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Bahrain

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia the principal source for legislation.  It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites.  The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.”  The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”  There is no legal prohibition against apostasy.  The penal code punishes any individual who mocks or disdains another religious group.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), media, and opposition outlets said the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics.  NGOs stated prison authorities routinely denied Shia prisoners needed medical treatment more often than Sunni prisoners.  In August, family members and supporters posted on Twitter that inmates at Jaw Prison undertook a hunger strike, in part to protest religious discrimination and lack of access to medical facilities.  During the year, the government prosecuted a woman for blasphemy and defamation of Islam and other religions on social media platforms.  The government investigated 26 individuals for defamation of religions and convicted two of inciting religious hatred and sectarianism, and one of blasphemy.  Fifteen other cases were ongoing at year’s end.  In January, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa created two independent councils under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments (MOJIA) to oversee Sunni and Jaafari (Shia) endowments, with authority over endowment assets, including revenues and places of worship.  In February, exiled Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, residing in Iran, stated the move was “illegitimate” and “hostile” to Jaafari jurisprudence.  On February 24, a high criminal court sentenced two employees of the Jaafari Endowment to seven years imprisonment and a 68,000-dinar ($180,000) fine for embezzlement related to renovating Shia mosques.  The government continued to monitor, regulate, and provide general guidance for the content of religious sermons of both Sunni and Shia religious leaders.  While the government allowed large groups to gather in Manama and in Shia villages to observe Ashura – the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar – activists and opposition outlets, mostly based abroad, criticized the Ministry of Interior (MOI) for taking down Ashura banners in some places and summoning Shia leaders for questioning in connection with sermons they gave during the observance.  NGOs and some Shia clerics and opposition politicians stated that in August, authorities introduced several restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 that effectively repressed Ashura commemorations, including limiting attendance at houses of worship to 30 vaccinated adult individuals, and banning children from attending Ashura rituals.  Some Shia religious leaders and opposition politicians stated these restrictions were stricter than those applied to other public venues, and media commentators negatively compared the MOI’s response ahead of Ashura to more permissive government preparations for Hindu and Christian holidays.  According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to discriminate against Shia citizens and to give Sunni citizens preferential treatment for scholarships and positions in the MOI and military.

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media.  NGOs reported on the adverse economic effect of Sunni-Shia tensions and local political divisions.  Shia human rights and political activists reported persistently higher unemployment rates, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and lower socioeconomic status for that community compared with the Sunni population.  Societal pressure against conversion from Islam continued, and non-Muslim religious community leaders again reported converts were unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.  Media reported that in August, Jews held services in the newly renovated synagogue in Manama for the first time since 1947, and in October, the community held the first Jewish wedding in the country in over 50 years.

U.S. government officials, the Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy representatives met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, and national human rights monitoring institutions to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to advocate for the full and equal participation of all citizens, irrespective of religious or political affiliation, in political and social activities and economic opportunities.  In both public and private settings, U.S. officials advocated for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.  The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as they related to religious practice.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.5 million (midyear 2021).  The NGO World Population Review estimates the population is 1.7 million.  According to the national government, there are approximately 712,000 citizens, constituting less than half of the total population.  According to 2020 national government estimates, Muslims make up approximately 74 percent of the total population.  The Ministry of Information Affairs website states 99.8 percent of citizens are Muslims, while the remainder of citizens are Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Baha’is.  The ministry website states 70.2 percent of the total (citizen and noncitizen) population is Muslim and 29.8 percent adhere to other religions and beliefs, such as Christians (10.2 percent), Jews (0.21 percent), Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Sikhs.  According to Jewish community members, there are between 36-40 Jewish citizens (six families) in the country.

The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations.  Most estimates from NGOs and the Shia community state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 65 percent) of the citizen population.

Most foreign residents are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and other Arab countries.  According to national government 2020 census data, approximately 401,500 foreign residents are Muslim; 387,800 are Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, Sikh, or Christian (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma Syrian from South India).  According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 1.4 million Muslims, 205,000 Christians, and 109,000 Hindus.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion, and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage.  The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.”  The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as they do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed.  All citizens have equal rights by law.  According to the constitution, all persons are equal without discrimination on the basis of gender, origin, language, or faith.  The constitution states that sharia forms the principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code.

The labor law pertaining to the private sector prohibits discrimination against workers on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion, or belief.  The labor law deems dismissal for religion to be arbitrary and illegal but does not provide an automatic right to reinstatement.  The law also prohibits wage discrimination based on religion, among other factors.  The Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) investigates claims of discrimination where there is an existing labor relationship; it can escalate violations to the Public Prosecution Office.  The MOLSD does not have the authority to receive or manage complaints of religion-based discrimination in hiring.  There is no law on discrimination in public sector employment.

The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine” and do not prejudice the “unity of the people” or arouse discord or sectarianism.

The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”  The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”

Islamic religious groups must register with the MOJIA to operate.  Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf (endowment), while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf.  MOJIA endowment boards supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls.  Non-Islamic groups have the status of civil society organizations and as such must register with and receive a license from the MOLSD to operate.  To register, a group must submit an official letter requesting a license to operate; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders and board members, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses.  It must also submit other information, such as the group’s bylaws, candidates who seek election to the organization’s governing board, a physical address, and bank account in a bank registered with the Central Bank of Bahrain.  The group must also request permission to receive funding or transfer funding.  Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or MOI, depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities.  The law prohibits associations from engaging in politics.  The law prohibits activities falling outside an organization’s charter.  The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.

According to the MOLSD’s website, the following non-Islamic churches and spiritual groups were registered with the ministry:  the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral, Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, House of Ten Commandments Synagogue, Shri Krishna Hindu Temple, and the Baha’i Social Society.

The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.

There is no explicit legal prohibition against apostasy.  The penal code punishes any individual who insults another religious sect with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270).  It punishes an individual for desecration of religious books with up to one year in prison and a fine of 100 dinars ($270).  The law also prohibits any person from imitating in public a religious ritual or ceremony with the intention of ridiculing it.

The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, or advocating for a change of government, among other offenses.  The MOI’s Office of the Ombudsman, the Prisoners’ and Detainees’ Rights Commission, and the National Institute for Human Rights address the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.

The law allows prisoners to receive “alternative non-custodial sentences” in lieu of custodial sentences, provided such a sentence would not endanger public security.  The MOI supervises individuals following their release on an alternative sentence, and the trial judge and the public prosecutor determine their eligibility and conditions for an alternative sentence.  Alternative sentences may include community service, home detention, electronic surveillance, no-contact orders, or participation in rehabilitation programs.

The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf, which are appointed by the King with recommendations from the president of the government-run and funded Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA).  The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites.  The government allocates 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) annually to each endowment board.  Zakat (Islamic tithes), income from property rentals, and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations.  The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.

On January 20, the King issued a royal decree restructuring the Sunni and Jaafari Waqf directorates.  According to the decree, the Sunni and Jaafari endowments are overseen by two independent councils that fall under the direct supervision of “a minister in charge of endowments affairs.”  Each council manages its respective endowment, disburses revenues, and has full authority over endowment assets, including places of worship.  The endowments were previously under the direct supervision of the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments.

The SCIA oversees general religious activities taking place within the country as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts.  The council consists of a chair, a deputy chair, and 16 religious scholars – eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges.  The King appoints all council members to a four-year term.  Independent of other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships to low-income students for advanced Islamic studies.  The SCIA reviews all legislation proposed by parliament to ensure that draft laws comply with sharia.  The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers.  The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs.  The council also organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.

The King has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials.  By law, construction of Islamic places of worship requires MOJIA approval.  Non-Islamic groups must obtain MOLSD approval.  Municipal authorities provide final approval for construction.  Citizens may also offer private land to build mosques.  Permission for construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, requires a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area.  The government also determines the need for non-Islamic houses of worship.  The law permits non-Islamic houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside their premises.

The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the education system.  The government funds public schools for grades one through 12; Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim students and are optional for non-Muslims.  Private schools must register with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign-funded and foreign-operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students.  Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the MOE.  Outside of school hours, Muslim students may engage in religious studies sponsored by the MOJIA, as their parents deem fit.

In coordination with the SCIA, a team of MOE-appointed experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence.  According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to the six registered hawzas (Shia seminaries); other hawzas choose to be privately funded.  The government does not permit foreign donors to contribute to privately funded hawzas.  There are no restrictions on religious studies abroad.  The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents in private schools.

Specialized MOE-run religious schools provide more thorough religious instruction – the Jaafari Institute for instruction in Shia Islam and the Religious Institute for instruction in Sunni Islam – for students from elementary through high school.  The remainder of the curriculum is consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools.

Regarding family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia.  The constitution also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, “without breaching the provisions” of sharia.  The personal status law states that either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia, depending on the religious affiliation of the parties, shall govern family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce.  Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case.  The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract.  Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies; however, all marriages must be registered with a civil court.  Civil courts also adjudicate matters such as divorce and child custody for non-Muslims.

The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates.  Applications for birth certificates and national identity documents, however, record a child’s religion (either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other), but not denomination.  Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.

The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries.  It specifies that succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son.  The royal family is Sunni.

The law prohibits any individual from being a member of a political society or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.

By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by religious and other organizations.  Islamic organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA.  Non-Islamic organizations must obtain authorization from the MOLSD.  On August 4, the MOJIA issued an amendment to a royal decree regulating fundraising that requires the Sunni and the Jaafari endowments to submit to the ministry annual reports on funds they collect for religious purposes, including for the construction or renovation of places of worship.  The endowments must also deposit collected funds in a bank accredited by the Central Bank of Bahrain and notify the MOJIA.  The amendment bans the endowments from receiving money from abroad without MOJIA approval.

The law guarantees inmates of correctional facilities the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside prison.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way” the prescriptions of sharia.

Government Practices

Because religion and political affiliation are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to media, on November 21, the Court of Cassation rejected the appeal of a Shia preacher and upheld a one-year suspended prison sentence against him for “insulting religious figures revered by a group of people” (i.e., Sunni Muslims) during a sermon.  Authorities also charged the preacher with organizing an illegal gathering of more than five individuals during the pandemic.

NGOs, media, and opposition outlets reported the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics.  NGOs reported prison authorities routinely denied Shia prisoners needed medical treatment more often than Sunni prisoners.  The MOI confirmed that on April 5, Shia inmate Abbas Hassan Ali Malallah died of a heart attack in Jaw Prison.  Shia Rights Watch stated that according to fellow prisoners, Malallah requested medical treatment on April 4, complaining of chest pains, but authorities denied his request.  The National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), a quasigovernmental organization responsible for investigating human rights complaints, including complaints of abuse in prison, said it found no evidence prison guards deliberately denied Mallalah medical services.

On June 8, Hussain Barakat, who was serving a life sentence in connection with a terrorism case involving the Shia militant group “Zulfiqar Brigades,” an entity associated with armed religious groups, died in prison after being diagnosed with COVID-19.  Human rights activists reiterated their calls to release other prisoners and said prison authorities failed to properly counter the pandemic.

According to local media, on November 15, the Higher Criminal Court of Appeals upheld the prison sentences of 10 Shia individuals to prison terms ranging from three years to life in prison.  They, along with four other men, were convicted of forming a terrorist cell that was affiliated with al-Ashtar Brigades (a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that is also known as the military arm of the al-Wafa Islamic movement) and planting bombs inside Bahrain National Bank ATMs in Naeem and Jid Hafs areas in February.  The four other men escaped after their trials and remained at large at year’s end.

According to the government, on September 16, the MOI arrested four Shia individuals and charged them with attempting to plant a bomb inside a Bahrain National Bank ATM in Muharraq.  The government said the men were suspected members of the February 14 movement, a branch of the al-Wafa Islamic movement.  Opposition sources said authorities arrested 14 individuals.

A human rights activist on Twitter stated that on July 1, Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullah Isa “Mirza” al-Mahroos, who was serving a 15-year sentence in Jaw Prison, undertook a hunger strike to protest mistreatment, lack of proper medical care, and being prevented from seeing his son, who also was incarcerated in Jaw prison.  Authorities sentenced al-Mahroos to 15 years in prison in 2011, along with 13 others identified as leaders of the 2011 antigovernment protests and hundreds of other opposition activists.  His family said he was eligible for an alternative sentence and had chronic medical issues.

Several Shia clerics arrested during the 2011 antigovernment protests remained in prison at year’s end.  They were serving prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred.  Some human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.  According to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), activists commemorated the tenth-year anniversary of the protests amid what HRW described as “continuing heavy repression.”  According to sources, protests on February 13 and 14 included slogans targeting King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and pictures of exiled and jailed opposition figures.

The MOI’s Office of the Ombudsman stated the office resolved 664 grievances from inmates and detainees, constituting 94 percent of the total 691 complaints filed during the year.

In March, the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), part of the Public Prosecutor’s Office responsible for investigating complaints filed against security forces, reported receiving 33 complaints in the first quarter of 2020 and interrogating 13 MOI officers.  On March 15, the SIU referred three security officers to the criminal court for mistreating inmates in 2020, and on April 15, the court found the three officers guilty.  Two of them received prison sentences and one officer received a fine.  The SIU received 68 formal complaints alleging torture, mistreatment, and excessive force by members of the police.  It interrogated 107 MOI officers tied to the complaints and prosecuted 16 in criminal court for police misconduct.  The SIU referred at least 11 MOI officers to the forensic and psychiatric departments; it referred three others to military courts for disciplinary measures.  As of September, military courts took disciplinary action against nine other MOI officers in cases previously referred to them by the SIU.

During the year, according to government announcements, the MOI prosecuted a woman for blasphemy and defamation of Islam and other religions on social media platforms.  The government did not release additional details about the nature of the incident.  The case was ongoing at year’s end.

According to the MOI, during the year, the ministry investigated 26 individuals for defamation of religions, a charge usually stemming from statements made during sermons, and the government prosecuted six of them for inciting religious hatred and sectarianism.  Courts convicted two of the six, but authorities did not announce their sentences.  The other four cases remained ongoing at year’s end.  The government also prosecuted 11 of the 26 individuals for “despising other religions” and convicted one person of blasphemy.

The government continued to attach witchcraft and sorcery charges to some cases involving charges of theft and fraud.  In March, the director-general of the Capital Governorate Police announced authorities arrested a woman for practicing sorcery and stealing money and personal items from clients.  In October, the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Forensic Science arrested two men on a charge of practicing witchcraft and sorcery.  Authorities also accused the men of violating public morals.  The case was referred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and remained pending at year’s end.

On May 23, the MOI Anti-Cyber Crime Directorate arrested a Sunni woman and charged her with inciting sectarian hatred.  According to the government, the woman said Shia Muslims were responsible for the spread of COVID-19.  She appeared before the criminal court on May 27.  At year’s end, there was no further information available on the disposition of her case.

Zuhair Ebrahim Jassim and Hussain Abdulla Khalil Rashid, two prisoners convicted of involvement in targeting security forces and killing one police officer in a police bus explosion in November 2017 and killing another officer in a bomb explosion in Damistan in 2014, remained on death row at year’s end.  In June 2020, the Court of Cassation upheld their appeal of the death sentence.  NGOs said their confessions were obtained through torture and that the trial proceedings were unfair.  A 2020 New York Times report identified the men as members of the Shia community who previously expressed opposition to the government.

According to media, on December 9, the MOI announced it had arrested a male citizen for blasphemy and for inciting immoral activities on social media.  The MOI referred the case to the public prosecutor, and it remained pending at year’s end.

On February 24, a court sentenced two employees of the Jaafari Waqf to seven years imprisonment and a fine of 68,000 dinars ($180,000) for embezzlement related to renovating Shia mosques.  On March 14, a Council of Representatives inquiry committee on the misuse of the Jaafari Endowment’s funds and properties submitted its final report to the committee’s office board.  The inquiry committee, established in September 2020, consisted of six Shia and three Sunni members of parliament.  The report’s findings had not been made public by year’s end.

On January 21, authorities released Shia preacher Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri after he spent one year in prison for a 2019 sermon “defaming a [historical] figure that is revered by a religious group.”  The preacher reportedly spoke against the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Mu’awiya I, who assumed the caliphate after the assassination in 661of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, who is revered by Shia Muslims.

According to the Twitter post of a supporter, on April 9, authorities released prominent Shia cleric Sayed Kamel al-Hashemi from prison under an alternative noncustodial sentence after he served more than two-and-a-half years for contempt of the King and inciting sectarian hatred based on his comments criticizing the government.

On April 2, the government released Shia citizen Abdulnabi al-Sammak from prison under an alternative sentence.  Authorities arrested al-Sammak in 2020 for publicly reciting Ziyarat Ashura, a Shia prayer deemed defamatory of religious figures that Sunnis revere.  They charged al-Sammak with publicly insulting symbols and defaming the Islamic faith.

The government announced that on April 12, King Hamad pardoned 91 prisoners at the start of Ramadan via royal decree.  On May 12, the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the King pardoned 203 prisoners.  On July 18, the eve of Eid al-Adha, he pardoned 32 individuals, including some foreigners.

The NGO Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) stated that on January 1, Shia prisoner Mohamed Abdulnabi Abdulla (also known as Mohamed Abdulnabi Juma al-Khoor) undertook an 11-day hunger strike to protest access to medical facilities.  Authorities sentenced Abdulla to life in prison with revocation of citizenship on charges related to a blast in Karranah village in August 2015 that killed one policeman and injured seven others.  According to ADHRB, his health declined in prison, and from July 2020 until he undertook the hunger strike, he requested medical treatment by a specialist.  On January 11, a prison doctor examined Abdulla and transferred him to Qala’a Hospital to see an orthopedist, who, according to ADHRB, did not order an x-ray.  Abdulla continued to state he was not receiving adequate specialized medical treatment and remained in prison at year’s end.

The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons by sending circulars to mosques, and to summon for questioning clerics who spoke on unapproved topics.  The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse.  According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds that their actions jeopardized national security.  The MOJIA reported reviewing on a weekly basis sermons preachers submitted to the government.  The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques on unannounced visits to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes.  According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.

On August 24, supporters posted on Twitter that authorities summoned Shia chanters Mohamed al-Gallaf, Salih Sahwan, Hasan Norooz, Mahdi Sahwan, and Sayed Ahmed al-Alawi for religious songs they chanted during Ashura and clerics Abdelmohsin al-Jamri, Mohamed al-Rayyash, Hani al-Banna and Aziz al-Khadhran for sermons they gave during Ashura.  The men were released shortly afterwards without charges.  Supporters posted on Twitter that on June 12, Hoora authorities summoned Shaikh Majeed al-Meshaal to the police station; they released him the same day without charges.

International and local NGOs reported that police summoned three Shia clerics in August during the days leading up to and following the commemoration of Ashura.  Authorities interrogated the men because of the content of their sermons and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.”  Authorities released two of the men the day after their detention.  The third cleric remained in police custody at year’s end.

Political opposition figures on social media stated police summoned clerics and community leaders during the year for the content of their sermons or for creating or distributing publications deemed anti-Islamic.  The MOI denied these reports, saying police did not summon or arrest anyone during the year for those reasons.

In January, the family of imprisoned Shia cleric Zuhair Jasim Ashoor, also known as Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Abbas, released a statement describing inhumane treatment by prison authorities.  They said Ashoor experienced extended stays in solitary confinement, beatings, sleep deprivation, limited access to water, death threats, as well as authorities confiscating Ashoor’s religious books, including texts he was writing, and prohibiting him from practicing religious rituals.  Authorities had arrested and convicted Ashoor in 2013 on terrorism charges.  Ashoor’s family stated authorities had tortured him in prison for taking part in a protest inside the prison, a charge the government denied.

According to local social media accounts, on April 20, Jaw Prison authorities allowed Shia scholar Abduljalil al-Meqdad, who was serving a life sentence, temporary release to attend his mother’s funeral.  Authorities sentenced al-Meqdad to life in prison after his arrest in March 2011 with other political figures on charges of attempting to overthrow the government.  At least five of his relatives, including his brother Habib al-Meqdad, continued serving prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.

The MOI stated its community policing program enlisted individuals directly from communities to act as informal community police, with the goals of maintaining local peace and security, resolving local issues at the community level, and avoiding escalating conflicts to law enforcement authorities.  The MOI stated these informal community police monitored religious gatherings and funerals to prevent those gatherings from degenerating into protests or acts of violence.

The NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded one incident of harassment, one incident of threat, and nine incidents in which authorities prevented religious practice during Ramadan, although the NGO did not provide details.  ACLED also reported authorities denied iftar meals to inmates in Jaw Prison.

According to ACLED, authorities regulated Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Power) celebrations by an ad hoc decree issued May 2 that restricted the capacity of mosques and limited attendance to men who had received the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

ADHRB reported that police arrested or summoned for questioning several Shia Muslims related to Ashura observances.  These included multiple summons sent to individuals who had raised black flags on the roofs of their homes during the holy day on August 18, as well as interrogations, arrests, and detentions of, and fines levied against, other members of the community throughout the country.  ADHRB stated, “The violation of fundamental freedoms and religious rites [was] not an isolated occurrence… The pandemic has offered an opportunity to authorities to continue such repression under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19.  This has dangerously extended the powers given to state security forces and has seen the systematic denial of religious freedom in the country.”

In August, family members and supporters posted on Twitter that inmates at Jaw Prison went on a hunger strike to protest religious discrimination and a lack of access to medical facilities, among other complaints.  Some detainees said prison officials, citing COVID-19 mitigation efforts, limited time for practicing Ashura rituals.  The NIHR said, however, authorities gave inmates additional time to practice Ashura rituals in common areas.  Officials confirmed that religious rituals were not permitted in prison cells as a matter of general policy, and that religious commemorations were only permitted in designated prison common areas.

Activists and opposition media outlets criticized the MOI for taking down Ashura banners in Ras Rumman, South Sehla, and Hamad Town.

In a study released in October, ACLED stated Ashura commemorations in the country were “rooted at the community level and bear religious, social, and political meaning” and, “What lies at the core of the dispute between the Sunni regime and Shiite citizens is Ashura’s political potential.”  According to the report, in August, authorities introduced several religious practice restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 that effectively repressed Ashura practice and expression, including limiting attendance at houses of worship to 30 vaccinated adult individuals, and banning children from attending Ashura rituals.  ACLED stated these restrictions were enforced by means of “judicial harassment” (35 incidents) and the removal of Ashura banners (31 incidents).  Authorities arrested and summoned preachers, religious singers, and maatam (a Shia prayer house, sometimes called husseiniya in other countries) directors for taking part in Ashura commemorations.  According to the study, officials denied Shia prisoners the right to celebrate Ashura and punished them if they performed rituals, including with discriminatory acts like preventing them from contacting their families.

Dissolved Shia political society Al-Wifaq issued a report on the government’s actions during the first 10 days of the month of Muharram, which culminate in the observance of Ashura, marking the death of Hussein at the battle of Karbala.  In its statement, Al-Wifaq said security forces summoned Shia scholars, preachers, officials of religious centers, and others during this period and tore down Ashura banners and flags throughout the country.  The statement also said the government used the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict religious activities.  According to Al-Wifaq, the government investigated 100 citizens and arrested three for “practicing their religious freedoms,” and there were 45 government actions that disrupted Ashura rituals, including confiscating banners or flags and other “provocative practices.”

The government stated special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation.  On August 22, the NIHR released a statement on its findings from prearranged visits during Ashura to male and female detention centers.  The NIHR stated officials at these facilities said inmates could practice their religious rites “with ease.”  NIHR stated it spoke at random with inmates who said officials provided them with necessary facilities and services to practice their religious rites.  Independent NGOs, however, cited instances where authorities denied prisoners their right to perform religious rituals.

An overseas-based human rights group stated that in at least one case, a judge prohibited an alternative noncustodial sentencing beneficiary from participating in social, cultural, and religious activities, including visiting mosques and maatams, or attending religious commemorations while serving his sentence.

According to an August 24 report by ADHRB, the National Task Force to Combat COVID-19 (COVID-19 taskforce) announced two days before the start of Muharram that it would allow Ashura processions in the vicinity of mosques and maatams, provided participants observed social distancing and other precautionary measures, such as wearing face masks and regularly using disinfectant.  The ADHRB report stated these precautionary health measures “were supposedly in accordance with recommendations by the government’s medical team…. However, the authorities have instead utilized these measures to whitewash restrictions on religious freedoms in the country, alongside concealing the systematic violation of various other human rights.”  ADHRB also reported that King Hamad’s son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, appeared in media joining in the Indian Onam festival, among large crowds, without employing any obvious public health measures.

Other restrictions on maatams and mosques included a ban on children’s attendance and limits on capacity (30 persons), hours of operation, and geographical boundaries for processions.  Additionally, the government prohibited leaders from moving from one maatam to another.  Some Shia religious leaders and opposition politicians stated these restrictions were stricter than those applied to other public buildings, such as shopping malls.  A video that circulated on social media of a large crowd of spectators at a basketball game caused some members of the Shia community to question whether the COVID-19 taskforce was applying more scrutiny to maatams than other establishments.  Media commentators negatively compared the MOI’s response ahead of Ashura to more permissive government preparations for Hindu and Christian holidays.

Media reported that on August 14, a group of 65 maatams issued a joint statement requesting the COVID-19 taskforce review the requirement to limit Ashura processions to certain areas, saying the requirement contributed to overcrowding and ran counter to the goals of the COVID-19 precautionary measures.

After the observance of Ashura, the King thanked the Shia community on August 19 for taking steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus during observances, saying in a statement that he “praised the awareness and national responsibility shown by everyone during Ashura commemoration towards themselves, their surroundings, and society.”

Women’s prayers halls and restrooms remained closed until the end of September, while male prayers rooms opened in April.  Media reported that on September 5, parliamentarian and head of the Services Committee Ahmed al-Ansari said the continued closure of women’s chapels and toilet facilities and the government’s directive that the Quran should not be opened as anti-COVID-19 measures were not justified when restaurants and shops were open, where groups congregated and were more vulnerable to objects being touched by multiple individuals.  On September 23, the MOJIA announced all female prayer halls and toilet facilities in mosques would reopen, with appropriate health measures in place.

Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications it perceived as criticizing Islam.  The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses.  The MOJIA also reviewed books that discussed religion.

According to representatives from the Christian and Hindu communities, the government did not interfere with their religious observances and publicly encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions.

The government reported there were 598 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni Islamic centers, the same numbers as in 2020.  Authorities decreased the number of licensed Shia mosques to 763 (from 764 in 2020) and increased the number of maatams to 624 (from 618 in 2020).  During the year, the government granted permits to build three Shia mosques, three maatams, and 23 new Sunni mosques.  Authorities temporarily closed 49 Sunni mosques, five Shia mosques, and nine maatams during the year for violating COVID-19 guidelines.  MOJIA closed three older mosques for renovation.

The MOLSD reported it did not receive new requests from religious groups for land or construction permits.  There was no registered Buddhist temple; however, Buddhist groups reported they met in private facilities.

After the completion of construction, the new Catholic cathedral, Our Lady of Arabia, opened in December in Awali.  The government donated the land for the cathedral, intended to serve as the main church for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which includes Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.  As of year’s end, the municipality of Awali had not granted approval for the construction of three proposed Christian churches, citing unspecified security concerns.  In 2014, the King donated land for the churches.

In December, the government allocated land for a new Christian cemetery in Salmabad, acting on the Christian community’s longstanding request since the country’s second Christian cemetery filled its last burial plot in 2014.

The government permitted both registered and unregistered non-Muslim religious communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols such as crosses outside churches.

According to a December 13 report by the Canadian-American magazine Vice, the government did not fulfill its promise to rebuild 38 Shia mosques destroyed in the 2011 uprising.  An ADHRB official told the magazine, “Every year there are instances where they [Shia worshippers] pray on the land of these destroyed mosques and they end up being summoned and forced to sign pledges they won’t do it anymore.”  Another ADHRB official said, “The mosques that have been rebuilt are mainly rebuilt by the community themselves.  A lot of them are not being maintained properly.”  In response to the article, the government said in an email to Vice, “All 30 unlicensed … structures used for religious purposes referred to in your inquiry have been regularized and rebuilt to the standards of other Muslim places of worship in Bahrain (over 1,456 mosques and 625 maatams), except for three which remain under study.”

In March, the Minister of Justice confirmed that maatams were considered places of worship and therefore exempt from paying utility bills.

In November, some commentators declared that a photograph in a 10th grade family education textbook promoting positive self-image and self-esteem deviated from Islamic values by promoting homosexuality.  The photograph showed a boy looking in the mirror surrounded by hearts.  Assistant Undersecretary for Curricula and Educational Supervision Ahlam al-Amer released a statement defending the photograph as linked to Islamic and educational values.  Members of parliament unanimously voted to start a probe into alleged homosexual content in secondary schools and suspend the family education classes until the “offensive” content was removed.

The independent but government-affiliated King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence (King Hamad Centre) reported it offered student exchanges and educational programs centered on dispelling ignorance, discrimination, and intolerance, including religious intolerance.  During the year, the center’s Cyber Peace Academy developed an online “interfaith dialogue tool” and mobile app, Growing Peace, for young persons to explore scenarios and case studies on themes of violence, discrimination, hate speech, racism, and religious rights.  The King Hamad Centre’s Board of Trustees comprised representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities.

The University of Bahrain continued to offer degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students.

All students, regardless of religion, were eligible to participate in the Crown Prince International Scholarship Program (CPISP); the government did not provide a statistical breakdown of participants by religious affiliation.  CPISP published a list of scholarship recipients’ names, fields of study, and schools on its website.  Some Shia community leaders continued to state the MOE favored Sunni students in granting scholarships rather than distributing them based solely on student merit.

Human rights activists continued to report discrimination against Shia students in university scholarship distribution.

There were reports that the MOE refused to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who studied in China.  Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students, a higher proportion of whom obtained degrees in China.

The government-run television station Bahrain TV broadcast Friday sermons from the country’s official Al-Fateh Mosque and other Sunni mosques, such as Sabeeka bint Ebrahim Mosque and Sabeeka al-Nusf Mosque, but not sermons from Shia mosques or clerics.  Some Shia activists said this was discriminatory, while others said it was better not to be subject to government broadcasting restrictions.  Many Shia mosques disseminated sermons via social media.  A government-affiliated human rights monitoring organization said Shia prisoners could view Shia sermon videos on their mobile phones.

On February 6, Shia cleric and the spiritual leader of the dissolved Al-Wifaq political society, Sheikh Isa Qassim, who was stripped of his citizenship by the government in 2016 and had been living in Iran since 2018, issued a statement rejecting the restructuring of the Waqf directorates by royal decree, a move that subordinated the directorates to independent councils.  He stated the move was “illegitimate” and “hostile” to Jaafari jurisprudence.  Qassim also criticized the fact that the budget allocated to the Jaafari Waqf Directorate was dependent on the government.  He characterized both actions as the government’s “manipulation” of the Jaafari Waqf.  In April, Qassim issued a statement that said a new constitution was the only way to resolve the country’s divisions.  In May, hundreds of supporters gathered at Qassim’s home village of Diraz on the anniversary of a 2017 police raid on his home that resulted in the deaths of two protestors.

While by law Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence were eligible to apply for citizenship, arbitrary implementation of the law from the application stage to approval remained a common criticism of both Shia and Sunni citizens, as well as migrant rights activists.  The government stated foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation.  Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to state the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni over Shia applicants.  They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing, while excluding Shia citizens from those forces.  According to Shia community activists, the continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance of the country’s citizens.

The government did not maintain official statistics on the religious affiliation of public sector employees, members of parliament, or ministers.  According to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 19 Shia Muslim members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 19 members were Sunni Muslims.  Following parliamentary elections in 2018, of 40 seats on the elected Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia.  Five of the 22 cabinet members, including one of the four deputy prime ministers, were Shia.

According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to give Sunni citizens preference for government positions, especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service, military, and security services.  They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses.  Few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces.  According to Shia community members, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes favored Sunni candidates.

Shia community members said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities.  The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally.  The MOLSD organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods.

The MOLSD, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the private sector, again said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year.  Shia community activists again responded that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination and therefore did not utilize them.

NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations, with some NGOs describing this as government overreach.  NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.

On July 7, the government announced it had created a new medal for peaceful coexistence named after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to recognize leading personalities and international organizations supporting interfaith and coexistence in the country.  The Board of Trustees of the King Hamad Centre said the medal would “contribute to enhancing regional and global awareness of the importance of respecting religions and accepting others to achieve peace and harmony among different peoples and societies.”

Media reported that on August 22, King Hamad’s son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, participated in the celebration of the Hindu festival of Onam, where he said the observance confirmed the importance of dialogue and understanding in the country.

On September 13, Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments Shaikh Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa, speaking during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Italy, highlighted the importance of establishing the rule of law without differentiating between persons of different beliefs.

The Baha’i World News Service and local media reported that on October 30, Hamad Centre chairman Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa and foreign diplomats attended a ceremony in Manama marking the centenary of the passing of Abdu’l-Baha, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892-1921.

The government said developments connected to the signing of the Abraham Accords and to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel promoted tolerance and acceptance of Jews in Bahrain.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states that no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.”  It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists.  Restrictions on freedom of religion remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), and Iraqi security forces (ISF) committed violence against and harassed members of minority groups, according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  On March 3, parliament passed a law granting special rights, including restitution for damages, to Yezidis and other religious minority survivors of ISIS abuses, and providing for their rehabilitation and integration into society.  Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2019 and 2020.  Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse from members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 50 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS.  In May, parliamentarians publicly warned that pro-Iran PMF forces continued to carry out the forced displacement of Sunnis and Christians with the intent to effect demographic changes in Salah al-Din, Ninewa, and Diyala Provinces.  According to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office, 2,763 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on the north of the country in 2014, compared with 2,874 reported as missing in 2020.  Some religious and ethnic minority leaders, mostly Christians and to a lesser degree, Sabean-Mandeans, Shabak, and Faili Kurds, expressed dissatisfaction with the outcomes of the October 10 parliamentary election, saying powerful political parties encouraged nonminority voters to back candidates for the minority-quota seats, thereby outvoting “legitimate” candidates.  Representatives of minority religious communities, including Christians and Yezidis, said that despite local authorities occasionally verbally harassing them, the central government generally did not interfere with religious observances by members of minority groups.  On March 5-8, national and KRG leaders hosted the first papal visit to the country, during which Pope Francis met with Shia Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali al-Sistani and conducted Christian and interfaith ceremonies in Baghdad, Mosul, and in the IKR.  Government officials and Christian and other minority religious leaders stated the visit helped raise the profile of Christian issues in the country and the importance of its religious diversity.

Minority religious groups, including Christians and Yezidis, said the presence of armed affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar and the Ninewa Plain, as well as continued Turkish airstrikes targeting alleged PKK positions, continued to endanger residents and hinder the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs).  The Yezidi community in Sinjar reported in January and May that the PKK had kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi children to recruit and subject to ideological “brainwashing” in the years since ISIS was defeated in Sinjar in 2015.  It was unclear how many of the kidnappings occurred during the year.  During the year, authorities found three additional mass graves in Diyala, Salah al-Din, and Anbar Provinces containing victims of al-Qa’ida and ISIS, as well as one from the time of the Baathist regime, with more than 210 graves discovered since 2003; according to the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (known as UNITAD), work with international teams to exhume and identify the remains would likely take years.

According to media and human rights organizations, societal violence perpetrated by sectarian armed groups, mainly pro-Iran Shia militias, continued during the year, although there were no documented cases of violence specifically related to religious affiliation in the IKR.  Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when these observances coincided with Shia Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura.  There were continued reports that members of non-Muslim minority groups felt the Muslim majority pressured them to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan.

The U.S. embassy addressed at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects.  These concerns included the presence of armed groups harassing religious groups and promoting and enabling demographic changes, lack of available resources for stabilization and rehabilitation efforts for internally displaced Christians and other minority groups, and general safety concerns.  The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of members of minority religious groups.  Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, Christian, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for these communities and to assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 39.7 million (mid-year 2021).  According to 2010 government statistics – the most recent available – 97 percent of the population is Muslim.  Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population.  Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the Muslim population, of which Arabs constitute 24 percent, Kurds 15 percent, and Turkomans the remaining 1 percent.  Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country.  Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

According to Christian leaders as well as NGO and media reports, fewer than 250,000 Christians remain in the country, down from a pre-2003 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons.  Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East.  The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants.  There are approximately 2,000 members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice secretly.

According to Yezidi leaders, most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country are located in the north, with approximately 150,000 remaining internally displaced as of August, compared with 200,000 to 230,000 remaining displaced as of October 2020.  The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia.  Most Sunni Shabak and some Shia Shabak reside in Ninewa.  According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk as well as in Diyala and Erbil; the KRG estimates there are 225,000 to 250,000 Kaka’i in the IKR.

Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary, but according to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 to 15,000 members remain in the country, mainly in the south, with between 450 and 1,000 living in the IKR and Baghdad.  Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 12,000 Armenian Christians, both Armenian Apostolic Church (Armenian Orthodox) and Armenian Catholic in the country, including in the IKR.  Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 100 families in the IKR.  Leaders of the Kavkaz (the unified name for the Circassians, Chechnya, and Dagestan) community report a population of approximately 50,000 members, located in Baghdad, Ninewa, Sulaymaniyah, Erbil, Kirkuk, and Diyala Provinces.  Most identify as Sunni Muslims who migrated from the Caucasus to Iraq during the wars between the Ottoman and Russian empires following forced displacement.

According to media organizations, following the death by stroke of a Jewish doctor, Dhafer Eliyahu, in March, only four Jewish citizens remain in federal Iraq.  According to unofficial statistics from the KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA), there are possibly as few as 100 to as many as 250 Jewish families in the IKR; Jewish leaders report that most do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution or violence by extremist actors.  According to the KRG MERA, there are approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Zoroastrians in the IKR.  A Zoroastrian religious leader said there are approximately 30,000 Zoroastrians throughout the country.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), approximately 1.2 million persons remain displaced within the country, predominantly in Ninewa, Dohuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Kirkuk Provinces, compared with 1.5 million persons at the end of 2020.  According to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center (JCC), there are approximately 664,909 IDPs in the IKR as of December 2021, compared with 700,000 in 2020.  According to the JCC, there are 247,422 Syrian, 8,746 Turkish, 9,700 Iranian, and 752 Palestinian refugees, and 507 individuals of other nationalities in the IKR.  Forty percent of the IDPs throughout the IKR are Sunni Arabs, 30 percent Yezidis, 13 percent Kurds (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent Christians.  Other minority religious groups comprise the remaining 10 percent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state and a “foundational source” of legislation.  It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.”  It also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam.  The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, specifying Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans; it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists.  Federal law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and prescribes 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone practicing it, although the law is not enforced.  The KRG does not enforce the federal ban as a matter of policy and recognizes the Baha’i Faith as a religion.

The law prohibits takfiri organizations including terrorist organizations al-Qa’ida and ISIS, which declare Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam apostates.  A 2001 resolution prohibits the practice of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief.  Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions.  The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

The constitution guarantees the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this does not apply to Jews who emigrated to Israel and were forced to renounce their Iraqi citizenship under a 1950 Iraqi law.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam.  Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and they require the administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape.  Civil status law allows all women who are identified in their official documents as non-Muslims to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.  Muslim men may only marry women of the Christian, Jewish, or Sabean Mandean faith.

An article of the penal code punishes with up to three years’ imprisonment or a 300 Iraqi dinar fine ($.20) any person who “attacks the creed of a religious minority or pours scorn on its religious practices; willfully disrupts, prevents, or obstructs a religious ceremony, festival, or meeting of a religious minority; wrecks, destroys, defaces, or desecrates a building or sacred symbol set aside for the ceremonies of a religious minority; deliberately misspells texts to alter or make light of the meaning, tenets, or teachings of a book sacred to a religious minority; publicly insults a symbol or a person who constitutes an object of sanctification, worship, or reverence to a religious minority; or publicly imitates a religious ceremony or celebration with intent to deceive.”

IKR law forbids “religious or political media speech, individually or collectively, directly or indirectly, that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, religious, or linguistic claims.”

The law characterizes crimes committed by ISIS against Yezidis, Christians, Turkomans, and Shabak as crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.  A law passed on March 3 by the national Council of Representatives (COR) grants rights to Yezidis and other survivors of ISIS.  These rights include restitution for damages and access to social and medical services, including services that provide for the rehabilitation and integration of victims into society.  Those eligible for these benefits include Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, and Turkoman female survivors who were kidnapped by ISIS; Yezidis, Christians, Shabak, and Turkomans who survived mass killing operations carried out by ISIS; and Yezidi children who were kidnapped by ISIS.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and are registered with the government:  Muslims, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Assyrian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholics, Roman Catholics, National Protestants, Anglicans, Evangelical Protestant Assyrians, Seventh-day Adventists, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandeans, and Jews.  Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions, such as buying and selling property.  All recognized religious groups in the country, except for Yezidis, have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.

There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country:  the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan.  The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

Neither national nor IKR law specifies penalties for the practices of unrecognized religious groups, including Wahhabi Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Yarsanism, other than Baha’is; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not considered legal or admissible as evidence in court.

In areas other than the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition.  In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA.  To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not “anti-Islam.”

Eight faiths are recognized and registered with the KRG MERA:  Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.  According to KRG MERA, individuals from 14 different Christian government-recognized denominations reside in the IKR, including denominations associated with the Chaldean Church, Assyrian Old Eastern Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, Armenian Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Latin Church, Presbyterian Church, Assyrian Protestant Church, Coptic Orthodox Church, and Seventh-day Adventist Church.

According to the KRG MERA’s Directorate of Christian Affairs, there are 12 registered Protestant and evangelical Christian groups in the IKR, several with multiple branches:  Nahda al-Qadassa, Nasari Evangelical, Kurd-Zman, Ashti Evangelical, Evangelical Free, Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, al-Tasbih International Evangelical, Rasolia, United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist.

The law reserves nine of the Council of Representatives’ (COR) 329 seats for members of religious and ethnic minority communities:  five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi, from Ninewa; one for a Sabean-Mandean, from Baghdad; one for an ethnic Shabak, from Ninewa; and one for a Faili Kurd, from Wasit.  Usually one of the COR rapporteur (administrative) positions is designated for a Christian parliamentarian and the other for a Turkoman.  The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic and religious minorities:  five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian, most of whom also belong to minority religious groups.

The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars.  The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the COR for passage, but such legislation has never been passed.

The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and charitable donations.  Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith.  The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and must apply the religious authority’s opinion in court.  In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between members of the same religion, while the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.  Minority religious groups may request a non-Muslim judge to adjudicate their cases.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis but not for the other five registered religions.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups.

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj or Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia.

The constitution provides minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages.  While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac – typically spoken by Christians – and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.”

Government regulations require Islamic instruction in public schools outside the IKR, but non-Muslim students are not required to participate.  In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula include three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students.  The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christians, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

In the IKR, to register with the KRG MERA, private schools need to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and to undergo an inspection.

National identity cards issued since 2016 do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information, and a data chip on the card still contains data on religion.  The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim.  There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslims, or a designation of Christian denominations.  Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian.  Without an official identity card, one may not register a marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services.  Passports do not specify religion.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) reported that during the year it had received hundreds of complaints from relatives of persons detained on terrorism charges, citing claims of arrests based on malicious prosecutions, torture, and forced disappearance.  Sunni leaders said these abuses frequently targeted Sunnis held on terrorism charges.  IHCHR Vice President Ali Mizer al-Jarba said there were allegations that “detainees, most of whom were being prosecuted for terrorism cases, were tortured during pre-trial interrogation.”  He added that detainees’ families had demanded medical examinations to document this torture so that medical records could be used to challenge their indictments in the Court of Cessation.

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals, mostly Sunnis, without due process.  Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections.  Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of having ISIS links.  According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some operating under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia.  The PMF is a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 50 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS.  Human rights activists also said PMF forces operated secret prisons in which they held Sunni individuals on false accusations of ISIS affiliation.  PMF forces reportedly extorted families of the detainees.

Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2019 and 2020.

Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported members of the PMF continued to verbally harass and physically abuse members of religious minority communities.  According to media, from December 2020 through February, Iran-aligned militias operating under the PMF carried out a series of attacks on religious minority-owned businesses in Baghdad, including against Christian and Yezidi-owned alcohol establishments.  Minority community leaders said the attacks were designed to harass vulnerable minority entrepreneurs to pay illicit bribes and protection money to the militias.  In some cases, Muslim business competitors drove minority religious entrepreneurs out of business.

During the year, there was almost no reported progress in locating or rescuing missing Yezidis.  On August 2, authorities in the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office reported 2,763 Yezidis, mainly women and children, were still missing both inside and outside the country, compared with up to 2,874 reported missing in 2020.  According to the Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office, during the period 2014-2021, approximately 100,000 Yezidis left the country, with most moving to Germany and others to Turkey, Greece, Georgia, Armenia, France, the Netherlands, Croatia, the United States, Australia, Hungary, and Bulgaria.  Approximately 62 Christians also remained missing at the end of the year.  According to the KRG MERA, as of August 2, more than 3,550 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or released from ISIS captivity since 2014, compared with 3,543 through 2020.  According to Shabak parliamentarian Mohammed Ibrahim (a Shia of Ninewa), 233 Shabak individuals kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 were still missing.  According to Ninewa Governorate’s Advisor for Women’s Affairs Sukina Ali (a Shia Turkoman of Ninewa), 900 Shia and Sunni Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS were still missing at year’s end.

Sources said some government officials continued to facilitate arbitrary demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, such as Bartella Subdistrict, and Sunni areas in Diyala and Babil Provinces, including Jurf al-Sakhar District in Babil Province.  On August 11, Father Behnam Banoka, a Syriac Catholic Church leader in Bartella District, a Christian majority district in Ninewa Province, reported that member of parliament (MP) Qusay Abas, elected under the Shabak quota, had pressured the Ninewa municipality director to redistribute residential lands in Christian majority Bartella City to Shabak families.  According to Banoka, these ongoing demographic changes and the presence of the 30th PMF (Shabak) in the area were among the main reasons Christian IDPs were not returning to Bartella.  Members of Bartella’s Christian community said the brigade’s efforts to alter demographics negatively impacted their way of life.

According to press, in May, parliamentarian Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned that PMF forces and associated Iranian-backed militias continued to forcibly displace Sunnis in Salah al-Din, Diyala, and Ninewa Provinces.  Dahlaki stated, “Armed factions backed by Iran are constantly practicing demographic change operations with the government’s knowledge, but no one can dare to stop these operations.”  He added, “There are secret prisons for armed factions in Samarra and Jurf al-Sakhr Districts and in Diyala Province that contain Sunni detainees.”  Deputy speaker of parliament Hassan al-Kaabi dismissed these allegations as “inaccuracies” and called for the resignation of Sunni parliamentarian Dhafer al-Ani from Baghdad Province for having presented “inaccuracies” regarding the situation.  In May, al-Ani stated the PMF had carried out demographic changes in Salah al-Din, Ninewa, and Diyala Provinces.  Al-Ani called on the government to investigate and warned against “the continuation of these schemes that lead to the killing of civilians and the looting of the assets of people who have suffered from the crimes of ISIS,” referring to what he said were secret prisons armed PMF factions used in Samarra and Jurf al-Sakhr Districts.

Christian leaders reported that interest in the community in emigrating remained high, though COVID-19 travel restrictions prohibited many from leaving.  On August 6, Chaldean Patriarch in Iraq and the World Raphael Louis Sako released a statement warning of what he said were suspicious efforts to alter demographics in the areas inhabited by Christians in Ninewa Province.  He recommended the government implement a strategy to prevent these changes, warning that more Christians would emigrate if the situation continued.

On November 24, in a speech during Christmas Eve Mass at Saint Joseph Church in Baghdad, Prime Minister Kadhimi encouraged Christians to remain in the country and those who had left to return, stating, “We cannot imagine the Iraqi identity without Christians and other components.”  President Barham Salih wished the Christian community a Merry Christmas via Twitter, affirming his support for Christians who have suffered from the impact of extremism and terrorism.  Salih said the country needed to take a serious stand to establish “a capable state and good governance that upholds the principles of citizenship and protects rights and peaceful coexistence.”  COR Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi sent his best wishes to Christians and hoped for peace and prosperity for the country.

In October, the head of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, Hasan Toran, said the PMF had not allowed Sunni Turkomans to return to their villages in Tuz-Khurmato District, Salah al-Din Province, but the PMF had allowed Shia Turkomans to return.  He stated that in Telafar, Ninewa Province, the PMF continued to verbally harass Sunni Turkomans at checkpoints and required them to obtain the approval of the PMF’s intelligence apparatus to obtain government documentation.  The KRG reported that Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities were victims of demographic changes emanating from the south of Tuz-Khurmato into Kirkuk Province, including in the villages of Matiq and Arab Koye.  These minorities included Kaka’i in Daquq and Mekhas in Khanaqin.

Throughout the year, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam, a Christian, said he continued to resist both federal and provincial-level political pressure to issue land grants in Christian-majority Hamdaniya, Ninewa Province, to the mostly Shia families of PMF fighters who fought ISIS.

Shirko Toufiq, a media official of the 15th Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) headquarters in Diyala, told the Shafaq News Agency on December 7 that “the Iraqi government facilitated the Arabization of Kurdish territories in Diyala by ostracizing and marginalizing the Kurds in security and administrative government positions in the disputed territories in Diyala.”  Toufiq said the actions of ISIS and support of some “Sunni Arab locals” for that group contributed to the defacing and obscuring the cultural identity of 72 Kurdish villages in Diyala and forcing 4,200 Kurdish families to move to the Kurdistan Region or other governorates.  Kaka’i leaders said many of the residents of those villages were also members of their religious minority.

NGOs continued to state that constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.  During the year, however, there were again no court challenges filed to invalidate the laws, and no legislation proposed to repeal them.

Representatives of minority religious groups, including Christians and Yezidis, continued to state that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, local authorities in some regions continued to verbally harass and impose restrictions on their activities.

Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartella and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa.  Local residents continued to say militias posted pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani, as well as of Iraqi militia leaders such as Secretary General of the U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Qais al-Khazali and former Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) Chief of Staff Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on shops in Bartella.  They also stated the 30th Brigade continued to disregard 2019 government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain.

On January 2, the leader of the Shia Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, directed his deputies, including MPs, religious advisors, PMF leaders, and Deputy COR Speaker Hassan al-Kabi, to form a special committee to receive complaints from Christians inside and outside the country regarding their stolen properties and real estate, and he promised in a statement strict legal measures to punish perpetrators; however, although al-Sadr requested tangible results by May, the committee continued working through the end of year.  On October 5, former parliamentarian and current COR Speaker and Advisor for Components (Minority Groups) Affairs Emad Youkhana said Sadr’s committee had managed to return more than 90 properties, but that the committee sometimes used illegal approaches including threats of violence to return these properties.  Youkhana told the press that while the committee set up to address the return of properties was functioning, it was inefficient and weak, and its procedures were too slow and complicated to be effective.

The committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders created in 2019 by the OPM to return all Christian properties in Ninewa Province to their Christian owners continued to operate.

On September 24, Cardinal Sako told media that armed groups had stolen approximately 3,000-4,000 properties or projects that belonged to Christians in Baghdad and other provinces.   On October 6, head of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean Mandaean Endowment Raad Kajaji said that starting in 2017, to prevent others from taking over Christian properties illegally, the government had instructed that no property ownership transactions would be made without the endowment’s approval and needed to be “issued at the request of the owner.”  According to Kajaji, however, the regulation had not been fully successful in stopping illegal property transfers.  Christians of many denominations and residing throughout many parts of the country said the perpetrators sometimes falsified documents certifying themselves as Christians to obtain properties.

According to a high level committee established in 2020 by the KRG Council of Ministers to resolve outstanding land disputes affecting Christian communities, as of November, there were 55 confiscations of properties owned by Christians, as well as reports of individuals forcibly relocated from properties that had belonged to Christians but that had been confiscated by the former Baathist regime.  Of these, 38 cases were adjudicated, or the original owners dropped the charges.  The committee, which includes representatives from the IKP, IKR Presidency, IKR Judicial Council, KRG Ministries of Justice, Agriculture, Municipalities, and Finance, and the head of IKR’s Independent Human Rights Commission, requested immediate compensation for Christians whose lands had been confiscated, for a total of 3.2 trillion dinars ($2.19 billion).  The committee also instructed the Duhok Governorate Council to issue a decree centralizing the purchase and sale of lands and properties located in villages inhabited predominately by Christians.  In October, following pressure from the committee, the Duhok Court of Appeals amended several previous decisions in favor of Assyrian Christian residents of Kashkawa village regarding the ownership of disputed lands.  While Assyrian Christian leaders welcomed the decision, as of October, implementation was still pending with the relevant KRG departments.

Sources reported that Shia militias and the Shia Endowment continued to confiscate properties owned by the Sunni Endowments in Diyala and Ninewa Provinces, leading to sectarian tensions in those provinces.  According to Sunni Endowment representatives, the Shia Endowment confiscated a shrine and cemetery in Baquba District in Diyala, while Shia militias, including AAH, Badr, and Khurasani, turned some Sunni mosques in the province into PMF headquarters.  In Ninewa, the Sunni Endowment stated that the Shia Endowment worked secretly to confiscate properties owned by the Sunni Endowment in Mosul by using false documents or claiming Shia Endowment jurisdiction over the properties based on some of the shrines and mosques bearing Shia religious names.

Kaka’i community members again said the central government’s Shia Endowment continued to occupy places of Kaka’i worship in Diyala and Baghdad, converting them into Shia mosques.  According to Kaka’i representatives, the government had still not responded to their request for the return of the Baba Mahmud House of Worship, taken by the Shia Endowment in 2019.  Kaka’i representatives also reported that the Sunni Endowment continued to occupy Kaka’i houses of worship in Kirkuk.

In October, Christian sources reported the ISF continued to occupy Christians’ houses in Talkayf District, Ninewa Province, and to repurpose them as military barracks.  The sources also reported that the ISF continued to use a youth center as a detention center for ISIS prisoners in Talkayf, intimidating Christians in the district.  In October, Mayor of Talkayf District Bassim Balo said civilians were concerned about the possibility that ISIS forces might attempt to break into the facility and free the ISIS detainees.  He said some Christians had decided to leave the area to avoid ISF searches and restrictions of movement on residents in the area.  According to Balo, the ISF used many houses belonging to Christians without compensating the residents.

According to the KRG MERA, a Zoroastrian temple opened in Erbil in December 2020 with the support of the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs was forced to close during the year because of lack of financial support from the Zoroastrian community to pay the monthly rent on the building.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students.  The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which were intended to accommodate Christian students.  The curriculum in these schools did not contain religious or Quranic studies.  In the IKR, there were 49 Syriac- and 18 Turkoman-language schools.

Christian religious education continued to be included in the curricula of at least 255 public schools in the country, including 55 in the KRG, according to the Ministry of Education.  Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and the lack of religious minority input on school curricula and language of instruction.  One Kaka’i leader reported an incident in December of a student in Erbil being pressured by her teacher in front of her classmates to convert to Islam.

During the year, minority NGOs together with the NGO Minority Alliance Network continued to hold seminars and workshops to discuss curriculum reform in IKR schools, again recommending amendments to the current curriculum to emphasize religious minority rights.  KRG State Minister for Component (Minority) Affairs Ayden Maroof reported the KRG Education Ministry was working to implement a pilot project with NGOs, including the Minority Alliance Network, to convey to students a thorough understanding of important social values that were complementary to Islamic studies in primary and intermediate schools.  Maroof said the project would later extend to high schools.

Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country.  They had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.  During the year, the university was in the process of opening a medical school affiliated with the American University of Beirut and seeking required permission from the IKR.

According to a representative of the Yezidi NGO Yazda, national government and KRG authorities continued to discriminate against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabak, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in the northern part of the country.  In October, Yazda representative Jameel Shumar said Yezidis still faced difficulties if they self-identified as Yezidis rather than as Kurdish Yezidis, especially at IKR checkpoints.  He said IKR authorities denied entry to the IKR of Yezidi politicians known for considering Yezidis a separate group from the Kurds and that only those Yezidis who identified publicly as Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership.  Kaka’i leaders also criticized a lack of representation in local KRG positions.

On June 22, former member of the Ninewa Provincial Council and member of the Yezidi Movement for Progress and Reform Khudaida Khalaf said KDP Peshmerga forces insulted Yezidi tribal leader Khalaf Omar Hamzi and his son while they were passing through checkpoints in Dohuk Province.  According to Khalaf, Peshmerga members asked Hamzi if he was Kurdish or Yezidi.  When he told them he was Yezidi, they shoved him and insulted his use of traditional dress.  Khalaf said these kinds of incidents happened frequently to Yezidis passing through Peshmerga checkpoints, especially to known Yezidi activists.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minority groups, in practice there were still few non-Muslims in the central government Council of Ministers or the KRG Council of Ministers, a situation unchanged from the previous three years.  Members of minority religious communities, including Christians, Yezidis, Kaka’i, and Sabean-Mandeans, continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government – among them Minister of Displacement and Migration Evan Faiq Jabro, a Christian, and KRG Minister of Transportation Communication Ano Abdoka, a Syriac Orthodox Christian.  Several KRG district and subdistrict mayoral positions continued to be reserved for members of religious minority groups, in particular for Yezidis and Christians, and in May, the KRG elected Christian lawyer Muna Yukhna Yaqu to lead the Independent Human Rights Commission of the Kurdistan Region.  Minority leaders, however, said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, and that this overall underrepresentation limited members of minority groups’ access to government-provided economic opportunities.  On October 4, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani announced the KRG had elevated Ankawa, a predominantly Christian suburb of Erbil, to an “autonomous district” of Erbil Province to allow local leaders more administrative control, including the ability to nominate civic leaders, appoint officials, and manage security.

Although the IKP continued to reserve 11 seats for religious and ethnic minority candidates and the national COR reserved nine seats for religious and ethnic minority candidates, the law did not restrict who could vote in quota seat races.  Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that aligned with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority populations said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the minority quota seats and diluted the voice of members of minority groups in government, while others opposed restricting who could vote in quota seat races.  Religious minority leaders, including Christians and Yezidis, also expressed their dissatisfaction with the election arrangements and their wish to restrict quota seats only to minority voters.  According to religious and ethnic minority leaders, particularly Christians and, to a lesser degree, Sabean-Mandeans, Shabak, and Faili Kurds, national-level politicians and parties and the IKR’s powerful political parties instructed non-Christian voters to vote for religious minority quota candidates loyal to the parties they wanted to win the October 10 parliamentary election, outvoting “legitimate” minority quota candidates.  Christian parliamentarians Rehan Hana and Yonadam Kanna and other minority representatives and religious leaders supported restricting quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity and/or religion, while Christian parliamentarians affiliated with Shia political coalition parties drawing votes from Shia-majority provinces opposed imposing restrictions.

The COR was once again unable to pass a new law regulating the number and selection of judges following unexpected vacancies on the Federal Supreme Court bench beginning in late 2020.  In March, the COR amended existing legislation to replace the entire bench.  As a result, the only Christian judge on the court was removed, and a new position of Secretary General was created, which was filled by a different Christian judge.  Efforts to add Islamic jurists to the bench faced resistance from multiple parties in the COR, especially religious minorities, while some political analysts contended that every Iraqi judge was an Islamic jurist by virtue of his or her training in Islamic law.

On December 9, Cardinal Sako said the main obstacle to the consolidation of the democratic process in the country was the sectarian approach of political parties and the quota system, which designates seats in parliament along ethnic, religious, and sectarian lines, and which also applies to the distribution of positions in government institutions.  Sako said sectarianism fueled corruption, poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy, pointing out that the number of Christians in the country had fallen to fewer than 500,000, while it was more than 1.5 million before 2003.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as PMF “taxation” on goods transported from Erbil or Mosul into the Ninewa Plain.  Sabean-Mandeans, Yezidis, and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits, despite receiving permits.  Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean store owners, especially those operating with alcohol sales licenses, reported PMF militias blackmailed and attacked them.  The ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol.  Community sources reported the continuing practice of Muslim businessmen using Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.

Yezidi community leaders reported that the government continued to require Yezidi female captives of ISIS, who were repeatedly raped and bore children, to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain identification cards, passports, and other governmental services – in part because the Yezidi community did not consider these children to be Yezidi.  The Yezidi religion traditionally requires a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered a member of the community.  According to political party Patriotic Union of Kurdistan COR parliamentarian Rezan Sheikh Dier, efforts to pass a law entitled “My name is my mother’s name” continued during the year.  If passed, the bill would allow a mother’s religion to be passed down to her child.  In August, IKR NGOs and artists launched a campaign to support the draft law, but they said media and some members of the community, especially more traditional Muslims, objected to the bill.

During the year, the NGOs Christian Aid Program Nohadra for Humanitarian Aid in Iraq (CAPNI) and the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization continued to seek amendments to the national identification card law requiring minor children to be listed as Muslim on the identification application form if one parent had converted to Islam.  The NGOs said the law was a “flagrant violation” of the rights on non-Muslims in the country.

In an October report on civil documentation, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that different patterns of rights violations emerged.  The report stated, “Sometimes, the right of IDPs and returnees to obtain documentation is deliberately denied by security actors, especially for persons with perceived affiliation to extremist groups, who are usually subjected to multiple requirements related to security clearance and to family denunciation processes.  In most cases, authorities are unable to effectively provide documentation due to limited operational resources dedicated to the Civil Affairs Directorates and to administrative regulations not being adapted to the specific situation of IDPs and returnees.”  This lack of access to documentation affected many IDPs, including those who were members of religious minorities, such as Yezidis and Christians.

On September 22, Muna Yako, head of the Independent Human Rights Commission in the IKR, called on the KRG, Christian churches, and human rights organizations to help a divorced Christian woman.  Yako reported that the woman’s husband had converted to Islam following their divorce, thereby automatically legally converting their 10-year-old son to Islam and giving the father custody.  Yako said IKR political parties did not consider these cases important and had not updated the relevant laws.  Former Christian MP, COR Speaker, and Advisor for Components Affairs Emad Youkhana said Christian politicians and churches often asked the IKP to amend the national identification card law, but he said politicians and leaders lacked the will to change laws.

According to Christian leaders, authorities continued to force Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another non-Islamic faith to either register their children as Muslims, or to have the children remain undocumented by federal authorities, thereby denying them the ability to legally convert from Islam.  They said that remaining undocumented affected the family’s eligibility for government benefits, such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which are determined by family size.  Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.  In November, media reported that a Christian woman said she had converted to Islam to obtain a divorce because it was difficult as a Christian to obtain church permission to divorce.  At the time of her conversion, her sons and daughters were minors.  When she tried to renew their official papers, she discovered that her children had also been converted to Islam by law.

Zoroastrian, Kaka’i, and Baha’i leaders again reported that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by members of unrecognized religious minority groups due to the country’s constitution and its personal status law.

Based on local media reports during the year, social recognition of the genocide that ISIS committed against the Yezidis continued to grow.  Cross-sectarian genocide commemoration events took place on August 3 for the fourth consecutive year.  On August 3, KRG Prime Minister Barzani issued a statement on the seventh anniversary of the genocide that said, “On this painful anniversary, the KRG will continue its efforts to return displaced Yezidi to their areas with dignity, and we are also working with the federal government and the international community on the reconstruction of Sinjar and the rest of the Yezidi areas.”  On August 3, Prime Minister Kadhimi said, “The Iraqi people are commemorating the seventh anniversary of the heinous crime of ISIS against our Yezidi people at the hands of ISIS.  The Yezidi portfolio is one of the government’s priorities.  The government will not spare any effort in supporting the Yezidi survivors and in preparing a government program for their rehabilitation, in addition to the government’s effort to return the IDPs to their areas and to provide all forms of assistance for the stability and reconstruction of their areas.”

On July 15, Yezidi MP Khaleda Khalil (KDP) stated that a group of political parties had worked to stop progress on a proposed law to help Yezidi survivors of ISIS in the COR for political reasons.  She said this delay was “on the pretext that they [the group of political parties] had mentioned the genocide in an article in the Yezidi Survivors’ Law as if the genocide of our people, the Yezidis, deserves nothing more than a mention in a few words that do not entail any legal action.”  In October 2020, Khalil submitted a bill to the Iraqi COR presidency to recognize the 2014 Yezidi killings as genocide, stating that the law would compel the government to take responsibility for the victims, strengthen accountability for those who committed crimes against humanity, and provide psychological and medical care as well as reparations to the victims and survivors of ISIS crimes.

During an August 16 visit to Ninewa Province as part of an initiative to encourage members of minority religious groups to remain in the country, Prime Minister Kadhimi renewed his calls to Iraqi Christians and other minorities abroad to return to the country and take part in rebuilding it.  Kadhimi also said Sinjar would shine in the country’s history as witness to the strength of Yezidis in the face of the brutality of ISIS terrorists.  According to Kadhimi, the government was working on implementing the Sinjar Agreement of October 2020, which, he promised, would facilitate reconstruction in the area and restore social cohesion in its communities.  He also stated the government was sparing no efforts to end the displacement of Yezidis and locate those still missing.

On January 25, Ammar al-Hakim, the head of the Hikma Trend political party, called for the voluntary return of all members of minorities to their respective areas of origin.  On July 2, al-Hakim stressed the importance of the ethnic and religious diversity in minority areas and the importance of imposing government control to ensure their safety.  After a January 25 meeting in Baghdad with the religious leader of the Sabean-Mandaean community, Sheikh Sattar Jabbar Helou, President Salih stated that Sabean-Mandeans were an essential part of the national social fabric.

Followers of recognized religious groups, including Baha’is (recognized only in the KRG) and Yezidis (recognized by both the central government and the KRG), reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays and festivals without interference or intimidation.  Provincial governments also continued to designate festivals as religious holidays in their localities.

Some militias in Ninewa continued to draw their members from local Yezidi and Christian communities but remained subordinate to larger organizations – the PKK in the case of the YBS (Sinjar Resistance Units), for example, and larger Iran-aligned militias in the cases of the 30th (Shabak) and 50th (Christian) PMF Brigades.  According to Yezidi and Christian officials, some militias continued to receive support from the central government in Baghdad through the PMC, which oversees PMF forces, while others received assistance from the KRG.  Representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean parliamentarians, continued to state they sought a role in their own security and had requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities.  Others asked to join regular law enforcement units, but by year’s end, none had done so because the government had not implemented a recruitment process.

In October 2020, the central government and KRG reached an agreement on cooperation with the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq on a framework for the security and political administration of Sinjar District, as well as forming a joint committee from the central government and KRG to reconstruct Sinjar with the local administration of Ninewa Province.  Yezidi leaders and community members criticized the agreement, saying they did not have enough involvement in the negotiations and remained apprehensive about the progress of implementation.  On July 18, former Ninewa Provincial Council Speaker Sedo Jato and a Yezidi MP representing the KDP in Sinjar said, “Ten months after signing the Sinjar Agreement between the Iraqi government and IKR government under UN supervision, only one aspect of the agreement has been implemented:  recruiting new Yezidi and Arab residents into the Sinjar police.”  Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert characterized the implementation as “slow” in an August 30 statement and called on the central government, KRG, and concerned parties in Sinjar to be more serious in implementing the agreement because it was in the best interest of the residents of Sinjar District, Ninewa Province, and of all Iraqis.  On August 30, National Security Adviser Qassem al-Araji announced that the government had formed a security force for Sinjar District in northern Ninewa Province composed of 2,500 local citizens, as required by the Sinjar Agreement.  According to the head of the Sinjar Council, Falah Hassan, however, the force had not yet deployed as of year’s end.  Yezidi leaders and activists cited the lack of progress in implementing the plan or improving the security situation in Sinjar as major impediments to the ability of internally displaced Yezidis to return to their homes.

In March, during the first papal visit to the country, Pope Francis met with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and conducted Christian and interfaith ceremonies in Baghdad, Mosul, and the IKR.  Christian and other religious and ethnic minority leaders stated the visit helped raise the profile of Christian issues in the country and the importance of its religious diversity.  Prime Minister Kadhimi applauded Pope Francis’ visit as a great success and called on the Iraqi people and others to form a dialogue of understanding and tolerance.  “The Pope’s message reached all over the world as he travelled with a heart full of hope in the beloved cities of Iraq.  Our people’s message reached all the peoples of the earth,” Kadhimi said.

The Sunni and Shia endowments continued to accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj.  The council, attached to the OPM, organized a lottery to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas.  Lottery winners paid differing amounts to the government depending on their mode of travel for the Hajj, 3.7 million dinars ($2,500) by land and 4.8 million dinars ($3,300) by air.  In the IKR, the KRG MERA organized Hajj and Umrah travel, administering a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR and coordinating flights and visas with outside authorities.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: Israel

West Bank and Gaza

Executive Summary

The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation.  The 1992 Basic Law:  Human Dignity and Liberty describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state.”  The 2018 Basic Law:  Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People determines, according to the government, that “the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.”  In September, the Lod District Court sentenced Zion Cohen to three years in prison for carrying out a series of 2020 arson bombings of religious courts.  On June 9, according to press reports, police arrested 12 protesters who threw heavy objects towards them in a protest by a small ultra-Orthodox sect near Bar-Ilan Street in Jerusalem against the construction of part of the city’s light rail through an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.  Clashes broke out in April and May with “Day of Rage” demonstrations throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem against Israeli actions in Sheikh Jarrah, the Damascus Gate, and the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  On April 13, on the evening of the first day of Ramadan, media and officials from the Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem, which administers the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, reported that the Israeli National Police entered the site and disconnected loudspeakers used for the call to prayer after the Waqf’s call to prayer disrupted an official Memorial Day service for fallen soldiers attended by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the adjacent Western Wall Plaza.  During the last Friday of Ramadan on May 7 and again on May 10, Israeli police entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount using teargas, stun grenades, and rubber tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians they said were throwing rocks.  While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities periodically banned individual Palestinian residents of the occupied territories, and Arab/Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel from the site.  The government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the site, but non-Muslim visitors were allowed.  Some religious minority groups said the police were not interested in investigating attacks on members of their communities.  The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate.  As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country.  Some Jewish individuals and groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount despite the longstanding historical norms against overt non-Islamic prayer there.  On July 8, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 10-to-one, rejected 15 petitions challenging the Basic Law of Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (Nation State law).  The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups but stated that members of unrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion.  Members of some religious minorities said that the government did not provide the same service and benefits to them as to the country’s majority Jewish population.

During a one-week period in May, amid tensions in Jerusalem and violence in Gaza, ethnic-based violence and civil unrest broke out in a number of mixed Jewish-Arab cities in the country, leading to multiple deaths and injuries.  The violence during the unrest included gunfire, stone throwing by protesters (both Jewish and Arab/Palestinian citizens), arson attacks on synagogues, desecration of Muslim gravestones, and vandalism of automobiles.  The Israel National Police (INP) made approximately 1,550 arrests during and after the unrest with the overwhelming majority of the arrestees being Arab/Palestinian citizens.  On May 12 in the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Lod, Jews shot and killed Moussa Hassouna in clashes between residents.  Later on May 12, Arab/Palestinian citizens in Lod stoned the car of Jewish resident Yigal Yehoshua who died on May 17 after being hit in the head with a thrown brick.  In the northern city of Acre on May 11, Arab/Palestinian citizens set fire to a hotel leading to the death of 84 year-old retiree Aby Har-Even on June 6.  On May 19, teenager Mohammed Mahamid Kiwan died after he was shot on May 18 at the Mei Ami junction on Route 65.  His family said police were responsible.  In April, during the period leading up to the unrest, Palestinian youths in Jerusalem physically attacked ultra-Orthodox individuals and posted videos of the attacks on the social media app TikTok.  On July 1, police arrested Palestinian Jerusalemites for defiling graves in the Har Hamenuchot Cemetery while filming themselves on TikTok.  Jewish individuals and groups continued to engage in nationalist violent hate crimes against Palestinians and their property in the West Bank and Arab/Palestinians in the country, (which the attackers called “price tag” attacks to exact a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests).  Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), housing, public transportation, participation in the workforce, and adherence to COVID-19 regulations.  In its annual Israel Religion and State Index poll of 800 adult Jews published in September, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Hiddush reported that 65 percent of respondents identified as either secular (48 percent) or traditional not religious (17 percent), the same result as in the 2020 poll.

In meetings with Israeli government officials, the Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. embassy officials stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups.  Numerous high-level U.S. officials made formal stops at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance site, to keep a public spotlight on antisemitism and highlight religious tolerance.  Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the historic status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and conveyed this message in meetings with government officials.  Throughout the year, embassy officials used social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.  Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated a shared society for Arab and Jewish populations.  The embassy also promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnerships by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience, and through engagements aimed at greater integration of the Arab minority into the broader national economy, especially the high-tech sector.

This section of the report covers Israel within the 1949 Armistice Agreement line as well as Golan Heights and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war and where it later extended its domestic law, jurisdiction, and administration.  The United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 2019.  Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.8 million (midyear 2021).  According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) classification system (2020 data), approximately 73 percent of the population is Jewish, 18 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 1.6 percent Druze.  The remaining 5 percent consists of those the CBS classifies as “other.”  This includes those who identify as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” that the government uses for civil procedures, such as many immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  There are also relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaite Jews, Messianic Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Baha’i Faith.  The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab/Palestinian origin.  This includes approximately 77 percent of the country’s 182,000 Christians, according to the CBS as of December.  Non-Arab/Palestinian Christians are mainly those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s as descendants of Jews or alongside Jewish family members and their descendants.

According to the annual religion and state poll conducted by religious freedom NGO Hiddush, 57 percent of Jewish citizens do not affiliate with any religious group, 19 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 11 percent “ultra-Orthodox,” 6 percent “Reform,” 5 percent “Conservative,” and 2 percent “National Orthodox.”

The Arab/Palestinian Muslim, Druze, and Christian communities are located throughout the country.  In the Galilee region, some communities are homogenous, while others feature a mix of these groups.  There are dozens of Muslim-majority communities in the Negev.  In addition to an Alawite community in Ghajar, there are several Druze communities in the Golan Heights.

In 2019, the most recent year for which results are available, the CBS and the Jerusalem Institute estimated 563,200 Jews, 345,800 Muslims, and 16,150 Christians lived in the current municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 936,400 as of 2019.

According to government and NGO data, there are approximately 330,000 foreign workers in the country, including 97,000 documented Palestinian workers; 31,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; 98,000 migrant workers with permits, 77,000 non-Palestinian undocumented workers (either migrant workers without a permit or tourists who overstayed their visa); and 31,000 asylum seekers, of whom an unknown number work.  Foreign workers and asylum seekers include Protestants, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims.  According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population include 19,000 Filipinos, 15,000 Indians, 5,655 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 individuals from other South American countries.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Although the country has no constitution, a series of “Basic Laws” enumerate fundamental rights, which serve as the country’s constitutional foundation.  The 1992 Basic Law:  Human Dignity and Liberty describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion.  The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law, which applies to citizens and Palestinian residents.

The Basic Law:  Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People (Nation State Law)” recognizes “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel” as “unique to the Jewish People” and calls for promotion of “Jewish settlement” as a national value.  The law recommends – but does not require – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedent.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is the supreme religious authority in the country and the law provides its council with authorities to handle Jewish religious services and rule on matters involving halacha (Jewish religious law).  The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.

Until March 1, the Chief Rabbinate retained the sole authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, although the government provided funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs.  Relatives of Jewish converts could not receive residency rights, except for the children of converts born after the parent’s conversion was complete.  On March 1, the Supreme Court ruled that the government must recognize Conservative and Reform conversions performed in the country for the purpose of immigration, citizenship, and registration.

The Population and Immigration Authority of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) recognizes Conservative and Reform conversions in the country for the purpose of being registered as Jewish in the population registry.  However, those who convert through a non-Orthodox denomination, whether inside or outside the country, are not able to obtain such religious services as marriage, divorce, or burial in a Jewish cemetery.  Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under this law regardless of the religious beliefs under which they were raised.  The law considers those who were eligible for immigration and converted as adults to another religious tradition, including Messianic Judaism, as no longer eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.

The Law of Return provides the right for any Jew, including those who converted to Judaism, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children.  Under the law, the minor children of a grandchild of a Jew receive humanitarian status but are not automatically granted citizenship.  Non-Jews who are not descendants of Jews do not have this route to immigration.  Under this law, those who completed an Orthodox Jewish conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry.  Those who completed conversion to Judaism in a recognized community outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism.

The law recognizes only Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze faith, and the Baha’i Faith.  Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal.  The Anglican and Baha’i communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government.  The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct religious communities.  The two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period, include petitioning either the Prime Minister’s Office or the MOI.  Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.

Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status laws.  Municipalities may levy property taxes on religious properties not used for prayer, such as schools, monasteries, pilgrim hostels, and soup kitchens.

Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze.  The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils that oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities.  The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder.  The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze.  The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs annually convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities.  The council did not meet in 2021 and 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the last meeting took place in 2019, and it is planned to convene again in 2022.

The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions that “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment).  Certain religious sites considered antiquities receive further protection under the antiquities law.  The Ministry of Tourism is responsible for the protection and upkeep of selected non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains selected Jewish religious sites.  The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” regarding their religious sites.  The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites.

The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting.  It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment for violations.  Government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.

The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups.  The law criminalizes statements demeaning, degrading, or showing violence toward someone based on race, but provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless there is proof of intent to incite racism.  The infliction of “injury to religious sentiments” constitutes a criminal offense and is punishable by one year’s imprisonment.  Such injury includes publishing or saying something that is liable to offend the religious sentiment or faith of others.

The law states that acts of enmity towards a person or a group due to religious affiliation with or membership in a religious group are considered offenses under aggravating circumstances, and penalties are set at double the penalty for the original offense or 10 years imprisonment, whichever is the lesser penalty.

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administers the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled since 1993 that Jews have the right to pray on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but police may restrict this right in the name of public order and safety.  The court reiterated in 2019 that its precedent on this issue is nonintervention in government decisions, “except in highly unusual cases when the decision constitutes a major distortion of justice or is extremely unreasonable.”  The court upheld this position again in a decision in 2020.

The law prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the country’s 1948 War of Independence.  Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”

The law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the Prime Minister for travel to countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel, including Hajj travel to Saudi Arabia; the government issues these permits in the vast majority of cases.  Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.

It is illegal to proselytize to a person younger than 18 without the consent of both parents.  The law prohibits offering a material benefit to potential converts while proselytizing.

The government provides separate public schools for Jewish and Arab/Palestinian children, with instruction conducted in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively.  For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families.  Individual families may choose any public school for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance.  Minor children have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference.  By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semiprivate) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System.

Churches receive partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools.  Palestinian residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction.  Some Israeli-funded public schools in Jerusalem use the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum.  Religious education is part of the PA curriculum for students in grades one through six in these schools, with separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians.  Students in these schools may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses.

The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards.  The law provides for the right of any individual to burial in a civil ceremony and requires the government to establish civil cemeteries in various areas around the country.  The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.

Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial.  The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry.  A law mandating women’s equality contains language that explicitly exempts matters of marriage, divorce, and appointments to religious positions.

The only domestic marriages with legal standing and that may be registered are those performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities.  Marriages performed outside of the country may be registered with the MOI.  Members of some unrecognized groups may process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, only through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities, if those authorities agree.

The law imposes a two-year prison sentence for persons who conduct a marriage or are married in a Jewish wedding or divorce outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority in the country.

Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases when the husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion.  Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce.  Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts.  Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of interfaith and same-sex couples.

Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under the parallel jurisdiction of religious and civil courts.  The first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it.  The Jordanian Waqf administers Islamic courts in Jerusalem for Muslim residents, with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Jordan having appellate authority.

In accordance with halacha, a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country.  While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses.  In such cases, rabbinical courts may impose community-based punishments on the husband, including avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public.  The law permits rabbinical courts to hear cases of get refusals in which the spouses are not Israeli citizens, if certain other conditions are met (for example, if the couple lives abroad in a location where there is no rabbinical court).

Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement.  Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review.  The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which differs from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters.  A child born to a woman still married to another man is considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which restricts the child’s future marriage prospects in the observant Jewish community.

Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late nineteenth century).  The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) do not consider conscientious objection on the basis of religious belief as a reason for exemption from military service.

Religious Jewish women and ultra-Orthodox men may request an exemption from military service.  For most ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Druze religious students, military service is postponed for several years, after which they receive an exemption.  A petition on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men was pending at the Supreme Court as of the year’s end.  Arab Muslims and Christians as well as Druze and Circassian women receive a de-facto exemption by not being called for military service.  Those exempt from military service may volunteer for it or for national civil service.  Members of Jehovah’s Witnesses are not eligible for the national civil service program.

Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children unless a person changes it through a formal conversion to another recognized religion.  Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.

All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion).  Approximately 450,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized are recorded as “lacking religion.”  The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent.

The Law of Citizenship and Entry, first passed in 2003 and renewed annually, explicitly prohibited residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the MOI makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.

The law declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest.  The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed.  There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries.  The law instructs the Minister of Labor and Welfare to take into account “Israel’s traditions,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat.  The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation, including against employees, contractors, or persons seeking employment based on age, race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and disability.

The law states that public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.

The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut (i.e., complying with Jewish dietary laws), which certify a restaurant or factory’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws.  Businesses are allowed to display a declaration regarding the kashrut standards they observe and the organization that supervises those standards but may not use the words “kosher” or “certificate” without a kashrut license from the rabbinate.  The Chief Rabbinate has the authority to indicate businesses that violate this law.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the covenant.

Government Practices

Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

In September, the Lod District Court sentenced Zion Cohen to three years in prison for carrying out a series of bomb attacks on rabbinical courts; it also ordered him to pay a 10,000-shekel ($3,200) fine.  Authorities arrested Cohen in 2020 in connection with the attacks.  Cohen confessed and said his aim was to prevent the courts providing religious services to the secular public to further his goal of separating religion and state.

On June 9, according to press reports, police arrested 12 demonstrators who threw heavy objects towards them in a protest by a small ultra-Orthodox sect near Bar-Ilan Street in Jerusalem; the group was protesting the construction of part of the city’s light rail system through an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.  On August 24, approximately 300 ultra-Orthodox demonstrators gathered at the Bar-Ilan junction intersection, blocking the road, to protest the light rail line’s construction.  Police used water cannons to disperse the crowd.  Authorities said that they arrested four individuals for disturbing the peace and that one police officer was injured by pepper spray.  According to press, the protesters said the construction of the rail line was a “decree of expulsion and annihilation” aimed at Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community.

Clashes broke out in April and May with “Day of Rage” demonstrations throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem against Israeli actions in Sheikh Jarrah, Damascus Gate, and the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  The Palestinian National and Islamic Factions in the West Bank called on Palestinians across West Bank cities, villages, and refugee camps to participate in a “Day of Rage” on May 11 to protest actions by Israeli security forces and Israelis living in East Jerusalem against Palestinians at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound and in Sheikh Jarrah.

According to press and NGO monitors, multiple events related to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount contributed, along with other factors, to escalations resulting in unrest and conflict across Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.  On April 13, on the evening of the first day of Ramadan, media and Waqf officials reported that the Israeli National Police entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and disconnected loudspeakers used for the call to prayer after the Waqf’s call to prayer disrupted an official Memorial Day service for fallen soldiers attended by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the adjacent Western Wall Plaza.

On June 17, the government charged a police officer, whose name was not released, with reckless homicide in the 2020 killing of Iyad Halak, an autistic Palestinian man, in Jerusalem’s Old City.  Following an investigation, the Ministry of Justice said that Halak had not posed any danger to police.  At Halak’s funeral, the press reported that mourners chanted, “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of [the Prophet] Mohammed will return,” a taunt referring to the seventh century Muslim massacre and expulsion of the Jews of Khaybar.

During the last Friday of Ramadan on May 7, Israeli police entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount using teargas, stun grenades, and rubber tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians they said were throwing rocks.  Media reported that in the aftermath, Palestinians stockpiled stones on the compound for use against the police and far-right Israeli nationalists planning to march through the Old City.  On May 10, Israeli police entered the compound again and used stun grenades, teargas, and rubber tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians.  The Palestinian Red Crescent said that more than 300 individuals suffered injuries.  In an attempt to ease tensions and reduce potential for clashes, Israeli police temporarily barred non-Muslims from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

On December 13, authorities released Raed Salah, the head of the outlawed northern branch of the Islamic Movement, from Megiddo Prison, where he served 17 months of a 28-month sentence for incitement to terrorism in 2019 when he preached at the funeral for three terrorists who were involved in the killing of police officers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  A crowd of approximately 1,000 supporters greeted Salah upon his return to his home in Umm al-Fahm.  On December 20, Knesset member (MK) Mazen Ghnaim, a member of the Ra’am Party and the ruling coalition, met with Salah, which caused opposition politicians to state that Ghnaim was “supporting terrorism.”

On February 2, former Yitzhar settlement Yeshiva Rabbi Yosef Elitzur was convicted of incitement to violence for publishing articles in 2013 calling on Jews to rise up against Palestinian violence and calling on authorities not to arrest those who committed violent hate-filled attacks against Palestinians in what the attackers called “price tag” attacks (attacks with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions by the government contrary to the attackers’ interests).  According to the prosecution, Elitzur was also one of the authors of a book stating the killing of non-Jews is permitted according to halacha.  On March 18, Elitzur was sentenced to four months’ probation and a fine.  On May 5, the prosecution appealed the sentence, and demanded a sentence of nine months’ imprisonment.  The appeal was pending as of the year’s end.

The government continued to allow controlled access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  The government expressed continued support for the post-1967 status quo pertaining to the site to allow non-Muslim visitors but prohibit non-Islamic worship there, while stating that Israel respected Jordan’s “special role” at the site, as reflected in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty.  The Waqf said that Israeli authorities continued to interfere in the Waqf’s administration of the site, including delaying longstanding maintenance and restoration work.  Israeli officials and activists again stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities.  In addition to the police banning individual Waqf staff members from the site, the Waqf said that it had a reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff hired to work there, leaving the Waqf seriously understaffed.

On October 5, the Jerusalem Magistrate Court ruled that “silent Jewish prayer” on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount did not violate existing police rules on the site.  The ruling was in response to a case involving a 15-day administrative restraining order against a man whom police had removed from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on September 29 on grounds that he disturbed public order by engaging in Jewish prayer.  The judge ruled that silent prayer “does not in itself violate police instructions,” which prohibit “external and overt” non-Islamic prayer on the site.  Al-Monitor said the Magistrate’s Court’s ruling was “unprecedented” and “seem[ed] to question the status quo that has prevailed over the site.”  The Jerusalem District Court overturned the lower court’s ruling on October 8, ruling that the INP had acted “within reason,” and “the fact that there was someone who observed [him] pray is evidence that his prayer was overt.”  Minister of Public Security Omer Bar-Lev supported the appeal, saying “a change in the status quo will endanger public security and could cause a flare-up.”  The Waqf said the lower court’s ruling was “a flagrant violation” of the complex’s sanctity and a “clear provocation” for Muslims.

In April during the beginning of Ramadan, Israeli authorities restricted the number of Palestinians allowed to enter Jerusalem from the West Bank for the purpose of traveling to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to 10,000 vaccinated persons because of “high morbidity rates” from coronavirus in the West Bank.  Israeli military authorities said the measures were to allow freedom of worship and religion, while also preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the area.

In December, the press reported that a religious extremist group had invoked halachic law in calling for the killing of Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana.  Haaretz said the exact identity of the group was unknown, but other sources stated it was “a religious extremist fringe group.”  According to the newspaper, sources tied the threats to Kahana to several religious reforms he promoted, including regarding conversions, kashrut certification, a compromise with non-Orthodox Jewish movements on an egalitarian (mixed gender) prayer space at the Western Wall, and his participation in a government that excluded ultra-Orthodox parties.  The country’s security service, Shin Bet, stated it viewed the threat as an immediate danger to Kahana and ordered bodyguards and security for the Minister as soon as the threat was discovered.

On June 22, Channel 13 News reported that Minister of Public Security Omer Bar Lev (Labor) and Chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Ram Ben Barak (Yesh Atid) requested assistance from the Attorney General and the Minister of Defense in defining as a terror organization Lehava (an acronym for “prevention of assimilation in the Holy Land,” which also translates as “flame”), described by press as a radical right-wing Jewish supremacist group.  These officials further asked the Minister of Defense and the Attorney General to outlaw Lehava as well as the registered NGO that funds it, The Fund for Saving the People of Israel.  According to the Anti-Terrorism Law, the Minister of Defense, with the approval of the Attorney General, has the authority to designate an organization as a terrorist group.  On September 12, a group of prominent rabbis, described in the press as religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox, signed a petition protesting this initiative, stating that Lehava was within its rights to protest intermarriage, acted in accordance with the law and the Torah, and was not involved in violence or illegal activity.  Following the petition, NGO Tag Meir, an umbrella of Jewish groups working to monitor and counter hate crimes and religion-based racism in the country, urged the government to declare Lehava a terrorist organization.

Due to elections in March and the change in government in June, the Supreme Court postponed until January 6, 2022, the implementation of a 2017 verdict that struck down the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service.  This was the 10th time the court postponed the implementation.  On August 22, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a draft bill calling for the gradual increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox men serving in the IDF.  The bill includes yearly benchmarks for ultra-Orthodox serving in the military and a deduction in government support for yeshivas if those benchmarks are not achieved.

While some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of religious beliefs, the Ministry of Defense rejected this argument.  The IDF reported increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox recruits since at least 2011, mainly into dedicated ultra-Orthodox units such as the Netzah Yehuda Battalion.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi Bridge and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall Plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers.  Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs.  On November 4, the Supreme Court criticized the government for its lack of progress upgrading the area to a more permanent egalitarian prayer space.  On December 7, the government told the Supreme Court it intended to continue to upgrade the egalitarian plaza but did not mention steps it would take towards further equality and recognition included in the 2016 Western Wall Agreement.  The 2016 agreement was a compromise between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities, which the government “froze” in 2017, that included the construction of a permanent plaza for mixed gender prayer managed by non-Orthodox groups, and a merged entry to all prayer spaces adjacent to the Western Wall.  The government requested to update the court on developments within six months.

The Supreme Court case was a combination of lawsuits against the government, some dating back to 2013, that would allow prayer for all religious streams of Judaism at the Western Wall.  It resulted in the 2016 Western Wall Agreement.  In 2018, a special government committee approved expansion of the temporary platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements.  The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill their 2016 agreement with the government.  In addition, observers stated that scaffolding prevented visitors from touching the sacred wall in the egalitarian prayer space since a rock fell there in 2018.  Over the same period, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation managed large construction projects in the main plaza, making routine inspections for loose rocks at the main plaza without blocking access to the wall.

On September 2, the Supreme Court rejected a petition by female rabbis demanding structural improvements to prevent collapse of the Mughrabi Bridge (the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, that crosses over the women’s section of the main Western Wall Plaza); the court accepted the state’s argument that it was taking action to restore the wooden beams on metal bases which support the bridge.  The court added, “in a place like the Temple Mount, where any change could lead to political or security turbulence, the decision of state institutions to not change the existing situation on the ground is a practical and reasonable decision in which there is no room to intervene.”

In November and December, the press reported that despite the government’s declared intention to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, the proposal appeared to be losing support within the ruling coalition.  Minister of Religious Affairs Kahana said the vast majority of Jews in Israel were Orthodox and that it would not be right to give control of parts of the space to the Conservative and Reform streams.  Kahana said the issue “must be studied, to see how we resolve the [religious] wars.”  Other members of the cabinet continued to publicly support the plan.  According to Haaretz, the two key components of the proposal were creating a new and enhanced space on the southern side of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer and providing official recognition to the Conservative and Reform movements at the site.  The newspaper reported that “the disagreements [were] about that second component.”  Under the government’s original plan, a new authority would have been created to govern the egalitarian space and representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements would sit on its board.  However, Haaretz reported that two Orthodox members of the cabinet, Kahana and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, found this unacceptable and suggested that the egalitarian prayer space continue to operate under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office or, alternatively, be handed over for supervision to the Jewish Agency.  Leaders of the non-Orthodox movements rejected that plan.  At year’s end, the government had taken no action to move the proposed changes forward.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site or incited others to violence, and public figures whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions.  Banned individuals included Waqf guards and administrative and maintenance staff and imams delivering sermons at the site, as well as prominent activists.  The Israeli government said that some individuals – including both Muslims and Jews – were prevented access to the site during the year because they could have caused disturbances and riots.  The government said Israeli security prevented access to the site for 389 Muslims and 99 Jews during 2021 due to previous incidents of public disorder at the site, including assaulting or interfering with police, or based on intelligence information.  The Wadi Hilweh Information Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 357 individuals from the site during the year.

While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned some Palestinian residents in the occupied territories, and Arab/Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel from the site.  Palestinian civil society organizations said that, in a practice that began in 2020, police continued to check the identify cards of individuals entering the Old City to visit the site for Friday prayers and would bar from entry those with West Bank identity cards and return them to the West Bank.  In May, media reported that Israeli police blocked several buses of Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel outside of Jerusalem from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Police said they stopped the buses because they had intelligence indicating some of the passengers were planning to riot at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

At the main Western Wall Plaza, the place of Jewish worship nearest the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to prohibit the performance of any “religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, [or] which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.”  Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services, over the objections of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements.  The organization Women of the Wall, whose membership is composed of mostly Reform and Conservative Jewish women and whose goal is to secure the official right for women to pray at the Western Wall, stated that their monthly presence at the wall for more than 30 years had established them as part of the “customs of the place.”

Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall Plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site.  Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.  On several occasions, MK Gilad Kariv (Labor) used his parliamentary immunity to bring Torah scrolls for the use of Women of the Wall and referred to the prohibition as illegal.

Within COVID-19 limitations, authorities allowed Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in a barricaded portion of the women’s area of the main Western Wall Plaza.  Ultra-Orthodox protesters harassed and attacked Women of the Wall members repeatedly during their monthly services by throwing coffee or bottles at them, screaming, cursing, blowing whistles, or pushing them.

Representatives of Women of the Wall said police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the main Western Wall Plaza and which is ultra-Orthodox-run, were reluctant to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted the women’s monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing.  Ahead of a November 5 service held by Women of the Wall, tension rose when former Shas MK Aryeh Deri called MKs and the public to attend the service and prevent MK Kariv from bringing Torah scrolls to the women’s section, which Deri said would be a “desecration of the Western Wall.”  The Western Wall Heritage Fund announced it would not take responsibility for maintaining public order at the plaza, leading to increased INP presence the day of the service.  With President Isaac Herzog’s intervention, and his promise to hold a meeting on non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, most MKs refrained from attending the service at the Western Wall on November 5.  MK Ben Gvir of the Religious Zionist Party still attended to protest against the Women of the Wall, expressing outrage that police confronted protesters who attempted to reach the women who were conducting services at the site.  According to the NGO Israel Religion Action Center (IRAC), INP and the Western Wall Heritage Fund guards confronted Women of the Wall during the service.  The President held a meeting on pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall on December 1.

A 2017 petition to the Supreme Court by Women of the Wall asking that ushers and police prevent disruption of their services was pending at year’s end.

In May, the Jerusalem Municipality opened a parking lot on property it had leased from the Armenian Church in 2020.  In July, the Church signed a new contract with the Jerusalem Municipality extending the lease for 99 years, and the municipality announced that a Jewish-Australian developer would construct a new hotel on the property.  Palestinians widely criticized the Church for leasing the property to the municipality, including public statements by PA figures.  PA Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Riyad Malki raised the transaction with his Armenian counterpart and asked for Armenian Foreign Ministry assistance in pressuring the Church to cancel the lease.  Malki characterized the deal as opening the door for “the gradual encroachment of Israel’s settler-colonialism into the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem,” and said it “risks accelerating the obliteration of the Palestinian, Muslim, and Christian character of Jerusalem.”

On February 24, the Supreme Court ordered the government to answer a series of questions by April 22 regarding its plan to build an aerial cable car over a Karaite (a Jewish religious movement) cemetery in Jerusalem.  This order was in response to petitions filed by the Karaite community, the NGO Emek Shaveh, and the NGO Israel Union for Environmental Defense from 2019 and 2020.  According to the Karaite community, the cable car would desecrate the cemetery, thus preventing its further use.  The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, but some NGOs said the project was meant to specifically promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem and to reinforce the country’s claims of sovereignty over the area.  Despite respective statements by Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg on November 26 and December 13 opposing the project, the government told the Supreme Court on December 28 that it supported the construction of the cable car.  The petition was pending at year’s end.

In October, Palestinian demonstrators sporadically clashed with the INP after the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority began landscaping work on public land adjacent to the Islamic al-Yusufiya Cemetery and unearthed human remains in a shallow grave.  The cemetery, which is hundreds of years old, is affiliated with the Islamic Waqf.  Multiple graves and headstones are located in the disputed area adjacent to the cemetery, some dating from Jordanian control of Jerusalem and others allegedly from recent burials conducted without authorization.  According to an October 11 report in Haaretz, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said, “This territory is a national park and open public space, outside the Muslim cemetery.  The Muslim Waqf, unlawfully and in violation of court orders, placed several graves there.  During works with the Jerusalem Development Authority to develop the open public space, a shallow dig was uncovered with several bones in it.  The matter is being investigated.  The works at the site are ongoing under court orders.”  On October 17, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court rejected requests submitted by the Committee for the Care of Islamic Cemeteries in Jerusalem to suspend bulldozing and exhuming graves on the site.  However, the court restricted construction activity to only light work, such as covering ground, placing grids, and gardening, and prohibited demolition, excavation, casting, or drilling.  Authorities did not allow construction that would impact any graves at the site.  On October 28, Israeli authorities fenced the walls surrounding the area and installed surveillance cameras.  On October 29, police deployed stun grenades and tear gas to disperse demonstrators who threw rocks at the site.  The PA President’s advisor for religious and Islamic affairs described the bulldozing as an ongoing crime against the cemetery, while the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem stated that “no tomb was damaged during the works, and there is no intention to displace any grave, even if built illegally.”

Some former mosques and Islamic cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims.  These sites belonged to the defunct pre-state Waqf (distinct from the current Jordanian-administered Waqf in Jerusalem) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence.  Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes.

Government restrictions on gathering for prayer varied due to the COVID-19 pandemic and included limitations on the number of worshippers at the Western Wall as well as requiring a “Green Pass,” which indicated a person’s vaccination status, to enter synagogues.

In June, before taking office as Minister of Finance, Avigdor Lieberman said that raising the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the workforce would be one of his main goals.  In particular, he said bringing ultra-Orthodox men into the labor force would be a major challenge.  According to the Jerusalem Post, at the beginning of 2020, approximately 53 percent of ultra-Orthodox men were employed, compared with more than 85 percent of non-ultra-Orthodox men.  According to Reuters, those ultra-Orthodox men who did not work in paid employment were devoted full-time to religious studies and relied on government allowances and handouts from donors.  Lieberman said, “We will do everything to provide them [the ultra-Orthodox] an education and enable them to learn a profession and stand on their own two feet, as opposed to [depending on] charity and all the stipends.”

On July 7, in office as Finance Minister, Lieberman revoked the eligibility of fathers studying full-time in yeshivas for childcare subsidies, a move which, according to press coverage, enraged ultra-Orthodox political leaders.  According to the decision, to be eligible for such subsidies, fathers would need to work or study in a nonreligious educational institute for at least 24 hours a week, which would preclude full-time yeshiva study.  Lieberman said the changes were designed to prioritize “those who work and pay taxes.”  United Torah Judaism party leader Moshe Gafni called Lieberman “an evil man” for the policy change, while Shas party chairman Deri described the decision as “destructive and wicked.”  In response, Lieberman said, “Those who are harming the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] community are the MKs of Shas and United Torah Judaism.  They want to leave the entire Haredi public without a living, so that they will remain dependent on handouts and financial assistance all their lives.”  After the new policy was formally announced in August, lawyers and ultra-Orthodox organizations filed court petitions against the policy shift as discriminatory against the ultra-Orthodox.  The implementation of the plan was initially delayed until November and then until the new year.  On November 10, a Supreme Court panel rejected the ultra-Orthodox organizations’ request for an interim order on the policy itself but issued an interim order that required the government to explain the basis for its authority to change the rules regarding subsidies for ultra-Orthodox childcare after the school year had already started in September.  The case remained pending at year’s end.

The security barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from the rest of the country also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship.  The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons.

Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, continued to criticize the Nation State Law.  On July 8, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 10-to-one, rejected 15 petitions challenging the Nation State Law.  According to the court’s opinion, the law should be interpreted in a way that does not detract from individual or cultural rights at the subnational level and the provisions of the Nation State Law do not diminish “the components of the state’s democratic identity that are anchored in other Basic Laws.”  The ruling further stated that, although some of the provisions of the law raise “difficulties,” it should be interpreted in light of the country’s other basic laws, in particular the basic laws on the Knesset, on human dignity and liberty, and on freedom of occupation, which specifically address the dual character of the country as a Jewish and democratic state.  Haaretz reported that the law had been “lambasted for the absence of the words ‘equality’ and ‘democracy’ in the text.”  Justice Minister Gideon Saar said that the court recognized “the essence and character of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”  The Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights said the decision “enshrined Jewish supremacy and racial segregation as founding principles of the Israeli regime.”

On November 4, the Knesset approved the state budget, which included 40 million shekels ($12.91 million) for Conservative and Reform Judaism for 2022, to be managed through a new department for Progressive Judaism at the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.  While Progressive Judaism organizations welcomed the funding, the NGO Jewish Pluralism Watch of the Conservative Judaism movement stated the department managing the funds should have been placed in the Ministry of Religious Services, stating that the latter should stop serving Orthodox Judaism only.

In March, NGOs Emek Shaveh and the Arab Culture Association filed a petition with the Supreme Court against the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, demanding that criteria for funding heritage sites by the ministry not exclude non-Jewish sites.  In response, on August 9, the ministry stated it was only responsible for the conservation of Jewish-related heritage while other offices were funding heritage sites of minority populations.  The petition was pending at the year’s end.

In a November 29 meeting with Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, a delegation of representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community asked to discuss “kosher phones,” a special phone service widely used by their community, despite its announced boycott of the government, which does not include ultra-Orthodox members.  The “kosher cellphones” are configured only for calls and text messages, with no Internet access or apps.  Unlike other users, owners of kosher phones are not able to change their provider while keeping their number.  A story in Haaretz said, “But this is not just about numbers.  It’s about the rabbis controlling the free flow of information into their communities.  Without that control, their power over their followers is greatly diminished.”  The Jerusalem Post reported that Hendel had pointed out that “kosher phones” were a sort of fiefdom within Israeli telecommunications; unlike other phone numbers, since “kosher” numbers could not be moved from one company to another, severely limiting competition.

Following the March elections, Gilad Kariv, former head of the national Reform movement, became the first Reform rabbi member of Knesset.  In his first speech in the Knesset on May 5, Kariv said that the “Jewish pluralist renewal,” including his election, elevated the principles of “tolerance, equity, and most importantly, the recognition that there is more than one way to be a Jew.”  He stated that “heavy obstacles” had been put in the way of this renewal, especially “the monopoly over Israeli Judaism that had been given to one particular stream and institution,” a reference to Orthodoxy and the Chief Rabbinate.

On June 28, MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) responded to the appointment of Kariv as the Chair of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, by comparing him as a Reform Jew to a pig pretending to be kosher.  MK Itamar Ben Gvir (Religious Zionism) responded by saying Kariv is the number one enemy of halacha.

On May 4, Rabbi David Yosef of the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem announced he was retiring following a 2020 Women of the Wall and IRAC petition demanding a disciplinary hearing against him, after his repeated alleged incitement against Women of the Wall.  Yosef served as rabbi in a public servant position in which the office holder is required to act in accordance with the civil service regulations.

In 2019, six Orthodox women halacha students and NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court to permit women to take the halacha examinations used to ordain rabbis.  While Orthodox women cannot become rabbis, passing the examinations is equal to receiving a bachelor’s degree and grants an advantage when applying for certain public sector positions.  On October 21, in its response to the petition, the state offered a compromise whereby the Religious Services Ministry would establish “an alternative, independent examination framework” for women and men.  The petitioners opposed the compromise, arguing it further strengthened the existing discrimination against women and constituted a waste of resources.  The petition was pending at the year’s end.  On June 30, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef threatened that the rabbinate would not conduct any exams to ordain state-authorized rabbis, including for men, if the court ruled that women could be ordained in contradiction to halacha.

The government employed an “appropriate representation” policy for non-Jewish minorities in the civil service.  The percentage of Arab/Palestinian employees in the public sector was 13.2 percent (61.5 percent of them entry-level), according to the Civil Service Commission.  The percentage of Arab/Palestinian employees in the 62 government-owned companies was approximately 2.5 percent; however, during the year Arab/Palestinian citizens held 12 percent of director positions in government-owned companies, up from 1 percent in 2000, and Arab/Palestinain workers held 13.2 percent of government positions, up from 5 percent in 2000, according to Sikkuy-Aufoq, an NGO that supports full equality between Jewish and Arab/Palestinian citizens.  Of the 13.2 percent, 68 percent were employed in government health services.

Women’s rights and religious freedom NGOs filed a petition with the Supreme Court on May 12 against the Ministry of Religious Services, demanding appropriate representation for women on religious councils.  According to the petitioners, only eight women served on religious councils nationwide, despite an Attorney General directive from 2016 and a 2017 Ministry of Religious Service directive requiring a minimum representation of 20-33 percent.  According to the petitioners, 80 percent of the councils had no women members.  In August, the government responded to the court, stating the Minister of Religious Affairs was working to promote appropriate representation for women in religious councils. The petition was pending at year’s end.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid, in remarks on July 14 to the Global Forum on Combatting Antisemitism, said that antisemitism was part of a broad family of hatreds and that antisemites start by attacking Jews but “always” move on to focus their hate and violence on other groups as well.  After pointing to the slave trade, the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda, the deaths of Muslims at the hands of Muslim extremists, and fatal attacks on members of the LGBTQI+ community, Lapid said, “The antisemites are all those who persecute people not for what they’ve done, but for what they are, for how they were born… Antisemitism isn’t the first name of hatred, it’s the family name; it’s all those consumed by hatred to the point that they want to murder and destroy and persecute and banish people just because they’re different.”  According to the Times of Israel, Lapid’s comments “ignited a firestorm of criticism and a fierce left-right dustup in the Hebrew-language media.”  The website reported that “right-wingers, led by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu,” said that Lapid’s comments were “scandalous and irresponsible, warping history and emptying the concept of antisemitism of all content.”  In a July 26 article in Haaretz defending his statement, Lapid wrote, “The State of Israel is in need of a dramatic and fundamental change in direction in its fight against antisemitism, and it must acknowledge that in recent years, it has abjectly failed in that battle.”

The MOI continued to rely on the sole discretion and approval of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or as a descendant of a Jew.  The government continued to deny applications from individuals, including those holding Messianic or other Christian beliefs, whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion.

A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews.  The Chief Rabbinate and MOI continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country.

After the Supreme Court’s March 1 decision that the government must recognize Conservative and Reform conversions performed in the country, the Jerusalem Post reported that Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yizhak Yosef said, “What Reform and Conservative call ‘conversion’ is nothing but a forgery of Judaism.”  The Times of Israel reported that Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau said that those who undergo Reform or Conservative conversions “are not Jews.”  Saying the decision “was mainly symbolic,” the New York Times cited a report by the Israel Religious Action Center that only 30 or 40 foreigners convert each year.  In a December 6 article, Haaretz stated that of the approximately 80 non-Orthodox converts who applied for citizenship since the ruling, only three had been approved by the Ministry of Interior.  Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Rabbinical Assembly for the Conservative-Masorti movement, said that the ministry was “slow-walking the implementation of the conversion process.”

The court’s decision became an issue in the campaign for the March 23 election.  Then Prime Minister Netanyahu reposted a tweet that said, the decision [about recognizing conversions] should be left to “the people and the Knesset.”  Then Interior Minister Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, promised to introduce legislation to ensure only Orthodox conversions would be recognized in the country.  Leaders of both Shas and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said they would not join a government coalition that was not committed to overturning the court’s decision.  During the campaign, United Torah Judaism posted a video showing pictures of dogs wearing prayer shawls and kippahs, with a voiceover, “The Supreme Court says they’re Jewish.”  Finance Minister Lieberman, then a candidate to replace Netanyahu, said he and his party would “continue to fight against religious coercion and preserve the character of Israel as a Jewish, liberal, Zionist state.”  Yair Lapid, then head of the Knesset opposition said, “Israel must have complete equality of rights for all streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative.”

In July, Kan News reported that Minister of Religious Services Kahana planned to introduce legislation to liberalize conversions to Judaism.  In December, Kahana outlined the framework for his proposed changes, which he said he planned to introduce in Knesset legislation.  As part of Kahana’s proposed framework, municipal rabbis would be able to establish conversion courts to allow them to convert citizens of Jewish descent who were not considered Jewish according to religious law.  According to the Jerusalem Post, Kahana’s legislation would grant the chief rabbis and the Council of the Chief Rabbinate the power, under certain circumstances, to revoke the appointment of a rabbinical judge on the new conversion courts.  On December 29, the government postponed a vote on the legislation after determining it lacked sufficient support to advance the bill.  On the same day, Chief Rabbi David Lau, whose authorization is required for all conversions in the country, wrote the Prime Minister saying if the bill moved forward, “I will be forced to declare myself no longer responsible for anything to do with conversions.”  He added that the reforms had the potential to cause an “irreparable” split among the Jewish people: “two states for two peoples, divided Judaism instead of united Judaism.”  Finance Minister Lieberman said that Lau’s threat to freeze conversions “is not appropriate to the status of the chief rabbi and may lead to proceedings being taken to end his term.”  Minister of Communications Yoaz Hendel said, “A public servant should fulfill the government’s decisions, and if he does not do so, he should not be in office.”

On October 6, Minister Kahana said that although he believed marriage is a religious construct, he believed there should be legal alternatives for those unable to marry in the country’s religious institutions.  He said, “I believe that every citizen needs to be able to actualize their partnership in a legal manner.  I think that marriage is a religious term which should remain ‘according to the religion of Moses and Israel.’  There are enough rabbis, much wiser than me in Judaism and Jewish law, who have outlines for [legal, nonreligious partnerships].”  A member of the opposition Shas party responded by saying, “Kahana is not the minister of religious services, he is the minister of destroying religion and the destruction of Jerusalem.”  In a November interview with the Times of Israel, while declining to offer specific proposals, Kahana said, “I am opposed to civil marriage.  I believe that the concept of marriage, the sacred connection between a man and a woman, in the State of Israel, must remain in the province of halachic Judaism.”

On July 20, the Supreme Court approved an agreement to halt the practice of the Chief Rabbinate using information collected during Jewish status investigations (used to verify individuals’ Jewish status) to question the validity of third parties claiming Jewish ancestry.  The agreement was a result of a 2017 petition by NGOs and individuals affected by the practice.

In February, KAN News reported that the Ashkelon Rabbinical Court conducted Jewish status investigations during two cases of divorce involving Jewish Ethiopian-Israelis and refused to give a writ of divorce prior to the confirmation of the couples’ Jewish status, even though they married in the country in accordance with the rules of the Chief Rabbinate.

In November, the Rabbinate granted ultra-Orthodox music and film entertainer Shuli Rand permission to marry TV personality Zufit Grant despite his wife’s refusal to accept a get from him, thus denying him a divorce.  After his first wife refused to agree to a divorce, Rand reportedly received an exemption signed by 100 rabbis that allowed him to remarry.  NGOs including Mavoi Satum, an organization that aids women who have been refused a Jewish divorce by their husbands, and The Center For Women’s Justice continued to criticize the inequality facing women who cannot remarry because they are unable to obtain a get from their ex-husbands and who consequently are denied similar permission to marry again.

In August, a Tel Aviv rabbinical court “canceled” the 18-year marriage of a couple, following claims of abuse, after the husband refused a get.  In November, the same court overturned its decision, following pressure from ultra-Orthodox public figures, according to Haaretz.

On October 6, Alon Tal, a Conservative Jewish member of Israel’s governing coalition, criticized the then-pending bill opening the kashrut-certification market, saying he was “hugely disappointed” to discover that the reform plans were “intent on excluding anybody that is not Orthodox.”  On October 28, before passage of the bill, the two chief rabbis of the country issued a joint declaration that stated, “The decision on the new kashrut outline is the destruction of kashrut and reflects a trend towards the displacement of Judaism of Israel, another step in making Israel a state of all its citizens.”  The statement also said that changing the kashrut system could lead to “conversion and marriage outside the framework of the Chief Rabbinate, which will inevitably lead to the separation of communities in Israel.”   They also said Israeli rabbis should refuse to cooperate with the reform efforts and refrain from granting certification to any establishment without the authorization of the Chief Rabbinate Council.

On November 4, the Knesset passed a law opening the kashrut-certification market to competition.  According to the law, beginning on January 1, 2022, religious councils would be able to award kashrut certification anywhere in the country, not only in the cities to which they belong.  Then, from January 1, 2023, both private organizations and religious councils would be able to award kashrut certificates, while the Rabbinate would go from certifying food as kosher to performing a regulatory function, certifying others to certify food as kosher.  The new law does not allow for non-Orthodox kashrut certificates.

According to Haaretz, after the kashrut-certification bill was passed, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef organized a conference of rabbinical judges opposing the reforms regarding kashrut certification and conversion.  After the conference, Yosef issued a statement saying that he “utterly rejects the … dangerous initiatives to destroy Kashrut and Judaism in Israel.”  After reviewing the statement, the judicial ombudsman, retired Supreme Court Justice Uri Shoham, asked the Minister of Religious Affairs to consider dismissing Yosef from his position on the Grand Rabbinical Court.

At a December 6 meeting of ultra-Orthodox religious parties, MKs discussed a range of options, including boycotts and mass protests, to oppose various reforms impacting the ultra-Orthodox that were under consideration by the government.  One Shas MK said that the government was seeking to establish “a nation of all its citizens in place of a Jewish and democratic state.”  Another participant said the government was waging a “culture war against the ultra-Orthodox” and that the country was engaged in “a real war” over the future of the Jewish people.

In August, NGOs Hiddush and Secular Forum, in a letter to the IDF Chief of Staff, protested Military Rabbinate orders published during the year that restricted the use of kitchenette facilities during Shabbat, or for preparing nonkosher foods, following complaints from soldiers.  According to the NGOs, the Military Rabbinate was not authorized to order restrictions on food not served by the IDF, and its actions constituted “religious coercion.”

During a June 8 press conference, MK Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism called on soon-to-be Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to “take off his yarmulke, for he disgraces it.”

Yitzhak Pindrus of United Torah Judaism said in the Knesset on June 28 that the Minister of Religious Services should follow the path of a biblical character who killed people who intermarried, referring to such marriages as “miscegenation.”

On October 13, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) directed his comments from the Knesset plenary’s podium towards Arab MKs, referring to them as “anti-Zionists,” “terror supporters,” and “enemies.”  He also said: “You’re here by mistake, it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.”

The website Al-Monitor reported that there were varied opinions within the country about the Muslim political party Ra’am becoming the first Arab party to join a government.  Members of then Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party protested in front of the homes belonging to members of Prime Minister Bennett’s Yamina party to pressure Yamina from joining a coalition that included Ra’am.  A member of the Ra’am party told Al-Monitor that the “responses [in the street] to the move are positive and give us credit,” adding that joining the government was the first step in “a long journey.”

Members of some religious minorities said that the government did not provide the same service and benefits to them as to the country’s majority Jewish population and in many jurisdictions made it difficult for members of minority groups to obtain permits needed for new construction.  In January, the Druze and Circassian mayors’ forum chairman demanded that the problem of urban planning be addressed in those local council districts facing high fines for illegal construction.

The MRS listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and West Bank settlements for burial of persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” and 33 cemeteries for civil burial, but only three were available for use by the general public regardless of residence, and one had been full for several years.  The state permitted other cemeteries located in agricultural localities to bury only “residents of the area.”  This, according to Hiddush, left the majority of the country’s population deprived of the ability to exercise its right, as mandated by law, to be buried in accordance with secular or non-Orthodox religious views.  The two MRS-administered cemeteries in West Bank settlements were available only for the burial of Israeli citizens.  On September 12, the Supreme Court rejected a 2019 petition by Hiddush that demanded civil burial in agricultural localities for individuals who were not local residents and who did not have another alternative.  According to the government, the existing issues regarding civil burial could not justify burial outside of place of residence, as the law mandates.  The court invited Hiddush to submit a new petition regarding a specific locality, rather than a principled petition.

According to Hiddush, an absolute majority of the MRS licenses for civil burial are held by Jewish Orthodox NGOs and religious councils and some of these organizations conducted a “less religious burial” rather than a secular one, did not allow burial in a coffin, and stated on their websites that their services were only for non-Jews.

Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs.  According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.

According to representatives of the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit community, some of their members did not receive an exemption from military service because its yeshivas were not recognized by the state and young men studying in those yeshivas did not submit draft exemption applications.  As a result, dozens of them were arrested every month, community members said.

According to the Karaite community’s NGO, during the year the IDF requested religious Karaite women who sought to be exempted from military service to declare their status as religious women at a rabbinical court; the Karaite community said this would be contrary to its beliefs.  Up until 2020, Karaite women were able to submit a letter from a Jewish Karaite court to the IDF to prove their status.  On March 21, three Karaite women petitioned the Supreme Court concerning this matter and as a result, the IDF announced on June 6 that it exempted them from military service.  Due to the IDF’s action, the women’s petition was “deleted” on June 10.

According to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza as a condition to lease land for its campus on the Mount of Olives.  Some other unrecognized Christian communities reported that the MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs discouraged them from proselytizing or holding large public gatherings outside their houses of worship.

The Center of Scientology Israel reported that it was targeted by the NGO Israeli Center for Victims of Cults using derogatory labels on their website and categorizing it as a cult.  The NGO Yad L’Achim paid for a campaign to target Scientology online.

The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from unrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but stated that no religious community applied for recognition during the year.  The government stated some leaders of unrecognized religions were invited to and participated in official events and ceremonies, along with the leaders of recognized religions.

After the Supreme Court ordered the government on April 29 to explain why it would not discuss a 2017 application by the Jehovah’s Witnesses for recognition, the government told the court on December 29 that it had tasked the Ministerial Committee on Internal Affairs to review the request.  The government asked the committee to submit an update to the court within 90 days.

On June 15, the Supreme Court ruled that the Knesset Finance Committee had no authority to reject the application for tax-deductible status submitted by the Messianic Jews’ NGO Yachad Ramat HaSharon, and ordered that the NGO be granted tax-deductible status.  A similar petition by the Jehovah’s Witnesses NGO Watchtower Association was pending at the year’s end.  In 2020, the Finance Committee rejected applications for tax-deductible status by the two NGOs despite objections from legal advisors in the Ministry of Justice and the Tax Authority.  On December 8 and 13, the Knesset Finance Committee discussed the Watchtower Association’s application and decided on a Tax Authority audit of the group to take place in 2022 due to concerns raised by Shas MK of alleged missionary activity directed at minors.

Separate public and semipublic school systems varied widely in educational quality around the country, according to NGOs and international organizations.  During the year, Arab/Palestinians including Christians, Muslims and Druze, as well as ultra-Orthodox students, passed the matriculation exam at lower rates than their non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish counterparts.  The government continued educational and scholarship programs to benefit Arab/Palestinian students.  Between the academic years of 2009-10 and 2020-21, the percentage of Arab/Palestinian students enrolled increased significantly:  in undergraduate programs from 13 percent to 19 percent, in master’s degree programs from 7 percent to 15 percent, and in doctoral programs from 5 percent to 7 percent, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), the gap in funding for Jewish students and Arab/Palestinian students in elementary and middles schools continued to narrow, but the largest gap in funding was found in high schools.  According to IDI, the gap was not solely a result of differences in the Ministry of Education budget, but was also influenced by local government funding and parental contributions.

According to the Secular Forum, growing “religionization” (hadata) of the education system continued, including in textbooks and through programs in schools taught by Orthodox NGOs.  On April 7 the Supreme Court ruled that government funding previously granted to pluralistic Jewish organizations’ activities in secular schools must be “reexamined” after the government cancelled this funding in 2019.  Prior to the ruling, the state only granted such funding to Orthodox organizations, some of which promoted a pro-settler agenda, according to the NGO Molad – The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.  According to Haaretz, in November, the Ministry of Education reissued its previous policy on funding Jewish organizations’ activities in secular schools and did not comply with the court’s ruling.   The Israel Religious Action Center said the ministry’s actions ignored the court’s ruling and sought to continue a policy that was rejected by the High Court.  The ministry told Haaretz it has begun acting to fulfill the court’s ruling.

Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts.  Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools in the “recognized but not official” category continued not to offer a basic humanities, mathematics, and science curriculum.  The government, however, included a basic curriculum for public ultra-Orthodox schools.  Public Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students.  A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes.  For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand:  Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonalities in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The government funded approximately 34 percent of the budget of Christian school systems in the “recognized but not official” category, in which schools had autonomy over hiring teachers, admitting students, and the use of school property, according to church officials.  The government repeated its offer made in previous years to fully fund Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but churches rejected this option, stating that, unlike in Orthodox schools, they would lose autonomy over hiring, admitting students, and use of property.  Church leaders criticized the disparity between government funding for their schools and those affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but received full government funding.

On August 28, the Jerusalem Post said that, according to a report by the Shoresh Institute, 50 percent of children from the country’s fastest growing sectors (including 43 percent from the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities) “are getting a third-world education that will not be able to support a first world economy.”  The author of the Shoresh report, Dan Ben-David, said that these and broader challenges facing the country’s school system “turn the national education picture into a ticking time bomb.”

Seventh-day Adventists and others who worshipped on Saturday stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem.

Some unrecognized religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, received a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhists and the Church of Scientology, did not.

In an October 26 meeting, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced that the northern Druze town of Mughar would receive city status, making it the country’s first majority-Druze city.  Shaked noted that her decision was proof of the “courageous and strong ties between the Druze and Jewish people.” According to the press, the elevation to status as a city would make various planning, economic, and organizational processes easier and would provide greater authority to local officials.  According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 57.5 percent of the residents of Mughar were Druze while 21.4 percent were Muslims and 21.1 percent Christians.

Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country, except for Christian clergy from Arab countries, some of whom reported long delays for, and periodic denials of their visa applications.  The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world and that any visa delays or denials were due to security reviews.  The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from countries that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel.  Church officials noted that the clergy visas did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who had served in the country for more than 30 years.

The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country and continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries.  Muslim leaders criticized the MOI for appointing non-Muslims – mostly Druze former military officers – to head the Muslim Affairs Department at the ministry.  Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies.  The government said it did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.”  The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were not state employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budgetary resources.  Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives.

No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily to Jordan or the West Bank, to study.  The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa.  Muslim leaders continued to reject this assertion and stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.

The government continued to promote measures to encourage increased Jewish-Israeli residence and economic development in the thinly populated Negev Desert in the south of the country, including development plans for military industries, railways, the expansion of Road 6, and a phosphate mine.  Civil society organizations criticized government plans, stating they could lead to the displacement of 36,000 Bedouins.  The government made more funding available for government-approved Bedouin cities and towns to relocate Bedouins displaced by economic expansion.

 

On October 21, Minister of Interior Shaked announced that the government planned to establish 11 new localities in the Negev, including removing planning obstacles regarding the Jewish town of Hiran.

 

In reports on its website, the NGO Adalah:  The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel continued to state that the government discriminated against the Bedouin residents of the Negev in several ways, including charging those in unrecognized villages the highest water prices in the country; refusing to classify camels as “farm animals”; preventing Bedouin herders from using the grazing land in the region; not addressing overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in local schools; and displacing residents to allow for the expansion of primarily Jewish towns and the relocation or expansion of government military facilities.

In a June 3rd report to the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Right Adequate Housing, Adalah stated that the government pursued two main policies discriminating against Bedouin citizens living in the Negev:  “denying their historical land rights and instead labelling them as trespassers” and forcibly displacing and …urbanizing them by concentrating them into a limited number of urban/semi-urban townships and recognized villages.”

On October 20, the Supreme Court rejected a petition against the State Attorney’s decision asking that the government reopen an investigation against police officers involved in the 2017 shooting of teacher Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qian.  Police shot Abu al-Qian during an operation to demolish homes in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran, which was scheduled to be replaced by the Orthodox-only Jewish town of Hiran.  In 2020, Adalah and the NGO Public Committee Against Torture in Israel filed the petition with the Supreme Court on behalf of Abu al-Qian’s family.  The court ruled that the State Attorney’s decision and the preliminary investigation procedure conducted by the Department for Investigation of Police Officers indicated that they made their decision after an in-depth examination and extensive collection of evidence, and that there was no need for the court to intervene in the decision.  The NGOs’ petition disputed the details of the government’s account of the incident.

Bedouin residents in Umm al-Hiran continued to not fulfill their obligations, under the 2018 Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev Agreement with the government, to demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura.  Jewish families sponsored to move into Hiran by the OR Movement, an organization dedicated to expanding the Jewish Israeli population of the Negev and Galilee regions, remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for village land vacated by Bedouins to become available for them.

In November, the cabinet approved a draft resolution to legalize three unrecognized Bedouin villages in the southern Negev:  Rakhma, Hashm al-Zena, and Abda.  The NGO Negev Coexistence Forum said approximately 4,000 Bedouin lived in the villages.  NGOs subsequently wrote the Labor Ministry asking that it change the text of the government’s resolution, because it included problematic conditions that would “doom it to failure.”  On November 3, the government also said it would establish a new planned Bedouin community in the south.  On December 6, the Knesset completed the first reading of a bill to enable thousands of homes constructed without permits in Arab communities in the Negev and elsewhere to be connected to the country’s electrical grid.

An August 4 report by the State Comptroller said that the Arab/Palestinian Bedouins of the Negev were the most impoverished community in the country, lagging far behind all the others.  The report also noted that, despite the planned investment of billions of shekels over the years, gaps between Bedouin settlements and their neighbors in the Negev continued to grow.  State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman stated that basic municipal and regional infrastructure for Bedouin communities such as sanitation, water, and electricity as well as sidewalks and roads lagged far behind and that the government “is responsible for increasing governance in the Negev.”  He also said that blame did not lie with local and state authorities alone, but that the Bedouin community shared responsibility for compounding these problems.  The Arab/Palestinian Muslim Ra’am Party demanded greater investment in Bedouin communities.

On May 26, Haaretz reported that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa planning and building committee gave its approval to a plan to legalize the Tasso Muslim cemetery in Jaffa, the only Islamic cemetery in the city.  According to the report, the zoning plan required the approval of the district planning and building committee before it could take effect.

The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains.  The government employed civilian clergy of different faiths, including Muslim imams, as chaplains at military burials when non-Jewish soldiers died in service.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men.  The Beit Shemesh municipality received several extensions from the Supreme Court, which ordered it to remove such signs in 2018.  On July 1, because Beit Shemesh had not removed the signs, the Supreme Court ordered the Attorney General to develop a national enforcement policy within 90 days that would allow the implementation of the court’s verdict, due to the failure at the local level to remove such “modesty signs.”  The court ruled that 30 days after the new policy was in place, fines would be imposed on municipalities for lack of enforcement.

Women’s photos were regularly vandalized in cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations.  The AP reported in October that vandals “widely believed to be ultra-Orthodox extremists” defaced the photograph of a 94-year-old female Holocaust survivor five times since the April start of the outdoor exhibit that included the photo.  According to media reports, due to failed local law enforcement, companies did not include women in their advertisements, to prevent them from being vandalized.  In a December 2020 Knesset hearing, the police stated it had opened 21 investigations following the vandalizing of women’s photos in public spaces between 2018-2020; police closed 19 of these investigation files without charges and transferred one for prosecution.

On January 10, the Supreme Court denied the Chief Rabbinate’s request to hold an additional hearing on a petition by NGOs Adalah and the Secular Forum against a ban on bringing foods forbidden to Jews during Passover (foods with grains or leavening agents, known as hametz) into public hospitals during the holiday.  The court ruled in 2020 that hospitals must allow nonkosher food for those that wanted it during Passover.  On March 10, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef asked the Attorney General to postpone the ruling’s implementation due to “insufficient preparation time” and to handle the matter by means of legislation.  According to the Secular Forum, most hospitals adhered to the Supreme Court ruling and made nonkosher food available during Passover for staff and patients who wanted it.  However, during March, the Secular Forum wrote two hospitals in Jerusalem and Netanya threatening them with contempt of court charges because they continued to ban hametz in their facilities during Passover, despite the court’s ruling.  In December, the Secular Forum submitted another petition to the Supreme Court demanding to stop a similar ban on allowing external food into military bases during Passover.  The petition was pending at year’s end.

On July 6, the coalition government failed to renew the Law on Citizenship and Entry, resulting in its expiration and paving the way for family reunification of some 3,000 Palestinians and their Israeli citizen spouses.  Under the law, non-Jewish spouses of Israelis from certain countries and the West Bank and Gaza had been denied residency without a special determination from the MOI.  Although the law lapsed, Interior Minister Shaked ordered the ministry to continue functioning as though the law were in place.  On September 14, three NGOs, including HaMoked, petitioned the Court for Administrative Affairs demanding that the MOI respect the consequences brought about by the expiration of the law.  On November 11, the government responded, supporting Shaked’s continued handling of Palestinians’ requests in accordance with the now-expired regulations, stating that Shaked could implement “interim procedures and regulations” until a new law was passed.  No new procedures were published by year’s end, however.  On November 15, the court rejected the three NGOs’ request for an injunction prohibiting the handling of requests based on the expired law.  As a result, the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court on November 17.  At year’s end, both the petition and new legislation remained pending.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in the country, including in Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families.  When the previous citizenship and entry law was not renewed and expired in July, HaMoked petitioned the Supreme Court to direct the Ministry of Interior to adjudicate reunification applications.  HaMoked and Israeli media reported that the Ministry of Interior refused to deal with these applications, and as of December, there were 1,680 such applications waiting to be reviewed.  There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status.  Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency.  According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency).  A Christian religious leader expressed concern that this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively affected the long-term viability of their communities.

According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, several factors contributed to Christian emigration.  These included political instability, the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the (now expired) 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry, the limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions, the difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits, the loss of confidence in the peace process, and economic hardships created by the construction of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions.  The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community itself.

The law continued to prevent the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administered the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners.  In practice, however, foreigners were allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.  This public land included approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes strictly prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews.  The application of ILA restrictions continued to limit the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who were not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem.  In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian citizens in Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land.  During the year, Arab/Palestinian citizens were allowed to place bids on JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA granted the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab/ Palestinian citizen of the country won a bid.  Despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that the ILA Executive Council must include an Arab/ Palestinian citizen, Druze, or Circassian member to prevent discrimination against non-Jews, there were no members from these groups on the council at year’s end.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate continued its legal efforts to block the transfer of properties in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish organization that signed a 99-year lease for the properties in 2004.  Courts previously ruled in favor of Ateret Cohanim, and in 2020 the district court ruled against reopening the case to hear new evidence brought forward by the Church.  A Supreme Court hearing is set for 2022 to determine if the case should be reopened based upon the new evidence.

On December 12, 13 heads of Christian communities in Jerusalem issued a joint statement entitled, “The Current Threat to the Christian Presence in the Holy Land,” that said, “Christians have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups.  Since 2012 there have been countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidation of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives.  These tactics are being used by such radical groups in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”  The statement acknowledged “the declared commitment of the Israeli government to uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land” but said, “It is therefore a matter of grave concern when this national commitment is betrayed by the failure of local politicians, officials and law enforcement agencies to curb the activities of radical groups who regularly intimidate local Christians, assault priests and clergy, and desecrate Holy Sites and church properties.”  The appeal continued, “The principle that the spiritual and cultural character of Jerusalem’s distinct and historic quarters should be protected is already recognized in Israeli law with respect to the Jewish Quarter.  Yet radical groups continue to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter, with the aim of diminishing the Christian presence, often using underhanded dealings and intimidation tactics to evict residents from their homes, dramatically decreasing the Christian presence, and further disrupting the historic pilgrim routes between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”

Haaretz reported that the statement marked the beginning of a campaign that included a dedicated website and articles in the media.  In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the allegations made by the Christian leaders were “baseless and distort the reality of the Christian community in Israel” and that the Christians’ joint statement “could lead to violence and bring harm to innocent people.”  In an editorial, Haaretz stated, “The Christian leadership in Jerusalem may be exaggerating the sense of threat against them, to draft support from communities throughout the world… However, this does not justify the government’s irresponsible behavior toward the Christian public.  The government must recognize that the Christian congregations have an important place in Jerusalem’s human mosaic.  The government must pay attention to the needs and problems of Christian communities.”

On December 29, at an annual New Year’s reception for the spiritual and lay leaders of Christian churches and communities, President Herzog affirmed his commitment to freedom of worship and religion in the country.  Herzog said that each of the Christian groups was “a blessing and an integral part” of the country’s mosaic.  He explicitly rejected all forms of racism, discrimination, and extremism as well as any threat to Christian communities in the country.  Interior Minister Shaked also made remarks, saying that the new year offered an opportunity to build new bonds of friendship and cooperation among all religions.

In December, an interministerial team approved a proposal by Minister of Interior Shaked to exempt tourist groups that fell into the category of “Jewish tourism” from entry restrictions associated with the omicron variant of COVID-19.  According to the press, Christian organizations said the decision was unfair especially given the impending Christmas holidays.  According to a lead editorial in Haaretz, “this is a discriminatory exception, not to say a bigoted one.”  In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said, “These unfounded allegations of discriminatory conduct are outrageous, false, and dangerous.”

In April, the news website Al-Monitor reported that then Minister of Tourism Orit Farkash-Hacohen said that after the signing of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and four Arab states, “Israel’s tourist branch began preparing for Muslim tourism.”  Senior ministry officials said the ministry was expecting tens of thousands of Muslim tourists in the upcoming months and that the ministry was mapping religious Islamic sites throughout the country.

In a December Hebrew-language press interview, Arab Muslim MK and member of the governing coalition Mansour Abbas told journalist Mohammad Magadli, “The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and the question is how we integrate Arab society into it.”  Responding to Magadli’s comment that no Arab MK ever said such a thing before, Abbas replied: “I was at a demonstration against the Nation State Law, and I don’t want to mislead anyone.  The question is: ‘What is the status of an Arab citizen in the Jewish state of Israel?’  That’s the question.  So the challenge now is not just for Mansour Abbas, but for the Jewish public and the Jewish citizen.”  According to Haaretz, Abbas’s remarks resulted in an immediate backlash.  Masoud Ghanim, former head of the United Arab List (UAL), the bloc of parties that traditionally represented Arab constituencies in the Knesset, said “We in the movement and the party do not recognize the state as Jewish.  Of course, we do not deny the reality in which the State of Israel defines itself as Jewish, but we do not accept or recognize this reality.”  Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Joint List, which served as an umbrella group for four Arab parties until the UAL left the group in January, said, “This is our homeland, citizens by right, and we will work for the state to be egalitarian and democratic.”

Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the Ministers of Culture, Justice, and Religious Affairs.  The government stated that Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) researchers “have greatly intensified their research on ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.”  Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Muslim leaders continued to protest archaeological excavations and construction work done at the City of David National Park in the Silwan neighborhood outside the Old City, and in the Old City near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, including an elevator for persons with disabilities being installed at the rear of the Western Wall Plaza.  Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the IAA emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions.  Archeologists from Emek Shaveh continued to dispute the government’s representation of the “Pilgrimage Road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan in 2019 as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple.  Emek Shaveh said the excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road.  NGOs such as the City of David Foundation (EL-AD) and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies continued to concur with the government’s position.

According to Haaretz, an interagency meeting in the spring organized by the Justice Ministry’s director general found that the government was not adequately enforcing a ban on polygamy among the Bedouin population.  A presentation at the meeting said that hundreds of polygamous men were detected in recent years, without consequences.  The director of the country’s sharia courts, Iyad Zahalka, said all polygamous marriages must be registered in a sharia court.

At year’s end, the 120-member Knesset had 13 members from religious minorities (nine Muslims, three Druze, and one Christian), compared with 18 religious minority members (11 Muslims, five Druze, and two Christians) in the previous Knesset.  There was one Muslim member of the cabinet, but no Druze or Christians.  In June, then Jewish Agency Chairman Herzog appointed Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, a Druze woman and former MK, to be the senior representative for the Jewish Agency in Washington, D.C.

President Herzog hosted Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Druze, and Baha’i leaders to issue a joint call for worldwide vaccination against COVID-19.  In a joint statement, the leaders said that “saving the life of any human being – all created in the image of God – is the greatest religious obligation of all” and, “it is manifestly clear that the mass vaccination of entire populations is our primary tool for defeating this terrible pandemic.”

Jordan

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  It stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion.  It does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts.  Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their “true” religious beliefs and practices.  The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Converts to Islam from Christianity and from Christianity to Islam continued to report security officials questioning them regarding their religious beliefs and practices, as well as some instances of surveillance.  Muslim women were unable to attend congregational Friday prayers throughout the year as part of the government’s efforts to reduce crowd sizes, although the government eased most COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions in September.  Members of some unregistered religious groups continued to face problems registering their marriages and the religious affiliation of their children, and also renewing their residency permits.  The government continued to monitor mosque sermons and required that preachers refrain from unsanctioned political commentary and adhere to approved themes and texts.  The Judicial Council issued an order in February requiring adherents of unrecognized Christian denominations to use an ecclesiastical court (instead of civil courts) to adjudicate Personal Status Law (PSL), but it reversed the order in March.

Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some worshipped in secret due to the social stigma they faced.  Some converts reported persistent threats of violence from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.  Religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media.  Some social media users defended interfaith tolerance, with posts condemning content that criticized Christianity or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue.  In December, the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) suspended a 10-year-old partnership with Roya TV, a privately owned, Amman-based satellite television channel, over “the discovery of anti-Israeli and antisemitic comments and caricatures in social media disseminated” by Roya.

U.S. embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the Minister of Awqaf, Islamic Affairs, and Holy Places (Minister of Awqaf), Grand Mufti, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, and interfaith tolerance.  Embassy officers also engaged with Muslim scholars, Christian community leaders and members, and representatives of unrecognized religious groups to promote interfaith tolerance and dialogue.  The embassy supported programs promoting religious tolerance, as well as civil society programs seeking to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.9 million (midyear 2021).  According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.1 percent of the population while Christians make up 2.1 percent.  Church leaders’ estimates of the size of the Christian community range from approximately 1.8 percent to as high as 3 percent of the country’s population.  Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are considered Muslims by the government).  According to the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIFS), there is also a small community (consisting of a few migrant families) of Zoroastrians and Yezidis.  Most of the more than one million migrant workers are from Egypt, South and Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.  Migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia are often Christian or Hindu.  There are an estimated 760,000 refugees and other displaced persons registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including more than 670,000 Syrians, 67,000 Iraqis, and 13,000 Yemenis.  The government states there are 1.3 million Syrians present in the country.  The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim.  Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one-third of the Iraqi refugee population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites,” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  It stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion and states the King must be a Muslim.  The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and ecclesiastical courts for Christian denominations recognized by the government.  According to the General Iftaa Department, the office charged with issuing religious guidance in the form of fatwas, in adjudicating personal status cases, sharia courts follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence.

The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims; these courts do not recognize converts from Islam to other religions.  Under sharia, converts from Islam and their children are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy.  Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the case of a will that states otherwise.  Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution.  The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations, before converting a Christian to Islam to make sure the conversion is based on religious conviction and not for purposes of marriage and/or divorce.  The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying citizens in a manner that violates their dignity.  The penal code criminalizes insulting the Prophet Muhammad, punishable by one to three years’ imprisonment.  Written works, speeches, and actions intended to cause or resulting in sectarian strife, including conflicts between religious groups, are punishable by one to three years’ imprisonment and a fine not exceeding 200 Jordanian dinars ($280).  The law also provides a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding 20 dinars ($28) for anyone who publishes anything that offends religious feelings or beliefs and for anyone who speaks within earshot of another person in a public space and offends that individual’s beliefs.

Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.”  Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 200 dinars ($280).

Islamic religious groups are granted recognition through the constitution and do not need to register with the government.  Non-Islamic religious groups must obtain official recognition through registration.  If registered as “denominations,” they may administer rites such as marriage.  Recognized religious groups may also own land, open bank accounts, and enter into contracts.  Religious groups may alternatively be registered as “associations.”  If so, they must work through a recognized denomination on matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but they may own property and open bank accounts.  They must obtain government approval to accept foreign funding.  Recognized non-Islamic religious groups are tax-exempt but do not receive the government subsidies granted to Islamic religious groups.

Religious groups not recognized as denominations or associations lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff.  Individuals may exercise such activities on behalf of the unrecognized group, however.  To register as a recognized religious denomination, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information regarding its religious doctrine to the Ministry of Interior and Prime Ministry.  In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the Prime Minister confers with the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) and the CCL.  Although the practice is not explicitly mandated by law or the constitution, church and government leaders have stated that the CCL must endorse recognition for new Christian groups prior to the Prime Minister’s approval.  To achieve official recognition as denominations, Christian groups must be recommended by the MOI and approved by the cabinet.  The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups:  the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.

An annex to the 2014 Law for Councils of Christian Denominations lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups:  Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic.  In 2018, five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), were recognized by the MOI as associations but not as religious denominations and, as a result, none have been permitted to establish an ecclesiastical court:  the Free Evangelical Church, Church of the Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptist Church.  Religious groups such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not registered and gather in unofficial meetings places.  The government granted legal status as an association to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.

The CCL serves as an administrative body to facilitate tax and customs exemptions, as well as to issue civil documents related to marriage or inheritance.  In other matters, such as issuing work permits or purchasing land, the denominations interact directly with the relevant ministries.  Religious groups that do not have representatives on the CCL handle administrative tasks through the ministry relevant to the task.  Unrecognized Christian groups do not have representatives on the CCL, have no legal status as entities, and must have individual members of their groups conduct business with the government on their behalf.

According to the constitution, a special provision of the law regulates the activities and administration of finances of the Islamic awqaf (religious endowments).  Per this provision of the law, the Ministry of Awqaf manages mosques, appoints imams, pays mosque staff salaries, manages Islamic clergy training centers, and subsidizes certain mosque-sponsored activities, such as holiday celebrations and religious observances.  Other Islamic institutions are the Supreme (Sharia) Justice Department, headed by the Office of the Supreme (Sharia) Justice (OSJ) and in charge of the sharia courts, and the General Iftaa Department, which issues fatwas.

The government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes for Friday sermons.  Muslim clergy who do not follow government policy may be suspended, issued a written warning, banned from delivering Friday sermons for a certain period, or dismissed from the Ministry of Awqaf.  In addition to these administrative measures, a preacher who violates the law may be imprisoned for a period of one week to one month or given a fine not to exceed 20 dinars ($28).

The law forbids any Islamic cleric from issuing a fatwa unless authorized by an official committee headed by the Grand Mufti in the General Iftaa Department.  This department is independent from the Ministry of Awqaf, with the rank of Grand Mufti being equal to that of a government minister.

The law prohibits the publication of media items that slander or insult “founders of religion or prophets” or that are deemed contemptuous of “any of the religions whose freedom is protected by the constitution,” and it imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 dinars ($28,200).  The government’s Media Commission regulates the publishing and distribution of all books and media.  If the Media Commission deems that passages “violate public norms and values, are religiously offensive, or are insulting to the King,” it can request a court order to prohibit the distribution of the book.

By law, public schools provide Islamic religious instruction as part of the basic national curriculum; non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out.  Private schools may offer alternative religious instruction.  The constitution provides “congregations” (a term not defined in the constitution, but which, according to the legal code, includes religious groups recognized as denominations and associations) the right to establish their own schools, provided “they comply with the general provisions of the law and are subject to the control of government in matters relating to their curricula and orientation.”  To operate a school, religious institutions must receive permission from the Ministry of Education, which ensures the curriculum meets national standards.  The ministry does not oversee religious courses if religious groups offer them at their places of worship.  In several cities, Christian groups, including Baptists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, operate private schools and are able to conduct religious instruction.  Private schools, both nonreligious and religious, are open to adherents of all religions.

Knowledge of the Quran is required by law for Muslim students in both public and private schools but is optional for non-Muslims.  Every student, however, must pass an Arabic language exam in their final year of high school that includes linguistic mastery of some verses of the Quran.  Islamic themes appear in lesson examples of other subjects’ curriculums.  The Islamic religion is an optional subject for secondary education certificate exams for non-Muslim students following the standard curriculum, or for Muslim students following international curricula.

The constitution specifies the judiciary shall be divided into civil courts, religious courts, and special courts, with religious courts divided into sharia courts and tribunals of other religious communities.  According to the constitution, matters concerning personal status, which include religious affiliation, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the jurisdiction of religious courts.  Matters of personal status in which the parties are Muslim fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts.  A personal or family status case in which one party is Muslim and the other is non-Muslim is heard by a civil court unless both parties agree to use a sharia court.  According to the constitution, matters of the personal status of non-Muslims whose religion the government officially recognizes are under the jurisdiction of denomination-specific courts of religious communities, except for matters of inheritance, when sharia is applied to all persons, regardless of religious affiliation.  Such ecclesiastical courts exist for the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Anglican communities.  According to the law, members of recognized religious groups lacking their own courts may take their cases to civil courts, which, in principle, follow the rules and beliefs of the litigants’ denomination in deciding cases, unless both parties to a case agree to use a specific religious court.  There are no tribunals for atheists or adherents of unrecognized religious groups.  Such individuals must request a civil court to hear their case.

The OSJ appoints sharia judges, while each recognized non-Islamic religious community selects the structure and members of its own tribunal.  The law stipulates the cabinet must ratify the procedures of each non-Islamic religious (ecclesiastical) court.  All judicial nominations must be approved by a royal decree.

According to the constitution, sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with respect to cases concerning “blood money” (diya) in which the two parties are Muslims or one of the parties is not a Muslim and the two parties consent to the jurisdiction of the sharia courts.  Sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction regarding matters pertaining to Islamic awqaf.  Muslims are also subject to the jurisdiction of sharia courts on civil matters not addressed by civil status legislation.

Sharia courts do not recognize converts from Islam as falling under the jurisdiction of their new religious community’s laws in matters of personal status.  Sharia court judges may annul the marriages of converts and transfer child custody to a Muslim nonparent family member or declare the children “wards of the state” and convey an individual’s property rights to Muslim family members.

According to the PSL, in accordance with its interpretation of sharia, marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are not permitted; the man must convert to Islam for the marriage to be considered legal.  If a Christian woman converts to Islam while married to a Christian man, her husband must also convert to Islam for their marriage to remain legal.  If a Christian man converts to Islam while married to a Christian woman, the wife does not need to convert to Islam for the marriage to remain legal.  There is no legal provision for civil marriage or divorce for members of unrecognized religious groups.  Members of nonregistered Christian groups, as well as members of groups registered as associations, must obtain marriage certificates from any recognized Christian denomination with an ecclesiastical court, such as the Anglican or Orthodox Churches, which they then may take to the Civil Status Bureau to receive their government marriage certificates.

Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father.  The PSL stipulates that mothers, regardless of religious background, may retain custody of their children until age 18.  Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion.  Like citizenship, religion is transmitted only via the father.  Female children of a Muslim father who converts to Christianity remain registered as Muslims and thus are ineligible to marry a non-Muslim.

In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise.  All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to the PSL, which mostly follows Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion.  In practice, Christian ecclesiastical courts use sharia-based rules to adjudicate inheritance.

National identification cards issued since May 2016 do not list religion, but religious affiliation is contained in records embedded in the card’s electronic chip and remains on file in other government records.  National identification cards are renewed every 10 years.  Passports issued since May 2016 do not list religion.  Passports are renewed every five years.  Atheists and agnostics must list the religious affiliation of their fathers as their own.  Per the ban on conversion from Islam under sharia, converts from Islam are not allowed to change their religion on electronic records.  Converts to Islam must change their religion on their civil documents, such as family books (a national registration record issued to every head of family), and on electronic records.

According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine of 130 parliamentary seats.  Christians may not run for office in electorates not designated as Christian seats.  No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups.  The law stipulates that Muslims must hold all parliamentary seats not specifically reserved for Christians.  There are no reserved seats for the Druze population.  The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office as Muslims.

Although the constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, labor law does not explicitly prohibit it.

The National Center for Human Rights, a quasi-independent institution established by law, receives both government and international funding.  The Prime Minister nominates its board of trustees, and the King ratifies their appointment by royal decree.  The board appointed in 2019 includes Islamists, former cabinet ministers, former judges, members of parliament, religious leaders, and civil society representatives.

The law prohibits parties formed on the basis of religion or sect, as well as membership in unlicensed parties.

In 2020, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, dissolved the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s (JMB) legal identity, saying the organization had failed to resolve its legal status.  Authorities shut down the Brotherhood’s headquarters and several offices in 2016 and transferred ownership of the property to a government-authorized offshoot, which said it severed ties with the broader movement.  The Ministry of Social Development’s committee in charge of the JMB’s legal dissolution announced on December 21, 2020, that the Court of Cassation’s final decision declaring the JMB officially dissolved had been implemented and directed any creditors to address financial or legal claims on the JMB to the ministry.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them regarding their religious beliefs and practices, as well as some instances of surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent nominal conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits.  Likewise, some converts to Christianity from Islam reported instances of harassment by security officials, in-person and electronic surveillance, and bureaucratic delays or rejections of document requests, including passport applications.  Others reported security forces pressured converts to denounce their conversions and to recite Quranic verses in their offices.  Christian converts belonging to unregistered denominations described personal accounts of being summoned to security forces offices on several consecutive days, putting their jobs at risk.  Christians converts from larger Jordanian tribes with more supportive families tended to avoid some of the more extreme examples of scrutiny.  Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials.  Because of the sharia ban on conversion, government officials generally refused to change the religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion.  Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

During the year, the government Media Commission banned distribution of 15 books for insulting Islam, five for insulting Christianity, and 19 for “unethical” content, including books that contained sexual content without caveating for age and “promoting homosexuality.”  The commission banned 20 books in 2020.

Members of religious groups unable to obtain religious divorces converted to another Christian denomination or to Islam to divorce legally, according to reports from religious leaders and the MOJ.  The chief of the OSJ continued to ensure that Christians wanting to convert to Islam did not have a pending divorce case at one of the Christian religious courts to prevent them from converting for the sole purpose of obtaining a legal divorce.  The OSJ continued to enforce the interview requirement for converts to Islam, introduced in 2017, to determine whether their conversion reflected a genuine religious belief.

Youth Sub-Committee Member Wafa al-Khadra resigned from the Royal Committee for the Modernization of the Political System in July after she critiqued Eid al-Adha sacrifice practices, saying theses rituals “lacked mercy.”  Social media users called for her resignation, calling her a “heretic” and stating her comments insulted Islam.  Al-Khadra said her statement had been taken out of context and clarified that some individuals sacrificed sheep in an inhumane way.  A public prosecutor declined to proceed with an apostasy complaint lodged against al-Khadra.

As part of its COVID-19 pandemic response, the government instituted defense orders and ordered periodic comprehensive lockdowns, including places of worship, on Fridays, and daily curfews from October 2020 to April 2021.  The government intermittently allowed Muslim worshippers to walk to their local mosques for Friday prayers when driving was prohibited.  Protesters throughout the year demanded the government ease restrictions on congregational prayers at mosques.  Muslim religious leaders wrote a letter in March to the King requesting permission to perform group prayers in mosques, while others expressed support for the government’s efforts to combat the pandemic.  In March, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Awqaf said the ministry’s decision to suspend Friday prayers aimed to preserve human life and complied with Islamic laws.  Greek Orthodox Bishop Christophoros Atallah, in his capacity as CCL President, also affirmed during a March press conference that worshippers should remain committed to the government’s efforts to combat the pandemic.  After the government decided to reopen all sectors in September, mosques partially opened, on the conditions that adherents comply with crowd-size mandates.  Worshippers accused the government of having double standards when applying defense orders, since it allowed large gatherings of individuals for concerts, while preventing in-person worship.  Churches reported they continued to meet online and in person except during periods of general lockdown.  According to RIIFS, 58 percent of respondents supported the government’s decision to close places of worship for health and safety purposes during the pandemic, 27 percent opposed the closures, and 15 percent were neutral.

The same RIIFS survey found 24 percent of respondents believed government closures affected Muslim women’s freedom of worship, since they were not allowed to participate in Friday prayers at mosques, while 49 percent did not believe the closures affected women’s ability to worship.  When polled by RIIFS, 43 percent of the country’s religious experts viewed the decision to prevent women from attending Friday prayers as discriminatory, while 39 percent said the decision did not discriminate between men and women, on the grounds that Friday prayers were only obligatory for men under the experts’ interpretation of sharia.  At year’s end, women were still not allowed to attend Friday prayers.

Muslim and Christian leaders worked with the government to raise awareness regarding the pandemic during Friday and Sunday sermons, according to RIIFS.  The Ministry of Awqaf used social media to publish statements on the significance of helping others, donating to relief funds, and following government measures.  Religious charitable societies distributed health supplies and food to citizens around the country.  Religious leaders also preached about the importance of vaccines during the government’s rollout.

The Ministry of Awqaf continued to monitor sermons at mosques and required that preachers refrain from political commentary not approved by the government.  Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons.  Imams violating these rules risked being fined or banned from preaching.

Unofficial mosques continued to operate outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, and imams outside of government employment preached without ministry supervision.  Ministry of Awqaf investigations uncovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques during the year.  In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam.  Friday prayers in major cities were consolidated into central mosques, over which the Ministry of Awqaf had more oversight, continuing a process that began in 2018.  The ministry allowed smaller mosques to continue Friday sermons along with their areas’ central mosque.

On January 26, Greek Orthodox Bishop Christophoros Atallah, in his capacity as CCL President, sent a letter to the Judicial Council and Royal Court requesting they refer all Christian PSL cases to the CCL instead of to civil courts.  Atallah’s letter said adherents of unrecognized Christian denominations used the civil courts to enter into “illegal marriages” and “gain legitimization” by bypassing the CCL.  Judicial Council Chief Justice Mohammad al-Ghazo subsequently issued a memorandum on February 5 requiring Christians to use the CCL for PSL cases.  Evangelical Christian church leaders expressed concern regarding their ability to function as churches, and in early March, after lobbying by the evangelical churches, the Judicial Council retracted its order and convoked a meeting with Christian leaders to resolve the dispute.  Evangelicals said they had been specifically targeted because the CCL and government officials viewed them negatively, associating their religious groups with proselytization and U.S.-based, pro-Israel evangelical denominations.

Authorities continued to deny a license to an unrecognized Christian church to operate a publishing house and approval for a private Baptist school in the city of Zarqa.

During the year, expatriate religious volunteers from the evangelical Christian community continued to report bureaucratic delays in the renewal of residency permits and what they termed occasionally arbitrary rejections of paperwork.  In 2018, the government began enforcing a new residency policy to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency.  Observers suggested that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims.  Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the MOI and a letter of sponsorship from the church.  Volunteers were required to obtain additional approvals, including from the Ministry of Labor, lengthening the average renewal process by several months, according to church officials.  Some expatriate religious volunteers reported the government refused to grant residency permission, forcing them to depart the country.

The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to privately practice their religion and included them in officially sponsored interfaith events.  Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue Baha’is the marriage certificates required to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse or to register for government health insurance and social security.  The Department of Civil Status and Passports also continued not to recognize marriages conducted by Baha’i assemblies, but it issued family books to Baha’is, allowing them to register their children, except in cases of marriages between a Baha’i man and a Baha’i woman when the marriage was erroneously registered as Muslim.  In those cases, the children were considered illegitimate and were not issued birth certificates or included in family books and subsequently were unable to obtain citizenship or register for school.  The Baha’is were able to obtain some documents such as marriage certificates through the civil courts, although they reportedly were required to pay fees that sometimes amounted to more than 500 dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five dinars ($7) through religious courts.  Some Baha’is traveled to other countries to obtain officially recognized marriages and others sought marriages from sympathetic Muslim clergy, a process that Baha’is deemed unsustainable and unacceptable.  Members of the Baha’i community stated that they continued to lobby the government unsuccessfully for recognition.

In an article that detailed the problems facing the foreign-born wives in Baha’i families, the news website Middle East Monitor stated that these women seeking to become naturalized citizens, as allowed by the country’s laws, were unable to do so because of the government did not recognize the Baha’i Faith and the government did not issue marriage certificates to Baha’i couples.  As a result, the women faced limited options in employment, career, education, and travel outside the country.

There continued to be two recognized cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government.  Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is.  In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process that created a large financial burden.  Baha’i leaders said they were using the civil courts to challenge their group’s property registration restrictions, stating they were unable to legally protect Baha’i assets if individuals who registered Baha’i property under their names decided to misappropriate funds or property.  The Baha’i community’s request for religious exemptions for property registration fees remained pending.

The government continued to deny official recognition to other religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Some unrecognized religious groups reported they continued to operate schools and hospitals and were able to hold services and meetings if they maintained a low profile.  Some unregistered Christian denominations said that although all religious groups were equal in the eyes of the constitution, the government practiced favoritism toward specific Christian groups that had more political power, which increased tensions among these religious groups.

In early December, the Director of the Public Security Directorate, Major General Hussein al-Hawatmeh, announced an increase in security force presence in Christian areas and public areas decorated for the holidays throughout the month.  Christian leaders expressed their appreciation to the authorities for protecting churches and Christian spaces during the holidays.

The government authorized Christian civil servants leave for Sunday worship and religious holidays.

Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, continued to serve in parliament and as cabinet ministers.  Members of religious minorities served as deputy prime ministers, senators, members of parliament (MPs), and ambassadors.  The cabinet appointed in October included one Druze member and two Christian members, unchanged from the previous cabinet.  A Christian MP served as House Second Deputy Speaker for parliament’s 2020-21 and 2021-22 terms.

The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze.  Druze continued to report discrimination, and the way constituencies were geographically distributed hindered their coreligionists from reaching high positions in government civil service and official departments.  The government did not include members of the Druze community in the Political Modernization Committee, established by the King in June to reform the political system, despite the committee’s assurances that it would consider the country’s demographics and to include representation from all facets of society.

Christians and Druze achieved general officer rank in the military, but Muslims continued to hold most of the senior positions across the security and intelligence services.

The national school curriculum, including materials on tolerance education, did not mention the Holocaust, but some private schools included it in their curricula.  An Anti-Defamation League study found examples of antisemitic tropes in public school textbooks, including a passage that says, “Treason and the breaking of pacts are among the characteristics of the Jews.”  Another textbook, used for 12th grade history, described the Zionist movement as “a racist, settler political movement aimed at establishing a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine, founded on historical claims without basis in truth,” and said that Jewish links to Jerusalem are “founded on historical and religious claims without any actual grounds on which to base them.”

Christian leaders reported many Jordanians believed Christianity arrived in the country during the Crusades due in part, said the leaders, to the national secondary school curriculum’s practice of not teaching Jordan’s pre-Islamic history nor acknowledging that there was a Christian presence in the region prior to the rise of Islam.

Members of non-Muslim religious groups, especially unregistered groups, continued to report occasional threats by the government to arrest them for disrupting public order if they proselytized Muslims.  Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks, according to multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  Others were denied residency permits on the basis of proselytization accusations.

Christian groups that maintained a lower profile noted examples of security forces monitoring them only when other Christian denominations submitted official complaints against them.

The government deemed some children, including children of unmarried women or interfaith marriages involving a Muslim woman and converts from Islam to another religion, “illegitimate” and denied them standard registration.  The government issued these children, as well as orphans, special national identification numbers, which made it difficult for these children to attend school, access health services, or receive other documentation.

In June, the Bible Society of Jordan posted a verse from the Book of Psalms, Psalms 37:11 – “The meek shall inherit the earth” – on city entrances and bridges in Amman, an annual practice to honor Jordan’s Independence Day.  The banners sparked widespread controversy; several social media users posted antisemitic commentary equating the Book of Psalms only with Judaism and the promotion of Zionism.  MP Hasan Riyati sent a request to the House Speaker to investigate the “authorities that licensed a Torah verse to be hung around the city in a country whose religion is Islam and whose main enemy is the Zionists.”  The Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) subsequently removed the banners and issued a statement saying it would not allow anyone to post statements that violate public morals.  Christians and some Muslims criticized the GAM’s statement, arguing the verse was in line with public morals.  Others saw the controversy as an opportunity to educate the public, explaining the verse was found in the holy books of both Christians and Jews and that the Quran contained a similar verse.  GAM Mayor Yousef Shawarbeh met with Christian leaders to offer an apology; he removed the GAM statement from official media but did not reinstall the banners.  Christian youth groups held a protest outside the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate offices, saying the government’s apology was insufficient.  Many citizens asked the government to take concrete actions against hate speech and against those who did not respect the religious freedom of Christians in the country.

In December, MP Suleiman Abu Yahya stated the Jews attempted to “poison” the Prophet Muhammad and “would not hesitate to poison Jordanians” during a parliamentary hearing on Project Prosperity, a planned energy-for-water project involving Jordan, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates.

In September, parliament approved legislation to develop public lands adjacent to the Jordanian side of the Jordan River identified by some scholars as Jesus’s baptism site, which some MPs said would promote religious tourism, support local communities, and provide job opportunities.  The law would also establish a nonprofit charitable foundation supervised by a Board of Trustees, appointed by the Royal Hashemite Court, and would grant fee and tax exemptions.  Christian leaders largely supported the law, noting it would deepen church connections around the world as pilgrims travelled to the country, and it would supplement the national economy.

Throughout the year, RIIFS, established under the patronage of Prince Hassan bin Talal, organized periodic discussions and sponsored initiatives with religious leaders and social activists to promote political pluralism, cultural diversity, religious tolerance, and civic responsibility in the country and throughout the region.  It also held comparative religion seminars on Muslim and Christian doctrinal teachings.

Kuwait

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion but also declares freedom of belief is “absolute.”  It stipulates that the state protects the freedom to practice one’s religion, provided such practice does not conflict with established customs, public policy, or morals.  The constitution states that sharia is a main source of legislation and that all individuals are equal before the law, regardless of religion.  Defamation of the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), publication or broadcast of material the government deems offensive to religious groups, and practices the government finds inconsistent with Islamic law are prohibited by law.  The government prosecuted numerous individuals for remarks deemed religiously offensive, mostly for comments made online, and sentenced some to prison terms.  In January, according to press and human rights activists, authorities arrested Mubarak al-Bathali as a part of a 2014 criminal court ruling that convicted him of inciting sectarian strife, insulting a group of society (Shia), and disrupting national unity through his Twitter posts.  According to human rights activists and social media accounts, authorities arrested and interrogated religious freedom activist Nasser Dashti in July on charges of blasphemy for public statements he made criticizing religion and praising secularism.  The government continued to appoint and pay the salaries of Sunni imams and provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques.  The government did not exercise the same oversight of Shia imams.  The government paid the salaries of some Shia imams.  The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (MAIA) opened investigations on three Sunni imams for delivering sermons perceived as politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, or violating the national unity law.  Minority religious groups said they were able to worship in private spaces without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and restrictions on proselytizing.  Leaders of registered churches reported that government authorities allowed only citizens to sign official documents, even if the citizens were not among the churches’ ordained clergy.  If there were no citizen members, the authorities recognized the highest church authority as the official signatory of the church.  Most minority religious groups reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulty obtaining permission to construct new facilities.  The government did not accredit any religious schools or permit Shia religious training within the country.  Shia leaders continued to report discrimination in clerical and public sector employment.  The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials referring to the Holocaust or Israel.

Individuals continued to face societal pressure against conversion from Islam; some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them because of their conversion.  In January, a television journalist and announcer posted a video on Snapchat announcing that he was converting from Islam to Christianity.  Reactions on social media varied, with some users stating the journalist had the right to choose his faith, and others saying he was an apostate risking damnation.  In January, a prominent cleric issued a statement condemning the construction an interfaith center in the United Arab Emirates that would include a synagogue, church, and mosque.  He also uploaded to YouTube a statement calling Jews “the brothers of apes and pigs, because they are essentially like them.”  Hotels, stores, and businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.  News media continued to publish information about celebrations of religious holidays such as Christmas.  Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval on social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays.

In November, embassy officials met with MAIA representatives to better understand the ministry’s efforts to promote religious tolerance, its relationship with religious minority groups, and the activities of its Center for the Promotion of Moderation.  During the year, embassy officials met with religious leaders and members of the Sunni, Shia, Bohra, Hindu, Baha’i, and Christian communities to discuss the groups’ needs.  In May, November, and December, the Ambassador hosted roundtables with representatives from minority faiths, including the Bohra, Hindu, Baha’i, and Christian communities, to discuss a broad range of religious freedom issues.  The group discussed the status of religious freedom in the country, the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns on their communities, barriers to religious practice caused by the government’s administrative procedures for religious minority groups, and how to promote dialogue among expatriate religious minority communities and Kuwaiti citizens.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2021).  U.S. government figures also cite the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), a local government agency, reporting that the country’s total population was 4.6 million for 2021.  As of June, PACI reported there were 1.5 million citizens and 3.2 million noncitizens.  PACI estimates 75 percent of citizens and noncitizens are Muslims.  The national census does not distinguish between Shia and Sunni Muslims.  Nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and media estimate approximately 70 percent of citizens are Sunni Muslims, while the remaining 30 percent are Shia Muslims (including Ahmadi and Ismaili Muslims, whom the government counts as Shia).  PACI estimates 18 percent of citizens and noncitizens are Christian and 7 percent of citizens and noncitizens are members of non-Abrahamic faiths.  Community leaders indicated there are 288 Christian citizens and a handful of Baha’i citizens.  There are no known Jewish citizens, according to PACI.

According to information from PACI released in June, 63 percent of the expatriate population is Muslim, 26 percent Christian, and 11 percent from non-Abrahamic faiths.  Sources in various noncitizen communities state that approximately 5 percent of the expatriate Muslim population is Shia, while Hindus and Buddhist account for the majority of the non-Abrahamic faith population.  Informal estimates by members of different faiths indicate there are approximately 250,000 Hindus, 100,000 Buddhists, 25,000 Bohra Muslims, 10,000 to 12,000 Sikhs, 7,000 Druze, and 400 Baha’is.

While some geographic areas have higher concentrations of either Sunnis or Shia, the two groups are distributed uniformly throughout most of the country.  Sources in the Shia community state that approximately 60 percent of the Bidoon (long-time stateless Arab resident) population is Shia.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state and the freedom of belief to be “absolute.”  It provides for state protection of the freedom to practice all religions, provided such practice is “in accordance with established customs, and does not conflict with public policy or morals.”

The constitution declares sharia to be a main source of legislation and all individuals to be equal before the law regardless of religion.  It declares the emir shall be Muslim (the emir and ruling family are Sunni) and the state shall safeguard the heritage of Islam.

The law prohibits defamation of the three Abrahamic religions and denigration of Islamic and Judeo-Christian religious figures acknowledged within accepted Islamic orthodoxy (e.g., prophets mentioned in the Quran, and wives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad), and prescribes a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for each offense.

A national unity law prohibits “stirring sectarian strife,” promoting the supremacy of one religious group, instigating acts of violence based on the supremacy of one group, or promoting hatred or contempt of any group.  Violations of this law by individuals are punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment, a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 dinars ($33,100-$331,000), or both.  Repeated crimes carry double penalties.  If a group or an organization violates the law, it could have its license to operate revoked temporarily or permanently and face fines up to 200,000 dinars ($662,000).  Noncitizens convicted under this law are also subject to deportation.

The law allows citizens to file criminal charges against anyone they believe has defamed any of the three recognized Abrahamic religions or harmed public morals.

The law criminalizes publishing and broadcasting content, including on social media, which the government deems offensive to religious “sects” or groups, providing for fines ranging from 10,000 to 200,000 dinars ($33,100-$662,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment.

There is no officially published process outlining steps religious groups must take to register with the government.  Government offices do not offer guidance on the registration process.  There are no fixed criteria for an application to be approved.  To obtain a license to establish an official place of worship and gain benefits from the central government, a religious group must first receive approval from the local municipality for its place of worship.  Previously, religious groups reported the municipality would pass the paperwork to MAIA for an “opinion” on the application for a worship space.  MAIA would then issue a certificate that lists board members for the organization, making the religious group a legal entity, followed by further approvals by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MOSA) and the Ministry of Interior (MOI).  However, MAIA representatives stated during the year that MAIA is not responsible for the registration process for churches, and they did not provide clarification on which government agency is responsible for the registration process for non-Islamic places of worship.

The officially registered and licensed Christian churches in the country are the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait (NECK) (Protestant); Roman Catholic; Greek Catholic (Melkite); Coptic Orthodox; Armenian Orthodox; Greek Orthodox; Anglican; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  There are no officially recognized synagogues, and according to MAIA, no application has ever been submitted for one.  The government does not recognize any non-Abrahamic religions.  Nonregistered religious groups include Hindus, Sikhs, Druze, Bohra Muslims, and Baha’is.

A religious group with a license to establish a place of worship may hire its own staff, sponsor visitors to the country, open bank accounts, and import texts needed for its congregation.  Nonregistered religious groups do not have the same rights as licensed groups and may not purchase property or sponsor workers and must rely on volunteers from within their community for resources.  Some registered religious groups have agreed to assist nonregistered groups in these matters.

The law prohibits practices the government deems inconsistent with Islamic law, including anything the government deems to be sorcery or black magic, which under the penal code constitutes “fraud and deception” and carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.

The law does not specifically prohibit proselytizing by non-Muslims, but individuals proselytizing may be prosecuted under laws criminalizing contempt of religion.

The law prohibits eating, drinking, and smoking in public between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, including for non-Muslims, with a prescribed maximum penalty of up to 100 dinars ($330), one month’s imprisonment, or both.

It is illegal to possess, import, trade, or manufacture alcohol.  Importing alcohol carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment; consuming alcohol may result in a fine of up to 1,000 dinars ($3,300).  It is illegal to consume alcohol publicly, which carries a penalty of up to six months’ imprisonment and a fine up to 50 dinars ($170).  It is illegal to import and sell pork products; the penalty ranges from three months to three years’ imprisonment.

Islamic religious instruction is mandatory at all levels for all Muslim students in both public and private schools with one or more Muslim students enrolled, regardless of whether the student is a citizen.  Non-Muslim students are not required to attend these classes.  The law prohibits organized religious education in public high schools for faiths other than Islam.  All Islamic education courses are based on Sunni Islam.

The law states apostates lose certain legal rights, including to inherit property from Muslim relatives or spouses, but it does not specify any criminal penalty.  If a Muslim man married to a Muslim woman converts from Islam, his existing marriage is annulled.  If he is married to a non-Muslim woman and converts from Islam, the marriage remains valid.  If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to another Abrahamic faith (Christianity or Judaism), the marriage is not automatically annulled, but the Muslim husband may request an annulment.  If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to a non-Abrahamic faith, the marriage is automatically annulled.

Religious courts administer personal status laws dealing with issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody.  For non-Muslims, courts apply Sunni sharia in matters of personal status and family law.  Noncitizens not belonging to the three recognized Abrahamic religions are also subject to sharia if family matters are taken to court.  According to the law, sharia governs inheritance for all residents regardless of their religious affiliation if the case is brought to court.

Courts may follow Shia jurisprudence in matters of personal status and family law for Shia Muslims at all levels of the judiciary.  The law allows for the creation of separate courts for Shia Muslims for cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody.  These courts have six judges, none of whom has a formal background in Shia jurisprudence.  An independent Shia waqf (trust) administers Shia religious endowments.  Cases are assigned to either Sunni or Shia judges based on the religious affiliation of the man.  If a man is married to a non-Muslim woman, the husband’s religious practice is followed.  If a couple is from one of the registered churches, the court may consider the settlement offered by the church, although if the dispute is not settled, Sunni sharia is applied.

The law forbids, and the state does not recognize, marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, but Muslim men may marry women of other recognized Abrahamic faiths.  The law requires the raising of children of such marriages in their father’s faith, and the father’s religion governs the settlement of marital disputes.  Muslim marriage and divorce cases are heard in Sunni or Shia religious courts, depending on whether the marriage certificate is Sunni or Shia.  Both Sunni and Shia marriage certificates need to be authenticated by appropriate notaries.  While non-Muslim divorce, inheritance, and child custody cases are heard in Sunni religious courts, Christian couples who are part of a registered church may resolve these cases following their religious customs.  Local authorities and courts recognize documents in these cases, provided there is a Kuwaiti signatory from the church’s congregation.  If the church has no Kuwaiti citizen among its congregation, the authorities will accept a signature from the church’s highest authority.  With the exception of Hindus and Sikhs of Indian nationality, who may marry at the Embassy of India, members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches may not marry legally in the country but may have their foreign wedding certificates recognized.  Citizens who are members of the Baha’i Faith may marry abroad and petition the court to recognize their marriage.

If a religious group wishes to purchase land, a citizen must be the primary buyer and must submit a request for approval to the local municipal council, which allocates land at its discretion.  Citizens, or in a few cases the government, may also rent land to religious groups.

The law prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims but allows male citizens of any religion to transmit citizenship to their descendants.  Female citizens, regardless of religion, are unable to transmit nationality to their children.

An individual’s religion is not included on passports or national identity documents except for birth and marriage certificates, on which it is mandatory.  On birth certificates issued to Muslims, there is no distinction between Sunni and Shia.  Members of non-Abrahamic faiths are not able to list their religion on their birth certificate and a dash (-) is denoted in place of their religion.

The government has not recognized political parties, including religiously based parties, or allow their formation, although no formal law bans political parties.  National Assembly candidates must nominate themselves as individuals; however, well-organized, unofficial blocs operate as political groupings inside the National Assembly.  Those convicted of insulting the emir and Islam are banned from running for elected office.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In January, press and human rights activists reported that authorities arrested Mubarak al-Bathali as a part of a 2014 Criminal Court decision that convicted him of inciting sectarian strife, insulting a group of society (Shia), and disrupting national unity through his Twitter posts.  In 2014, the government sentenced al-Bathali to three years in prison, which was the first decision of its kind since the passage of the 2012 National Unity Law.  However, according to local observers, it was unclear whether al-Bathali served any prison time or completed this sentence.  According to press and human rights activists, authorities arrested al-Bathali in 2021 in connection to the 2014 case, but the press and activists did not address why authorities waited seven years to arrest him or if he was rearrested on related charges.  Authorities did not issue any statement on al-Bathali’s arrest.

According to human rights activists and social media accounts, authorities arrested and interrogated religious freedom activist Nasser Dashti in July on charges of blasphemy for public statements he made criticizing religion and praising secularism.  Authorities released Dashti a day after his arrest and acquitted him of all charges in a December 27 hearing, although the ruling was subject to challenge in the Court of Appeals.  Some social media users thanked the Ministry of Interior for arresting Dashti and said insulting religion is a crime.

In November, authorities arrested a British woman for having a tattoo displaying a Quranic verse and violating religious sanctity.  Local media stated a citizen reported her to the police.  Authorities released her after she posted bail and signed a statement that she would remove her tattoo.

On December 7, authorities summoned Shia cleric Hussein al-Maatouk, who had been living in exile in Iran, for questioning as part of an ongoing investigation of a Shia mosque endowment accused of laundering money for Hizballah.  After the interrogation, they released him that same day.

Although the law does not prohibit apostasy, the government continued its policy of not issuing new official documents for recording a change in religion unless the conversion was from another religion to Islam.

In accordance with MAIA policy, the government continued to vet, appoint, and pay all new Sunni imams to ensure compliance with the government’s guidance on moderate and tolerant religious preaching.

The Shia community continued to select its own clerics without government oversight.  The government funded Sunni religious institutions, including mosques, and paid the salaries of all Sunni imams.  The Shia community generally did not receive funding from the state for religious institutions and mosques.  The government paid the salaries of some Shia imams.  Some Shia mosques requested government assistance and received funds to pay for salaries and maintenance of their facilities.

MAIA opened investigations into three Sunni imams for delivering sermons perceived as being politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, or violating the national unity law.

The government continued to provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques.  Imams could add content to the sermons but needed to ensure the text adhered to the laws on political speech and avoided stoking sectarianism.  Media sources reported MAIA continued to caution imams to ensure their sermons were consistent with MAIA guidelines, including refraining from discussing political issues or insulting other religions in their sermons or at any other time.  MAIA required Sunni imams to send a recorded audio of their sermons to MAIA for review after the fact.  MAIA also relied on reports of worshippers and others who might be dissatisfied if the imam discussed politics or insulted other faiths.

Shia sources and government authorities said the government did not officially monitor Shia clerics, who were free to write their own sermons if they did not violate existing laws or instigate sectarianism.  If a questionable video appeared on social media or a worshipper reported a cleric, the government investigated.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were fewer religious gatherings during the year.  As in 2020, but unlike years prior, Shia representatives and government officials reported no incidents of suspected violations.  According to officials at MAIA and members of the Shia community, MAIA did not monitor sermons or other activities at husseiniyas (Shia prayer halls for religious commemorations) or at private gatherings.  Some sources stated they believed the government unofficially monitored Shia clerics.

Due to the pandemic, MAIA again organized several online courses for Sunni imams during the year to make their messages more effective in promoting tolerance and countering radicalization.  In November, the Director of the Center for the Promotion of Moderation, Abdullah al-Shuraika, said that the center received a few reports of cases of extremism during the year through the hotline the center launched in 2020 for receiving such reports.  The center also continued its efforts to promote tolerance and moderation via television, radio, and online media, as well as to rehabilitate prison inmates who were convicted in terror and extremism cases.  The center organized courses for all MAIA staff to enhance the ministry’s capacity to promote moderation and tolerance and to counter radical messaging and violent extremism narratives.  In November, the Undersecretary of MAIA issued a decision to create a counseling team headed by the Director of the Center for the Promotion of Moderation that would conduct a dialogue with those affected by extremist ideology.  He said the team would be in place for three months beginning November 1.

On April 12, the news website Middle East Monitor cited a report in Al-Rai newspaper that the Funeral Department of the Kuwait Municipality rejected requests by the Hindu and Buddhist communities to cremate bodies of their deceased in the city.  The director of the office said, “Whoever wants to cremate corpses, he should take them to his country and burn them there.”  The report said the government banned cremations in the early 1980s, in line with Islamic teaching.

Representatives of registered churches continued to state the government was generally tolerant and respectful of their faiths.  Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches continued to state they remained free to practice their religion in private but faced harassment and potential prosecution if they disturbed their neighbors or violated laws regarding assembly and proselytizing.  They also continued to say they avoided conflict with authorities by not proselytizing or disparaging the government or other faiths.  The government continued to allow such groups to operate in rented villas, private homes, or the facilities of registered churches.  Many of these groups said they did not publicly advertise religious events or gatherings to avoid bringing unwanted attention to their organizations, both from the public and from government authorities.

Leaders of registered churches reported government authorities continued to allow only citizens to sign official documents, even if the citizens were not among the churches’ ordained clergy.  However, if there were no citizen members, the authorities continued to recognize the highest church authority as the official signatory of the church.

The Public Authority for Manpower (PAM) continued to impose fines on churches that did not hire the required percentage of citizens as employees, a threshold that remained unclear to many churches.  Some churches stated they paid more than 7,000 dinars ($23,200) in fines for their failure to comply with this policy.

Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches continued to say they experienced hardship in commemorating major religious or life events.  Almost uniformly across these communities, members said they lacked sufficient religious facilities and religious leaders or clerics to lead prayers, bless births and marriages, and conduct appropriate death rituals.  In many cases, members of these religious groups stated they resolved conflicts, such as child separation issues in divorce, marital status, or inheritance, internally within their communities rather than take legal action in the courts where they would be subject to sharia.

The government continued to require religious groups to obtain licenses from their respective municipalities for religious celebrations.  Authorities retained the right to withdraw the license of any husseiniya not complying with the municipality’s rules.  Minority religious communities continued to state they tried to keep a low profile and did not request permission for public celebrations from authorities, which they presumed would be rejected if they applied for it.

The MOI continued to provide added security and protection at religious sites for all recognized non-Sunni religious groups.  Muslim and Christian leaders continued to report that the government, citing security concerns, kept in place the ban on outdoor religious observances instituted following an ISIS bombing of a Shia mosque in 2015 that killed 27 persons.  The government continued to station security forces outside some Sunni mosques and all Shia and Christian religious venues during times of worship throughout the year as a deterrent to attacks.  The government also continued to provide security to Shia neighborhoods during Muharram and Ashura.

The government continued to require the Shia community to conduct Ashura activities inside closed structures rather than at outdoor locations.  The government did not permit public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein or public marches in commemoration of Ashura.  In August, the government imposed additional COVID-19-related health restrictions on Shia pilgrims returning from Iraq after participating in a religious commemoration there following Ashura.  The government required the travelers to quarantine in facilities at their own expense for seven days and to undergo home quarantine for an additional seven days.

Authorities continued the government’s longstanding practice of prohibiting churches from displaying exterior signs, such as a cross or church bell.

The government allowed only shops owned by registered religious organizations to import, display, or sell non-Islamic religious literature.  The government did not permit non-Islamic religious publishing companies, although several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use.  Church leaders continued to report the government permitted registered Christian churches to import religious materials for use by their congregations under the condition that none of the content insulted Islam.  Registered churches reported they were able to import religious materials in any language.  According to the Ministry of Information, the MAIA reviewed books of a religious nature.  Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches continued to state they could import religious materials for their congregations if they brought in the materials as personal items when entering the country and did not try to sell them in public stores.  While minority religious communities said they continued to be selective in the religious materials they imported, and even more selective in giving access to the materials, many noted this was less of an issue during the year, given their activities had moved almost entirely online due to COVID-19.  They said they did not allow the circulation of these materials outside their congregations.

Municipalities handled building permits and land issues for religious groups.  The government said it received no applications for construction of new churches from religious groups during the year.  The government said it did not receive additional requests for registrations of new groups during the year.

Christian churches continued to report that government authorities did not respond to their petitions for expanding existing places of worship or increasing the number of staff the churches could sponsor.  The Greek Catholic Church indicated that it had requested additional land near its location in 2020 to accommodate more worshippers but had not received a response by year’s end.  Some churches said they stopped submitting such requests because the government did not respond.

Shia community members reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities caused by the government’s delay in approving repairs to existing mosques or constructing new ones.  MAIA reported there were 1,735 mosques in the country, including 46 mosques opened during the year.  According to 2018 government statistics, of the 1,601 mosques existing that year, 1550 were Sunni and 51 Shia.  According to Shia representatives, over the past two years, the government authorized licenses for seven mosques to be built.  A source from the Shia community said that while there were three Shia mosques under construction, no new Shia mosques opened during the year.  There were 20-30 husseiniyas registered with the MOI, and thousands of smaller Shia gatherings took place in private homes.

Again citing security concerns, authorities stated they continued to act against unlicensed mosques.  The government tasked MAIA, MOI, Kuwait City municipality, and other agencies with finding solutions to end the use of such unregistered mosques.  During the year, the government continued to close makeshift mosques for operating without proper licenses.  MAIA continued to operate under a mandate from the Council of Ministers to demolish unregistered mosques, stating that some of those mosques served as extremist platforms.  The demolition of these mosques continued during the year.  Authorities said new unlicensed mosques continued to open.  MAIA sources stated the ministry attempted to bring some underground mosques under its supervision by appointing and vetting imams, monitoring sermons, and licensing them.

According to the NGO Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), Shia Muslims are not allowed to organize religious courses in public high schools or establish religious training centers, in keeping with the law that mandated all Islamic education courses use the Sunni interpretation of Islam.

The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials, including fiction and nonfiction books and textbooks, that referenced the Holocaust or Israel.  The ministry permitted public schools to teach and celebrate only Islamic holidays.  Members of non-Islamic faiths largely said the government did not interfere with religious instruction inside private homes and on church compounds.

According to church leaders, although most churches provided faith-based instruction for children, none of them had government-accredited, church-based schools.  Accreditation for church-based schools would enable students to receive religious education while fulfilling government requirements and allow graduates to move on to higher education.  NECK repeatedly requested accreditation for its church-based school for many years, most recently in 2017, but authorities still did not provide a response.  After years of unsuccessful attempts, NECK decided to no longer seek accreditation with the authorities for its school.  The Armenian Church and the Bohra Muslim community continued to operate accredited community schools in lieu of seeking accreditation as religious schools.  Other groups continued to report they conducted religious studies in their places of worship.

Local sources suggested that the passage of the Shia Personal Status Law in 2019 increased the need for Shia religious training facilities to help staff the courts with qualified judges.  Shia leaders continued to report that the lack of Shia imams limited their ability to staff Shia courts, causing a backlog of personal status and family cases.  To address the backlog and shortage of staff, an ad hoc Shia jurisprudence council the government created many years ago under the marital issues court continued to function.

The government continued its practice of not responding to requests to establish Shia religious training institutions.  Shia Muslims had to seek religious training and education abroad.  According to the NGO Freedom House, the government did not permit training of Shia clerics in the country.  According to members of the Shia community, the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies at Kuwait University, the only institution in the country that trains imams, provided some Shia jurisprudence courses but did not permit Shia professors on its faculty.

According to reports by press and community members, MAIA continued to use less stringent testing criteria for mosque imams and muezzins that it implemented in 2020 to encourage qualified nationals to apply, with the aim of raising the number of citizens working in these positions.  Observers saw this as part of an ongoing and longstanding effort by the government to reduce reliance on foreign workers and to provide economic opportunities to its own nationals.

Shia remained underrepresented at all levels of government:  six of 50 elected members in parliament, one of 16 cabinet members, one of six Amiri Diwan advisors, and disproportionately fewer senior officers in the military and police force.  Shia community leaders continued to say there was a “glass ceiling” in promotions and difficulties in obtaining government jobs.  Shia leaders said it was particularly difficult for Shia to ascend to leadership positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the Ministry of Justice.  Shia also rarely held leadership positions in the security forces.  Some Shia leaders said discrimination continued to prevent Shia from obtaining training for clerical positions and leadership positions in public sector organizations, including the police force and the military/security apparatus.  According to the NGO MRGI, some Shia faced discrimination and obstacles when applying for senior leadership positions in the public sector.

The Ministry of Interior, in coordination with PAM, issued visas for clergy and other staff to work at licensed places of worship.  The government continued to impose quotas on the number of clergy and staff of licensed religious groups entering the country but sometimes granted additional slots upon request.  The government continued to require foreign leaders of unregistered religious groups to enter the country as nonreligious workers.

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), during Israeli-Palestinian violence in March, MAIA published a sermon for use by the country’s Sunni imams for Friday prayers on May 14 that declared, “Oh God, it is incumbent upon you to deal with the usurper Jews, and to take revenge upon the criminal Zionists, and to return al-Aqsa [Mosque complex] the wounded to the possession of the Muslims.”  The ADL said that the official Friday sermon the following week stated that al-Aqsa should be “freed from the claws of the attacker Jews and cleansed from the filth of the usurper Zionists” who hide truths and “assert fabricated claims” about “their alleged temple.”  It declared it “an obligation” for Muslims to stop this “sabotage” and “to end the plots of scheming, deceit, and aggression.”

On March 3, citing press reports, the news website Middle East Monitor stated that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry said it refused to register a trademark with Masonic symbols.  According to the website, the newspaper Al-Anbar reported that the official overseeing the issuance of trademarks in the ministry said, “Trademarks which… violate public morals, offend the ethical code, offend the Islamic religion or any other religion, or undermine national unity, are not permitted to be registered.”

Media coverage included news on events and celebrations held by various Christian denominations in the country, such as Christmas services and church inauguration anniversaries attended by high-level government officials, although in practice, the COVID-19 pandemic limited such events.

Lebanon

Executive Summary

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order.  The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a provision amended by the Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated proportional representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament, the cabinet, and other senior government positions.  On October 14, clashes erupted between Shia members of Hizballah and the Amal Movement with Christian supporters of the Lebanese Forces (LF) party in the Tayyouneh area in Beirut.  Authorities arrested 68 individuals on October 25, and investigations were ongoing at year’s end.  Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and unrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid.

Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and Specially Designated Global Terrorist group, continued to exercise influence over some areas, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut, parts of the Bekaa Valley, and southern areas of the country that are predominantly Shia Muslim.  A paper issued by the Middle East Institute stated that as an actor ideologically tied to Iran, Hizballah has multiple allegiances and “objectives describing the organization as ‘committed simultaneously’ to the decrees of Iranian clerics, the Lebanese state, its sectarian Shia community, and fellow Shia abroad.”

On August 1, armed clashes erupted between Shia Hizballah supporters and members of the Sunni Arab tribes of Khaldeh during the funeral procession of Hizballah member Ali Chebli, who was killed the night before in an apparent vendetta shooting during a wedding.  On January 27, Christian and Muslim religious leaders launched a joint appeal for the salvation of Lebanon in the face of an escalation of political, economic, and social and health crises.  On December 20, religious leaders representing the Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Sunni, Shia, and Druze communities met with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during his visit to the country.  In a joint statement with Guterres, the leaders confirmed their commitment to openness, tolerance, and coexistence, saying that these values are at the core of faith, especially during the country’s ongoing, compounding crises.  Muslim and Christian community leaders said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable.  The press reported that in a series of Sunday sermons throughout the year, Maronite Patriarch Rai appeared to criticize Hizballah, stressing the need to both expand the country’s policy of distancing the country from regional conflicts and maintain the current sharing of political power among the country’s religious groups.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious communities and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism.  The Ambassador spoke with Christian, Shia, Sunni, and Druze religious leaders throughout the year to discuss the impact of the economic situation on different religious communities.  Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups, including through interfaith programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.3 million (midyear 2021).  The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations estimate the total population includes 4.5 million citizens and an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of whom are Syrian, as well as a Palestinian refugee population present in the country for more than 70 years.  The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East estimates there are more than 180,000 Palestinian refugees in the country.

Lebanon has not conducted an official census of its population since 1932.  However, Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 64.9 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (32 percent Sunni, 31.3 percent Shia, and 1.6 percent Alawites and Ismailis combined).  Statistics Lebanon further estimates 32 percent of the population is Christian.  Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group (with 52.5 percent of the Christian population), followed by Greek Orthodox (25 percent of the Christian population).  Other Christian groups include Greek Catholics (Melkites), Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Copts, Protestants (including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists), Roman (Latin) Catholics, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).  According to Statistics Lebanon, 3.1 percent of the population is Druze, concentrated in the rural, mountainous areas east and south of Beirut.  There are also small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus.  The Jewish Community Council, which represents the country’s Jewish community, estimates 70 Jews reside in the country.

UNHCR reports that the Syrian refugees in the country are mainly Sunni Muslims, but also Shia Muslims, Christians, and Druze.  Palestinians live in the country as UN-registered refugees in 12 camps and surrounding areas.  They are mostly the descendants of refugees who entered the country in the 1940s and 1950s.  Most are Sunni Muslims, but some are Christians.

UNHCR states there are approximately 10,300 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees in the country.  Refugees and foreign migrants from Iraq include mostly Sunni Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Chaldean Catholics.  There are also Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan.  According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that advocates for Syriac Christians in the country, approximately 4,000 Iraqi Christians of all denominations and 3,000 to 4,000 Coptic Christians reside in the country.  According to the Syriac League, the majority of Iraqi Christian refugees are not registered with UNHCR and so are not included in its count.  The Syriac League said that the population of Iraqi Christians had decreased by 70 percent since 2019, largely because of emigration driven by the country’s economic crisis.

Persons from all religious groups continued to emigrate from the country during the year, in large part due to the country’s deteriorating economic situation.  There is anecdotal evidence that Christians constituted a significant portion of those who left the country, especially following the August 2020 Beirut Port explosion, with some citing fears for their security and potential treatment in an unpredictable political environment as a reason for their departure.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and declares the state will respect all religious groups and denominations, as well as the personal status and religious interests of persons of every religious group.  The constitution guarantees free exercise of religious rites, provided they do not disturb the public order, and declares the equality of rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination or preference.

By law, an individual is free to convert to a different religion if a local senior official of the religious group the person wishes to join approves the change.  The religious group issues a document confirming the convert’s new religion, allowing the convert to register her or his new religion with the Ministry of Interior’s (MOI’s) Personal Status Directorate.  The new religion is included thereafter on government-issued civil registration documents.

Citizens have the right to remove the customary notation of their religion from government-issued civil registration documents or change how it is listed.  Changing the documents does not require approval of religious officials and does not change or remove the individual’s registration with the Personal Status Directorate.

The penal code stipulates a maximum prison term of one year for anyone convicted of “blaspheming God publicly.”  It does not provide a definition of what this entails.  A publications law regulates print media.  The law includes provisions that impose potential fines or prison terms for sectarian provocation and prohibit the press from publishing blasphemous content regarding the country’s officially recognized religions or content that may provoke sectarian feuds.

The law governing audiovisual media bans live broadcasts of certain religious events and prohibits the broadcast of programs that seek to harm public morals, ignite sectarian strife, or insult religious beliefs.  Websites are censored through court orders filed with the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF’s) Cybercrimes Bureau for further investigation, after which the bureau issues a final order to the Ministry of Telecommunications.  Elements of the law permit censorship of religious material considered a threat to national security or offensive to the dignity of the head of state or foreign leaders.  The law includes guidelines regarding materials deemed unsuitable for publication in a book, newspaper, or magazine.  Any violation of the guidelines may result in the author’s imprisonment or a fine.  Officials from any of the recognized religious groups may request that the Directorate of General Security (DGS) ban a book.  The government may prosecute offending journalists and publications in the publications court.  Authorities occasionally also refer such cases to criminal courts, a process not established in law.

The penal code criminalizes defamation and contempt for religion and stipulates a maximum prison term of three years for either of these offenses.

By law, religious groups may apply to the government for official recognition.  To do so, a religious group must submit a statement of its doctrine and moral principles to the cabinet, which evaluates whether the group’s principles are in accordance with the government’s perception of popular values and the constitution.  Alternatively, a nonrecognized religious group may apply for recognition by seeking affiliation with another recognized religious group.  In doing so, the nonrecognized group does not gain recognition as a separate group but becomes an affiliate of the group through which it applies.  This process has the same requirements as applying for recognition directly with the government.

There are 18 officially recognized religious groups:  five Muslim groups (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Alawite, and Ismaili), 12 Christian groups (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Copt, evangelical Protestant, and Roman Catholic), and Jews.  Groups the government does not recognize include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, several Protestant groups, and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Official recognition of a religious group allows baptisms and marriages performed by the group to receive government recognition, which also conveys other benefits, such as tax-exempt status and the right to apply the religious group’s codes to personal status matters.  By law, the government permits recognized religious to administer their own rules on family and personal status issues, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.  Shia, Sunni, recognized Christian, and Druze groups have state-appointed, government-subsidized clerical courts to administer family and personal status law according to the respective religious group’s beliefs.  While the religious courts and religious laws are legally bound to comply with the provisions of the constitution, the Court of Cassation, the highest civil court in the judicial system, has very limited oversight of religious court proceedings and decisions.

There are no formalized procedures for civil marriage or divorce.  The government recognizes heterosexual civil marriage ceremonies performed outside the country irrespective of the religious affiliation of each partner in the marriage.  While some Christian and Muslim religious authorities will perform interreligious marriages, clerics, priests, or religious courts often require the nonbelonging partner to pledge to raise his or her children in the religion of the partner and/or to relinquish certain rights, such as inheritance or custody claims, in the case of divorce

Nonrecognized religious groups may own property, assemble for worship, and perform religious rites freely.  They may not perform legally recognized marriage or divorce proceedings, and they have no standing to determine inheritance issues.  Due to agreements in the country’s confessional system that designate percentages of senior government positions, and in some cases specific positions for the recognized religious confessions, members of nonrecognized groups have no opportunity to occupy certain government positions, including cabinet, parliamentary, secretary-general, and director general positions.

The government requires Protestant churches to register with the Evangelical Synod, a self-governing advisory group overseeing religious matters for Protestant congregations and representing those churches to the government.

According to the constitution, recognized religious communities may operate their own schools, provided they follow the general rules issued for public schools, which stipulate schools must not incite sectarian discord or threaten national security.  The government permits but does not require religious education in public schools.  Both Christian and Muslim local religious representatives sometimes host educational sessions in public schools.

The constitution states “sectarian groups” shall be represented in a “just and equitable balance” in the cabinet and high-level civil service positions, which includes the ministry ranks of secretary-general and director general.  It also states these posts shall be distributed proportionately among the major religious groups.  This distribution of positions among religious groups is based on the unwritten 1943 National Pact, which used religious affiliation data from the 1932 census (the last conducted in the country).  According to the pact, the President shall be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament shall be a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister shall be a Sunni Muslim.  This proportional distribution also applies to high-level positions in the civil service; the judiciary, military and security institutions; and public agencies at both the national and local levels of government.  Parliament is elected on equal representation between Christians and Muslims, and cabinet positions must be allocated on the same basis.  Druze and Alawites are included in this allocation within Muslim communities.

The constitution also states there is no legitimacy for any authorities that contradict the “pact of communal existence,” thereby giving force of law to the unwritten 1943 National Pact, although that arrangement is neither officially spelled out in the constitution nor is it a formally binding legal agreement.

The Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war in 1989, also mandates elections based on the principle of proportional representation between Muslims and Christians in parliament but reaffirms the Christian and Muslim allocation at 50 percent each.  The agreement reduced the constitutional powers of the Maronite Christian presidency and increased those of the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister while also subjecting the designation of the Prime Minister to binding consultations with parliament and the designations of all ministers to a parliamentary vote of confidence.

In addition, the Taif Agreement endorses the constitutional provision of appointing most senior government officials according to religious affiliation, including senior positions within the military and other security forces.  Customarily, a Christian heads the army, while the directors general of the ISF and the DGS are Sunni and Shia, respectively.  Several other top positions in the security services are customarily designated for particular confessions as well.  While specific positions are designated by custom rather than law, deviating from custom is rare and any change or accommodation generally must be mutually agreed by the confessions concerned.

The Taif Agreement’s stipulations on equality of representation among members of different confessions do not apply to citizens who do not list a religious affiliation on their national registration, and thus they cannot hold a seat designated for a specific confession.  Authorities allocate every government-recognized religion, except Ismaili Islam and Judaism, at least one seat in parliament, regardless of the number of its adherents.

By law, the synod of each Christian group elects its patriarchs; the Sunni and Shia electoral bodies elect their respective senior clerics; and the Druze community elects its sheikh al-aql, its most senior religious leader.  The cabinet must endorse the nomination of Sunni and Shia muftis, as well as the sheikh al-aql, and pay their salaries.  The government also appoints and pays the salaries of Muslim and Druze clerical judges.  By law, the government does not endorse Christian patriarchs and does not pay the salaries of Christian clergy and officials of Christian groups.

The government issues foreign religious workers a one-month visa; to stay longer a worker must complete a residency application during the month.  Religious workers also must sign a “commitment of responsibility” form before receiving a visa, which subjects the worker to legal prosecution and immediate deportation for any activity involving religious or other criticism directed against the state or any other country, except Israel.  If the government finds an individual engaging in religious activity while on a tourist visa, the government may determine a violation of the visa category has occurred and deport the individual.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Shia members of Hizballah and the Amal Movement clashed with Christian supporters of the Lebanese Forces (LF) party in Beirut’s Tayyouneh neighborhood on October 14.  Seven individuals died in the confrontation and more than 30 were wounded.  Violence and shooting erupted following a protest organized by Hizballah and Amal supporters to demand the dismissal of Beirut port explosion investigating Judge Tarek Bitar, whom both parties stated was biased in his investigation.  The fighting took place in a neighborhood that includes both Shia and Christian residents.  On October 25, Judge Fadi Akiki, the Government Commissioner to the Military Court, charged 68 individuals with various crimes in connection with the violence, including murder, attempted murder, inciting sectarian strife, sabotage, and carrying unlicensed weapons; 18 were detained and the remainder continued to evade authorities.  The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) intelligence directorate summoned LF leader Samir Geagea to give testimony, but he refused to do so unless Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was also summoned.  Nasrallah described the LF as the biggest threat to Christianity during a televised speech on October 16.  Investigations were ongoing at year’s end.

In June 2020, the Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor of the Appeals Court pressed charges against anti-Hizballah Shia cleric Sayyed Ali al-Amine following a lawsuit filed by lawyer Ghassan al-Mawla.  The lawsuit accused al-Amine of “attacking the resistance and its martyrs,” “inciting strife among sects,” “violating the legal rules of the Shia sect,” and meeting with Israeli officials in a conference in Bahrain.  The court scheduled al-Amine’s hearing to begin January 15, but no further update was available at year’s end.

The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion.

The DGS reviewed all films and plays released in the country during the year, although it did not ban any.  NGOs again said this had more to do with the lack of film releases in the country due to prevailing economic and social circumstances rather than to any loosening of censorship.  Civil society activists continued to state that the DGS’s decision-making process lacked transparency and that the opinions of religious institutions and political groups influenced it.

According to local NGOs, some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and members of nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid.  Many Baha’is said they chose to list themselves as Shia Muslims in order to effectively manage civil matters officially administered by Shia institutions, while members of the Church of Jesus Christ said they registered as evangelical Protestant.

The Jewish community faced difficulty importing material for religious rites; customs agents were reportedly wary of allowing imports of any origin containing Hebrew script due to a national ban on trade of Israeli goods.  During the year, the Jewish Community Council faced difficulty in renewing the mandate of its members, a legal requirement for groups that wish to continue to be recognized by the government, due to government officials’ unwillingness to put their signatures on any document with the group’s name on it, owing to concern this might be misinterpreted as support for Israel.

The government again failed to approve a request from the Jewish community to change its official name to the Jewish Community Council from the Israelite Communal Council (the group’s officially recognized name).  Jewish community representatives reported that the MOI delayed the verification of the results of the Jewish Community Council’s election of members, which occurs every six years, with the last election taking place in February 2020.  Regulations governing such councils require ministry verification of council election results.  The council, which represents the interests of the country’s Jewish citizens, has repeatedly submitted requests to change its government-appointed name to reduce social stigma, without success.  The council blamed its official name in part for the difficulties experienced with renewals every six years.  On November 10, the Minister of Interior said that he was conducting investigations into allegations that several council members were forging signatures of nonresident Lebanese Jews to illegally acquire property.  As of year’s end, the case had not been referred to the judiciary.

On September 10, Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a new government.  The cabinet consisted of 24 ministers:  six Maronite, five Shia, five Sunni, three Greek Orthodox, two Druze, two Greek Catholic, and one Armenian Orthodox.

Members of all confessions may serve in the military, intelligence, and security services.  While most confessions had members serving in these capacities, some groups did not do so, usually because of their small number of adherents in the country.  Members of the largest recognized confessions dominated the ranks of senior positions.

There were no developments during the year on the issue of civil marriage.  According to NGO representatives, civil society figures cautiously engaged both Christian and Muslim leaders to assuage fears that civil marriage would pose a threat to religious leaders’ ability to administer their own confessional affairs.  The MOI took no action on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that have awaited registration with the ministry since 2013.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation.  It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.”  According to the Basic Law, the Sultan must be a Muslim.  A royal decree issued by the Sultan on February 12 established a new mechanism for the appointment of a Crown Prince, stating that the Crown Prince must be a Muslim, sane, and a legitimate son of Omani Muslim parents.  According to the law, offending Islam or any other Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense.  There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.  Proselytizing in public is illegal.  All religious organizations must register with the government.  The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) continued to monitor sermons and distribute approved texts for all imams.  Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), remained without permanent, independent places of worship.  Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, though they requested more space to ease overcrowding concerns.  MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership, although the ministry did not review all imported religious material.  According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), on May 10, government-appointed Grand Mufti Ahmad al-Khalili issued a message describing the confrontations at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators as an “attempt to desecrate” the mosque “by the enemies of God, the corrupters.”

Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.

The Ambassador and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials throughout the year to discuss support for freedom of religion and the needs of minority groups.  The Ambassador met with the Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs in March to convey U.S. support for religious freedom.  The Ambassador and embassy officers also met regularly with religious minority leaders and faith-based community members to discuss the needs and support the worship practices of all religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.7 million (midyear 2021).  The government’s National Center for Statistics and Information estimates the population at 4.5 million; citizens constitute approximately 62 percent of the population.  The government does not publish statistics on the percentages of citizens who practice Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia Islam.  In 2015, the Dubai-based al-Mesbar Center estimated Sunni Muslims at nearly 50 percent of the citizen population, Ibadhi Muslims at 45 percent, and Shia Muslims, Hindus, and Christians at a combined 5 percent.

Academic sources state the majority of non-Muslims are foreign workers from South Asia.  Noncitizen religious groups include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians.  Christians are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah, and include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation.  It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.”  The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion.  According to the Basic Law, the Sultan must be a Muslim.  A royal decree on the Basic Law, issued by the Sultan on February 12, establishes a new mechanism for the appointment of a Crown Prince.  The decree states that to be eligible to govern the country, the Crown Prince must be a Muslim, sane, and a legitimate son of Omani Muslim parents.

There is no provision in the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.

The penal code sets the maximum prison sentence for “insulting the Quran,” “offending Islam or any [Abrahamic] religion,” or “promoting religious and sectarian tensions” at 10 years.  The law also penalizes anyone who, without obtaining prior permission, “forms, funds, [or] organizes a group…with the aim of undermining Islam…or advocating other religions” with up to seven years’ imprisonment.  Holding a meeting outside government-approved locations to promote another religious group is also criminalized with a maximum sentence of three years in prison.  The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message sent via any medium that “violates public order and morals.”  Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is a crime that carries a penalty of between one month and one year in prison and a fine of not less than 1,000 rials ($2,600).

All religious organizations must register with the government.  The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for gaining ministerial approval.  Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by MERA.  New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from MERA before they may register.  Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor.  MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form.  No published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval.  For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, al-Amana Center (an interdenominational organization affiliated with the Reformed Church of America), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors.  The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry a statement of the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders.

All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with MERA.  The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must deliver sermons within “politically and socially acceptable” parameters.  Lay members of non-Muslim groups may lead prayers if they are specified as leaders in their group’s registration application.

The law restricts collective worship by non-Muslim groups to houses of worship on land specifically donated by the Sultan for the purpose of collective worship.

The law prohibits public proselytizing by all religious groups, although the government authorizes certain “Islamic propagation centers.”

The law states the government must approve the construction or leasing of buildings by religious groups.  In addition, new mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from existing mosques.

Islamic studies are mandatory for Muslim students in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.  Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement if they notify school administrators they do not wish to attend such instruction.  The classes take a historical perspective on the evolution of Islamic religious thinking and teachers are prohibited from proselytizing or favoring one Islamic group over another.  Many private schools provide alternative religious studies courses.

The Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation.  Principles of sharia inform the civil, commercial, and criminal codes, but there are no sharia courts.  Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code.  The law states that Shia Muslims, whose jurisprudence in these matters differs from that of Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims, may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shia jurisprudence outside the courts and they retain the right to transfer their cases to civil courts if they cannot find a resolution within the Shia religious tradition.  The law allows non-Muslims to seek adjudication of matters pertaining to family or personal status under the religious laws of their faith or under civil law.  According to the Personal Status Law, a mother may lose custody of a child after the child turns seven if she is not the same religion as the father.

Citizens may sue the government for abuses of their right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; there have been no known cases of anyone pursuing this course in court.

Birth certificates issued by the government record an individual’s religion.  Other official identity documents do not do so.

Foreigners on tourist visas who are not clergy may not preach, teach, or lead worship.  Visa regulations permit foreign clergy to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious groups, which must apply to MERA for approval before the visiting clergy member enters the country.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On July 23, security forces arrested internet activist Ghaith al-Shibli at his home in Sohar, according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights and social media.  Al-Shibli’s arrest was followed by the arrest of a number of internet activists who participated in the dialogues that al-Shibli organized on religious freedom and other topics.  Other activists reportedly detained in the same crackdown included Maryam al-Nuaimi and Abdullah Hassan.  Both of their Twitter accounts were suspended following their arrests.

On August 9, police arrested Talal bin Ahmed al-Salmani after he submitted a request to the director of the Bousher Police Station in the Governorate of Muscat for permission to organize a peaceful rally on August 11 calling for liquor shops to be shut down, according to human rights observers based outside the country.  Authorities released al-Salmani in October, according to the state-run Oman News Agency.

According to religious leaders, MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics.  The government required all imams, regardless of their branch of Islam, to preach sermons within what the government considered politically and socially acceptable parameters.  These parameters, which the government outlined monthly, included the distribution of a list of acceptable topics along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams.  Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring.  The Grand Mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, who was appointed in 1975, remained the only cleric able to speak publicly outside the designated government parameters.  Government officials made clear he did not represent the views of the government.

Religious groups, including some who were actively seeking to register with the government, continued to report opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, leadership structure, and the availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration.  MERA reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim.  Observers said details of the process remained vague, although there were reports MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group.  According to MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register.  Representatives of some religious groups said that additional communication and clear guidelines from MERA would help their communities navigate the process of obtaining property for religious facilities and clarify legal provisions governing religious practices.

Some religious communities remained without a registration sponsor or permanent place of worship, including the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Sikh and Buddhist communities.  MERA was working with the Church, the Sikh community, and other groups to identify suitable, permanent places of worship, a MERA official said.  This process has stalled, some community leaders reported.  Other religious minority groups, such as the Buddhist community, reported they did not have permanent independent places of worship as recognized groups even though they represented a significant population in the country, primarily of expatriate workers.

Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations.  Some non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship and said that they requested more space to ease overcrowding concerns.  According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship.  Some communities worshiped via virtual meetings or met in reduced numbers due to COVID-19 safety measures, temporarily easing space limitations.  A MERA official stated the ministry was willing to work with other government ministries to secure additional, government-approved land to relieve the overcrowding that some minority groups experienced.  At least one of the groups said that it had submitted requests in the past to acquire land for a house of worship, and it intended to begin actively pursuing land acquisition again.  The group reported that in February MERA asked it to wait until a new cabinet was in place before inquiring about land.  At year’s end, the group continued to engage with officials in pursuit of the acquisition.  The government paused the land distribution process, in part because of the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

MERA informally approved the Protestant Church of Oman hosting of worship services conducted by religious groups lacking their own houses of worship.  MERA also allowed the Sri Lankan embassy to host Buddhist religious services and ceremonies on its compound.

MERA approved religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis as pandemic-related restrictions eased, returning to pre-pandemic practices.  Hindu temples were permitted to host modified Diwali celebrations, which they coordinated with MERA, with pandemic precautions including social distancing and takeaway food instead of eating as a group in the temple.

Authorities blocked the import of certain publications, including religious texts, without the necessary permit.  Shipping companies said customs officials sometimes confiscated these materials.  The government also continued to require religious groups to notify MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to MERA.  Religious minority leaders said the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval, and non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.  Religious groups said that consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, they continued to need MERA approval to publish texts in the country or disseminate religious publications outside their membership.  Religious groups stated they did not attempt, however, to share material with members of the public outside their places of worship.

The government provided land for all approved religious groups to build and maintain religious facilities in the country.  Christian community leaders and MERA said that they were coordinating to establish a second Christian cemetery, since the first was reaching capacity.  As of the end of the year, Christian community leaders indicated that MERA officials were supportive in their efforts to find a location that met their needs.  MERA officials stated that they had enlisted the help of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning to identify a site for this purpose.

According to members of the legal community, judges often considered the religious affiliation of parents during custody hearings.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

According to the ADL, on May 10, government-appointed Grand Mufti Ahmad al-Khalili issued a message describing the confrontations at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators as an “attempt to desecrate” the mosque “by the enemies of God, the corrupters.”  According to the ADL report, al-Khalili said the violence was a “blatant plot against Islam” by the “dirty” and “defiling” occupation.  Khalili subsequently referred to Israel as “the enemy” and called on all Muslims to “liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and cleanse it from the befoulment of the occupation.”

In December, the Foreign Minister hosted an American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation.  The MFA’s Chief of Global Affairs participated in a two-hour virtual meeting with AJC officials in November as part of the country’s outreach to representatives of non-Muslim religious groups.

The government, through MERA, continued to publish a digital version of al-Tafahum (Understanding), a quarterly periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths.  MERA discontinued the print version of al-Tafahum to cut costs.

MERA hosted events marking the International Day for Tolerance on November 16-17, in coordination with the Ministry of Information.  Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Salmi reaffirmed the country’s commitment to peaceful coexistence, and an interfaith panel discussed moving beyond mere tolerance to embracing diversity.  The event also featured the exhibitions “Message of Islam from Oman” and “Message of Peace from Oman to the World,” which shared words of tolerance and acceptance from members of religious groups in the country.

According to religious minority leaders, the Royal Oman Police collected religious affiliation information from expatriates applying for work visas.

Qatar

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation.  According to the constitution, the Amir must be Muslim.  The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.”  The law punishes “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.  Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the registered religious groups in the country.  Unregistered religious groups are illegal, but authorities generally permitted them to practice their faith privately.  The government continued to censor or ban print and social media religious material it considered objectionable.  In March, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) said it was “extremely concerned” by “systematic attempts over many years” by the government to blacklist and deport Baha’is, in particular a lifelong resident of the country whose residency permit renewal was refused in January on what the community described as “baseless charges.”  He left the country in August.  A ban on worship outside the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, which is located on government land and provides worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, and which the government described as temporary when instituted in 2020 as a measure both to limit the spread of COVID-19 and for security reasons, remained in effect.  Citizens of the country and other Muslims were not allowed to attend services in the Mesaymeer Complex.  The “villa” (or house) church community wrote multiple letters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and requested multiple meetings but received no reply.  In April, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a report on antisemitic material in textbooks of government schools, saying that while some material was removed from textbooks, the updated editions “still contained numerous passages that teach hateful antisemitic misinformation and myths.”  In June, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) updated its review of the country’s textbooks, stating that its “review determined that the Qatari curriculum does not yet meet … international standards” and “was influenced by elements of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood.”  In December, in an updated report, IMPACT-se said, “…Since then [June], Qatar’s books have somewhat improved.  They still have a long way to go when it comes to removing hateful content and consistently teaching tolerance, and yet the improvements that have occurred over the last two academic years…are still a pleasant surprise.”  In December, the press reported that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry issued a directive regarding the need for suppliers, traders, and shopkeepers to refrain from selling goods bearing logos and symbols that do not comply with Islamic values.

On October 18, the privately owned newspaper Al-Sharq published a column by author Ahmad al-Mohannadi warning against what he considered attempts by Christian organizations to penetrate Muslim Persian Gulf societies via animated Bible-based missionary cartoons dubbed in Gulf dialects.  In its 2021 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “There are two general categories [of Christians in country]:  Christian foreigners, most of whom are migrant workers, and Christians who have converted from Islam.  Foreign workers who are Christian are much freer to worship.  Muslims who convert to Christianity face much more significant persecution.  Converts from both indigenous and migrant backgrounds bear the brunt of persecution, and Qatari converts face very high pressure from their families.”

U.S. embassy leadership and other embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials, relevant government bodies, as well as with quasigovernmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations, and antisemitism.  The Charge d’Affaires raised the reopening of worship space for the Christian community and freedom of worship for the Baha’i community with senior government officials.  Throughout the year, embassy officers met with various faith communities, including the Hindu, Shia Muslim, Baha’i, and evangelical Christian communities, and they also met with the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC), which oversees a variety of Christian denominations, to discuss issues of mutual concern.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.5 million (midyear 2021).  Citizens make up approximately 12 percent of the population, while noncitizens account for approximately 88 percent.  Most citizens are Sunni Muslims, and almost all others are Shia Muslims.  Reliable figures are unavailable, but estimates based solely on the religious composition of expatriates suggest Muslims, while they are the largest religious group, likely make up less than half of the total population.  The breakdown of the noncitizen population between Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim groups is not available.

Other religious groups, which are composed exclusively of expatriates, include (in descending order of size) Hindus, almost exclusively from India and Nepal; Roman Catholics, primarily from the Philippines, Europe, and India; and Buddhists, largely from South, Southeast, and East Asia.  Smaller groups include Anglicans and Protestant denominations, Egyptian Copts, Baha’is, and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation.  According to the constitution, the Amir must be Muslim.  The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the Amir’s branch of the al-Thani family.  The Amir exercises full executive power.  The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.”  It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and is illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.

The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for offending or misinterpreting the Quran, “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs, insulting any of the prophets, or defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.  The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions.  The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment of up to six months in prison.

To obtain an official presence in the country, expatriate non-Muslim religious groups must register with the MFA.  The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations, which are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Interdenominational Christian Churches.  Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may register with the MFA with the support of the CCSC.

Non-Christian groups must also register with the MFA.  Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures, such as private villas, recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution.  Unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religiously-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.

According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.

The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths.  It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public.  The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison.  Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam may result in a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment.  The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity.

The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials.  The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content.  Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities.  The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.  To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.

The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity.  All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA).  The law designates the MEIA Minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers.  The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the Amir.

The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA, working in coordination with the director of the MFA’s Human Rights Department, is responsible for handling church affairs.

A non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim; however, the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim.  The law dictates that a non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.

Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools.  Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services.  All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools.  According to instructions from the Ministry of Education, these schools must offer Islamic instruction; non-Islamic formal religious education is prohibited.

A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims.  The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody.  For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters using Shia interpretations of religious law.  In other religious matters, family law applies across all branches of Islam.  Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.

A non-Muslim wife does not have the automatic right to inherit from her Muslim husband.  She receives an inheritance only if her husband wills her a portion of his estate, and even then, she is eligible to receive only one-third of the total estate.  A female heir generally receives one-half the amount of a male heir; a sister would inherit one-half as much as her brother.  In cases of divorce, children generally remain with the mother until age 13 for boys and 15 for girls, at which time custody reverts to the husband’s family, regardless of the mother’s religion.

Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia.  The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence.  There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are subject to punishment according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging.  Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases.  Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned.  Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies.  The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.

The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours during Ramadan are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The government submitted documents to the United Nations in 2018,  and made a formal statement in its treaty accession document, that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia.  The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”).  The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.

Government Practices

In March, BIC said it was “extremely concerned” by “systematic attempts over many years” by the government to blacklist and deport Baha’is.  The BIC press release cited the case of Omid Seioshansian, described as a Baha’i born in Qatar and whose family has lived there for generations, saying that authorities’ actions in not renewing his lifelong residency permit were attributed to “baseless charges” of unspecified criminal and national security violations.  The BIC release stated that once so identified, Baha’is are “blacklisted and expelled” and then permanently refused reentry, even in cases where they have lived their entire lives in the country.  In the case of Seioshansian, who departed the country for India in August, the government said its refusal to renew his residency permit was based on immigration law and age, since the country does not allow persons over age 60 to obtain residency.  The local Baha’i community and BIC raised these concerns with the government, including the National Human Rights Committee.  According to BIC, the government told UN and foreign diplomats that cases involving members of the Baha’i community were unrelated to each other and each involved national security concerns.  BIC raised these issues with the UN Human Rights Council on two occasions during the year.  Writing for the Religion News Service, Seioshansian’s brother Baher said, “The anti-Baha’i momentum has been building and has resulted in a dismissiveness toward Baha’is and their families that would have been unthinkable in the past,” and he stated deportations affecting the Baha’i community involved a wide range of nationalities, including Jordanian, British, American, Malaysian, Indian, and Canadian.

“Villa” churches were open during the year, with pandemic regulations in place.  The church villas did not receive approval to reopen, but they did so anyway.  Early in the year, the “villa” church community had written several letters to authorities asking to reopen their 150 (later consolidated to 61 at government orders) house churches under the umbrella of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar (ECAQ) that had been closed under COVID-19 mitigation regulations.  Not receiving an official government response to these inquiries, many of these informal churches reopened in September.  At year’s end, they had faced no repercussions for reopening.

The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions were again unable to follow up on their 2019 visit.  During the 2019 visit, the UN representatives said there were approximately 26 cases of expatriate women serving prison terms for adultery and five cases of individuals serving time for “sodomy,” behaviors prohibited by sharia.  The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia; there were no statistics available regarding rates of corporal punishment during the year.

The CCSC continued to meet regularly with the MFA to discuss issues related to its congregants and to advocate for increased space for the large number of parishioners.  The MFA also met with unregistered congregations to discuss their interests and needs.

The MEIA continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques.  The ministry continued to provide, on an ad hoc basis, thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions against using pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths.  The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons.  The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance.

The MEIA estimated that there are approximately 2,300 mosques in the country.  Government officials estimated that as many as 10 of these were Shia mosques, although online sources stated the number was closer to 15.  Government officials stated the MEIA did not allow foreign funding for the building or upkeep of Shia mosques or other community facilities.

The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties.  There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of the penal code’s ban on eating or drinking in public during daylight hours in Ramadan.  All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The government of Saudi Arabia restricted pilgrims allowed to make the Hajj in 2021 to residents of Saudi Arabia due to concerns regarding COVID-19.  In October, the MEIA announced that Umrah tour operators had resumed arranging Umrah tours from Qatar to Saudi Arabia for pilgrims, including expatriates.  In November, the MEIA launched a new online registration system allowing individuals to upload their personal data and tour contracts, thereby permitting greater government oversight of the process and compilation of more accurate statistics.

The national organizing body of the 2022 FIFA World Cup encouraged local residents to host visiting soccer fans at their private residences during the upcoming tournament, touting the initiative as “a chance to demonstrate to fans our culture and hospitality.”  Some comments on social media criticized the suggestion, saying that it was a violation of the country’s religious values, Islamic principles, and conservative culture.

In April, the ADL published a report on antisemitic material in textbooks of government schools, saying that while some material was removed from textbooks, the updated editions “still contain numerous passages that teach hateful antisemitic misinformation and myths.”  One text, for the seventh-grade textbooks for Islamic studies, said, “Treachery and treason are among the traits of the Jews.”  According to the ADL, the eleventh-grade Islamic studies text “accuses Judaism of idolatry, deifying the Prophet Ezra, subordinating the Torah to the Talmud, and believing in amoral hedonism and supremacy.”  An eleventh-grade history text stated that among the principles of the Nazis was “enmity toward the Jews, because they were the reason for Germany’s defeat” in World War I.

In June, IMPACT-se updated its review of the country’s textbooks in conjunction with a London-based NGO, the Henry Jackson Society.  The study assessed more than 314 textbooks, building upon previous IMPACT-se research that used UN and other international standards as benchmarks.  According to IMPACT-se, the “review determined that the Qatari curriculum does not yet meet those international standards.  …. The curriculum reflects in many ways the same overall tension facing Qatar’s leadership between Qatar’s Islamist affinities and its desire to be seen as an open, neutral, and progressive leader in the Arabian Gulf.  Textbooks teach Qatari children to accept others different than themselves and advocate for peace at the same time echoing antisemitic canards…. While the curriculum emphasizes nationalist identities over tribal affiliations, it is also influenced by pan-Islamic and pan-Arab nationalism, as well as elements of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood.”  In December, in an updated report, IMPACT-se said, “…Since then [June], Qatar’s books have somewhat improved.  They still have a long way to go when it comes to removing hateful content and consistently teaching tolerance, and yet the improvements that have occurred over the last two academic years in Qatar are still a pleasant surprise. …. For example, it has removed a passage which taught that Zionism ‘strives to rule the world and control it.’  And it has reduced problematic passages with regard to martyrdom and violent jihad – such as removing a passage that referred to jihad as ‘the peak of Islam.’  However, such progress remains incomplete at best.”  The government stated it was seeking NGOs and outside experts that could assist it in a review of current school textbooks.

Although the law prohibits Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites; however, the government continued to prohibit them from publishing such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards.  Church leaders and religious groups said individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.

The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.  Journalists and publishers at times said they practiced self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.

In December, press reported that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry had issued a directive regarding the need for suppliers, traders, and shopkeepers to refrain from selling goods bearing logos and symbols that do not comply with Islamic values.  The circular said its intent was to protect consumer rights, preserve Islamic values, and respect the country’s customs, traditions, and cultural heritage.  Several observers stated their belief that the government’s actions in this regard were directed at items, including children’s toys, bearing rainbow colors of the LGBTQI+ pride flag.

The Mesaymeer Religious Complex, also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings.  The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.

According to church leaders, approximately 75,000 to 100,000 expatriate Christians continued to attend weekly services at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex.  Citizens of the country and other Muslims were not allowed to attend these services.  Representatives of the CCSC stated there was overcrowding in seven buildings in the complex, and noted difficulties with parking, access, and time-sharing.  In addition to the permanent buildings, the government allowed the churches to erect tents during Easter and Christmas outside the primary complex to accommodate the extra congregants wanting to attend services during these observances.  The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors.  Ministry of Interior security personnel asked churchgoers to show identification at the gates because non-Christians, either expatriates or citizens, were prohibited access to the complex.

Representatives of the Hindu community continued to express concern that the government had not granted Hindus permission to open new places of worship.

The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and to conduct monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.

The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities, a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions.  In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.

Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches.  Some smaller unregistered churches used the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.

The country continued to host the headquarters of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a group widely viewed in the press and academia as being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni transnational organization that promotes political Islam.  Although IUMS stated it was an independent association of scholars, observers said its close relationship with the government helped it to serve as an instrument of the country’s soft power.  Following the 2020 recognition of Israel by some Arab states, the IUMS in a November 27 statement said any normalization of ties with Israel was religiously forbidden and called for concerted efforts to “liberate” all Israeli-occupied lands, especially the al-Aqsa Mosque compound and Jerusalem.

According to an analysis published in February by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the government provided support for the IUMS, which the WINEP report described as “the clerical arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.”  In November, a report by the Carnegie Endowment said diminishing regional support for political Islamist groups was a factor in the recent rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain.

In June, the Ministry of Public Health issued a guide on halal food that authorities described as a “historic milestone.”  According to a statement by the ministry, the importance of the guide “lies in clarifying the requirements of halal and verifying the validity, accuracy, and credibility of halal certificates” issued by licensed providers in the country.

On March 29, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the country’s male guardianship system that inhibits women’s freedom of travel, marriage choices, employment, and health decisions.  According to the report, entitled “Everything I Do is Tied to a Man,” the country’s Family Law, as in many majority-Muslim-countries, is based on sharia, which treats marriages as contracts concluded by two mutually consenting parties” – although the report also states that “male guardianship is not unique to Islamic law and history.”  The government issued a statement calling the report inaccurate, and social media users criticized the report, saying it contained neocolonialist overtones, assaults on Islam, and attacks on the country’s values and heritage.

According to the NGO Humanists International, the government funded, managed, and used the website Islam Web to “promote the Salafi literalist school of Sunni-Islam, a radical interpretation of Islam considered incompatible with the promotion of co-existence.”  The NGO said that between its establishment by MEIA in 1998 and 2019, the site provided 245,000 fatwas and addressed 191,000 inquiries on topics related to culture, family, and the youth.  “The website preaches in six languages:  Arabic, English, French, Spanish, German, and soon, Indonesian.  In January, a MEIA official said the website received two million visits every day.”

In May, the government organized an official visit to Doha of the leadership of the U.S. NGO Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, during which delegation members met with government officials, church leaders, and foreign missions to discuss the situation of religious freedom in the country.

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 by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.  Freedom of religion is not provided for under the law.  The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law bans “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 practice, there is limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious gatherings and public displays of non-Islamic religious symbols, but religious practitioners at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation.  According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased sectarian tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations were marked by improved relations between the Shia and other communities and public calls for mutual tolerance.  Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of the Shia community while carrying out security operations and legal proceedings against them specifically because of their religious beliefs.  On June 15, authorities carried out a death sentence against Shia citizen Mustafa al-Darwish, initially arrested for involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012.  Government authorities stated al-Darwish received the sentence not for crimes he committed as a minor but rather for crimes that he committed subsequently as an adult.  As many as 41 individuals faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), which stated that an undetermined number were Shia.  On October 12, London-based human rights organization ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, reported that religious leader Musa al-Qarni, a former professor of Islamic jurisprudence, died in prison after his health deteriorated while serving a 20-year prison sentence of which he completed 15 years.  On March 29, al-Watan newspaper reported that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA) fired 54 imams and preachers in Mecca Province because of ideological and administrative violations.  In a September review of Saudi textbooks used in the second semester of the 2020-21 and the first semester of the 2021-22 school years, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) reported that the trend of “significant improvement” in content dealing with religions other than Islam had continued from its last review of the Saudi curricula in late 2020.  The 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, organized by the Ministry of Culture under the sponsorship of the King, allowed booksellers to exhibit and sell antisemitic publications.  The fair permitted the sale of books about atheism as well.

Some social media platforms carried disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were found in some social media discourse.  An Orthodox Jewish rabbi made several unofficial visits to the country to conduct outreach and offer religious services to Jewish residents.  His social media posts depicted him in traditional Orthodox clothing and showed positive experiences with Saudis.

In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  Embassy officials engaged regularly with like-minded partners and with religious leaders and participated in interfaith discussions.

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.  On November 15, 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 I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.8 million (midyear 2021).  In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners.  Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population.

According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 31.5 million Muslims, 2.1 million Christians, 708,000 Hindus, 242,000 atheists or agnostics, 114,000 Buddhists, and 67,00 Sikhs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam.  The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.”  The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion.  Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland.  Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize.  The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority.  The law deems children born to Muslim fathers as Muslim.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and Sunna.  All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects.  In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts.  Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the King.  By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna.  The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.

The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions.  The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters.  The CSS is headed by the Grand Mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i).  There are no Shia members.  Scholars are chosen at the King’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”  It criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law also bans 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.

According to the Basic Law of Governance, “The Judiciary is an independent authority.  The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.  The courts shall apply rules of the Islamic sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Quran and the Sunna.”  In the absence of a comprehensively codified criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely.  Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision.  Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff.  In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation that a Muslim male would receive.  In some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount that a Muslim male would receive.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia.  The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints.  There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC.  During the year, the commission had approximately 26 members from various parts of the country, including four Shia members.

The law permits death as punishment for blasphemy against Islam.  Courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992.  Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences.  Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

In 2020, as the result of a Supreme Court decision, the government ended flogging as a ta’zir (discretionary) criminal sentence and replaced it with prison sentences or fines.  As a result, flogging may no longer be used against those convicted of blasphemy, public immodesty, sitting alone with a person of the opposite sex, and a range of other crimes.  However, judicial officials have stated that flogging still may be included in sentences for three hudood offenses (crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law):  drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.

In 2020, a royal decree abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors.  The juvenile law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18, based on the Hijri (Islamic lunar) calendar.  Minor offenders, however, who are convicted of qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudood offenses could still face the death penalty.  The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.

The country is the location of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites.  The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina.  Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year.  The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims.  The King employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities.  Citing reasons of public safety and logistics, the government establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.  Saudi authorities continued to limit access to Mecca and Medina, including for the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, due to ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The MOIA vets, employs, and supervises Sunni Muslim clerics.  Those who preach at government-owned mosques are government employees who receive a monthly stipend.  The MOIA permits only government-employed clerics to deliver sermons and vets the sermons in advance.

The MOIA must approve clerics traveling abroad to proselytize and they operate under MOIA supervision.  The stated purpose of this regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the actual or apparent interference by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence.  Private schools must also follow the official, government-approved religious curriculum.  Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students may receive a course on Islamic civilization or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses entail one hour of instruction per week.  The government permits private international schools to teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities.  The CPVPV provides counseling and reports individuals suspected of violating the law to police.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf.  According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Muhammad.”  CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.

A royal decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the Grand Mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

Social media users who post or share content considered to attack religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Cyber Crimes Law.  Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order, public morals, or religious values may also be subject to a fine up to three million riyals ($800,000).

The government requires 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, indicate other religious designations, such as “Christian.”

The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations.  The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.  NGOs and Shia activists said authorities committed a range of abuses against members of Shia communities.  While NGOs and Shia activists stated that the prosecution of Shia was often based on religious affiliation, observers said that members of other religious groups faced arrest and trial for similar offenses.

On February 7, according to NGOs, the government commuted the death sentences of Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher and Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016) to 10 years in prison.  On October 27 and November 16, authorities released Shia youths Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah al-Zaher following completion of their 10-year prison sentences.  Al-Nimr and al-Zaher, along with Dawood al-Marhoon, who remained imprisoned, were among a group of 13 Shia youth previously arrested as minors who faced possible execution, according to ESOHR.  The government reviewed their sentences as part of the implementation of a royal decree announced in 2020 abolishing ta’zir death sentences for crimes committed as minors.  In a March 3 statement, UN human rights experts welcomed the government’s decision to commute the death sentences given to the three men “for crimes allegedly committed when they were less than 18 years old.”  The statement also said the government should “quash” the convictions and release the three men.

The news website Middle East Eye reported that authorities arrested Ali al-Nimr’s father Mohammed Bakr al-Nimr on February 24 in his home in the Eastern Province town of Awamiyah.  The government released Mohammed al-Nimr on February 26.  The reason for his detention was not known.

On February 8, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), prosecutors amended charges against eight Shia detainees, seeking prison sentences rather than the death penalty for five of the eight – Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed al-Bati, Mohammed Hussein al-Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Issam al-Faraj – who were minors at the time of the alleged commission of the offenses.  The remaining defendants were Haidar al-Saffar, Hussein Saeed al-Subaiti, and Mujtaba Abu Kabus.  According to ESOHR, in October, the government dropped the request for the death penalty against the five younger prisoners, but all eight still face trial.  The men faced charges that included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.”  According to ESOHR, in late October, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which focuses on terrorism and national security cases, held a new hearing in the case of eight detainees, including the five minors.  The NGO stated the hearing was the first after a break of more than seven months.

On February 10, the SCC sentenced Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained in 2015 for participating in antigovernment protests, to eight years in prison and an eight-year travel ban, according to ALQST and Amnesty International.  The SCC also sentenced al-Ghomgham’s husband, Mousa al-Hashim, to 17 years.  The court sentenced four other Shia arrested along with them to prison, with sentences ranging from eight to 15 years:  Ahmed al-Matrood received a sentence of 15 years, Khaled al-Ghanim 13 years, Ali al-Ouwaisher 10 years, and Mujtaba al-Muzain eight years.

On August 24, SANAD Rights Organization, a London-based human rights NGO, reported that Shia prisoner Mustafa al-Khayat, convicted on charges involving demonstrations, disrupting security, and carrying weapons, awaited a death sentence upheld by the Supreme Court in 2020.

In February and March, authorities released three activists who had written about discrimination faced by Shia in the country, pending trial.  According to an April tweet by Prisoners of Conscience, the government also released one of the men’s wives, who – like her husband – had been held for two years.  In October, authorities found one of the men guilty under the Cyber Crimes Law and sentenced him to two years in jail, followed by a two-year travel ban.  The judge ruled that the defendant would be credited with two years of time served but that the travel ban would remain in effect.

As many as 41 Shia individuals faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by ESOHR.  The report added that trials of 32 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing, with 10 of them facing preliminary death sentences.  As is the case for detainees of any religious group, international human rights NGOs said that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture” 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.

On June 15, authorities carried out a ta’zir death sentence against Shia citizen Mustafa al-Darwish, initially arrested for involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012 and charged with membership in a terror cell and participation in an armed revolt.  Authorities stated that al-Darwish received the death penalty for crimes that he committed subsequently as an adult.  Reprieve, a London-based NGO opposed to the death penalty, said that Darwish’s execution “once again show[ed] that the Kingdom’s claim to have eliminated capital punishment for childhood crimes is not true.”  The NGO said that the government told the UN Human Rights Council in February that “anyone who commits a death-eligible crime as a child” will be subject to “a maximum sentence of 10 years in a juvenile institution.”  Reprieve also said that Darwish’s execution was contrary to a 2020 Royal Decree that abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors and capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.  On May 28, prior to al-Darwish’s execution, UN experts called on the government to halt the process leading to his eventual death, stating that authorities sentenced him for crimes when he was younger than the age of 18 and that the government did not provide due process and a fair trial.  Following al-Darwish’s execution, on July 7, the UN experts stated that they were “shocked” after the government did not address their May 28 concerns and that the government’s failure to provide details to his family about his execution inflicted “additional, unjustifiable, and useless pain” on his loved ones.

On August 3, authorities executed Shia Ahmed al-Janabi under a ta’zir sentence for armed rebellion and protesting against the state in Shia-majority Qatif.  On September 6, authorities carried out a ta’zir death sentence against Shia citizen Adnan al-Sharfa for joining a terrorist cell that aimed to “destabilize security in the country” and smuggling.

On July 1, ESOHR said at least four individuals accused of crimes committed as minors remained on death row, including Shia Jalal Hassan al-Labbad.  ESOHR reported on December 3 that Labbad was still at risk of execution.  Authorities sought the hudood penalty against Labbad in 2019 for hirabeh (unlawful warfare or insurgency) on a variety of charges, including participating in protests, some of which dated to when he was a minor.

In May, the NGOs Shia Rights Watch (SRW), Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), ALQST, and SANAD each reported that Shia Zaheer Ali Sharida al-Mohammed Ali died on May 8 in al-Hai’r Prison.  They blamed prison authorities’ medical negligence for Ali’s death and said he contracted COVID-19 in April.

In August, the SCC upheld a ta’zir death sentence issued on February 21 against Shia citizen Mohammed al-Shakhouri, according to ESOHR and UN experts.  Authorities arrested al-Shakhouri in 2017 and tried him in 2019 on charges of destabilizing the social fabric and national cohesion by calling for sit-ins and demonstrations and chanting antistate slogans.  The government also charged him with possession of arms, as well as photos and information of individuals classified as terrorists.  According to an August 27 letter by UN experts to the government, the appeals court upheld this verdict on August 2, and at year’s end the case was pending before the Supreme Court.

In the same August 27 letter to the government, the UN experts raised the case of Asaad Makki Shubbar, a Shia citizen, whom, according to the experts’ letter, authorities arrested in Asir Province in 2017 and held without trial for more than two years, subjecting him to “various types of torture and ill-treatment.”  According to the letter, interrogators reportedly used “sectarian terms denigrating minority Shia believers and insulted [Shubbar’s] religious beliefs.”  In 2019, the government charged him with several crimes under the counterterrorism law, including joining a group from Qatif in acts of sabotage, participating in demonstrations, chanting slogans, and calling for participation in demonstrations and sit-ins.  The SCC sentenced Shubbar to death in January and, in July, the Specialized Appeals Court upheld his sentence.  At year’s end, the case was pending before the Supreme Court.

On November 1, the Saudi Press Agency, citing MOI, reported that a ta’zir death sentence had been carried out against Makki Kazem al-Obeid in Damman.  The ministry statement said that al-Obeid participated in attacks against security forces and was “linked to people wanted for terrorism-related activities.”  The Committee for Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula “condemned the Saudi regime’s execution” of al-Obeid and said that he was a “Shia prisoner of conscience.”

In February, media reported authorities arrested 65-year-old Aisha al-Muhajiri, reportedly because she continued to preach and teach the Quran at her home in Mecca.  Authorities also arrested two other women along with al-Muhajiri, one of whom, according to a news site, was 80 years old.

ALQST alleged in March 2021 that the health of imprisoned Shia cleric Mohammad al-Habib was deteriorating due to neglect.  He was closely associated with Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016.

During the year, the SCC held several hearings in the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017.  Earlier in 2017, a criminal court convicted and sentenced al-Maliki to three months on charges of extremism, fanaticism, and holding an impure (takfiri) ideology.  In December 2020, his son tweeted that the public prosecutor had sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad reported by multiple sources, and thus deemed especially reliable).  According to HRW, the charges against him also included criticism of several early Islamic figures, insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist.

The SCC continued trials of some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government continued to regard as a terrorist organization, a view also expressed by the CSS, which stated the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent the true values of Islam.  The accused included prominent scholars of Islam Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017.  According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them.

Amnesty International reported in August that authorities tried al-Odah before the SCC in a secret session, where they charged him with 37 counts.  Amnesty International reported that since 2018, courts scheduled more than 10 hearings on his case, which were postponed for months at a time, with no clear explanation being provided to al-Odah or his family.  Al-Odah’s son stated in a July tweet that his father’s physical and mental condition had declined during four years of solitary confinement and that he had partially lost his sight and hearing due to medical negligence.  In July, his son said that authorities had denied al-Odah access to family telephone calls for almost a year.  According to HRW, authorities barred 18 members of al-Odah’s family from traveling abroad since his arrest.  In a report released in August, al-Odah’s son Salman told Amnesty International “No legal process or court was involved in the bans against my family, and no reason was given by any authority.  The bans are mainly to pressure me into silence, even when I’m overseas, and to further pressure my father in jail.”  In February, UN experts called for an explanation for the repeated postponements of his trial and asked for information regarding his “right to physical and mental health while detained.”

During the year, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics, religious leaders, and academics arrested in 2017 and charged for offenses related to free expression and their religious views and increased prison sentences previously issued against some of them, including Nasser al-Omar, Mohammed Mousa al-Shareef, Waleed al-Huwairini, Mohammed al-Bishr, Ali Badahdah, Yousef al-Ahmed, and Khalid al-Muhawish.  At the time of their arrests, the government said those arrested had ties to a “foreign spy cell” and the Muslim Brotherhood.  According to Prisoners of Conscience, the SCC sentenced them to between four and 10 years in prison.

On August 24, SANAD reported that the government continued to detain Sheikh Saad Matar al-Otaibi, a scholar in Islamic politics and public policy and popular preacher on national TV, whom authorities arrested in 2017.

On April 15, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC commuted prison sentences against clerics Dr. Adel Bana’ma, Dr. Ibrahim al-Harthi, and Sheikh Ali Badahdah to four years from eight, five, and six years, respectively.  On August 16, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted and on August 24 SANAD confirmed that authorities released Sheikh Khaled al-Ajeemi, whom authorities arrested in 2017, due to failing health.  On November 24, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted that authorities extended al-Harthi’s sentence to eight years.

On June 24, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC increased the prison sentence of religious leader Sheikh Yousef al-Ahmed from four to 13 years.  In December 2020, the SCC sentenced al-Ahmed to four years in prison and a four-year travel ban on charges that included visiting prisoners of conscience and appearing in a television show hosted by Fahd al-Sunaidi, who is also serving a four-year prison sentence.

In November, ALQST reported that authorities detained Abdulrahman al-Dowaish, son of missing preacher Sulaiman al-Dowaish, after he asked about the whereabouts of his father.  On November 10, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted authorities held a secret trial of Abdulrahman al-Dowaish, which took place without his family or legal representation being present.  Officials had previously arrested his brother, Abdulwahhab al-Dowaish, in August, according to ALQST.  The NGOs DAWN and MENA Rights Group reported that security personnel arrested Sulaiman al-Dowaish in 2016 after he posted several tweets summarizing a religious lecture he delivered that day during a trip to Mecca that warned about the dangers of individuals providing their sons with great privileges and responsibilities without proper oversight and accountability.  In March, ALQST reported that it obtained and confirmed information that high-ranking officials “brutally tortured” preacher Sulaiman al-Dowaish after his 2016 disappearance.  ALQST stated that the last reported sighting of al-Dowaish was in July 2018, and that nothing has been heard of him since then.

On September 1, ESOHR stated that from 2016 through the end of August 2021, the bodies of at least 88 persons executed or killed in Saudi security raids, including nine minors and three foreigners, were not returned for burial.

According to NGOs and Shia community members, prison officials held Shia inmates in some cases in separate wings of prisons, and they reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.

According to ESOHR, authorities detained Shia cleric Mojtaba al-Nimr on June 6 at King Fahd Airport when he returned from a trip to the Shia holy city of Qom in Iran.  Mojtaba al-Nimr is a member of executed sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s family, although their exact relationship remained unclear.

Prisoners of Conscience reported that on September 14, authorities arrested Abdulrahman al-Mahmoud, a former professor of Islamic faith at Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, on charges that were not made public.  There was no update on his case at the end of the year.

On October 12, ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience reported that religious leader Musa al-Qarni, a former professor of Islamic jurisprudence, died in prison after his health deteriorated while serving a 20-year prison sentence, of which he completed 15 years.  “Qarni was subjected to brutal torture, and the Saudi authorities deliberately harmed him by giving him unsuitable medication,” ALQST said on Twitter, adding that it “questions the causes of death & calls for an international investigation.”  Prisoners of Conscience tweeted that al-Qarni died after “extremist prisoners” had beaten him and that prison authorities had refused his request to be housed with other older prisoners.  In addition, the authorities waited three days to inform al-Qarni’s family of his death.  SANAD stated that authorities did not allow al-Qarni’s family to see his body before his funeral.  In November, Prisoners of Conscience reported that prison authorities had beaten and withheld medicines from another prisoner arrested with al-Qarni in 2007, Mukhtar al-Hashimi.

In July, the website Together for Justice reported there were no updates since 2020 regarding the arrest of Quran reciter Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, an associate professor of sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah and imam of the Mansour al-Shuaibi Mosque in the al-Salama neighborhood of Jeddah.  The site stated that until his detention was confirmed in September 2020, a month after his arrest, Basfar had not appeared before any court.  On December 8, Prisoners of Conscience reported that Basfar remained in detention.  At the time of Basfar’s arrest, observers noted that persons of any religious affiliation who expressed views not supported by the government did so at personal risk and that when clerics were arrested, it was often for expressing views counter to government policy.

In 2020, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities had arrested Saud al-Fanisan, the former head of the Faculty of Sharia at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University, on undisclosed charges earlier in the year.  In November, Prisoners of Conscience and SANAN both reported that the SCC had sentenced the 85-year-old al-Fanisan to two years’ imprisonment.

Several human rights NGOs signed a letter publicly calling on the government to return the remains of individuals executed in 2019 in connection with “terrorism crimes.”  At the time, HRW reported that at least 33 of the 37 citizens executed by the government were from the country’s Shia minority.  ESOHR reported that at the time authorities carried out the sentences, at least six of those executed were minors, a statement which the government denied.  Separately, in August, SANAD reported that authorities were refusing the family of executed Shia activist Yousef al-Mushaikhis access to his remains.  The government executed al-Mushaikhis in 2017, after arresting him in 2014.

According to an August 16 tweet sent by Prisoners of Conscience, the government sentenced three sons of prominent religious scholar Safar al-Hawali to four years in prison.  Authorities arrested the three men, along with their father, his brother, and another son on undisclosed charges in 2018.  In 2019, officials released the youngest son, after detaining him for seven months.  According to the website Middle East Monitor, authorities charged Safar al-Hawali, in his seventies and facing chronic health issues, although details of the charges remained unknown.  In an August 24 post, SANAD stated that a family member reported that one of the three brothers, Abdullah, had serious medical concerns, due in part to having only one kidney and to prison conditions.  In a separate post, SANAD noted that in addition to the sentences given to Safar al-Hawali’s three sons, authorities also sentenced his brother, Saadallah, and his office manager, Ismail Hassan, to three and a half year sentences.

The SCC sentenced well-known preacher Nasser al-Omar to 10 years in prison.  Authorities arrested al-Omar in 2018.  He was a professor at the Faculty of Fundamentals of Religion at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, near Riyadh.  Like Safar al-Hawali, he was associated with the Sahwa (Islamic Awakening) movement.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, in an April 27 televised interview, cautioned against adherence to one particular school of Islamic jurisprudence or Islamic scholarship.  He said any Saudi with extremist views, even if that person had not yet committed a crime, “is a criminal and will face the full force of the law.”  In the same interview, the Crown Prince said no sharia punishment could be enforced without a clear Quranic stipulation or an explicit stipulation from the Sunna.  He also stated that only hadith were to be enforced.

The government continued to incarcerate individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, and engaging in “black magic” and sorcery.

At year’s end, authorities continued to imprison Raif Badawi based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols.  In a June 18 post on its website, the NGO Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans Frontiers, or RSF) stated that the government continued to hold Badawi in solitary confinement and limited his contact with the outside world to two phone calls per week with his wife and children, were living in Canada.  According to RSF, authorities monitored these calls, which were very short and sometimes suddenly disconnected.  Badawi had originally been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but a court increased his sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes, as well as a one million riyal ($267,000) fine.  Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes.  The Supreme Court directed that flogging be ended in 2020.

According to media reports, authorities arrested Ahmad al-Shammari and sentenced him to death for apostasy in 2017 after he posted videos to social media in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.  He was believed to be incarcerated as of year’s end.  It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

In June, media reported that the Saudi Zakat, Tax, and Customs Authority said a customs officer at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam thwarted an attempt by an air traveler to smuggle suspected sorcery-related pieces into the kingdom.  Authorities referred the smuggler and the seized items for possible prosecution.

In March, a Christian convert faced two court cases as well as threats of violence against him and his family, according to media reports.  Authorities charged the man in court on March 11 with trying to convert Muslims after he allegedly discussed his own conversion to Christianity.  A second court case, on March 26, concerned financial assistance he gave his sister, also a convert to Christianity, for her and her children to flee the country.

On November 17, RSF called for the immediate release of Yemeni journalist Ali Aboluhom, who received a 15-year prison sentence for tweets that, according to Saudi authorities, promoted apostasy, atheism, and blasphemy.  According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights, the Criminal Court in Najran sentenced Aboluhom on October 26 to 10 years in prison after convicting him of apostasy and atheism, and another five years in prison for publishing his writings on social media networks that “would prejudice public order, religious values, and morals.”

On November 23, local media reported that Public Prosecutor Sheikh Saud al-Muajab issued an order to arrest a man who posted a video on his Twitter account that showed him making remarks insulting the Divine Essence.

On September 21, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the Supreme Court increased prison sentences issued by the SCC against three clerics and academics:  Sanhat al-Otaibi from four years to eight years, Ibrahim al-Nasser from three months to three years, and Omar al-Muqbil from six months to four years.  In August, the NGO Together for Justice reported that authorities arrested al-Nasser in 2017 but did not disclose charges.  Authorities arrested al-Muqbil in 2019 for criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority, calling them a threat to the country’s culture.

Human rights NGOs 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 religion.  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 detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation.  Members of the expatriate Christian community said that congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.  Members of other minority faith communities similarly reported less interference in private religious gatherings than public ones.

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer.  In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer.

Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform Islamic religious observances, such as prayers.

On May 23, the MOIA instructed mosques to set loudspeakers at only one-third of the maximum volume and limited the use of loudspeakers for the call for prayers and to signal for prayers to start.  The MOIA mandated that full prayers and sermons could not be broadcast via loudspeaker.  The MOIA said the changes were a response to complaints from the public, including from the elderly and parents whose children’s sleep was disrupted.  On May 28, the MOIA modified its decree to allow use of loudspeakers during Eid and Friday prayers.  On July 19, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities arrested academic and legal advisor Dr. Omar Abdullah al-Saadoun for an article criticizing the decision to restrict the use of loudspeakers.

On March 17, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that domestic pilgrims between the ages of 18 and 70 would be allowed to perform Umrah.  On April 8, an official source at the MOI said pilgrims who performed Umrah without a permit during the month of Ramadan would be fined 10,000 riyals ($2,700), along with a 1,000 riyal ($270) fine for anyone entering the Holy Mosque in Mecca without a permit.  On June 12, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that it would limit the 2021 Hajj to approximately 60,000 vaccinated pilgrims, all living in-country, who had to be free of chronic diseases and be between the ages of 18 and 65.  On August 7, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said the country would begin receiving Umrah pilgrimage requests from abroad for vaccinated pilgrims starting August 9 after nearly 18 months of barring overseas pilgrims due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Foreign Umrah pilgrims who took two approved doses of Covid-19 no longer needed to be institutionally quarantined upon arrival.  On September 7, the ministry announced it increased the number of Umrah pilgrims to 70,000 per day under a plan to gradually raise capacity to two million per month.  As of September 14, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah no longer required a quarantine or a negative COVID-19 test result prior to issuing a permit to perform prayers at the Holy Mosque in Medina.  On September 18, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that 10 million pilgrims performed Umrah since October 4, 2020, following the launch of its “safe Umrah” procedures and the gradual return of pilgrims to the two Holy Mosques.  On October 25, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that pilgrims wishing to perform Umrah would no longer be required to wait for 14 days to book for the ritual.

On June 13, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah allowed women to attend without a male guardian as long as they performed the pilgrimage with other groups of women.  Some pilgrimage service providers announced they would not accept women without a guardian.  Some companies reportedly charged women more than men.

Authorities continued to permit public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the country’s largest Shia population.  According to community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.  They stated that the Shia Ashura commemoration was marked by improved sectarian relations and publicity for mutual tolerance.  In May, local media reported that the community in the Eastern Province observed the anniversary of the death of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (the first of the Twelve Imams) in Shia mosques and husseiniyas (prayer halls).  In Qatif, authorities eased restrictions imposed after civil unrest in 2011-2012 and took steps to encourage development and tourism to improve conditions for the town’s predominantly Shia residents.  Shia activists reported that security authorities closed some Shia mosques and husseiniyas in Qatif and al-Ahsa, summoned the individuals in charge, and fined them 60,000 riyals ($16,000) for violating COVID-19 precautionary measures.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance to Sunni imams on the substance of Friday sermons.  The MOIA does not vet sermons in advance, but imams must choose from a list of Friday sermons on the MOIA website.  The ministry restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy.  The MOIA may also issue circular notes directing all imams to dedicate their Friday sermons to certain topics, such as denouncing political Islam groups.  In this regard, MOIA supervisors may attend Friday sermons to ensure compliance with MOIA directives.  According to local observers, Shia clerics did not receive guidance on their sermons from MOIA and did not submit them for preapproval.  However, Shia clerics continued to exercise significant self-censorship in light of the government’s well-known views on the scope and substance of acceptable preaching.

On October 22, the website Arabi21 reported that MOIA Minister Abdul Latif al-Sheikh directed mosque preachers to dedicate the Friday sermon to warn against “Sururi” thought and the “terrorist al-Sururiya organization, which pursues secrecy to reach its goals, foremost of which is inciting people to revolt against the rulers, divide the Muslim community, sow division among them, and spread wars in their countries.”  Commentators have referred to Sururism as a movement that is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, representing a blend of the country’s Wahhabi movement and Salafi jihadism.

On December 6, the MOIA said in a tweet that Minister al-Sheikh directed imams to use Friday sermons on December 10 to warn against the Tablighi and Da’wah group, a transnational Islamic revivalist movement that originated in India and also known as al-Ahbab.  The minister directed that the sermon cover topics that included a declaration of “the misguidance, deviation and danger of this group, and that it is one of the gates of terrorism, even if they claim otherwise,” mentioning its prominent mistakes and its “danger to society,” and a statement that affiliation with partisan groups, “including (the Tablighi and Da’wah Group), is prohibited in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

There were media reports that some Sunni clerics who received government stipends used antisemitic, anti-Shia, and religiously intolerant language in their sermons.  The MOIA 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.  Unlicensed imams, however, continued to express discriminatory or intolerant views in internet postings and in unsanctioned sermons in areas of the country lacking government monitoring.

According to a January 3 report in the newspaper Okaz, the government fired seven imams and preachers in al-Bahah Province for failing to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as instructed by the MOIA.  On March 29, al-Watan newspaper reported that the MOIA fired 54 imams and preachers in Mecca Province because of ideological and administrative violations.  In September, the Minister of Islamic Affairs said the MOIA had purged religious institutions of individuals who had adopted extremist ideologies.

The government continued to mandate that imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina be “moderate” and “tolerant,” among other requirements, including holding a degree from a Saudi sharia college.

On April 15, former imam of the Holy Mosque in Mecca Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani tweeted that authorities dismissed him without reason as imam of a Riyadh mosque.  His dismissal came hours after he appeared in a video announcing that he contracted COVID-19, despite receiving two doses of the vaccine.

On April 25, the Mirat al-Jazeera news website reported that authorities demolished the Shia al-Ahd Mosque in Qatif, which authorities said was part of a road expansion project.  The website described the action as “part of an arbitrary and systematic sectarian campaign” aimed at the Shia community.

On June 27, according to ALQST, authorities released orator Mohammed Bou Jabara [Bojbara] on completion of a nine-month prison sentence.  Security forces arrested Bojbara in October 2020 with eight other young persons on charges related to his participation in Arbaeen ceremonies (the Shia mourning observance occurring 40 days after Ashura and the death of Imam Hussein).  The same day, authorities released Shia activist Nassima al-Sadah upon completion of a three-year sentence, although a three-year travel ban remained in effect following her release.

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 prohibited.  Shia community members reported that authorities permitted Shia pilgrims to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj.

In a July 16 circular, Ajlan bin Abdul Aziz al-Ajlan, the head of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, announced that the country would allow shops to remain open during prayer times, explaining that the measure was intended to “improve the shopping experience and the level of services for shoppers and clients.”  Commenting on the decision, Ali Sameer Shihabi, a commentator on Middle East politics and economics with a focus on Saudi Arabia, tweeted that keeping shops open during prayer time was a “hugely symbolic and practical step to end the dominance of the religious class in daily life.”

On August 30, the Minister of Islamic Affairs instructed all mosques to remove books that called for extremism and partisanship and banned unlicensed preaching activities, including proselytizing non-Muslims without permission.  The minister also directed mosque officials to participate in “intellectual security” courses (aimed at countering extremist ideologies) held by MOIA or other state agencies.

On May 18, the CPVPV presidency tweeted a fatwa by CSS member Sheikh Fouzan al-Fouzan obligating citizens to report to government authorities anyone who criticized the government and religious scholars.

On January 1, CPVPV head Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sanad said in an interview with al Arabiya that the CPVPV fired hundreds of employees after reports confirmed that they embraced extremist ideologies.

Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship, although husseiniyas existed in areas inhabited by Shia residents.  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.  The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any reported violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.  MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as in urban areas.  MOIA maintained a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable.  An MOIA mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) allowed mosque-goers to monitor sermons and rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

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

The government continued to enforce Islamic norms, such as prohibiting eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan.  On May 10, local media reported that the CPVPV in Riyadh Province intensified its field presence in markets and malls during the last 10 days of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

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 quasigovernmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country.  There were, however, public non-Islamic cemeteries in Jeddah and Riyadh that, according to officials, were used in cases where repatriation was not possible, such as when there were no claimants for a body, the family did not accept the body, or the deceased received the death penalty.  There also was a private, non-Islamic cemetery in Dhahran available only to Saudi Aramco employees.  Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

The government continued a multiyear project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam.  On February 15, an HRW statement said the country had taken important steps to purge its textbooks of hateful and intolerant language.

In a September review of Saudi textbooks used in the second semester of the 2020-21 and the first semester of the 2021-22 school years, IMPACT-se reported that the trend of “significant improvement” in content dealing with religions other than Islam had continued from its last review of the Saudi curricula in late 2020.  According to IMPACT-SE, officials either removed or altered 22 anti-Christian and antisemitic lessons and five lessons about “infidels” and polytheists.  The NGO reported that this removal included an entire textbook unit on the possible need for violent jihad to spread Islam and protect Muslim lands and praising it as an act of piety.  Specifically, IMPACT-se stated that officials altered several lessons that explicitly blamed “the Jews” as a collective for attacking Muslims and Muhammad, instead attributing responsibility to Arabian tribes and in some cases removing references altogether; in addition, they removed references to forbidding friendships with Jews and Christians, formerly referred to as “infidels, as they are enemies of God.”  The NGO also reported that authorities removed a series of ahistorical, harmful, and in some cases antisemitic assertions, such as Jewish connections to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount being fabricated by rabbis, and purported Jewish threats to the al-Aqsa Mosque.

In February, HRW noted separately that the country had taken important steps to purge its textbooks of hateful and intolerant language but said current texts continued to disparage practices associated with religious minorities.  HRW’s comprehensive review of Education Ministry-produced textbooks for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years found that they still stigmatized as un-Islamic and prohibited some practices associated with the Shia and Sufi Islamic traditions.

On January 27, the head of the General Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques inaugurated a Mediation and Moderation Academy in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, with the goals of fighting extremist thoughts and promoting mediation and moderation in all aspects of life, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

On March 16, the Ministry of Education announced the establishment of intellectual awareness units in all universities and education departments that were intended “to promote loyalty to religion,” “to spread the values of moderation, tolerance and coexistence, and to prevent extremist thought and address its effects.”

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import Bibles for personal use.  There were no reports that the government confiscated personal, non-Islamic religious materials.  Media reported the confiscation of sorcery-related items.

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring “objectionable” content, such as views of religion it considered extremist or misinformed.  The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for “religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users under the Cyber Crimes Law.  The government also shut down websites it regarded as being used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence.

Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion and had difficulty securing or being promoted in government positions.  They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard.  In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools.  A small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.  Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education.

According to HRW, the government systematically discriminated against members of Muslim religious minorities, notably Shia, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

At year’s end, the 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, who assumed the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs in 2014.  There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders.  Although Shura Council members’ religious affiliations are not publicly announced, there were an estimated seven or eight Shia on the 150-member council.  Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis reside, had large proportions of Shia as members, to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa.  In both cities, five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils.

Shia reported the government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for employment credit for graduates of Shia religious training centers and that the government did not apply the same standards to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions applying for government positions and religious jobs.

According to human rights groups, Shia Muslims were 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 were Sunni, although 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.

The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, with the remaining 30 percent located in private residences or built and endowed by private persons.  The construction of any new mosque required permission from 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 clerics.

The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs.  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 endorse these mosques, according to some NGOs.  Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques.  Two Shia mosques in Dammam licensed by the government served approximately 750,000 worshippers.  Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and authorities required Shia communities to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques.  There were no licensed Shia mosques in Jeddah and Riyadh.  Shia in those areas were obliged to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where, some Shia said, they were subject to police harassment.  Expatriate Shia resident in the country reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship.

State security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province.  Media and other sources additionally 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.

Reports from Shia community members 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.  Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts.  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 Qatif and al-Ahsa.  Community members reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

Observers stated that judges at times discounted the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam and favored the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims.  In certain circumstances, the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man.

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 to which one should report violations of this policy.

In November, King Salman issued a royal approval to grant Saudi citizenship to Shia Islamic scholar and the Secretary General of the Arab Islamic Council in Lebanon Mohammed al-Husseini, along with 26 other Sunni religious scholars, academics, and physicians.  According to the press, the King offered citizenship “in recognition of their distinguished services and outstanding contributions.”

There is no religious worker visa category, but non-Muslim clergy were able to enter the country to minister to their communities.  Non-Muslim clergy also were able to bring religious items, including books, when traveling.

In May, local media reported that authorities removed the “Muslims only” phrase from traffic signs leading to the Holy Mosque in Medina, adding that the signs now read “Haram area,” in reference to Medina’s Haram, or sacred site.  Authorities did not comment on the decision, but media reports attributed it to the kingdom’s efforts to promote moderation.

The Crown Prince announced in February a series of judicial reforms intended to codify the law to increase transparency and predictability in judicial decision-making.

According to an October 5 posting on its website, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that the 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, organized by the Ministry of Culture under the sponsorship of the King, allowed booksellers to exhibit more than two dozen well-known antisemitic books for sale, including numerous editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  According to the ADL, other antisemitic books permitted at the 2021 fair featured references to blood libel, Holocaust denial, Jewish-Masonic conspiracy theories, and portrayals of Jews as evil puppet masters and the killers of divine prophets.  The NGO also reported that there were two books demonizing the Baha’i Faith and Yezidism.  Other observers reported that the fair permitted the sale of publications about atheism.

According to the ADL, following violence in Jerusalem between Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque and Israeli police, General President for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais delivered a May 11 sermon praying for God to “keep the al-Aqsa Mosque, God keep them from the attacker Zionists, the occupying, combatant brutes.”  He added, “We seek refuge in you from their butchery and seek protection in you from their evils and all the rest of the enemies of religion.”  The same day, Sheikh Salah al-Badir, an imam of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, delivered a sermon calling for God to “liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque from the usurper Jews and the traitorous occupying Zionists.”

On May 12, on Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a member of the CSS, delivered a sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca calling on God to “grant victory to our brothers in Palestine over your enemy and their enemy.”  He called for God to “cleanse the al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the occupier Zionists.”  Saudi state television broadcast the sermon and promoted it on social media.  In an Eid sermon at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, al-Humaid urged God to “cleanse the al-Aqsa Mosque from the befoulment of Jews.  Oh God, it is incumbent upon you to deal with the usurper Jews and the aggressor Zionists.”

On May 13, separate Eid al-Adha sermons delivered at the Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina urged God to free the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem from “usurping Zionists” and “occupying Jews.”  On May 14, Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca Sheikh Mahir al-Muayqali likewise concluded his Friday sermon with a prayer to God to free al-Aqsa from “usurping, occupying Jews.”  On June 11, Chief of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais delivered a sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to free al-Aqsa from the “usurping occupiers.”  On July 30, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered a sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping, occupying Zionist Jews.”

On April 8, local media reported that Mohammed al-Issa, the Secretary General of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), sent a letter to Facebook and Twitter urging them to combat Islamophobia.  The letter was part of a campaign to denounce hate in social media platforms and curb anti-Muslim rhetoric.

On June 11, the MWL convened a Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan Conference, bringing together senior scholars from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to discuss topics such as peace, tolerance, moderation, and reconciliation in Islam.

On August 4, the MWL sponsored talks in Mecca involving approximately 80 Iraqi Sunni and Shia representatives.  The two sides renewed calls for an end to sectarian violence and attacks on houses of worship, the release of innocent detainees, and the return of displaced persons to their homes.

On October 19, al-Issa and World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald Lauder met with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, urging him to advocate for religious freedom and an end to violence against houses of worship.  On October 4, the MWL and WJC made a joint statement before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, pledging an interfaith commitment to promote and to protect human rights for all.  It was the first time Jewish and Muslim representative groups presented a coordinated statement before a UN body.

On October 20, al-Issa met with students during a visit to Yeshiva University in New York, saying that religious communities “have a shared responsibility toward followers of different faiths to build bridges and improve relationships.”  In a March video address to an online conference organized by the U.S. Department of Defense, al-Issa said that there was now greater awareness in the Muslim world of the dangers posed by political Islam, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In January, cleric and former director of the CPVPV in Mecca Ahmed al-Ghamdi created controversy when he tweeted that Muslims could pray for mercy for non-Muslims, explaining that there was no religious text prohibiting such prayer.

In January, a group of Israeli drivers traveled to Saudi Arabia to compete in the Dakar Rally race, despite a ban on Israeli travelers to the country.  On February 2, the English-language newspaper Arab News ran the first-ever op-ed in a Saudi newspaper authored by Israeli writers.  In March, local media reported that the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities arranged the shipment of 650 pounds of matzah and kosher food to all six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia, for Passover.

Syria

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.”  There is no official state religion, although the constitution states “Islam is the religion of the President of the republic.”  The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation, and the law prohibits conversion from Islam.  Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations remained illegal and punishable with imprisonment or death.  Sectarian violence continued during the year due to tensions among religious groups that, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and media sources, was exacerbated by government actions, the deterioration of the economy, and the broader ongoing conflict in the country.  At year’s end, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced, including 6.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and approximately 5.6 million refugees.  Government and progovernment forces continued aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 in the northwest of the country, killing civilians and forcing the additional displacement of more than 11,000 people.  The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, was reported to have continued to commit human rights abuses and violations against its perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims and whom the government described as violent extremists.  There also continued to be reports that the government, with its foreign supporters, continued to engage in the widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure.  The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported at least 972 cases of arbitrary detentions during the first half of the year and documented at least 150,049 Syrians who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and November 2021, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad government and remained missing.  The government continued to use Law No. 10, which allows for creating redevelopment zones across the country designated for reconstruction, to reward those loyal to the government and to create obstacles for refugees and IDPs who wished to reclaim their property or return to their homes; in line with the demographics of the country, this move impacted the majority Sunni population more frequently than other groups.  The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military, security, and intelligence services.  Some researchers and media stated that under the Assad government, sectarianism and the advancement of the Alawite minority had become more entrenched, disenfranchising non-Alawite Muslims, as well as Christians, Druze, and members of other religious minority groups; others said political access remained primarily a function of proximity and loyalty to the regime.

In March, Foreign Policy reported Iran used its influence, the dire economic situation in Syria, and financial incentives to encourage Sunnis to convert to Shia Islam or join Iranian militias.  The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) again reported it had reasonable grounds to believe some Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups (TSOs) committed abuses, including torture, rape, looting, and appropriating private property, particularly in Kurdish areas, as well as vandalizing Yezidi religious sites in areas under their control.  The COI, human rights groups, and media organizations reported killings, arbitrary detentions, rape, and torture of civilians, and the looting and seizure of private properties in and around Afrin.  Community representatives, human rights organizations such as the NGO Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation-gathering groups reported Yezidis were often victims of TSO abuses.  The COI found that despite its territorial defeat, violent attacks by ISIS remnants had increased, while human rights organizations stated that ISIS often targeted civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces, and groups ISIS deemed to be apostates.  Many former victims of ISIS remained missing.

Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence at the hands of violent extremist groups.  NGOs reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversions – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law – relatively rare.  These groups also reported that societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or to emigrate in order to practice their new religion openly.

The President of the United States and senior Department of State officials continued to state that a political solution to the conflict must be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and respect for the human rights of the country’s citizens.  The Secretary of State and Department of State officials continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the human rights and religious freedom of all citizens.  It continued to support the evidentiary-gathering work of UN bodies and NGOs to promote accountability for the atrocities committed by the government and others.  In July, the United States imposed sanctions on eight Syrian prisons, five Assad regime officials in the institutions that run those facilities, two militia groups, and two militia leaders implicated in human rights abuses.  In December, the United States imposed sanctions on two senior Syrian Air Force officers responsible for chemical weapons attacks on civilians in 2017 and 2018 and three senior officers in the security and intelligence apparatus for human rights abuses.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 20.4 million (midyear 2021).  At year’s end, according to the UN, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced; there were approximately 5.6 million refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries as well as 6.6 million IDPs.  Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans.  Other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.

The U.S. government estimates 10 percent of the population is Christian.  However, there are reports that indicate that number is considerably lower – approximately 2.5 percent.  Of the 2.2 million Christians who lived in the country prior to the war, the NGO Open Doors USA estimates that only approximately 677,000 remain.  According to the Catholic news site Asia News, the Assyrian Democratic Organization, a party linked to the Self Administration of North and East Syria in the northeast, reported two-thirds of the country’s Christians have fled Syria since 2011.  In a paper published by the think tank Middle East Institute, a researcher noted, however, “War and displacement have… played havoc with those figures over the last 10 years.”

Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, but in 2020, the Jewish Chronicle reported that there were no known Jews still living in the country.  There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.  There are no updated figures on the number of Yezidis currently living in the country

Sunni Muslims are present throughout the country.  Shia Muslims live mostly in rural areas, particularly in several majority-Shia towns in Idlib and Aleppo Governates, although Iranian-backed groups along the Middle Euphrates River valley have encouraged conversions.  Twelver Shia Muslims generally live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs.  Most Alawites live in the mountainous areas of the coastal Latakia Governorate, but they also live in the cities of Latakia, Tartous, Homs, and Damascus.  The highest concentration of Ismaili Muslims live in the city of Salamiyeh, Hama Governorate.

Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox Churches such as the Syria Orthodox Church, Eastern Catholic Churches such as the Maronite Church, or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian Churches.  Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast of the country.  While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq.  Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Sweida Governorate, where they constitute a majority of the local population.  Yezidis previously lived in Aleppo, but now live mainly in northeast Syria areas controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The legal framework described in this section remains in force only in those areas controlled by the government, and even in those areas, there is often a breakdown in law and order, leaving militias, often predominantly composed of a single religious group, in a dominant position.  In other areas of the country, irregular courts and local “authorities” apply a variety of unofficial legal codes with diverse provisions relating to religious freedom.

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these do not disturb public order.  There is no official state religion, although the constitution states “Islam is the religion of the President of the republic.”  The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.

The constitution states, “The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected” and “Citizens shall be equal in rights and duties without discrimination among them on grounds of sex, origin, language, religion, or creed.”  Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it violated their rights.  Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case being decided.

According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees.  This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government loosely associates with Sunni fundamentalism.  Neither the government broadly nor the state security court has specifically defined the parameters of what constitutes “Salafist” activity.  The law prohibits political parties based on religion, tribal affiliation, or regional interests.  Affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment.

The government bans Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “politically-motivated Zionist organization.”

The law restricts proselytizing and conversion.  It prohibits the conversion of Muslims to other religions as contrary to sharia.  The law recognizes conversion to Islam.  The penal code prohibits causing tension between religious communities.

The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.”  The Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) must approve books imported from abroad.  Television shows require the approval of religious authorities.

By law, all religious groups must register with the government.  Registered religious groups and clergy – including all government-recognized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups – receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.

The law regulates the structure and functions of the Awqaf.  The law provides for a Council of Islamic Jurisprudence with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist thought or deviate from approved discourse.  The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” activity, including “Wahhabism.”  The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight of the country’s religious affairs.

On November 15, President Bashar al-Assad issued legislative decree No. 28 for 2021, expanding the role and authorities of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council to include those previously relegated to the Grand Mufti, the highest Islamic authority in the country, whose position was also eliminated under the same decree.  The council will consist of 40 scholars and will be chaired by the Minister of Endowment.  Its tasks will include setting the start and end dates of the month of Ramadan and declaring fatwas.

All meetings of religious groups, except for regularly scheduled worship, require permits from the government.

Public schools are officially government-run and nonsectarian, although the government authorizes the Christian and Druze communities to operate some public schools.  There is mandatory religious instruction in public schools for all students, with government-approved teachers and curricula.  Religious instruction covers only Islam and Christianity, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students.  Members of religious groups may choose to attend public schools with Islamic or Christian instruction or to attend private schools that follow either secular or religious curricula.

For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their religious affiliation.  Individuals are subject to their respective religious group’s laws concerning marriage and divorce.  Per the personal status code, a Muslim man may legally marry a Christian woman, but a Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man.  If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in an Islamic cemetery unless she converts to Islam and may not inherit any property or wealth from her husband, even if she converts.  The law states that if a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.

The personal status law on divorce for Muslims is based on an interpretation of sharia implemented by government-appointed religious judges.  In interreligious personal status cases, sharia takes precedence.  A divorced woman is not entitled to alimony in some cases; a woman may also forego her right to alimony to persuade her husband to agree to the divorce.  In addition, under the law, a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach the age of 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family.

The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians.  According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs.  In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.

An individual’s birth certificate records his or her religious affiliation.  Documents presented when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage also list the religious affiliation of the applicant.  Jews are the only religious group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.

Law No. 10, passed in 2018, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction.  Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state.  The law makes no provision to accommodate refugees and IDPs.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

According to UN, press, and NGO reporting, the government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit indiscriminate human rights abuses and violations against civilians, as well as participate in the widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure.  These sources stated that the government continued its widespread use of unlawful killings, attacks on civilians and civilian sites, including homes and hospitals, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, and confiscation of property to punish perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims.  On September 24, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the UN Human Rights Council that from March 2011 to March 2021, more than 350,000 identifiable individuals had been killed in the course of the conflict in the country.  The commissioner noted that the figure indicated “a minimum verifiable number,” and that it was “certainly an under-count of the actual number of killings.”  Other groups attributed more than 550,000 killings to the conflict.  This discrepancy was largely due to the high number of missing and disappeared Syrians, whose fates remained unknown at year’s end.

Some opposition groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Muslim in statements and publications.  Sources stated that political access was primarily a function of proximity and loyalty to the regime, not sectarian identity.  According to the NGO Freedom House, Alawites, Christians, Druze, and members of other religious minorities considered to be outside of the regime’s inner circle were “politically disenfranchised along with the rest of the population.”  Freedom House stated although the political elite included Sunnis, the Sunni majority, which comprised the bulk of the opposition, bore “the brunt of state repression as a result” of this broader disenfranchisement.

The government continued to target those within the country who criticized or opposed the government, the majority of whom were Sunni and whom the government described as violent extremists.  There were continued NGO and media reports that in its efforts to retake opposition-held areas, the government targeted civilian centers in towns and neighborhoods, which, due to prevailing demographics, were inhabited by a majority Sunni population.  In June, regime forces, supported by pro-regime militias, broke the Russian-brokered ceasefire negotiated in 2018 and besieged and shelled the city of Daraa al-Balad, an area with a Sunni majority population.  The attack came after Daraa al-Balad residents protested in May against the presidential election.  According to NGO and media reports, the regime’s ground military operation resulted in civilian casualties; damage to civilian infrastructure, including the only medical facility in the city; forced displacement; and acute food and medicine shortages.  Following the clashes, the regime demanded the expulsion and relocation of several perceived opponents.  According to UN estimates, approximately 38,600 persons fled Daraa al-Balad as a result of the fighting.  From June to August, according to press and NGOs, the regime blocked humanitarian access to the affected areas and communities.  In its August report, the COI found that pro-regime forces’ use of siege-like tactics may have amounted to the war crime of collective punishment.

 

The SNHR documented at least 1,279 attacks on mosques in the country between March 2011 and November 2021, attributing 914 attacks to the regime and 204 attacks to Russian forces.  The SNHR also documented at least 126 attacks on Christian places of worship during the same time period, attributing 76 attacks to the regime, 33 to armed opposition groups, 10 to ISIS, five to other parties, and two to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

The SNHR reported at least 972 arbitrary detentions during the first half of the year and documented at least 150,000 individuals who were detained or forcibly disappeared between March 2011 and November 2021, approximately 88 percent of whom SNHR estimated were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing.  These included perceived opponents and those associated with human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, and medical providers.  According to the SNHR, from March 2011 to September 2021, more than 14,580 persons died from torture in government custody.  Government forces were reportedly responsible for at least 78 deaths by torture during the year.  As was the case with others who previously died in government custody, most were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition or likely to support the opposition.

According to a June Freedom House Report, corruption was rampant and basic state services and humanitarian aid were reportedly extended or withheld according to a recipient’s perceived loyalty to the Assad regime.  Freedom House also stated individuals living in government-held territory who criticized or sought to expose corruption faced reprisals, including detention and dismissal from employment.  The press reported the kidnapping of an 88-year-old Greek Orthodox merchant, Nazih Shehadeh, from his home in the Druze majority city of al-Suwayda in June.  Syrian-born al-Jazeera journalist Faisal al-Qasim said that Shehadeh’s abduction followed his refusal to participate in the May 26 presidential election.  After angry reactions from the city’s population, local news outlets, without clarifying details of his detention or release, reported that Shehadeh returned home.

Analysts reported the government continued to use Law No. 10 of 2018 to reward those loyal to the government and to create obstacles for refugees and IDPs to reclaim their property and return to their homes.  According to NGO reports, since the law’s enactment, the government had replaced residents in former opposition-held areas with more loyal constituencies.  These government policies disproportionately affected Sunni populations, which made up the majority of the population.  According to SNHR, seizing the property of regime opponents was part of the regime’s strategy of forced displacement to “engineer the demographic and social structure of the Syrian state [in a manner] that automatically constitutes a major obstacle to the return of refugees and IDPs.”

According to human rights groups and religious communities, the government continued to monitor and control sermons and to close mosques between prayers.  It also continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups, including scrutinizing their fundraising and discouraging proselytizing.

Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports.  In addition, Hizballah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.

There continued to be Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members in parliament.  According to observers, Alawites held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities, as well as more authority than the majority Sunni population.  During the 2020 parliamentary elections, the number of Sunni members of the 250-seat Parliament increased to 169 from 165 in 2016, while the number of Christians dropped from 22 to 18.  The number of Druze dropped from nine to eight.  The Middle East Institute stated these changes “were not large enough to signal any major shift in the regime’s policy towards these religious groups.”

Some media articles challenged the depiction of the country and the government as religiously tolerant and secular.  A paper published by the Middle East Institute on April 12 stated, “The ultimate irony is that within so-called secular Syria as represented by the nominally secular Ba’ath Party, in power under the Assads for the last 50 years, sectarianism has been consistently on the rise… Before the Assads, religious identities were pluralistic, and were only relevant at the social level.  They were not politicized or institutionalized.”  In a February 8 article published by the New Lines Institute, a Syrian researcher wrote, “The regime was never truly secular.  It has instrumentalized religion in order to further tear apart society and deepen the sectarian abyss.”  A report released in June by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, a London-based NGO focusing on international humanitarian law and human rights, entitled In the Name of Protection:  Minorities and identity in the Syrian conflict stated, “The weaponization of religion and sect is far-reaching in the Syrian political landscape… The melding of Alawi religious symbols, imagery and other aspects of Alawi identity in state security agencies… is one example of how representations of Alawi identity have been hijacked to merge with the state.”

In its June report In the Name of Protection, the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights said the ruling Ba’ath party had “curated a narrative portraying itself as the protector and defender of religious minorities.”  The NGO stated the regime had “both co-opted Syrian religious minorities, regardless of their own political views, and demonised millions of Sunni protestors, in rhetoric that dismissed them as ‘terrorists’ rather than citizens seeking political, economic, and social justice.  Sectarian state rhetoric has therefore contributed to deepened fissures between different religious communities.”

According to experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government.  The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military, security, and intelligence services, although the senior officer corps of the military continued to accept into its ranks individuals from other religious minority groups.  The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption.

In June, Freedom House reported that families and networks with links to the ruling elite received preferential treatment and were disproportionately Alawite, although “Alawites without such connections [were] far less likely to benefit from any special advantages.”  The report also found that given the armed opposition’s overwhelmingly Sunni composition, Sunnis were consequently likely to face discrimination by the regime unless they held close ties with it.

According to an analysis released September 24 by the Middle East Institute, the government was increasingly reliant upon the army’s Fourth Division, commanded by the President’s brother Maher al-Assad.  According to the analysis, Alawites constitute approximately 95 percent of the Fourth Division’s officers and regular soldiers.  During the year, the Fourth Division deployed throughout the country, often with support from Iran and Hizballah, because of a growing lack of confidence in regular army forces and a considerable number of defections by Sunni officers in the rest of the army.  During the summer, the unit, supported by pro-Iranian militias, led the attack on Daraa al-Balad, an area which, due to prevailing demographics, had a Sunni majority population.

According to the British-based NGO CSW, on February 14, the Ministry of Justice rejected the Yezidi community’s request to recognize it as a religious group, which would allow Yezidis to establish their own personal status courts.  The Council for Syrian Yezidis issued a statement describing the decision as “a flagrant violation of basic human rights.”

Antisemitic literature reportedly remained available for purchase at low prices throughout the country.  Government-controlled radio and television programming reportedly continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.

On January 15, in a Friday sermon at Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque that aired on state-run Nour al-Sham TV, Mohammed Sa’id Ramadan al-Bouti, the mosque’s government-appointed imam, spoke about the “filthy history” of the Jews.  In his sermon, al-Bouti said that the Jews offended Moses and killed John the Baptist and other prophets, becoming known as the “slayers of prophets” whose history is one “of treachery and betrayal.”  Al-Bouti stated that Jews were “inciting strife and wars” and “spreading moral depravity, debauchery, and licentiousness.”

In January, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, the American Schools of Oriental Research, and the Center for Jewish Art announced they had collaborated to identify “important Jewish heritage sites” in Europe, Iraq, and Syria to be added to Western military protection lists.  In 2020, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage reported that more than half of the Jewish sites it had identified in Syria were beyond repair or in very bad condition.

The national school curriculum did not include materials on religious tolerance or the Holocaust.

The government continued to allow foreign Christian NGOs to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches without officially registering.  It continued to require foreign Islamic NGOs to register and receive Awqaf approval to operate.  Security forces continued to question these Islamic organizations on their sources of income and to monitor their expenditures.  The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to prohibit religious leaders from serving as directors on the boards of Islamic charities.

West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: West Bank And Gaza

Israel

Executive Summary

West Bank and Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of separate authorities, with different implications for the fabric of life.  Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank, and, in the relevant areas, Palestinian Authority (PA) law.  Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the military commander and to Israeli law and Israeli legislation.  The PA exercises varying degrees of authority in the small portions of the West Bank where it has some measure of control.  Although PA laws theoretically apply in the Gaza Strip, the PA does not have authority there, and Hamas continues to exercise de facto control over security and other matters.  The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion and states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation, but provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality.  It also proscribes discrimination based on religion, calls for respect of “all other divine religions,” and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law.  The Israeli government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites in Jerusalem, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount (the site containing the foundation of the First and Second Jewish temples and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque).  Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site.  On September 10, Israeli police temporarily closed off all entrances to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem attempted to stab an Israeli Border Police officer.  Police shot the suspect, who later died of his wounds.  Later in September, a Palestinian woman attempted to stab police officers outside the Chain Gate to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and police shot and killed her.  On November 17, a Palestinian youth stabbed two Israeli Border Police officers in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and a civilian shot and killed him.  On November 21, a Palestinian teacher shot and killed an Israeli tour guide and wounded four others with an automatic weapon near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem.  Security officials shot and killed the attacker immediately after the assault.  In April and May, clashes occurred in the West Bank and East Jerusalem between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  The Palestinian National and Islamic Factions in the West Bank called on Palestinians across West Bank cities, villages, and refugee camps to participate in a “Day of Rage” on May 11 to protest Israeli Security Force and Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound and in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.  On April 13, at the start of Ramadan, media and Waqf officials reported that Israeli National Police (INP) entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and disconnected loudspeakers used for the call to prayer without coordinating with Waqf officials, to avoid disrupting an official Memorial Day service attended by then Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the adjacent Western Wall Plaza.  During the last Friday of Ramadan on May 7, Israeli police entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque using teargas, stun grenades, and rubber-tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians who were throwing rocks.  Media reported that in the aftermath, Palestinians stockpiled stones on the compound in anticipation of confrontations with police and far-right Israeli nationalists planning to march through the Old City.  On May 10, Israeli police entered the compound again and used stun grenades, teargas, and rubber-tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians.  The Palestinian Red Crescent stated that more than 300 individuals were injured.  In an attempt to ease tensions and reduce the potential for clashes, Israeli police temporarily barred non-Muslims from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited the site of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, throwing rocks and bottles at Israeli Defense Force (IDF) personnel providing security, who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.  On September 26, Palestinian protesters attacked buses carrying approximately 500 Jewish worshipers traveling to the site and injured two Israeli soldiers escorting the convoy.  According to police, the protestors used live fire, stones, and homemade explosive devices.  On November 4, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected an appeal submitted by the PA Hebron Municipality against the establishment of an elevator at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs.  Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling Fatah political movement, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence against Jews, often referring to assailants as “martyrs.”  Both Palestinians and Israelis evoked ethnoreligious language to deny the historical self-identity of the other community in the region or to emphasize an exclusive claim to the land.  The PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed while engaged in violence against Israelis or of those killed by Israeli military actions, including victims of air strikes in Gaza, and also continued to provide separate stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism involving Jewish targets.  In June, the German nongovernmental organization (NGO) Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research released the findings from its European Union-commissioned review of PA curriculum assessing the extent of inciteful content.  The report found the curriculum had eliminated some prior inciteful content and included promotion of UNESCO standards such as respect for human rights and pluralism, but the report also highlighted the enduring presence of problematic content, including “antisemitic references” that contain negative stereotypes of the Jewish people and some content that delegitimized the State of Israel.

Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other extremist groups disseminated antisemitic materials and advocated violence through traditional and social media channels as well as during rallies and other events.  Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia.  According to the Israeli government, Hamas and other groups launched more than 4,360 unguided rockets and mortars toward Israeli population centers, killing 13 between May 10 and 21 during the “Days of Rage.”  The United Nations reported that during the May fighting, attacks by the Israeli military killed 260 Palestinians in Gaza.

During the year, there were incidents of violence that perpetrators justified at least partly on religious grounds.  Actions included individual killings, physical attacks and verbal harassment of worshippers and clergy, and vandalism of religious sites.  There was also harassment by members of one religious group of another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and antisemitic content in media.  Amid tensions in Jerusalem and conflict in Gaza, ethnic-based violence and civil unrest broke out during a one-week period in May in a number of mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel, including Jerusalem.  The INP reported it made approximately 1,550 arrests during that time, with the overwhelming majority of the arrestees being Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel.  Security officials characterized the arrested Jewish citizens as predominately middle-aged nationalist extremists.  On December 16, gunmen killed yeshiva student Yehuda Dimentman near Jenin in the West Bank.  On March 1, unknown assailants set fire to the entrance of a Romanian Orthodox Church monastery in Jerusalem near the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim.  According to local press and social media, some settlers in the West Bank continued to justify “price tag” attacks on Palestinian property, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, vandalism of cars and buildings, arson, and slashing of tires as necessary for the defense of Judaism.  (“Price tag” attacks refer to violence by Jewish individuals and groups against individuals, particularly Palestinians and Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel, and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government contrary to the attackers’ interests.)  According to the Times of Israel, on October 13, vandals sprayed nationalist slogans and damaged cars in the Palestinian village of Marda in the West Bank.  Slogans painted on walls included “price tag” and “demolish enemy [property], not Jewish.”  According to media reports, on November 9, unidentified individuals vandalized nearly two dozen vehicles and a building in the Palestinian town of al-Bireh with slogans such as “enemies live here” and “price tag.”  On April 28, arsonists set three Palestinian cars ablaze in Beit Iksa, a village outside Jerusalem.  According to media reports, dozens of Jewish residents of a nearby neighborhood chanted, “May your village burn,” until police arrived and dispersed the crowd.

Senior U.S. officials worked to harness normalization between Israel and predominantly Muslim countries, which would improve access for Muslim worshippers to Islamic sites.  Senior U.S. officials publicly raised concerns about antisemitism among PA officials and more broadly in Palestinian society throughout the year.  Senior White House officials and other U.S. officials repeatedly pointed out that Palestinian leaders did not consistently condemn individual terrorist attacks, including the November Hamas attack at Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount, nor speak out publicly against members of their institutions, including Fatah, who advocated violence.  U.S. embassy officials met with Palestinian religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and a broad range of issues affecting Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities.  They met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote interreligious tolerance and cooperation.  U.S. representatives met with representatives of religious groups to monitor their concerns about access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship.  They also met with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about threats to the presence of Christian communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as ongoing Christian emigration.

This section of the report covers the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war.  In 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total Palestinian population at 2.9 million in the West Bank and 2 million in the Gaza Strip (midyear 2021).  According to the U.S. government and other sources, Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims, with small Shia and Ahmadi Muslim communities.  The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reports an estimated 441,600 Jewish Israelis reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  Israeli statistics do not count settlements in East Jerusalem as part of the West Bank.  Palestinian officials use the figure of 751,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank which includes settlements in the suburbs of Jerusalem.  According to various estimates, 50,000 Christian Palestinians reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and according to media reports and religious communities, there are approximately 1,300 Christians residing in Gaza.  Local Christian leaders state Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at rapid rates.  A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder includes Roman Catholics, Melkite Greek Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Maronites, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, other Protestant denominations, including evangelical Christians, and small numbers of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Christians are concentrated primarily in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus; smaller communities exist elsewhere.  Approximately 360 Samaritans (practitioners of Samaritanism, which is related to but distinct from Judaism) reside in the West Bank, primarily in the Nablus area.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates 569,900 Jews, 349,600 Muslims, and 12,900 Christians live in Jerusalem, accounting for the vast majority of the city’s total population of 952,000, as of 2020.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Residents of the occupied territories are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities.  Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and, in the relevant areas, PA law.  Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander and Israeli law and legislation.  West Bank Palestinian population centers mostly fall into Areas A and B, as defined by the Oslo-era agreements.  Under those agreements, the PA has formal responsibility for civil administration and security in Area A, but Israeli security forces frequently conduct security operations there.  The PA maintains civil administration in Area B in the West Bank while Israel maintains security control in this area.  Israel retains full security and administrative control of Area C (which constitutes approximately 60 percent of the West Bank) and has designated most Area C land as either closed military zones or settlement zoning areas.

Palestinians living in the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord are subject to military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander.  PA civil and criminal law applies to Palestinians who live in Area B, while Israel retains the overriding responsibility for security.  Although per the Oslo II Accord, only PA civil and security law applies to Palestinians living in Area A of the West Bank, Israel applies military ordinances enacted by its military commander whenever the Israeli military enters Area A, as part of its overriding responsibility for security.  The city of Hebron in the West Bank – an important city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians as the site of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs – is divided into two separate areas:  area H1 under PA control and area H2, where approximately 800 Israeli settlers live and where internal security, public order, and civil authorities relating to Israelis and their property are under Israeli military control.

The Oslo Accords stipulate that protection of 12 listed Jewish holy sites and visitors in Area A is the responsibility of Palestinian police, and the accords created a joint security coordination mechanism to ensure “free, unimpeded and secure access to the relevant Jewish holy site” and “the peaceful use of such site, to prevent any potential instances of disorder and to respond to any incident.”  Both sides agreed to “respect and protect the listed below religious rights of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Samaritans” including “protection of the Holy Sites; free access to the Holy Sites; and freedom of worship and practice.”

Israeli government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.

The Israeli Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled since 1993 that Jews have the right to pray on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but police may restrict this right in the name of public order and safety.  The court reiterated in 2019 that its precedent on this issue is nonintervention in government decisions, “except in highly unusual cases when the decision constitutes a major distortion of justice or is extremely unreasonable.”

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administers the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem.

The Israeli “Nakba Law” prohibits institutions that receive Israeli government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba (“catastrophe”), the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.  Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”

In 2007, Hamas staged a violent takeover of PA government installations in the Gaza Strip and has since maintained a de facto government in the territory, although the area nominally falls under PA jurisdiction.

An interim Basic Law applies in the areas under PA jurisdiction.  The Basic Law states Islam is the official religion but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.”  It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality.  It criminalizes the publishing of writings, pictures, drawings, or symbols of anything that insults the religious feelings or beliefs of other persons.  The Basic Law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law.  The law states the principles of sharia shall be the main sources of legislation.  It contains language adopted from the pre-1967 criminal code of Jordanian rule that criminalizes “defaming religion,” with a maximum penalty of life in prison.  Since 2007, the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, controlled by Hamas, has not convened.  The Palestinian Constitutional Court dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council in December 2018 and called for new elections.  The President of the PA promulgates executive decrees that have legal authority.

There is no specified process by which religious groups gain official recognition; each religious group must negotiate its own bilateral relationship with the PA.  The PA observes 19th-century status quo arrangements reached with Ottoman authorities, which recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Catholic Churches.  The PA also observes subsequent agreements that recognize the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Council of Local Evangelical Churches (a coalition of evangelical Protestant churches present in the West Bank and Gaza).  The PA recognizes the legal authority of these religious groups to adjudicate personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  Recognized religious groups may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities.  The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs is administratively responsible for these family law issues.

Islamic or Christian religious courts handle legal matters relating to personal status, including inheritance, marriage, dowry, divorce, and child support.  For Muslims, sharia determines personal status law, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians.  By law, members of one religious group may submit a personal status dispute to a different religious group for adjudication if the disputants agree it is appropriate to do so.

The PA maintains some unwritten understandings with churches that are not officially recognized, based on the basic principles of the status quo agreements, including with the Assemblies of God, Nazarene Church, and some evangelical Christian churches, which may operate freely.  Some of these groups may perform some official functions, such as issuing marriage licenses.  Churches not recognized by the PA generally must obtain special one-time permission from the PA to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters if these groups want the actions to be recognized by and registered with the PA.  These churches may not proselytize.

By law, the PA provides financial support to Islamic institutions and places of worship.  A PA religious committee also provides some financial support for Christian cultural activities.

In Jerusalem, the Israeli government provides separate public schools for Jewish and Arab children with instruction conducted in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively.  For Jewish children, there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families.  Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance.  Minors have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference.  By law, Israel provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semiprivate) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties:  the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System.  Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools.  Palestinian residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction.  Some Israeli-funded public schools in Jerusalem use the PA curriculum.

Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates as well as in some Palestinian schools in Jerusalem that use the PA curriculum.  There are separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians.  Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses.  Recognized churches operate private schools in the West Bank that include religious instruction.  Private Islamic schools also operate in the West Bank.

Palestinian law provides that in the defunct Palestinian Legislative Council, six seats be allocated to Christian candidates, who also have the right to contest other seats.  There are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group.  A 2017 presidential decree requires that Christians head nine municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for representation on these councils and one additional municipal council.

PA land laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to “any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf.”  While Israeli law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority, which administers the 93 percent of Israeli land in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.

Although the PA removed the religious affiliation category from Palestinian identity cards issued in 2014, older identity cards continue to circulate, listing the holder as either Muslim or Christian.

Israel’s Law of Citizenship and Entry, first passed in 2003 and renewed annually, explicitly prohibited residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the Israeli Ministry of Interior (MOI) makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.

The Jordanian Waqf administers Islamic courts in Jerusalem for Muslim residents, with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Jordan having appellate authority.

There is no Israeli legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays and on Jewish holidays.  The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest.  The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed.  There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries.  The law instructs the Israeli Minister of Labor and Welfare to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat.  The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant, to work on their day of rest.

Israeli law states public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.

Government Practices

Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

On September 10, Israeli police temporarily closed off all entrances to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem attempted to stab an Israeli Border Police officer.  Police shot the suspect, who later died of his wounds.

Later in September, a Palestinian woman attempted to stab police officers outside the Chain Gate to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and police shot and killed her.

On November 17, a 16-year-old Palestinian stabbed two Israeli Border Police officers in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and a civilian shot and killed him.

On December 19, a 20-year-old Palestinian attempted to stab two ultra-Orthodox Jews in a parking lot near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and fled the scene.  Israeli police later arrested the attacker, and no injuries were reported.

On November 21, a Palestinian teacher shot and killed an Israeli tour guide and wounded four others with an automatic weapon near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas said the gunman was a senior member of its movement in East Jerusalem.  Security officials shot and killed the attacker immediately after the assault.

On December 4, Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian after he stabbed and wounded an ultra-Orthodox Jew near the Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem’s Old City.  Israeli police released surveillance video in which the attacker could be seen stabbing the Jewish man and then trying to stab a Border Police officer before being shot and falling to the ground.  The Religion News Service reported that a widely circulated video filmed by a bystander appeared to show an officer from Israel’s paramilitary Border Police shooting the attacker when he was already lying on the ground, and another appeared to show police with guns drawn preventing medics from reaching him.  The United Nations’ Human Rights Office, PA officials, some Joint List and Meretz members of the Knesset (MKs), and Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups such as B’Tselem and Al-Haq described the police shooting as an extrajudicial execution.  Israeli investigators cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.  Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency medical service, said it treated an ultra-Orthodox man in his 20s who was stabbed.  Police identified the attacker as a 25-year-old from Salfit in the West Bank.

On December 18, Israeli Border Police arrested a 65-year-old Palestinian woman for the stabbing of an Israeli man near a checkpoint close to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

On October 20, the trial of an Israeli Jewish minor, accused in the 2018 killing of a Palestinian woman, Aysha al-Rabi, a resident of Bidya village, began at the Central District Court in Lod.  Prosecutors accused the minor, then 17, of throwing a two-kilogram (4.4 pound) stone through al-Rabi’s car windshield “with the intent of using it to harm Arab passengers out of an ideological motive of racism and hostility toward Arabs.”  In 2019, authorities arrested and later released four other suspects who, like the defendant, were yeshiva students from the settlement of Rehelim.  According to press reporting, the prosecution linked the defendant’s DNA to the stone that caused al-Rabi’s death and also linked him to Kahanism, which Haaretz described as a “far-right anti-Arab ideology inspired by Rabbi Meir Kahane.”  In January, authorities stated that the stone throwing that killed al-Rabi, a mother of eight, was a terror attack but declined to recognize her as a victim of terrorism.  Press reports said that authorities said the decision was reached because al-Rabi was not an Israeli citizen and the killing occurred outside Israel’s recognized borders.  At year’s end, the trial was continuing and the accused remained under supervised house arrest.

Clashes broke out in April and May with “Day of Rage” demonstrations throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem against Israeli actions at Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  The Palestinian National and Islamic Factions in the West Bank called on Palestinians across West Bank cities, villages, and refugee camps to participate in a “Day of Rage” on May 11 to protest actions by Israeli security forces, and Israelis living in East Jerusalem against Palestinians at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound and in Sheikh Jarrah.

According to press and NGO monitors, multiple events related to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount contributed, along with other factors, to escalations resulting in unrest and conflict across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.  On April 13 on the evening of the first day of Ramadan, media and Waqf officials reported that Israeli National Police entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and disconnected loudspeakers used for the call to prayer to avoid disrupting an official Memorial Day service for fallen soldiers attended by then Israeli President Rivlin in the adjacent Western Wall square.  The incident was condemned by PA officials as a “hate crime.”

On June 17, the New York Times reported that the government charged a police officer, whose name was not released, with manslaughter in the 2020 killing of Iyad Halak, an autistic Palestinian man, in Jerusalem’s Old City.  Following an investigation, the Ministry of Justice said that Halak had not posed any danger to police.  At Halak’s funeral, the press reported that mourners chanted, “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of [the Prophet] Mohammed will return,” a taunt referring to the seventh century Muslim massacre and expulsion of the Jews of Khaybar.

During the last Friday of Ramadan on May 7, Israeli police entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque using teargas, stun grenades, and rubber tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians who were throwing rocks.  Media reported that in the aftermath, Palestinians stockpiled stones in the compound in anticipation of confrontations with police and far-right Israeli nationalists planning to march through the Old City.  On May 10, Israeli police entered the compound again and used stun grenades, teargas, and rubber tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians.  The Palestinian Red Crescent stated that more than 300 individuals were injured.  In an attempt to ease tensions and reduce potential for clashes, Israeli police temporarily barred non-Muslims from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

According to the Jerusalem Post, on December 24, PA security forces used tear gas and batons to disperse more than 50 Palestinians, some armed with Molotov cocktails, who were attempting to march to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, in Area A of the West Bank, a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  On December 26, more than 200 Palestinians tried to march on the shrine, but PA authorities had cordoned off the area and prevented the demonstrators from reaching the site.  Individuals that the newspaper identified as “activists” said that these attempts to set fire to the building were intended as a response to “settler crimes” against Palestinians.  The PA security forces stated that they received “clear and firm” instructions to protect the tomb.

On January 10, Israeli Border Police arrested a Palestinian teenager after he threw a Molotov cocktail at Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli Jurisdiction in Area C.  During unrest in April, police and media reported that dozens of youths threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the shrine.  The shrine remained separated from the West Bank by a barrier built during the 2000-2005 Second Intifada, and Palestinians were able to access it only if permitted by Israeli authorities.  Residents and citizens of Israel continued to have relatively unimpeded access.  Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat).  In October, Palestinian demonstrators sporadically clashed over several days with the INP after the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority began landscaping work on public land adjacent to the Islamic al-Yusufiya Cemetery in East Jerusalem and unearthed human remains in a shallow grave.  During demonstrations against the construction work, Palestinian protestors reportedly chanted, “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of [the Prophet] Mohammed will return.”  The cemetery, which is hundreds of years old, is affiliated with the Jordanian Waqf.  Multiple graves and headstones are located in the disputed area adjacent to the cemetery, some dating from Jordanian control of Jerusalem and others allegedly used more recently and without authorization.

According to an October 11 report in Haaretz, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said, “This territory [adjacent to the al-Yusufiya Cemetery] is a national park and open public space, outside the Muslim cemetery.  The Muslim Waqf, unlawfully and in violation of court orders, placed several graves there.  During works with the Jerusalem Development Authority to develop the open public space, a shallow dig was uncovered with several bones in it.  The matter is being investigated.  The works at the site are ongoing under court orders.”  On October 17, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court rejected requests submitted by the Committee for the Care of Islamic Cemeteries in Jerusalem to suspend bulldozing and exhuming graves.  However, the court restricted construction activity to only include light work, such as covering ground, placing grids, and gardening, and prohibited demolition, excavation, casting, or drilling.  Authorities did not allow construction that would affect any graves at the site.  On October 28, Israeli authorities fenced the walls surrounding area and installed surveillance cameras.  On October 29, the PA President’s advisor for religious and Islamic affairs described the bulldozing as an ongoing crime against the cemetery, while the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem stated, “No tomb was damaged during the works, and there is no intention to displace any grave, even if built illegally.”

In general, NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that arrests of Israelis in religiously motivated crimes against Palestinians rarely led to indictments and convictions.  Palestinians stated that they faced procedural difficulties in filing complaints with Israeli police, who are located at stations within settlements or at military-run liaison offices outside those settlements.  Data from the NGO Tag Meir, which tracks hate crimes, and media reports indicated in recent years Israeli authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites.

Israeli government officials made public statements against “Israeli extremists’ attacks” on Palestinians and made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, including through task forces, increased funding, and hiring additional staff members.  According to Haaretz, on December 13, Minister of Public Security Omer Bar-Lev said the government viewed settler violence “severely” and it was taking steps to address the issue, including increasing police in the West Bank and providing clearer instructions to the IDF on how to deal with attacks by Jews on Palestinians.  The report stated that Minister of Defense Benjamin Gantz had promised to increase enforcement against such attacks, which the newspaper said had increased 150 percent from 2019.  Other political leaders criticized Bar-Lev.  Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said, “The settlers are the salt of the earth.  The violence that is shocking is the dozens of cases of stone-throwing and beatings of the Jews that happen daily… with the encouragement and support of the Palestinian Authority.”  Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana said, “It is sad to see a security man rich in experience and years get such a false and distorted narrative.”

According to a December 15 report by the Times of Israel, security officials said that the year saw a drastic spike in violence by what they termed Jewish extremists in the West Bank.  According to the Times of Israel, in 2020, the Shin Bet internal security service registered 272 violent incidents in the West Bank; through the middle of December, the agency recorded 397.  On the same day, Haaretz reported that, according to government figures, there were 135 stone-throwing incidents targeting Palestinians during the year, up from 90 in 2019, and 250 other violent incidents, up from 100 in 2019.  The newspaper also reported that violence against the Israeli security services also rose, from 50 incidents in 2019 to 60 in 2021.

In a fact sheet reviewing the years 2005-2021 released in December, the Israeli NGO Yesh Din stated, “The State of Israel is evading its duty to protect Palestinians in the West Bank from Israelis who seek to harm them.  Long-term monitoring of the outcomes of investigations into ideological offenses committed by Israelis shows that Israeli law enforcement agencies leave Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories defenseless to attacks and harassment perpetrated by Israeli settlers.” According to Yesh Din statistics, Israeli police failed to make arrests in the investigation of 81 percent of the files opened between 2005 and 2021, and 92 percent of all investigation files were closed without an indictment.

Attacks in the West Bank on Palestinians by Israeli citizens, some of whom asserted their right to settle in what they stated was the historic Jewish homeland of Judea and Samaria, continued, as well as Palestinian attacks on settlers.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported 496 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the year, including 370 attacks that resulted in property damage and 126 attacks that resulted in casualties, three of which were fatal.  According to UN monitors, this was the highest reported level of settler-related violence since UNOCHA began recording incidents in 2005 and represented a 40 percent increase in the number of incidents, compared with 2020.  Comparable to the UN, the IDF recorded 446 incidents of settler violence during the year.  UNOCHA updated its metrics to incorporate more information from civil society about violence against Israelis.  During the year, “in the context of the occupation and conflict,” UNOCHA estimated that there were 82 Palestinian fatalities and 16,421 Palestinians injured and three Israeli fatalities and 146 Israelis injured in West Bank violence, including in East Jerusalem.  The Israeli government said that UNOCHA did not provide information about actions by Hamas in its public statistics and did not fully cover attacks targeting Israelis.

The Israeli government said it thwarted 270 “significant attacks” in the West Bank.  During the year, according to the Israeli government, there were 7,153 cases of “hostile destructive activity” in the West Bank and Gaza which included stone-throwing, Molotov cocktails, shootings, stabbings, and assaults with vehicles.  Of these activities, 4,417 were missiles fired from the Gaza Strip during May.  The Israeli police recorded more than 2,400 cases of Molotov cocktails and stone-throwing in Jerusalem.  The Israeli government said that during the year, 19 Israeli citizens and residents in Israel lost their lives following these attacks, and more than 3,000 were injured.

The government of Israel continued to discourage Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A), with large road signs warning Israelis against entering these areas and stating it was dangerous for Israelis and against Israeli law to do so.  Significant numbers of Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel, and some Jewish and other Israelis, chose to privately visit Area A without repercussions, according to media and individuals who visited.  Media reported that while these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting numerous Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A under Palestinian control, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and the Shalom al Israel Synagogue in Jericho.  Some Jewish religious leaders said the Israeli government policy limiting travel to parts of the West Bank prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several religious sites in the West Bank including Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than permitted through IDF coordination.  IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were necessary to ensure Jewish-Israelis’ safety.  The Israeli government said that Jewish worshippers could only visit Areas A and B of the West Bank with the protection of the IDF and that the PA was not fulfilling its commitments under the Oslo Accords to ensure freedom of religion for Jewish worshippers in these areas.  Palestinian and Israeli security forces coordinated some visits by Jewish groups to PA-controlled areas within the West Bank, which generally took place at night to limit the chance of confrontations with Palestinians who opposed the visit.

Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited holy sites in areas in the West Bank under Palestinian control, where freedom of access was guaranteed by the PA in the Oslo Accords, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (located in Area A).  On September 26, Palestinian protesters attacked buses carrying approximately 500 Jewish worshipers traveling to the site, resulting in minor injuries to two Israeli soldiers escorting the convoy.  According to police, the protestors used live fire, stones, and homemade explosive devices.  The Israeli government said the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) facilitated seven visits to the site during the year.

On November 2, according to the Jerusalem Post, which cited Palestinian media, Palestinians and Israeli security forces clashed in the vicinity of Joseph’s Tomb.  The violence involved gunfire from both sides.  Palestinian rioters placed burning tires in the middle of streets in the city to impede Israeli forces and Jewish visitors who were set to visit Joseph’s Tomb later that night.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs previously stated that Israeli officials, including high-ranking politicians and senior officials from law enforcement bodies, had declared an unequivocal zero-tolerance policy towards the phenomenon of “price tag” offenses committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians.  The Nationalistic Motivated Crimes Unit of the Judea and Samaria Police District of the INP was tasked with preventing and investigating ideologically based offenses in the West Bank and with supporting other police districts in the investigation of such crimes.  The Israeli government maintained an interagency team overseeing law enforcement efforts in the West Bank related to incitement, “violent uprisings,” and “ideological crimes.”

The Israeli government continued to allow controlled access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and said freedom of worship at the site was a supreme value.  The government expressed continued support for the post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to allow non-Muslim visitors but prohibit non-Islamic worship on the compound, while stating that Israel respected Jordan’s “special role” at the site, as reflected in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty.  The Waqf said that Israeli authorities continued to interfere in the Waqf’s administration of the site, including delaying longstanding maintenance and restoration work.  Israeli officials and activists again stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities.  In addition to the police banning individual Waqf staff members from the site, the Waqf said that it had a reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff hired to work there, leaving the Waqf seriously understaffed.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with police officers stationed both inside the site and at entrances.  Police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site.  Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance, through which non-Muslims may enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours.  Police sometimes restricted this access, citing security concerns.

In April at the beginning of Ramadan, Israeli authorities restricted the number of persons allowed to enter al-Aqsa Mosque to 10,000 vaccinated Palestinians entering from the West Bank because of “high morbidity rates” from coronavirus in the West Bank.  Israeli military authorities said the measures were being taken to allow freedom of worship and religion, and also to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the area.

According to local media, some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer.  The Israeli government reiterated that overt non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that in practice, police generally allowed discreet non-Muslim prayer on the site.  The news website Al-Monitor reported in October that although the country’s two chief rabbis repeatedly said Jews were not to set foot in the Temple Mount out of concern they could inadvertently step into an area which, in Jewish law, it was forbidden to enter unless one was ritually pure.  In recent years, some Jews had entered the mosque and tried to offer prayers.  In August, the New York Times reported that Rabbi Yehuda Glick, whom the newspaper described as a “right-wing former lawmaker,” led “efforts to change the status quo for years” and said that Glick livestreamed his prayers from the site.  The report said that although the government officially allowed non-Muslims to visit the site each morning on the condition that they did not pray there, “In reality, dozens of Jews now openly pray every day [at the site]… and their Israeli police escorts no longer attempt stop them.”  The New York Times reported that Glick and activists ultimately sought to build a third Jewish Temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock, an idea that Azzam Khatib, the deputy chairman of the Waqf council, said “will lead to a civil war.”  According to the Religion News Service, one group known as the Temple Institute hoped to build a third temple where one of the al-Aqsa complex’s three mosques now stands and to reinstate ritual animal sacrifices.  The group’s website reported that it was working with an architect on a design.  In September, al-Monitor reported, “In the past, doing so [praying out loud or making movements of genuflection], could lead to the person being detained and ejected from the site, as Jews are not allowed to pray there.  But more recently, a warning is reportedly more common.  Last July Israel’s Channel 12 filmed Jews praying silently at the site while police officers watched.”  Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles.  Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha, Jewish religious law) to enter with a police escort.

On October 5, the Jerusalem Magistrate Court ruled that “silent Jewish prayer” on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount did not violate existing police rules on the site.  The ruling was in response to a case involving a 15-day administrative restraining order against a man whom police had removed from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on September 29 on grounds that he disturbed public order by engaging in Jewish prayer.  The judge ruled that silent prayer “does not in itself violate police instructions” that prohibit “external and overt” non-Muslim prayer on the site.  Al-Monitor said the Magistrate’s Court’s ruling was “unprecedented” and “seem[ed] to question the status quo that has prevailed over the site.”  The Jerusalem District Court overturned the lower court’s ruling on October 8, ruling that the INP had acted “within reason,” and “the fact that there was someone who observed [him] pray is evidence that his prayer was overt.”  Minister of Public Security Bar-Lev supported the appeal, saying “a change in the status quo will endanger public security and could cause a flare-up.”  The Waqf said the lower court’s ruling was “a flagrant violation” of the complex’s sanctity and a “clear provocation” for Muslims.

On July 17, during the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting when Jews commemorate the destruction of the temples, activists of Liba Yehudit, a national-ultra-Orthodox NGO described by Haaretz as “ultra-extreme,” put up a makeshift partition in the middle of the egalitarian prayer area of the Western Wall Plaza, intended to divide those praying by gender, and yelled and cursed to disrupt those praying there for the holiday.  According to Haaretz, “hundreds of right-wing, Orthodox Jews, mostly teenagers” disrupted the reading of the Book of Lamentations by a female member of the Conservative movement, that organized the annual event.  Haaretz described Liba as “an extreme right-wing group, which has been trying to prevent the non-Orthodox from having access to a new and revamped prayer plaza at the southern end of the site.”

On July 18, on Tisha B’Av, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted thanks to the Public Security Minister and the Israel Police Inspector General for “maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount.”  On November 19, the Prime Minister’s Office said that the government’s policy regarding the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, which prohibits non-Islamic worship, had not changed and what Bennett actually meant was that both Jews and Muslims had “freedom of visitation rights.”

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the al-Aqsa Mosque, unless they were participating in a Waqf-sponsored visit.  It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing.  Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints concerning their lack of control of access to the site.  The Waqf objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals whom they perceived to be dressed immodestly or who caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site.  Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site.  Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials exercised only limited oversight.  Throughout the year, the government extended visiting hours in the afternoon by 30 minutes to prevent large groups forming at the entrance for non-Muslims, in accordance with COVID-19 health restrictions.

The PA Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Jordanian Waqf rejected the fatwa.  The Waqf stated that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf.  The government welcomed these visits as a positive outcome of normalization and as demonstrating freedom of religion.

Many Jewish religious leaders, including Shmuel Rabinovitch, the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites of Israel, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for reasons of ritual purity.  Some Jewish religious leaders, Knesset members, and activists called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors.

The government continued to allow Knesset members and ministers to visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site.  Members of the Knesset were required to inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with the police.

At the main Western Wall Plaza, the place of worship nearest the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to prohibit the performance of any “religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, [or] which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.”  Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services, over the objections of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements.  The organization Women of the Wall, whose membership is composed of mostly Reform and Conservative Jewish women and whose goal is to secure the official right for women to pray at the Western Wall, stated that their monthly presence at the wall for more than 30 years had established them as part of the “customs of the place.”

Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall Plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site.  Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.  On several occasions, MK Gilad Kariv (Labor) used his parliamentary immunity to bring Torah scrolls for the use of Women of the Wall and referred to the prohibition as illegal.

Within COVID-19 limitations, authorities allowed Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in a barricaded portion of the women’s area of the main Western Wall Plaza.  Ultra-Orthodox protesters harassed and attacked Women of the Wall members repeatedly during their monthly services by throwing coffee or bottles at them, screaming, cursing, blowing whistles, or pushing them.

Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the main Western Wall Plaza and which is ultra-Orthodox-run, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing.  Ahead of a November service held by Women of the Wall, tension rose when former Shas MK Aryeh Deri called MKs and the public to attend the service and prevent MK Kariv from bringing Torah scrolls to the women’s section, which Deri said would be a “desecration of the Western Wall.”  The Western Wall Heritage Fund announced it would not take responsibility for maintaining public order at the plaza, leading to increased INP presence on November 5.  With President Isaac Herzog’s intervention, and his promise to hold a meeting on pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall, most MKs refrained from attending the service at the Western Wall on November 5.  MK Ben Gvir of the Religious Zionist Party still attended to protest against the Women of the Wall, expressing outrage that police confronted protesters who attempted to reach the women who were conducting services at the site.  According to the NGO Israel Religion and Action Center (IRAC), INP and the Western Wall Heritage Fund guards confronted Women of the Wall during the service.  The President held a meeting on pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall on December 1.

A 2017 petition to the Supreme Court by Women of the Wall asking that ushers and police prevent disruption of their services was pending at year’s end.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi Bridge and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall Plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers.  Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs.  On November 4, the Supreme Court criticized the government for its lack of progress upgrading the area to a more permanent egalitarian prayer space.  On December 7, the government told the Supreme Court it intended to continue to upgrade the egalitarian plaza but did not mention steps towards further equality and recognition included in the 2016 Western Wall Agreement.  The 2016 agreement was a compromise between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities, which the government “froze” in 2017, that included the construction of a permanent plaza for mixed-gender prayer managed by non-Orthodox groups, and a merged entry to all prayer spaces adjacent to the Western Wall.  The government requested to update the court on developments within six months.

The Supreme Court case was a combination of lawsuits against the government, some dating back to 2013, that would allow prayer for all religious streams of Judaism at the Western Wall.  It resulted in the 2016 Western Wall Agreement.  In 2018, a special government committee approved expansion of the temporary platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements.  The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill their 2016 agreement with the government.  In addition, observers stated that scaffolding prevented visitors from touching the sacred wall in the egalitarian prayer space since a rock fell there in 2018.  Over the same period, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation managed large construction projects in the main plaza, making routine inspections for loose rocks at the main plaza without blocking access to the wall.

On September 2, the Supreme Court rejected a petition by female rabbis demanding structural improvements to prevent collapse of the Mughrabi Bridge (the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, that crosses over the women’s section of the main Western Wall Plaza); the court accepted the state’s argument that it was taking action to restore the wooden beams on metal bases which support the bridge.  The court added, “in a place like the Temple Mount, where any change could lead to political or security turbulence, the decision of state institutions to not change the existing situation on the ground is a practical and reasonable decision in which there is no room to intervene.”

In November and December, press reported that despite the government’s declared intention to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, the proposal appeared to be losing support within the ruling coalition.  Minister of Religious Affairs Kahana said the vast majority of Jews in Israel were Orthodox and that it would not be right to give control of parts of the space to the Conservative and Reform streams.  Kahana said the issue “must be studied, to see how we resolve the [religious] wars.”  Other members of the cabinet continued to publicly support the plan.  According to Haaretz, the two key components of the proposal were creating a new and enhanced space on the southern side of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer and providing official recognition to the Conservative and Reform movements at the site.  The newspaper reported that “the disagreements [were] about that second component.”  Under the government’s original plan, a new authority would have been created to govern the egalitarian space and representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements would sit on its board.  However, Haaretz reported that two Orthodox members of the cabinet, Kahana and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, found this unacceptable and suggested that the egalitarian prayer space continue to operate under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office or, alternatively, be handed over for supervision to the Jewish Agency.  Leaders of the non-Orthodox movements rejected that plan.  At year’s end, the government had taken no action to move the proposed changes forward.

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supported maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem.  The issue of the use of the Gate of Mercy (Bab al-Rahma), a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple that was reopened by the Waqf in 2019 after it had been closed since 2003, remained unresolved.  The Israeli government stated it regarded the reopening as a violation of the status quo.  An Israeli court extended a court order issued in July 2020 to close the site, but by year’s end the INP had not enforced the order.  The Waqf said it did not recognize the authority of Israeli courts over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Throughout the year, Muslim worshippers could generally enter the site, although Israeli police sometimes conducted security searches there.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site or incited others to violence, and public figures whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions.  Banned individuals included Waqf guards and administrative and maintenance staff and imams delivering sermons at the site, as well as prominent activists.  The Israeli government said that some individuals – including both Muslims and Jews – were prevented access to the site during the year because they could have caused disturbances and riots.  The government said Israeli security prevented access to the site for 389 Muslims and 99 Jews during 2021 due to previous incidents of public disorder at the site, including assaulting or interfering with police, or based on intelligence information.  The Wadi Hilweh Information Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 357 individuals from the site during the year.

While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned some Palestinian residents in the occupied territories, and Arab/Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel from the site.  Palestinian civil society organizations said that, in a practice that began in 2020, police continued to check the identify cards of individuals entering the Old City to visit the site for Friday prayers and would bar from entry those with West Bank identity cards and return them to the West Bank.  In May, media reported that Israeli police blocked several buses of Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel outside of Jerusalem from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Police said they stopped the buses because they had intelligence indicating some of the passengers were planning to riot at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

Media reported that Israeli authorities barred Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, former imam of al-Aqsa Mosque, former Palestinian Grand Mufti, and current head of the private Higher Islamic Council in Jerusalem, from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for several months due to charges of incitement.  In March, government security officials briefly detained Sabri before releasing him.  Sabri said that police arrested him for planning to take part in the commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem and ascension to heaven.  He said authorities accused him of violating a court decision that closed the Bab al-Rahma/Gate of Mercy.  On October 10, police again summoned Sabri for questioning; before his interrogation, he told media outlets that he expected to be asked about decisions by Israeli courts allowing Jewish prayer at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Palestinian media reported Israel banned Sabri for a week after the interrogation.  In November, Israeli authorities detained Sheikh Najeh Bakirat, Deputy Director-General of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, for four days and subsequently banned him from entering the site for 20 days and from entering the West Bank for 30 days.

Human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities at times also restricted some Muslims from entering the site based on gender and age.  Israeli authorities have not issued permits for Gazans to visit the site during Islamic holidays since 2017, when it issued several hundred permits for Gazans during Ramadan, according to UN reports.  Muslims who were Israeli citizens, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, or foreigners already present in Israel did not need permits to visit the site.

The Waqf also said that Israeli authorities continued to interfere in the Waqf’s administration of the site, including delaying longstanding maintenance and restoration work.  Israeli officials and activists again stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities.  In addition to the police banning of individual Waqf staff members, the Waqf said that it had a reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff hired to work at the site, leaving the Waqf seriously understaffed.

Israel only allowed Palestinians who had obtained certification of their COVID-19 vaccination or a certificate of COVID-19 recovery to enter Israel, a restriction which applied also to Palestinian Muslims or Christians coming from the West Bank for religious purposes.

The IDF continued periodically to limit access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a site of significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham.  The Israeli government said there were longstanding entry arrangements which should not be considered as restricting access.  Palestinian leaders continued in statements to local media to oppose the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo Accords-era agreements that gave Israel and the PA shared responsibilities for the site, although Israel retained full security responsibility for it; the Oslo Accords and 1997 Hebron Accords gave “civil powers and responsibilities” including “planning authority” for the site to the Hebron Municipality.  Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site.

The IDF again restricted Muslim access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs during 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays and Jewish access during 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays.  The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point, which was staffed by soldiers with metal detectors, while granting Jews access via several entry points.  Citing security concerns, the IDF periodically closed roads approaching the site and, since 2001, had permanently closed Shuhada Street, the former main Hebron market and one of the main streets leading to the holy site, to Palestinian-owned vehicles.  The government said the closure was done to prevent confrontations.  Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously in separate spaces, a physical separation that was instituted by the IDF in November 1994 following an attack earlier in the year by an Israeli that killed 29 Palestinians.  Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Islamic call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, stating the government acted upon requests by Jewish religious leaders in Hebron in response to requests of Jewish worshippers at the site.  The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs reported that Israel prevented calls to prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs 525 times during the first 10 months of the year, including 59 times in March and 44 times in April, per Palestinian media.  Passover was celebrated from March 27 to April 3.

In 2020, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit approved a 2019 decision by Israel’s then Minister of Defense Naftali Bennett, shortly before Bennett left office, to bypass the Hebron municipality and expropriate land at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron.  The Israeli government stated it intended to renovate the site and establish elevators to make it accessible to persons with disabilities to “promote the rights of people with disabilities and allow access to religious sites for every population.”  The Israeli government said it proceeded with the plan after multiple attempts to gain PA, Hebron municipality, and Waqf support for increased access to the site for persons with disabilities.  According to the Jerusalem Post, “Hebron’s Jewish community and right-wing politicians and activists have long lobbied to make the site wheelchair accessible.”  The paper stated that the only way that Jewish sanctuaries within the site could be reached is by climbing a long staircase.

On November 4, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected an appeal submitted by the PA Hebron municipality against the establishment of an elevator at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs.  On June 10, Defense Minister Gantz approved the implementation of the elevator project as well as the building of a road to facilitate access to the site.  On August 12, after some site preparation for the project had begun, the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs announced the closure of all other mosques in Hebron for Friday prayers on August 13 and asked Muslims to gather at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs to “denounce” the Israeli occupation.  On August 13, Israeli security forces used stun grenades to disperse a large crowd of Muslim worshippers who gathered outside the mosque for Friday prayers in the protest.  Jamal Abu Aram, director of the Hebron Waqf, told the Palestinian news agency Ma’an that the Waqf estimated the crowd to number from 15,000 to 20,000 persons.

On November 28, the first day of Hanukkah, President Herzog lit a menorah candle in the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, and said, “The historical affinity of the Jewish people to Hebron, to the Cave of the Patriarchs, [and] to the heritage of our matriarchs and patriarchs is not in doubt.  Recognition of this attachment must be beyond all controversy.”  Herzog said, “In this holy space dedicated to all the sons of Abraham, we have to continue dreaming of peace, between all faiths and creeds in this land, and to condemn any hatred and violence.”  The PA and the Hebron municipality said they viewed the shrine as exclusively Muslim.  The PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Herzog’s visit was “a dangerous attempt to Judaize the site.”  Palestinian and Israeli demonstrators protested in the center of Hebron during Herzog’s visit.

Israeli authorities and settlers, who were often armed, prevented access by Palestinians to several mosques in the West Bank located within Israeli settlements.  Israeli authorities declared all legal settlements as restricted Israeli military zones.  Palestinians were unable to visit them without Israeli government approval.

In December, Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs Kahana announced that the government would build seven of the 30 new synagogues included in his ministry’s budget in the West Bank.  He also decided to earmark 25 percent of the ministry’s budget for the construction of mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths) to building mikvehs in the West Bank.

In March, the NGO Emek Shaveh and the Arab Culture Association petitioned the Supreme Court to end what they said was the discriminatory policy of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage in allocating budgetary outlays for work on heritage sites.  The petition cited calls by the ministry that included criteria that excluded non-Jewish historical sites from qualifying for funding.  In response, the ministry’s legal advisor said that “the ministry was established with the aim of conserving the country’s national and Zionist heritage.”  In August, the ministry formally responded to the pending petition, reiterated its view of its role, and stated that “other government ministries invest budgets also in minority heritage sites.”  The Attorney General supported this argument.  At year’s end, the Supreme Court had not ruled on the petition.

The Israeli NGO Machsom (“Checkpoint”) Watch’s website compared “freedom of worship and ritual at sites of heritage and religion” for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.  According to Machsom Watch, Israeli Jews had “free access…at any site that [was] considered a heritage or sanctified site.”  The NGO said some of these sites were Palestinian and had “undergone ‘Judaization’” while Palestinians were “denied access to numerous heritage and ritual sites” and “some such sites [were] appropriated by Jews or neglected and vandalized.”  In a 2020 report, Machsom Watch stated that the Israeli government had used three strategies to “erase” Muslim religious sites in the West Bank:  enclosing sites within closed military zones, including sites in nature reserves; divesting shrines of their Islamic religious identity by opening them to the general public; and declining to recognize the site as having any religious significance in Islam.  The NGO said Israeli authorities gave more weight to sites associated with Biblical prophets than to sites significant only to Muslims.  Machsom Watch said Israeli authorities denied Palestinians any access to 13 sites in the West Bank that were of traditional Muslim heritage, worship, or prayer or that were important to multiple faiths.  The NGO said some of these sites were dilapidated and frequently the object of vandalism by Israeli settlers.

The Israeli government said it coordinated access to the Prophet Samuel’s Mosque during the year for 1,500 Palestinian residents of the Nebi Samuel and al-Khalaila villages.  The site has both a mosque and synagogue and, with the villages, is located in the West Bank, but inside the Israeli barrier.

In August, Emek Shaveh reported that the government approved a plan for the development of the archaeological and holy site of the Prophet Samuel’s Mosque, a site held sacred by Jews as the tomb of the Biblical prophet Samuel, which is inside an Israeli national park in the West Bank.  The NGO said that the plan ignored the adjacent village of Nabi Samuel, which experienced a lack of new construction since its proposed master plans had not been approved and building permits therefore could not be issued.  Emek Shaveh said that the government had previously rejected a similar plan, following objections from residents of Nabi Samuel and from Emek Shaveh and another NGO, Bimkom.  According to Emek Shaveh, although the site is considered holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, most visitors were Jewish worshippers.  The Israeli government said the site had more than 270,000 visitors during the year, including Jews, Muslims, and tourists of other religions.

According to press reports, on November 24, shortly before the start of Hanukkah, Israel Nature and Parks Authority officials erected a large electric menorah on the roof of the Mosque of the Prophet Samuel.  Israeli officials repositioned the menorah to the entrance of the synagogue after the local Palestinian population protested the installation.  A local Palestinian leader said the Muslim community previously asked Israeli authorities for permission to light up a crescent on top of the mosque, but the request was denied.  A senior official in the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs condemned the erection of the menorah as an “infringement upon the sanctity” of the site.

On February 24, the Supreme Court ordered the government to answer a series of questions by April 22 regarding its proposal to build an aerial cable car over a Karaite cemetery in Jerusalem’s Old City.  This order was in response to three petitions which were filed by the Karaite community, the Emek Shaveh, and the NGO Israel Union for Environmental Defense, which the court considered in several sessions over the last three years.  The court suspended work on the cable car project to examine why the project was approved through the National Infrastructure Committee, unlike other projects, which went through Jerusalem’s District and Planning Committee, a distinction that the court said deprived citizens of the opportunity to offer their opinions and submit reservations and objections.  The justices also questioned the government’s designation of the cable car as a transportation rather than tourism project, and why the route could not be modified to avoid the Karaite community.  During the year, the government continued to promote the establishment of a cable car route from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City that would pass over the cemetery.  According to the Karaite community, the cable car would desecrate the cemetery, thus preventing its further use.  The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, but some NGOs said the project was meant to specifically promote Jewish tourism in East Jerusalem and to reinforce Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the area.  Despite a November 26 statement by Israeli Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and a December 13 statement by Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg against the project, the government told the Supreme Court at the end of December that it supported the construction of the gondola line.

The barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals as well as the conduct of journalistic, humanitarian, and NGO activities.  The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons.

In May, the Jerusalem municipality opened a parking lot on property it had leased from the Armenian Church in 2020.  In July, the Church signed a new contract with the Jerusalem municipality extending the lease for 99 years, and the municipality announced that a Jewish-Australian developer would construct a new hotel on the property.  Palestinians widely criticized the Church for leasing the property to the municipality, including public statements by PA figures.  PA Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Riyad Malki raised the transaction with his Armenian counterpart and asked for Armenian Foreign Ministry assistance in pressuring the Church to cancel the lease.  Minister Malki characterized the deal as opening the door for “the gradual encroachment of Israel’s settler-colonialism into the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem,” and said it “risks accelerating the obliteration of the Palestinian, Muslim, and Christian character of Jerusalem.”

The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs continued to provide imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and to prohibit them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.

Unrecognized religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a continued PA ban on proselytizing but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered.  Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis personal status documents issued by unrecognized churches.  The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents (e.g., marriage certificates) issued by some of these unrecognized churches, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples.  Many unrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad and to register the action officially in that location.  Some converts to unrecognized Christian faiths had recognized churches with which they were previously affiliated perform their marriages and divorces.  Members of some faith communities and faith-based organizations stated they viewed their need to do so as conflicting with their religious beliefs.

Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem continued to state that the physical barrier begun by Israel during the Second Intifada in 2003 impeded their work, particularly south of Jerusalem in West Bank Christian communities around Bethlehem.  Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints restricted their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship.  Christian leaders continued to state the barrier hindered Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  They also said it made visits to Christian sites in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who lived on the west side of the barrier.  Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers also reported difficulty or delays accessing Christian religious sites in the West Bank because of the barrier.  The Israeli government previously stated it constructed the barrier as an act of self-defense and that it was highly effective in preventing terrorist attacks in Israel.

Christian expatriate workers in Israeli settlements complained that lack of public transportation on Saturdays prevented them from participating in religious activities and worship in Jerusalem.

The Israeli Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and West Bank settlements for burial of persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” and 33 cemeteries for civil burial, but only three were available for use to the general public regardless of residence, and one had been full for several years.  The state permitted other cemeteries located in agricultural localities to bury only “residents of the area.”  This, according to the religious freedom and equal rights advocacy NGO Hiddush, left the majority of Israel’s population unable to exercise its right, as mandated by law, to be buried in accordance with secular or non-Orthodox religious views.  The two MRS-administered cemeteries in West Bank settlements were available only for the burial of Israeli citizens.  On September 12, the Supreme Court rejected a 2019 petition by Hiddush that demanded civil burial in agricultural localities for individuals who were not local residents and who did not have another alternative.  According to the Israeli government, the existing issues regarding civil burial could not justify burial outside of place of residence.  The court invited Hiddush to submit a new petition regarding a specific locality, rather than a general petition.

According to Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the Israeli government maintained an agreement with the Church of Jesus Christ stating that no member of the Church would “engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza as a condition of its lease of land for its campus on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

In June, German NGO Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research (GEI) released the findings from its European Union-commissioned review of PA curricula from 2017 and 2019 assessing the extent of inciteful content.  The report found the curriculum included promotion of UNESCO standards for peace, tolerance, and nonviolence in educational material, but the report also highlighted the enduring presence of problematic content, including instances of antagonism toward Israel and the glorification of violence.  The review praised the curriculum’s focus on human rights and pluralism and elimination of some prior inciteful content, while noting other content still veered beyond a “narrative of [political] resistance” and including antisemitic references and language delegitimizing the State of Israel.  It found “ambivalent – sometimes hostile – attitudes towards Jews and the characteristics they attribute to the Jewish people,” noting “frequent use of negative attributions in relation to the Jewish people in, for example, textbook exercises [that] suggest[ed] a conscious perpetuation of anti-Jewish prejudice, especially when embedded within the current political context.”  The report also noted that GEI’s overview of 18 textbooks released online for the academic year 2020/2021 included increased representation of female and Christian positions as well as “reduction in the text and images that have escalatory potential:  including the alteration of a specific teaching unit that included antisemitic content by several significant changes of the narrative.”

The Israeli curriculum monitoring NGO IMPACT-se stated the GEI report contained “omissions, obfuscations, and even apologetics for Jew-hate and violence.”  In a May update of its previous reviews of the curriculum used by Palestinian schools, IMPACT-se stated that the PA curriculum moved further from meeting UNESCO standards and that the newly published textbooks were found to be “more radical” than those previously published.  According to the NGO, there is “a systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom and jihad across all grades and subjects.”  IMPACT-se’s analysis cited examples of antisemitic tropes and the inclusion of violent wording in otherwise neutral subjects.

Consistent with UN practices globally, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA) used the same curriculum and textbooks as used by PA schools in the occupied territories.  In recent years, UNRWA conducted reviews of new textbooks introduced by the PA to ensure they align with UN values.

While Israeli law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of Israel in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice foreigners were allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.  This public land includes approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews.  The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who were not Israeli citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem.  In recent years, however, an increasing number of Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel in Jerusalem acquired property built on ILA-owned land.  Arab/Palestinian citizens could participate in bids for JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA granted the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab/Palestinian citizen of Israel won a bid.  Despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that the ILA Executive Council must have representation of an Arab, Druze, or Circassian member to prevent discrimination against non-Jews, there were no members from these groups on the council at year’s end.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate continued its legal efforts to block the transfer of properties in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish organization that signed a 99-year lease for the properties in 2004.  Courts previously ruled in favor of Ateret Cohanim, and in 2020, the district court ruled against reopening the case to hear new evidence brought forward by the Church.  A Supreme Court hearing was set for 2022 to determine if the case should be reopened based upon the new evidence.

On December 12, 13 heads of Christian communities in Jerusalem issued a joint statement entitled, “The Current Threat to the Christian Presence in the Holy Land,” that said, “Christians have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups.  Since 2012 there have been countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidation of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives.  These tactics are being used by such radical groups in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”  The statement said, “The declared commitment of the Israeli government to uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land,” but it added, “It is therefore a matter of grave concern when this national commitment is betrayed by the failure of local politicians, officials, and law enforcement agencies to curb the activities of radical groups who regularly intimidate local Christians, assault priests and clergy, and desecrate Holy Sites and church properties.”  The statement continued, “The principle that the spiritual and cultural character of Jerusalem’s distinct and historic quarters should be protected is already recognized in Israeli law with respect to the Jewish Quarter.  Yet radical groups continue to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter, with the aim of diminishing the Christian presence, often using underhanded dealings and intimidation tactics to evict residents from their homes, dramatically decreasing the Christian presence, and further disrupting the historic pilgrim routes between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”

Haaretz reported that the statement marked the beginning of a campaign that included a dedicated website and articles in the media.  In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the statements made by the Christian leaders were “baseless and distort the reality of the Christian community in Israel” and that the Christians’ joint statement “could lead to violence and bring harm to innocent people.”  In an editorial, Haaretz stated, “The Christian leadership in Jerusalem may be exaggerating the sense of threat against them, to draft support from communities throughout the world… However, this does not justify the government’s irresponsible behavior toward the Christian public.  The government must recognize that the Christian congregations have an important place in Jerusalem’s human mosaic.  The government must pay attention to the needs and problems of Christian communities.”

On December 29, at an annual New Year’s reception for spiritual and lay leaders of Christian churches and communities, President Herzog affirmed his commitment to freedom of worship and religion in the country.  Herzog said that each of the Christian groups was “a blessing and an integral part” of the country’s “mosaic.”  He explicitly rejected all forms of racism, discrimination, and extremism as well as any threat to Christian communities in the country.  Interior Minister Shaked also made remarks, saying that the new year offered an opportunity to build new bonds of friendship and cooperation among all religions.

In December, a ministerial-level team approved a proposal by Minister of Interior Shaked to exempt tourist groups that fell into the category of “Jewish tourism” from entry restrictions associated with the omicron variant of COVID-19.  According to press, Christian organizations said the decision was unfair, especially given the impending Christmas holidays.  According to a lead editorial in Haaretz, “This is a discriminatory exception, not to say a bigoted one.”  In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said, “These unfounded allegations of discriminatory conduct are outrageous, false, and dangerous.”

In April, Al-Monitor reported that then Israeli Minister of Tourism Orit Farkash-Hacohen said that after the signing of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and four Arab states, “Israel’s tourist branch began preparing for Muslim tourism.  Senior ministry officials said the ministry was expecting tens of thousands of Muslim tourists in the upcoming months and that the ministry was mapping religious Muslim sites throughout the country.”

In a March 17 interview on Palestine TV, PA presidential advisor Mahmoud al-Habbash said, “When Theodor Herzl, the so-called ‘father of political Zionism,’ visited Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century and saw that Palestine is [sic] inhabited, teeming with life, and brimming with a culture that has strong historical roots, he said, ‘Where will we establish our projected [state]?  We must turn Palestine into a land with no people, by depopulating it.’”  Al-Habbash said Herzl’s “purpose was to depopulate Palestine and bring in the Jews from all over the world… The Jews have no connection to the [Middle] East, to Palestine, or to the Semite race.”

Palestinian leaders, media, and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with Israeli security forces, whether those individuals were involved in confrontations or were innocent bystanders.  Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, and terrorist organizations glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.”  Several local Fatah chapters posted memorials, including photographs, of suicide bombers.  On several occasions on PA television, senior PA and Fatah official Jibril Rajoub extolled “martyrs” and prisoners serving sentences in Israeli prisons for conducting terrorist attacks.  According to the Israeli NGO Palestinian Media Watch, beginning in 2020, the PA transferred funds to the PLO to allow the continuation of “martyr payments” to families of Palestinians killed during terrorist acts or of those killed in Israeli military actions, including victims of air strikes in Gaza, as well as stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those awaiting charges and those convicted of acts of terrorism.

The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs continued to pay for construction of new mosques, maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank.  The ministry also continued to provide limited financial support to some Christian clergy and Christian charitable organizations.

The PA’s Palestinian Broadcasting Company’s code of conduct states it does not allow programming that encourages “violence against any person or institution on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs, or sex.”  Some official PA media channels as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling political movement Fatah, however, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence against Jews.  On October 21, on official PA television, Fatah Deputy Chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul, appearing with Latifa Abu Hmeid, whose sons were convicted of the killing of Israelis, said, “I’m completely happy that next to me is sitting a giant of endurance… I don’t at all think there is anyone who exceeds her endurance and stamina:  the mother of five prisoners and also the mother of martyrs… We can’t speak about all the prisoners, but we are proud of them all… They live in the heart, conscience, and awareness of every Palestinian.”

Both Palestinians and Israelis evoked ethnoreligious language to deny the historical self-identity of the other community in the region or to emphasize an exclusive claim to the land.  On October 1, on official PA television, PA Grand Mufti Hussein said, “The injustice will certainly pass and the occupation will pass… If we turn to the history of Palestine, it has been occupied by many peoples and many invaders have entered it, but in the end the occupation left and the invaders left… Jerusalem will certainly be liberated and return to the embrace of Islam, noble and strong, with its holy sites and its people, and the evil will pass, Almighty Allah willing.”  On April 25, MK Itamar Ben Gvir said in his inaugural speech before the Knesset, “I will act, with God’s help, to restore sovereignty to Jerusalem in general and to the Temple Mount in particular, so that images such as those we saw last night, of groups of thugs beating police officers, shouting ‘Hamas, Hamas’ and informing us that they are the bosses of Jerusalem and mainly of the Temple Mount – will not be seen or heard.”

Antisemitic material continued to appear in official PA media.  In a June 29 recorded speech opening a conference on Zionism at al-Quds University in Gaza that was posted on the PA official media website WAFA and on Palestine TV, President Abbas said, “I salute the efforts made to hold this conference, which refutes the Zionist narrative that falsifies the truth and history, and which all documents and research confirm that it is a product of colonialism.  They planned and worked to implant Israel as a foreign body in this region to fragment it and keep it weak.”  In a June 8 Fatah Movement-Nablus Branch Facebook post, a picture of a wounded baby and an image of a Star of David with red drops of blood appeared in an advertisement encouraging Palestinians to boycott Israeli products.

Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Muslim leaders continued to protest archaeological excavations and construction work done at the City of David National Park in the Silwan neighborhood outside the Old City and in the Old City near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims in Jerusalem while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions.  Emek Shaveh said that Israeli authorities were “using archaeological sites as a pretext for barring Palestinians from sites in Area C.”  The government stated that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research on ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.”  Archeologists from Emek Shaveh continued to dispute the government’s representation of the “Pilgrim’s Road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan in 2019, as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple.  Emek Shaveh said IAA’s excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road.  NGOs such as the City of David Foundation and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies continued to support the government’s position.

In February, a Palestinian contractor damaged part of a wall while doing road work near the Iron Age site of Mount Ebal/al-Burnat, a West Bank archeological site in Area B near Nablus, where some believe a biblical altar erected by Joshua sits.  The contractor said he was unaware that the wall was part of the antiquities site.  The Jerusalem Post reported one “right-wing [Israeli] politician” said, “There are relentless attempts to weaken our hold on our homeland and to obscure the Jewish people’s glorious past in the land of Israel, both through terrorist acts and destruction of archaeology.”

In August, Elad, which the Times of Israel described as a “right-wing organization,” and the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) opened a Center for Ancient Agriculture in the Valley of Hinnom in East Jerusalem where tourists were invited to learn about Biblical-era agriculture traditions.  The center was located in olive tree groves tended in the past by Palestinian residents of the surrounding areas who stated that they were the landowners responsible for maintenance of the grove.  Emek Shaveh said that the center was part of a series of projects advocated by Elad to expand Jewish Israeli presence in East Jerusalem.  The INPA responded that the center was “open to all.”

During the year, the Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in the West Bank, regulations Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy and other religious workers from entering and working.  Christian leaders said Israel’s visa and permit policy also adversely affected schoolteachers and volunteers affiliated with faith-based charities working in the West Bank.  Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries said they continued to face long delays in receiving visas and reported periodic denials of their visa applications.  Officials from multiple churches expressed concern that non-Arab visa applicants and visa-renewal applicants also faced long delays.  The Israeli government said that the large number of requests resulted in delays in process times.  During the year, 1,404 foreign clergy entered Israel, and 2,230 visas were granted (including new issuances and extending visas for those already present).

According to church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority, from entering Gaza.  Some clergy complained of body searches by Israeli security when entering or exiting Gaza, including a nun subjected to a body search and requested to remove her religious habit, and a priest who was asked to disrobe for examination of his chemotherapy pump despite possessing medical documentation from an Israeli doctor.  Additionally, some Arab clergy reported Israel denied permission for them to leave Gaza for more than a year, and thus they were unable to renew visas or permits, preventing them from returning once they were permitted to leave.

In recent years, Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians to exit Gaza to attend religious services in Jerusalem or the West Bank and for Muslims from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem for Ramadan.  On November 25, COGAT announced a quota of 500 permits for Christian Gazans to visit family in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, 200 permits for Gazans wishing to travel abroad via the Allenby Bridge Crossing, and 15,000 permits for Christian Palestinians in the West Bank to enter Israel.  Haaretz reported that Israel made approximately 1,000 permits available to Gaza Christians to enter Israel and the West Bank for Christmas celebrations.  The Israeli government said that COGAT issued 24,016 permits during the year for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to travel to Jerusalem for major religious holidays such as Easter, Ramadan, or Christmas.  Of that number, 245 were issued for Christian residents of Gaza.

The Israeli NGO Gisha stated that while Israeli authorities did not issue permits to Palestinians from Gaza due to COVID-19 until December, thereby essentially restricting them from being able to go to Israel or the West Bank except in urgent humanitarian cases, it permitted foreigners to enter Israel for much of the year to study religion and to attend religious events, such as weddings, funerals, and bat or bar mitzvahs.  Furthermore, Israelis were able to move to and from settlements in the West Bank, including for religious worship and gatherings.  Gisha said that even in previous years, religious travel from Gaza was extremely limited, and announcements for “holiday permits” – if available – often came with little time for individuals to prepare for travel, file applications on time, and appeal permit denials; no Muslims were issued permits for religious travel since 2018, according to Gisha.

On July 6, the coalition government failed to renew the Law on Citizenship and Entry resulting in its expiration and paving the way for family reunification of some 3,000 Palestinians and their Israeli citizen spouses.  Under the law, non-Jewish spouses of Israelis from certain countries and the West Bank and Gaza had been denied residency without a special determination from the Israeli MOI.  Although the law lapsed, Interior Minister Shaked ordered the ministry to continue functioning as though the law were in place.  On September 14, three NGOs, including HaMoked, petitioned the Court for Administrative Affairs demanding that the MOI respect the consequences brought about by the expiration of the law.  On November 11, the government responded, supporting Shaked’s continued handling of Palestinians’ requests in accordance with the now-expired regulations, stating that Shaked could implement “interim procedures and regulations” until a new law was passed.  No new procedures were published by year’s end, however.  On November 15, the court rejected the three NGOs’ request for an injunction prohibiting the handling of requests based on the expired law.  As a result, the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court on November 17.  At year’s end, both the petition and new legislation remained pending.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in the country, including in Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families.  When the previous citizenship and entry law was not renewed and expired in July, HaMoked petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to direct the MOI to adjudicate reunification applications.  HaMoked and Israeli media reported that the ministry refused to deal with these applications, and as of December, there were 1,680 such applications waiting to be reviewed.  There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status.  Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency.  According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (i.e., Christians who held neither citizenship nor residency).  A Christian religious leader expressed concern that this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively affected the long-term viability of Christian communities.

According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability, the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry, limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions, difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits, loss of confidence in the peace process, and economic hardships created by the establishment of the barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions.  The Israeli government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community.