faiths and its threatened religious minorities a top and unceasing priority. Those who survived genocide, crimes against humanity, and other atrocities, as well as those who perished as a result of these acts, deserve nothing less.” The United States announced over $178 million in new U.S. foreign assistance to support ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq on October 16. On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.
Israel, West Bank and Gaza
IN THIS SECTION: ISRAEL (BELOW) | WEST BANK AND GAZA
This section includes Israel, including Jerusalem. In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises no authority over Jerusalem. In March 2019, the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A report on the West Bank and Gaza, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the PA, is appended at the end of this report.
The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation, and the 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” protects additional individual rights. Citing a need to anchor the country’s Jewish character in a basic law, on June 19, the Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.” According to the government, the “law determines, among other things, that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” Druze leaders, other non-Jewish minorities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the new law for not mentioning the principle of equality to prevent harm to the rights of minorities. Supporters said it was necessary to balance the 1992 basic law and restate the country’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, noting the Supreme Court had already interpreted the 1992 law as mandating equality. The government continued to control access to religious sites, including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Some Members of the Knesset (MKs) and civil society organizations called for reversing the practice of banning non-Muslim prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples) and the Haram al-Sharif (site containing the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque), based on post-1967 status quo understandings. Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27, following clashes with Muslim protesters. The government permitted persons of all faiths to pray individually and quietly at the main Western Wall plaza in separate gender sections, and Jewish men to conduct Orthodox Jewish prayer in groups. The government continued, however, to enforce a prohibition on performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place,” which authorities interpreted to include mixed gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies that did not conform to Orthodox Judaism. The government continued to implement policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Following an appeal by the State Attorney’s office, the Supreme Court added 18 months to a four-year sentence for Yinon Reuveni, who vandalized a church in Tabgha in 2015. In June police officers injured an Ethiopian monk while evicting him and other monks from their church in Jerusalem, and in October police arrested a Coptic monk and removed others from the Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem after they refused to allow the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to enter and perform restoration work. Some minority religious groups complained of what they said was lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups, but members of nonrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion. Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community, police, and other Israelis, particularly related to service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), resulting in clashes such as those on March 22 between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police. On December 2, the Supreme Court granted the Knesset (parliament) an extension into 2019 to pass legislation regulating ultra-Orthodox military service.
Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in February an unknown man pepper-sprayed two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ashdod. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in October vandals damaged tombs and broke crosses at the cemetery of the Salesian Monastery at Beit Jimal near Beit Shemesh, the third attack on the monastery in three years. Following the attack, the Israeli government offered to pay for repairs.
Visiting high-level U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious freedom and respect for all religious groups. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.
The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion. The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts, while six of the 11 recognized Christian groups have religious courts to address such matters for their members. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In December the attorney general ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus. The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public. Authorities released the two men two days later. The government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require preachers to refrain from political commentary and stick to approved themes and texts during Friday sermons. An official committee chaired by the grand mufti regulated which Islamic clerics could issue fatwas. Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their true religious beliefs and practices. Members of unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages, the religious affiliation of their children, and renewing their residency permits. Security forces increased their presence in and protection of Christian areas, especially during special events and holidays, following an August 10 attack targeting security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian city of Fuhais. Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of a government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for worshippers.
Interfaith religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media. Social media users also defended interfaith tolerance, condemning videos and online posts that criticized Christianity or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue. Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some converts worshipped in secret as a result of the social stigma they faced. The government did not prosecute converts from Islam for apostasy, but some reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels to support the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths freely and to promote interfaith tolerance, raising issues such as the renewal of residency permits for religious volunteers. The Charge and other embassy officers met with Muslim scholars and Christian community leaders to encourage interfaith dialogue. The embassy supported exchange programs promoting religious tolerance as well as civil society programs to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.
The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order. The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a situation reaffirmed by the Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated equal representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament. Parliamentary elections in May resulted in the confessional balance of parliament remaining unchanged. The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion. On July 19, the cybercrime unit interrogated online activist Charbel Khoury when one of his Facebook posts raised public controversy for allegedly mocking a popular Maronite Christian saint. On May 15, a judge dropped all criminal charges against poet Ahmad Sbeity for reportedly insulting the Virgin Mary in an online post. According to Human Rights Watch, some municipal governments of largely Christian cities have, since 2016, forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees and expelled them from localities. Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. Government officials repeatedly and publicly reiterated the country’s commitment to religious freedom and diversity. At least 30 cases of interreligious civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration. Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia.
There was one report of a religiously motivated killing when a Sunni sheikh and his two brothers allegedly killed another Sunni man on August 25 over a blasphemy allegation. Muslim and Christian community leaders reported the continued operation of places of worship in relative peace and security and said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. Once again, the Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance and mutual respect among religious communities, and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and members of civil society to engage in dialogue on religious tolerance and the role of confessional dynamics in the country’s society and politics, and also investigated claims of religious discrimination in the provision of assistance to Iraqi Christian refugees. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups; these included projects to counter violent extremism related to religion, and interfaith summer exchange programs.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In March UN experts said 15 Shia were convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism and were facing execution after legal processes that human rights organizations deemed lacking in fair trial guarantees and transparency. In January the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal. Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law. A December report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism expressed concern at the “systemic repression against the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shia population lives.” Charges announced by the government during the year for prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, reportedly detained in September 2017, include alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-affiliated groups. The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, commonly known outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior to encourage obedience to laws and regulations protecting “public morals.” Many observers noted a continued decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina, and fewer reports of CPVPV harassment. On March 4, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral. On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.
Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.
Embassy, consulate general, and other U.S. government officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs. In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other relevant ministries and agencies, senior embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. Embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained and imprisoned individuals and discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees, including by imprisonment or death. A new law passed on April 2 allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” that will be slated for reconstruction; multiple reports indicated the government planned to utilize the law to reconfigure religious demographics in certain areas at the expense of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims. There were continued media reports the government and its Shia Muslim militia allies (consisting mostly of foreigners) killed, arrested, and physically abused members of opposition groups which were predominantly Sunni Muslim. According to multiple observers, the government continued to employ tactics aimed at bolstering the most violent elements of the Sunni Islamist opposition in order to shape the conflict with various resistance groups so it would be seen as one in which a religiously “moderate” government was facing a religiously “extremist” opposition. As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment, including the bombardment of East Ghouta and Daraa, and an April chemical weapons attack against the Damascus suburb of Douma, resulting in mostly Sunni casualties. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented 67 attacks by government forces against places of worship during the year. According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its influence by continuing to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran to travel to Syria and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces. The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayer times, and limit the activities of religious groups, and to say the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.” According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists. According to multiple human rights groups, the government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.
The United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN, U.S. and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled throughout the course of the conflict. ISIS lost the vast majority of the territory it once controlled and was reduced largely to a small area in the eastern part of the country by the end of the year. As a result, ISIS witnessed a significant decline in its ability to target religious groups. ISIS claimed credit for a wave of suicide attacks against the majority Druze-inhabited city of Sweida in late July. The attacks left over 250 people dead, and resulted in the capture of more than 30 Druze hostages by ISIS fighters, one of whom was executed by ISIS. Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of the country’s territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God. ISIS continued to hold thousands of enslaved Yezidi women and girls kidnapped in Iraq and trafficked to Syria because of their religious beliefs to be sold or distributed to ISIS members as “spoils of war.” While many Yezidi women were liberated when coalition forces and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing. ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for what ISIS said were religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress. ISIS required Christians to convert, flee, pay a special tax, or face execution. It destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious heritage sites, and used its own police force, court system, and a revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam. HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against members of religious minorities. HTS also continued to indoctrinate children with its interpretation of Salafi-jihadist ideology, including through schools and youth training camps. In January the Turkish Army, along with Turkish-sponsored opposition groups, including elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), launched an air and ground campaign against the enclave of Afrin, held by the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG), displacing approximately 167,000 people, including Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians. According to media reports, displaced Yezidis said FSA forces in Afrin rounded up Yezidis, forced them to convert to Islam, and destroyed Yezidi places of worship.
There were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and HTS targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric. Alawites reportedly faced attacks because other religious groups believed government policy favored Alawites; sectarian conflict was one of the driving factors of the insurgency, according to observers. Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence, including kidnappings, at the hands of violent extremist groups. Once religiously diverse neighborhoods, towns, and villages were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups, as displaced members of religious groups relocated seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists. There were more than 6.1 million internally displaced Syrians and more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees.
The U.S. President and the Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in the country leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely. The Secretary of State highlighted that ISIS was guilty of genocide against religious groups during his remarks in July at the Department of State-sponsored Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Although the U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Levant, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to promote and enable the practice of Sunni Islam. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in November that cemevis are places of worship. The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. Religious minorities reported bureaucratic and administrative impediments to religious freedom remained, including the prevention of governing board elections for religious foundations, which manage many activities of religious communities. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed, and the Diyanet announced plans to construct an Islamic educational center on the same island as the shuttered seminary. Religious minorities reported experiencing difficulties resolving land and property disputes, operating or opening houses of worship, and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. The legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated continued; some members of the churches said they still did not have access to many of their properties. The government provided security support for religious minority communities, returned some previously expropriated properties, including 56 to the Syriac community, and paid for the renovation and restoration of some registered religious properties. Following the July 2016 coup attempt, the government arrested more than 80,000 individuals with alleged ties to Muslim cleric and political figure Fethullah Gulen – whom the government blamed for the attempted putsch – including U.S. citizen and Pastor Andrew Brunson. In October a court in Izmir convicted Brunson of supporting a terrorist group but suspended his sentence, allowing him to depart the country.
Alevis expressed concern about continued anonymous threats of violence and the arrest of members of an Alevi association on charges of supporting a terrorist organization. ISIS and other actors continued to threaten Jews, Protestants, and Muslim groups in the country. Anti-Semitic discourse continued, as some progovernment news commentators published stories and political cartoons seeking to associate the 2016 attempted coup plotters and the economic difficulties of the country with the Jewish community. Anti-Semitic rhetoric, especially on social media, peaked during periods of heightened tension in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, according to social media analysis.
The Charge d’Affaires, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to engage with government officials and emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups, make progress on property restitution, and address specific cases of religious discrimination. Embassy and consulate officials also met with a wide range of religious community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Protestant, Alevi, and Syriac Orthodox communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.
West Bank and Gaza
IN THIS SECTION: ISRAEL | WEST BANK AND GAZA (BELOW)
This section includes the West Bank and Gaza. In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercised varying degrees of authority in the West Bank and no authority over Jerusalem. Although PA laws apply in the Gaza Strip, the PA did not have authority there, and Hamas continued to exercise de facto control over security and other matters. The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion and states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation, but provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. It also proscribes discrimination based on religion, calls for respect of “all other divine religions,” and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. Violence between Palestinians and Israelis continued, primarily in the West Bank and the periphery of Gaza. Continued travel restrictions impeded the movements of Muslims and Christians between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling Fatah political movement, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence, at times referring to assailants as “martyrs.” Several local Fatah chapters on social media referred to individuals who had engaged in terrorist attacks as martyrs and posted memorials, including photographs of suicide bombers. The Fatah branch in the city of Tubas and the Fatah youth organization posted a photograph in March celebrating a suicide bomber from the second Intifada who killed one Israeli and injured 90 others. Anti-Semitic content also appeared in Fatah and PA-controlled media. In October Palestinian authorities detained a Palestinian-U.S. citizen Jerusalem identification card holder, prosecuted him for possible involvement in sale of Palestinian-owned property to a Jewish Israeli group, and found him guilty of “seizing/tearing away part of the Palestinian Territories to a foreign state,” sentencing him to life in prison with hard labor. In April the Palestinian Supreme Fatwa Council reiterated an Islamic legal ruling (fatwa) reemphasizing previous rulings that sale of Palestinian-owned lands, including in Jerusalem, to “enemies such as the state of Israel,” is forbidden to Muslims according to sharia. According to media sources, the ruling considered the land to be Islamic public property and not personal private property, based on previous rulings by Palestinian and other Muslim religious legal scholars. Palestinian officials also condemned the sale of Palestinian land to Jewish Israelis in nationalistic terms. Palestinian leaders did not always publicly condemn individual terrorist attacks or speak out publicly against members of their institutions who advocated for violence. PA President Mahmoud Abbas maintained a public commitment to nonviolence. The PA and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinian individuals killed during the commission of a terrorist act. The PA and PLO also continued to provide payments to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism against Israelis. President Abbas said he would use his last penny “on the families of the prisoners and martyrs.” Following the September fatal stabbing of a Jewish settler in the West Bank by a Palestinian, President Abbas told Israeli government leaders that “everybody loses from violence.” On April 30, however, President Abbas delivered a speech at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, in which he said massacres of Jews, including the Holocaust, were related to their conduct in “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters,” and not their religion. He issued a statement on May 4 apologizing to those offended by the remarks, condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms, and called the Holocaust the most heinous crime in history. Senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders condemned violent acts by Jewish individuals and groups against Palestinians, including property crimes. The Israeli government arrested or detained alleged suspects in such attacks. Local human rights groups and media stated that authorities rarely convicted alleged Israeli offenders.
Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other extremist groups disseminated anti-Semitic materials and incited violence through traditional and social media channels, as well as during rallies and other events. Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia.
In some cases, perpetrators justified incidents of violence on religious grounds. On January 9, a Palestinian shot and killed an Israeli rabbi at a traffic junction near the Israeli settlement outpost (a term used to describe a settlement that, under Israeli law, is illegal and unauthorized) of Havat Gilad, west of Nablus in the West Bank. Israeli police opened an investigation into the death of Aysha al-Rabi, a Palestinian resident of the West Bank, killed October 12 when a thrown stone broke through her car windshield. At year’s end, an Israeli police investigation continued into the possible involvement of yeshiva students from a nearby settlement. On multiple occasions, Palestinians threw rocks at Jewish visitors to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. Various Israeli and Palestinian groups opposed to interacting with members of other religions continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation. Some Israeli settlers in the West Bank continued to justify their attacks on Palestinian property, or “price tag” attacks (violence by Jewish individuals and groups against non-Jewish individuals and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests), such as the uprooting Palestinian olive trees, as necessary for the defense of Judaism.
U.S. government representatives met with Palestinian religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and a broad range of issues affecting Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities. U.S. officials met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote interreligious tolerance and cooperation. U.S. representatives met with representatives of religious groups to monitor their concerns about access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship, and also met with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about ongoing Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank.