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Republic of Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for religious freedom and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  On June 28, the Constitutional Court overturned its previous 2004 and 2011 rulings and found unconstitutional a provision of the law that calls for up to three years in prison for those who refuse to serve in the military without “justifiable” reasons, arguing that it failed to provide alternative service options for conscientious objectors.  The ruling required the government to amend the law by December 31, 2019 to provide alternative service options for conscientious objectors.  On November 1, the Supreme Court ruled “conscience or religious beliefs” a justifiable reason for refusing mandatory military service, while overturning a lower court ruling in which a Jehovah’s Witness was sentenced to 18 months in prison.  On November 30, press reported the government decided to release on parole 58 conscientious objectors who had been imprisoned prior to the Supreme Court ruling.  According to Watchtower International, a Jehovah’s Witnesses-affiliated nongovernmental organization (NGO), 57 conscientious objectors were released on parole and eight Jehovah’s Witnesses remained in prison as of December for conscientious objection to military service, down from 277 the previous year.  It also reported 938 pending such cases in the courts as of December including 89 cases in the Supreme Court and 37 cases under investigation.  The number of conscientious objectors on trial was the highest in 11 years, while the number of conscientious objectors in prison was the lowest in 11 years, according to the NGO.  In December the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) granted temporary one-year humanitarian permits to 412 of 500-plus Yemenis, most or all of whom were Muslim, who applied for asylum after entering Jeju Province on a visa-free program.  Yemenis were excluded from the visa-free program in June.

The influx of Yemeni asylum seekers to Jeju spurred protests against the country’s special visa-free entry program for Yemenis and certain other nationals.  The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) reported 21 cases alleging religious discrimination as of December.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged with senior government officials, NGO representatives, and religious leaders on issues related to religious freedom, including the imprisonment of conscientious objectors.  The Ambassador met with the President of the Constitutional Court to discuss the court’s ruling on conscientious objectors and the positive effect the ruling would have on the ability of religious minorities to express their religious beliefs and act according to their faith.  The Ambassador also met with leaders of the Anglican, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic communities to discuss and underscore the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government continued to detain and imprison conscientious objectors to military service.  Most conscientious objectors refused military service for religious reasons, and most were sentenced to 18 months in prison.  While absolved of any military obligation after serving time in prison, conscientious objectors still had a criminal record that could affect future employment opportunities, including limitations on holding public office or working as a public servant.

On November 30, press reported that the government would release on parole 58 conscientious objectors who had been imprisoned.  Those individuals were eligible for parole because they had finished one-third of their sentence.  Watchtower International said that 57 conscientious objectors were released on parole and reported in December eight Jehovah’s Witnesses remained in prison for conscientious objection to military service.  The total number of such prisoners declined from 277 in the previous year.

As of June Watchtower International estimated that more than 19,350 conscientious objectors had been imprisoned since 1950.  The organization reported 938 cases pending in the courts, including 89 cases in the Supreme Court and 37 cases under investigation as of December.  Another 46 Jehovah’s Witnesses were under investigation for refusing to participate in reserve forces training.  The number of conscientious objectors on trial was at its highest in 11 years, while the number of conscientious objectors in prison was at its lowest in 11 years.

As of December the lower courts had issued 85 “not guilty” decisions in conscientious objection cases, in contrast to 44 in 2017, seven in 2016, and six in 2015.

On June 28, the Constitutional Court, after deliberating for nearly three years, ruled that a provision of the law on conscription was unconstitutional since it failed to provide for alternative service options for conscientious objectors.  In 2004 and again in 2011, the Constitutional Court had deemed the conscription law constitutional.  The new court ruling required the government to amend the law by December 31, 2019 to provide alternative service options for conscientious objectors.  The Ministry of National Defense began drafting a bill for conscientious objectors after the ruling.

On August 30, the Supreme Court heard several cases of conscientious objectors.  On November 1, it ruled that conscientious objection was a valid reason to refuse mandatory military service while overturning a lower-court ruling in which a Jehovah’s Witness was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

On November 22, Seoul Central District Court convicted Lee Jae-rock, the pastor of a megachurch, of raping eight women dozens of times and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.  He had told the women that he was carrying out “an order from God.”

In July police arrested Shin Ok-ju, head pastor of the Grace Road Church, as well as three other senior members, on charges of forced confinement and physical assault in conjunction with a 400-member Church-owned compound in Fiji.  Former members of the Church said they were instructed to beat each other in order to get rid of evil spirits and were not free to leave the compound.  The Church denied the accusations.  As of the end of the year, the investigation was ongoing.

Religious organizations continued to express concern that a new tax law, which went into effect in January, imposed income tax on specified benefits for religious leaders that were not actual income.  Organizations were also concerned about distinguishing taxation on religious activities from taxation on religious leaders as individuals.

Media sources reported the Seoul city government spent 200 million won ($179,000) to provide prayer rooms at popular tourist destinations in order to attract more Muslim tourists.

The MCST’s Religious Affairs Division supported various religious events, co-hosted by religious leaders, including the Korean Religious and Cultural Festival in November and North Jeolla Province’s World Religious and Cultural Festival in September.  During the year, the ministry spent a total of 5.7 billion won ($5.11 million), with 2.2 billion won ($1.97 million) for Buddhist events, 1.3 billion won ($1.17 million) for Confucian cultural activities, 872 million won ($782,000) for Cheondogyo events, 733 million won ($658,000) for Christian events, and 483 million won ($433,000) for Won Buddhist events.  According to the Korea Conference of Religions for Peace (KCRP), the MCST had little to no collaboration hosting events with the Jewish Community during the year.

Between January and May 552 Yemenis, most or all of whom were Muslim, arrived on a visa-free program to Jeju Province and then applied for asylum.  On June 1, the government enacted a ban on additional visa-free entry for Yemenis to Jeju and on travel to the mainland.  By December the MOJ granted temporary one-year humanitarian permits to 412 of the asylum-seeking Yemenis.  It rejected 56, of which 14 were dismissed because the applicants withdrew their appeals or violated immigration rules.  Two were granted asylum.

Saint Kitts and Nevis

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The government continued to ban the use of marijuana, including for religious activities, which affects some practitioners of the Rastafarian religion.  Civil society sources stated Rastafarians still faced some police harassment for the possession and use of marijuana, but on a legal, not religious, basis.  The Ministry of Health continued to require the immunization of children before enrolling in school, but it offered waivers for unvaccinated Rastafarian children.

According to media reports, Rastafarians continued to face some societal discrimination, particularly in seeking private sector employment.  Media also reported some businesses continued to place restrictions on dreadlocks in some instances when required by safety and hygiene regulations.

U.S. embassy officials engaged representatives of the government and civil society on religious freedom issues, including government promotion of religious diversity and tolerance, equal treatment under the law, and the required vaccination of children entering the school system.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Civil society and representatives of the Organization for Rastafarian Unity (ORU) stated that police sometimes stopped Rastafarians for marijuana use and possession but did not single out or harass them specifically because of their religion.

The Ministry of Health continued to require the immunization of all children before enrolling in school, but ORU sources said the government allowed waivers for unvaccinated Rastafarian children attending public schools.  Some children of the Rastafarian community were home schooled, but statistics were not available.

Prison officials allowed Rastafarian prisoners to keep their dreadlocks unless they posed health-related issues or used them to transport contraband.  The prison did not provide different diets based on prisoners’ religious dietary restrictions.

On August 21, media reported that the government met with Christian religious leaders to discuss programs to address societal issues including youth crime, gangs, and other antisocial behavior.  The same report noted the government regularly collaborated with Christian, Muslim, and Rastafarian religious leaders as part of the government’s strategy to engage social partners in policy development.

The government allowed Rastafarian groups equal access to public venues for religious celebrations.

Saint Lucia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and individuals’ right to change, manifest, and propagate the religion of their choosing.  Rastafarian community representatives reported their reluctance to use marijuana for religious purposes because marijuana use was illegal and subject to punitive fines.  Rastafarians said they continued to face discrimination in the school system because the Ministry of Education required vaccinations for all children attending school; Rastafarians continued to oppose vaccination, which they stated was part of their religious beliefs.  Government officials and Rastafarian community members said some Rastafarian families decided to vaccinate their children or to homeschool.  They also reported national insurance plans did not cover traditional doctors used by the Rastafarian community.  Rastafarians said the number of targeted searches by police and immigration officers decreased during the year.  They also reported that officials from the Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government engaged in constructive dialogue and outreach with the Rastafarian community.

According to the Islamic Association, some male and female members of the Muslim community continued to experience occasional harassment when they wore head coverings and clothing that identified them as Muslim.  The Catholic Church and the Evangelical Association of the Caribbean continued to hold interfaith meetings to promote respect for religious diversity and tolerance.

U.S. embassy officials discussed respect for religious minorities with officials of the Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government, which is responsible for ecclesiastical affairs.  Embassy officials also met and discussed issues related to religious freedom with leaders of the Rastafarian, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The Rastafarian community stated officials from the Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government engaged in constructive dialogue with their community leaders and outreach with the broader Rastafarian community.  The primary dialogue topic was encouraging the government to legalize marijuana.

Rastafarian community representatives reported their reluctance to use marijuana for religious purposes because marijuana use was illegal and subject to punitive fines.  Rastafarians said, however, the number of targeted searches by police and immigration officers decreased during the year.  They also stated Ministry of Education regulations requiring the vaccination of schoolchildren to enter school continued to represent a barrier because Rastafarians do not believe in vaccinating their children.  Some Rastafarians said they decided to vaccinate their children so they could attend school; others chose to homeschool.  Rastafarians stated the lack of insurance coverage for traditional doctors some Rastafarians used continued to be a problem.

The government continued to consult with the Pentecostal Assemblies of the West Indies, as well as the Christian Council, comprising representatives of the Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations, on issues relevant to their communities.  It also continued its informal meetings with members of the Rastafarian community on pending legislation and policies, including recognizing marriages and issues surrounding school attendance.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom of individuals to change their religion.  Rastafarians continued to disagree with the government’s ban on marijuana, stating it was integral to their religious rituals.  They said, however, that draft legislation introduced in September allowing marijuana use for religious purposes, if passed, would positively affect their community.  The possibility of exemption from vaccinations currently required for school enrollment remained under discussion between Ministry of Health officials and Rastafarians with school-age children.  Ministry of Education, Reconciliation, Ecclesiastical Affairs, and Information officials continued to permit dreadlocks at some workplaces, such as construction sites, provided they were covered with appropriate headgear when health and safety considerations required it.

Rastafarians said they still faced societal discrimination because of their religious practices, in particular their marijuana use.  Some Rastafarians stated, however, that they believed societal acceptance of and tolerance for Rastafarians continued to increase, noting the draft legislation on marijuana use and cultivation introduced in parliament as an example of a positive change in societal attitudes.

Embassy officials continued to raise the issue of Rastafarian dreadlocks with the Ministry of Education, Reconciliation, Ecclesiastical Affairs, and Information and with the Ministry of National Mobilization, Social Development, Family, Gender Affairs, Persons with Disabilities, and Youth.  Embassy officials also met with individuals from the Christian, Muslim, and Rastafarian communities to discuss governmental and societal support for religious freedom, including respect for religious minorities.  The embassy used Facebook to promote messages about the importance of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity across the Eastern Caribbean.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Rastafarian activists continued to state they disagreed with the government’s prohibition of marijuana use, which they described as integral to their religious rituals.  Legislation was introduced in September to permit marijuana use for religious activities.  The proposed legislation would decriminalize the use of marijuana in adherence to a religious practice by religious bodies to include, but not limited to, Rastafarians.  Reactions to the proposal ranged from support for marijuana use for religious purposes from the Rastafarian community and the current administration to concern expressed by members of the opposition party as well as other religious groups that the proposal was advanced too quickly through parliament.

The Ministry of Education, Reconciliation, Ecclesiastical Affairs, and Information said accommodations permitted dreadlocks for Rastafarians at some workplaces, including construction sites, with appropriate headgear called a Tam or Rastacap, which is similar to an elongated ski cap.  Rastafarians, however, cited the continued prohibition of dreadlocks in certain work areas and in some private schools.  According to Rastafarians, vaccinations as a requirement for school enrollment continued to remain an area of contention between Ministry of Health officials and Rastafarians with school-age children.  Some Rastafarians said they decided to vaccinate their children; others chose homeschooling.  Some Rastafarians said they still faced scrutiny from police and immigration officials due to their marijuana use.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right to choose, practice, and change one’s religion, and it defines the country as a Christian nation.  There was a dispute between the government and the largest church over a new tax on the income of ministers of religion.  In June, however, parliament adopted a law that amended the taxation of pastors to exempt income they receive as donations from funerals, weddings, and other traditional occasions.  Media reported, as of November, authorities charged eight pastors of the Christian Congregational Church for not filing their tax returns.  The minister of revenue subsequently charged additional pastors, making a total of at least 16 charged by the end of the year.  The cases of all the pastors were adjourned until February 2019.

There were continued reports that village leaders resisted attempts by new religious groups to establish themselves in village communities, forbade individuals to belong to churches outside their village, and did not permit individuals to abstain from participating in worship services.  There was reportedly strong societal pressure at the village and local levels to participate in church services and other activities, and in some cases to give large proportions of household income to support church leaders and projects.  A national report on the prevalence of domestic violence cited church monetary obligations as a contributing factor to hardship and family violence.

The U.S. embassy maintained contact with various religious groups.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Reportedly, matai councils, the traditional governing body of villages, frequently continued to resist attempts to introduce new religious groups into their communities on the ground of “maintaining harmony within the village” – a duty prescribed in legislation.  Observers continued to report that in many villages throughout the country, leaders forbade individuals to belong to churches outside of the village or to exercise their right not to worship.  Villagers in violation of such rules faced fines, banishment from the village, or both.

Traditionally, villages have tended to have one primary Christian church.  Village chiefs often have chosen the religious denomination of their extended families.  Many larger villages have had multiple churches serving different denominations and coexisting peacefully.

Ten or more chaplains continued to be available to prisoners on a rotational basis, covering the majority of Christian denominations in the country.

An amended income tax law, passed in 2017 and including the taxing of ministers of religion, became effective January 1.  The Christian Congregational Church refused to abide by this law.  The government was reportedly seeking to collect unpaid taxes from personal bank accounts and assets of pastors.  In June, however, parliament adopted a new bill that amended the taxation of pastors to exempt income they receive as donations from funerals, weddings, and other traditional occasions; nonetheless, pastors continued to oppose the tax.  The Christian Congregational Church reportedly approved of the change.  Media reported, as of November, authorities charged eight pastors of the Christian Congregational Church for not filing their tax returns.  The minister of revenue subsequently charged additional pastors, making a total of at least 16 by the end of the year, and said, “We have given church ministers eleven months, and those who continue to defy the law will face the consequences.”  The cases of all the pastors were adjourned until February 2019.

According to media, the report of the National Inquiry into Domestic Violence released during the year placed some blame on churches for their lack of effort to curb such incidents.  According to press reports, in December at a forum to discuss the report, the chairman of the Samoan National Council of Churches said increasing domestic violence was a result of individuals violating God’s law and called for the government to work with the churches to formulate a national day of repentance.

Public ceremonies typically began with a Christian prayer.  The prime minister, while discussing family violence, said citizens should “demonstrate [their] dedication to the Fa’asamoa [the ways of Samoa] and Christian values upon which this country [was] founded.”

San Marino

Executive Summary

The law prohibits religious discrimination, prevents restrictions on religious freedom, and includes provisions for prosecuting religious hate crimes.  An agreement with the Holy See, ratified in September, confirmed Catholic religious instruction must be offered in all public schools, but the law guarantees the right of nonparticipation without penalty.  Catholic symbols remained common in government buildings.  In August at a Catholic-organized annual conference in Rimini, Italy, the foreign minister advocated dialogue and religious freedom while on a panel with the secretary general of the Muslim World League.

In June a local bank organized a conference on interreligious dialogue, and, in October the University of San Marino participated in an event to remember the introduction of anti-Semitic “racial laws” in Italy and San Marino in 1938.

During periodic visits, officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Florence, Italy, continued to stress the importance of religious tolerance in meetings with staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

As of 2017, the last year for which data were available, approximately 110 nonprofit organizations (down from 130 in the previous year) received contributions from taxpayers in accordance with the law.  The government did not indicate how many of these organizations were religious, but among them were the Catholic Church, a number of Catholic associations, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Catholic symbols remained common in government buildings.  Crucifixes continued to hang on courtroom and government office walls.  The government continued to maintain a public meditation and prayer site in the capital for use by worshippers of any religion.

In August Foreign Affairs Minister Nicola Renzi advocated dialogue and religious freedom at an annual event organized by an Italian Catholic movement in Rimini, Italy.  His conference panel included the secretary general of the Muslim World League.

Sao Tome and Principe

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and equality for all, irrespective of religious belief.  It grants religious groups autonomy and the right to teach their religion.  Religious groups must register with the government.

Religious leaders affirmed good relations among religious groups.

U.S. embassy staff based in Gabon, in periodic visits to the country, met with key government officials in the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights and religious leaders to encourage continued respect for religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

There were no reports of significant government actions affecting religious freedom.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

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.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

There were reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including one incident leading to death.  Online media and NGOs reported in March that Ahmed Attia, a Shia activist deported to the country from Bahrain in January, reportedly suffered memory loss as a result of physical abuse while in detention in Dammam prison.  Shia Rights Watch (SRW) also reported the March 13 death of 61-year-old Haj Ali Jassim Nazia as a result of physical abuse in prison.

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.  On March 15, UN experts said 15 individuals convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism were facing imminent execution after their sentences were referred to the Royal Court for ratification by the king.  The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced the 15 individuals, all of whom were Shia, to death in December 2016 and further court rulings in July and December 2017 upheld the sentences.  Human rights organizations widely decried the legal process as not heeding international standards for fair trial guarantees and transparency.  At the end of the year, the government had not carried out the sentences.

International NGOs stated they were unable to obtain any information on the status of Ahmad al-Shammari, who had reportedly been sentenced to death for charges related to apostasy in April 2017, and was believed still to be incarcerated.  It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

On January 4, the SCC sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal.  The ruling overturned a previous verdict issued by the SCC in July 2017, acquitting al-Habib of the charges of inciting sedition and sectarianism, incitement against the rulers, and defaming religious scholars.  According to human rights groups, authorities detained al-Habib in response to his public statements urging the government to address anti-Shia sectarianism, including in the educational curriculum, and criticizing government clerics who had espoused anti-Shia views.

In August the public prosecutor announced charges against six Shia activists, including female activist Israa al-Ghomgham, from the Eastern Province arrested between September 2015 and April 2016 based on the Islamic law principle of ta’zir, in which the judge has discretion over the definition of what constitutes a crime and over the sentence.  The charges include “instigating riotous gatherings” in Qatif, “joining a terrorist organization linked to an enemy state,” “chanting anti-government slogans,” and “providing moral support for those rioting and instigating sectarian strife.”  According to HRW, the SCC in the Qatif region was the venue for the defendants’ trial.  There were no updates on the case at year’s end.

Up to 34 individuals, all believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution as they awaited implementation orders for death sentences already confirmed by the Supreme Court for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012, according to human rights organizations.  Up to nine of these persons – including Ali al-Nimr (the nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, and Mujtaba al-Sweikat – may have been minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted; however, the government disputed these claims, noting the courts and sharia system use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations.  Human rights organizations said many of the convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.  Many of these individuals alleged authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation.  Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery.

On June 7, police arrested Vishnu Dev Radhakrishnan, an Indian national and employee of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (also known as Saudi Aramco) for “cybercrime pertaining to blasphemy and spreading messages against the Kingdom through social media.”  Radhakrishnan allegedly sent messages on Twitter criticizing the Prophet Mohammed.  On September 13, a court sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment and a 150,000 riyal ($40,000) fine.

Raif Badawi remained in prison at the end of the year based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet.  Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes.  By year’s end, the government had not carried out the remaining 950 lashes.

At year’s end, the status of Ahmad al-Shammari’s appeal of his death sentence following his 2017 conviction on charges related to apostasy was unknown.  According to media reports, Shammari allegedly posted videos to social media accounts in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

In September the SCC opened trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the MB.  The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari.  The three were arrested in September 2017.  The public prosecutor reportedly sought the death penalty against them.  The public prosecutor leveled 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which were connected to his alleged ties with the MB and Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents.  In reviewing some of the specific charges, HRW noted, “The initial charges are mostly related to his alleged ties to the MB and other organizations supposedly connected to it.”  None referred to specific acts of violence or incitement to acts of violence, according to a HRW statement on September 12.  The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.”  The government continued to regard the MB as a terrorist organization.

Authorities are reported to have arrested cleric Abdelaziz al-Fawzan in July after he spoke out against the arrests of other religious leaders in the country, according to the website Middle Eastern Eye.  The Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account reported that Fawzan, a professor of comparative religious law at the Saudi Higher Institute of Justice, had been arrested over a tweet in which he had “expressed his opinion against the suppression of sheikhs and preachers.”

According to Reuters, the government detained influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali and three of his sons in July, widening an apparent crackdown against clerics, intellectuals, and rights campaigners.  Al-Hawali, often linked to the MB, rose to prominence 25 years ago as a leader of the Sahwa [Awakening] movement, which agitated to bring democracy to the country and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization, and working with the West.  Authorities reportedly transferred al-Hawali to a hospital in September after his health deteriorated.

In August multiple media outlets reported that the government detained Saleh al-Talib, an imam and preacher at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, after he reportedly delivered a sermon on the duty in Islam to speak out against the spread of vice.

In September social media and activist websites reported on the suspension or detention of Mecca Grand Mosque imams.  Khalid bin Ali al-Ghamdi was reportedly suspended and ordered to refrain from preaching or engaging in Islamic da’wa (religious outreach).  No reason was announced for the suspension.  Sheikh Faisal bin Jameel al-Ghazawi was reportedly suspended from his position at the Mecca Grand Mosque.  Al-Ghazawi was reportedly also barred from all preaching and da’wa activities.  A third Mecca Grand Mosque imam, Sheikh Bandar Abdulaziz Balila, was reportedly detained by security forces for four days for unknown reasons.

In October the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki with calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammad), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labelling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS, among other charges.  He remained in detention waiting a second trial at year’s end.

On July 2, authorities detained Zuhair Hussein Bu Saleh to implement a prior sentence of two months imprisonment and 60 lashes for practicing congregational prayers at his house due to the lack of Shia mosques in the Eastern Province, according to the international NGO European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.  Bu Saleh was previously arrested in 2015 for “calling for unauthorized gatherings,” and the government closed the prayer hall he supervised.

In August authorities referred cleric Ali Al-Rabieei for prosecution for allegedly tweeting sectarian and anti-Shia content, according to media reports.  Al-Rabieei subsequently apologized for this tweet and reportedly fled abroad.

In August the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of a man who appeared in a video carrying machine guns and threatening to kill Shia citizens in Najran, in the southern part of the country.

According to Shia groups that track arrests and convictions of Shia, more than 300 persons remained in detention in prisons throughout the Eastern Province and additional individuals remained subject to travel bans.  Authorities had arrested more than 1,000 Eastern Province Shia since 2011 in connection with public protests demanding greater rights for Shia, including acts of violence, according to NGO reports.  Most were held on charges involving nonviolent offenses, including participating in or publicizing protests on social media, inciting unrest in the country, and insulting the king.

SRW reported in April government forces raided a Shia prayer hall in Qatif, arresting three men.  According to SRW, the forces also surrounded multiple neighborhoods in Qatif, setting up checkpoints and restricting entry to and departure from the areas.  SRW also reported that authorities arrested a teenage female Shia activist, Nour Said Al-Musallam, for tweets critical of the government.

The UK newspaper The Independent reported that social media users who posted or shared satire attacking religion faced imprisonment for up to five years under strict new laws introduced in the country.  Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order or disturb religious values would also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), the country’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Twitter:  “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media will be considered a cybercrime.”

A December report by the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, issued after a visit to the country in April and May, stated “The special rapporteur is further concerned at the pattern of systematic repression in the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shi’a population resides.  The Special Rapporteur has received credible allegations that many individuals protesting against repression of the Shia have been detained.  Their cases are currently making their way through the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC).  Many of these individuals were reportedly peaceful protesters, simply asking for increased religious freedoms, equal rights for the Shi’a community and political reform.  Some have been convicted for the expression of their political views; some for coordinating protests through social media; and some even for providing first aid to protesters.  In this process, a number of individuals who were under the age of criminal responsibility at the time they committed the alleged offences have now been sentenced to death.  Others have already been executed.”

Human rights organizations and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religions.  According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for noncitizens, deportation.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons and restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons it considered sectarian or political, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy.  Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship.  The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence abroad, including in Syria and Iraq.  The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.  MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as it was in urban areas.  In July the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to call in and report on statements by imams that observers considered objectionable.  In August Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh announced the ministry was developing a mobile phone app which would monitor sermons and allow mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work content and length.  According to a BBC report in August, the government was engaged in deliberations on the reform of religious teachings and in a debate on unifying the content of sermons to steer people away from “foreign, partisan, or Muslim Brotherhood” thought.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained forbidden.

While authorities indicated they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and the mainly foreign resident Ahmadi Muslims reportedly hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

In March MOIA official Hashem bin Mohammed al-Barzanji referred to Shia as “rejectionists” in a tweet.

Since 2016, authorities permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, Eastern Province, home to the largest Shia population in the country.  As a result of several 2015 ISIS-inspired or directed attacks on Shia gathering places in the Eastern Province, there was again a significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September.  According to community members, processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.

According to members of the expatriate community, some Christian congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.  Religious groups reported, however, that officials typically charged those arrested during private worship services with gender-mixing, playing music, or other infractions not explicitly related to religious observance.  There were again no known reports of individuals contacting these or other governmental agencies for redress when their ability to worship privately was infringed.

According to government policy, non-Muslims were prohibited from being buried in the country.  There was, however, at least one public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially.  The only other known non-Muslim cemetery was private and only available to Saudi Aramco employees.  Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

Authorities generally required Shia mosques to use the Sunni call to prayer, including in mixed neighborhoods of both Sunni and Shia residents.  In some predominantly Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Shia call to prayer.  In smaller Shia villages where there was virtually no CPVPV presence, reports indicated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunnis practice), or not at all.

The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government threatened to expel foreigners who did not refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan.  According to media reports, it prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The CPVPV continued to monitor social behavior and promote official standards of morality, although instances of CPVPV interactions with individuals reportedly decreased significantly in most urban areas, such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.

The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction or provide them employment benefits, which the government provided to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam.  The project continued as part of the government’s Vision 2030 development and reform plan announced in April 2016.  The government continued to distribute revised textbooks, although intolerant material remained in circulation, including older versions of textbooks, particularly at the high school level, that contained language disparaging Christians and Jews.  Content included statements justifying the execution of “sorcerers” and social exclusion of non-Muslims, as well as statements that Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims, and Sufi Muslims did not properly adhere to monotheism.  In September Human Rights Watch reported some school textbooks continued to employ biased, anti-Semitic, and anti-Shia language.  Some teachers reportedly continued to express intolerance of other faiths and of alternative viewpoints regarding Islam.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a report on textbooks in November, entitled “Teaching Hate and Violence:  Problematic Passages from Saudi State Textbooks for the 2018-19 School Year.”  The report found that school textbooks for the 2018-19 academic year contained “dozens of troubling passages that clearly propagate incitement to hatred or violence against Jews, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, women, homosexual men, and anybody who mocks or converts away from Islam.”  In its press release announcing the report, the ADL stated “The Saudi curriculum is replete with intolerant passages about Jews and Judaism; some passages even urge violence against Jews.  Others retread classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and assert conspiracy theories about alleged Jewish and Israeli plots to attack the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.”

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.

Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.

The CPVPV, in coordination with the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content that reportedly contained “objectionable” content and “ill-informed” views of religion.  The CPVPV shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anticybercrimes law.  The government also reportedly located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence.  In 2017 authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger.  Some users reported that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype still remained blocked, however.

The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, while the remaining 30 percent were at private residences or were built and endowed by private persons.  The construction of any new mosque required the permission of the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits.  The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerical workers.

Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars.  Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to extend its explicit endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports.  The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques.  Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques.  Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques.  Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers.  According to NGO reports, construction of Shia mosques was not approved outside Shia enclave areas.  There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar.  Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment.  Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.

Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province.  Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations.  The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari School of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management.  There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia live.  According to a Human Rights Watch report issued in September “the Saudi judicial system…often subjects Saudi Shia to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of Shia religious practices.”

Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities.  Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring.  There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated that public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown.  Many Shia reportedly stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.

Although Shia constituted approximately 10 to 12 percent of the total citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population, representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI.  In contrast with previous years, the 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister.  There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province.  There were five Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council.  A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia were concentrated, had large proportions of Shia as members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils.  Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts.  Shia were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard.  According to an article published in September by both Foreign Policy magazine and HRW, “Shiite students are generally kept out of military and security academies, and they rarely find jobs within the security force.”  In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools.  Shiites are regularly denied access to justice, are arbitrarily arrested, and face discriminatory verdicts.  Scores of them have described the … religiously motivated charges they face in court, including the standard charges of “cursing God, the Prophet, or his companions.”

Shia were reportedly not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, while some teachers were Shia.  Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

There were continued media reports however, that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic, religiously intolerant language in their sermons.  Cases of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities.  During the year, the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.  According to the ministry, during the year, similar to the previous year, no clerics publicly espoused intolerant views warranting dismissal.  Unlicensed imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials.  The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.

The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.”  Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”

The government did not formally permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services.  Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries.  This was reportedly particularly problematic for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.  Multiple press outlets reported that visiting Bishop Anba Morkos of Shoubra el-Kheima held the first Coptic Orthodox Mass in the country in December, in a private residence.

The country’s crown prince told The Atlantic in an April interview that he recognized the right of the Jewish people to have a nation-state of their own next to a Palestinian state.  According to the magazine, no Arab leader has ever acknowledged such a right.  In the interview, he also said that the Shia “are living normally” in the country.

According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts:  “The Torah, The Talmud, The Protocols of Zion.” (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic tract originally disseminated by the Czarist secret police alleging a Jewish plot aimed at world domination.)  In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.

According to the ADL, state television hosted several   hour-long programs   during Ramadan featuring Saad al-Ateeq, a preacher who called   for God to “destroy  ” the Christians, Shia, Alawites, and Jews.  State television also featured Saleh al-Fawzan, who remained   a member of the CSS and was visited   in April by the crown prince, according to al-Arabiya.  The Economist previously reported that Fawzan claimed   ISIS was actually a creation of Jews, Christians, and Shia.  According to Human Rights Watch, he characterized Shia Muslims as “the brothers of Satan.”  According to the ADL, the government gave the honor   of delivering the Eid al-Fitr sermon in June at the Grand Mosque in Mecca to Saleh bin Humaid, who holds a seat   on the CSS.  Bin Humaid previously claimed   it was in Jews’ “nature” to “plot against the peoples of the world.”

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, anti-Semitic books including Mein Kampf were offered for sale at the Riyadh Book Fair.

During the year, some Qatari nationals reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from the border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017.  The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah.  Qatari nationals were purportedly also able to register for Hajj through third country governments.

Al-Monitor, a website covering news from the Middle East, reported in November that the government halted visa issuances to people who held temporary passports and no national identification.  This prevented Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere from traveling to perform religious rites, particularly the Hajj and Umrah.

In April, in the first visit to the country by a senior Catholic official, Chairman of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh to discuss the role of followers of religions and cultures in renouncing violence, extremism, and terrorism and achieving worldwide security and stability.  On March 4, the crown prince 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.  Following the meeting, the group met with the government-sponsored Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level.  Al-Issa stated the meeting was an exchange to advance understanding and the message of a “moderate and tolerant Islam.”  On January 28, al-Issa wrote a public letter to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, calling the Holocaust “an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”  In October MWL representatives discussed religious cooperation with several non-Muslim religious community leaders including a prominent U.S. Jewish leader at the MWL-sponsored Cultural Rapprochement Between the US and the Muslim World conference in New York.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free practice of religious beliefs and self-governance by religious groups without government interference.  By law, all faith-based organizations must register with the government to acquire legal status as an association.  The government restarted a lapsed campaign to combat forced child begging, which often takes place at some Islamic religious schools.  The government also continued its programs to assist religious groups to maintain places of worship, to fund and facilitate participation in the Hajj and Roman Catholic pilgrimages, to permit four hours of voluntary religious education at public and private schools, and to fund schools operated by religious groups.  The government continued to monitor religious groups to ensure they operated according to the terms of their registration.

Local and international NGOs continued their efforts to focus attention on the abuse of children, including forced child begging, at some traditional Islamic religious schools (known locally as daaras); the organizations continued to urge the government to address the problem through more effective regulation and prosecution of offending teachers.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with senior government officials to discuss conditions faced by students at daaras as well as the government’s efforts to combat forced child begging.  The Ambassador and embassy officers also discussed these issues with religious leaders and civil society representatives in Dakar and across the country.  In meetings with civil society and religious leaders, including leaders of the main Islamic brotherhoods, embassy officers continued to emphasize the importance of maintaining religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In March the government restarted a 2016 campaign to implement a 2005 law forbidding forced child begging, an abuse encountered at some Quranic schools or daaras.  The government worked closely with Muslim religious leaders to gain support for the campaign and for other initiatives, such as a draft law regulating traditional Islamic schools.

The government continued to provide direct financial and material assistance to religious groups, for use primarily in maintaining or rehabilitating places of worship or for underwriting special events.  There continued to be no formal procedure for applying for assistance.  All religious groups continued to have access to these funds and competed on an ad hoc basis to obtain them.  President Macky Sall occasionally visited and supported beneficiaries of these funds.  For example, every year members of the Mouride religious brotherhood travel to the seat of the brotherhood in Touba for the annual Magal pilgrimage.  Under President Sall, the government constructed a new highway to connect Touba with the city of Thies to the west in order to ease travel for the pilgrimage.  Although the highway was not complete in time for the Magal pilgrimage in October, the president opened up the nearly complete highway, free of charge, for all Magal pilgrims.  The highway was subsequently completed and inaugurated by President Sall on December 20.

The government continued to assist Muslim participation in the Hajj and again provided imams with hundreds of free airplane tickets for the pilgrimage for distribution among citizens.  In addition, the government organized Hajj trips for approximately 2,000 additional individuals.  The government also continued to provide assistance for an annual Roman Catholic pilgrimage to the Vatican, the Palestinian territories, and Israel.  The Catholic Church reported the government provided 380 million CFA francs ($668,000) for travel to the Vatican, compared with 370 million CFA francs ($651,000) in 2017.

The Ministry of Education continued to provide partial funding to schools operated by religious groups that met national education standards.  It provided the largest share of this funding to established Christian schools, which in general maintained strong academic reputations.  The majority of students attending Christian schools continued to be Muslim.  The Ministry of Education reported approximately 50 percent of primary school students again participated in religious education through the public elementary school system during the year.  The government also continued to fund a number of Islamic schools, which enrolled approximately 60,000 students.

The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Women, Family, and Gender continued to monitor domestic associations, including religious groups and NGOs affiliated with them, to ensure they operated according to the terms of their registration.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued to do the same with foreign-based NGOs, including those affiliated with religious groups.  Each association submitted an annual report, including a financial report, which the ministries used in their effort to track potential funding of terrorist groups.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, as well as the right to change one’s religion, forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for all religious groups, and prohibits incitement of religious hatred.  Some religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the government for granting special privileges to seven religious groups it defined as “traditional” and protested difficulties in the registration process, without which religious groups lacked property rights, tax exemptions, and legal status.  Four religious groups applied for registration or had applications pending during the year, and the government approved two of them, the Buddhist Religious Community Nichiren Daishonin and the LOGOS Christian Community in Serbia.  In March the government appointed a chairperson to the supervisory board charged with overseeing the proper implementation of the law on Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed property, enabling the board to commence work.  During the year, the government restituted to religious groups 1,151.4 hectares (2,845 acres) of land and 1,618 square meters (17,416 square feet) of office and residential space confiscated since 1945.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported two incidents of physical assault and two instances of verbal death threats against their members and said prosecutors failed to respond adequately to the incidents.  Protestants said persons frequently branded their religious groups as “sects,” which has a very strong negative connotation in the Serbian language.  One Protestant group said its members sometimes hid their religious affiliation for fear of discrimination.  Many smaller or nontraditional religious groups reported low-level public bias or discrimination against their members without citing specific examples.  A Baptist group said religious documentaries critical of Protestant groups occasionally played on conservative television stations but did not cite specific examples.  Anti-Semitic literature was available in some bookstores, and the Jewish community reported one incident of pro-Nazi graffiti at a public park in Belgrade.

U.S. embassy officials urged the government to continue implementing restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property and closely monitored plans for a memorial at the World War II (WWII)-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp site.  The Ambassador met with the head of the Restitution Agency to express support for the agency’s work in restituting WWII-era Jewish heirless and unclaimed property.  Embassy staff met with local and national officials in efforts to assist these restitution efforts and advocated the appointment of a chairperson to the supervisory board charged with oversight of the Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed property law.  Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of a wide range of religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, cooperation with the government, interaction between traditional and nontraditional religious groups, and property restitution.  In May the embassy hosted an iftar that brought together representatives of the two different Islamic communities, which rarely met, to encourage the groups to work together and overcome long-standing divisions.  An embassy officer visited a series of religious sites in Belgrade in January and February, spotlighting U.S. support for religious tolerance via the embassy’s social media outlets.  In December the embassy hosted an interfaith discussion and networking event for 20 religious leaders and others.  One speaker said it was the first occasion in almost 20 years that brought together such a wide cross-section of the religious community.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, public prosecutors provided unsatisfactory levels of follow-up on the two cases of physical assault and two cases of death threats against their members during the year, although they reported that police generally took appropriate action.

The MOJ reported it approved two registration applications from religious groups during the year, one for the LOGOS Christian Community in Serbia that applied during the year, and one for the Buddhist Religious Community Nichiren Daishonin that applied in 2017.  The approval of Nichiren Daishonin’s application marked the first time the government approved the registration of a non-Christian religious group.  The government rejected three other applications:  one submitted during the year by Christian Community Golgotha because the government said the application was incomplete, and two submitted in 2017, by the Old Orthodox Catholic Church in Serbia and the Diocese of Raska and Prizren in Exile of the Serbian Orthodox Church.  The government was still reviewing two other applications submitted during the year, by Christian Center – Good News, and Theravada Buddhist Community in Serbia.

Minority religious groups continued to state the law was inherently biased in differentiating between traditional and nontraditional religious groups and in conflict with constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and equality among religious groups.  One religious community stated the government was not transparent with the application process to apply for benefits and grants the government provided to religious groups.  Director of the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities Mileta Radojevic said the directorate focused its expenditures on the traditional groups because they represented the vast majority of the population.  He also stated there was no open call for project proposals to fund; rather, the directorate distributed information on the availability of funds directly to specific religious groups.  One Protestant Church in the city of Nis reported it faced difficulty navigating the process to apply for pension and health-care benefits for its clergy, stating central government officials gave it a list of additional requirements to prove its valid status as a Church, despite belonging to a registered umbrella organization.  The Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities stated it provided scholarships only for members of religious groups with a formal, university-level religious institution within the country.  Prospective clergy from smaller denominations who relied on seminaries outside the country were ineligible for such scholarships.

The Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches remained unregistered.  The government recognizes only one Orthodox Church in Serbia and thus defers to the SOC for approval of any other Orthodox Church to operate in the country.  The SOC continued not to recognize the autocephaly of the Macedonian or Montenegrin Orthodox Church, and government officials stated that secular authorities should not try to resolve issues among individual Orthodox Churches.  The registered Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) Diocese of Dacia Felix operated in the Banat region of Vojvodina Province in an agreement with the SOC.  Government and SOC officials criticized the activities of ROC priests outside Vojvodina Province in the eastern part of the country, where the ROC remained unregistered, who continued to hold services in the Romanian language and to repurpose buildings for religious use.

Representatives from the First Baptist Church of Belgrade continued to protest the legal requirement that groups register in order to obtain legal status by refusing to apply for registration, citing its long-held legal standing in the country under previous legal frameworks.  Representatives from the Church of Christ said the requirement to submit legal documents and the signatures of 100 citizens was costly, time consuming, and often impossible to fulfill for many smaller churches and those whose members were primarily noncitizens.

One Tibetan Buddhist group stated the registration requirement to submit religious texts for review was difficult for Buddhist groups to comply with, given the breadth of texts used in their practice.  The same group said, prior to the government’s approval of Nichiren Daishonin’s application, that the government had not registered any Buddhist groups under the religion law during several years of attempts by various groups to do so.

Multiple groups, including the First Baptist Church of Belgrade, Protestant Evangelical Church, Anglican Church, Church of Christ, and one Tibetan Buddhist group, continued to state that lack of registration did not directly prevent a religious organization from worshiping.  They said, however, it did impose restrictions, including inability to apply for property restitution, open bank accounts, purchase or sell property, obtain visas for religious travel, and publish literature.  The First Baptist Church of Belgrade reported that lack of legal recognition became more onerous over time, as it impeded a variety of activities.

At year’s end, a 2013 complaint by the Christian Baptist Church and the Protestant Evangelical Church, both of which had declined to apply for registration under the law, to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging the law violated the rights and freedoms safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights, remained pending.

In March the government appointed a chairperson to the supervisory board charged with overseeing the proper implementation of the law on heirless and unclaimed property confiscated during the Holocaust.  The appointment effectively established the board, which immediately began auditing the use of funds by the Jewish community and compliance with the law’s general provisions.

At least one religious researcher and an evangelical group said the religious education system in public schools discriminated against nontraditional groups.  These same observers noted the separate religious classes inhibited interreligious dialogue, religious tolerance, and basic understanding of other groups.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, unlike in previous years, they did not encounter legal difficulties in publicly distributing religious literature or conducting door-to-door ministry activities.

The government continued restitution of religious properties confiscated in 1945 or later, returning 1,073 hectares (2,651 acres) of agricultural land, 78 hectares (193 acres) of forest, 0.4 hectare (one acre) of construction land, 185 square meters (1,991 square feet) of residential building property, and 1,433 square meters (15,425 square feet) of business facilities to the SOC, Roman Catholic, Romanian Orthodox, Evangelical Christian, Greek Catholic, and Reformed Christian Churches and the Islamic Community.  The government estimated it had returned 56 percent of previously confiscated properties since the beginning of implementation of the law on religious restitution in 2006, 76 percent of confiscated land and 36 percent of confiscated buildings.

In accordance with the law on Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed property, the government continued to return heirless and unclaimed property taken during WWII to the Jewish community and to individuals.  This law governs personal property taken from members of the Jewish community during the Holocaust, primarily consisting of nonreligious residential and business property and agricultural land.  The government began processing claims under the law in 2016 and reported it had returned a total of 7,180 square meters (77,285 square feet) of buildings and 625.24 hectares (1,545 acres) of land, of which 625.19 hectares (4,724 acres) was agricultural land and 442 square meters (4,758 square feet) was unfinished construction land.

In November the Restitution Agency returned a building located in the southwest city of Novi Pazar to the Islamic Community in Serbia.  This was the first restitution claim returned to either Islamic community.  Previously, representatives of both communities, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers, and local political leaders speculated the Restitution Agency had been unwilling to resolve the claims because the government did not want to decide which was the “rightful” Islamic group.  The two Islamic communities said they had each submitted claims on the same set of properties.  The Restitution Agency stated it had been processing the claims from both communities and confirmed the Novi Pazar property was the first returned to either Islamic group.  In explaining the lack of progress on other claims, the agency said that, in general, the claims were poorly substantiated and required extra resources to process.  The agency said it had already rejected three requests from the Islamic Community of Serbia because of insufficient evidence the community had owned the property prior to appropriation.

Following the July death of Hatidza Mehmedovic, President of the Mothers of Srebrenica, an advocacy group representing survivors of the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war, Member of Parliament and Serbian Radical Party member Vjerica Radeta posted a tweet mocking the woman’s loss of her husband and two sons in the 1995 killings of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys.  Radeta’s tweet called the group “businesswomen of Srebrenica” and asked, “Who will bury her?  Her husband or sons?”  The tweet sparked outrage among some media and officials – including Prime Minister Ana Brnabic; Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Construction, Transportation, and Infrastructure Zorana Mihajlovic; and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Trade, Tourism, and Telecommunications Rasim Ljajic.  Members of the Serbian Radical Party defended the tweet, which Radeta quickly removed.

On July 11, the Belgrade Higher Court ruled against the petition to rehabilitate WWII-era Prime Minister Milan Nedic, who headed the Nazi-collaborationist government in 1941-44, during which 90 percent of the country’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust.  The court ruled that the presumption that “Milan Nedic was arrested without any court or administrative decision and was a victim of persecution for political or ideological reasons” was groundless.

A commission dedicated to development of a memorial at the location of the WWII-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp met monthly from January through September.  The commission also continued work on, but did not complete, a 2017 draft law authorizing the memorial, undertaking new rounds of edits and reviews in consultation with community members and various government ministries.  The government did not transfer responsibility for the commission from the city of Belgrade to the Office of the President as it announced it would do in 2017, leaving the commission with unclear guidance.  The commission held no meetings in the last three months of the year; commission head Bishop Jovan Culibrk of the SOC said that, without a clear government mandate or an approved law, the commission could make little progress.

The national television service, Radio Television of Serbia, continued to broadcast a daily 10-minute Religious Calendar program about major holidays celebrated by monotheistic religions.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.


Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination on any grounds as well as laws establishing any religion.  It provides for freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to change, manifest, and propagate their religion.  Through the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Act, the government continues to bar religious groups from owning and operating radio or television stations; however, it continued to grant larger religious groups programming time on state-funded radio, subject in most cases to advance review, editing, and approval.  Smaller religious groups did not have access to dedicated broadcast time.  Although the constitution prohibits compulsory religious education, non-Catholic students in public schools providing Catholic instruction did not have access to alternative activities during those classes.  The government regularly consulted with an interfaith grouping, the Seychelles Interfaith Council (SIFCO), on national issues such as prison reform.  Members of SIFCO were appointed to various government boards.

SIFCO hosted an interfaith forum in February as part of its activities to mark World Interfaith Harmony Week.  The forum included presentations by representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Baha’i faiths.  Following the forum, SIFCO officials commented on the challenges to interfaith harmony and the progress made compared with the past.

The U.S. embassy in Mauritius monitored religious freedom in Seychelles and regularly engaged with government officials and civil society to promote freedom of religious expression.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The Office of the Vice President held the portfolio for religious affairs.  The government permitted live broadcasts of religious programming on important religious occasions such as Christmas, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) provided transmission time for radio broadcasts, lasting up to 90 minutes each, of Catholic masses and Anglican worship services on alternate Sundays.  The SBC continued to review and approve all other religious programing to ensure hate speech was not broadcast, but there were no incidents reported.  Other religious programming consisted of 15-minute prerecorded prayer broadcasts, permitted to Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Seventh-day Adventist, Catholic, and Anglican groups every two weeks.  Smaller religious groups continued to protest the government policy that did not grant them their own dedicated radio broadcast time.  Private radio stations did not feature religious programs.

SIFCO, composed of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, and other religious groups present in the country, commented publicly on national issues and actions taken by the National Assembly and the president, including the setting up of regional councils, as part of local governance reform and nomination of councilors by the two main political parties.  SIFCO urged the government to consider the right of every citizen to participate in local or regional government in order to promote national unity and peace.  President Danny Faure continued to meet with members of SIFCO regularly, and the Office of the Vice President consulted SIFCO on issues of national interest.

Although the constitution prohibits compulsory religious education, non-Catholic students in public schools providing Catholic instruction did not have access to alternative activities during those classes.

In November various religious groups signed an agreement with the prison authorities to carry out spiritual and religious activities in prisons.  At the signing ceremony, Superintendent of Prisons Raymond St. Ange said that religion and spirituality needed to be the bedrock of rehabilitation, providing a firm footing for all the efforts undertaken by the prison service.

In April the Anglican Church renovated and reopened a church at Anse Kerlan on the island of Praslin funded by the Anglican diocese with a contribution from the government.

Sierra Leone

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, which includes freedom of thought and religion, subject to the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, and health, and to the protection of other persons’ rights and freedoms.  The law prohibits religious discrimination and allows all persons to observe their own religious practices and to change religions without interference from the government or members of other religious groups.  Government registration is not mandatory for religious groups, but necessary to obtain tax and other benefits.  On January 8, the constitutionally mandated political parties monitor, the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC), ordered the Citizens Democratic Party (CDP) leader, Musa Tarawally, to remove his campaign posters and billboards stating, “Allah is One” as his election campaign slogan across the country.

Religious leaders expressed concern that the CDP leader’s Islamic preaching at political rallies and campaign posters constituted a possible threat to the country’s religious harmony.

The U.S. embassy promoted religious freedom through dialogue with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Inter-Religious Council (IRC) and the Council of Imams.  The ambassador during Ramadan hosted an interfaith dinner with religious leaders.  The embassy sponsored the participation of a chief imam of a mosque in Freetown in an exchange program in the United States emphasizing interfaith dialogue and religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On January 8, the country has constitutionally mandated political parties monitor, the PPRC, ordered CDP leader Musa Tarawally to remove his campaign posters and billboards stating, “Allah is One” as its election campaign slogan across the country.  The PPRC cited the constitutional prohibition against political parties using any motto that has exclusive or significant connotation to members of any particular tribal or ethnic group or religious faith.  The president of the IRC, which includes Muslim groups, publicly supported the action of the PPRC, stating, “People must not use the name of Allah to gain cheap popularity in politics” and “Religion is religion and politics is politics.”  According to the PPRC, this was the first time since independence in 1961 that a party positioned itself as an Islamic party using Quranic verses as its campaign slogan.

The government continued to enforce a law prohibiting the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana.  Rastafarians continued to state they viewed this prohibition as an infringement on their religious freedom to access cannabis, as it is a core component of their religious practices.  One Rastafarian high priest was arrested in August, his marijuana was seized, and he was detained at a correctional facility for five days.  Another community member was apprehended by police in September for possession of cannabis and was released on bail.

The Office of National Security (ONS) held several meetings with the IRC and the Council of Imams as part of its counterterrorism strategy but did not organize a formal event, reportedly due to lack of funding.  The ONS continued to express concerns regarding the possible emergence of what it referred to as Muslim extremism.  The ONS also reported concerns by Christian and Muslim leaders and civil society groups relating to susceptible unemployed and uneducated youth from the Muslim community joining the Tabligh movement, a revivalist Sunni Muslim movement originating in India preaching a fundamentalist form of Islam.


Executive Summary

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).  The government restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.”  There is no legal provision for conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported nine conscientious objectors remained detained as of December.  A court convicted three Hindus in February on charges related to actions during the 2015 Thaipusam religious procession, including insulting a Muslim police officer’s religion.  The government continued to ban all religious processions on foot, except for those of three Hindu festivals, including Thaipusam, and retained limitations on the use of music in these processions.  In September the authorities introduced changes to the process for religious groups to acquire sites.  The government said these changes aimed to reduce the cost of leases and increase the number of sites available.  The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony and respect for religious differences.  Government organizations initiated regional interfaith programs and funded community-led interfaith initiatives.

A visiting foreign preacher’s reportedly anti-Muslim comments at a Christian evangelical conference in March attracted public condemnation.  The church responsible for inviting the individual initially filed a police complaint against reports on the preacher’s comments, but a church pastor later offered a public apology to the Muslim community and said that his church would be more vigilant in its selection of foreign speakers.  The Mufti of Singapore accepted the pastor’s apology.  There were numerous community-led initiatives to promote religious tolerance and build interfaith understanding.

The U.S. embassy engaged with senior government officials and religious leaders at a May iftar, during which the Charge d’Affaires gave a speech embracing religious diversity.  The Charge hosted a round table on religious freedom with young religious leaders, and met with the Imam of Ba’alwie Mosque.  Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of groups to support religious freedom including the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), the government’s Islamic Religious Council (MUIS), the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), and representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, humanist, Jewish, Shia Muslim, Sikh, Sunni Muslim, and Taoist groups.  The embassy used social media to highlight its religious outreach and demonstrate appreciation of and respect for the country’s religious diversity.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The Jehovah’s Witnesses official website reported as of December nine Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing to complete national service on religious grounds.  Conscientious objectors were generally court martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months.  Although they remained technically liable for national service, men who had refused to serve on religious grounds were generally not called up for reservist duties.  They did not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharged them from reservist duties.

A court convicted three Hindus in February of disorderly behavior and insulting a Muslim police officer’s religion during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in 2015.  The trio was charged with assaulting several policemen after the officers stopped a musical troupe from playing traditional Indian drums in the Thaipusam religious procession.  At that time, the government banned musical instruments from all religious processions on foot.  The men were fined from 8,000 SGD ($5,900) to 8,500 SGD ($6,200) and one was additionally sentenced to one year and one week’s imprisonment.  While he accepted his sentence, one convicted man attributed the group’s actions to the way authorities handled and spoke to them.

A group of Hindu participants in the Thaipusam foot procession in February said police officers and a representative from the Hindu Endowments Board had attempted to stop them from singing during the procession.  Police said although the government has permitted singing religious hymns since 2011, the group’s portable loudspeakers were not permissible.

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam met with Hindu community leaders in March and addressed dissatisfaction over limitations on the use of live music at Thaipusam processions after police had permitted music at an event for St. Patrick’s Day.  The minister said that other than three exemptions granted for Hindu processions on foot, only secular processions on foot were permissible.  Authorities allowed the St. Patrick’s Day event to play live music because it was a secular event and religious elements, including attire, symbols, and music, were not allowed at the event, according to the minister.  The minister stated he welcomed community proposals to increase the number of live music points along the Thaipusam procession route beyond the three that the government allowed, and the Hindu Endowments Board stated it was committed to working with authorities to achieve this objective.  The minister’s comments followed online discussion by some individuals who questioned whether the government applied “double standards” on playing musical instruments to the two events.  One person wrote on Facebook that saying St. Patrick’s Day was not religious was “a huge injustice” to the Irish Catholic community.

Media reported that MUIS counseled a couple in August after they were said to have started a new religion known as the Yayi faith.  Yayi founder Paridah Jayos reportedly instructed her followers to treat her as a god and to ignore the tenets of Islam such as fasting during Ramadan and compulsory alms giving.  Some individuals questioned online why Jayos was counselled under Islamic law, rather than being treated as a practitioner of a new religion.

Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam stated in parliament in January and March that it was important that no foreign religious preacher who could “spread ill-will towards other religions, whether in Singapore or elsewhere,” be granted permission to speak in Singapore.  He said that the government would individually assess each foreigner’s request, based on his or her previous statements as well as his or her proposed talk.  The government website said at least two months were required for processing.  The Ministry of Home Affairs told media in April that foreign religious preachers could be issued an advisory to remind them of their legal obligations.

In January the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) banned a documentary, Radiance of Resistance, which was to be shown as part of the Singapore Palestinian Film Festival.  The IMDA stated, “the skewed narrative of the film is inflammatory and has the potential to cause disharmony amongst the different races and religions in Singapore.”

Media reported that during a retreat in March for the Muslim religious counseling organization the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) Shanmugam said, “younger self-radicalized individuals tend to rely heavily on the internet and social media for information, including religious teachings.”  Shanmugam expressed his support for RRG launching a youth awareness program for individuals aged 16 to 25 that aims to engage, educate, and provide Muslim youth with a better understanding of Islam.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim announced in parliament on March 8 the expansion of a project to combat religious extremism among Muslim youth.  He also stated the government would stand against Islamophobia.

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 while the government continued to evolve its stance “gradually and carefully.”  Some in the Muslim community continued to quietly petition for a change in government policy.

The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived.  In September the authorities introduced changes to the process for acquiring long-term leases on government-owned sites that were designated for exclusive use as “places of worship.”  The authorities said they aimed to reduce the cost and increase the availability of such leases, including for smaller religious organizations.  The changes allowed certain sites to be used for multistory developments by multiple religious organizations “belonging to the same religion,” increased the number of sites to be designated for exclusive religious use, and restricted commercial entities from bidding on them.  The government said religious groups would have to prove they had additional space needs, had adequate and sustainable local funding to finance the lease and development of the site, would not use foreign donations for the transactions, and would actively contribute to the community.  The government said at least two church and two Chinese temple sites would be made available each year for the next “few years.”  The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.

As part of the MOE’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance.  All schools celebrated the annual racial harmony day in July, which promoted understanding and acceptance of all religions within the country.  Children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity.  Students were encouraged to recite the “Declaration of Religious Harmony.”

While the government did not formally prohibit proselytization, it continued to discourage its practice through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly as it reportedly deemed proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations.

The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was set up to promote greater religious understanding.  The Harmony Center housed artifacts and information about Islam, as well as nine other major religions in Singapore.  It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from different religions.  In March the Harmony Center and the Archdiocesan Catholic Council for Interreligious Dialogue held a seminar entitled, “Religion, Sanctity of Life and Human Dignity.”

President Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and government ministers regularly stressed the government’s commitment to the country as a multiracial and multi-religious society and cited religious harmony as an important policy goal.  In May the president called for the government to host an international high-level interfaith dialogue.  The president’s proposal, made during an interreligious iftar at An-Nahdhah Mosque, received support from local religious leaders and commentators.

Prime Minister Lee and four government ministers attended the consecration of the Hindu Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple in April.  Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran said the event provided “an opportunity to reinforce the multi-racial, multi-religious nature of Singapore.”

Ministers gave speeches on strengthening religious pluralism.  At the IRO Day in March, MCCY Minister Grace Fu called on religious communities to continue strengthening religious harmony by fostering interreligious social mixing, discussions on faith, and community service projects.  (The IRO includes leaders of the 10 major religions in the country and has 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.)

Local government and government-affiliated organizations advocated for interreligious understanding and support for people of other religions.  The country’s five district mayors launched a national interfaith initiative called Common Senses for Common Spaces in February, which included activities such as community dialogues on Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

The government continued to support the operation of an “Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle” (IRCC) in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies.  Under the auspices of the MCCY, the IRCCs conducted local interreligious dialogues, counseling and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities.

The government continued to engage religious groups through the community engagement program (CEP), and trained community leaders involved in the CEP in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony.

The government’s BRIDGE initiative, Broadening Religious/Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education, started in 2017 with funding of 3 million SGD ($2.2 million) for three years, continued to provide financial support for community-based initiatives that fostered understanding of different religious practices and beliefs.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and states the country is not bound to any particular faith.  Religious groups faced increased registration requirements, including the need to present a petition with signatures of at least 50,000 adherents, up from 20,000 in 2017, which made it more difficult to attain official status.  Some groups utilized registration procedures for civic associations in order to perform economic and public functions.  Unregistered groups continued to report difficulties in ministering to their adherents and obtaining permits to build places of worship.  Members of parliament, from both the government coalition and opposition parties, continued to make anti-Muslim statements.  In January then Prime Minister Robert Fico stated that he rejected the creation of Muslim communities in the country.  The Central Union of Jewish Communities in Slovakia (UZZNO) reported that anti-Semitic hate speech increased after then Prime Minister Fico indirectly accused a U.S. philanthropist of organizing antigovernment protests.  Some members of the People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) faced criminal prosecution for producing materials defaming minority religious beliefs and for Holocaust denial.  The president, speaker of parliament, and prime minister agreed in August with political, social, and religious communities the state would adopt a “zero-tolerance approach toward extremism” and fight the spread of hatred and insults over the internet.  In November parliament codified a new legal definition of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which its sponsors said would facilitate criminal prosecution of hate crimes and hate speech.

The Muslim community continued to report anti-Muslim hate speech on social media.  Muslim community members reported that a man verbally and physically assaulted an Iraqi woman wearing a headscarf in Bratislava due to her religious affiliation.  Christian groups and other organizations described in media as far right continued to organize gatherings and commemorations of the World War II fascist state and to praise its leaders, although without statements formally denying the Holocaust.  Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said the increased legal requirements for registration of religious groups, including Muslims, also continued to make it difficult to alter negative public attitudes that viewed unregistered small minority groups as “fringe cults.”

The Ambassador and other embassy officers discussed with government officials religious freedom and the treatment of minority religious groups, as well as measures to counter the increase in anti-Semitism and public expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment.  Embassy officials also met regularly with registered and unregistered religious organizations and NGOs to discuss hate speech and the role of churches and religious groups in countering extremism and promoting tolerance.  The embassy awarded a grant to an NGO to develop a curriculum to foster religious tolerance through interfaith discussions in secondary schools.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

As of year’s end, the Supreme Court continued to evaluate a motion submitted in 2017 by the prosecutor general to dissolve the LSNS, which experts generally considered a far-right extremist party.  The motion said the LSNS was in violation of the constitution and other laws prohibiting support for groups and movements aimed at the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms and defamation of race, nation, or religious belief.

There continued to be no resolution to the registration application of the Christian Fellowship.  By year’s end, the Ministry of Culture had not concluded its consideration of additional expert opinions regarding whether it should reverse its 2007 rejection of the original application, which was based on expert opinion saying the group promoted hatred toward other religious groups.

Some members of registered Christian churches said stringent registration requirements limited religious freedom by preventing dissent within churches.  Dissenting members stymied in attempts to reform official theological positions might normally split off to form their own church, but the difficulty in registering a new religious group prevented such an action.

The government allocated approximately 42.5 million euros ($48.7 million) in annual state subsidies to the 18 registered religious groups.  The basis for each allocation was the number of clergy each group had, and a large portion of each group’s subsidy continued to be used for payment of the group’s clergy and operating costs as stipulated by law.  The Expert Commission on Financing of Religious Groups and Societies, an advisory body within the Ministry of Culture, continued discussions with representatives of registered religious groups about changes in the model to be used for their future funding and reportedly considered a model allocating funding on the basis of the number of adherents, rather than on the number of clergy.  Some members of religious groups said their groups’ reliance on direct government funding limited their independence and religious freedom, and they said religious groups self-censored potential criticism of the government on sensitive topics to avoid jeopardizing their finances.

Muslim community leaders stated prisons and detention facilities continued to prevent their spiritual representatives from gaining access to their adherents.  Muslim leaders had no legal basis to appeal to the government and request access because Islam is not an officially recognized religion.

Members of the Muslim community also continued to report the lack of official registration made obtaining the necessary construction permits for prayer rooms and religious sites more difficult, although there was no law prohibiting unregistered groups from obtaining such permits.  Representatives of the community said local officials feared opposition from the wider public, which may view unregistered groups as “sects,” and would seek technical grounds, such as zoning regulations, to reject their applications.  There were no reported cases of revoked construction permits for unregistered religious communities.

The Ministry of Culture’s cultural grant program continued to allocate funding for the upkeep of religious monuments and cultural heritage sites owned by religious groups.  In 2017, the ministry allocated 3.2 million euros ($3.67 million) for these purposes.

The three highest constitutional officials – President Andrej Kiska, Speaker of Parliament Andrej Danko, and Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini – agreed during an August meeting with political, social, and academic institutions and religious communities that the state would adopt a “zero-tolerance approach toward extremism” and would crack down on the spread of hatred and insults over the internet.  UZZNO representatives welcomed the meeting of the top constitutional officials and said they were satisfied with concrete proposals raised in the meeting to fight anti-Semitism.

Many political parties, including the largest party represented in parliament, Direction – Social Democracy (Smer), continued to express anti-Muslim views in their public statements.  In January then Prime Minister Fico stated that he rejected the creation of Muslim communities in the country.  On another occasion, Fico said that tourists came to Slovakia because they did not have to “fear explosions” and would not be “bothered” by Muslims, given the small Muslim population.

In a February public debate, Richard Sulik, the leader of Freedom and Solidarity, the second-largest political party in parliament and the largest opposition party, said he perceived Islam as a threat to Slovak society.  He stated Islam was an “incompatible ideology” for the European way of life.

During a parliamentary debate on legislation dealing with abortion, LSNS Member of Parliament (MP) Stanislav Mizik likened Muslims to barbarians and stated legislative changes would be necessary to prevent the country from becoming a “caliphate” in the future.

UZZNO representatives said the number of anti-Semitic comments and hate speech on the internet and social media increased following March statements by then Prime Minister Fico in which he indirectly accused a Jewish American philanthropist of staging a “coup” and destabilizing his government.  Fico suggested the philanthropist aided in the organization of large-scale antigovernment protests held across the country in reaction to the February killing of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, calling NGO protest organizers the philanthropist’s “children.”

Representatives of the LSNS party continued to make anti-Semitic statements and faced criminal prosecution for past statements.  Party members and supporters frequently glorified the Nazi-allied World War II-era fascist Slovak state and its leaders and downplayed the role of that regime in wartime atrocities.

In July the Special Prosecutor’s Office indicted LSNS leader and MP Marian Kotleba for his charitable donation of 1,488 euros ($1,700) to three families at a 2017 event marking the founding of the Nazi-allied wartime Slovak state.  Experts stated the amount was a symbolic representation of a 14-word white supremacist phrase and the numeric representation of a salute to Hitler.

Also in July the Specialized Criminal Court acquitted LSNS MP Stanislav Mizik of extremism charges in a case concerning a January 2017 Facebook post which criticized President Kiska for giving state awards to people of Jewish origin and to defenders of “gypsies and Muslims.”  The judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove it was actually Mizik who wrote the post and dismissed the charges.  The case remained pending as the Special Prosecutor’s Office appealed the verdict.

In August the LSNS party sponsored the release of a film called Rejected Testimonies, which historians said was revisionist, and planned to premiere the film on August 8 in the city of Poprad.  The premiere was canceled due to opposition by the Poprad city council, because the film was suspected of breaking laws on defamation of race and religious belief, or on support of groups and movements aimed at the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms.  Experts considered the choice of date and place a reference to Nazi symbolism.  The documentary focuses on the positive memories of people who lived under the World War II-era Slovak state without mentioning the victims of that regime, particularly the 70,000 Slovak Jews deported by the regime and murdered in Nazi death camps.

In February LSNS MP Milan Mazurek verbally attacked an expert witness during Mazurek’s trial on extremism charges, saying the witness was “not impartial, since he is a Jew.”  In April the Specialized Criminal Court found Mazurek guilty and fined him 5,000 euros ($5,700).  Speaking to supporters after the verdict, LSNS leader Marian Kotleba stated the current “regime” was “completely equal to the Nazi regime in the thirties” for silencing critics through legal proceedings.

As of October criminal proceedings for Holocaust denial remained pending against Marian Magat, who ran as an LSNS candidate in the 2016 parliamentary elections and was described by the press as a far-right radical.

In November parliament passed an amendment proposed by Speaker of Parliament Danko (Slovak National Party) to codify a new definition of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which had been developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.  Danko stated the new definitions closed loopholes and would facilitate prosecution of hate crimes and hate speech.

During an official state visit to Israel in July, Danko stated it was “high time to start fighting against intolerance and Holocaust denial in Slovakia.”  Danko also said he would fight politically to show that the LSNS was a “bunch of crazies” who have “no business being in parliament.”

In commenting on LSNS-proposed legislation, the Episcopal Conference of Slovakia, which represents the Roman and Greek Catholic Churches, said it was regrettable there had been no progress in implementing stricter prolife legislation and said the fact a party without a “consistent approach to protecting human dignity” [LSNS] was putting forward such legislation was a reason for all religious politicians to “examine their conscience.”

In September Prime Minister Pellegrini and Culture Minister Lubica Lassakova commemorated Slovak Holocaust and Ethnic Violence Remembrance Day by opening a new exhibition wing at the Holocaust Museum in Sered, which was subsidized through a one million euro ($1.15 million) government grant.  Pellegrini said on the occasion the state had the responsibility to “create a place where the young generation could come to see the horrors people had to endure between 1941 and 1945.”  The prime minister warned against historical revisionism and downplaying the wartime suffering of persecuted groups.  Government representatives, including the deputy prime minister, also participated at wreath-laying ceremonies organized by the Jewish community in Sered and Bratislava.

In April the prime minister and the minister of culture met with representatives of the Roman Catholic, Augsburg Lutheran, Greek Catholic, and Reformed Christian Churches, as well as UZZNO, to discuss mutual efforts to combat social exclusion and possible changes to the state financial subsidy to religious groups.  Religious leaders publicly stated they were worried about increasing extremism and anti-Semitism in Slovak society.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs in public and private.  It declares all religious communities shall enjoy equal rights and prohibits incitement of religious hatred or intolerance.  Religious groups do not have to register with the government but must register to obtain status as legal entities with tax and other benefits.  In September the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and Ministry of Justice launched a project to establish the scope of Jewish heirless properties seized by the Nazis or their collaborators.  Muslims asked the government to expand their access to cemeteries and to provide pork-free meals in public institutions.  Muslim and Orthodox groups reported difficulties in providing services in hospitals, prisons, and the military.  In April the Constitutional Court upheld a law prohibiting the slaughter of animals without prior stunning.

Muslim groups reported obstacles in accessing halal food, spiritual care, and circumcising their male children.  These groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also reported anti-Muslim sentiment at public events, in news media, and online.  Vice Chair of the Jewish Community of Slovenia Igor Vojtic expressed concern about what he described as a negative disposition towards Jews, especially among left-leaning citizens.  Anti-Muslim hate speech was prevalent, especially online.  Construction of the country’s first mosque continued after delays due to funding shortages.  Muslims held services elsewhere in the interim.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for upholding religious freedom, including the Ministry of Culture’s (MOC) Office for Religious Communities, to discuss issues such as interfaith dialogue, the prohibition of animal slaughter without prior stunning, and the status of circumcision of male children.  In April the Ambassador hosted representatives of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss issues such as legal restrictions on the ritual slaughter of animals and circumcision of boys.  The embassy amplified its engagement on religious freedom issues through social media.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government approved the registration of four new religious groups:  the Slovene Islamic Community of Grace, Community of Zandernatis, Monastery Awam Gesar, and Slovene Daoists Temple of Highest Harmony.  It did not reject any registration applications.

In July the WJRO and Ministry of Justice agreed to launch a joint research project to establish the scope of heirless properties in the country seized by the Nazis or their collaborators.  The research teams commenced research in September and planned to complete their study in 2019.  Restitution efforts for property seized during the Holocaust were complicated by the period (1945-63) covered by the law on property nationalization claims, which excluded, with some exceptions, property seized from Jewish families prior to 1945.

The Office for Religious Communities reported the Muslim community had requested the government to reserve special locations in cemeteries for Muslim graves and allow gravestones to face Mecca.  Only some cemeteries allowed this practice, and some Muslim families buried their dead outside of the country.  Muslims may establish their own cemeteries, but there were no reports they had done so.  The Muslim community also requested the government make pork-free meals readily available in hospitals, schools, prisons, and other public institutions.  The Office of Religious Institutions said it planned to convene a meeting in 2019 of the Council of the Government of the Republic for Dialogue on Religious Freedom to address food service practices in public institutions.

According to the Office for Religious Communities, an inability to provide spiritual care in the military, hospitals, and other public institutions remained a problem for some minority religious communities.  While many hospitals had Catholic chapels, members of other faiths had more limited opportunities to attend collective religious services while hospitalized.  The armed forces (SAF) employed full-time Catholic and Protestant clergy to provide religious services but no Muslim imams, Orthodox priests, or Jewish rabbis.  While Muslims and Orthodox Christians in the SAF had access to their local religious communities while serving domestically, such opportunities were not always available during deployments or training abroad.  Head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country Obradovic attributed the SAF’s lack of Orthodox clergy to low numbers of qualified Orthodox priests in the country, rather than inadequate government support.  The Orthodox community said it was preparing two candidates for service as chaplains in the SAF by 2023.  The Ministry of Defense said the Muslim community had not made any requests for it to employ imams in the SAF.  The Jewish community did not have any rabbis in the country; a rabbi in Trieste in Italy was responsible for Slovenia.  Catholic officials said they requested the government employ an ordained bishop as a military ordinary in the SAF and expected this issue to be resolved in a future amendment to the agreement between the government and the Holy See.

According to the Slovenian Press Agency (STA), in April Igor Vojtic, Vice Chair of the Jewish Community of Slovenia, said the community was unable to receive compensation for a synagogue in Murska Sobota the communist government demolished in 1954 or secure a building for a synagogue and cultural center in Ljubljana.  Ministry of Justice officials stated it had not received any restitution claims for the Murska Sobota synagogue and the property identified by the Jewish community in Ljubljana was prime real estate with no historic ties to that community.

In April the Constitutional Court upheld the law prohibiting the slaughter of animals without prior stunning.  The Slovene Muslim Community, not affiliated with the larger Islamic Community of Slovenia, had filed a case in 2014 alleging this law violated religious freedom.  The Islamic Community of Slovenia continued to provide certificates to companies producing meat from stunned animals, confirming the meat was halal.  The country permitted imports of halal meat products.  The Jewish community also raised concerns over the prohibition and reported it imported kosher meat from neighboring countries.  The government defended the law as necessary to comply with EU regulations to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals.

Continuing confusion over the legal status of circumcision resulted in many hospitals not offering the procedure.  As a result, some Muslims and Jews continued to have the procedure performed in Austria.

Mufti Nedzad Grabus of the Islamic Community of Slovenia criticized the government’s treatment of Muslims in June at the community’s prayer for Eid al-Fitr, stating Muslims are “always being pushed towards the margins of this society.”  Among other issues, Grabus mentioned the restrictions on ritual slaughter of animals and circumcision.  He also stated the government prioritized Christian holidays over those of other faiths.

In November Janez Jansa, leader of the opposition Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), which won a plurality of votes in June parliamentary elections, said in a speech in Helsinki that Europe faced an external threat from radical Islam.  SDS national assembly member Branko Grims said during an election campaign debate in May the EU’s future would not be dictated by the budget but rather by “illegal migrations, the process of Europe’s radical Islamization, questions of identity, preserving European culture, civilization.”

The Office for Religious Communities continued to hold workshops and other events for religious communities to address their questions and foster interfaith cooperation.  Events included hosting a state prosecutor to explain technical details of hate speech legislation and a discussion of the UN’s Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes.

In July the government approved an agreement between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Culture Ministry to grant museum representatives access to, and allow the museum to reproduce, material in Slovenia’s archives.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Solomon Islands

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for religious freedom, including the freedom to change religions, proselytize, and establish religious schools.  Laws “reasonably required” to achieve certain listed public goals may restrict these rights.  In 2017 parliament passed a motion to explore the possibility of amending the preamble of the constitution to declare Solomon Islands a Christian country.  As of the end of the year, the Constitutional Review Committee had not finalized a draft of the proposed change.  Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela maintained a program of visiting different churches throughout the country with the expressed intention of fostering fellowship beyond his own church and asking for prayers for the government.

The five largest religious groups that make up the Solomon Islands Christian Association organized joint religious activities and encouraged religious representation at national events.  Police began to monitor a religious movement known as the Kingdom Movement in January for reportedly encouraging its members to sell their land and monitored threats made toward its leader.

The U.S. government, through the Embassy in Papua New Guinea and its consular agency office in Solomon Islands, discussed religious tolerance with the government during the year, including a recommendation that the proposed change to the preamble of the constitution not discriminate against non-Christian religious organizations or activities.  Officials discussed with religious minorities whether groups believed they could freely exercise their religious beliefs and if they had concerns about the proposed change to the constitution.  Representatives from the embassy also met with religious leaders of larger groups and leaders of the Solomon Islands Christian Association.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

As of the end of the year, the Constitutional Review Committee had not finalized a draft of constitutional changes to implement a 2017 parliamentary motion directing the committee to explore the possibility of amending the preamble of the constitution to declare Solomon Islands a Christian country.  Committee representatives said the changes would recognize Christianity as the main religion of the country without limiting religious freedom.

Several new groups were registered during the year, and there were no reports of religious groups being denied registration.

The government continued to interact with religious groups through the Ministry of Home Affairs.  The ministry characterized its role as maintaining a balance between constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom, free speech, and free expression and maintaining public order.  The ministry also again granted a small amount of funding to churches to carry out social programs.  The maximum amount of these grants was SBD 15,000 ($1,900).  Some churches also received funding from local members of parliament through their constituent development funds.  According to informal guidelines on how constituent development funds should be allocated, no more than SBD 250,000 ($32,200) per year per district could be given to religious groups.  Groups needed to apply directly to members of parliament to receive these funds.

Religious groups operated several schools and health services.  The government subsidized most of the schools administered by the Catholic Church, Anglican Church of Melanesia, United Church, South Seas Evangelical Church, and Seventh-day Adventist Church.  Subsidies were allocated proportionally based on the number of students at the schools and the size of the health centers.  There were no reports of discrimination among groups in receiving these subsidies.

Government oaths of office customarily continued to be taken on the Bible, but this was not a compulsory practice.

The prime minister recognized churches as important players in the country’s development and encouraged churches to continue collaborating with the government to deliver services to the people.  In October he met with the apostolic nuncio and emphasized the need for the government and churches to work together.  He visited churches on a monthly basis as part of his stated program to engage with religious communities other than his own and to ask for prayers for the government.


Executive Summary

The provisional federal constitution (PFC) provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion, makes Islam the state religion, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia.  Most areas of the country beyond greater Mogadishu remained outside federal government control.  Federal Member State (FMS) administrations, including Puntland, Jubaland, South West State, Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and self-declared independent Somaliland, governed their respective jurisdictions through local legislation but did not fully control them.  The constitutions of Somaliland and Puntland State declare Islam as the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion, bar the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and require all laws to comply with the general principles of sharia.  In August Somaliland officials arrested a U.S. citizen employed by a Catholic relief organization in Burao, Somaliland and accused her of proselytizing.  The federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education unveiled a national curriculum framework, announced in 2017, and new legislation for public and private primary and secondary schools in an effort to develop a national curriculum.  These initiatives would require Arabic language and Islamic religion, taught in Arabic, as mandatory subjects.

The terrorist group al-Shabaab killed, maimed, or harassed persons suspected of converting from Islam or those who failed to adhere to the group’s religious edicts.  During the year, al-Shabaab was responsible for the killings of civilians, government officials, members of parliament, Somali national armed forces, police, and troops from contributing countries of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).  Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country.  According to Morning Star News reports, in March al-Shabaab forces continued to seek out 35 orphans of underground Christians living in Mogadishu.  In July the militant group attacked the Baar Sanguni military camp in the lower Juba region, killing four Somalia National Army (SNA) soldiers and resulting in the deaths of seven al-Shabaab militants.  In March al-Shabaab attacked the position of Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) troops serving in Bulamarer as a component of AMISOM, killing at least eight troops.  Al-Shabaab, which launched a primary and secondary curriculum in June 2017, continued during the year to threaten parents, teachers, and communities who failed to adhere to al-Shabaab’s precepts.

Strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions continued.  Conversion from Islam to another religion remained illegal in some areas and socially unacceptable in all.  Those suspected of conversion faced harassment by members of their community.

In December the U.S. government reestablished a permanent diplomatic presence in the country for the first time since 1991.  Travel by U.S. government officials to the country continued to increase from previous years, although trips remained limited to areas when security conditions permitted.  In late August and September embassy officials engaged with Somaliland authorities to secure the release of an American citizen arrested on charges of proselytizing.  U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom focused on supporting efforts to bring stability, reestablish rule of law, and advocate for freedom of speech and assembly.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In August Somaliland officials arrested a U.S. citizen employed by a Catholic relief organization in Burao, Somaliland, and accused her of proselytizing.  Somaliland authorities eventually released her and she departed the country.

In April the South West State Ministry of Internal Security, transferred 11 children ages nine to 17 attending an al-Shabaab madrassa in Baidoa District to a rehabilitation center in the town of Baidoa.

Federal and FMS governments maintained bans on the propagation of religions other than Islam, and there was one report of enforcement in Somaliland.

The federal government reportedly continued not to strictly enforce the registration requirement for religious groups opening schools for lay or religious instruction.

The Puntland state government neither banned nor imposed financial penalties on any religious groups.

The federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education launched a new national curriculum framework, announced in 2017, and new legislation for public and private primary and secondary schools to implement the curriculum framework.  The initiative mandates Somali as the language of instruction for primary school, Islamic religious instruction at all levels, and Arabic-language Islamic religion courses at the secondary level.

The federal minister of endowments and religious affairs noted the ministry’s ambitious efforts to promote religious tolerance and messaging to counter al-Shabaab ideology but stated such efforts were underresourced.

South Africa

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.  The government does not require religious groups to register; however, registered groups receive tax-exempt status.  In September Rastafarians welcomed a Constitutional Court ruling that declared unconstitutional a ban on marijuana cultivation and personal consumption by adults in private homes.  Throughout the year, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns that two separate draft laws, one requiring religious groups to register with the government and the other criminalizing, defining, and punishing hate crimes and speech, could potentially infringe on religious freedom and freedom of speech.

On May 10, three men attacked the Imam Hussain Mosque, a Shia mosque, located in Durban, in what many stated they believed was a sectarian attack.  The assailants stabbed two worshippers, cut the throat of another, and set parts of the mosque on fire, leaving one dead.  In July police discovered five explosive devices around Durban.  Police affidavits stated the 11 men arrested in connection with the devices and the mosque attack had links to ISIS.  The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) recorded 62 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 44 in 2017.  Numerous individuals made anti-Semitic comments throughout the year.

The U.S. consulates in Durban and Cape Town coordinated with several U.S. government agencies to offer workshops on social cohesion and peaceful religious coexistence to local audiences including government officials, law enforcement, NGOs, civil society organizations, religious leaders, academics, and representatives of refugee and immigrant communities.  U.S. government officials met with religious groups and NGOs, including Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Jewish representatives, to gauge and discuss issues of religious freedom, including cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions to register with the government in order to operate.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In September the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, declared unconstitutional a ban on marijuana cultivation and personal consumption by adults in private homes.  The court upheld a lower court ruling from 2017.  Since 2002, the Rastafarians had called for the drug, colloquially known as dagga, to be declared lawful on religious grounds.  Jeremy Acton, the head of the Dagga Party of South Africa, brought the court case.

Several groups, including the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the nonprofit Christian organization Freedom of Religion South Africa (FORSA), and the International Institute for Religious Freedom, stated their continued opposition to a 2016 CRL legislative proposal requiring religious groups to register, stating it would restrict their religious freedom.  The proposal would require religious groups to register formally with the government and would create a peer review council, consisting of representatives from various religious groups, which would grant organizations and individual religious leaders’ permission to operate.  Accredited umbrella organizations for each religious group would recommend the licensing of institutions and individual members of the clergy.  Another recognized umbrella organization would then either approve or decline licensing the institutions.  The groups in opposition stated the proposal’s intent to regulate all religious organizations was unconstitutional and unnecessary because existing laws could be used to address governmental concerns of improper religious activities, such as feeding congregant’s snakes and dangerous substances.  In January the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs announced that every comment it had received from the religious community opposed the CRL proposal.  The committee recommended a national consultative conference, where a full discussion could take place on the issues in the CRL proposal.  The committee also suggested a code of ethics.  No member of the committee recommended that the CRL proposal be forwarded for adoption by parliament.

According to the media, the legislative proposal was prompted by the CRL’s 2016 investigation that revealed some independent church leaders instructed their congregations to eat live snakes, expose their faces to insect repellant, drink gasoline, and pay large sums of money to receive blessings and miracles.  The CRL also found that some religious organizations failed to adhere to tax rules and demonstrated a lack of financial transparency.  Opponents of the proposal stated the CRL based its investigation and subsequent report that justified the recommendation for legislation on generalizations about alleged abuses.  Opponents further stated that the supporting evidence upon which the CRL based its investigation consisted of an inadequate number of interviews with religious groups.  The Council for the Protection and Promotion of Religious Rights and Freedoms – established to oversee the process drawn up by religious and civil organizations that define religious freedoms, rights, and responsibilities of citizens – described the report’s proposals as “the fruit of a poisonous tree.”  The proposal remained with the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs at year’s end.

In May the Department of Justice introduced to parliament a hate crimes and hate speech bill that would criminalize any action or statement motivated by bias or hatred towards an individual based upon a number of categories, including his or her ethnic, national, religious, or sexual identity; health status; employment status or type; or physical ability.  The bill would provide law enforcement officials and courts increased authority to arrest, punish offenders, and would mandate prison sentences of up to three years for first-time offenses.  The Department of Justice invited public commentary on the draft bill in 2017 and received more than 77,000 responses from individuals, religious groups, and other organizations.  Opponents to the bill, including religious figures, media representatives, and civil society and NGOs, argued the bill’s definition of hate crimes and speech was too vague and could potentially restrict freedom of religion and speech.  FORSA expressed concern that the bill’s provisions were “over-broad and unconstitutional” and could punish churches and Christians who spoke out against homosexuality; sexual identity is among the categories covered in the legislation.  The Hate Crimes Working Group, a network of civil society groups, stated that existing laws adequately addressed hate speech and the bill, if passed, could have unintended consequences.  The draft legislation was expected to be debated in parliament in early 2019, according to media reports.

Twin brothers Brandon Lee Thulsie and Tony Lee Thulsie continued to await trial on charges of contravening the Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terror and Related Activities.  The brothers, along with two others who were alleged to have links to ISIS, were arrested in 2016 for allegedly planning to set off explosives at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria and Jewish institutions in the country.  The case continued at year’s end.

In August the Western Cape High Court in Cape Town ordered the state to pass legislation that recognizes Islamic marriages.  The Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) successfully argued that the failure of legislation to recognize Islamic marriages degraded Muslim women’s rights.  The Association of Muslim Women of South Africa and the United Ulama Council of South Africa opposed the WLC case, stating it violated freedom of religion by singling out Islam.  The court found that marriage was given “a seal of constitutional significance” and that the only reasonable way the state could fulfill its constitutional obligations would be by enacting legislation that recognized Islamic marriages.  The court gave the government 24 months to pass the legislation; otherwise, all marriages validly concluded under sharia would be dissolved according to the existing legislation.

In September several Muslim pupils at Jeppe Girls School in Johannesburg were charged with “misconduct for repeated dress code infringements” for wearing hijabs without formally asking permission.  The Gauteng Education Department launched an investigation into the matter.  School officials agreed in principle to amend the school’s code of conduct to allow for religious headwear.  The girls’ families retained counsel, who said that if the school attempted to hold a planned hearing on the “defiance and disregard” the school officials said the pupils had shown, they would sue for religious discrimination.

Some prominent individuals and politicians were quoted throughout the year making anti-Semitic statements.  Economic Freedom Fighters political party leader Julius Malema stated at a media briefing in August, “There’s a group of white right wingers who are being trained by Jews in Pretoria to be snipers.”

In February African National Congress Western Cape legislator Sharon Davids accused the Democratic Alliance party of fabricating the Cape Town water crisis in order to obtain desalination contract kickbacks from what she referred to as the “Jewish mafia.”

In February the Democratic Alliance party instructed deputy provincial chair nominee and Women’s Network provincial leader Shehana Kajee to apologize for a 2013 online post in which she called for the Muslim community to “go on the attack” against non-Muslims in the name of Islam.

South Sudan

Executive Summary

The transitional constitution stipulates separation of religion and state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides religious groups freedom to worship and assemble, organize themselves, teach, own property, receive financial contributions, communicate and issue publications on religious matters, and establish charitable institutions.  Both government and opposition forces reportedly engaged in attacks on religious buildings and killings of religious workers.  On May 16, government forces attacked Emmanuel Christian College in Yei, killing at least 10 persons, five of them children.

On May 12, attackers killed a local pastor and his wife in a home invasion in Juba.  On July 23, a protest by a group of youths demanding employment turned violent in Maban, and the rioters attacked and destroyed the compounds of several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including those of several missionary groups.  The country’s religious institutions reportedly remained a crucial source of stability in an otherwise unstable country.  Religious leaders stated that a diverse network of Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim domestic and international organizations provided shelter from the fighting.  Sources said that at times their generally outspoken attitude toward what they stated were the forces driving the conflict made them targets, similar to humanitarian workers.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy representatives promoted religious freedom through discussions and outreach with religious leaders and civil society organizations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

There were continued reports that in connection with the civil conflict, security forces, opposition forces, and armed militias affiliated with the government and the opposition committed killings and other abuses of civilians, including religious aid workers and churchgoers.  On May 16, at least 10 persons were killed when government forces attacked Emmanuel Christian College in Yei; the motive for the attack remained unclear.

Both a Christian representative and a Muslim representative read prayers at most official events, with the government often providing translation from English to Arabic.

Several religious groups were represented in government positions.  President Kiir Mayardit, a Catholic, employed a high-level advisor on religious affairs, Sheikh Juma Saaed Ali, a leader of the Islamic community in the country.  Additional Muslim representation in government included at least one governor and 14 members of the 400-member Transitional National Legislative Assembly.  All principal religious groups were represented in the assembly.

Although not mandated by the government, religious education was generally included in public secondary school and university curricula.  Theoretically, students could attend either a Christian or an Islamic course, and those with no religious affiliation could choose between the two courses.  Because of resource constraints, however, some schools offered only one course.  Christian and Muslim private religious schools set their own religious curriculum without government interference.


Executive Summary

The constitution protects freedom of religion and states the government shall consider the religious beliefs of society and form cooperative relations with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious faiths.  The government has a bilateral agreement with the Holy See that grants the Catholic Church additional benefits not available to three other groups with which the government has agreements:  Protestants, Muslims, and Jews.  Groups without agreements may register with the government and receive some benefits.  Various politicians and civil society actors continued to criticize compulsory religious education, which is under the control of regional governments.  The Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) 2017 annual report on religious freedom cited concerns regarding unequal treatment of religious groups, different financing of religious assistance, difficulties in opening places of worship, proselytizing, and providing spiritual services in public institutions, and the inability of the state to respond to religiously motivated incidents.  Between January and September the government granted citizenship to approximately 4,000 descendants of Jews expelled in 1492.  Muslims, Jews, and especially Buddhists reported problems with cemetery access.  Leaders of other religious groups said the state allowed citizens to allocate part of their taxes to the Catholic Church or its charities but not other religions.  The government continued outreach to Muslims to combat religious discrimination and promote integration.

There were incidents of assaults, threats, incitement to violence, other hate speech, and vandalism against Christians, Muslims and Jews.  The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Observatory for Religious Freedom and Conscience (OLRC) reported 142 religiously motivated incidents – including two assaults – in the first nine months of the year, 20 more than in the same period in 2017.  Of the 142 cases, 65 percent were against Christians.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) documented 103 hate crimes with religious motivations in 2017, compared with 47 in 2016.  The NGO Citizens’ Platform against Islamophobia reported 546 anti-Muslim incidents in 2017, of which hate speech on the internet accounted for 70 percent.  The MOJ reported 43 hospitals throughout the country denied treatment to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions.  Christians, Muslims, and Jews reported increased hostility against them in media.

U.S. embassy and consulate officials met regularly with the MOJ’s Office of Religious Affairs, as well as with regional governments’ offices for religious affairs and with religious leaders who participated in the governmental Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation (the Foundation).  Topics discussed included anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anticlerical sentiment, the failure of some regional governments to comply with legal requirements to treat religious groups equally, concerns about societal discrimination against religious minorities, access to religious education and cemeteries for religious groups, and pensions for clergy.  In January the embassy hosted religious leaders for a discussion on religious freedom and equality in the country.  In June the Ambassador hosted an iftar focused on strengthening government engagement with, and inclusion of, the Muslim community.  In May the Consulate General in Barcelona organized an iftar where Muslim leaders and public officials discussed ways of promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, the Church of Jesus Christ and the FCBE both said they were unable to conclude agreements with the government and therefore were excluded from the benefits available to the Catholic Church and the three other religious groups with such agreements.  The Church of Jesus Christ said it had been trying unsuccessfully for years to obtain an agreement, and the FCBE expressed regret that the state had for many years denied agreements to other religious groups with notorio arraigo status.

Some religious minorities, such as FEREDE, FCJE, and the Church of Jesus Christ, called for improved and equal access for religious groups providing spiritual services at public institutions, such as hospital, prisons, and the military.  FEREDE also sought government reimbursement for the cost of providing such services, in the same way the government did for the Catholic Church.  FEREDE welcomed the state’s decision to house Protestant chapels and ministers in some military bases, although it criticized the lengthy delays and lack of attention the issue received from the government.  FCJE, CIE, and FEREDE welcomed the decision to allow religious observance in prisons but also considered it necessary to standardize prisoners’ access to religious services so that it would be on a par with other basic services.

According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, several groups cited local government restrictions on their ability to proselytize or manifest their faith in public spaces.  FEREDE stated municipalities often imposed fines or other sanctions on members who distributed religious pamphlets or engaged in other religious activities in public areas, although the central government owned the land.  According to FEREDE, there was a growing tendency of local authorities to silence religious groups and expel them from the public space.  Jehovah’s Witnesses cited 37 municipalities where there were unresolved issues involving restrictions on the use of public spaces for religious activities.  The Church of Jesus Christ said its missionaries had occasionally encountered restrictions in posting placards in public or establishing booths at public fairs.

In September authorities detained and questioned actor Willy Toledo after he refused to appear in court to respond to allegations of offending religion for making insulting remarks in 2017 about God and the Virgin Mary.  In May and June Toledo had refused to answer questions before a judge about the charges, which were filed by the Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers, and said he would continue to “make mockery.”  The lawyers’ association reportedly broadened its complaint against Toledo to incitement to hatred after he said, “Ultra-Catholics should disappear from the face of the earth,” and, according to the association, justified crimes against Catholic clergy during the Spanish Civil War by stating on television, “The churches and priests must have done something to be burned.”

In March Member of Parliament Enric Bataller of the Compromis Party introduced a bill to remove from the penal code the crime of offending religion.  According to the draft bill, the existing provision of the code contradicted “the constitutional rights that guarantee freedom of expression and the nonconfessional character of the state.”

Several religious groups, especially Protestant ones, said burdensome and unequal regulations remained a principal obstacle to religious groups seeking licenses or permits for places of worship.  For example, FEREDE Executive Secretary Mariano Blazquez cited a requirement in several municipalities that there be at least 500 meters (1640 feet) separating one place of worship from another, which disproportionately affected non-Catholic denominations due to the prevalence of Catholic churches.  Groups said other restrictions, such as requirements that religious centers maintain the same level of acoustic insulation as nightclubs, were excessively expensive and technically difficult to fulfill.

According to the MOJ, Protestant groups built 197 new places of worship in the country between December 2017 and December 2018, bringing the total to 4,238, or 58.5 percent of all non-Catholic places of worship.

Other religious groups cited similar concerns in the government’s report on religious freedom.  CIE stated municipal urban planning restricted the opening of places of worship in city centers, forcing them to move to city outskirts.  Jehovah’s Witnesses cited long delays of up to one year after approval of construction for a place of worship until authorities issued a permit to begin work.

According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, Muslim and Buddhist communities reported problems with accessing and establishing cemeteries.  FCBE said no Buddhist cemeteries or specific places to deposit remains according to Buddhist tradition existed in the country, and there was no interest on the part of municipalities to address the issue.  CIE expressed the need for a place of burial in each one of the Balearic and Canary Islands.  In addition, CIE reported only the autonomous communities of Andalucia and Valencia and the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla allowed coffinless burials.  The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) stated the country had 28 public cemeteries with specific plots for Muslims.

The Jewish community also cited a need to obtain more space in cemeteries, where it could carry out burials in accordance with Jewish customs.  Despite existing agreements between FCJE and Valencia and Alicante under which the cities were to provide Jewish cemeteries, the projects remained pending at year’s end.

In May pamphlets featuring People’s Party Leader in Catalonia and former Badalona Mayor Xavier Garcia Albiol, in which Garcia Albiol called for blocking the construction of an Islamic prayer room in the Artigues neighborhood of Badalona, circulated in the city.  Then-Badalona Mayor Dolors Sabater said her administration was considering charging Garcia Albiol with a hate crime but did not do so.

FCJE Director Carolina Aisen said implementation of the law allowing descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country in 1492 to gain citizenship continued to run smoothly.  According to Aisen, who said she met monthly with the MOJ to discuss progress, 4,000 Sephardi descendants obtained citizenship between January and September, and approximately 18,000 Sephardis had started the application process.  The bulk of applicants continued to come from Venezuela; others came from Israel, other countries in Latin America, and the United States.  The Jewish community said burdensome financial and administrative requirements, such as a requirement to self-fund a trip to the country for the personal interview, reduced the response to the law.  Aisen said the sharp rise in applications for citizenship was likely due to concerns the law would expire in 2019.

The FCJE estimated there were very few survivors of the Holocaust residing in the country and said this was why the government only considered restitution on a case-by-case basis.  The FCJE reported no restitution cases during the year.

The MOJ’s report on religious freedom cited complaints by several religious groups, including the Catholic Church, FEREDE, FCJE, and CIE, about obstacles to providing religious education and the integration of religious teachers in schools.  The Catholic Church said some autonomous communities failed to provide students or their parents sufficient information on the possibility of pursuing religious studies, or placed barriers to the teaching of such classes, in violation of the government’s accord with the Holy See.  FEREDE stated many localities did not offer Protestant classes, and parents often were unable even to request such classes.  After protracted efforts by the Protestant community, according to the report, the autonomous community of La Rioja began to offer religious classes for Protestants in schools, as did Huesca Province; however, the autonomous community of Valencia had not responded to the requests for such classes by more than 700 students.

Religious groups said there was also a continuing lack of information on classes or enrollment options for students.  CIE cited a similar lack of information and enrollment options for students and reported that only six autonomous communities and Ceuta and Melilla had Islamic studies educators, despite the existence of eligible instructors in every region.  In the Basque Country, there were reports some schools had called in parents to discourage them from seeking Islamic classes for their children.

There were no Jewish classes in public schools, and FCJE reported schools were usually unaware of Jewish holidays provided for in the accord between FCJE and the state.  The Church of Jesus Christ proposed the right of religious education in public schools be extended to all religious groups with notorio arraigo status, not just to groups with agreements with the state.

In February the Education Commission of the national parliament approved a nonbinding resolution introduced by members of the Valencia-based Compromis Party and Together We Can (Unidos Podemos), a coalition of left-wing political parties, calling on the government to eliminate religion from the public school curriculum.  The draft resolution, which parliament did not vote on, also called for the repeal of the government’s agreements with the Holy See and with other religious groups.

In June the Regional Parliament of Navarre approved a nonbinding resolution calling on the federal government to “denounce the accords between Spain and the Holy See,” with a view to establish a secular education system in public schools.

In July the Federation of Associations of Fathers and Mothers of Students in the Province of Castellon (FAMPA) said it was receiving complaints from parents of students in schools selected to teach Muslim students classes on Islam.  FAMPA head Silvia Centelles said the organization had always favored doing away with teaching religion in classes and that parents said they could not understand how education officials could be in favor of teaching “the Islamic religion in classes, a religion that denigrates women and relegates them to second-class status.”

In January the Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras), the country’s largest labor union, called for the elimination of religion from public schools and an education “free of the dogmatism of the Catholic Church.”  In February the teachers’ union of Castilla La Mancha called for a reduction in class hours dedicated to teaching religion to the minimum required by law until national norms were changed towards establishing secular public schools.  According to a statement by the union, religion as a subject matter was neither a science nor an art and did not merit inclusion in public schools; rather it served to spread Catholic doctrine and only distorted the normal functioning of students’ education, taking beliefs from the private to the public space, where they did not belong in a nonconfessional society.

Holocaust education in secondary school curricula continued to expand in accordance with an MOE mandate contained in two existing royal decrees.  The subject was included in fourth-year compulsory geography and history class and first-year contemporary world history class.  In 2017, the FCJE signed an agreement with the MOE to train teachers on the Holocaust, Judaism, and anti-Semitism.

In December the state-supported cultural center Centro Sefarad Israel organized a trip to Berlin for approximately 15 Spanish teachers to learn about the Wannsee Conference, the meeting at which Nazi officials planned the Holocaust.  The trip included lectures and a tour of a concentration camp.  Centro Sefarad Israel organized dozens of lectures and courses throughout Spain on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, bringing speakers from around the world to speak to groups of teachers and other instructors.

Despite a 2017 Supreme Court ruling making government pension eligibility requirements for Protestant clergy the same as those for Catholic priests, no Protestant clergy had yet begun receiving a government pension because the ruling was not retroactive.  FEREDE asked the government to issue a royal decree to allow retired Protestant clergy to collect pensions from their time in service prior to 1999 and to allow survivor benefits for spouses and children of clergy.

The Catholic Church remained the only religious entity to which persons could voluntarily allocate 0.7 percent of their taxes.  Other religious groups were not listed on the tax form as potential recipients of funds.  Several religious groups, including Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to express their desire to have their groups included on the tax form so they could be eligible to receive the 0.7 percent allocation from taxpayers.  The tax designation yielded 267.8 million euros ($307 million) in donations to the Catholic Church during the year, according to news reports.

Representatives of FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE stated they did not receive all of the benefits to which they were entitled under their cooperative agreements with the government.  As an example, they cited their inability to make use of the same tax allocation financing system that the Catholic Church used.

Many religious groups, such as FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE, said that they relied on government funds, provided through the Foundation, to cover their administrative and infrastructure costs.  According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, CIE indicated its interest in changing the Foundation’s system of assigning funds that supported Islamic communities so that funds could be used to support several communities that stopped receiving other forms of assistance.  FCBE, which is not a participant in the Foundation, said that it did not receive any public funding and expressed its desire to receive such assistance in the future.  FEREDE proposed the government increase tax deductions for donations to religious groups so that these groups could better self-finance their operations.  Religious representative bodies, such as FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE received funding from the Foundation to cover administrative and infrastructure costs.  During the year FEREDE received 356,000 euros ($408,000), FCJE received 169,362 euros ($194,000), and CIE received 255,000 euros ($292,000).  The Foundation also provided 120,000 euros ($138,000) in small grants to dozens of local religious associations for educational and cultural projects aimed at promoting religious integration.

In May the regional government of Navarre became the first of the 17 autonomous communities to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, approving a nonbinding declaration calling on the central government to “support any initiative promoted by the international BDS campaign” and “suspend relations with Israel until that country stops its criminal and repressive policies against the Palestinian population.”  The measure did not stipulate any actions the Navarre government should take in support of BDS other than its appeal to the central government.

As of June approximately 100 local, municipal, or provincial governments had passed resolutions supporting the BDS movement, including Valencia, the country’s third largest city, although court rulings had voided more than a dozen of these resolutions after the attorney general for hate crimes began investigations in 2017 to determine possible criminal responsibility of municipalities that supported the BDS movement.  For example, in June the High Court in the province of Asturias found that the city of Castrillon’s policy of boycotting Israel was unconstitutional.  In August the municipalities of Sagunto and Villarrobledo reversed prior statements in support of BDS after the local NGO Action and Communication on the Middle East threatened a lawsuit.  The NGO Lawfare Project said that, as of June, its litigation fund had secured 58 court victories against BDS campaigns in the country.

In December the interagency Religious Freedom Advisory Committee, led by Minister of Justice Dolores Delgado, held plenary and standing committee sessions to review issues pertaining to religious freedom in the country.  The committee reviewed the status of religious freedom, noted issues of concern, and approved the MOJ’s 2017 report on religious freedom.  The committee comprised representatives from various government offices, academics, and religious leaders from the Catholic Church, FEREDE, FCJE, CIE, Church of Jesus Christ, Federation of Buddhist Communities, and Orthodox Church.  The committee had seven working groups to address specific religious issues, including approval of the MOJ’s annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country.

The city of Barcelona continued to implement its “Plan of Action against Islamophobia.”  As part of the plan, the city’s Office for Nondiscrimination launched a communications campaign in partnership with Muslim communities to sensitize the population to anti-Muslim sentiment and its impact.  The city hall led training events on human rights and diversity, including religious tolerance, to municipal employees, as well as to more than 1,500 children.  The office also provided legal, social, and psychological assistance to victims of discrimination, including religious discrimination.

In August the Foundation signed an agreement with the Madrid municipal police to protect the religious freedom of members of the police force by coordinating on research and development of new methodologies to manage a religiously diverse police force.

According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, FEREDE and FJCE again called for greater neutrality on the part of the national and local governments in conducting official activities.  They cited the organization of Catholic state funerals and the participation of government officials in acts or ceremonies of a particular religious group as evidence of a lack of neutrality.

In May the Rioja Provincial Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution calling on the provincial government to give proof of institutional secularism as a “public reflection of real neutrality and respect for diverse religious beliefs.”  In particular, the resolution asked the government to ensure that public ceremonies in which members of the provincial executive branch participated were secular.

In May the Barcelona High Court upheld the 2017 conviction and six-month prison sentence of Barcelona bookstore owner Pedro Varela for intellectual property crimes for selling Mein Kampf without authorization.  Varela was released on two-year’s probation after serving one month of his sentence.  Authorities continued to investigate Varela on charges of selling books promoting religious hatred or discrimination, and his bookstore remained closed.

Movement Against Intolerance, a nonreligiously affiliated NGO that compiles instances of religiously motivated hate crimes, criticized government and religious leaders for not working together to combat all forms of religious intolerance.  Director Esteban Ibarra again stated authorities should apply the criminal code pertaining to religiously motivated crimes more widely and that public prosecutors and police remained unprepared to combat religious intolerance.  Ibarra also pointed to a lack of preventive education in schools.  In addition, FEREDE proposed the government create a hotline for victims of religious persecution and hate crimes.

According to Ibarra, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment were on the rise, partly due to the actions of some members of political parties on the far left and right, such as Podemos and Vox.  Ibarra said that, although membership in ultra-right parties remained small, such parties had gradually expanded their online and public presence over the previous year, including through public meetings, marches, and statements in the press.  Ibarra stated the support for BDS policies among some members of parties like Podemos contributed to the further isolation of Israel and an increase in anti-Semitism.

During an appearance on Catalan public television, Bel Olid, a writer and activist affiliated with the far-left CUP (Catalan Popular Unity Candidacy) Party, encouraged participation in the March 8 International Women’s Day demonstrations by calling for the burning of the Episcopal Conference for being sexist and patriarchal.

The Foundation provided training on preventing anti-Islamic sentiment and other religious discrimination and organized an event with the Canada Foundation and the Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces on reducing violent religious extremism.  The Foundation hosted a seminar with members of the Baha’i Faith on preventing violent radicalization.

According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, FEREDE asked the government to adjust its visa policies for foreign religious workers in recognition that spouses and minor children might accompany Protestant clergy.

The Office of Religious Affairs continued to maintain an online portal for information on registered minority religious groups to aid new immigrants or citizens moving into a community to find his or her locally registered religious community and place of worship.  The MOJ stated the tool provided no personally identifiable information and complied with the information protection law.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

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