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Crimea

Read A Section: Crimea

Ukraine

Executive Summary

In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea. In March 2014, Russia claimed that Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. The UN General Assembly’s Resolution 68/262 of March 27, 2014, entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” and Resolution 75/192 of December 28, 2020, entitled “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine),” declared continued international recognition of Crimea as part of Ukraine. The U.S. government recognizes Crimea is part of Ukraine; it does not and will not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea. Russian occupation authorities continue to impose the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of the country’s oldest human rights groups, following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, many religious communities were essentially driven out of the peninsula through registration requirements under newly imposed Russian laws. Only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) was exempt from these registration requirements. The Russian government reported there were 907 religious communities registered in Crimea, including in Sevastopol, compared with 891in 2019, representing a drop of more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Religious activists, human rights groups, and media reports said Russian authorities in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, including Muslim Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) members and clergy. At year’s end, two Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving prison sentences for their faith. According to the NGO Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia but legal in Ukraine. Russian occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detention, especially if authorities suspected the individuals of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai. According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, Russia continued to prosecute individuals for some types of worship, including imams leading prayers in their own mosques, as “illegal missionary activity.” Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and that they continued to be required to operate under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all. The OCU reported continued seizures of its churches. According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to pressure the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of having links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”

According to the Krym Realii news website, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. In April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremyzivka Village.

The U.S. government condemned the continued intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and called international attention to religious abuses committed by Russian forces through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials as well as messaging on social media. In a February press statement, the Secretary stated, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Russian occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The Crimean Peninsula consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) and the city of Sevastopol. According to State Statistics Service of Ukraine 2014 estimates (the most recent), the total population of the peninsula is 2,353,000. There are no recent independent surveys with data on the religious affiliation of the population, but media outlets estimate the number of Crimean Tatars, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, is 300,000, or 13 percent of the population.

According to information provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), the UOC-MP remains the largest Christian denomination. Smaller Christian denominations include the OCU, the RCC, UGCC, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with Protestant groups, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Lutherans. Adherents of the UOC-MP, Protestants, and Muslims are the largest religious groups in Sevastopol.

There are several Jewish congregations, mostly in Sevastopol and Simferopol. Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before the 2014 Russian occupation; no updates have been available since the occupation began. The 2001 census, the most recent, records 671 Karaites.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the ARC within Ukraine’s international borders, Crimea continues to be officially subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, Russian occupation authorities continue their implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory. The Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir is considered a terrorist organization under the law of the Russian Federation, but not under Ukrainian law. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.

According to occupation authorities, fines for individuals conducting illegal missionary activity range from 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670); the fine for legal entities is 100,000 to one million rubles ($1,300 to $13,400).

Government Practices

In December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution urging Russia to end its “temporary occupation” of Crimea. In his February speech at the UN General Assembly plenary meeting, then-Foreign Affairs Minister of Ukraine Vadym Prystaiko told the UN delegates of the continued large-scale abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms by Russian occupiers, spotlighting discrimination against Ukrainians of various ethnic and religious minority groups, including Crimean Tatars, Muslims, and members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

According to the Ukrainian human rights organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG), which has offices in Kyiv, 109 individuals were unlawfully incarcerated or imprisoned due to politically or religiously motivated persecution in Crimea during the year, compared with 89 in 2019.

Human rights groups said occupation authorities continued to impede the rights of Crimean Tatars following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.” Detentions and forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. According to Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Occupation authorities placed three additional Crimean residents under supervision and two more under house arrest. Russian authorities often accused Muslims of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In June, OHCHR reported Russian occupation authorities had detained 63 citizens of Ukraine for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir activities, 20 of whom had been convicted, including seven individuals who were sentenced in 2019 to prison terms ranging from seven to 19 years.

On September 21, Russian occupation authorities released Tatar blogger Nariman Memedeminov after he had served nearly one year of his sentence. Occupation authorities had detained Memedeminov on terrorist charges in 2018, citing his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russia’s North Caucasus Military Court in Rostov-on-Don had sentenced him to two and a half years in prison in October 2019. Human rights activists linked the original verdict to his reporting on the human rights situation in Crimea.

In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. Marlen Asanov received 19 years, Memet Belialov 18 years, Timur Ibragimov 17 years, Seyran Saliyev 16 years, Server Mustafayev 14 years, and Server Zakiryayev and Edem Smailov both 13 years. The judge found Ernes Ametov not guilty and released him. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai.

According to the CHRG, in December, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended into January 2021 the detention of Imam Bilyal Adilov, Erfan Osmanov, Seyran Murtaza, Server Gaziyev, Mejit Abdurakhmanov, Tofik Abdulgaziyev, Rustem Seitkhalilov, Akim Bekirov, Farkhat Bazarov, Seitveli Seitabdiyev, Shaban Umerov, Riza Izetov, Jemil Gafarov, Alim Karimov, Yashar Muyedinov, Izet Abdulayev, Asan Yanikov, Enver Ametov, Raim Aivazov, and Ruslan Suleimanov. Their cases were under judges’ consideration at year’s end. The group was arrested in March 2019 when armed representatives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian National Guard, and police searched 30 Crimean Tatar homes in Simferopol, Volodymyrivka, Strohanivka, Kamyanka, Bile, Akropolis, and Alkavan, detaining 23 individuals for their alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir. During the searches, law enforcement representatives reportedly planted and “found” Hizb ut-Tahrir materials. The detainees’ lawyers were not allowed to be present during the searches.

On December 8, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for Krymska Solidarnist (Crimean Solidarity) activist Remzi Bekirov. On December 10, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for his fellow activists Osman Arifmemetov and Vladlen Abdulkadyrov. The Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol had ordered the arrest of all three men in 2019 on charges related to “terrorism” for their suspected involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir following searches of their homes. Law enforcement officers reportedly beat Abdulkadyrov while he was in detention.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. According to the OHCHR, all 22 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in Crimea had lost their right to operate since the Russian Supreme Court’s 2017 ban on the religious group. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses who practice their faith risked retaliation by law enforcement. According to Forum 18, in 2019, a Russian court charged Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Filatov and Artyom Gerasimov with organizing an “extremist” organization following a raid by Russia’s FSB on eight homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Alupka and Yalta. The Russian FSB had arrested Filatov, a former head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Dzhankoy, in 2018. On March 5, the Yalta City Court initially fined Gerasimov 400,00 rubles ($5400); the Dzhankoy District Court sentenced Filatov to six years imprisonment on extremism-related charges. On May 26, Filatov lost his appeal. On June 4, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” revoked Gerasimov’s fine and sentenced him to six years in prison, matching Filatov’s sentence. Forum 18 stated authorities transferred Filatov and Gerasimov to a prison in Russia during the summer and, as of September 30, had not allowed them to receive letters.

Forum 18 reported authorities transferred Muslim prisoner of conscience Renat Suleimanov to Russia in January and did not allow him to receive letters written in his native Tatar language.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on May 26, armed FSB, Russian National Guard, and masked riot police raided four homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kerch, arresting Artem Shabliy. Reportedly, Shabliy was accused of having “drawn others into the activities of an extremist organization” by discussing the Bible with them.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on October 1, armed searches on nine Jehovah’s Witness homes in Sevastopol led to the arrests of four men: Yevhen Zhukov, Volodymyr Maladyka, Volodymyr Sakada, and Ihor Schmidt. All four remained imprisoned at year’s end. According to Forum 18, in November, Svetlana Sakada, the wife of one of the four detained, said her husband was not guilty of extremism-related charges. Forum 18 reported the four faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted on “extremism”-related charges, and that another Jehovah’s Witness, Viktor Stashevsky, was on trial on the same charges.

OHCHR reports consistently found that a pattern of criminalization of affiliation with or sympathy toward Muslim groups banned in the Russian Federation that continued to disproportionately affect Crimean Tatars. According to the report, these cases raised concerns about the right to a fair trial, as the detainees’ hearings often banned cameras, media, and family members from the courtroom. OHCHR reported that Russian courts in Crimea cited the “need to ensure the safety of the participants in the proceedings,” but that the defendants’ lawyers and family members said Russian occupation authorities excluded the public from court hearings to limit public awareness of trials, restrict public scrutiny, and exert additional pressure on the defendants.

On April 1, “prosecutors” reportedly charged Imam Yusuf Ashirov with conducting “illegal missionary activity” for leading Friday prayers at the Yukhary-Jami Mosque in Alushta. Ashirov denied the charges, explaining to the “deputy prosecutor” that he preached only to other mosque members and that he had “no desire to break the law.” Ashirov stated he suspected the charges against him stemmed from authorities’ attempts to transfer the mosque to the “state.” Similarly, in March, a court in Simferopol reportedly fined Imam Rasim Dervishev for “illegal missionary activity” for leading services. Devishev’s lawyer stated, “It is absurd to require anyone to ask permission to conduct religious rituals,” and he argued that Dervishev had not spoken to anyone outside the mosque about his religious belief. Dervishev paid a fine of between 5,000 and 30,000 rubles ($67 and $400). Reportedly, in April, Imam Dilyaver Khalilov faced similar charges for leading services at a mosque in Zavetnoye. Occupation authorities withdrew charges against Khalilov after the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In August, authorities seized Khalilov’s mosque, stating it was not registered as a mosque but rather as a sports complex. The Muslim community had repaired the dilapidated building and registered it as a mosque with the Ukrainian authorities in 2000.

According to the CHRG, in September, occupation authorities charged members of four churches (Catholic, Baptist, and two evangelical) with “illegal missionary activity.”

Forum 18 reported that occupation authorities brought 20 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community on websites or meeting places, compared with 11 such cases the previous year. Sixteen of the cases involved fines of 30,000 rubles ($400, one month’s average local wage), while three defendants received a warning. The remaining case was under review at year’s end. On November 20, a member of one of the fined religious communities told Forum 18, “The prosecutor told us we would get a warning, but when the case came to court, it was a different prosecutor, who demanded that we be fined. We didn’t expect this turn of events.”

According to Krymska Solidarnist and Forum 18, local authorities continued a ban on the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement in Crimea under a 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. The movement is legal in Ukraine. A Russian labor camp relocated Tablighi Jamaat Muslim Renat Suleimanov from the camp’s punishment cell to its “strict section.” The camp administration stated he was being punished for a conflict with another prisoner, but Suleimanov’s lawyer stated the accusation was fabricated as an excuse to punish his client. In January 2019, a Simferopol court had jailed Suleimanov for four years on “extremism”-related charges for meeting openly in mosques with three friends to discuss their faith.

The Ministry of Justice of Russia said 907 religious organizations were registered in Crimea, including 108 in Sevastopol, as of year’s end, compared with 891 and 105, respectively, in 2019. The number of religious organizations had dropped by more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Registered religious organizations included the two largest – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.

Human rights groups reported Russian occupation authorities continued to require imams at Crimean Tatar mosques to inform them each time they transferred from one mosque to another.

The RCC reported it continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican. Polish and Ukrainian RCC priests were permitted to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and required to leave Crimea for 90 days before returning.

UGCC leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and continued to have to operate as a part of the pastoral district of the RCC.

According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to place pressure on the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Only six of the 15 churches, identifying as OCU but required to reregister after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) joined the unified OCU, were functioning in 2019-2020, compared with five in 2018 and eight in 2017. At year’s end, three of those were “on the verge of closure.” According to RFE/RL, Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group stated the OCU was one of the few remaining symbols in Crimea of “Ukrainian identity,” making it a target for the local Russia-installed leaders. Describing Russia’s treatment of believers in Crimea, OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy told RFE/RL, “This is reminiscent of the Stalin era of the U.S.S.R., when churches were destroyed.”

In March, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers placed the Saints Volodymyr and Olha Cathedral, the only OCU church building in Simferopol and the location of the OCU diocesan administration, under state ownership in an attempt to draw international organizations’ support to help defend it from the occupiers. On July 23, Russian occupation authorities ordered Archbishop Klyment, elevated to Metropolitan on August 9, to demolish the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Yevpatoriya or face criminal prosecution. Klyment’s appeal of the order continued through year’s end.

According to Freedom House, the Russian FSB encouraged residents to inform on individuals who expressed opposition to the purported annexation, including support for Crimean Tatars, condemnation of the designation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir as extremist groups, or the oppression of the OCU.

Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear of certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of having links to Islamist groups that were designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to Krym Realii, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. According to the Advet.org news website, in April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremysivka Village.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russia-led forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Muslims and Christians, through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials, as well as messaging on social media. In a statement on February 26, the Secretary said, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of Crimean citizens. The Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs participated in an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe side event on Crimea, stating, “Russian occupation authorities continue to harass, arrest, and prosecute activists, journalists, and members of civil society, simply for their expressing their opposition to the occupation or for being a member of an ethnic or religious minority group on the peninsula. They sustained a brutal campaign of repression against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Crimea, raiding mosques, homes, and workplaces without justification or process and leaving these communities in a state of constant fear.”

Although embassy and other U.S. government officials remained unable to visit Crimea following the Russian occupation, embassy officials continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders from Crimea. The leaders discussed their concerns over actions taken against congregations by Russian occupation authorities and reassured the religious leaders of continued U.S. support for the right of all to practice their religious beliefs. In August, embassy officials met with Metropolitan Klyment and discussed pressures on his church in Crimea. Embassy officials told religious leaders the United States would continue to support religious freedom in Crimea and would press Russian occupation authorities to return confiscated property and release prisoners incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.

Read a Section

Ukraine

Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), part of the Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities continued to impose restrictions and additional scrutiny on what the government considered “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes. The government again raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register certain religious groups. In January, an Almaty court sentenced two Muslims to five years of restriction of freedom (probation) for incitement of religious discord and participation in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization via online chats. In October, a Muslim was retried and sentenced to eight years in prison for supporting terrorism through online posts in 2015, despite an earlier Supreme Court ruling annulling his original sentence. Religious minority groups stated that the authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. Five pastors and two church workers were detained, tried, jailed, fined, or warned for reportedly violating pandemic restrictions. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available. Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. In October, four ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens who had crossed the border earlier from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.

Media outlets continued to release articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a number of defamatory articles and broadcasts. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics said members of some religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire as well as some Christian groups, including evangelicals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.

Despite limitations on in-person meetings and visits during the global pandemic, the Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in person and via virtual platforms with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MISD and CRA. This included raising concerns regarding the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature. The country’s bilateral Religious Freedom Working Group with the United States met in person in February and virtually in October to discuss cooperation to allow all persons to practice their faiths freely in the country. U.S. officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates. The embassy also engaged in social media outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the religious population include Jews, Buddhists, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, and Scientologists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation. These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population. Under the constitution, all persons have the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs. These rights, however, are in practice limited to registered or “traditional” religious groups. “Traditional” is not defined by law, but it typically refers to Hanafi Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and other major or historic religions.

The MISD and its component, the CRA, regulate the practice of religion in the country. By law, the MISD is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religion as well as facilitating government and civil society engagement. It also considers potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism. The MISD drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship. All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination. The MISD cooperates with law enforcement bodies to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious practices, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.

The counterterrorism law requires religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks; the government may take action against religious organizations for failure to do so. The law states the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.

The criminal and administrative codes include penalties for unauthorized religious activity, which includes the arrangement of and participation in activities of unregistered religious groups, participation in religious activities outside permitted areas, unlicensed distribution of religious materials or training of clergy, sale of religious literature without government approval or in places not approved by the government, and discussion of religion for the purpose of proselytization without the required missionary registration.

The criminal code prohibits the “incitement of interreligious discord,” which includes “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their relation to religion [and other] origin.” It also criminalizes the creation and leadership of social institutions that proclaim religious intolerance or exclusivity, which is punishable by imprisonment from three to seven years.

The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an “extremist organization,” ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization. The law defines “extremism” as an organization or commission of acts in pursuit of violent change of the constitutional system; violation of the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the country; undermining of national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord accompanied by calls to violence; or the use of any religious practice that causes a security or health risk. An extremist organization is a “legal entity, association of individuals and (or) legal entities engaged in extremism, and recognized by the court as extremist.” The law provides streamlined court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist,” reducing the time necessary for a court to render judgement and act on a decision to 72 hours. After a legal finding of a violation, the law authorizes officials to immediately revoke the organization’s registration, thus ending its legal existence, and to seize its property. Prosecutors have the right to annually inspect all groups registered with state bodies for compliance with all applicable laws.

Under the law on countering terrorism, the Ministry of Finance may freeze the financial accounts of persons convicted of terrorism or extremism crimes.

The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups (that are) unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600). A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.

A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.” To register at the local level, an organization must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice that lists the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members. Religious organizations may be active only within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level. Regional registration requires at least two local organizations, each located within a different region (province), and each local group must have at least 250 members. National registration requires at least 5,000 total members and at least 300 members in each of the country’s 14 regions and the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent. Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy.

The law allows the government to deny registration to a religious group based on an insufficient number of adherents or on inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CRA. According to the administrative code, individuals participating in leading or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 126,250 tenge ($300) and 505,000 tenge ($1,200).

The administrative code mandates a 505,000 tenge ($1,200) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CRA; systematically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws. Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 126,250 tenge ($300). Police may impose these fines without first going to court. The fines may be appealed to a court.

If an organization, its leaders, or members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning, a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600), or both. Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 378,750 tenge ($900) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.

According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or does not rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 505,000 tenge ($1,200), the entity is also subject to a fine of 1,262,500 tenge ($3,000), and its activities are banned.

The law authorizes local authorities to “coordinate” the location of premises for religious events outside religious buildings. By law, religious activities may be held in residences, provided that organizers take into account the “rights and interests of neighbors.” Authorities sometimes interpret this as a requirement to receive permission from the neighbors.

The government prohibits individuals who do not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.

The law prohibits coercion to force a person’s conversion to any religion or to force a person’s participation in a religious group’s activities or in religious rites. The law further bans activities of religious organizations that involve violence against citizens or otherwise harm the health or morality of citizens and residents, force them to end marriages or family relations, violate human rights and freedoms, or force citizens to evade performance of duties specified in the constitution and legislation. The law prohibits methods of proselytizing that take advantage of a potential convert’s dependence on charity. The law also prohibits blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities.

The law states that in cases when a prisoner seeks the help of a clergy member to perform a religious rite, he or she may invite a clergy member of a formally registered religious group to a detention facility, as long as this access complies with the prison’s internal regulations. The law bans construction of places of worship within prison territory. Pursuant to the law, religious organizations may participate in monitoring prisons, including creating and implementing programs to improve the correctional system and developing and publicly discussing draft laws and regulations as they relate to the prison system. Religious groups may identify, provide, distribute, and monitor the use of humanitarian, social, legal, and charitable assistance to prisoners. They may provide other forms of assistance to penitentiary system bodies, as long as they do not contradict the law. According to the law, prisoners may possess religious literature, but only if it is approved following an analysis conducted by a CRA religious expert.

The law defines “religious tourism” as a “type of tourism where people travel for performance of religious rites in a country (place) of temporary residence” and requires the MISD to regulate it. Together with the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAMK), the MISD oversees the process by which individuals participate in the Hajj or in other travel for the performance of religious rites. The government requires that specially selected guides and imams accompany each group and states that the rules are designed to ensure pilgrims are not recruited by extremist religious groups.

The law prohibits religious ceremonies in government buildings, including those belonging to the military or law enforcement.

The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content are allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CRA. The law allows one copy of published religious materials to be imported for personal use without review by a CRA religious expert.

The law states the government shall not interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children consistent with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights.

The law requires organizations to “take steps to prevent involvement or participation of anyone under the age of 18 in the activities of a religious association” if one of the parents or other legal guardians objects. The law bans religious activities, including proselytizing, in children’s vacation, sport, creative, or other leisure organizations, camps, or sanatoria. The extent to which organizations must prevent underage persons’ involvement in religious activity is not specifically outlined and has not been further defined by authorities.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools, colleges, or universities. Homeschooling for religious reasons is also prohibited. The law allows afterschool and other supplemental religious instruction as long as it is provided by a registered religious group. A decree mandates that schoolchildren wear school uniforms that comply with the secular nature of education and prohibits inclusion of any elements that could indicate religious affiliation, such as head coverings.

The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.

The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.” The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 15.2 million tenge ($36,100) or up to six years’ imprisonment. To perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa. These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months, with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months. To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country. The CRA must approve the letter of invitation. Applicants must obtain consent from the CRA each time they apply. The CRA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CRA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals. The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CRA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreigners may not register religious groups.

Local and foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the local executive body of a region or of the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent and provide information on their religious affiliation, intended territory of missionary work, and time period for conducting that work. Missionaries must submit all literature and other materials intended to support their missionary work together with their registration application. Use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal. A missionary must produce registration documents and a power of attorney from the sponsoring religious organization to work on its behalf. The local executive body of a region or the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent may refuse to register missionaries whose work is deemed to “constitute a threat to the constitutional order, social order, the rights and freedoms of individuals, or the health and morals of the population.”

The law does not provide for conscientious objection to mandatory military service on religious grounds, but the government has exempted Jehovah’s Witnesses from mandatory service.

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

Government Practices

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, 24 Sunni Muslims were serving sentences connected to their religious activities or beliefs. Three Protestant Christians were given prison terms in absentia. Six individuals were serving “restricted freedom” sentences that consist of probation plus compulsory community service; such sentences could also include court-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement. Sixteen individuals who had completed their prison terms were banned from religious activities.

Media reported that on January 27, the Almaly district court found Karlygash Adasbekova and Daria Nyshanova guilty of incitement of religious discord and supporting Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization banned by the government as extremist, through online posts to a WhatsApp chat group. During the trial, two witnesses withdrew their earlier testimony against the accused, and the witness who made the initial report that led to the Committee of National Security (KNB) investigation could not remember which WhatsApp posts he had cited in his report. Despite these discrepancies, the judge found the defendants guilty and sentenced each of them to five years of restricted freedom.

On January 21, the Supreme Court reviewed the Prosecutor General’s petition challenging the 2018 verdict in the case of Dadash Mazhenov and sent the case back to the appellate court for a new trial on the grounds that the expert who had analyzed Mazhenov’s online posts lacked the appropriate license and that the defense’s statements were not sufficiently verified. Mazhenov, a Sunni Muslim, was sentenced to seven years and eight months imprisonment in 2015 for supporting terrorism in online posts. On October 13, the appeals panel of the Akmola provincial court upheld the 2018 verdict against Mazhenov. In March, Mazhenov filed a complaint stating he was tortured for praying while held in a labor camp in the city of Shymkent in the summer of 2019. In May, the Coalition against Torture, a local NGO that monitors prisons and detention facilities, appointed a lawyer to advocate on Mazhenov’s behalf. The NGO noted that few prison torture cases ever reached court, with few officials found guilty.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that 23 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors encountered difficulties in obtaining exemption from military service, although all cases were eventually resolved through dialogue with the authorities. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said that local enlistment officers initially considered the certificates issued by the recruits’ local religious communities to be insufficient evidence to exempt the young men. The communities then provided clarification of the applicants’ eligibility for exemption, as well as letters from the conscientious objectors formally asking to be released from military service.

Religious freedom observers consistently reported that authorities continued to use the religion law to harass and restrict minority religious groups with fines and limitations on their activities. Violations included attending worship meetings not approved by the state; offering, importing, or selling religious literature and pictures, including on the internet; sharing or teaching faith; and violating procedures for praying in mosques. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available.

During the year, authorities dropped the 2019 charges against the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for conducting a religious event without prior permission from the local government. ISKCON had been charged after a 2019 police raid on an apartment in Atyrau.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 63 members of the community were detained on charges of illegal missionary activity between January and October. Of these, 38 were given oral warnings, 14 were given written warnings, and 11 were taken to court for alleged violation of the religion law. Of those 11, nine were acquitted and two were found guilty and fined 277,800 tenge each ($660).

On March 15, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a decree declaring a state of emergency to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of wide-ranging emergency restrictions, religious ceremonies were prohibited and the operations of mosques, churches, and other religious centers were temporarily suspended. On May 11, the state of emergency ended. Beginning May 18, mosques, churches, and other houses of worship were able to operate at 30 percent capacity and with other region-specific public health-related restrictions. Throughout the year, region-specific restrictions changed frequently in efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. At year end, large religious services (i.e., weddings and funerals) were still prohibited on public health grounds.

Religious minority groups stated that authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. In April, courts in Karaganda Province found the pastors of three local evangelical Baptist communities liable for violation of the COVID-19 quarantine rules because they allowed parishioners to gather for Sunday services on March 29. The pastors were jailed for three days, and Pastor Dmitry Iantsen in Termirtau was fined 26,510 tenge ($63). The church leaders said the incidents were a result of the lack of clear rules on the allowed size of gatherings. The chief health inspector’s decrees prohibited mass gatherings, but without specifying how many participants constituted such a gathering. The churches said some lawyers and government officials defined 50 to 200 participants as a mass gathering. The pastors said they had taken precautions to prevent the spread of disease, including restricting the number of worshippers present.

On April 22, an evangelical Christian pastor from Shymkent affiliated with the New Life Church received a 10-day prison sentence for conducting missionary activity during the state of emergency. Church representatives said Pastor Zhetis Rauilov was called to a meeting at the mayor’s office by an employee of the local branch of the CRA on April 21 but went home when the official was not in the office, stopping at a supermarket on the way. Police then stopped him, searched his car, and detained him on suspicion of moving through the city to provide groceries to parishioners without permission. (Local restrictions required permission for delivering groceries, but not for simple grocery shopping close to home.) Rauilov said he believed his arrest was orchestrated by local authorities because it took place immediately following the aborted meeting at the mayor’s office. Rauilov served the sentence and was released.

On May 15, according to Forum 18, police raided a shopping center in Aktobe to enforce COVID-19-related restrictions on public gatherings four days after the national pandemic state of emergency had been lifted. The administrator of the shopping center, Gulnar Kurmangaliyeva, was fined 132,550 tenge ($310) for permitting an Islamic prayer room to operate in the shopping center, and authorities closed the prayer room for three months.

Authorities continued to charge individuals under the administrative code for holding unsanctioned religious meetings, offering religious literature for sale, and for other violations of the religion law.

On February 29, police detained Oleg Stepanenko and Nadezhda Smirnova, members of a Christian Evangelical Baptist church in Pavlodar Province, for unsanctioned distribution of religious literature. Local media described them as adherents of a “harmful” religious group. On March 2, the local court found them guilty of breaking the religion law and imposed administrative fines. Authorities also seized and destroyed approximately 200 religious books in their possession.

In September, media reported that the Kokshetau administrative court found an individual guilty of disseminating religious literature, for writing a social media advertisement for books CRA theologians deemed to contain banned extremist content. Government experts found the advertisement while monitoring social media. Police located and charged the author, who was fined 100,000 tenge ($240).

On March 29, Pavlodar police raided the house of worship of the Pavlodar Council of Evangelical Christians and charged a 66-year-old pastor with leading an unregistered religious group. On April 20, the Pavlodar administrative court found the pastor guilty and fined him 194,460 tenge ($460).

The international Christian NGO Open Doors cited the country on its World Watch List for the government’s control over religious expression in the country, including surveillance, raids on church meetings, and arrests. The NGO said Christians from a Muslim background bore the worst persecution.

The government maintained its policy of banning religious clothing in schools. The Ministry of Education and Science continued to prohibit headscarves in schools throughout the country during in-person instruction, but media reported the ban was not strictly enforced during online instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Media reported on September 29 that according to the Aktobe Region Education Department, 11 students chose to study online at their own expense due to the government’s ban on wearing headscarves in schools.

According to Forum 18, some Muslims faced repeated questioning from law enforcement authorities about their faith.

According to CRA statistics for the first nine months of the year, there were 3,818 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared with 3,770 in 2019.

The government did not approve the registration of Muslim groups apart from those observing the Sunni Hanafi school, which the SAMK oversaw. All other schools of Islam remained unregistered and were officially unable to practice in the country, although religious leaders reported some Muslim communities continued to worship informally without government interference.

The MISD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs continued to state this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK. By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval regarding any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK. The SAMK also set the curriculum for religious education across the country and provided guidelines and sample texts for sermons during Friday prayers.

The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques. According to the CRA, there were 2,684 mosques in the country, 46 more than reported in 2019, but the government and news media offered varying and occasionally inconsistent statistics about the number of mosques nationwide.

The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,684 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over appointment of imams as well as over the administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The MISD continued to work closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrassahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, masters, or doctoral programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels. There were 11 schools for religious training of Sunni Hanafi imams, one for Roman Catholic clergy, and one for Russian Orthodox clergy.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered during the year; authorities denied the group reregistration for the sixth time in 2016. Government experts had previously concluded the community’s teachings were not Islamic and that it must remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials. Community members reported that since they were not registered, they did not engage in any religious activity.

The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law, in keeping with its policy of maintaining a distance from the government. Community representatives reported that authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels and that police followed and surveilled them, as in prior years.

The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization. The government allowed the Church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members could read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings, but it did not allow the Church to engage in activity considered religious by the government.

Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. On September 17, the Almaty City Court upheld an earlier court decision to seize buildings of the New Life Church in Almaty. In 2019, the Almaty Specialized Interdistrict Court had convicted the Church’s three pastors, who fled the country, of using hypnotism and psychological manipulation to harm and defraud former parishioners, and it ordered the seizure of the Church’s property, including buildings, money, and computers. Neither the New Life Church leaders nor their attorney were present at the court hearing, which was held without their knowledge after the court agreed initially to postpone it. The Church immediately filed an appeal. Church representatives said they were particularly concerned about the seizure of two buildings used to support vulnerable individuals, and they expressed fears that some who lived in the buildings would have no place to go if the buildings were confiscated. At year’s end, the seizure of the buildings had been delayed, pending an appeal hearing.

On February 14, the Mayor of Nur-Sultan issued a decree confiscating land shared by the Presbyterian Grace Church and Pentecostal Agape Church in order to build a government-run kindergarten. The Churches lodged a lawsuit against the mayor’s office, but a city court ruled against the Churches on September 7, accepting the mayor’s countersuit that the seizure decree should be enforced. The judge also ordered the Churches to pay for a panel of experts – mostly officials from the mayor’s office – to assess the value of the property. The Churches appealed the decision, but their appeal was denied on December 12. At year’s end, the land had not been confiscated and the Churches were fighting the decree.

On January 21, two ethnic Kazakh Muslims, citizens of China, were convicted of illegally crossing the border from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China and sentenced to a year in prison. They served shorter sentences and were released. In October, these and another two previously convicted ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.

In August, the government granted an exception to COVID-19 restrictions on public ceremonies to allow a Jewish group to travel to Almaty to mark the 76th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Scheerson. The government designated the resting place a National Heritage Site.

The Church of Scientology reported that during the year, its members experienced harassment and intimidation by the authorities, including frivolous lawsuits and smear campaigns on national television, harassment, extrajudicial searches, destructive raids of their premises, and seizure of literature.

According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all prisons continued to have dedicated specialists charged with creating programs to counter religious extremism, in accordance with a 2017 order issued by the Minister of Internal Affairs adding the position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism. Lawyers familiar with the program said most of the specialists lacked education or specialized training.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Observers and minority Christian religious communities again expressed concerns regarding negative articles and broadcasts about minority religious groups that the media regarded as “nontraditional.”

NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming, including Islamic headscarves and beards, indicated “nontraditional” beliefs. According to a survey by CRA conducted in 2019 and published in 2020, however, Kazakhstani society was increasingly receptive to those wearing religious clothes, particularly hijabs. In the survey, more than half of respondents (38.4 percent) approved of or were neutral (26.6 percent) to people wearing religious clothes, compared to 31.4 percent of respondents who had negative opinions of those wearing religious clothes.

According to NGO Open Doors, Christians from a Muslim background were persecuted by family, friends and their community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MISD, and CRA and advocated for the importance of respecting religious freedom. In January, the Secretary of State met with ethnic Kazakh Muslims whose family members had been detained in internment camps or prisons in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. The Secretary called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained and the end of the program of systematic surveillance and repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, bilateral discussions also took place on virtual platforms. As in previous years, U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom. They also raised concerns about the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups.

U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to respect individuals’ rights to peaceful expression of religious belief and free practice of religion in bilateral meetings and at meetings of the U.S-Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom Working Group in person in February and virtually in October. U.S. officials expressed concern about vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms that enabled authorities, particularly at the local level, to apply them in an arbitrary manner. They encouraged the government to eliminate burdensome registration requirements for religious communities and to take other steps to amend the religion law to increase the ability of believers to practice their faith. U.S. officials also raised concerns over anti-Semitic content in local media and encouraged fair and equal treatment for faith organizations in land disputes with the government. On social media, the embassy also engaged in outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

Embassy officials visited houses of worship in several regions of the country and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities, their leaders, and religious freedom advocates in-person and online. They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they were part of a registered religious group.

Kenya

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws and policies prohibit religious discrimination and protect religious freedom, including the freedom to practice any religion or belief through worship, teaching, or observance, and to debate religious questions. The constitution provides for special qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law. Human rights and Muslim religious organizations stated that certain Muslim communities, especially ethnic Somalis, continued to be the target of government-directed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention. The government denied directing such actions. The Registrar of Societies has not registered any new religious organizations since 2014, and at year’s end, the government had still not finalized revised regulations required to resume registrations. Thousands of religious group applications reportedly remained pending. In May, the government implemented a month-long cessation-of-movement order into and out of Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood and Mombasa’s Old Town, both areas with predominately Muslim populations, following an increase in COVID-19 cases. Some residents and Muslim human rights groups depicted the lockdowns as discriminatory, while other Muslim leaders expressed support for the public health measures. In June, the government appointed an Inter-faith Council on the National Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic to develop guidelines for the phased reopening of places of worship and holding of religious ceremonies. Council members said government officials largely adopted the council’s recommendations, and the government permitted places of worship to resume in-person services in July. Many religious leaders criticized politicians for holding political gatherings that did not adhere to the government’s restrictions on public events.

The Somalia-based terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab) again carried out attacks in the northeastern part of the country and said it had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith. In January, media reported that al-Shabaab killed three Christian teachers at a primary school in Garissa County, an area with a predominantly Muslim population. In February, suspected al-Shabaab militants attacked a passenger bus traveling from Mandera County, in the north of the country, to Nairobi. Christian media reported the attackers separated the passengers by faith, killing two Christians and one Muslim who attempted to protect the Christians. There were again reports of religiously motivated threats of societal violence and intolerance, such as members of Muslim communities threatening individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity. In June, Christian media reported a group of men believed to be ethnic Somali Muslims beat an ethnic Somali Christian woman unconscious in Isiolo and seriously injured her two younger siblings. Muslim minority groups, particularly those of Somali descent, reported continued harassment by non-Muslims. Some religious and political leaders, however, stated tolerance and cooperation improved during the year. They cited extensive interfaith efforts to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and to build peace between communities, such as county forums organized by the interfaith Dialogue Reference Group to increase collaboration on key challenges facing local communities.

U.S. embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, especially underscoring the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance and addressing the grievances of marginalized religious groups. The embassy supported efforts to strengthen understanding, respect, and acceptance within multifaith communities, particularly in Nairobi and Mombasa Counties. In January and October, the Ambassador hosted interfaith roundtables to build relationships with religious leaders and discuss efforts to improve tolerance and inclusion. The embassy hosted other roundtables and events that brought individuals of diverse faiths together to discuss religious tolerance and build mutual understanding.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 53.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The country’s 2019 census recorded a total of 47.2 million persons. The government estimates as of 2019 approximately 85.5 percent of the total population is Christian and 11 percent Muslim. Groups constituting less than 2 percent of the population include Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and those adhering to various traditional religious beliefs. Nonevangelical Protestants account for 33 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 21 percent, and other Christian denominations, including evangelical Protestants, African Instituted Churches (churches started in Africa independently by Africans rather than chiefly by missionaries from another continent), and Orthodox churches, 32 percent. Most of the Muslim population lives in the northeast and coastal regions, with significant Muslim communities in several areas of Nairobi. Religion and ethnicity are often linked, with most members of many ethnic groups adhering to the same religious beliefs. There are more than 221,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the Dadaab refugee camps, mostly ethnic Somali Muslims. The Kakuma refugee camp has more than 197,000 refugees, including Somalis, South Sudanese, and Ethiopians, who practice a variety of religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates there shall be no state religion and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief individually or in communities, including the freedom to manifest any religion through worship, practice, teaching, or observance, and to debate religious questions. The constitution also states individuals shall not be compelled to act or engage in any act contrary to their belief or religion. These rights shall not be limited except by law, and then only to the extent that the limitation is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society.”

The constitution requires parliament to enact legislation recognizing a system of personal and family law adhered to by persons professing a particular religion. The constitution also specifically provides for qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law, including questions relating to personal status, marriage, divorce, or inheritance in cases in which “all the parties profess the Muslim religion.” The secular High Court has jurisdiction over civil or criminal proceedings, including those in the qadi courts, and accepts appeals of any qadi court decision.

Although there is no penal law referring to blasphemy, a section of the penal code states that destroying, damaging, or defiling any place of worship or object held sacred with the intention of insulting the religion of any class of persons is a misdemeanor. This offense carries a penalty of a fine or up to two years in prison but is reportedly rarely prosecuted under this law. Crimes against the property of religious groups or places of worship are more likely to be treated as malicious destruction of property, which is also a misdemeanor.

According to the law, new religious groups, institutions or places of worship, and faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Registrar of Societies, which reports to the Attorney General’s Office. Indigenous and traditional religious groups are not required to register, and many do not. To register, applicants must have valid national identification documents, pay a fee, and undergo security screening. Registered religious institutions and places of worship may apply for tax-exempt status, including exemption from duty on imported goods. The law also requires that organizations dedicated to advocacy, public benefit, the promotion of charity, or research register with the NGO Coordination Board.

All public schools have religious education classes taught by government-funded teachers. These classes focus on either Christian, Muslim, or Hindu teachings, and on the basic content of the religious texts of the religion being taught as well as ethics. The Ministry of Education allows local communities and schools to decide which course to offer. The course selected usually depends on the dominant local religion and the sponsor of the school, which is often a religious group. The national curriculum mandates religious classes for primary school students, and students may not opt out. Some public schools offer religious education options, usually Christian or Islamic studies, but are not required to offer more than one.

The law establishes fees for multiple steps in the marriage process that apply to all marriages, religious or secular. All officiants are required to purchase an annual license, and all public marriage venues must be registered. Officiants must be appointed by a registered religious group to conduct marriages in order to purchase the license.

The Ministry of Information, Communications, and Technology must approve regional radio and television broadcast licenses, including for religious organizations.

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

Government Practices

Human rights groups and prominent Muslim leaders and religious organizations continued to state the government’s antiterrorism activities disproportionately affected Muslims, especially ethnic Somalis and particularly in areas along the Somalia border. According to these groups, the government’s actions reportedly included extrajudicial killing, torture, forced interrogation, arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, enforced disappearances, and denial of freedom of assembly and worship. The government denied directing such actions.

In December, the executive director for HAKI Africa, a human rights NGO that works extensively in Muslim communities in the coastal region and Nairobi, called on authorities to investigate cases of enforced disappearances, noting four Muslim individuals had disappeared within a week and were allegedly last seen in the custody of security authorities. One of these persons, 17-year-old Ramadhan Bakari, was later found dead in a city morgue. The family of another of these persons, Seif Omar Abdalla, said individuals armed with guns and grenades raided their home, beat Seif, and took him and two other men away.

In a July study conducted in three counties, the Institute for Security Studies and HAKI Africa reported Muslim respondents cited police brutality, extrajudicial killings, and religious profiling as drivers of tensions and mistrust between communities and security forces. Some respondents said authorities treated them as suspects when they tried to provide information on violent extremism and mistreated, harassed, or arrested them.

The government took steps, described by human rights organizations as limited and uneven, to address cases of alleged abuses by security force members. The governmental Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), established to provide civilian oversight of the work of police, continued to refer cases of police misconduct to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution. Public prosecutors, however, experienced delays in moving cases to trial and conviction. IPOA investigations led to two convictions of police officers during the year. In one case, IPOA reported that in March, the High Court sentenced a police officer to 20 years in prison for the 2014 attempted murder of a student in Garissa County, an area with a predominately Muslim population. The Muslim student was shot twice by a non-Muslim police officer, who then stole his cell phone.

In August, armed men reportedly abducted two Muslim clerics and a caretaker from a madrassa in Kilifi County. Rights activists and relatives said it was the police who abducted them. The three men were missing for almost two weeks before they returned home. Police officials denied involvement and were reportedly investigating the matter.

The Registrar of Societies continued not to register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end, and thousands of religious group applications reportedly remained pending. The government has not registered any new religious organizations since 2014. Some religious leaders called on the government to resume registrations, stating the suspension interfered with the freedom of worship, including by making it more difficult to purchase property and conduct operations.

In January, a public secondary school in Kericho County suspended 17 Seventh-day Adventist students for refusing to take exams on a Saturday, the Church’s Sabbath, according to media reports. The school permitted the students to return after several days following advocacy by the families and the Atheists in Kenya Society, a registered society group.

In May, the government implemented a month-long cessation-of-movement order into and out of Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood and Mombasa’s Old Town, both areas predominately inhabited by Muslims, following an increase in COVID-19 cases. Some residents and Muslim human rights groups said the lockdowns were discriminatory, stating the government had not ordered such measures in neighborhoods predominately inhabited by non-Muslims. The government publicly denied targeting Muslims. Other Muslim leaders, including representatives of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, expressed support for the government’s efforts to protect public health and said the government applied measures fairly across faith communities.

In June, the government appointed an Inter-faith Council on the National Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic to develop guidelines for the phased reopening of places of worship, which were closed in late March to stem the spread of COVID-19, and the holding of religious ceremonies. Council members and religious leaders familiar with the council’s work said government officials largely adopted the council’s recommendations, and the government permitted places of worship to resume in-person services in July with public health measures in place. Religious leaders reported local officials at times attempted to harass religious groups for allegedly failing to follow COVID-19 guidelines but said national government officials intervened to help resolve these issues. According to media, some religious leaders said there was a bias against places of worship compared to businesses when it came to reopening, noting the government allowed restaurants that met specific health requirements to reopen prior to places of worship. Many religious leaders criticized politicians for holding political gatherings that did not adhere to the government’s restrictions on public gatherings. The government convened national interfaith prayer services in March and October to address the pandemic.

Muslim leaders continued to state that police often linked the whole Muslim community to al-Shabaab. In a survey conducted in six counties in late 2019, Muslim respondents said they believed authorities unfairly targeted them for security checks, making it difficult for them to move freely and conduct business. IPOA and human rights organizations reported numerous complaints from predominantly Muslim communities, particularly in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi and coastal regions, regarding intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and extortion by police. Some complainants stated police accused them of being members of al-Shabaab. Some predominately Muslim ethnic groups, including Kenyan Somalis and Nubians, reported difficulties obtaining government identification cards. These communities stated government officials at times requested supporting documents not required by law and implemented vetting processes in a biased manner. In October, the Nubian Rights Forum and other human rights groups criticized the government for not taking sufficient steps to ensure minority religious and ethnic groups would be able to register for the new national digital identification card that were scheduled to be required to access all government services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab again carried out attacks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu Counties in the northeastern part of the country and said it had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith. Authorities received numerous reports of terrorist attacks in the northeast of the country, bordering Somalia, by al-Shabaab and its sympathizers that targeted non-Muslims. In January, media reported that suspected al-Shabaab militants killed three Christian teachers at a primary school in Garissa County, a region populated predominantly by Muslims. Al-Shabaab remained the focus of government antiterror and police efforts throughout the northeast and coastal region.

In February, suspected al-Shabaab militants attacked a passenger bus traveling from Mandera County in the north to Nairobi. Christian media reported the attackers separated the passengers by faith, killing two Christians and a Muslim who attempted to protect the Christians.

In March, two Christians were reportedly killed and another was abducted when suspected al-Shabaab militants attacked two vehicles on the road between Elwak and Mandera in the northeast of the country, according to media reports. Media reported in March that al-Shabaab released a video telling non-Muslims in northeastern counties to leave in order to allow local Muslims to gain jobs.

According to NGO sources, some Muslims and their families were threatened with violence or death, especially individuals who had converted from Islam to Christianity and those of Somali ethnic origin. In June, Christian media reported that a group of men believed to be ethnic Somali Muslims beat unconscious a 21-year-old ethnic Somali Christian woman in Isiolo and seriously injured her two younger siblings.

There were reports that, in general, non-Muslims continued to harass or treat with suspicion persons of Somali origin, who are predominantly Muslim. Police officers often do not serve in their home regions, and therefore officers in some Muslim-majority areas are largely non-Muslim.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 75 percent of Kenyan respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.

Some interreligious NGOs and faith leaders, citing extensive interfaith efforts to build peace between communities and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, said relations between religions continued to improve. For example, the national interfaith umbrella group the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK) continued to implement several programs to promote interfaith acceptance in diverse communities, particularly in Nairobi and Mombasa. In several instances, national religious leaders and faith-based organizations used their influence to help resolve violent conflicts, particularly among youths, and to enhance trust with security forces. For example, the Kenya Community Support Centre, in coordination with religious leaders, facilitated a program to improve cooperation between Muslim communities and 13 police stations in Kwale and Mombasa Counties. IRCK also said it sometimes helped to mediate disputes related to religious observances at schools, including those related to religious attire. IRCK and religious leaders reported that close collaboration among different faiths helped to improve the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders collaborated on a number of initiatives at the national and county level to disseminate accurate information, protect public health, and address the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19.

Religious leaders representing interfaith groups, including the Anglican, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu communities, continued to engage with political parties and government bodies in the national reconciliation process initiated after violent 2017 presidential elections. The interfaith Dialogue Reference Group, composed of prominent Christian, Muslim, and Hindu groups, continued to hold national and county forums to promote national reconciliation. For example, the Dialogue Reference Group convened conferences in Garissa and Wajir Counties in October to promote peace and tolerance between religious and ethnic groups. Religious leaders facilitated discussions between stakeholders from local government, security bodies, the private sector, and civil society to advance governance, economic, and security reforms to benefit local citizens. In August and October, the group issued statements calling for stronger government accountability, particularly regarding the use of COVID-19 funds, as well as more-concerted actions to implement governance reforms and bridge interethnic divisions ahead of the national election in 2022.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, including senior police officials and local governments in the coastal region, where they especially stressed the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance, countering religiously based violent extremism, and addressing the grievances of marginalized religious and ethnic groups. Embassy staff continued to engage senior officials to underscore the importance of addressing human rights abuses by security forces, including abuses limiting the ability of minority religious groups to function freely in society, and supported a number of programs to improve police accountability.

The Ambassador and embassy staff met frequently with religious leaders and groups, including the IRCK, Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, Hindu Council of Kenya, National Muslim Leaders Forum, Alliance of Registered Churches & Ministries Founders, Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, and National Council of Churches of Kenya. Topics of discussion included the importance of religious groups in countering religiously based extremism and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as seeking guidance from religious leaders on human rights issues.

The Ambassador and visiting U.S. officials hosted several interfaith roundtables during the year to discuss issues and challenges facing various faith communities. Participants, including representatives of Christian, Muslim, and Hindu groups, discussed building tolerance between and among faiths, encouraging the critical role religious leaders play in peacebuilding efforts, promoting government accountability, and combating corruption. In January and October roundtables, the Ambassador encouraged religious leaders to counter the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric of politicians and to focus on improving relations between ethnic and religious groups as the nation prepares for the 2022 national election. In April, the Ambassador engaged the leaders of more than 30 religious groups and faith-based organizations to discuss COVID-19 response efforts.

Embassy officials met individually with religious and civic leaders to urge them to continue to work across sectarian lines to reaffirm the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity. The embassy encouraged faith communities and other societal figures to regard religious diversity as a national strength.

Kiribati

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Religious groups with memberships equal to or greater than 2 percent of the population are required to register with the government.

Two islands in the southern part of the country continued to uphold a “one-church-only” policy due to a stated deference to the first Protestant missionaries that visited the islands in the 1800s.

The U.S. Ambassador to Fiji is accredited to the government, and officials from the U.S. Embassy in Fiji discussed religious tolerance and practices with the government when visiting the country. Embassy officials also met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) to discuss religious tolerance and the treatment of minority groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 112,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2015 census, approximately 57 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 31 percent belongs to the Kiribati Uniting Church (until 2016 known as the Kiribati Protestant Church). Members who did not accept the name change continue as the Kiribati Protestant Church. Five percent of the population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include the Baha’i Faith (2 percent), Seventh-day Adventist Church (2 percent), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assemblies of God, and Muslims. The Church of Jesus Christ states its membership exceeds 12 percent of the population. Persons with no religious affiliation account for less than 1 percent of the population. Members of the Catholic Church are concentrated in the northern islands, while Protestants constitute the majority in the southern islands.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience (including religion), expression, assembly, and association. These rights may be limited by law “which is reasonably required” in the interests of public defense, safety, order, morality, or health, or to protect the rights of others.

By law, any religious group with adult members representing no less than 2 percent of the total population (according to the most recent census) must register with the government, although there are no legal consequences for not registering. To register, the religious organization submits a request to the Ministry of Women, Youth, and Social Affairs, signed by the head of the group and supported by five other members of the organization. Also required in the request is information regarding proof of the number of adherents and the religious denomination and name under which the group wishes to be registered.

There is no mandated religious education in public schools. Public schools in the country allow a variety of religious groups, including Catholics, Protestants, Seventh-day Adventists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ, to provide religious education in schools. Students who opt out of religious education must participate in a supervised study period.

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

Government Practices

Most governmental meetings and events began and ended with an ordained minister or other church official delivering a Christian prayer.

The government continued to administer a small grants program for development projects administered by nongovernmental organizations and registered religious organizations. Foreign missionaries, including members of the Church of Jesus Christ, were active in the country and operated freely. Missionary visits to islands with a “one religion” tradition were allowed as long as they followed the traditional practice of requesting permission from local leaders.

The government allowed the Kiribati Protestant Church to operate but had not completed the church’s registration, which was submitted when it separated from the Kiribati Uniting Church in 2016.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

With approximately 1,000 inhabitants each, the population of two islands – Arorae and Tamana – remained largely members of the Protestant Kiribati Uniting Church, at 98 percent and 96 percent, respectively, according to the 2015 census, although a small number of Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of Jesus Christ, and Baha’i adherents were also present. The residents of these islands continued their “one-church-only” tradition, which they stated was in deference to Protestant missionaries who came to the islands in the 1800s, according to government reports. On these islands, residents of other religious groups worshipped in their own homes. Villagers discouraged religious groups outside the Kiribati Uniting Church from proselytizing or holding meetings but permitted missionaries to visit if they requested permission from local leaders first.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and the embassy utilized their social media platforms to promote religious pluralism and tolerance, including highlighting comments by the President and posting videos in support of religious tolerance and practices on International Religious Freedom Day and major Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim celebrations.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, subject to limitations to ensure public order, health, and safety or to protect the rights of others. The law does not provide a means for religious groups to acquire legal status. In September, the cabinet approved amendments that would provide religious groups with such status and enable them to conduct business in their name and gain certain tax benefits, but parliament did not act on these due to an unrelated lack of a quorum required to pass legislation. According to the Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK), in multiple cases, public elementary schools denied female Muslim students in religious attire permission to attend classes. On September 4, the Kosovo and Serbian governments signed a list of commitments in Washington, D.C., brokered at the White House, that included a pledge to domestically protect and promote freedom of religion, renew interfaith communication, protect religious sites, implement judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property. The SOC said a lack of constructive communication with some municipal governments prevented Serbian Orthodox pilgrims from having free access to some SOC temples and graveyards. The SOC said the government failed to fully enforce the Law on Special Protective Zones (SPZs) by failing to prevent road construction in the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ. The government halted the work in the SPZ in August following objections by the international community. Kosovo’s Implementation and Monitoring Committee (IMC), which includes the SOC, decided in November on the rehabilitation of the road in accordance with the law. Local and central authorities continued to ignore a 2016 court decision on SOC ownership of several land parcels next to the Decani monastery. Following a review, the government stated in August that, in many cemeteries managed by BIK under municipal contracts, a lack of municipal oversight enabled BIK to prevent other religious/nonreligious groups from conducting burial services according to their beliefs and to discriminate against religious minority groups. Kosovo Serb and Jewish communities said some municipalities did not properly maintain these communities’ cemeteries.

National police said they received reports of 57 incidents against religious sites or cemeteries during the year, compared with 61 in 2019. Police classified most of the incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. The majority of incidents targeted Muslim community sites, although a few involved SOC and Catholic Church properties. According to the SOC, many incidents involving SOC religious sites were linked to Serb ethnicity as well as religion, and there were incidents not reported to police. In August, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that vandals damaged an SOC church in the Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren. In September, according to media and police, an SOC church was robbed in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic. On January 6 in Gjakova/Djakovica, local Kosovo Albanians, including families of persons missing from the 1998-1999 conflict, staged a protest, as they had since 2015, in front of the local SOC church, leading displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members to again cancel a pilgrimage there. SOC officials again complained about negative media reporting and criticism of Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava Janjic, such as claims the abbot was blocking local development by denying Decan/Decani municipality use of its property and resources.

U.S. embassy officials continued to encourage the government to enact amendments permitting religious groups to acquire legal status, enforce mechanisms to protect freedom of religion, implement legislation and judicial decisions pertaining to SOC religious sites, and resolve SOC property disputes. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, including equal protection and property rights concerns, with religious and civil society leaders and encouraged religious tolerance and improved interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 95.6 percent of the population is Muslim, 2.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, with Protestants, Jews, and persons not answering or responding “other” or “none” together constituting less than 1 percent. According to the SOC and international observers, lack of financial support for the census and a boycott of it by most ethnic Serbs resulted in a significant undercounting of ethnic minorities of all religious backgrounds, including SOC members, Tarikat Muslims, and Protestants. Other religious communities, including Tarikat Muslims and Protestants, also contested the registration data, stating they distrusted the census methodology and believed it resulted in undercounts of their communities’ members.

The majority of Kosovo Albanians are Muslim, although some are Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant). Almost all Kosovo Serbs belong to the SOC. The majority of ethnic Ashkali, Bosniaks, Egyptians, Gorani, Roma, and Turks are also Muslim, while most ethnic Montenegrins and some Roma are Christian Orthodox. Nearly all ethnic Croats are Catholic.

According to BIK, most Muslims belong to the Hanafi Sunni School, although some are part of the Sufi Tarikat community. There is also a Sufi Bektashi religious community; no official estimate exists for the number of its adherents. Kosovo Albanians represent the majority in 28 of the country’s 38 municipalities, and Kosovo Serbs make up the majority in the remaining 10. Most SOC members reside in the 10 Serb-majority municipalities. The largest Catholic communities are in Gjakove/Djakovica, Janjeve/Janjevo, Kline/Klina, Pristina, and Prizren. Evangelical Protestant populations are located throughout the country, concentrated in Pristina and Gjakove/Djakovica. There are small Jewish communities in Prizren and Pristina.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion for all residents, including the right to change, express, or not express religious belief; practice or abstain from practicing religion; and join or refuse to join a religious community. These rights are subject to limitations for reasons of public safety and order or for the protection of the health or rights of others. The constitution provides for the separation of religious communities from public institutions, including the right of religious groups to regulate independently their own organizations, activities, and ceremonies, and the right to establish religious schools and charities. It provides for equal rights for all religious communities, stipulates the country is secular and neutral regarding religion, declares the state shall ensure the protection and preservation of the country’s religious heritage, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution states the law may limit freedom of expression to prevent violent and hostile provocations on racial, national, ethnic, or religious grounds. It allows courts to ban organizations or activities that encourage racial, national, ethnic, or religious hatred.

The law on religious freedom states, “All religions and their communes in Kosovo, including the Kosovo Islamic Community, Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Hebrew Belief Community, and Evangelical Church (the five “traditional” religious communities), shall be offered any kind of protection and opportunity in order to have rights and freedom foreseen by this law.” The constitution provides for rights and protection for all citizens, including maintaining, developing, and preserving their religion using their own language. The constitution also states religious communities have the right to establish religious schools and charitable institutions with the possibility of being funded with government financial assistance “in accordance with the law and international standards.” The constitution provides guarantees of freedom and pluralism of media. It guarantees all ethnic communities access to public media. Additional rights for religious groups include establishing and using their own media, maintaining unhindered peaceful contacts with persons outside the country with whom they share a religious identity, and having equitable access to public employment.

The constitution guarantees 20 of 120 seats in parliament to representatives from ethnic minority communities, which are often associated with a single majority religious group, such as Muslims or Orthodox Christians. It also stipulates the adoption, amendment, or repeal of all laws pertaining to religious freedom or cultural heritage requires approval by a majority of the parliamentarians representing minority communities, as well as by a majority of all parliamentarians.

The constitution provides for the Ombudsperson’s Institution, which is responsible for monitoring religious freedom, among other human rights, and recommending actions to correct violations. It stipulates the state shall take all necessary measures to protect individuals who may be subject to threats, hostility, discrimination, or violence because of their religious identity.

The law stipulates there is no official state religion, but it lists the five “traditional” religious communities that receive extra protections and benefits, including reduced taxes.

The law does not require registration of religious groups, but it also does not provide a legal mechanism or specific guidance for religious groups to obtain legal status through registration or other means. Without legal status, religious communities may not own property, open bank accounts, employ staff, or access the courts as a collective entity. Individual congregations or individuals, however, may do so and perform other administrative tasks in their own name. Local communities often recognize religious groups’ possession of buildings; however, the law generally does not protect these buildings as property of a religious community, but rather as the private property of citizens or nongovernmental organizations. SOC property is an exception; the law on SPZs acknowledges and protects the integrity of SOC property ownership and stewardship over designated areas within the SPZs.

The law stipulates freedom of religious or nonreligious practice and the rights to establish humanitarian/charity organizations, accept voluntary financial contributions from individuals and institutions, and engage in national and international communication for religious purposes.

The law provides safeguards for sites of religious and cultural significance and prohibits or restricts nearby activities that could damage the surrounding historical, cultural, or natural environment. According to the law, the IMC is responsible for arbitrating disputes between the government and the SOC concerning SPZs and other matters related to protecting the SOC’s religious and cultural heritage. The IMC is a special body originating from the 2007 Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (also known as the Ahtisaari Plan) and established by law. IMC members include the Ministry of Economy and Environment (cochair); Special Representative of the European Union (cochair); Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport; SOC; and OSCE.

Municipalities are legally responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of all public cemeteries, including those designated for specific religious communities.

According to the law, “Public educational institutions shall refrain from teaching religion or other activities that propagate a specific religion.” This law is unenforceable in schools operated under Serbian government-run parallel structures, over which the Kosovo government has no control.

A Ministry of Education and Science (MES) administrative circular on the code of conduct and disciplinary measures for elementary and high school students, which carries the force of law, prohibits students from wearing religious “uniforms” on elementary and secondary school premises.

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

Government Practices

In September, the cabinet approved and sent to parliament amendments to the law on religious freedom that would permit religious groups to acquire legal status, conduct business and acquire real and personal property in their name, open bank accounts, and gain import tax benefits. At year’s end, parliament had not voted on the amendments; there was a persistent lack of a quorum due to the COVID-19 pandemic and boycotts by Kosovo Serb parliamentarians. Absent enactment of the legislation, all religious communities said they continued to operate bank accounts registered to individuals instead of communities. In addition, communities such as the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church (KPEC) said they continued to be taxed as for-profit businesses.

According to BIK, there were multiple cases in which elementary schools denied access to female Muslim students as a result of the enforcement of the MES administrative circular prohibiting “religious attire” on school property. Imam Labinot Maliqi, head of the nongovernmental organization Kosovo Center for Peace, reported that two female elementary school students, one in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje and the other in Gjakova/Djakovica, were denied entrance to school for wearing a hijab. School officials reversed their decision after the Kosovo Center for Peace inquired into the situation. In July, according to Maliqi, MES officials told him the MES was committed to reviewing the religious attire prohibition. The ban remained in place at year’s end.

Muslim community representatives said there were cases of hiring discrimination against Muslim women who wore religious attire during the year, but they did not cite any examples.

On September 4, Kosovo and Serbia signed lists of commitments in Washington, D.C., in which the government of Kosovo pledged to protect and promote freedom of religion, including renewed interfaith communication, protection of religious sites, and implementation of judicial decisions pertaining to the SOC, and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.

Decan/Decani municipal officials continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision upholding the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that recognized the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery’s ownership of approximately 24 hectares (59 acres) of land in the monastery’s vicinity. In November, the SOC appealed to the Kosovo Cadastral Agency; its decision was pending at year’s end. NATO troops in the country continued to provide security at the Decani Monastery.

In August, the Decan/Decani municipality began road work within the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ in violation of the law. The government halted the work following international criticism. In November, the IMC and the Decan/Decani municipal government endorsed an Italian-brokered arrangement that adhered to the law for the rehabilitation of the road. The arrangement included the development of both a bypass road external to the SPZ boundaries, which would connect Decan/Decani to Montenegro, and a separate local road within the SPZ. The proposed road work had not begun by year’s end.

In July, Pristina Municipality issued a construction permit for, and construction began on, a Grand Mosque in Pristina, funded by the Turkish government. Some citizens opposed construction of the mosque, saying its design was based on an archaic Ottoman style rather than traditional Kosovo mosque architecture. Some local imams continued to state existing downtown mosques fulfilled the needs of their constituency and there was no demand for such a large mosque in the area.

Jewish community representatives again said local governments did not properly maintain Jewish cemeteries outside Pristina, including in Novo Brdo/Novoberde, Lipjan/Lipljan, Kamenice/Kamenica, Prizren, Mitrovice/Mitrovica, and Gjilan/Gnjilane, notwithstanding their legal obligation to do so.

With the government’s assent, the OSCE continued to monitor the implementation of legislation on protection of SPZs around SOC religious and heritage sites. The Police Unit for the Security of Religious and Cultural Heritage Buildings continued to provide 24-hour security to 24 SPZs countrywide.

At year’s end, Pristina Municipality and the Jewish community continued to disagree on a suitable location for a synagogue for which the municipality had issued a construction permit in 2016.

The SOC said the Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency continued to dispute SOC ownership of the property the agency has used since 2001. The SOC stated the agency owed rent for use of the property. The SOC received partial payment for the rent in 2018 but received no further compensation. At year’s end, neither the SOC nor the agency had initiated legal action over the dispute.

According to BIK, the central government continued to provide some funding for Islamic education in the BIK madrassah in Pristina and its branches in Prizren and Gjilan/Gnjilane. Some University of Pristina law faculty members said they believed this funding was discriminatory because the government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group.

KPEC stated the Kosovo Immigration Office continued to deny recognition of non-Kosovo missionaries engaged by the Church. KPEC said the Customs Service sought payment of 3,393 euros ($4,200) in taxes for humanitarian aid KPEC received from abroad during the year, while some other religious communities, such as BIK, were exempt from the taxation. KPEC said the Customs Service continued to insist on the tax payment despite intervention by then-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in 2019. In addition, according to KPEC, some businesses did not respect the value-added tax exemption for goods purchased by their churches due to religious prejudices.

The SOC continued to complain about public statements made by Decan/Decani municipal leadership against Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava for his opposition to illegal road construction within the Decan/Decani SPZ.

The Water Services Regulatory Authority stated it waived water utility fees during the year for religious buildings belonging to all religious communities, in contrast with the previous year, when it billed some religious communities, such as Protestants and Tarikats.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

National police said they received reports of 57 incidents targeting religious sites during the year, compared with 61 incidents in 2019. All the incidents were against property. Of the 57 incidents, 45 took place at Muslim, eight at SOC, and three at Catholic sites, while one targeted property not belonging to a specific religious group. Police classified most of the other 56 incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. There were also incidents involving religious sites that were not reported to police. Police did not classify any of the 57 incidents reported as religiously motivated. The SOC, however, stated that some of the incidents involving its property in Kosovo were religiously and ethnically motivated. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as solely based on religious identity.

The SOC again stated media reporting contributed to a climate of interethnic and interreligious intolerance during the year. For example, in September, the SOC Archdiocese of Raska-Prizren issued a press release condemning an article in the newspaper Koha Ditore by history professor Bedri Muhadri that, the press release stated, claimed without evidence that SOC holy sites in Kosovo were actually medieval Albanian and usurped Roman Catholic churches.

BIK again stated there were media reports and statements on social media that portrayed Muslims negatively. In July, a newspaper columnist condemned strong public support for construction of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, writing that Muslims in the country “no longer have any connection with Illyrians,” and adding that “investment in mosques is taking Kosovo away from its European path.”

BIK reported one case of a Muslim woman denied an employment contract in the private sector but did not provide details. According to BIK, devout Muslim women were reluctant to report cases of religious discrimination.

On January 6 in Gjakova/Djakovica, local Kosovo Albanians, including families of persons missing from the 1998-99 conflict, staged a protest in front of the local SOC church, where displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members had planned a pilgrimage on Orthodox Christmas. Media reported that organizers again cancelled the pilgrimage, citing security reasons. Such protests have taken place since 2015.

In August, vandals damaged an SOC church in Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren. In September, media reported an SOC church was desecrated and burglarized in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic.

There were reports of incidents of vandalism throughout the year at Serb cemeteries. Serbian-language media reported that on January 10, an unknown individual placed an Albanian flag on the fence surrounding a Serb cemetery in Gornji Livoc, near Gjilan/Gnjilane Municipality. In February, Serbian-language media reported unknown individuals vandalized a Serb cemetery in the village of Zac in Istog/Istok Municipality on the eve of a memorial service. According to media, the vandals knocked over and broke monuments, cut down centuries-old trees that then fell on gravesites, and removed the fence. The church in the cemetery was reportedly also damaged. In November, Serbian-language media reported that several monuments were demolished at a Serb cemetery in the village of Frasher/Svinjare, near Mitrovice/Mitrovica South, prior to a memorial service. According to media reports, in June, a group of Kosovo Serbs visited a cemetery in Mitrovice/Mitrovica South where more than 80 percent of the tombstones had been destroyed. Some media also published pictures of the cemetery, showing broken tombstones and overgrown foliage.

In April, tombstones on graves of members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian ethnic communities were broken in Rahovec/Orahovac Municipality. Mayor Smajl Latifi publicly condemned the incident and called for immediate police intervention in finding the perpetrators. Then-Minister for Communities and Returns Dalibor Jevtic referenced previous instances in the municipality and pledged to support families affected by the incident. The OSCE also issued a statement of condemnation.

In December, Skenderaj municipal officials reported that vandals destroyed a plaque inscribed with the words “Our Church” in the town of Gjytet in Syrigana. The site is a state-protected cultural heritage site. No specific religious group claimed ownership of the plaque.

According to Catholic Church officials, reports in 2019 of the destruction of religious symbols at a Catholic church in Janjevo village proved to be inaccurate.

BIK leadership stated a group of Mitrovice/a citizens lobbied for reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovice/a North that Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces destroyed in 1999, but that opposition from local Kosovo Serbs continued to stymie reconstruction plans.

Religious group leaders continued interfaith discussions on property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues. The OSCE continued to coordinate some activities among religious groups, including meetings with central and local authorities, to discuss issues such as cemetery maintenance, tax and custom duties exemptions for humanitarian activities by religious communities, and amendments to the law on religious freedom. One outcome of this engagement was improved maintenance of cemeteries by some municipal governments. The OSCE also advocated for inclusion of representatives of all major religious communities in municipal community safety councils, which meet to discuss security issues.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed and advocated with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, officials from the MES, the Ministry of Youth, Culture, and Sports, and political party leaders from the Democratic Party of Kosovo, Self-Determination Movement, Democratic League of Kosovo, and Srpska List for enactment of amendments to the law on religious freedom that would allow religious groups to acquire legal status. They also urged government officials to respect religious freedom and pluralism and increase their communication with religious groups. The Ambassador and other embassy officials urged central and local government officials, including the Prime Minister, to respect the law on SPZs, particularly in the case of the road near Visoki Decani Monastery. Embassy officials advocated with all levels of government for implementation of the 2016 Constitutional Court decision ordering the registration of ownership of 24 hectares (59 acres) of land to the Visoki Decani Monastery, urging the government and the judiciary to hold local officials accountable.

Embassy officials met with all major religious communities and discussed the amendments to the law on religious freedom, social issues of common concern, religious freedom issues, and governmental relations with religious communities. The embassy also funded interreligious dialogue among youth of all major religious groups and nonreligious organizations in the country.

The embassy frequently posted messages on social media in support of religious freedom, for example, marking International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, calling on the government to implement the Constitutional Court’s decision on the case involving the Visoki Decani Monastery land dispute, and urging all parties to adhere to the law on SPZs.

Kuwait

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state but declares freedom of belief is “absolute.” It declares 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 declares sharia to be a main source of legislation and all individuals to be 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. In January, the government announced it had prosecuted 57 individuals in 48 cases on charges of “stirring up sectarian strife” between 2016 and 2019. In March, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, upheld the 10-year prison sentences of three citizens and the two-year sentence for one Syrian national for joining ISIS and plotting to blow up Shia mosques. The government prosecuted numerous individuals for remarks deemed religiously offensive, mostly for comments made online, and sentenced some to prison terms. In March, authorities arrested three Indian nationals working at the Kuwait National Petroleum Corporation for insulting Islam and Muslims on Twitter. The government continued to appoint and pay the salaries of Sunni imams and provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at mosques. It did not exercise the same oversight of Shia imams. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (MAIA) fined, reprimanded, or suspended several Sunni imams for giving sermons perceived as politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, or violating the national unity law. Minority religious groups said they could worship in private spaces without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and restrictions on proselytizing. Members of registered churches reported that as of October, the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) had refused their attempts to renew lists of authorized signatories, stating that only citizens would be granted the authority to sign official documents on behalf of the churches, despite many congregations lacking citizen members. Representatives of registered churches also reported that banks would no longer process donations on behalf of the churches unless they received approval from MOSA to fundraise and collect donations, requests that the churches say MOSA denied. In addition, church members reported MAIA refused to recognize marriage certificates that were not signed by Kuwaiti nationals, despite Kuwaitis not being among their ordained clergy. At year’s end, church representatives reported that they hoped to reach a resolution on this issue with government authorities in 2021. 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, notwithstanding an increased need for qualified judges to staff the newly-approved Shia personal status courts. The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials referring to the Holocaust or Israel. Some Shia leaders continued to report discrimination in clerical and public sector employment.

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. Leaders and members of religious communities said they did not convert Muslims in the country. An NGO reported that “Although Shia have the same legal rights as Sunnis and access to education, health care, and other state benefits, they are often perceived as being lower on the social scale and marginalized in religious, economic, social, and political terms.” Shia representatives consistently said, however, that discrimination was not an issue for their community. 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, including material on the religious significance of 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 June, the Ambassador hosted a virtual roundtable with representatives from minority faiths 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, and the challenges the pandemic has presented for worship and fundraising. During the year, embassy officials and religious leaders continued to discuss various religious groups’ needs, which continued to include more space for worship, more transparency in the registration process for new churches, and permission to obtain religious school accreditation.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). U.S. government figures also cite the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), a local government agency, as reporting that the country’s total population was 4.4 million for 2019. As of January 1, PACI also reports there are 1.4 million citizens and 3.1 million noncitizens. The national census does not distinguish between Shia and Sunni Muslims. PACI estimates 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). Community leaders have indicated there are 290 Christian citizens and a handful of Baha’i citizens. There are no known Jewish citizens.

According to information from PACI released in 2018, 64 percent of the expatriate population is Muslim, 26 percent Christian, and 10 percent from non-Abrahamic faiths. Sources in various noncitizen communities state that approximately 5 percent of the expatriate Muslim population is Shia, while Buddhists and Hindus account for half of the non-Abrahamic faith population. Informal estimates by members of different faiths indicate there are approximately 250,000 Hindus, 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.

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 Amir shall be Muslim (the Amir and ruling family are Sunni) and the state shall safeguard the heritage of Islam.

The law prohibits the defamation of the three Abrahamic religions and denigration of Islamic and Judeo-Christian religious figures within accepted Islamic orthodoxy (e.g., prophets mentioned in the Quran or 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 Kuwaiti dinars ($32,900-$329,000), 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 it could be fined up to 200,000 dinars ($658,000). 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 ($32,900-$658,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment.

There is no promulgated process outlining what steps religious groups must take to register with the government. Groups must navigate this process without guidance from government offices. Although all religious groups must apply in writing for a license from their municipality to establish an official place of worship and to gain full benefits from the central government, there are no fixed criteria for an application to be approved. To obtain a license, groups must first receive approval by the local municipality for their place of worship. The municipality then turns to MAIA for its “opinion” on the application for a worship space (MAIA indicates that it does not have the authority to give formal registration of the building). MAIA then issues a certificate that lists board members for the organization, making the religious group a legal entity. Once this certificate is granted, further approvals are required by MOSA and the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Once these ministries give these approvals, the municipality must grant the final license, which requires the community leaders to obtain written permission from all the immediate neighbors occupying the properties around the proposed place of worship. The government often provides applicants no information about the status of their pending registration or if they have been rejected at any point. There is no recourse to appeal the decision; it is considered a “sovereign act” and cannot be challenged in court.

The officially registered and licensed Christian churches in the country are: 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. Nonrecognized 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 these rights, may not purchase property or sponsor workers, and must rely on volunteers from within their community for resources (although 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 or import pork products and 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).

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 law 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 the first instance and appellate levels. If the case proceeds beyond the appellate level to the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, the case may be adjudicated via Sunni personal status law. The law allows for the creation of separate courts for Shia Muslims for cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. According to local sources, these courts have only three judges, none of whom has a formal background in Shia jurisprudence. The law also allows personal status cases to be adjudicated through the Court of Cassation under Shia doctrine. 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 settlement offered by the church may be taken into consideration, 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. Non-Muslim divorce and child custody cases are heard in Sunni religious courts. Christian couples who are part of a registered church may marry and divorce following their religious customs, with local authorities and courts recognizing their documents. Except for 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 may also rent or donate 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 country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government pursued several cases against individuals for violating the national unity law and fomenting sectarianism. In January, the government announced it had prosecuted 57 individuals in 48 cases on charges of “stirring up sectarian strife” between 2016 and 2019.

In March, the Court of Cassation upheld the 10-year prison sentences of three citizens and the two-year sentence of one Syrian national for joining ISIS and plotting to blow up Shia mosques.

In March, authorities arrested three Indian nationals working at the Kuwait National Petroleum Corporation for insulting Islam and Muslims on Twitter. The three individuals were referred to authorities for legal action, but there was no update on the trial at year’s end.

In September, the MOI issued a statement saying that it had arrested a foreign national who posted a video clip on social media showing him “deliberately infringing on the sanctity of the Holy Quran.” The ministry added that the man was arrested and referred to “competent authorities.”

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. According to press reports, in January, Yusuf Mehanna stated that the MOI had revoked his citizenship after he gave a public interview noting his intention to convert to Judaism. The government explicitly denied that it revoked any Kuwaiti’s citizenship during the year. At year’s end, Mehanna was living in the United Kingdom under the name Naftali ben-Yehuda.

In accordance with MAIA policy, the government continued to vet and appoint 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.

According to the government, during the year, MAIA did not suspend, terminate, or discipline any imams for violating laws or insulting other religious groups. In August, Mohammed al-Mutari, MAIA Assistant Undersecretary for Mosques Department, told the Al-Rai newspaper that the ministry had received complaints from a number of worshippers at a Kuwait City mosque regarding the mosque’s imam, who had predicted that doomsday would arrive in 2024. Al-Mutari said that the incident was under review by the authorities.

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 that MAIA continued to caution imams to ensure their sermons were consistent with MAIA guidelines to refrain from discussing political issues and insulting other religions in their sermons or at any other time while under MAIA jurisdiction. 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 and, unlike previous years, Shia representatives and government officials reported no incidents. According to officials at MAIA and members of the Shia community, MAIA did not monitor sermons or other activities at husseiniyas (Shia halls for religious commemorations) or at private gatherings. Some sources stated they believed the government unofficially monitored Shia clerics.

During the year, due to the pandemic, MAIA organized several online courses for Sunni imams to make their messages more effective in promoting tolerance and countering radicalization. In December, the Director of the Center for the Promotion of Moderation, Abdullah al-Shuraika, said that the center had not received any reports of cases of extremism during the year and also stated that the center had launched a hotline 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.

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.

Members of registered churches reported that as of October, MOSA refused their attempts to renew lists of authorized signatories, stating that only citizens have the authority to sign official documents on behalf of the churches. Representatives of the registered churches also reported that banks would no longer process donations on behalf of the churches unless they received approval from MOSA to fundraise and collect donations, requests that the churches say MOSA denied. In addition, church members said that MAIA refused to recognize marriage certificates for some churches that were not signed by Kuwaiti nationals, despite Kuwaitis not being among their ordained clergy. At year’s end, church representatives reported that they hoped to reach a resolution with government authorities in 2021.

Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches continued to say they experienced hardships 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 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. 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 possible attacks. The government also continued to provide security to Shia neighborhoods during Muharram and Ashura.

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

Only private shops owned by religious organizations could legally 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 MOIA 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 that this was less of an issue in the past year, given that 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.

In March, the government announced that all mosques would be closed indefinitely to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In June, the government reopened some mosques for daily prayers while keeping them closed for Friday congregation prayers. At this time, Friday prayers were performed only in the Grand Mosque and broadcast live on television. By mid-July, more mosques were reopened and Friday congregation prayers were permitted. In August, all mosques were fully reopened. In December, the Council of Ministers announced that all Christmas gatherings, both inside and outside of churches, would be banned through January 10 over COVID-19 concerns.

Kuwait 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 Greek Catholic Church indicated that it had requested additional land near its location in April to accommodate more worshippers. 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. 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 1,686 mosques in the country, including 31 mosques opened during the year. According to 2018 government statistics, of the 1,601 mosques existing that year, 1550 were Sunni and 51 Shia. Five new Shia mosques received permission to be built that year. A source from the Shia community said the government opened no new Shia mosques in 2019. There were 20-30 husseiniyas registered with the MOI and thousands of smaller Shia gatherings that took place in private homes.

Again citing security concerns, authorities stated they continued to act against unlicensed mosques. The government tasked MAIA, MOI, the municipality of Kuwait, and other agencies with finding solutions to end the use of such unregistered mosques. During the year, the government continued to raid makeshift mosques in remote areas and close them 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 platforms of extremism. The demolition of these mosques continued during the year. Authorities said new unlicensed mosques continued to open. MAIA attempted to bring some underground mosques under its supervision by appointing and vetting imams, monitoring sermons, and licensing them.

According to Al-Rai newspaper, the parliament and the government approved a proposal in October to teach the Quran in kindergarten. Mohammed Haif, the member of parliament who proposed the bill, said that the measure would help build a generation “adhering to genuine Islamic values and teachings.”

All Islamic education courses – mandatory for Muslims – use the Sunni interpretation of Islam. According to the NGO Minority Rights Group International, Shia Muslims are not allowed to organize religious courses in public high schools or establish religious training centers.

The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials, including fiction and nonfiction books and textbooks, referring to 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. The NECK repeatedly requested accreditation for its church-based school for many years, most recently in 2017, but authorities had not responded by year’s end. 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 increased the need for Shia religious training facilities to help staff the courts with qualified judges. 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 members of the Shia community, the College of Islamic Law 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 a September report in the newspaper Al-Qabas, more than 1,000 individuals applied for the first time to work as mosque imams and muezzins amid a vigorous drive to replace migrant workers with citizens. According to the report, MAIA eased testing criteria for these jobs in order to encourage qualified nationals to apply with the aim of raising the number of citizens working as imams and muezzins to 20 percent, up from the current 6 percent. 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, an effort which accelerated during the year due to the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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 council the government created many years ago under the regular marital issues court to apply Shia jurisprudence continued to function.

Even though Shia make up an estimated 30 percent of the population, they 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 few 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 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 Minority Right Group International (MRGI), “while Shia are able to work in the public sector without restrictions, some Shia have reported discrimination and barriers preventing them from obtaining senior leadership positions.”

MOSA 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 granted additional slots upon request. The government continued to require foreign leaders of unregistered religious groups to enter the country as nonreligious workers.

On February 25, The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that it monitored online search engines of exhibited materials for state-run book fairs in Kuwait City and other Gulf states. In every fair, the ADL found numerous examples of anti-Semitic books through their online platforms and apparently on site as well. The ADL report stated that at the November 2019 Kuwait International Book Fair, “ADL even found that some copies of Mein Kampf and The International Jew were listed in the event’s online catalog under Children’s Books.”

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. On Orthodox Christmas in January, the Minister of Amiri Diwan Affairs, Ali Jarrah al-Saah, visited St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Societal pressure continued against conversion from Islam, according to minority religious leaders and citizens. Leaders and members of religious communities said they did not convert Muslims in the country. Some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them due to their conversion.

MRGI reported that “Although Shia have the same legal rights as Sunnis and access to education, health care, and other state benefits, they are often perceived as being lower on the social scale and marginalized in religious, economic, social, and political terms.” Shia representatives consistently said, however, that discrimination was not an issue for their community.

According to press reports, a number of imams said that authorities needed to act swiftly to save children from an updated version of PlayersUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a popular video game in which players appear to be worshipping idols. One Kuwait University professor said the game violated Islamic beliefs regarding prostration and bowing to idols. Another said such video games were dangerous for Muslims.

Hotels, stores, and other businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. During the Christmas season, Christmas trees and lights appeared in stores, malls, and homes, and Christmas music played in public places, including songs with Christian lyrics.

News media continued to print information about religious holiday celebrations, including material on the religious significance of Christmas.

According to press and social media, anti-Semitic rhetoric generally originated from self-proclaimed Islamists or opinion writers. There were reported cases of clerics and others making statements that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Jews. Columnists often conflated Israeli government actions or views with those of Jews more broadly.

Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval via social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays. In response to a Saudi television show, Om Haroun, which portrayed Gulf Jewish communities in the 1940s and 50s, former television host Hussain al-Abdullah called for the banning of programs that “indirectly praise Jews,” which he said would be an “honorable stance towards the Palestinian cause.”

In an Arab Youth Survey poll, conducted by a public research firm in Dubai of 18-to 24-year-old Arabs from 17 regional states, 23 percent of the country’s youth listed religion as being important to their identities, among the lowest in the broader Middle East. A separate poll, reported in January by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, reported that 39 percent of the public agreed at least somewhat with the proposition: “We should listen to those among us who are trying to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, and modern direction” – a percentage among the highest in the six Arab countries polled. On another question, whether or not “we should show more respect to the world’s Jews, and improve our relations with them,” only 2 percent of those surveyed said yes. A similar question about showing respect towards Christians showed that 49 percent of those polled agreed. Attitudes towards both Jews and Christians were similar to the results from the five other countries included in the survey.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In June, the Ambassador hosted a virtual roundtable with representatives from minority faiths to discuss a broad range of religious freedom issues. The group discussed the status of religious freedom in the country, the effect of COVID-19 shutdowns on their communities, and the challenges the pandemic has presented for worship and fundraising.

During the year, embassy officials and religious leaders continued to discuss the various religious groups’ needs, which continued to include more space for worship, more transparency in the registration process for new churches, and permission to obtain religious school accreditation. Senior embassy officials also continued to attend religious gatherings virtually throughout the year, including Ashura, Easter, Christmas, and Baha’i events. At these events, such as the Religious Freedom Virtual Roundtable held in June 2020, the Ambassador and other officials discussed issues related to religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government commitment to religious freedom.

Kyrgyzstan

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred. It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of Tengrism, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups. By year’s end, parliament did not take up amendments proposed to the religion law in 2019 by the State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA), which include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing. The SCRA continued to refuse to register local Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in the south of the country, despite a UN Human Rights Committee finding in 2019 that the law’s requirement that religious groups register with local councils in order to establish new places of worship was in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the constitution and despite an earlier Supreme Court decision finding the practice unconstitutional. The government did not always provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. The SCRA-proposed solution, which would divide public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space, remained pending as of year’s end. There continued to be reports of threats of violence and other harassment of Christian minorities, including threats against family members in the case of Eldos Sattar uulu, who was attacked by his neighbors because of his Protestant beliefs.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers held mostly virtual meetings with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. Embassy officers regularly met virtually with religious leaders, including representatives of the Grand Muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups, the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to government estimates, approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. The government estimates Shia make up less than 1 percent of the Muslim population. There is also a small Ahmadi Muslim community not reflected in government figures and estimated by an international organization at 1,000 individuals. According to government estimates, approximately 7 percent of the population is Christian, of which an estimated 40 percent is Russian Orthodox. Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and unaffiliated groups together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population. Adherents of Tengrism, an indigenous religion, estimate there are 50,000 followers in the country.

According to the National Statistics Committee, in 2019 (most recent data available) ethnic Kyrgyz make up approximately 73 percent of the population, ethnic Uzbeks approximately 15 percent, and ethnic Russians approximately 6 percent. Both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks are primarily Muslim. Ethnic Russians are primarily adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church or one of several Protestant denominations. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church and other non-Muslim religious groups live mainly in major cities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion; the right to practice or not practice a religion, individually or jointly with other persons; and the right to refuse to express one’s religious views. It prohibits actions inciting religious hatred.

The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state. It prohibits the establishment of religiously based political parties and the pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The constitution prohibits the establishment of any religion as a state or mandatory religion.

The law states all religions and religious groups are equal. It prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another” and “illegal missionary activity,” defined as missionary activity of groups not registered with the SCRA, a government organization composed of presidential appointees, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion. The law also prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups unless a parent grants written consent.

The law requires all religious groups and religiously affiliated schools to register with the SCRA. The law prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of the organizing meeting, and a list of founding members. Each congregation of a religious group must register separately and must have at least 200 resident founding citizens. Foreign religious organizations are required to renew their registrations with the SCRA annually. The law also requires that religious groups register with local councils to establish new places of worship, despite a 2016 Supreme Court decision that nullified this section of the law.

The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. The SCRA may also deny or postpone the registration of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of the group are not religious in character. Denied applicants may reapply at any time or may appeal to the courts. The law prohibits unregistered religious groups from actions such as renting space and holding religious services. Violations may result in an administrative fine of 500 som ($6).

After the SCRA has approved a group’s registration as a religious entity, the group must register with the Ministry of Justice to obtain status as a legal entity so it may own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities. The organization must submit an application to the ministry that includes a group charter with an administrative structure and a list of board and founding members. If a religious group engages in a commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes. By law, religious groups are designated as NGOs exempt from taxes on their religious activities.

The law gives the SCRA authority to ban a religious group in cases where courts concur that a religious organization has undermined the security of the state; undertaken actions aimed at forcibly changing the foundations of the constitutional system; created armed forces or propaganda advocating war or terrorism; engaged in the encroachment on the rights of citizens or obstruction of compulsory education of children; coerced members to remit their property to the religious group; or encouraged citizens to refuse to fulfil their civil obligations and break the law. The group may appeal the decision in the courts.

The constitution prohibits religious groups from “involvement in organizational activities aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.” A conviction for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of three to eight years, while a conviction for creating an organization aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of five to 10 years. Conviction for murder committed on the grounds of religious hatred is punishable by life imprisonment.

The law mandates separate prison facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and “extremism.” The law also allows for stripping the citizenship of any Kyrgyz national found to have trained to acquire skills to commit terrorist or extremist crimes outside the country. The law defines “extremist activity” as including the violent overthrow of the constitutional order; undermining the security of the country; violence or inciting violence on racial, national, or religious grounds; propagating the symbols or paraphernalia of an extremist organization; carrying out mass riots or vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity; and hate speech or hostility toward any social group.

According to the law, only individuals representing registered religious organizations may conduct missionary activity. If a foreign missionary represents an organization approved by the SCRA, the individual must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Visas are valid for up to one year, and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country. All foreign religious entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must reregister annually. Representatives of religious groups acting inconsistently with the law may be fined or deported. Violations of the law may result in fines of 1,000 som ($12), and deportation in the case of foreign missionaries.

The law provides for the right of religious groups to produce, import, export, and distribute religious literature and materials in accordance with established procedures, which may include examination by state experts. The law does not require government examination of religious materials (such as literature and other printed or audio or video materials), and it does not define the criteria for state religious experts. The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations or in visits to individual households, schools, and other institutions. The law specifies fines based on the nature of the violations. The law requires that law enforcement officials to demonstrate an intent to distribute extremist materials to arrest a suspect.

The law allows public schools an option to offer religion courses that discuss the history and character of religions, as long as the subject of such teaching is not religious doctrine and does not promote any particular religion. Private religious schools need to register with SCRA to operate as such.

According to the law, religion is grounds for conscientious objection to and exemption from military service. Conscientious objectors must pay a fee of 18,000 som ($220) to opt out of military service. Draft-eligible males must pay the fee before turning 27 years of age. Failure to pay by the age limit requires the person to perform 108 hours of community service or pay a fine of 25,000 som ($300). If males are unable to serve due to family circumstances and have not paid by the age limit, they must pay 18,000 som ($220). Draft-eligible men who evade military service and do not fall under an exemption are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years. It is obligatory to serve in the military for 12 months, although the law provides for alternative forms of community service. Religious groups are not exempt from this law, and members must pay to opt out of military service.

The country is a party to the ICCPR.

Government Practices

The government maintained its bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including al-Qaida, the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, Kurdish Peoples’ Congress, Organization for the Release of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Union of Islamic Jihad, Islamic Party of Turkistan, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah, At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar. Authorities also continued to ban all materials or activities connected to the Chechen Islamist militant leader A.A. Tihomirov (aka Said Buryatsky), whose activities and materials the Bishkek District Court deemed to be extremist in 2014.

During the year, the government continued to arrest members of the pan-Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir on extremism charges. According to local press, the government arrested 13 alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir during the first six months of the year. In most cases, the arrestees were detained in the State Committee for National Security’s (GKNB) pretrial detention center that housed violent extremists.

According to human rights NGOs, religious extremism arrests dropped significantly after the change to extremism laws in 2019 that removed provisions allowing the arrest of individuals for possessing materials deemed extremist. Official government statistics to corroborate this were not available. According to a human rights NGO that tracks these cases, in eight of 12 confirmed arrests on extremism charges during the year, charges were dropped after courts found there was insufficient evidence under the revised law. Extremist incidents were defined as membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, distribution of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization. Despite the change in the extremism laws, NGOs reported that the government arrested social media users who shared or liked digital content that the government considered extremist, especially religious literature connected to banned groups, in a shift away from arrests for possessing physical media. The NGOs noted that arrests were centered on ethnic Uzbek communities in the south.

Leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that on September 3, the leadership of the SCRA hosted a local television program with members of the Russian Orthodox Church and a local Muslim cleric in which the SCRA participant repeatedly said that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were extremists.

Ethnic Uzbeks said that police continued to target and harass them, usually in connection with the possession of banned religious literature or support of banned organizations, which they said was based on false testimony or planted evidence. Unlike in 2019, there were no reports of government officials visiting Christian churches to demand to see their financial records.

There were reports that police and prosecutors continued to threaten members of Eldos Sattar uulu’s family with violence or arrest. Sattar uulu, a Protestant, returned to the country during the year after fleeing in 2018 due to being threatened because of his faith.

Parliament continued to consider draft amendments to the religion law submitted by the SCRA in 2019 but did not take action before year’s end. The amendments would ban on door-to-door proselytizing, require notification to the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad, and maintain the 200-member minimum for registration as a religious organization, which would restrict registered organizations from creating smaller filial branches across the country.

As of September, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the SCRA continued to refuse to register local houses of worship, based on a provision of law requiring religious groups to register with local councils to establish new places of worship. The requirement remained in effect despite a finding by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2019 that it was in violation of Article 18 of the ICCPR and the constitution, and a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 that the requirement was unconstitutional.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ representatives stated that the SCRA and other government organizations continued to use spurious applications of the law to prevent them from establishing new congregations. On January 20, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community reapplied for registration of their local houses of worship. Their 2019 request had been denied by the SCRA. The SCRA rejected the January application, “in order to avoid a threat to social stability, interfaith harmony, and public order.” On May 28, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a lawsuit with the Bishkek administrative court, citing the SCRA’s insistence on using a provision of the law that had been deemed unconstitutional. On June 24, the court returned the claim without consideration, accepting the SCRA’s argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative appeal process. On July 14, the community filed an appeal of the initial decision with the SCRA. The SCRA rejected this appeal, stating that it was not submitted in a timely manner. On July 24, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a second suit against the SCRA in the Bishek administrative court, after which the SCRA announced that it was suspending consideration of the registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregations due to the lawsuit. On November 12, the Supreme Court upheld the Bishkek court ruling, accepting the SCRA argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative process and thus could not appeal the SCRA decision in court. With the court’s ruling, the SCRA’s rejection of the Jehovah’s Witnesses application became final.

Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete, even when successful. One group reported that the SCRA had not registered it after five years of attempts. Some unregistered groups continued to report they were able to hold regular religious services without government interference, especially foreign religious organizations that had been registered in the past and had an annual application for reregistration pending. The SCRA reported it registered 112 mosques, 11 Christian churches (no information provided on denominations), 38 religious schools, and 28 religious organizations through October. The SCRA also reported that there were 2,662 registered mosques, two registered Islamic universities, 141 registered madrassas, and 77 registered Islamic foundations in the country.

Although the government continued not to list the Ahmadi Muslim Community as a banned organization, a representative of the group again stated it still had not obtained registration. The community initially registered in 2002, but the SCRA declined to approve its reregistration every year since 2012, including again in 2020. The SCRA has also refused to register Tengrism as a religion since 2013, declaring that government theologians said Tengrism is a philosophical movement and not a religion.

While the law does not require examination of all religious literature and materials, religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated the SCRA required that they submit 100 percent of their imported religious material for review. According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, the SCRA continued its practice of having individuals designated by the SCRA as experts examine imported religious materials submitted for review by religious organizations, although the law did not mandate such a review. There continued to be no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating the experts who examined the religious literature that groups wished to distribute within their places of worship. According to religious studies academics, the SCRA continued to choose its own employees or religious scholars whom the agency contracted to serve as the experts. Attorneys for religious groups continued to say the experts chosen by the SCRA were biased in favor of prosecutors and were not formal experts under the criminal procedure code. The State Forensic Service, with support from SCRA on religious matters, screened the content of websites, printed material, and other forms of media for extremist content.

NGOs working in prison reform and countering violent extremism continued to report that laws mandating separate facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism were often poorly implemented. NGOs reported that violent extremists were not separated from inmates who were incarcerated for lesser crimes, including simple possession of extremist materials, which they said could lead to radicalization of other populations in the prisons. The government announced that it would review old convictions for possession of such materials, but there were no reports it had actually done so. NGOs reported that prison authorities required religious literature other than the Quran or hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammed) to be approved by the Muftiate.

According to representatives of religious groups, refusal either to serve or to pay a fee to opt out of military service continued to subject a conscientious objector to hardship, because military service remained a prerequisite for employment in the government and with many private employers.

According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. A government policy announced in 2017 to address this problem by dividing public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space had not been implemented as of year’s end. According to the SCRA, the draft policy was approved by relevant government agencies and was undergoing revisions before implementation.

The SCRA held an interfaith dialogue forum in January, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented subsequent forums during the year. The event included Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i participants as well as civil society representatives, local authorities, and officials from the Ministry of Interior and the GKNB. As in previous years, the forum focused on religious tolerance, cooperation, and mutual understanding among representatives of religious communities as well as between the state and religious organizations, including a specific focus on religious communities outside of the capital.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to civil society activists, incidents of harassment of minority religious groups continued to occur in small towns and villages with majority Kyrgyz populations. In January, Eldos Sattar uulu, who fled to Ukraine in 2018 because of attacks against his Protestant faith, returned to the country, but not to his village of Tamchi, out of fear of reprisal from community members due to his decision to go to the media after the attacks against him. Sattar uulu returned after a reported settlement between his attackers and his family in which he agreed to not prosecute his attackers in exchange for his family’s safety. According to observers from the area, the settlement was likely due to continuing threats against Sattar uulu’s parents.

On March 18, the Muftiate suspended Friday prayers and Islamic proselytization (dawah) due to COVID-19. The Grand Mufti, Maksat Azi Toktomushev, encouraged Muslims to pray at home and maintain social distancing. On August 26, the Muftiate lifted those restrictions as long as mosques followed anti-COVID-19 protocols.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Before pandemic restrictions were imposed, the Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials, including the SCRA deputy chief and high-ranking officials in the Grand Muftiate, to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. In November, an embassy officer met with SCRA officials to discuss plans for legislation in 2021, including proposed amendments to the Law on Religion, as well as how the new government planned to approach longstanding issues, including religious intolerance.

Embassy officers continued to engage with representatives of the Muftiate, leaders of minority religions, NGOs, and civil society representatives to discuss the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities. Throughout the year, these interactions were significantly reduced due to the pandemic, although embassy staff continued to interact with contacts virtually. The Ambassador also met virtually with members of religious communities, including representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Baptist and Evangelical Unions of Kyrgyzstan, and discussed religious registration, interreligious relations, and religious extremism.

Laos

Executive Summary

The constitution provides citizens with “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion.” The government officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith, with Buddhism paramount. Decree 315, issued in 2016 with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice, defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. Religious leaders said that while authorities in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, improper restrictions on religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas. Reports continued of local authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting and detaining followers of minority religious groups, particularly Christians associated with the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC). Media reported that in March, local officials arrested LEC Pastor Sithon Thipavong for conducting religious activities in Kalum Vangkhea Village, Namdoy District, Savannakhet Province. Although he remained in detention, by year’s end authorities did not charge Sithon with a crime. According to media in July, authorities arrested four LEC members for attending a Christian family funeral in Khammouane Province. Authorities released the four Christians from jail on December 22. In February, media reported that local authorities and villagers from Tine Doi Village in Luang Namtha Province forced out of their homes 14 residents from three ethnic Hmong Christian families. Provincial leaders brokered an agreement with district authorities for the families to return, but under the condition they abandon their religious practices. Two new religious groups submitted applications for registration during the year – the Methodist Church and an unnamed Christian group. Religious leaders continued to say Decree 315 established onerous requirements sometimes used to restrict travel for religious purposes. Christian groups continued to report problems constructing churches in some areas. Members of minority religions continued to hide their religious affiliation in order to join the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the government, and military and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. Central authorities said they continued to travel to provincial areas to train officials to implement Decree 315 and other laws governing religion.

According to government and religious group sources, tensions continued in rural areas among animists, Buddhists, and growing Christian communities. Religious leaders said there were reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from their villages if they did not renounce their faith. In October, media reported that residents of Pasing Village forced seven Christians from two households from their homes in Salavan Province for refusing to renounce their faith. Villagers later tore down the Christians’ homes; as of year’s end, the Christians remained homeless. Burial ceremonies remained a point of contention in some areas, with reports of animists preventing the burial of Christians in public cemeteries.

U.S. embassy officials regularly raised specific religious freedom cases and issues regarding cumbersome regulations, including registration procedures, with the government and continued to encourage open dialogue and conflict resolution to resolve them. In exchanges with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, and the LFND Religious Affairs Department, embassy officials discussed the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of harassment and prolonged detention. In February, Department of State officials visited Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet to meet with government officials and representatives from religious groups. They discussed implementation of Decree 315 and treatment of certain religious groups by both government and nongovernmental groups. In October, the Ambassador commemorated the completion of the U.S.-supported restoration of the oldest Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang and handed over the successful restoration project to the government and residents of the city. Embassy officials regularly met with leaders from a wide variety of religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to understand better the problems faced by members of minority religious groups. The embassy also invited religious leaders and government officials responsible for religious affairs to embassy events, including those focusing on religious freedom and related issues.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2015 national census, 64.7 percent of the population is Buddhist, 1.7 percent is Christian, 31.4 percent report having no religion, and the remaining 2.1 percent belong to other religions. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of the ethnic or “lowland” Lao, who constitute 53.2 percent of the overall population. According to the Lao Front for National Development (LFND), an organization associated with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) that, along with MOHA, is responsible for the administration of religious organizations, the remainder of the population comprises 50 ethnic minority groups, most of which practice animism and ancestor worship. Animism is predominant among Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, and the Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice, particularly in rural areas.

Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Baha’is, Mahayana Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and followers of Confucianism together constitute less than 3 percent of the population. According to the international Catholic Church-affiliated NGO Aid to the Church in Need’s Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report, its most recent, Christians comprise 3.2 percent of the population. The Catholic Church estimates its membership at 55,200, the LEC estimates its membership at more than 200,000, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church estimates its adherents at 1,800. Muslim community leaders estimate the community has approximately 1,000 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion” and states citizens are equal before the law regardless of their beliefs or ethnic group. The constitution also states the government respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and followers of other religions and “mobilizes and encourages Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in activities that are beneficial to the country and people.” It prohibits all acts that create division among religious groups and classes of persons. The government officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.

Decree 315 upholds “respect for the religious rights and freedom” of both believers and nonbelievers. The decree’s stated purpose is to set the principles, regulations, and laws concerning the governance and protection of religious activities for clergy, teachers of religion, believers, and religious groups in order to preserve and promote national culture, increase solidarity among members of religious groups, and “preserve and develop the nation.” The decree clarifies rules for religious practice and defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. The decree reiterates the constitutional priority that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and by instructing believers to be good citizens.

The decree requires any religious group operating in the country to register with MOHA. Groups may, but are not required to, affiliate with an officially recognized religious group.

Under the decree, religious groups must present information on elected or appointed religious leaders to national, provincial, district, and village-level MOHA offices for review and certification. Religious groups operating in multiple provinces must obtain national MOHA approval; groups operating in multiple districts must obtain provincial-level approval; and groups operating in multiple villages are required to obtain district-level approval. If a group wishes to operate beyond its local congregation, it must obtain approval at the corresponding level. A religious activity occurring outside a religious group’s property requires village-authority approval. Activities in another village require approval from district authorities, from provincial authorities for activities in another district, and from national authorities for activities in another province. Religious groups must submit annual plans of all activities, including routine events, in advance for local authorities to review and approve.

The decree states that nearly all aspects of religious practice – such as congregating, holding religious services, travel for religious officials, building houses of worship, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed – require permission from a provincial, district-level, and/or central MOHA office. MOHA may order the cessation of any religious activity or expression of beliefs not in agreement with policies, traditional customs, laws, or regulations within its jurisdiction. It may stop any religious activity it deems threatening to national stability, peace, and social order, causing serious damage to the environment, or affecting national solidarity or unity among tribes and religions, including threats to the lives, property, health, or reputations of others. The decree requires MOHA to collect information and statistics on religious operations, cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations regarding religious activities, and report religious activities to the government.

The decree states the government may sponsor Buddhist facilities, incorporate Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in state functions, and promote Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity and as the predominant religion of the country.

The decree requires Buddhist clergy to have identification cards, and clergy of other religions are required to have certificates to prove they have received legitimate religious training.

Per Decree 315, the building permit process for constructing houses of worship begins with an application to local authorities and then requires district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFND and MOHA permission. All houses of worship must register under the law and conform to applicable regulations. Religious organizations must own 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) of land to construct a place of worship. MOHA officials at all levels must approve any maintenance, restoration, or construction activities at religious facilities. Local authorities may provide opinions regarding building, care, and maintenance of religious facilities, present their findings to their respective provincial governors and city mayors for consideration, and subsequently ask MOHA to review and approve activities conducted in religious facilities.

According to the Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES), although there is no Buddhist curriculum taught as religion in public schools, the government promotes the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture. Cultural sessions include lessons taught in Buddhist temples. Students are required to attend prayers during these lessons. MOES states that parents may remove their children from the classes if they are dissatisfied with the program. A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups exist throughout the country and accept students from any religious denomination.

Individuals entering the clergy for more than three months require approval from district and village authorities, agreement from the receiving religious establishment, and agreement from a guardian or spouse, if applicable. For a period of less than three months, the village authority as well as a guardian or spouse, if applicable, must approve. The shorter period stipulations are particularly relevant to Buddhists, as every Buddhist male is expected to enter the monkhood at least once in his life, often for fewer than three months.

MOES and MOHA must approve the travel abroad of clergy and religious teachers for specialized studies. Students going abroad for any kind of study (including religious studies) generally require MOES approval. Domestic religious organizations that also conduct religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level.

According to the Law for LFND, the LFND may educate and meet with religious leaders, clergy, teachers, and members to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, reduce ethnic and religious tensions, and “contribute to the development of the nation.” LFND officials work with religious communities, police, and other authorities.

The government controls written materials for religious audiences. Decree 315 regulates the importation and printing of religious materials and production of books, documents, icons, and symbols of various religions. The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism and MOHA must approve religious texts or other materials before they are imported. MOHA may require religious groups to certify the imported materials are truly representative of their religions, to address issues of authenticity, and to ensure imported materials comport with values and practices in the country. The law prohibits the import or export of unapproved printed or electronic religious materials.

A government decree adopted in March defines principles and rules for “ethnic management.” One section of the decree provides for protection and preservation of traditional burial practices.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation that Article 18 on freedom of religion shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any activities to directly or indirectly coerce or compel an individual to believe or not to believe in a religion or to change his or her religion or belief, and that all acts that create division and discrimination among ethnic groups and religious groups are incompatible with the article.

Government Practices

Religious leaders said that while authorities in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, including Decree 315, improper restrictions on religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas. Religious leaders said many local officials were unaware of the decree’s content and how to properly apply it. Reports continued of local authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting and detaining followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Asia News, on March 15, local officials arrested LEC Pastor Sithon Thipavong for conducting religious activities in Kalum Vangkhea Village, Namdoy District, Savannakhet Province. MOHA officials said local authorities arrested Sithon for distributing Bibles without permission, but the LFND stated that a thorough investigation was warranted to determine the final charges. Local sources said the regional prosecutor assigned to Sithon’s case stated that Sithon broke no laws, but they said local authorities used a number of justifications – including the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and the occurrence of the provincial party congress of the LPRP – to keep him detained. Local sources also said the possible charges against him changed from violating Decree 315 to political charges, given what local officials said were Sithon’s connections to foreign powers based largely on previous international travel. RFA and local sources reported that at the onset of his imprisonment, local authorities did not allow Sithon’s family to visit him. At year’s end, authorities did not formally charge Sithon, although he remained in detention with family visitation.

According to RFA, local authorities in Phousath Village, Khunkham District, Khammouane Province arrested four LEC members on July 3 for participating in a Christian family funeral. Police arrested the four Christians before they were able to conduct the funeral prayer ceremony according to their faith. One local official told RFA the reason for the individuals’ detention was because they performed ceremonies that “don’t conform with Lao culture, which creates unrest and divides community solidarity.” Local authorities released the four individuals from jail on December 22. According to local sources, authorities detained or arrested additional religious believers during the year in Attapeu, Bokeo, and Phongsali Provinces.

According to the Union of Catholic Asian News and local sources, local authorities and villagers from Tine Doi Village forced 14 residents from three ethnic Hmong Christian families out from their homes in Long District, Luang Namtha Province on February 12. Local sources reported that local authorities and villagers destroyed the families’ homes, and the families fled to the border of neighboring Bokeo Province. The LEC reported that in June, the provincial LFND and the district struck an agreement to allow the families to return to their village, but under the condition that the families give up their Christian practices and convert to Buddhism or animism. According to local sources, villagers and local authorities tore down the families’ houses on October 1, and by year’s end authorities did not resolve the dispute.

According to some minority religious groups, both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, Decree 315 (or its predecessor, Decree 92), and social harmony as reasons for continuing to restrict and monitor religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian organizations among minority ethnic group members.

A MOHA official said two new religious groups submitted applications for registration during the year: the Methodist Church and an unnamed Christian group that separated from the LEC. MOHA requested these religious groups to explain the different practices and beliefs among various Christian denominations before approving the applications. The MOHA official also said that during the registration review process, the ministry consulted with other religious groups – including the LEC – to discuss the registration application in an attempt to minimize conflicts between established and new religious groups. Officials’ requests to consult with other religious groups often significantly delayed registration and other approval processes.

According to a MOHA official, during the year the ministry met with nonregistered religious groups, including representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ, to discuss the registration process. Church of Jesus Christ leaders said they were in the process of preparing documents for internal consideration.

According to an international observer of religious issues in the country, Buddhists continued to adjust to Decree 315’s regulatory changes, including the requirement that all religious groups register, a stipulation that had not previously applied to Buddhist groups.

Although the law prohibited members of religious groups not registered with MOHA or the LFND from practicing their faith, members of several groups said they continued to do so quietly and without interference, often in house churches.

While religious groups said Decree 315 helped enshrine religious freedom and further clarified processes for administrative tasks, the groups also stated that some administrative requirements mandated by the decree (that were again not fully implemented during the year) would be burdensome and restrictive if the government were to fully implement them. Among these were requirements to submit detailed travel plans and requests in advance to hold basic religious services. A number of minority religious leaders said they often traveled within the country without prior government approval because obtaining permission took too much time and officials often ultimately denied the requests. A representative from an unregistered religious group said the group considered registering as a foreign entity to circumvent the onerous requirements under Decree 315. According to some religious groups, the government also did not fully enforce the decree’s travel notice requirement.

MOHA and LFND officials continued to acknowledge that some local officials incorrectly applied regulations, created their own regulations contrary to national law, or were unaware of all the provisions in Decree 315. Several religious groups continued to recommend the government devote more resources to implementing the decree and promoting religious freedom at the district and provincial level. Central government officials said they continued to train provincial and district officials on concepts of religious freedom and implementation of Decree 315 in an attempt to protect minority religious groups but stated this was a challenge in isolated areas. According to an international religious freedom NGO that financially supported some of the sessions, while the training programs were beneficial, some local authorities used the programs to exploit gaps in Decree 315 to further restrict religious freedom.

Authorities stated that during the year the central government, in coordination with relevant local- and provincial-level officials, continued to conduct assessments of Decree 315 implementation. Officials said they invited representatives of some, but not all, religious groups in the respective areas to provide input.

Some religious groups continued not to comply with the requirement to obtain advance permission to travel to other jurisdictions. One religious leader said some of the requirements laid out in Decree 315 were so burdensome that groups often ignored them in order to carry out daily practices.

Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to the travel permission requirements. Some religious leaders stated authorities sometimes detained Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside their regular locales. According to the LEC and local sources, in October, authorities detained two LEC members for five days and fined them each 525,000 Lao kip ($57) for traveling to attend a regular monthly meeting in Bokeo Province. The LEC said numerous persons traveled without authorization to Bokeo Province that day, but authorities arrested only those identified as Christians.

The government continued to enforce rules requiring programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship to receive prior approval from local or higher authorities.

According to the Catholic Church, the government routinely surveilled members and leaders of the Catholic Church, reportedly to monitor for and protect against foreign influence. In Luang Prabang and Vientiane, Catholic leaders reported being frequently questioned by a mix of plainclothes and uniformed police officers. These officers sought membership statistics, a list of Church members’ names, and information regarding new members. Church leaders also said that the government often monitored foreigners who attended a service at the Catholic Church in Vientiane.

Christian religious leaders said the government continued to strictly enforce a prohibition on proselytizing in public, including by foreigners. Both the Church of Jesus Christ and Seventh-day Adventists reported they had missionaries in the country, but the government restricted their activities to teaching English and promoting good health practices, such as hygiene and sanitation. Missionaries could not engage in religious discussions. The Church of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church said they relied on word-of-mouth to attract new members.

Authorities continued to control imports of religious materials, but several religious groups said they could access most religious texts and documents online. MOHA officials said they coordinated with religious groups to review imported materials to help ensure these were in accordance with the organization’s beliefs. Due to these restrictions, Baha’i sources said they chose to produce and print their own religious documents in the country.

Several minority religious groups reported problems building and renovating places of worship, although the LFND Religious Affairs Department stated it continued to urge that designated church structures replace house churches whenever possible. According to religious leaders, local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal and told villagers they needed permits to worship at home. The Seventh-day Adventist Church attributed the large number of house churches to the difficulties of obtaining enough land to meet the requirements of Decree 315.

Many religious leaders said they continued to experience lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction and generally received no response to requests. A Catholic Church official said the Church often waited years for approval to build a new church, only to be ultimately denied, a point the Church raised again during training on the proper implementation of Decree 315 in Vientiane Province in December. According to the Catholic Church representative, the Church had been waiting since 2007 to receive approval to renovate a church building. The representative also said guidelines for the construction of religious buildings delineated in Decree 315 were unclear.

Some sources said the legal requirement that a religious organization own 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) of land to build a church or temple limited the ability of some smaller congregations, which lacked sufficient resources, to obtain a space of that size. A Seventh-day Adventist Church leader said that while the land requirement was not an issue in rural areas, purchasing land was expensive in cities, where most Seventh-day Adventists live. He said the largest Seventh-day Adventist Church, located in Vientiane, sits on less than 3,300 square meters (35,000 square feet). As in 2019, he also said that the government sometimes facilitated access to land for Buddhist temples, while Christian churches had to purchase the land for their sites of worship. As common with Buddhist temples, he said, the government often retained the land title, which he stated could cause an issue if the church needed to prove ownership.

According to Buddhist organizations, prominent Buddhists continued to work with the government to draft legislation to ensure laws reflected the role of Buddhism in Lao culture.

Christian students continued to say they were uncomfortable with the requirement that they attend prayers in Buddhist temples during cultural classes taught there as part of the public school curriculum. In some rural areas, lessons in Buddhism remained mandatory to pass to the next grade level, despite not being a MOES requirement. This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school.

Leaders of the Catholic Church and Seventh-day Adventist Church said Christian officials needed to hide their religion in order to join the LPRP, government, or military and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. Some non-Buddhists identified as Buddhist in their family book (a household registration document), including one Baha’i member who stated that his wife would encounter problems at her employment with a state-owned enterprise if the family identified as Baha’i. Seventh-day Adventist officials continued to say there was a “hidden law” mandating a citizen could not be both a Christian and a member of the LPRP. Other religious groups said it was hard for their members to join the government, advance to higher-level positions, or become village chiefs. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a member of the Church did not receive a promotion from the level of teacher to principal because he was Christian. According to the Methodist Church, some teachers were threatened with firing or denied promotions unless they renounced their faith.

A representative from the NGO Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) said that while conditions for religious freedom had previously improved steadily over the decade up to 2019, the arrest of Christians – and particularly the prolonged detention of Christians without formal charges brought against them – was a concerning development during the year.

According to government sources, due to staff turnover at the provincial and local levels, there were still some officials who were unfamiliar with the provisions and proper application of Decree 315 four years after it entered into effect. LFND and MOHA officials stated they continued to visit areas where religious freedom abuses had reportedly taken place to instruct local authorities on government policy and law and frequently traveled beyond the capital to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations. They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain their obligations under the constitution and the right of all citizens to believe or not to believe. During these sessions, central authorities provided training to provincial LFND and MOHA officials on Decree 315 and other laws governing religion and held workshops with local authorities and religious leaders that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Baha’i Faith, and Islam. Due to funding and capacity constraints, MOHA, with support from IGE, held religious freedom workshops in only four of 18 provinces during the year, compared with 12 in 2019.

At year’s end, MOHA and LFND continued disseminating the March decree that included protection and preservation of traditional burial sites.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to religious leaders, most disputes among religious communities occurred in villages and rural areas where the central government’s ability to enforce national laws was limited.

LEC leaders continued to say that growth in church membership exacerbated tensions within some communities, particularly with villagers who were wary of minority religions. According to one official, majority non-Christian neighbors often harassed new Christian members in these villages for abandoning their traditions, typically Buddhist or animist.

Religious leaders said that in some rural areas, there were again reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from their villages if they did not renounce their faith.

According to RFA, in October, villagers from Pasing Village forced out seven Lao Christians of two households from their homes in Ta-Osey District, Salavan Province, for refusing to renounce their faith. Local sources reported that villagers also damaged their homes and belongings and nailed their doors shut. According to LEC leaders, the families returned to their homes to repair the damage, but remained concerned regarding future conflicts. Villagers later tore down the Christians’ homes; as of year’s end, the Christians remained homeless.

In many villages, religious disputes continued to be referred to government-sanctioned village mediation units comprised of private citizens. According to Christian group leaders, these units often encouraged Christians to compromise their beliefs by accommodating local Buddhist or animist community practices. In dealing with local disputes regarding religious issues, MOHA and LFND officials said they first waited for local authorities to resolve an issue before getting involved. MOHA and LFND officials continued to say their ministries did not have the resources to respond to every conflict.

According to Christian religious leaders, Christians said burial practices remained a contentious issue. In some rural areas, Christians said that they were not allowed to use public cemeteries, were not given land for separate cemeteries, and had to resort to burying their dead on farms or in backyards. A Christian leader said that in some areas, the church was trying to buy land for cemeteries so members would not have to use public cemeteries, and some Christian churches discussed purchasing land together to build Christian cemeteries.

Several religious groups said they provided donations without regard to the religious affiliation of the recipients after floods in the southern provinces of Sekong and Savannakhet occurred in October.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials continued to regularly advocate for religious freedom with a range of government officials, including those responsible for implementing Decree 315, to ensure compliance of the government’s activities with the country’s obligations under the ICCPR and other international instruments to which it was a signatory. In exchanges with MOHA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, and the LFND Religious Affairs Department, embassy officials discussed the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of harassment and prolonged detention. During meetings with National Assembly members and senior government officials, the Ambassador raised the prolonged detention of LEC Pastor Sithon and called for his release. Embassy officers raised concerns with appropriate officials regarding cumbersome procedures, including registration, obtaining advance permission to hold religious services and travel for religious purposes, as well as the government’s efforts to implement Decree 315 at the provincial and local levels.

In February, Department of State officials visited Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet to meet with government officials and representatives from religious groups. They discussed the implementation of Decree 315 and the treatment of certain religious groups by both government and nongovernmental groups.

In October, the Ambassador commemorated the completion of the restoration of Wat Visoun in Luang Prabang and handed over the successful restoration project to the government and residents of Luang Prabang. The Wat Visoun Temple, a center of Buddhist study and worship for more than 500 years and the oldest Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, was restored using $347,000 of U.S. government funding. During the handover ceremony, the Ambassador said, “The work we have done here will help ensure Wat Visoun remains a culturally and spiritually significant site for many years to come.”

Embassy officials regularly met with representatives from different religious and advocacy groups, including the LEC, Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Islamic Association of Laos, the Baha’i community, the Buddhist community, and the IGE to address religious equality concerns, such as registration, Decree 315 administrative requirements, land acquisition, and tensions with local Buddhist and animist communities. The embassy also invited religious leaders and government officials responsible for religious affairs to embassy events, including those focusing on religious freedom and related issues.

The embassy additionally amplified messages promoting religious freedom on its Facebook page, which had more than 350,000 followers.

Latvia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides every person the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and it specifies the separation of church and state. By law, eight “traditional” religious groups (seven Christian groups and Jews) receive rights and privileges other groups do not. The government approved the applications of four new religious groups to register during the year. In October, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on a 2016 religious discrimination case brought by a Jehovah’s Witness family who sought to take their child abroad for surgery in order to avoid a blood transfusion but were refused authorization by the Ministry of Health. The ECJ found religion could be taken into consideration in this case, and the Supreme Court, which had sought the ECJ determination, returned the case to the appellate court, which had denied the family’s appeal of the ministry’s decision. Raivis Zeltits, a member of the National Alliance (NA) political party, who in his writings likened diversity, including religious diversity, to “cultural terrorism,” established a nationalist nongovernmental organization (NGO) with a logo that resembled a stylized swastika. Zeltits denied any association between the NGO’s symbol and the Nazi swastika. According to the annual report of the security police, authorities continued to monitor Muslim community activities but made no interventions during the year. Muslim community members again said they did not feel pressured or singled out by authorities due to their faith. President Egils Levits and other senior government officials attended several Holocaust memorial events throughout the year.

Jewish and Muslim groups cited instances of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech in news articles and on social media. A Muslim community leader said Muslims generally did not feel suppressed or subject to discrimination. In response to COVID-19 restrictions, most of the annual March 16 commemorations of the Latvian Legionnaires who fought in German Waffen-SS units against the Soviet Army in World War II, were canceled. Organizers converted the annual memorial march into a wreath-laying event, which was attended by at least one NA parliamentarian. On November 30, approximately 200 persons lit thousands of candles at the Freedom Monument in Riga in remembrance of Jews massacred by the Nazis in Rumbula Forest in 1941.

In October, the Secretary of State wrote Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics to reiterate the importance of resolving the country’s obligations under the Terezin Declaration. U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with senior government officials and parliamentarians on the importance of religious tolerance and restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community. Embassy officials also engaged with NGOs MARTA Center and Safe House as well as representatives of various religious groups, including the Lutheran Church and the Jewish and Muslim communities, to discuss religious tolerance and acceptance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the Annual Report of Religious Organizations and their Activities published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), based on 2019 data, the largest religious groups are Lutheran (37 percent), Roman Catholic (18 percent), and Latvian Orthodox Christian (13 percent), the latter predominantly native Russian speakers. Thirty-one percent of the population is unaffiliated with any religious group. The Latvian Orthodox Church is a self-governing Eastern Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Central Statistical Bureau reports there are 4,436 persons who identify as Jewish, and the Council of Jewish Communities believes there are around 8,200 persons with Jewish heritage. The Muslim community reports approximately 1,000 Muslims resident in the country, while the MOJ’s report of religious organizations lists 58 active members in three Muslim congregations. Separately, there is a small Ahmadi Muslim community. Other religious groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Old Believers, evangelical Christians, Methodists, Calvinists, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and provides “The church shall be separate from the state.” It allows restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs to protect public safety, welfare, morals, the democratic structure of the state, and others’ rights. The law gives eight “traditional” religious groups – Lutherans, Catholics, Latvian Orthodox Christians, Old Believers, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jews – some rights and privileges not given to other religious groups, including the right to teach religion courses in public schools and the right to officiate at marriages without obtaining a civil marriage license from the MOJ. These eight groups are also the only religious groups represented on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body established by law and chaired by the Prime Minister that meets on an ad hoc basis to comment and provide recommendations on religious issues. These recommendations do not carry the force of law.

Separate laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups. The rights and activities of other religious groups are covered by a law on religious organizations.

Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious groups a number of rights and privileges, including legal status to own property and conduct financial transactions, eligibility to apply for funds for religious building restoration, and tax deductions for donors. Registration also allows religious groups to perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units and to hold services in public places such as parks or public squares, with the agreement of the local government. The law accords the same rights and privileges to the eight traditional religious groups, which it treats as already registered.

Unregistered groups do not possess legal status and may not own property in the name of the group, although individual members may hold property. Unregistered groups may not conduct financial transactions or receive tax-free donations. They may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, or military units and generally may not hold worship services in public places without special permission. The law stipulates fines ranging from 40 to 200 euros ($49 to $250) if an unregistered group carries out any of these activities.

By law, to register as a congregation, a religious group must have at least 20 members age 18 or older. Individuals with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may count as members for the purpose of registration only during the authorized period of their residency permits. To apply, religious groups must submit charters explaining their objectives and activities; a list of all group members (full name, identification number, and signature); the names of the persons who will represent the religious organization; minutes of the meeting founding the group; confirmation that members voted on and approved the statutes; and a list of members of the audit committee (full name, identification number, and title). The audit committee is responsible for preparing financial reports on the group and ensuring it adheres to its statutes. The MOJ determines whether to register a religious group as a congregation. The ministry may deny an application if it deems registration would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, public safety, welfare, or morals. Groups denied registration may appeal the decision in court.

Ten or more congregations with a total of at least 200 members of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association or church. Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish theological schools and monasteries. The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association of a single faith or denomination or of more than one religious group with the same or similar name.

According to the law, all traditional and registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the MOJ by March 1 regarding their activities and goals. They must also provide other data, including congregation size, number of clergy, number of weddings, other ceremonies performed, and details of group governance and financial status.

The law criminalizes hate speech and the incitement of hatred on the basis of religious affiliation but requires legal proof, determined at trial, of substantial harm for conviction. Penalties range from community service or fines to up to three years of imprisonment. Committing a crime for religious reasons may also be considered an aggravating factor at trial.

The government funds required religion and ethics classes in public schools in first through third grade. A school must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold religion classes in any of the eight traditional groups; if such approval is not obtained or if they prefer not to enroll in religion classes, students take courses on general ethics. The Center for Educational Content at the Ministry of Education must review the content of the classes to verify they do not violate freedom of conscience. Starting in fourth grade, religious subjects are incorporated into elective ethics and social science classes. If there is demand, schools are permitted to teach classes on the history of religion. Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.” Other nontraditional religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools. Religion courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved government-certified instructors, usually at the lower grades, to nondenominational Christian teachings or overviews of major world religions by certified teachers who are proposed by a religious group and approved by the Ministry of Education, usually at higher grades. Education guidelines require inclusion of Holocaust education in Latvian history and world history classes, which are mandatory for all students in public schools.

The law establishes an independent Ombudsman’s Office for Human Rights. Its mandate includes helping to resolve cases of religious discrimination through collaboration with authorities. While it does not have enforcement powers, it may issue recommendations to specific authorities. Parliament appoints the ombudsman.

The law stipulates foreign missionaries may be issued a residency permit, hold meetings, and proselytize only if a registered domestic religious group invites them to conduct such activities. Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation, typically from a religious organization, and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology. Religious workers from European Union or Schengen countries do not require visas.

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

Government Practices

During the year, the MOJ approved the applications of four religious groups that applied to register for the first time: the Latvian Orthodox Autonomous Congregation of Riga, St. Alexander Nevsky; the Latvian United Brothers Congregation; the Jurmala Jewish Congregation; and the Christian Congregation “Victory.”

In October, the Supreme Court received a ruling from the ECJ on a 2016 religious discrimination case brought by a Jehovah’s Witness family who sought to take their child to Poland for surgery to avoid a blood transfusion, but the Ministry of Health refused to authorize the trip and the associated expenses. The ECJ’s ruling supported the consideration of religious beliefs in these types of treatment decisions, with exceptions. The ECJ stated that, when considering the requirement for prior authorization for hospital care, “The criteria and the application of those criteria, and individual decisions of refusal to grant prior authorization, must be restricted to what is necessary and proportionate to the objective to be achieved, and may not constitute a means of arbitrary discrimination or an unjustified obstacle to the free movement of patients.” Based on this ruling, the Supreme Court returned the case to the appellate court, which was expected to issue a decision in 2021 regarding whether the health ministry’s decision was restricted to what was necessary and proportionate. A Ministry of Health representative stated that a 2018 policy change better addressed costs for patients choosing treatment outside of the country.

In October, media reported NA member Zeltits established an NGO named Austosa Saule (Rising Sun) with a logo resembling a stylized swastika. He denied the NGO’s symbol was associated with the Nazi swastika. In his writings, Zeltits said Rising Sun was a nationalist movement rather than a political party, with an aim of “mobilizing the nation to defend its interests.” He advocated for Latvian nationalism, criticized neo-Marxism, and likened diversity, including religious diversity, to “cultural terrorism.” Zeltits encouraged members of Rising Sun to join the National Guard, leading news outlets and commentators on social media to express concern regarding the National Guard’s possible radicalization and intolerance towards minority religious groups.

Authorities continued to monitor Muslim community activities, according to the annual report of the security police, but made no interventions during the year. Muslim community members again said they did not feel pressured or singled out by authorities due to their faith.

According to a 2018 report by the NGO National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), the latest available, the country made progress in assessing its role in the Holocaust, and senior government officials expressed their solidarity with the country’s Jewish victims and with Israel. NCSEJ, however, expressed concern over the country’s ultra-nationalist movement.

By year’s end, local Jewish community leaders and parliamentary sponsors did not reintroduce Holocaust property restitution legislation to satisfy the country’s commitments under the 2009 Terezin Declaration.

Public funding continued to support Holocaust education in schools.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, events commemorating the Holocaust were smaller than in previous years. President Egils Levits and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, attended Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre commemoration. Officials held a smaller, socially distanced public event in July to commemorate the 1941 burning of the Great Choral Synagogue with victims inside. The President, Speaker of Parliament, and Prime Minister participated in the silent vigil and flower-laying ceremony at the memorial stone of the victims of the Holocaust.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Riga Jewish Community executive director Gita Umanovska and Jews of Latvia Museum director Ilya Lensky said anti-Semitic hate speech that appeared during the year was mostly in the form of posts on social media and comments in news articles, although no one reported such incidents to the police. Sources stated the level of online anti-Semitic hate speech appeared anecdotally to be similar to that of previous years. In June, one online commenter wrote, “Who would pay for the millions of executed people in USSR – most of the executors were Jews and their crossbreeds.” In June, another online commenter wrote, “The Jews even earn using the Holocaust. Everyone knows – Zionism is the root of Nazism and Fascism.”

Some hate speech characterized as racist or anti-Muslim appeared on social media and the internet during the year, mostly in individual posts and comments in news articles. For example, in February, one site had the comment, “Ragheads will rarely go and work in a normal job; these Pakistani kebabs think only about how to deceive Christians, who only bow in front of ragheads.”

In response to COVID-19 restrictions, most of the annual March 16 commemorations of the Latvian Legionnaires, who fought in German Waffen-SS units against the Soviet Army in World War II, were canceled. Organizers converted the annual memorial march into a wreath-laying event. As in recent years, turnout continued to decline; however, at least one parliamentarian, Janis Iesalnieks from the NA, attended and posted a picture of the event on social media. According to media and police reports, the event has received less attention each year and was generally viewed as a commemoration of national identity and remembrance of those who fought for independence, rather than as a glorification of Nazism. NA chairman Raivis Dzintars aired a short film on television portraying Legionnaire actions as defending the country and made no mention of Nazis.

On November 30, approximately 200 persons lit thousands of candles at the Freedom Monument in Riga in memory of the approximately 30,000 Jews killed in the Rumbula Forest by the Nazis in 1941. A separate Rumbula Forest memorial service on November 30 was well attended, including by President Levits’s chief of staff, Andris Teikmanis, members of the diplomatic corps, leaders in the Jewish community, and religious leaders.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In October, the Secretary of State wrote Foreign Minister Rinkevics to reiterate the importance of resolving the country’s obligations under the 2009 Terezin Declaration.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged in regular discussions with senior government officials, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the MOJ, the Office of the Ombudsman, and with members of parliament, on the importance of restoring property expropriated by Soviets and Nazis to the Jewish community by passing a restitution bill satisfying the country’s commitments under the Terezin Declaration.

Embassy staff met with leaders of the Lutheran Church, as well as representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities, to discuss religious tolerance and acceptance in the country. Staff also met with the MARTA Center, which works with immigrant women, including those who might be at risk of victimization as a result of their religious beliefs. Embassy staff also engaged representatives of Safe House, which assists with transition support and education for immigrants and refugees, many of whom are of minority faiths.

In response to COVID-19 restrictions, the embassy extended a grant until 2021 to fund a project with the Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum to support an exhibit, originally scheduled to take place during the year, with paintings and diary fragments of a Latvian-born Jewish-American artist, focusing on his experience surviving the Holocaust in the country and his later life in a New York City Latvian enclave.

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 March 9, President Michel Aoun publicly expressed support for a unified personal status law as part of the civil code to replace current personal status laws, which are based on religious affiliation, but no legislation was drafted or considered. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) questioned journalist and activist Nidal Ayoub on January 7 in relation to posters she carried during protests with slogans such as “God is great but the revolution is greater.” Authorities released Ayoub after questioning. On June 23, the Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor of the Appeals Court pressed charges against anti-Hizballah Shia cleric Sayyed Ali al-Amine, accusing him of “attacking the resistance and its martyrs,” “inciting strife among sects,” “violating the legal rules of the Shia sect,” and for meeting with Israeli officials at a conference in Bahrain. Authorities postponed al-Amine’s hearing until January 15, 2021. On November 13, a young man attacked the muezzin of the Sultan Abdel Majid bin Adham mosque in Jbeil, prompting condemnation from across the religious and political spectrum. Authorities detained the attacker the same day. On April 16, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Military Intelligence Bureau detained activist Michel Chamoun for posting a video in which he criticized Maronite Patriarch Rai. Authorities later released Chamoun after the Patriarch said he did not want the matter pursued. 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, continued to exercise control over some territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut, parts of the Bekaa valley, and southern areas of the country, which are predominantly Shia Muslim. Hizballah supporters clashed with other Shia groups, including members of the Amal Movement, and with Sunnis in Loubye, Nabaa, and Khalde around the Ashura holiday over the hanging of banners, resulting in three deaths and multiple injuries. In a June 18 report, Teaching Antisemitism and Terrorism in Hezbollah Schools, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that textbooks used in schools run by Hizballah’s education branch “are filled with systematic and egregious incitement to antisemitism and support for terrorism.”

Shia and Sunni protesters clashed in Beirut on June 6. Two persons were injured during the clashes and Shia protesters, mostly supporters of Amal and Hizballah, led chants disparaging the Prophet Mohammed’s wife, Aisha. The Jewish Community Council reported that dumping of trash and rubble at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon continued during the year. 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, 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 5.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). 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. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East estimates there are more than 180,000 currently in the country.

Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 67.8 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (31.9 percent Sunni, 31.2 percent Shia, and small percentages of Alawites and Ismailis). Statistics Lebanon estimates 32.4 percent of the population is Christian. Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group, followed by Greek Orthodox. 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, 4.5 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 refugees from Syria 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 12,200 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees in the country. Refugees and foreign migrants from Iraq include mostly Sunni Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Chaldeans. 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 same NGO, the majority of Iraqi Christian refugees are not registered with UNHCR and so are not included in their count. The NGO noted that the population size of Iraqi Christians had decreased by 60 percent since 2019, largely because of emigration driven by the country’s economic crisis.

Persons from all religious groups emigrated 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 4 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 newly joined 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 jail 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 ISF’s Cybercrimes Bureau for further investigation, which 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 accord 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 groups 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. 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.

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 sometimes 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 agreement is neither an official component of the constitution nor a formally binding 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

The ISF’s Cybercrimes Bureau questioned journalist and activist Nidal Ayoub on January 7 about posters she carried during protests with slogans such as “God is great but the revolution is greater.” Authorities released Ayoub after questioning.

On June 23, 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 September 18 but postponed it to January 15, 2021.

On November 13, a young man assaulted the muezzin of the Sultan Abdel Majid bin Adham mosque in the town of Jbeil. The LAF Military Intelligence Bureau arrested the perpetrator the same day and referred him to the ISF for investigation. The LAF Military Intelligence Bureau issued a statement reporting that the incident was a personal dispute that led to the injury of the muezzin. Jbeil Sunni Mufti Sheikh Ghassan Laqqis condemned the attack and described it as “brutal,” while the press office of the Jbeil Maronite Archbishopric issued a statement saying, “Jbeil will remain a city of coexistence.” Grand Mufti of the Republic Abdel Latif Derian called on authorities to investigate and reveal what happened. The Prime Minister-designate and other political figures condemned the attack and stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence between religious groups.

On April 16, the LAF Military Intelligence Bureau detained activist Michel Chamoun for posting a video in which he criticized Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai and asked him to use the Church’s funds to help the poor during the difficult economic situation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities later released Chamoun after the Patriarch said he did not want the matter pursued.

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 said this had more to do with the lack of film releases in the country due to prevailing economic and social circumstances rather than 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 government again failed to take action 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). Additionally, 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 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 council’s lawyer reported that the MOI official told him they were “not prepared to sign anything for the Jews.”

Jewish community representatives reported that the MOI delayed the verification of the results of the Jewish Community Council’s election of members that occurs every six years. 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, with no success. The council blamed its official name in part for the difficulties experienced with renewals every six years. The issue continued as of November 17, when 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 December 31, the case had not been referred to the judiciary.

Non-Maronite Christian groups reiterated criticisms made following the May 2018 parliamentary election that the government had made little progress toward the Taif Agreement’s goal of eliminating political sectarianism in favor of “expertise and competence.” Members of these groups, which include Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, and Chaldeans, among others, said the fact that the government allotted them only one of the 64 Christian seats in parliament constituted government discrimination. The Syriac League and other organizations such as the Syriac Union Party continued to call for more representation for non-Maronite and non-Greek Orthodox Christians in cabinet positions, parliament, and high-level civil service positions, typically held by members of the larger Christian religious groups. During protests that occurred across the country beginning in 2019, some of the protesters, religious figures, and politicians began calling for an electoral law that was not based on religious affiliation. In August, shortly before a visit from French President Emmanuel Macron, who was expected to encourage governmental reform, President Aoun publicly called for a secular state.

Some women’s rights advocates who helped lead the protests highlighted the absence of a civil code governing issues of personal status and objected to the country’s reliance on gender-discriminatory family codes adjudicated solely by religious courts.

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.

On March 9, President Aoun publicly expressed support for a unified personal status law as part of the civil code to replace current personal status laws, which are based on religious affiliation, but no legislation was drafted or considered.

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. During the year, the MOI took no action on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that awaited registration with the ministry since 2013.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Shia and Sunni protesters clashed during wider demonstrations against official corruption and failed economic policies in Beirut on June 6. Two persons were injured during the clashes, and Shia protesters, mostly supporters of Amal and Hizballah, led chants disparaging the Prophet Mohammed’s wife, Aisha. Political and religious figures including President Aoun, Amal chief and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and head of the Shia Higher Islamic Council Sheikh Abdul-Amir Qabalan spoke out strongly against the religious slurs. A group of 43 Shia intellectuals also released a statement denouncing the sectarian slogans and stressing that sectarian behavior was part of a “petty policy that feeds on divisions and discord.”

The Jewish Community Council restored and cleaned the Sidon cemetery at the end of 2019 after a municipality permit was issued to the council following several years of administrative inaction after acts of vandalism damaged the cemetery in 2018 and in previous years. During 2020, the council hired a custodian to maintain the cemetery. The council’s 2011 lawsuit against individuals who constructed buildings in the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli continued, pending additional court-ordered analysis of the site, and was unresolved by year’s end. During the year, dumping of rubble continued in the Jewish cemetery in Beirut despite the fact the council submitted a formal complaint to the municipality of Beirut in 2019. The council did not receive a response to this complaint.

On February 8, singer Ali al-Attar uploaded a performance of a song titled “We will Pray in Jerusalem” to YouTube and Facebook. The lyrics of the song included a verse that said, “There will be no trace of Zionism left on the land …, the final war will soon be waged upon the land, and Zionism will suffer the most horrible holocaust […], in Israel the temple will be destroyed when we meet, and the Star of David will be buried in the ground.”

On March 29, during an interview on OTV channel, associated with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) political party, political satirist Charbel Khalil said, “Personally, I believe that atheism is the religion of donkeys. I see atheists as donkeys.”

According to press reports, May Khoreiche, a senior FPM official, tweeted a recommendation for the book, The Last Days of Mohammed. This led the Dar al-Fatwa, the country’s highest Sunni religious authority, to state that it “regretted and condemned” the publicity that Khoreiche created for the work, saying that the tweet endangered “civil peace and coexistence.” The Dar al-Fatwa demanded an official apology for the tweet’s “blasphemous” message, saying it “violated” the country’s constitution. A group of Muslim lawyers transmitted an information note to the prosecutor of the Court of Cassation, describing the tweet as an “incitement to discord” and a “mockery of the sacred” and calling for the arrest of its author. A member of parliament said that those who recommended the book were “blind fanatics” who “persecute Islam”; another said the book was “an attack on the sacred truths of Islam.” In response, Khoreiche apologized for the tweet, saying she respected all faiths and had no desire to attack the Prophet Mohammed. She deleted the tweet and reiterated her support for diversity and freedom.

The press reported that in a series of Sunday sermons, Maronite Patriarch Rai appeared to criticize Hizballah. He stressed the need to maintain the country’s neutrality beyond the current policy of distancing the country from regional conflicts and the current sharing of political power among its religious groups. Observers said they interpreted Rai’s comments as an implicit criticism of Hizballah’s support for Iran. The Patriarch also called for the disarming of militias and state control of ports and weaponry. Without mentioning them specifically, Rai singled out Shia parties’ insistence on retaining the finance portfolio in any new government as being responsible for blocking government formation and for causing the country’s continuing political paralysis. The Shia Supreme Islamic Council, without naming Rai, said that comments by a “major religious leader” amounted to “sectarian incitement that stirs up bigotry and distorts the facts.”

Religious leaders stated relationships among individual members of different religious groups remained amicable. During a September 3-4 visit of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Muslim and Christian religious leaders gathered with him at St. George Cathedral and the al-Amine Mosque in downtown Beirut for interfaith prayers.

At year’s end, approximately 70 percent of students, not including students from the refugee population, attended private schools, many of which were tied to religiously based organizations. These include schools subsidized by the government. The schools generally continued to accommodate students from other religious and minority groups.

Local pluralism and religious freedom NGO Adyan Foundation initiated a project titled “Women, Religions, and Human Rights in Lebanon.” The project’s stated long-term objective was to end discrimination against women through reforms that would amend the country’s laws by altering or ending the role played by religious communities and their courts in personal status issues.

During the year, Adyan published the results of a 2019 survey conducted with Peace Labs on the attitude and views of the country’s youth towards sectarianism. More than half of respondents stated that they considered themselves to be religious, but the vast majority also said that their religious views were a personal matter between them and God and did not affect their attitude and relationship with others. The survey showed that approximately 82 percent of Alawites, 67 percent of Sunnis, and 63 percent of Shia considered themselves religious, compared with approximately 50 percent of Maronite, Orthodox, and Greek Catholic respondents. Sixty-seven percent of respondents of all faiths supported mixed marriages between Muslims and Christians.

In partnership with the German organization Kinder Mission, in 2018 Adyan launched the Alwan Junior Program for students in grades three and four to introduce education on religious diversity at an early age. During the year, Adyan implemented the program in 19 schools, reaching 1,482 students.

According to the NGO Middle East Media Research Institute, Hizb ut-Tahrir preacher Ahmad al-Qasas in a January 31 televised sermon said that the Prophet Mohamed “had predicted that the Jews will fight the Muslims, but that the Muslims will kill the Jews until they hide behind rocks and trees, which will call out to the Muslims to kill the Jews hiding behind them.” He added that the Jews are “the most cowardly of God’s creations” who do not live lives of “honor and glory.” The International Crisis Group describes Hizb ut-Tahrir as a political party whose ideology is based on Islam and whose views “are highly radical, advocating the overthrow of governments throughout the Muslim world and their replacement by an Islamic state in the form of a recreated Caliphate.”

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, DC and released in November, 84 percent of respondents in Lebanon either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” among the highest in the region, which compared with 65 percent region-wide.

In a regional poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 30 percent of Lebanese citizens ages 18 to 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor in their personal identity, compared with 40 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

In a poll conducted by the Pew Trust in the second half of 2019 and released in July, 72 percent of respondents in the country agreed that “Belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values,” with the median result for the 34 countries included in the survey at 45 percent. Ninety-two percent of respondents said that religion was “somewhat important” or “very important,” compared with 47 percent of those included in the overall survey.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to engage government officials on the need to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious groups.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently met with individual politicians representing different religious groups to discuss their views, including on relations with other religious groups, and to promote religious tolerance.

The Ambassador met on multiple occasions throughout the year with the leadership of the Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian communities to promote interfaith dialogue and urge them to take steps to counter violent extremism. Embassy officers often met with civil society representatives to convey similar messages.

On February 20, the embassy hosted an event on religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue that brought together 24 youth leaders from across the religious spectrum for discussions on religious freedom and tolerance.

In March, embassy officials met with Chaldean Bishop of Beirut Michel Kassarji to explore opportunities for enhanced engagement and to identify steps to improve the eparchy’s communication and cooperation in providing assistance from international agencies, including UNHCR.

The embassy’s six-year Building Alliances for Local Advancement, Development, and Investment – Capacity Building program worked with 12 faith-based organizations affiliated with Sunni, Druze, Alawite, Chaldean, Maronite, Catholic, and Protestant religious groups to build their organizational capacity and improve their financial management capabilities, internal administrative systems, and governance structures so they could better support their communities. The Acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and embassy officials met with religious leaders associated with the program in Beirut on August 11 to discuss the impact of the August 4 Beirut Port explosion on their communities.

During the year, as the Jewish Community Council faced delay in the government’s verification of the election of its members, the embassy worked with the MOI to renew the council’s mandate, allowing it to continue to function.

The embassy continued for the 10th consecutive year to fund and manage a scholarship program at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University that brings together religiously and geographically diverse students to increase their understanding of religious diversity. Nearly 740 religiously diverse students from 42 high schools participated during the year. Students from a variety of religious backgrounds also collaborated to develop and lead community service projects serving geographically and religiously diverse communities across the country as part of a project that directly served more than 4,000 high school students since 2007.

For the 10th consecutive year, the embassy continued a program sponsoring several students between the ages of 18 and 25 to participate in a five-week visitor exchange program at Temple University, where they learned about religious pluralism in the United States, visited places of worship, and participated in related cultural activities. The program was cancelled for the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic after funding was allocated but before the student lists were finalized.

Lesotho

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief and to manifest and propagate one’s religion. On January 10, the Christian Council of Lesotho (CCL), an umbrella organization of seven Christian churches, said in a statement that there was a risk that the government and security agencies would not respect the rule of law during a period of political change leading to the May 11 collapse of the ruling coalition. The government did not publicly respond to the statement. On August 10, in response to the continued ban on in-person religious services as part of the government’s efforts to combat COVID-19, the Council of Pentecostal Churches of Lesotho publicly stated “the church is not a super spreader” like shopping malls and other businesses, which had been allowed to reopen, and the government should permit religious services to resume. On August 30, the government announced churches could hold services in groups of no more than 50 persons indoors and 100 persons outdoors. The government continued to provide extensive support for schools operated by religious groups, including paying and certifying all teachers.

While religious leaders said in general there was broad religious tolerance and respect in the country, some government and private sector representatives occasionally expressed distrust of business owners of South Asian origin, many of whom were Muslim. Some government and security-sector officials said they were concerned about the growth of Islamic religious practices in urban areas. Some colleagues of these officials, however, dismissed such concerns as fearmongering.

The U.S. embassy continued to maintain regular contact with religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and the need to prevent discrimination against adherents of the country’s growing minority religions, particularly Islam.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the CCL, approximately 90 percent of the population is Christian. An Afrobarometer February-March survey estimated the Christian population to be 95 percent or higher. The survey found that Protestants, including Anglicans, evangelical Christians, Methodists, members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Pentecostals, Christian Zionists, Baptists, and members of the Church of Christ represent 52 percent of the population, and Roman Catholics 41 percent. The rest of the country’s residents are Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, belong to indigenous or other religious groups, or are nonbelievers. Many Christians practice traditional indigenous rituals in conjunction with Christianity. There is a small number of Jews, most of whom are not citizens, and a small number of Muslims, who live primarily in the northern area of the country and in the capital.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief, and to manifest and propagate one’s religion. These rights may be limited by laws in the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or protecting the rights of other persons, provided the limitations are the minimum necessary.

The government has no established requirements for recognition of religious groups. By law, any group, religious or otherwise, may register as a legal entity with the government, regardless of its purpose, as long as it has a constitution and a leadership committee. Most religious groups register, but there is no penalty for those that do not. Registration gives a group legal standing, formalizes its structure under the law, and provides exemption from income tax. In the absence of registration, religious organizations may operate freely, but without legal standing or any of the protections of registered organizations.

The education ministry pays and certifies all teachers at government-funded schools, including religious schools, and requires a standard curriculum for both secular and religious schools. The government permits but does not mandate religious education in schools, and the constitution exempts students at any educational institution from requirements to receive instruction or attend any ceremony or observance associated with a religion that is not their own. The Minister of Education must approve all curricula, including for religious education classes. The law does not prohibit or restrict schools run by religious organizations. Other than the constitutional provision barring discrimination, there is no specific law requiring religious schools to accept children not of the school’s denomination.

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

Government Practices

On January 10, the CCL, which represents the largest Christian groups, said in a statement that there was a risk the government and security agencies would not respect the rule of law during a period of political change leading to the May 11 collapse of the ruling coalition. The government did not take any action in response to the CCL statement.

On August 10, in response to the continued ban on in-person religious services as part of the government’s efforts to combat COVID-19, the Council of Pentecostal Churches of Lesotho publicly stated “the church is not a super spreader” like shopping malls and other businesses, which had been allowed to reopen, and the government should permit religious services to resume. On August 30, the government announced churches could hold services in groups of no more than 50 persons indoors and 100 persons outdoors.

During the year, churches owned and operated 83 percent of all primary and 66 percent of all secondary schools. The Roman Catholic Church, Lesotho Evangelical Church, Anglican Church, and, to a lesser extent, Methodist Church were the primary operators of religious schools, which were publicly funded.

In practice, in any school offering religious education – including all religious schools and some secular schools – the subject was mandatory, according to parents and teachers. Despite the constitution granting the ability for students to opt out, there were no reports of students electing to do so.

The government continued to permit families to send their children to schools run by a religious group other than their own, and some families chose this option. Others went to public schools or secular private schools.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

While religious and civil society leaders said in general there was broad religious tolerance and respect in the country, some government and private-sector representatives occasionally expressed distrust of business owners of South Asian origin, many of whom were Muslim. A few government and security-sector officials said they were concerned about the growth of Islamic religious practices in urban areas. Some colleagues of these officials dismissed such concerns as fearmongering.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy discussed religious tolerance and the need to prevent discrimination against religious minorities, particularly the country’s small but growing Muslim community, with government, religious, and civil society leaders. Embassy staff also maintained regular contact with religious leaders, including leaders of minority religious communities.

Liberia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state and stipulates all persons are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, except as required by law to protect public safety, order, health, morals, or the rights of others. It also provides for equal protection under the law and prohibits religious tests for office and the establishment of a state religion. Religious leaders urged the government to engage religious communities in proactive dialogue on social issues, rather than calling upon religious organizations as mediators as a last resort after problems develop. Religious leaders continued to express willingness to mediate in conflict situations as an extension of their proactive dialogue on social issues. In March, following consultation with the Liberian Council of Churches (LCC), the Minister of Health closed churches and mosques along with schools and businesses in two counties under a national health emergency as part of the country’s COVID-19 response. In April, the President expanded the closures nationwide after declaring a three-week renewable national state of emergency. Some Christian religious groups initially resisted the closure. Police were called in to enforce the order to close houses of worship and arrested some Christian worshippers before the closure measures were later eased in May. Muslim groups continued to call on the legislature to pass a law recognizing Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays.

In February, police in Kakata, Margibi County, arrested and charged a Christian “prayer woman,” Yamah Yango, with manslaughter for allegedly beating to death her eight-year-old nephew, Tom Yango, following his refusal to continue with three days of fasting and prayer “to cleanse him of evil spirits.” At the request of local residents, in August, in Picnicess District of Grand Kru County, County Superintendent Doris N. Ylatun invited traditional herbalist Tamba Bundoo to “cleanse” Chenakaleh of witchcraft believed to have caused the death or disappearance of approximately 50 individuals over two years. His activities were halted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in early September following complaints. More than a hundred local citizens then staged a peaceful demonstration on September 3 seeking the resumption of Bundoo’s activities by marching to the administration building in Barclayville to present their petition to the local authority of Grand Kru County.

U.S. embassy officials engaged with government officials, including the President’s religious advisors and members of the legislature, to promote interfaith dialogue and to stress U.S. government support of religious freedom and tolerance in connection with issues relating to historical accountability, land disputes, and ethnic tensions. Embassy officials additionally promoted religious freedom and tolerance across society through outreach to religious leaders and communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2008 National Population and Housing Census, which remains the most recent available, the population is 85.6 percent Christian, 12.2 percent Muslim, 1.5 percent persons who claim no religion, 0.6 percent adherents of indigenous religious beliefs, and less than 1 percent members of other religious groups, including Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Muslim organizations continued to dispute these official statistics, stating that Muslims constitute up to 20 percent of the population and calling for the government to conduct a new census, which is expected to take place in 2021.

Christian churches include the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Baptist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Episcopal, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, United Methodist, and a variety of Pentecostal churches. Many members of religious groups also incorporate elements of indigenous beliefs and customs into their religious practices.

Christians reside throughout the country. Muslims belonging to the Mandingo and Fula ethnic groups reside throughout the country, while Muslims of the Vai ethnic group live predominantly in the west. The Poro (for males) and Sande (for females) societies – often referred to as secret societies – combine traditional religious and cultural practices and are present in the northern, western, and central regions of the country. Other traditional cultural and religious societies, including the Kui Society and the Bodio, or priests of the Gleebo people, exist in the southeast.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state and stipulates all persons are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It states no one shall be hindered in the exercise of these rights except as required by law to protect public safety, order, health, morals, or the rights of others. It provides for equal protection under the law and prohibits political parties that exclude citizens from membership based on religious affiliation. It also states no religious group should have exclusive privileges or preferences and that the country should establish no state religion.

The government requires all religious groups, except for indigenous ones that generally operate under customary law, to register their articles of incorporation and their organizations’ statements of purpose.

Local religious organizations register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and pay a one-time fee of 10,500 Liberian dollars ($64) to file their articles of incorporation and an annual fee of 3,500 Liberian dollars ($21) for registration. Foreign religious organizations pay 84,000 Liberian dollars ($520) for registration annually and a one-time fee of 105,000 Liberian dollars ($640) to file their articles of incorporation. Religious organizations also pay 1,800 to 2,700 Liberian dollars ($11-$17) to notarize articles of incorporation to be filed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an additional 1,000 Liberian dollars ($6) to receive a registered copy of the articles. The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning issues proof of accreditation for the articles of incorporation. There is also an option of completing the same process at the Liberia Business Registry. Some religious organizations report being charged registration fees for each of their individual locations throughout the country, as per a government regulation issued two years ago.

Registered religious organizations, including missionary programs, religious charities, and religious groups, receive income tax exemptions and duty-free privileges on goods brought into the country, privileges not afforded to unregistered groups. Registered groups may be sued as a single entity separately from any lawsuits brought against individual owners.

The law requires high-level government officials to take an oath ending with the phrase, “So help me, God,” when assuming office. It is customary for Christians to kiss the Bible, and Muslims the Quran on those occasions.

Public schools offer nonsectarian religious and moral education as part of the standard curriculum, which includes an overview and history of various religious traditions and an emphasis on moral values.

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

Government Practices

In March, Minister of Health Wilhelmina S. Jallah declared a national health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic and designated as infected areas two of the country’s 15 counties, Montserrado (where the capital Monrovia is located) and Margibi. She then imposed a lockdown that closed places of worship as well as schools and businesses. The government allowed places of worship to reopen on May 15. The Muslim and the small Baha’i communities generally adhered to the government’s closure of places of worship, but according to the head of the LLC, some Christian religious groups resisted the measure. The Bahaʼi Spiritual Assembly, in keeping with the ban, suspended its New Year’s celebration, which was scheduled for March 19 and 20, and the National Muslim Council suspended all religious activities at mosques. The LCC, however, noted that during negotiations with the government before the lockdown, there was agreement that churches or other places of worship would not have to close but would only reduce overcrowding and observe other rules related to social distancing. Places of worship were ultimately required to close, but sources stated that the determination initially came as a surprise to the LCC, as negotiations before the closure were mainly about overcrowding.

On March 22, according to media reports, police inspector general Colonel Patrick Toe Sudue and several police officers raided the church of Senator Prince Yormie Johnson, pastor of the Chapel of Faith Ministries and an accused war criminal. They entered during a service and attempted to enforce the government’s COVID-19 restrictions and convince worshippers to leave. Johnson refused to halt the service, stating that the legislature remained open while houses of worship were being forced to close. Police threatened to arrest him if he held services the following week. The senator ended his March 22 church service early and did not hold a service the next week.

On March 26, a large group of worshippers of the Saint Assembly Church in the Old Road community in Monrovia gathered on a field and clustered together to worship and “pray for the nation.” According to media reports, members of the group refused to obey police, who used loudspeakers to tell the group to disperse. The police arrested some members but did not succeed in dispersing those assembled. It was reported that Saint Assembly worshipers also ignored a team from the LCC dispatched to the field to assist police with dispersing them. The worshippers eventually left, and the next morning, police took control of the field in which the church members had gathered.

In March 2019, President George Weah appointed Usmane T. Jalloh as the country’s first official Muslim religious advisor, to serve alongside two Christian advisors and to advise the President on issues relating to the Muslim community. On October 28, Jalloh stated that his office had worked out all the necessary modalities with the President’s office for the two religions to live together in harmony. For example, he pointed out that the government had agreed that for official programs, if the opening prayer is delivered by Christian, then a Muslim will perform the closing prayer. In June 2019, the government, for the first time, granted leave to Muslim civil servants to observe Eid al-Fitr.

Muslim organizations said they welcomed the President’s appointment of a Muslim religious advisor and the granting of paid leave. The organizations, however, continued to call for official recognition or observance of major Islamic religious holidays and cited Christmas and Fast and Prayer Day, which falls near Good Friday, as examples of officially recognized Christian holidays. Muslim organizations have advocated for recognition of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays since 1995. On May 24, at the end of Eid al-Fitr, Sheik Ali Krayee, Chief Imam of the Republic of Liberia and the head of the National Imam Council of Liberia (NICOL), called for legislation making Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha public holidays for Muslims a “social right.” The Chief Imam said Muslims should not support political candidates who did not support the legislation and promised that the Muslim community in the country would mount pressure for an Islamic holiday after the upcoming special senatorial election.

In response to Muslim demands for the legislature to enact into law the two holidays, the Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, Jensen Seyenkulo, quoted in the Liberian Observer newspaper on May 27, stated that Christmas and Easter are celebrated worldwide and are not legislated in the country. He said that Fast and Prayer Day cut across every religion in the country and was not restricted to one religion and therefore was not a Christian holiday.

On August 4, dozens of Muslims, under the banner “Movement for Islamic Holidays in Liberia,” also petitioned the legislature to recognize Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays. According to spokesperson Ayoubah Dauda Swaray, the group was composed of 20 Islamic organizations, mostly youth driven, with members mainly from Montserrado and Margibi Counties. Swaray noted that the group had the endorsement of the National Muslim Council of Liberia and the National Imam Council of Liberia. According to Swaray, the petition stated that several Christian holidays are celebrated as national holidays, but there are no recognized Muslim holidays. According to Swaray, this lack of recognition marginalized the Muslim community. In receiving the petition, the chairman of the House Committee on Claims and Petition, Representative Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis, thanked the group for its peaceful assembly and assured them of legislators’ commitment to look through the matter and promised to present their request to the plenary for possible action. She also stated that, because the country is a secular state and there have been no religious holidays passed into law, the legislature would have to consider the request diligently before making any decision.

Members of the Muslim and Bahaʼí communities working in government or public positions said government agencies continued to be reluctant to grant time off to observe other religions’ holidays.

Religious leaders recommended the government engage religious communities in proactive dialogue on social and other issues, such as COVID-19 awareness, political violence and disputes, and economic development, rather than calling upon religious organizations as mediators only after problems develop. On several occasions, as in the previous year, the Interreligious Council of Liberia (IRCL) called for and facilitated dialogue between the government and some opposition figures.

On July 30, when opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) leader Alexander Cummings and Representative Yekeh Kolubah were attacked by an angry mob in Grand Gedeh County for their criticisms of the Weah presidency, LCC Secretary General Christopher Toe said the LCC wanted to be a part of the mediating team but was hampered by financial and logistical considerations. As a result, the LCC called for financial support from the government and partners.

The LCC held discussions with authorities of the University of Liberia and representatives of student groups from the university and from the African Methodist Episcopal University, who staged a protest on August 17 against a mandatory eLearning platform for instruction launched by the universities due to the COVD-19 outbreak. The students wanted the platform to be made optional. They threatened mass protests and demanded the reopening of the university campuses in order to return to a more traditional style of learning. On September 15, the University of Liberia dean of student affairs announced that the state-run university would resume normal learning activities once the necessary health protocols prescribed by the Commission on Higher Education were met at the university. Following the LCC intervention, the students accepted this outcome.

On May 14, the LCC, together with National Muslim Council of Liberia and the Traditional Council of Liberia, mediated a conflict between the Council of Patriots, a prodemocracy movement, and the Liberia Business Registry. The dispute centered on the refusal of the latter to grant the Council of Patriots’ legal registration status due to what many members of the public saw as pressure from the government.

According to Muslim religious leaders, the government continued to employ a disproportionate number of Christian chaplains relative to Muslim chaplains in government institutions when compared with the religious demographics of the country. The government reportedly employed only two Muslim chaplains, one in the armed forces and one in the Supreme Court. In contrast, each of the 19 ministries reportedly had a Christian chaplain, while the Senate had five and the House of Representatives had two. Christian chaplains frequently read Christian prayers before starting official business.

The government continued to subsidize private schools, most of which were affiliated with Christian and Muslim organizations. The government provided subsidies to schools based on need through an application process, although Muslim leaders continued to say the subsidies disproportionately favored Christian schools

Human rights organizations continued to call upon the government to intervene in and investigate cases of persons who were injured or killed due to accusations of witchcraft, exorcisms, and trials by ordeal.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Human rights organizations noted an increase over the course of several years in harmful traditional practices, including accusations of witchcraft, ritualistic killings, and other violent practices, including female genital mutilation, within traditional secret societies such as the Sande Society for girls.

In February, police in Kakata, Margibi County, arrested and charged a Christian “prayer woman,” identified as Yamah Yango, with manslaughter for allegedly beating to death her eight-year-old nephew, Tom Yango. The incident occurred in the Madena community after the child reportedly refused to continue a three-day period of fasting and prayer imposed by his aunt as part of a ritual to “cleanse him of evil spirits.” Yango was being held at the Kakata Central Prison while awaiting trial at the judiciary circuit court in Margibi County.

In July, according to local media, residents of Chenakaleh in the Picnicess District of Grand Kru County asked local officials to employ a traditional herbalist to “cleanse” the area of witchcraft. The residents reportedly said that at least 50 individuals who had disappeared over approximately two years had been abducted for “ritualist purposes,” including a Catholic brother from the Picnicess District, Joseph Nyenplue, who disappeared in June on a fishing trip. In August, Grand Kru County superintendent Doris N. Ylatun invited traditional herbalist Tamba Bundoo to “cleanse” Chenakaleh of “witchcraft and wizardry activities,” but the Ministry of Internal Affairs halted Bundoo’s activities in early September due to complaints of “primitive justice” being administered. On September 3, hundreds of citizens demonstrated to urge the resumption of Bundoo’s activities.

A wide variety of Christian, Muslim, and interfaith organizations worked throughout the year to promote tolerance, dialogue, and conflict resolution through training sessions, workshops, and community meetings. The LCC and the National Muslim Council met and participated in the IRCL, the country’s foremost interfaith organization. In addition, the LCC held several workshops and outreach events on social issues with government agencies and international partners. For example, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, in July, the LCC held a meeting with the head of the COVID-19 Household Food Support Program to review the performance of food distribution. In October, the LCC organized a consultative meeting with political parties, the National Elections Commission, and other stakeholders to address what the LCC described as strengthening peace, security, and democracy in Liberia.

In July, the LCC hosted a consultation with the leadership of the COVID-19 Household Food Support Program (COHFSP), led by the Minister of Commerce and the World Food Program, to review the performance of the government-initiated food distribution program. Following the consultation, the subcommittee on food distribution of COHFSP held a working meeting with the LCC and proposed steps to ensure the peaceful distribution of emergency food relief assistance to vulnerable citizens and residents combating the pandemic.

In October, the LCC held consultations with the leadership of the country’s largest opposition political bloc, the CPP, on a planned nationwide protest action for electoral reform involving cleaning up voter rolls prior to the December 8 senatorial elections. The CPP suspended the planned protest while the LCC continued to work with stakeholders to address some of the concerns raised.

On June 18, with the support of UNICEF and in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the National Public Health Institute, the IRCL began an interfaith effort to train 510 field workers from Christian and Muslim communities to implement its “faith-based action plan” to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in several counties, including Bomi, Bong, Grand Bassa, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Nimba, Margibi, and Montserrado.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with government officials, including the President’s religious advisors and members of the legislature, to promote interfaith dialogue and to stress U.S. government support of religious freedom and tolerance in connection with issues relating to historical accountability, land disputes, and ethnic tensions.

Embassy officers regularly met with a variety of civil society and religious figures, including representatives of Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, and traditional religious groups, to discuss tolerance and the importance of religious leaders and adherents working to bring communities together.

The embassy worked with influential religious leaders to emphasize peaceful reconciliation practices as the country continued to cope with the long-lasting effects of its civil wars.

Libya

Executive Summary

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution and states that Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation. The activities of non-Muslims remained curtailed by legal prohibitions on the distribution or publication of information aimed at changing the country’s “social structure,” which were used to ban circulation of non-Islamic religious materials, missionary activity, or speech considered “offensive to Muslims.” The criminal code effectively prohibits conversion from Islam, according to scholars and human rights advocates. According to one press report, the Rada Special Deterrence Forces (SDF), a militia nominally aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Human rights activists said freedom of conscience for converts to Christianity, atheists, and Sunni Muslims who deviated from Salafist interpretations of Islam was not respected. Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east, where non-GNA entities competed for control over territory and governance by setting up parallel government institutions. Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. Some of these detainees reported they were tortured and otherwise abused.

Some areas of the country, including the eastern part, operated under the influence of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and LNA-affiliated armed groups. Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including in parts of Tripoli and in Benghazi, where there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards. According to media reports, elements of the Madkhali Salafist movement affiliated with the LNA continued to crack down on activities not sanctioned by their strict interpretation of Islam including the sale of books deemed un-Islamic and events where men and women mixed. According to the Christian rights advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings. Salafist and Islamist groups, some nominally aligned with the GNA, assumed law enforcement functions. One press report stated that in the western part of the country, these elements replaced imams, preachers, and the heads of Awqaf offices with individuals with a more Salafist orientation. U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations that included al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS continued to operate within the country.

According to international media, former Muslims faced intense social and economic pressure to renounce their faith and return to Islam. Sources also reported converts to other religions, as well as atheists and agnostics, faced threats of violence or dismissal from employment and hostility from their families and communities because of their beliefs.

The U.S. Embassy to Libya operated from Tunis, Tunisia; its officials made periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. In September, the Ambassador met virtually with members of the country’s Jewish diaspora. The embassy used its social media platforms to draw attention to this exchange and to call for inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. Other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and establish a unified, stable, democratic, and tolerant Libyan state, and continued to raise issues of religious freedom in conversations with authorities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics, and other human rights advocates.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to reports by the International Organization for Migration, 12 percent of the population are migrants. Sunni Muslims represent between 90 and 95 percent of the population, Ibadi Muslims account for between 4.5 and 6 percent, and the remainder includes small communities of Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, Ahmadi Muslims, and Buddhists. Many members of the Amazigh ethnic minority are Ibadi Muslims. Nearly all non-Muslim residents in the country are foreigners.

Estimates of the number of Christians in the country vary. According to Open Doors USA’s World Watch List Country Profile, there are 34,500 Christians. In 2015, Open Doors USA estimated 150 to 180 of these were Libyan nationals who converted from Islam.

Foreign Christian communities consist almost exclusively of sub-Saharan African migrants and Filipino foreign workers, with smaller numbers of Egyptian migrants and a small number of other foreign residents of European nationalities. According to Christian groups in Tripoli, most of the Egyptian Christians are Copts. Most Filipino and some sub-Saharan African migrants are Catholic; the Catholic diocese of Tripoli estimates its followers include 5,000 sub-Saharan and 1,500 Filipino individuals. Estimates on the numbers of other Christian groups vary. According to Open Doors USA, these include Anglicans, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and nondenominational Christians.

According to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem, no Jews reside permanently in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution. It states Islam is the state religion and sharia is the principal source of legislation, but it accords Christians and Jews the freedom to practice their religions and guarantees state respect for their personal status laws. The Constitutional Declaration prohibits any form of discrimination based on religion. Christian and Jewish familial religious matters, such as divorce and inheritance, are governed according to the mandates of the religious community to which the individual belongs. Sharia, however, applies in any case in which a Muslim is involved. The interim constitution also states, “There shall be no discrimination among Libyans on the basis of religion or sect” with regard to legal, political, and civil rights. The penal code and other laws provide criminal penalties for conviction of defamation and insults to religion. Religious minority communities other than Christians and Jews, however, are not accorded equal rights under the law. The laws governing religious practice predate the internal conflict.

The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) administers mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices conform to state-approved Islamic norms.

Sharia courts govern family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property. Under the law, a Christian or Jewish woman who marries a Muslim man is not required to convert to Islam; however, a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. Marriages between Muslim men and women of non-Abrahamic faiths are illegal, and such marriages are not recognized, even when contracted abroad. The MEIA administers non-Muslim family law issues, although there is no separate legal framework governing non-Muslim family law. The ministry draws upon neighboring countries’ family law precedents for non-Muslims.

Religious instruction in Islam is required in public and private schools. Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students, with no opt-out provisions.

There is no law providing for individuals’ right to choose or change their religion or to study, discuss, or promulgate their religious beliefs. There is no civil law explicitly prohibiting conversion from Islam to another religion or prohibiting proselytization; however, the criminal code effectively prohibits missionary activities or conversion. It includes prohibitions against “instigating division” and insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, charges that carry a maximum sentence of death. The criminal code prohibits the circulation of publications that aim to “change the fundamental principles of the constitution or the fundamental rules of the social structure,” which are used to criminalize the circulation of non-Islamic religious materials and speech considered “offensive to Muslims.”

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

Government Practices

Since religion, politics, and security are often closely linked in the country, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers, a situation which worsened during the LNA offensive to seize the capital from April 2019 to June 2020. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east. The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups within the parts of the country it controlled was limited to condemnations of acts of violence.

According to one press report, the SDF, a nominally GNA-aligned militia in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in harassment of Christians. Detainees of the SDF reported torture and other abuse while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities.

Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. One Christian group operating in the country reported multiple accounts of a section within the SDF-run detention center at the Mitiga airbase where detainees who were Christian converts, “freethinkers”, or critics of Islam were concentrated. Some detainees in this section were reportedly subjected to torture.

Some detention facilities had no provision for non-Islamic burials.

The government permitted religious scholars to form organizations, issue fatwas, and provide advice to followers. The fatwas did not have legal weight but conveyed considerable social pressure, according to tribal and religious leaders. The GNA, however, did not exercise effective administrative control of mosques or supervision of clerics.

Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ghariani, who is regarded by the Muslim Brotherhood and others as the country’s Grand Mufti, said in a video broadcast on Al-Tanasuh TV, “If detonating oneself while carrying out a fedaai [self-sacrificial] operation rattles the enemy and brings upon it a crushing defeat, then it is allowed by sharia law. Many of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions threw themselves from walls. They sacrificed themselves and died in order to breach the enemy’s ranks.”

On June 17, in a program that aired on Al-Tanasuh TV, Al-Ghariani said that supporters of the LNA were in violation of sharia and were fighting as a proxy for a “Zionist project” meant to protect Israel and the enemies of God.

In Tripoli, according to civil society sources, women’s rights activists, and human rights NGO officials, some militias and armed groups, such as the SDF, imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed “un-Islamic.” There continued to be no laws, however, imposing restrictions on dress.

The Ministry of Education continued to work to promote religious tolerance in the country through the dissemination of new civil education curricula for grades four through nine designed to promote inclusivity and tolerance. The curricula aimed to replace previous material containing discriminatory language directed at non-Muslims.

According to human rights activists, civil society figures, and politicians, the role of Islam in policymaking remained a major point of contention among supporters and opponents of political Islam, Salafist groups, and those who wished for a greater separation between religion and politics.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Arab Organization for Human Rights – Libya (AOHRL) continued to report a restrictive social environment for religious freedom throughout the country. This included intense social and economic pressure on former Muslims to return to Islam. NGOs stated Salafist interpretations of sharia continued to contribute to this restrictive environment. Religious minorities said converts to other religions, as well as atheists, agnostics, and other nonreligious persons, faced threats of violence or dismissal from employment and from their families and communities because of their beliefs or lack of belief.

International observers said Christians who converted from Islam practiced their faith in semi-secrecy and faced violence and intense pressure from their families and communities to renounce their faith. Christians said they felt pressure to refrain from missionary activities as a result of security threats and social pressure from the local community, as well as because of legal prohibitions against conversion and missionary activity.

Christian communities continued to exist in Tripoli, where Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches operated for foreigners. Christian communities were also present in Misrata, Al-Baida, Benghazi, Tubruq, Sebha, Ghat, Ubari, and Murzuq, among other cities. In some cases, such as in Benghazi, Catholic communities continued to worship in places other than church buildings after ISIS destroyed church properties there in 2015. The Catholic cathedral in Benghazi remained damaged and inaccessible after fighting in 2013-15.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 30 percent of the country’s citizens aged 18-24 agreed that religion was “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared to 41 percent overall of youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey and to 61 percent of youth polled in all of North Africa.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Since the 2014 embassy evacuation from Tripoli and suspension of operations there, U.S. diplomats have operated out of Tunis, Tunisia, making periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and to establish a unified, stable, democratic and tolerant Libyan state.

The Ambassador met virtually with members of the country’s Jewish diaspora on September 16. The embassy used its social media platforms to draw attention to this exchange and to call for inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. Other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders. Embassy officials frequently met with human rights activists, including MEC, the AOHRL, Human Rights Watch, and independent activists and researchers to address religious freedom issues. The embassy also continued to partner with the Ministry of Education to disseminate new civil education curricula for grades four to nine designed to promote inclusivity and tolerance.

Liechtenstein

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates everyone is free to choose his or her faith. It makes the state responsible for “protecting the religious…interests of the people” and establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion. It stipulates other religions may practice their faith within the bounds of morality and public order. There are criminal penalties for public incitement to hatred towards a religious group, religious discrimination, or “debasement” of any religion. The state-subsidized, nonprofit Liechtenstein Institute said Muslims remained unable to obtain local authorities’ permission to establish their own cemetery or build a mosque, and the Islamic Community of Liechtenstein was unable to establish a prayer room. In April, the Liechtenstein Human Rights Association (LHRA), a consortium of nongovernmental organizations, reported there had been no additional steps toward separating church and state in terms of financing religious communities and religious instruction. For the first time, the government invited religious communities to participate in its annual dialogue with nongovernmental organizations. On January 30, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Foreign Minister Katrin Eggenberger spoke on the importance of remembering and raising awareness of the Holocaust.

The Turkish-Islamic Cultural Association reported in August that it continued to operate the only Muslim prayer room in the country. There were no mosques, and no groups applied for permits to build one following government rejections of such applications in prior years. Religious groups in every municipality continued to open their chapels to other denominations and faiths upon request. The Turkish-Islamic Cultural Association rented property intended for a second prayer room, but according to the Office for Construction and Infrastructure, had not applied for the requisite permit to convert the property into a prayer room.

The U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, which is responsible for diplomatic relations with the country, continued to encourage the promotion of religious freedom in discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), focusing primarily on access to religious education, particularly by Muslims, and the establishment of religious infrastructure, such as a mosque or Muslim burial sites. Embassy staff discussed religious freedom issues, such as the extent of societal discrimination and the difficulties Muslims encountered in establishing religious infrastructure, with the Liechtenstein Institute and the LHRA.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 39,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2015 census, religious group membership is as follows: 73.4 percent Roman Catholic, 6.3 percent Protestant Reformed, 5.9 percent Muslim, 1.2 percent Lutheran, 1.3 percent Christian Orthodox, 1.8 percent other religious groups, 7 percent no religious affiliation, and 3.3 percent unspecified.

According to the Liechtenstein Institute, a majority of Muslims are Sunni, predominantly immigrants and descendants of immigrants from Turkey, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. The Jewish community consists of approximately 20 individuals. Immigrants, who comprise approximately one-third of the country’s population, come mainly from Switzerland and Austria and belong predominantly to the same religious groups as native-born citizens.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all persons shall have the freedom to choose their faith, and the state shall be responsible for ‘‘protecting the religious…interests of the people.” The constitution specifies Roman Catholicism is the state religion, which “shall enjoy full protection from the state.” The constitution stipulates other religions may practice their beliefs and hold religious services “within the bounds of morality and public order.”

Municipalities provide the Catholic Church with certain unique benefits that vary by municipality, including financial support and state maintenance of buildings and grounds owned by the Church.

There is no law requiring the registration of religious groups. Religious groups other than the Catholic Church may organize themselves as private associations, which enables registration in the commercial registry, and must do so to receive government funding for such activities as providing religious education in schools or executing projects to promote social integration of religious minorities, such as offering language courses for foreigners. To register in the commercial registry, the association must submit an official letter of application to the Office for Justice, including the organization’s name, purpose, board members, and head office location, as well as a memorandum of association based on local law, a trademark certification, and a copy of the organization’s statutes.

All religious groups are exempt from certain taxes. The government has not indicated how it determines whether groups not registered in the commercial registry are religious groups entitled to the tax exemptions.

The law prohibits the slaughter of animals without anesthetization, making kosher and halal slaughter illegal. Importation of such meat is legal.

The criminal code prohibits any form of public incitement to hatred or discrimination against, or disparagement of, any religion or its adherents by spoken, written, visual, or electronic means. The criminal code also prohibits the denial, trivialization, and justification of genocide and other crimes against humanity by spoken, written, visual, or electronic means. Penalties may include a prison sentence of up to two years. The criminal code prohibits refusing service to a person or group of persons based on religious affiliation as well as membership in any association that aims to promote discrimination against a person or persons based on religious affiliation.

The law requires the inclusion of religious education in the primary and secondary public school curriculum. Catholic or Protestant Reformed religious education is compulsory in all primary schools. Parents may request exemptions for their children, without providing a reason, from the Office of Education. Children exempted from religious education or who are neither Catholic nor Protestant must attend a class called “Ethics and Religions.” The law also grants the Office of Education the right to organize and finance Islamic education as an elective in public primary schools. Catholic, Protestant Reformed, and Muslim groups provide the teachers for religious instruction, and the Office of Education pays for some or all of their salaries. The Catholic Church determines the Catholic curriculum, with minimal supervision from municipalities. Other religious groups registered as associations may provide teachers for optional religious classes if there is a demand for them and may apply for partial funding of the teachers’ salaries from the government’s integration budget.

At the secondary school level, parents and students may choose between a Catholic religious education course, which the government finances and the Catholic religious community organizes, and a general course in religion and culture taught from a sociological perspective.

To receive residency permits, foreign religious workers must have completed theological studies, command a basic level of German, belong to a “nationally known” religious group (the law does not define “nationally known”), and be sponsored by a resident clergy member of the same religious group.

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

Government Practices

In April, the LHRA published its 2019 report, which found no further steps toward the separation of church and state in the areas of financing the religious communities and the design of denominational religious instruction, which remained different among religious communities.

According to the LHRA, efforts to establish Muslim memorials, cemeteries, and additional places of worship remained unsuccessful. The Liechtenstein Institute said Muslims had still not been able to obtain permission from local authorities to establish an Islamic cemetery or build a mosque in the country. The Turkish-Islamic Cultural Association reported in August that it continued to operate the only Muslim prayer room. The association rented property for a second prayer room, but was unable to convert the property into a prayer room without a permit. According to the Office for Construction and Infrastructure, the government had yet to receive a building application from the association for a permit to convert the space.

All religious groups, including Muslims, remained able to bury their dead in cemeteries owned by municipalities.

According to the Liechtenstein Institute, municipalities did not categorically oppose mosques, but there was little political will to address the issue. No group applied for a permit to build a mosque following government rejections of such applications in prior years.

The institute also stated the Islamic Community of Liechtenstein remained unable to establish a prayer room in the country. The institute reiterated that Muslims faced difficulties in finding suitable rental space for use as prayer room spaces due to societal skepticism and wariness towards Islam.

Public schools continued to include Holocaust education as part of their curriculum. Eschen Secondary School commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 30 with a memorial hour in its auditorium.

According to the MFA, 42 elementary school students attended Islamic religious education, which was offered as an elective subject in one municipality for first through fifth graders in the 2019-2020 school year.

Funding for religious institutions continued to derive mainly from the municipalities. Municipalities provided Catholic and Protestant Reformed churches annual subsidies in proportion to membership. The MFA stated municipalities allocated funding for specific purposes, such as paying the rent for places of worship, and it remained in regular contact with religious representatives regarding the funding.

According to the LHRA, the government failed to consider the draft Religious Communities Act, which would enshrine in law the recognition and promotion of various religious communities. In a report issued in May, the Swiss Center of Expertise in Human Rights stated that experts said the lack of movement was “due to the country’s longstanding strong Catholic tradition and the privileged status of the Catholic Church.”

According to the Liechtenstein Institute’s 2020 Human Rights Report, in response to a member of parliament’s question in November, 2019 as to whether the government intended to submit a constitutional amendment to Article 37, which states the Roman Catholic Church is the national church and as such shall enjoy the full protection of the state, and the Religious Communities Act to Parliament, the government stated that the consensual, transactional resolution of specific issues with individual religious communities was preferable to a comprehensive legal solution.

The government immigration and passport office continued to issue residency permits to religious workers, valid for five years, instead of visas. Religious workers from Schengen area member countries did not require permits or visas. According to the MFA, the government issued residency permits for an imam of the Turkish Association in Liechtenstein and a Roman Catholic chaplain for the parish of Vaduz.

On January 30, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Foreign Minister Eggenberger hosted government officials and the public for film screenings and discussions on moral guilt, radicalization, the maintenance of historical records, and ways of dealing with the truth about the Holocaust.

In November, the MFA invited religious communities to participate in its annual dialogue with nongovernmental organizations organized in accordance with a recommendation from the UN Human Rights Council, and asked the communities to inform the government of their concerns and expectations. The MFA described the dialogue as an opportunity for exchange with the religious communities, during which the communities could request annual contributions and extend invitations to the government to participate in religious services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There continued to be no mosques in the country; there was one Islamic prayer room, operated by the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Association, in leased space in Triesen. The Islamic Community of Liechtenstein had a prayer room in the canton of St. Gallen, in neighboring Switzerland.

According to the MFA, religious groups in every municipality continued to open their chapels to other denominations and faiths upon request, including to Orthodox and Islamic groups. For example, the Catholic Church of Schaan continued to make its church available to the Christian Orthodox community to hold an Orthodox Easter Sunday service.

A report issued in May by the Swiss Center of Expertise in Human Rights stated that some immigrants, including Muslims and others who did not speak the language or had a darker complexion, felt they were not well accepted. According to the report, Muslims wished, in a framework of equality, for a greater societal openness toward the wearing of headscarves, access to larger places of worship and Islamic cemeteries, and the opportunity to pray and fast in the workplace. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy staff continued to discuss ways to promote religious freedom with the MFA’s specialist for human rights and international law, focusing on access to religious education by different religious groups, particularly the Muslim community, and the establishment of religious infrastructure, such as a mosque or Islamic burial sites.

Embassy staff continued to discuss the effects of laws on religious practices and the extent of societal discrimination with the Liechtenstein Institute and the LHRA.

Lithuania

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom of religious practice, and state recognition of religious organizations, provided they do not contradict the constitution or the law. The government extends special benefits to nine “traditional” religious groups and more limited benefits to four recognized “nontraditional” religious groups. Religious groups must register with the government to gain legal status. Parliament again failed to act on a recognition application by the United Methodist Church pending since 2001, and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) again did not act on a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ recognition application pending since 2017. A 2019 appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by the indigenous religious group the Romuva of parliament’s denial of recognition remained pending. On June 12, in response to a Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objector whose appeal the Supreme Administrative Court rejected in 2019, the ECHR announced it would examine whether the country provided a suitable alternative to religiously motivated conscientious objectors. On April 1, the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed a case against the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania brought by a U.S. citizen who sued the center for concluding that Jonas Noreika, an anti-Soviet partisan leader, did not participate in the mass killing of Jews in the country during World War II. On July 8, the Vilnius municipal council authorized the city to sign an agreement to refurbish the grounds of the former Vilnius Sports Palace, which was built on top of a Jewish cemetery. The Vilnius Jewish Community continued to oppose the project.

In January, at a ceremony in parliament, a man called the head of the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) a little Jew-girl and told her there was no place for Jews in the country. Police reported five anti-Semitic acts of vandalism during the year compared with six such acts in 2019. In June, vandals splashed white paint on a monument of Jewish historical figure Dr. Zemach Shabad. A bust of Elijahu ben Solomon Zalman, an 18th century Jewish historical figure known as the Vilna Gaon, was vandalized twice, in June and in August. In March, police detained a man suspected of having drawn swastikas in the city of Kaunas. Anonymous anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim internet postings in response to articles regarding Jewish or Muslim issues were common; media portals generally removed them when these postings were brought to their attention.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers met with government officials, including the President’s foreign policy advisor, the Prosecutor General, senior officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Culture, and the speaker and members of parliament (MPs) to discuss religious freedom issues, including private property restitution and combating discrimination. They raised the same issues with Jewish community leaders. The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State also met with senior government officials during his visit in September and raised these issues. In September, the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues released a statement on social media saying it was imperative for institutions such as the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania to be apolitical and that overlooking or downplaying events of the Holocaust created divisions and tarnished the country’s reputation. The Ambassador and embassy officers took part in events marking 2020 as the year of the Vilna Gaon and of the history of the Jews of Lithuania, as well as the year of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who helped save more than 6,000 Jews in the country during the Holocaust.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, of the 90 percent of the population that responded to a question regarding religious affiliation, 86 percent identify as Roman Catholic, and 7 percent do not identify with any religious group. Religious groups that together constitute less than five percent of the population include Russian Orthodox, Old Believers, Lutherans, Evangelical Reformed, Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics, Karaite Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Full Gospel Word of Faith Movement, Pentecostals/Charismatics, Old Baltic faith communities, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, and members of the New Apostolic Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the 2011 census, approximately 5,100 persons identified as followers of Romuva, a religion practiced in the country since before the introduction of Christianity. According to the census, the Jewish population is predominately concentrated in larger cities and is estimated at 3,300, of whom approximately 250 are Karaite Jews, who traditionally live in Trakai and in the greater Vilnius region. The Sunni Muslim population numbers approximately 2,800, the majority of whom are Tatars, a community living primarily in Vilnius and Kaunas. The Muslim community also includes recent converts, migrants, refugees, and temporary workers from the Middle East and Africa, most of whom are Sunni.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates there is no state religion and provides for the right of individuals to choose freely any religion or belief, to profess their religion and perform religious practices, individually or with others, in private or in public, and to practice and teach their beliefs. It states no one may compel another person (or be compelled) to choose or profess any religion or belief. The constitution allows limits on the freedom to profess and spread religious beliefs when necessary to protect health, safety, public order, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. It restricts freedom of expression if it incites religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. It stipulates religious belief may not serve as justification for failing to comply with laws.

Under the constitution, the government may temporarily restrict freedom of expression of religious belief during a period of martial law or a state of emergency.

The constitution acknowledges the freedom of parents or guardians to oversee the religious and moral education of their children without interference and stipulates public education shall be secular, although schools may provide religious instruction at the request of parents. The constitution grants recognition to traditional religious groups and provides for recognition of other religious groups if their teachings and practices do not conflict with law or public morals. It states the status of religious groups shall be established by agreement or law and recognized religious groups shall be free to carry out their activities, as long as they are not in conflict with the constitution or laws.

The law requires police to take preemptive measures against illegal activities, giving special attention to maintaining order on specific historical dates and certain religious or cultural holidays.

The law defines religious groups as religious communities; religious associations, which comprise at least two religious communities under common leadership; and religious centers, which are higher governing bodies of religious associations.

The law recognizes as traditional those religious groups able to trace back their presence in the country at least 300 years. The law lists nine traditional religious groups: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Old Believer, Jewish, Sunni Muslim, and Karaite Jewish. Traditional religious groups may perform marriages that are state recognized, establish joint private/public schools, provide religious instruction in public schools, and receive annual government subsidies. Their highest-ranking leaders are eligible to apply for diplomatic passports, and they may provide chaplains for the military, social care institutions, hospitals, and prisons. The state provides social security and healthcare insurance contributions for clergy, religious workers, and members of monastic orders of the traditional religious groups. Traditional religious groups are also not required to pay social and health-insurance taxes for clergy and most other religious workers and members of monastic orders.

Other religious groups and associations may apply to the MOJ for state recognition if they have legal entity status, meaning they have been officially registered in the country for at least 25 years. Parliament votes on whether to grant state recognition status upon recommendation from the MOJ. If parliament votes against extending state recognition, a group must wait 10 years before reapplying. The Evangelical Baptist Union of Lithuania, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Pentecostal Evangelical Belief Christian Union, and New Apostolic Church of Lithuania are the only state-recognized nontraditional religious groups registered in this manner.

Recognition entitles nontraditional religious groups to perform marriages that will be recognized by the state, similar to marriages officiated by traditional religious groups, and to provide religious instruction in public schools. Recognition also grants nontraditional religious groups eligibility for annual subsidies from the state budget and for certain social security and healthcare contributions by the state.

The MOJ handles official registration of religious communities, associations, and centers. Groups wishing to register must submit an application and supporting documentation to the MOJ, including bylaws describing their religious teachings and governance, minutes of the founding meeting, and a list of the founders, at least 15 of whom must be citizens. Upon approval of its application, a religious community, association, or center may register as a legal entity with the State Enterprise Center of Registers. Registration is voluntary for religious communities, associations, and centers affiliated with traditional religious groups and mandatory for nontraditional communities wishing to receive legal status.

Registration of traditional religious communities, associations, and centers is free of charge, while nontraditional communities pay a fee of 32 euros ($39). Traditional communities also have a simpler registration procedure and need to submit only an application, decisions of their governing body on the appointment of their leader, and their headquarters address. The MOJ may refuse to register a religious group if full data are not included in the application, the activities of the group violate human rights or public order, or a group with the same name has already registered. According to data currently available from the Center of Registers, there are 1,121 traditional and 197 nontraditional religious communities, associations, and centers that are officially registered legal entities.

For all religious groups, official registration is a prerequisite for opening a bank account, owning property, and acting in a legal or official capacity as a community. The law allows all registered religious groups to own property for use as prayer houses, homes, and other functions, and permits construction of facilities necessary for religious activities. All registered groups are eligible for public funds from municipalities for cultural and social projects.

The country has compulsory military service for males between the ages of 19 and 26 and up to the age of 38 for those with higher education. Military service is for nine months. Clergy from registered groups are exempt from compulsory military service. In the event of a military conflict, clergy would be called to serve as chaplains. The law recognizes the right to conscientious objection to military service on any grounds and provides for alternative service in civilian institutions or, if the military deems it necessary, in a national defense institution.

Unregistered communities have no legal status, but the constitution allows them to conduct worship services and seek new members.

The Interministerial Commission to Coordinate Activities of Governmental Institutions that Deal with Issues of Religious, Esoteric, and Spiritual Groups coordinates investigations of religious groups if there is a concern a group’s actions may be inconsistent with what the commission perceives to be “principles that stress respect for human freedom of expression and freedom of religion.”

The Journalist Ethics Inspectorate, a government-sponsored organization whose head is appointed by parliament, investigates complaints involving the violation of regulatory laws governing the provision of information to the public, including by print media and the internet. These laws include prohibition of the publication of material that fuels religious hatred. The inspectorate may levy administrative fines on newspapers or refer cases to the Office of the General Prosecutor.

The Soviet Union nationalized all religious buildings on June 19, 1948, some of which religious groups continued to use after that date to serve religious communities. By law, registered religious communities had until 1997 to apply to the appropriate ministry or municipality for restitution or compensation of religious property they owned before June 19, 1948. The government continues to review cases from registered religious groups filed by the 1997 deadline but is not accepting any new claims. Religious groups may appeal ministry or municipality decisions in court. Unregistered religious groups could not apply for restitution.

The law permits registered religious groups to register previously nationalized religious property that was not officially registered under their name but which they owned before 1948 and continued to use during the Soviet period. The deadline for registered religious groups to register such properties with the MOJ was 2014. The government continues to review cases from registered religious groups filed by the 2014 deadline but is not accepting any new claims. Religious groups may appeal the MOJ’s decisions in court.

For individuals, the country’s private property restitution laws provided a mechanism through which the country’s citizens who had received citizenship before the restitution deadline (December 31, 2001) and resided in the country had the right to submit a claim for private property restitution. The laws excluded those who either lacked citizenship or regained it after 2001.

For Jewish-owned communal property nationalized under totalitarian regimes, a compensation fund was established in 2011 to support Jewish educational, religious, scientific, cultural, and healthcare projects with public benefits. Pursuant to the law, the government is committed to disbursing a total of 36 million euros ($44.17 million) over the decade ending March 1, 2023. Funds go to the Good Will Foundation, a public institution governed by national and international Jewish leaders.

The country has no law for the restitution of heirless private property.

The government allocates funds to traditional religious communities for refurbishing houses of prayer, restoring old cemeteries, and preserving cultural heritage sites. Each traditional religious group receives 3,075 euros ($3,800) every year as a base fund, plus an additional amount that is calibrated according to the number of adherents in each community.

The constitution and other laws permit and fund religious instruction in public schools for traditional and state-recognized religious groups. Most religious instructors are regular state-employed teachers, but some are priests, seminarians, or monks. Parents must choose either religious instruction or secular ethics classes for their children. Schools decide which of the traditional or state-recognized nontraditional religious groups will be represented in their curricula based on requests from parents of children up to the age of 14, after which students present the requests themselves.

There are 30 private schools established by religious communities, 26 Catholic and four Jewish. Students of different religious groups may attend these schools. All accredited private schools (religious and nonreligious) receive funding from municipalities and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Sport through a voucher system based on the number of pupils. Each private school receives 1,099 euros ($1,300) per student. National minority schools, which include schools established by the Jewish community, receive 20 percent more – 1,318.80 euros ($1,600) – per student than other private schools. The per-student stipend covers only the program costs of school operation. Private school operators generally bear responsibility for covering capital outlays; however, per an agreement the government signed with the Holy See, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Sport funds both the capital and operating costs of private Catholic schools.

The criminal code prohibits incitement of hatred and discrimination based on religion and stipulates fines or up to two years in prison for violations. The code penalizes interference with religious ceremonies of recognized religious groups, with community service, fines, or detention for up to 90 days. The law does not address interference with or incitement of hatred against unrecognized religious groups.

The Office of the Equal Opportunities (OEO) ombudsperson investigates complaints of discrimination, including those based on religion, directed against state institutions, educational institutions, employers, and product and service sellers and producers. Parliament appoints the ombudsperson for a period of five years. The office conducts independent investigations, publishes surveys and independent reports on discrimination, and provides conclusions and recommendations on any discrimination-related issues. Its recommendations are not mandatory, but the OEO may appeal to the courts in cases of noncompliance. The office also makes proposals to state and municipal institutions and government agencies concerning the improvement of legal acts and priorities for the implementation of equal rights policy. The OEO ombudsperson does not levy monetary penalties. It may recommend cases to the Prosecutor General’s Office for pretrial investigation.

The parliamentary ombudsperson is a separate entity that examines the conduct of state authorities in serving the population. The parliamentary ombudsperson may investigate complaints, recommend changes in the law or draft legislation to parliamentary committees and ministries, and recommend cases to the Prosecutor General’s Office for pretrial investigation.

The criminal code prohibits public display of Nazi symbols or national anthems. Violators are subject to fines of 144-289 euros ($180-$350).

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

Government Practices

The MOJ again made no recommendation to parliament on a 2017 Jehovah’s Witnesses application for state-recognized religious association status.

An application for religious association status by the United Methodist Church of Lithuania, which the MOJ submitted to parliament with a favorable recommendation in 2001, remained pending. At year’s end, the group stated that it had not yet decided whether it would raise the issue with the government elected during October parliamentary elections.

At year’s end, the ECHR had yet to rule on a case filed in September 2019 appealing the decision of parliament earlier that year not to grant state recognized religious association status to the Romuva. In their appeal, the Romuva asked the ECHR to rule on whether the country violated the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Religious groups stated the rejection of the Romuva’s application led other religious organizations to hesitate before advocating for their applications.

On April 1, the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed a case against the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania brought by a U.S. citizen who sued the center for concluding that Jonas Noreika, an anti-Soviet partisan leader and Nazi collaborator, did not participate in the mass killing of Jews in the country during World War II. The center published a report in 2019 stating that Noreika had fought the Nazis and helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The court did not grant the petitioner’s request that it order the center to conduct research and revise its historic conclusion regarding Noreika and said the case was not related to the center’s activities, falling within the realm of public administration. The court’s finding was not subject to appeal. The court also ruled the plaintiff must pay additional court costs to the center.

Media reported that during a meeting of the parliamentary National Security and Defense Committee on May 20, MP Audrys Simas (Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, the then-ruling party) “raised his right hand with two fingers extended” in the fashion that prevailed in Nazi Germany. On May 27, the LJC published a statement, asking the Speaker of the Parliament, the Security and Defense Committee, and prosecutors to investigate the incident. On October 2, the parliamentary Ethics and Procedures Commission, which investigated the case, concluded Simas violated the principle of respect for human beings and the state but did not impose a penalty. The commission recommended Simas avoid actions that could be interpreted as disreputable, offensive, or derisive towards different people or groups of people.

In December 2019, Arunas Gumuliauskas, a then-MP for the Farmers and Greens Union, announced he was drafting legislation declaring that neither the country nor its leaders participated in the Holocaust. “The Lithuanian state did not participate in the Holocaust because it was occupied, just as the Lithuanian nation could not participate in the Holocaust because it was enslaved,” said Gumuliauskas. His proposal was condemned by Jewish community leaders and led then-Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis to make a statement on January 22, in which he called on Lithuanians to “refrain from any attempt to reinterpret the brutal consequences of World War II and the occupation regimes on the Lithuanian state and its citizens” and stated, “It is particularly important to bear in mind as we speak about the suffering and the unbearable loss of the Jewish people.” Gumuliauskas ultimately did not introduce the draft legislation.

On June 30, parliament passed a resolution naming 2021 as the year of Juozas Luksa-Daumantas, a Lithuanian partisan leader whom the Soviets killed in 1951. Israeli and other media reported accusations that Luksa was a leader of the pro-Nazi Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) during World War II and cited several persons, including the former chair of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, who said they had seen Luksa participate in a massacre of Jews in Kaunas in 1941. On July 2, the cochairs of the Lithuanian Good Will Foundation (LJC Chair Faina Kuliansky and a member of the American Jewish Committee) wrote to Speaker of Parliament Viktoras Pranckietis, asking that parliament not honor Luksa, who, according to the letter, was a leader of the “proudly anti-Semitic” LAF, even though it might not be possible to provide irrefutable evidence that he had committed war crimes against Jews. A number of historians and Lithuanian Jews and the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania disputed the charges against Luksa. On July 14, four members of the country’s Jewish community, who were not associated with the LJC, wrote to the President, Foreign Minister, and parliament, rejecting the views of the cochairs of the Good Will Foundation on Luksa and calling for their removal as cochairs. On July 22, Emanuelis Zingeris, the sole Jewish MP and chair of the international commission, released a letter stating the attacks against Luksa were part of a Russian disinformation campaign and that the international commission had found no evidence that he had been a prominent member of the LAF or participated in the killing of Jews. Parliament did not revoke the resolution.

In August, the LJC issued a statement against the appointment of journalist Vidmantas Valiusaitis to the post of adviser to the general director of the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania. They said Valiusaitis had distorted history in his publications for several years and presented “untrue facts about the anti-Semitic actions of the [World War II-era] Lithuanian Activist Front and the Provisional Government of Lithuania,” denying conclusions of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania “regarding the clearly anti-Semitic views and actions of these organizations…”

On July 8, the Vilnius municipal council authorized local officials to sign an agreement with Turto Bankas, the centralized public property management agency, under which the municipality would convert the former Vilnius Sports Palace building, located on the site of the Snipiskes Jewish Cemetery, into a convention center by 2023. In December 2019, Turto Bankas announced it had, together with the LJC and the Committee for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, reached agreement on the redevelopment of the former Vilnius Sports Palace. In 2019, Yousef Yizhak, a Lithuanian Jew residing in Israel, petitioned the Vilnius District Court to prevent the renovation of the sports palace, stating it “would…disturb the human remains surrounding the Sports Palace, and [the remains] that the Soviets mixed into the Sports Palace’s building materials.” Initial court hearings took place on October 1 and 6. In October, Turto Bankas, when announcing the renovation of the former Vilnius Sports Palace would begin in 2022, said the project had been coordinated with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe. The Vilnius Jewish Community and its chair, Simonas Gurevicius, continued to disagree with the LJC and object to the project. In October, media reported an initiative known as the “Save Vilna” project was seeking signatures on a petition objecting to the renovation of the sports palace. In November, activist Andrius Kulikauskas initiated a global letter-writing campaign to urge MPs and the cabinet to cut government funding for the reconstruction of the sports palace. During the budget debate, MP Kestutis Masiulis proposed removing 515,000 euros ($630,000) from the budget allocation designated for the redesign. Parliament accepted the proposed removal. Turto Bankas said that, despite the removal of the funds from the budget, it had contractual obligations to implement the project.

On May 1, members of the tourism industry protested next to the former sports palace. They placed dozens of empty chairs at the site with sheets of paper on them symbolizing 1,000-euro ($1230) banknotes to protest the money they said was lost by delaying plans to build the convention center. In reaction, Gurevicius said, “…it is at least immoral to build chairs with euro banknotes over the heads and remains of the people who created the Jerusalem of the North.” Defending History, an organization and online news site that opposed the construction plan, condemned the display.

The government again disbursed 3.62 million euros ($4.44 million) to the Good Will Foundation, in accordance with its agreement with that institution. The government did not address compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi era or resolve any pending restitution or compensation claims by other religious groups for property seized by the Soviet Union.

The government provided 1.2 million euros ($1.47 million) to traditional religious groups to reconstruct religious buildings and to support other religious community activities. Of this total, it granted one million euros ($1.23 million) to the Roman Catholic Church and 61,100 euros ($75,000) to the Russian Orthodox community. The remaining 139,000 euros ($171,000) was divided among the Old Believer, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Sunni Muslim, Jewish, Karaite Jewish, and Greek Catholic communities. These levels were all identical to the previous year’s funding.

The OEO ombudsperson received one complaint of discrimination based on religion but decided that it fell outside the OEO’s jurisdiction. The complaint concerned a Muslim prisoner who said he found a piece of pork in his food.

On September 2, the parliamentary ombudsman reported the Pabrade Foreigners’ Registration Center, a detention center for migrants and asylum seekers, started providing a pork-free food option. In September 2019, the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman reported Muslim detainees at the center complained about the lack of halal food options and poor sanitary conditions.

The government declared 2020, the 300th anniversary of the birth of Elijahu ben Solomon Zalman, a rabbi, scholar, and religious authority known as the Vilna Gaon, the year of the Vilna Gaon and of the history of the Jews of Lithuania. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the government limited in-person commemorative events honoring the Vilna Gaon; most events were moved to an online platform or postponed. On September 10, Minister of Culture Simonas Kairys opened an exhibit at the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.

On September 23, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Genocide of Lithuanian Jews, which also marked the 77th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto, the government organized a commemoration ceremony. Youth participated in a march from Rudininku Square in Vilnius to the Paneriai Memorial, a site where an estimated 70,000 Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Similar commemoration events took place in more than 50 locations across the country.

On October 19, a sculpture entitled “Water Carrier,” dedicated to the memory of the Vilnius Jewish community, was unveiled in the former Jewish residential quarter in Vilnius. On October 17, a bronze sculpture to commemorate Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved more than 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust during World War II, was unveiled at a ceremony in Kaunas. President Gitanas Nauseda, Foreign Minister Linas Antanas Linkevicius, and Kaunas Mayor Visvaldas Matijosaitis participated in the ceremony. The sculptures were funded by the respective municipalities. On September 24, individuals who hid Jews during the Nazi occupation were honored as Righteous Among the Nations in Kaunas at a conference dedicated to Sugihara. The Foreign Minister said the deeds of Sugihara and Dutch honorary consul Jan Zwartendijk, who issued more than 2,000 transit visas to Curacao to Jews during the Holocaust, were an example to all. In 2019, parliament declared 2020, the 80th anniversary of the Japanese diplomat’s posting to Kaunas, the year of Chiune Sugihara.

On September 21, President Nauseda presented the Life Saving Cross to 44 persons who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The President presented awards to Vlade Markauskiene, Irene Ozekauskiene, and Leonarda Pliopiene at the ceremony. An additional 41 persons were awarded the cross posthumously, with family members attending the ceremony.

On October 20, Minister of Justice Elvinas Jankevicius announced the creation of a working group to analyze issues relating to the protection of the rights of Holocaust victims and the preservation of historical memory. LJC Chair Kukliansky was a member of the group.

On June 5, the Jewish Heritage Lithuania Association announced the creation of an interactive map of Jewish cultural heritage sites in the country. The map features more than 200 locations describing Jewish shtetls and other communities, surviving synagogues, and other places associated with notable Jewish individuals.

Also on June 5, the postal service issued a commemorative stamp to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon.

On January 28, the foreign ministry hosted an event to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In a speech, Foreign Minister Linkevicius said, “The genocide of the Jewish people is a scar on Lithuania and the whole humanity’s face, and we must do everything to prevent it from happening again.” The event included a photo exhibit by Saulius Paukstys on the Jewish community, as well as a series of video documentaries on the Righteous Among the Nations by Dominykas Kubilius. The series featured testimonials and memories of Holocaust survivors, as well as historians’ comments on the genocide and the individuals who resisted it. Representatives from the Jewish community, former Vilnius and Kaunas ghetto prisoners, foreign diplomats, and members of various cultural organizations attended the commemoration.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February, the Pew Research Center published a survey on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society as well as religious freedom in 34 countries based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 48 percent of Lithuanian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it the lowest among their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.

On February 25, prosecutors launched an investigation into incitement to hatred over an incident at parliament on January 13 when LJC Chair Kukliansky, who was attending an event that marked the anniversary of the Soviet aggression against the country, said she was called “zydelka” (little Jew-girl) by an unknown man. She said the man told her to “stop polluting Lithuania” and that “there is no place” for Jews in the country.

Anonymous anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments on the internet were common throughout the year. On May 12, LJC Chair Kukliansky, issued a statement calling on the country’s Prosecutor General to initiate an investigation into anti-Semitic comments on the website of the daily Lietuvos Rytas responding to a three-part feature it published called “Lithuania and the Holocaust: Endless Seizures Instead of Healing Wounds.” Kukliansky said the comments included statements condemning and insulting Jews.

Anonymous online commentators continued to express negative views of Muslim refugees. One post read, “We need to drive them [Muslim refugees] out of the country.” Media sites generally removed such comments after becoming aware of them.

On June 26, vandals splashed white paint or acid on a monument of Jewish historical figure Dr. Zemach Shabad. A bust of the Vilna Gaon was also vandalized on June 26 and again on August 3 with a liquid and then white paint or acid. Police launched an investigation. Media reports quoted Foreign Minister Linkevicius as stating “the attacks against memorials were attacks against Lithuania.” Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius said on social media, “The desire of the villains to diminish and offend the Jewish community of Vilnius and Lithuania by their actions shows only the weakness of the vandals themselves.”

On March 13, police detained a man suspected of having drawn swastikas in the city of Kaunas. At year’s end, he remained under investigation for alleged incitement to hatred. If tried and convicted, he could face up to two years in prison.

On October 7, police reported a monument to the victims of the Holocaust in Kaunas was found toppled and launched an investigation. Chairman of the Kaunas Jewish community Gercas Zakas told media that he thought the damage might not be necessarily targeted against Jews. Local authorities told the Jewish community they would restore the monument at the municipality’s expense.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy continued to maintain regular dialogue with senior government officials on the importance of religious freedom. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives met with Prime Minister Skvernelis, Speaker of Parliament Pranckietis, a presidential foreign policy advisor, a vice chancellor, mayors, Ministers and Vice Ministers of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Culture, Justice, and Education, and MPs and continued to engage them on ways to promote tolerance and integration of religious minorities, including Muslim refugees, into society and combat anti-Semitism. Embassy representatives urged the government to address the remaining issues regarding compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi era. Embassy officials also discussed Holocaust education, remembrance, and property restitution with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government offices and with MPs.

In January, an embassy officer met with MPs to express concern regarding proposed draft legislation that would deny the country’s participation, as a state, in the Holocaust. On May 26, the Ambassador spoke with Minister of Culture Mindaugas Kvietkauskas regarding programs of preservation of Jewish cultural sites and plans to honor Jewish history. In June, the Ambassador asked the Minister of Justice to form a working group on historical memory and the rights of Holocaust victims. On June 30, the Ambassador met the Prosecutor General to address the investigation and prosecution of anti-Semitic actions. On July 24, the Ambassador visited the site of the old Jewish cemetery in Snipiskes and spoke with representatives of the state company Turto Bankas, the Cultural Heritage Department, and the Vilnius municipality regarding plans to renovate the former sports palace and ensure preservation of the site. On August 26, a senior embassy official discussed Holocaust legacy issues with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials. On September 2, the Ambassador met Speaker of Parliament Pranckietis to express concern over the appointment of a controversial advisor to the Genocide Resistance and Research Center of Lithuania. The Deputy Secretary of State also met with senior government officials during his visit in September and raised these issues.

In September, the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues released a statement on social media stating that it was imperative for institutions such as the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania to be apolitical and willing to examine history without preconceived notions. The statement said that overlooking or downplaying events of the Holocaust created divisions and tarnished the country’s reputation.

The Ambassador and embassy representatives met regularly with the Jewish community to discuss issues of concern, including property restitution, preservation and restoration of heritage sites, combating intolerance, and Holocaust remembrance. In July, an embassy officer met with members of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania and the head of the LJC to discuss ways to combat intolerance and anti-Semitism and to resolve compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi era.

The embassy supported institutions devoted to raising awareness of the country’s Jewish heritage, including the Tolerance Center and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, a center that educates visitors regarding the country’s Jewish heritage and promotes interfaith dialogue. The embassy also helped fund the publication of a book about the history of Lithuania’s synagogues.

On May 8, the Ambassador addressed the media following a ceremony at the Jewish cemetery of Suderve to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the World War II and to honor victims of the Holocaust. He said, “Although these monuments are symbols of the terrible tragedy that took place here during World War II, I believe they also represent a challenge, as well, for humanity to stand together and prevent such atrocities from ever happening again. The past cannot be undone. The best we can do is honestly assess it, even the unsavory parts, and use those lessons to ensure we do better in the future.”

On October 23, the Ambassador delivered public remarks in Siauliai to mark the year of the Vilna Gaon and the year of Chiune Sugihara, stating, “Our common humanity compels us today to talk openly about what happened in places such as Siauliai and in other cities and towns across Lithuania.”

On December 9, in remarks at the Jewish History Conference, organized by the LJC, in commemoration of the Vilna Gaon, the Ambassador stated, “As we celebrate the past, present, and future of Lithuania’s Jewish heritage, we must also commit to defending the truth. We must never tolerate willful ignorance or distortion of history. Let us take the occasion of the year of the Vilna Gaon as a moment to recommit ourselves to this effort.”

Luxembourg

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the right to practice one’s religious beliefs and express one’s religious opinions in public, and prohibits compulsory participation in religious services or observance of religious groups’ days of rest. In February, the country’s highest court upheld a 2019 lower court decision appointing an external administrator to organize and monitor general assemblies and elections within the Protestant Consistory, the Protestant community’s leading intermediary with the government. In August, the consistory applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to overturn the court’s ruling. On July 2, the Magistrate’s Court of Luxembourg City submitted to the Constitutional Court for review the agreement between the government and the Catholic Archdiocese of Luxembourg dissolving 285 local church councils and the Syndicate of Church Councils and transferring property managed by them and profits derived therefrom to the Catholic Church. Between March 13 and May 29, the government prohibited in-person religious services as part of its efforts to combat COVID-19. The Catholic Archbishop of Luxembourg criticized the government for not lifting its ban on in-person attendance at religious services earlier. The Jewish Consistory, the group representing the Jewish community in dealings with the government, said the government made progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including claims by foreign citizens. In January, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism and agreed to develop a national action plan to combat anti-Semitism.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Research and Information on Anti-Semitism in Luxembourg (RIAL) reported it registered 64 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 47 in 2019. In August, RIAL reported to a government-supported watchdog organization two Facebook posts that questioned the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust. Representatives of the Jewish community said that in August, unknown persons painted a swastika and wrote the word “Jew” on the wall of the Luxembourg City synagogue. The national report of the NGO Islamophobia Observatory in Luxembourg (OIL), based on 2019 data, stated that 57 percent of Muslims surveyed believed “Islamophobia” was present in the country and 45 percent said they had experienced or observed anti-Muslim incidents in 2019; 76 percent said Muslims were well integrated into society.

Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues with government officials at the Ministry of State, including government efforts to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment, its interaction with religious communities, and concerns of religious communities about such issues as the Protestant Consistory, as well as the impact of the government’s COVID-19 response on religious groups, the court cases regarding dissolution of the Syndicate of Churches and church councils, and Holocaust-related restitution and compensation. The Ambassador and embassy officials met virtually and in person with leaders and representatives of other religious groups, including the Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, the New Apostolic Church, and Baha’i communities and the Alliance of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 628,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). By law, the government may not collect personal information related to religion and relies on religious groups to report the number of their adherents. A 2014 poll (the most recent) by the national survey institute TNS-ILRES reported that among respondents ages 15 and older, 58 percent identify as Catholic, 17 percent as nonbeliever, 9 percent as atheist, 5 percent as agnostic, 2 percent as Protestant, 1 percent as Orthodox, 1 percent as Jehovah’s Witnesses, 3 percent as other (unspecified) Christian, and 1 percent as Muslim; 2 percent of respondents did not provide a reply. Based on information provided by religious community representatives, groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and members of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

Muslim community representatives estimate there are between 18,000 and 20,000 Muslims, mainly from southeastern Europe and the Middle East and their descendants.

Jewish community representatives estimate there are 1,500 Jews.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom to practice religion in public and manifest religious opinions, as long as no crime is committed in exercising that freedom. While the constitution provides for the right to assemble peacefully without prior authorization, it stipulates open-air religious or other meetings are subject to laws and police regulations. The constitution prohibits compulsory participation in or attendance at church services or observance of religious days of rest and stipulates that a civil marriage ceremony must precede a religious marriage ceremony for the state to recognize it. The constitution provides for the regulation of relations between religious groups and the state, including the role of the state in appointing and dismissing religious clergy and the publication of documents by religious groups, through conventions between the state and individual religious groups. These conventions are subject to parliamentary review.

There is no procedure to grant religious groups legal status as religious groups. Religious groups are free to operate under the form they wish, with many choosing to operate as nonprofit associations. The government has formally approved conventions with six religious groups, which it supports financially with a fixed amount (adjusted yearly for inflation) partly based on the number of adherents each group reported having in 2016. The six groups are the Roman Catholic Church; Greek, Russian, Romanian, and Serbian Orthodox Churches as one community; Anglican Church; Reformed Protestant Church of Luxembourg and Protestant Church of Luxembourg as one community; Jewish community; and Muslim community. To qualify for a convention with the state, a religious community must be a recognized world religion and establish an official and stable representative body with which the government can interact. Groups without signed conventions, such as the New Apostolic Church, operate freely but do not receive state funding. The Baha’is do not have a convention with the state, but the state advised the group in establishing a foundation that allows it to receive tax-deductible donations.

Government funding levels for the six religious groups are specified in each convention and remain the same every year except for adjustments for inflation. The original funding levels established in 2016 were: 6.75 million euros ($8.28 million) to the Catholic community; 450,000 euros ($552,000) to the Protestant community; 450,000 euros ($552,000) to the Muslim community; 315,000 euros ($387,000) to the Jewish community; 285,000 euros ($350,000) to the Orthodox community; and 125,000 euros ($153,000) to the Anglican community. Under the law, clergy of recognized religious groups hired in 2016 or earlier continue to receive their salaries from the government and are grandfathered into the government-funded pension system. The law further provides for a transitional period in which the government either does not disburse funding under the convention should the total amount of salaries be above the funding level, disburses the difference should the total amount of salaries fall below the funding level, or disburses the entire funding level should the total amount of salaries equal zero. The pensions of grandfathered clergy are not taken into consideration in calculating the total amount of salaries.

Religious groups must submit their accounts and the report of an auditor to the government for review to verify they have spent government funds in accordance with laws and regulations. Under the conventions, government funding to a religious community may be cancelled if the government determines the religious community is not upholding any of the three mutually agreed principles of respect for human rights, national law, and public order.

The law prohibits covering of the face in certain specific locations, such as government buildings and public hospitals or schools or on public transportation. The prohibition applies to all forms of face coverings, including, but not limited to, full-body veils. Violators are subject to a fine of 25 to 250 euros ($31-$310). There is no prohibition against individuals wearing face coverings on the street.

The law requires the stunning of animals before slaughter, with exceptions only for hunting and fishing. Violators are subject to a fine of 251 to 200,000 euros ($310-$245,000) and possible imprisonment for between eight days and three years. The law does not prohibit the sale or importation of halal or kosher meat. On December 17, the ECHR ruled that EU member states may impose a requirement that animals be stunned prior to slaughter and that such a requirement does not infringe on the rights of religious groups.

By law, public schools may not teach religion classes, but students are required to take an ethics course called Life and Society. The ethics course covers religion, primarily from a historical perspective.

There are laws and mechanisms in place to address property restitution, including for Holocaust victims. These laws do not apply to noncitizens who resided in the country between 1930 and 1945.

Under the penal code, antireligious and anti-Semitic statements are punishable by imprisonment for eight days to six months, a fine of 251 to 25,000 euros ($310-$30,700), or both.

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

Government Practices

In February, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, upheld the appointment of an external administrator to organize the next elections of the Protestant Consistory’s chairing committee. The consistory is the leading institution for Protestant religious affairs and the community’s official interlocutor with the government. In August, the Protestant Consistory applied to the ECHR to overturn the Court of Cassation ruling. In the application, the Protestant Consistory also requested the ECHR overturn another 2019 ruling allowing the appointment of a general administrator to organize two extraordinary general assemblies of the consistory. According to the consistory’s attorney, Luc Schaack, the court’s decision to uphold the appointment of an external administrator to organize the next elections of the consistory’s chairing committee infringed on the group’s members’ right to act in accordance with their own rules and interests as defined by Article 9 (freedom of thought, belief, and religion) and Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Court of Cassation’s rulings stemmed from court challenges and appeals made between 2017 and 2019, based on internal consistory disagreements over its statutes, leadership, and the chairing committee’s management of consistory property and finances.

A separate case involving a woman who sued the Protestant Consistory in 2015 for revoking her right to vote in chairing committee elections continued in the Appeals Court, the country’s second-highest court at year’s end. The consistory acted after discovering the woman was Catholic. In 2017, the district court ruled the consistory had wrongfully revoked her voting rights.

In August, Volker Strauss, the pastor of the Protestant Trinity Church, who was also the Church President of the Protestant community in the country (appointed by the Protestant Consistory) and a member of the chairing committee of the Protestant Consistory, again criticized the courts’ rulings in all three cases as infringing on the Protestant community’s religious freedom. Strauss said that the judges should have dismissed the cases because they pertained to internal church matters.

The review of the agreement by the Constitutional Court also halted a separate December 2018 appeal filed jointly by the Syndicate of Church Councils, an association representing the interests of 270 of the 285 local Catholic church councils, and 109 local church councils that was pending before the Appeals Court. The appeal challenged the 2018 decision of the district court to dismiss a 2016 lawsuit by the syndicate and 109 church councils seeking to invalidate the agreement between the government and the archdiocese on disposition of Catholic Church property managed by the local level church councils. A separate 2018 lawsuit in the district court by 47 church councils – part of the 109 that filed an appeal with the Appeals Court – seeking damages resulting from the agreement remained pending at year’s end. The dissolution of the 109 church councils and the syndicate pursuant to the agreement between the government and the archdiocese remained in abeyance, pending resolution of their cases.

In October, the Prosecutor’s Office upheld its decision in April to dismiss a complaint by RIAL President Bernard Gottlieb regarding a 2019 Facebook posting accusing Gottlieb of “working [for] a foreign power” and of “taking his orders from a killing country.” Gottlieb called the prosecutor’s dismissal “frustrating.”

Absent a procedure for recognizing their legal status as religious organizations, several religious groups continued to operate as nonprofit associations. The New Apostolic Church stated it had requested that the government create a formal recognition procedure.

Contrary to previous years, police did not provide data on apprehensions for violating the law banning facial coverings in certain public places. On September 22, Roy Reding, a Member of Parliament for the conservative Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR), asked Minister of Justice Sam Tanson whether the obligation to wear a mask contradicted the law prohibiting face coverings. On October 20, the Minister replied that the law foresaw an exception in cases of medical crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between March 18 and December 31, the government set restrictions on indoor and outdoor public gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The government banned all public gatherings from March 18 to May 11, with exceptions for members of the same household. After May 11, the government authorized outdoor gatherings of up to 20 persons. On May 17, speaking at a Pontifical Mass on the final Sunday after Easter in the Church’s liturgical calendar that was live-streamed on social media, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich criticized the government for failing to lift the prohibition on in-person religious services. Hollerich stated that on May 6, the Catholic Church had submitted a proposal to the government on how to safely reopen churches to the public but that the government had failed to respond. According to Hollerich, the government’s silence was not “intentional” but showed that it “did not care at all about” church goers. He acknowledged that religious freedom needed to be balanced against public-health requirements in a pandemic but said it remained a human right nonetheless. After May 29, the government authorized public gatherings indoors of more than 20 persons on condition that participants be seated and wear a mask or keep a two-meter (6.6-foot) distance between individuals.

Between November 26 and December 15, the government closed most cultural venues but made exceptions for some, as well as houses of worship, which could remain open under strict health and safety measures. According to a representative of the New Apostolic Church, the Catholic Church had reached out to the government to include houses of worship. During a November 23 press conference, Prime Minister and Minister for Religious Affairs Xavier Bettel stated he would consider it “a good decision” if religious groups were to move their services online during that period to reduce infection risk but “religious freedom is a freedom” and “religious groups are free to decide” whether or not to hold in-person religious services.

During the ban on in-person religious services, other religious leaders, including Jewish Consistory President Albert Aflalo and Rabbi Alexander Grodensky for the Jewish community, Pastor Strauss for the Protestant community, and Jutta Bayani for the Baha’i community, said they did not consider the government’s prohibition to be discriminatory.

The Jewish Consistory and members of the Muslim community said they remained concerned that the law requiring the stunning of animals prior to their slaughter infringed on their religious rights. They said they continued to import meat, since there were no halal or kosher slaughterhouses in the country.

The Ministry of Education continued to excuse children wishing to attend religious celebrations from school, provided their legal guardian notified the school in advance and the absence was for a major religious holiday (i.e., not recurring normal weekly prayer services). Due to COVID-19 concerns, however, many of those religious celebrations were canceled.

The Jewish Consistory said the government made progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including claims by foreign citizens, and an agreement resolving the issue was possible in the near future. According to the Jewish community, most Holocaust-related real property claims by citizens had been settled but claims by nonnationals remained unresolved. In February 2019, the government created a working group on outstanding Holocaust asset issues to resolve questions about compensation for destroyed property owned by Holocaust victims and survivors who were either citizens of a foreign country or stateless between 1930 and 1945. The working group was also examining open questions about bank accounts and insurance contracts of Holocaust victims and survivors, both nationals and nonnationals, involving banks and insurance companies based in the country. Members of the working group included representatives of the government, the local Jewish community, and the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

Replying to an October 29 parliamentary question from the Luxembourg Socialist Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Dan Biancalana, Prime Minister Bettel stated on November 27 that the concerned ministerial departments and, “in a near future, the Jewish community and the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust” would be involved in the drafting process for the national action plan to combat anti-Semitism and that the process ran in parallel with the anti-Semitism work of the European Union. Bettel added that the government would present its national anti-Semitism plan in the first quarter of 2021 and that it would emphasize regular coordination among different government ministries and with the Jewish community. Key measures would include a focus on education, especially Holocaust education, and improved data-recording and collection of anti-Semitic acts.

According to a representative of the Ministry of State in charge of religious affairs, of the six religious groups with conventions with the government, only the Muslim community (485,000 euros – $595,000) and Anglican community (135,000 euros – $166,000) received their full funding levels during the year; the Jewish community was projected to receive only 20,000 euros ($24,500), while the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox communities received no funding from the conventions, since their direct government payments for clergy salaries superseded the allotted amount, as provided under law.

The government again provided 615,000 euros ($755,000) to the Luxembourg School of Religion and Society (LSRS) to promote, among other objectives, research, education, and collaboration with religious groups that have signed agreements with the state. The government agreed to provide the funding annually to the LSRS between 2018 and 2021 as part of an agreement with the Catholic Church’s major seminary.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government granted refugee status to 736 persons during the year, the majority of whom were Muslim. The Organization for Welcome and Integration, an entity of the Ministry of Family and Integration, stated the government provided Muslim refugees access to mosques, halal meals, and, for those who requested it, same-sex housing.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

RIAL President Gottlieb said the group registered 64 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 47 in 2019 and 26 in 2018. According to RIAL, these incidents were nonviolent and could be mostly attributed to the “far-right and populist conspiracy theorists,” with a majority of cases involving expressions of “classic antisemitism, such as ‘the Jews running the world.’” Of the 64 incidents, 27 had to do with Israel, including social media posts comparing Israel’s policy towards Palestinians to Nazi policies. He also stated that COVID-19 added a new dimension to the reported incidents, with Jews being accused of spreading the disease. RIAL said it monitored incidents and Facebook postings but not other social media platforms.

During the year, OIL conducted a survey of 314 randomly chosen Muslims – 182 men and 132 women – asking them about anti-Muslim incidents they had experienced or witnessed in 2017, 2018, and 2019. In the survey results, 45 percent of respondents said they had experienced or observed anti-Islamic incidents in 2019. Approximately 57 percent of respondents said they believed “Islamophobia” was present in the country; 18 percent had experienced anti-Muslim incidents (compared with 17 percent in 2018 and 19 percent in 2017), and 28 percent had observed anti-Muslim incidents (compared with 36 percent in 2018 and 35 percent in 2017). OIL’s survey from 2018, which questioned a different set of randomly chosen Muslims, found that 21 percent experienced, and 26 percent observed, anti-Muslim incidents in that year. Of the combined 45 percent experiencing or observing incidents in 2019, 56 percent said they occurred in the workplace, 28 percent in the media, 26 percent on social media, 22 percent in public venues, and 22 percent in educational or training contexts, 17 percent in shops, and 11 percent in politics. The incidents were primarily verbal and nonviolent. Most incidents cited involved another person using derogatory words (65 percent), offensive jokes (57 percent), or insults (39 percent). Approximately 2 percent said they had been the target of physical aggression, and 2 percent had received threats. According to the survey, only 7 percent of those targeted in such incidents reported them, either formally or informally. Many incidents were classified under multiple categories, resulting in percentages adding up to more than 100 percent. Seventy-six percent said the country’s Muslims were well integrated into society (compared to 82 percent in 2018).

According to the OIL survey results, approximately 26 percent of women who wore a hijab and 33 percent who wore a niqab reported experiencing discrimination for being Muslim in 2019 (versus 33 percent of women who wore a hijab and 100 percent who wore a niqab in 2018). Twelve percent of Muslim women who did not wear a face or head covering reported experiencing discrimination for being Muslim in 2019 (versus 13 percent in 2018).

In 2019, according to OIL, a local government employee of Serbian origin insulted and threatened a Muslim coworker of Bosnian origin. During a lunch break, the Serbian-origin man reportedly showed the Muslim man a knife and said he could use it to cut the man’s throat. The local government head condemned the threats, saying there was no place for such actions in the workplace, but there were no reports that any action was taken against the employee responsible for them. The man who received the threats was transferred to another office.

In 2019, according to OIL, a man accosted a young female doctor wearing a headscarf on the street. The man reportedly insulted the woman continually for approximately five minutes about Islam and her ethnic origin. According to OIL, the man wanted to strike the woman before an elderly woman intervened and escorted the doctor away from the scene. The young woman and her husband subsequently filed a complaint with police, but the latter had not responded at the time OIL released its annual report.

On August 16, according to RIAL, a Facebook user, “Christian Isekin,” posted a video on Facebook minimizing the number of Jews killed in Auschwitz. RIAL informed Bee-Secure, a government-supported group that collects reports of what it considers to be illegal internet content and forwards them to police for investigation and possible prosecution.

On August 16, according to RIAL, a Facebook user, “Christian Altmann,” posted an article by Metapedia on Facebook questioning the estimated number of six million Holocaust deaths. RIAL reported the post to Bee-Secure.

According to Jewish Consistory President Aflalo, in August, unknown persons painted a swastika and wrote the word “Jew” on the wall of the Luxembourg City synagogue. Aflalo said the consistory removed the graffiti at its own expense without requesting help from the municipality. Aflalo said the organization had not filed an official complaint with the police.

In November, according to RIAL, unknown persons wrote “Hitler was here” and painted two swastikas on a letterbox in Esch-sur-Alzette using chalk. The letter box belonged to a couple in a residential area close to the town’s high school. Owners reported the incident to the police before cleaning the letterbox. There was no further information as to the status of the case at year’s end.

The Council of Religious Groups that Signed an Agreement with the State (Conseil des Cultes Conventionnes) met three times but did not disclose information about its deliberations. Archbishop Hollerich and Grand Rabbi Alain Nacache continued to serve as president and vice president, respectively. The New Apostolic Church and the Baha’i Faith continued to participate as permanently invited guests without voting rights.

The LSRS hosted several conferences and expositions throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance. On September 18-20, the LSRS hosted an online lecture series by Professor Mouez Khalfaoui from the Center for Islamic Theology from the German University of Tubingen entitled “Introduction to Muslim Thought: Theology, Law, Culture, and Society” with the aim of facilitating better understanding of Islam and current issues, such as human rights and religious pluralism according to Islamic tenets. On October 1, the LSRS hosted an interreligious ceremony bringing together the religious groups with signed conventions with the government to discuss religious diversity. On October 19, November 23, and December 14, the LSRS hosted a Jewish-Christian Bible study meeting by the Grand Rabbi Nacache on the prophet Hosea.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues with government officials at the Ministry of State. In October, embassy officials met with officials at the Ministry of State under Prime Minister and Minister for Religious Affairs Bettel to discuss the government’s efforts to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment, its interaction with religious communities, and the concerns of religious communities about such issues as the court ruling regarding the Protestant Consistory, as well as the impact of the government’s COVID-19 response on religious groups, court cases regarding dissolution of the Syndicate of Churches and church councils, and Holocaust-related restitution and compensation.

In September, the Ambassador met with the Israeli Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, Emmanuel Nahshon, to discuss Holocaust restitution in Luxembourg.

On September 6, the Ambassador visited the former synagogue in Ettelbruck to learn about its transformation into a cultural center and express his support for remembering and honoring Jewish culture. On September 7, the embassy posted on Twitter regarding the visit, saying, “Jewish culture is a major part of Western culture and history. Yesterday was European Day of Jewish Culture. And it is so important to remember and honor Jewish culture here in Europe and worldwide.”

In August, the Ambassador met with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss the release of the JUST Act report (a U.S. Department of State report to the U.S. Congress on steps taken by countries signatories to the Terezin Declarations to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs for seized assets), Holocaust restitution and education, and measures to combat anti-Semitism.

Embassy officials met virtually and in person with leaders and representatives of religious groups, including the Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, the New Apostolic Church, and Baha’i communities, and the Alliance of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics to discuss religious freedom in the country and the impact of the government’s response to COVID-19 on religious communities.

In December, a senior embassy representative met with President of the Muslim community Faruk Licina. The representative highlighted the embassy’s support for religious tolerance and interest in continuing to work with the Muslim community.

The embassy used social media to promote religious freedom. For example, it posted a Facebook message in June stating that religious freedom was a key foreign policy priority that the United States would continue to promote and defend.

Macau

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. The SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law on October 7 allowing the Judiciary Police to create national security branches. Some members of the religious community said they were concerned Macau’s implementation of these new provisions could mirror the Hong Kong police force’s national security units and potentially affect civil liberties, although they were uncertain if the new provisions could eventually infringe upon religious freedom. Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. At a Lunar New Year celebration, the Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office told religious community representatives the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally on April 25 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China.

Falun Gong practitioners continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.

In meetings with civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 614,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2015 estimate by the research group Association of Religion Data Archives, 48.1 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Taoist, 4.5 percent Catholic, 2.5 percent other Christian, 1.2 percent other religious groups (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent nonreligious. The SAR Government Information Bureau 2020 yearbook states the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists, but it states they are numerous and individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 4.5 percent of the population are Roman Catholics, of whom almost half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 2.5 percent of the population are Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with officially recognized mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of religious belief and the freedom to publicly preach as well as conduct and participate in religious activities. These rights may be limited in extreme situations for national security reasons. The Basic Law further stipulates the government shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups or in their relations with their counterparts outside Macau. It bars the government from restricting religious activities that do not contravene the laws of the SAR.

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the PRC, safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education. On October 7, the SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law allowing the Judiciary Police to create four new national security branches: the National Security Information Division; the National Security Crime Investigation Division; the National Security Action Support Division; and the National Security Affairs Integrated Service Division.

Religious groups are not required to register to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status. Benefits include exemption from taxation (such as property tax, stamp duty, complementary tax [profit tax], and industrial tax) and financial assistance from the government. Religious groups register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter. Registered charities receive the same benefits as registered religious groups. Religious groups need to be registered as a charity under a similar or different name in order to provide charitable services.

The law states that religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.

There is no religious education in public schools. A small number of schools run by religious organizations receive no public funding, and these schools may require students to receive religious education.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.

Government Practices

The government’s stated aim in amending the 2009 National Security Law was to improve external communications about national security and promote law enforcement. Human rights advocates said they were concerned the SAR’s new divisions mirrored the divisions that were created under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which came into effect on June 30 and were being used to threaten civil liberties. Religious leaders said they were uncertain if the new provisions might eventually infringe upon religious freedom.

Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

According to the Central Government Liaison Office in Macau, in January, Zhang Rongshun, Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office, held a Lunar New Year celebration with more than 30 representatives from the Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, and Baha’i communities. Zhang said successful implementation of the PRC’s “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support.

On April 25, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in front of St. Dominic’s Church to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the CCP’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group, carried banners, and distributed informational pamphlets.

Some religious groups continued to report they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.

The government continued to provide financial support, regardless of religious affiliation, to religious groups to establish schools, child-care centers, clinics, homes for the elderly, rehabilitation centers, and vocational training centers. The government also continued to refer victims of human trafficking to religious organizations for the provision of support services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, continued to recognize the Pope as its head. The Vatican appointed the bishop for the diocese. Sources stated the PRC central government and religious leaders from mainland-authorized churches invited Macau diocese representatives to public events.

The Catholic Diocese of Macau continued to run many educational institutions.

According to Minghui.org, with fewer foreigners visiting the SAR due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Falun Gong practitioners interacted more with local residents, handing out information on the streets, including publications called CCP Virus Special Editions and MinghuiWeekly. According to the website, “Local residents have always treated Falun Dafa practitioners with kindness.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. Consulate General representatives in Hong Kong, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious diversity and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland. They raised these points in meetings with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Madagascar

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace. Other laws protect individual religious beliefs against abuses by government or private actors. The government continued implementation of the nationality law passed in 2017. Muslims born in the country continued to report that despite generations of residence, some members of their community were unable to acquire Malagasy nationality. In particular, the nationality law failed to provide a mechanism to naturalize children born in the country of two stateless parents.

Members of some evangelical Protestant churches reported they experienced discrimination in employment practices due to their religious affiliation, especially those who observed a Saturday Sabbath.

U.S. embassy officials engaged with Ministry of the Interior officials responsible for registration of religious groups. Embassy officials engaged with religious leaders throughout the year and organized an online roundtable on the status of religious freedom in October with representatives of religious minority groups and civil society.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 27.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent national census in 1993, 52 percent adhere to indigenous beliefs, 41 percent is Christian, and 7 percent is Muslim. It is common to alternate between religious identities or to mix traditions, and many individuals hold a combination of indigenous and Christian or Muslim beliefs.

Muslim leaders and local scholars estimate Muslims currently constitute between 15 and 25 percent of the population. Muslims predominate in the northwestern coastal areas, and Christians predominate in the highlands. According to local Muslim religious leaders and secular academics, the majority of Muslims are Sunni. Citizens of ethnic Indian and Pakistani descent and Comorian immigrants represent the majority of Muslims, although there is a growing number of ethnic Malagasy converts.

Local religious groups state nearly half of the population is Christian. The four principal Christian groups are Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and the Presbyterian Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar (FJKM Church). Smaller Christian groups include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and a growing number of local evangelical Protestant denominations.

There are small numbers of Hindus and Jews.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace. Other laws protect individual religious beliefs against abuses by government or private actors. The constitution states that such rights may be limited by the need to protect the rights of others or to preserve public order, national dignity, or state security. The labor code prohibits religious discrimination in labor unions and professional associations.

The law requires religious groups to register with the Ministry of the Interior. By registering, a religious group attains the legal status necessary to receive direct bequests and other donations. Once registered, the group may apply for a tax exemption each time it receives a gift, including from abroad. Registered religious groups also have the right to acquire land from individuals to build places of worship; however, the law states landowners should first cede the land back to the state, after which the state will then transfer it to the religious group. To qualify for registration, a group must have at least 100 members and an elected administrative council of no more than nine members, all of whom must be citizens.

Groups failing to meet registration requirements may instead register as “simple associations.” Simple associations may not receive tax-free donations or hold religious services, but the law allows them to conduct various types of community and social projects. Associations engaging in dangerous or destabilizing activities may be disbanded or have their registration withdrawn. Simple associations must apply for a tax exemption each time they receive a donation from abroad. If an association has foreign leadership and/or members of the board, it may form an association “reputed to be foreign.” An association is reputed to be foreign only if the leader or members of the board include foreign nationals. Such foreign associations may only attain temporary authorizations, subject to periodic renewal and other conditions. The law does not prohibit national associations from having foreign nationals as members.

Public schools do not offer religious education. There is no law prohibiting or limiting religious education in public or private schools.

The government requires a permit for all public demonstrations, including religious events such as outdoor worship services.

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

Government Practices

According to Muslim leaders and media, nationality determination issues continued to affect Muslim community members, but to a lesser extent than before 2017, when the government adopted a new code of nationality. The 2017 code did not address the issue of children born of two stateless parents. These individuals remained unable to obtain citizenship, even after several generations of residence in the country. Under the nationality code, children with unknown parentage are to be evaluated based on appearance, ethnicity, and other factors. The 2017 changes in the code, however, allowed Malagasy mothers to confer nationality on their children, which Muslim leaders said appeared to ease the nationality determination problem somewhat. Muslim leaders continued to state the law affected the Muslim community disproportionately, since many members were descendants of immigrants and were unable to acquire citizenship, despite generations of residence in the country. Children of ethnic Indian, Pakistani, and Comorian descent often had difficulty obtaining citizenship, leaving a disproportionate number of Muslims stateless. A legislator proposing an amendment to the nationality code estimated in June that approximately 15,000 stateless persons could potentially take advantage of such an amendment.

The government continued to include Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha in the list of national holidays and consulted the Muslim community when setting the appropriate date.

City officials in Antananarivo maintained limitations on the hours of service for the Vahao ny Oloko (Release my People) evangelical Christian church. City authorities imposed restrictions in 2019 following neighborhood complaints of excessive noise at various hours of the day coming from the church. In response, church leaders relocated outside the city in October to avoid similar complaints and resumed their prior religious service schedule.

Some religious leaders stated that the government interfered excessively when imposing restrictions on the reopening of places of worship after a total suspension to prevent the proliferation of COVID-19. For example, the government prohibited the distribution of communion for all faiths, reportedly because of a perceived infection risk. A representative from the Presbyterian Church stated the prohibition on communion for all faiths was excessive since, he said, the Presbyterian Church’s ritual did not offer the same risk of disease transmission due to the use of individual and disposable equipment.

Religious groups stated the government did not always enforce registration requirements and did not deny requests for registration.

Religious leaders, including representatives of Vahao ny Oloko, continued to state that inadequate government enforcement of labor laws resulted in some employers requiring their employees to work during regular days of worship. Faith-based social centers, who received complaints from workers and labor unions, continued to report that employers failed to respect the labor code provisions requiring a 24-hour break weekly, which affected factory workers’ ability to attend worship services.

The leadership of the Muslim Malagasy Association reported some Muslims continued to encounter difficulty obtaining official documents, such as national identity cards and passports, and when requesting services from public administration offices because of their non-Malagasy-sounding names. They reported “harassment and mocking” by public service agents who considered them as foreigners even though they possessed national identity cards.

State-run Malagasy National Television continued to provide free broadcasting to Seventh-day Adventists, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians on weekends, and to the Muslim community once a week. During Ramadan, it provided additional broadcast time to the Muslim community. Vahao ny Oloko obtained free airtime to broadcast religious services every morning on public radio and television channels during the COVID health emergency and continued to broadcast after the reopening of churches.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Leaders of the Muslim Malagasy Association said some members of the public often associated them with Islamists and extremists. Other Muslim leaders, however, reported generally good relations between members of their community and other faiths across the country.

Adherents of some evangelical Protestant churches, especially those celebrating their Sabbath on Saturdays, stated they were sometimes denied access to employment and believed it was due to their religious affiliation. A leader of an evangelical church in Antananarivo said several female members were victims of violence committed by their husbands who did not agree with their wives’ religious beliefs.

Muslim leaders said that most Muslims could participate in the observance of Eid al-Adha. Some employers in areas outside of the capital reportedly required Muslim employees to work on officially-decreed Muslim holidays.

Representatives of religious groups stated there were unexpected, positive consequences of COVID-19 restrictions, including the government’s willingness to allow the use of various means of communication for virtual religious services.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives periodically met with government officials to discuss common concerns among different religious faiths, including statelessness issues.

On October 22, the embassy organized a virtual roundtable for religious leaders from different faiths to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on religious practices in the country. Participants shared experiences and ideas on alternative means of practicing their faith after authorities closed places of worship during the national health emergency. In addition, embassy officials interacted regularly with religious leaders, especially during the health emergency, to discuss the impact of COVID-related restrictions. Embassy officials also met with human rights organizations concerning religious freedom issues.

Malawi

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion and provides for freedom of conscience, religion, belief, and thought. A court case involving a Rastafarian child’s ability to attend school with dreadlocks remained pending, and by court order, the child was able to attend school with his hair intact pending conclusion of the litigation. Seven other Rastafarian students who had been denied enrollment registered complaints, and on January 4, the High Court in Zomba granted an injunction compelling the Ministry of Education to allow all Rastafarian children to be admitted and enrolled in government schools. Upon the reopening of schools following the COVID-19 shutdown, the Rastafarian students’ attorney received complaints from seven additional Rastafarian students who had been denied enrollment. In July, the city council in Blantyre removed a billboard urging persons to read the Quran after having read the Old Testament and New Testament, stating it was a “recipe for religious conflict.” Following mediation by an interfaith civil society organization, the two sides agree to a reworked billboard message that highlighted reading the Quran only. Muslim organizations continued to request the Ministry of Education to discontinue use of the “Bible knowledge” course and use only the broader based “moral and religious education” curriculum in primary schools, particularly in areas inhabited predominantly by Muslims.

According to media reports, religious conflicts often arose related to locally promulgated school dress codes. On September 18, a Joint Technical Team was established under the guidance of the Public Affairs Committee comprising seven Muslims and seven Christians to engage in dialogue on general dress codes in schools. On October 28, a group of Muslim individuals set fire to the office of the head teacher of a primary school in a majority-Muslim district after he turned away a female student wearing the hijab.

U.S. embassy officials engaged with religious leaders from Christian, Muslim, and other faiths to discuss religious freedom, interreligious relations, and community engagement. The Ambassador hosted an interfaith event in commemoration of U.S. National Religious Freedom Day, and the embassy facilitated discussions between the country’s Christian and Muslim communities and the visiting nonresident Israeli Ambassador.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 19.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2018 census, 77.3 percent of the population is Christian and 13.8 percent Muslim. Christian denominations include Roman Catholics at 17.2 percent of the total population, Central Africa Presbyterians at 14.2 percent, Seventh-day Adventist/Seventh-day Baptists (the survey groups the two into one category) at 9.4 percent, Anglicans at 2.3 percent, and Pentecostals at 7.6 percent. Another 26.6 percent fall under the “other Christians” category. Individuals stating no religious affiliation are 2.1 percent, and 5.6 percent represent other religious groups, including Hindus, Baha’is, Rastafarians, Jews, and Sikhs.

The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni. Most Sunnis of African descent follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic legal thought, while the smaller community of mostly ethnic Asians mostly follows the Hanafi school. There is also a small number of Shia Muslims, mostly of Lebanese origin.

According to the 2018 census, there are two majority-Muslim districts, Mangochi (72.6 percent) and Machinga (66.9 percent). These neighboring districts at the southern end of Lake Malawi account for more than half of all Muslims in the country. Most other Muslims live near the shores of Lake Malawi. Christians are present throughout the country.

Traditional cultural practices with a spiritual dimension are sometimes practiced by Christians and Muslims. For example, the gule wamkulu spirit dancers remain of importance among ethnic Chewas, who are concentrated in the central region of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and provides for freedom of conscience, religion, belief, and thought. These rights may be limited only when the President declares a state of emergency.

The law states that holders of broadcast licenses “shall not broadcast any material which is…offensive to the religious convictions of any section of the population.”

Religious groups must register with the government to be recognized as legal entities. To do so, groups must submit documentation detailing the structure and mission of their organization and pay a fee of 1,000 kwacha ($1). The government reviews the application for administrative compliance only. According to the government, registration does not constitute endorsement of religious beliefs, nor is it a prerequisite for religious activities. Registration allows a religious group to acquire land, rent property in its own name, and obtain utility services such as water and electricity.

The law authorizes religious groups, regardless of registration status, to import certain goods duty free. These include religious paraphernalia, vehicles used for worship-related purposes, and office equipment. In practice, however, the Ministry of Finance rarely grants duty exemptions to registered groups.

Detainees have a right to consult with a religious counselor of their choice.

Religious instruction is mandatory in public primary schools, with no opt-out provision, and is available as an elective in public secondary schools. According to the constitution, eliminating religious intolerance is a goal of education. In some schools, the religious curriculum is a Christian-oriented “Bible knowledge” course, while in others it is an interfaith “moral and religious education” course drawing from the Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Baha’i faiths. According to the law, local school-management committees, elected at parent-teacher association meetings, decide on which religious curriculum to use. Private Christian and Islamic schools offer religious instruction in their respective faiths. Hybrid “grant-aided” schools are managed by private, usually religious, institutions, but their teaching staffs are paid by the government. In exchange for this financial support, the government chooses a significant portion of the students who attend. At grant-aided schools, a board appointed by the school’s operators decides whether the “Bible knowledge” or the “moral and religious education” curriculum will be used.

National school policy requires children to wear closely shaven hair to attend but makes exceptions for religious and health reasons.

Foreign missionaries are required to have employment permits.

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

Government Practices

On January 4, the High Court in Zomba granted an injunction compelling the Ministry of Education to allow all Rastafarian children to be admitted and enrolled in government schools. The court action came in response to a case filed in 2017 that involved a child who was denied enrollment to the Malindi Secondary School in Zomba due to his dreadlocks, as well as another case in 2019, in which the attorney requested that the court ruling be broadened to cover all Rastafarian students. Following the issuance of the injunction, the Attorney General asked, and the attorney for the Rastafarian students agreed, to settle the matter out of court, since the Ministry of Education was willing to enforce the injunction. Implementation of the injunction became temporarily moot when schools were closed from March 20 to September 7 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon the reopening of schools, the Rastafarian student’s attorney received complaints from seven Rastafarian students who had been denied enrollment. The Attorney General and the attorney agreed that there was no legal justification for the denied enrollments. On October 23, the Attorney General and the attorney formally communicated their views to the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry agreed to enroll the students. At year’s end, all Rastafarian students were enrolled in school.

During the night of July 29, Blantyre City Council workers removed a street billboard that the Muslim Association of Malawi’s (MAM) Islamic Information Bureau had erected to advertise the Quran, following complaints by the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM). The billboard, which read, “If you have read the Old Testament and the New Testament, now read the Last Testament, The Quran, the Ultimate Miracle,” was said to be “unacceptable and a recipe for religious conflict in the country” by the Blantyre College of Spiritual Fathers. The interfaith civil society organization, the Public Affairs Committee mediated between EAM and MAM, and a reworked billboard message reading, “Read the Quran, the Ultimate Miracle” was agreed on by both sides.

In contrast with previous years, neither of the Muslim associations in the country reported that female students were asked to remove their hijab in order to have their pictures taken for secondary school examination identification cards. The two organizations also reported that there were no cases of Department of Road Traffic and Safety Services photographers asking Muslim women to remove their hijabs before taking photographs for driver’s licenses, as had occurred in previous years.

According to media reports, conflicts often arose related to school dress codes, established locally, prescribing a particular uniform and appearance that did not allow female students to wear the hijab. The conflicts most often arose when religious schools that received government money turned students away in violation of national policy. The reports stated that some religious school leaders believed, erroneously, that religious schools could make their own policies; in fact, only if they were fully private and received no government funds could they do so.

On September 18, a Joint Technical Team was established under the guidance of the Public Affairs Committee, comprising seven Muslims and seven Christians, to foster dialogue on general dress codes in schools.

Muslim organizations continued to request that the education ministry discontinue use of the optional “Bible knowledge” course and use only the broader-based “moral and religious education” curriculum in primary schools, particularly in predominantly Muslim areas. According to Alhaji Twaibu Lawe, the MAM secretary general, the issue arose most frequently in grant-aided, Catholic-operated schools.

Rastafarians continued to object to laws making the use and possession of cannabis a criminal offense in the country, stating its use was a part of their religious doctrine.

Religious organizations and leaders regularly expressed their opinions on political issues, and their statements received coverage in the media. On June 27, the Episcopal Conference of Malawi issued a statement on the successful conduct of the June 23 court-mandated presidential elections. On August 6, the Public Affairs Committee held an interfaith dialogue with Lazarus Chakwera, the newly elected President of Malawi, and publicly released remarks on the meeting.

In September, President Chakwera promised to open a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, the first African nation to do so. Foreign Minister Eisenhower Mkaka reiterated the plan during a visit to Israel in November. Commentators attributed the government’s ability to make this move, in part, to what they stated was the high level of religious tolerance in the country, noting the prior election of an Israeli-born Jew as a member of parliament.

Most government meetings and events began and ended with a prayer, usually Christian in nature. At larger events, government officials generally invited clergy of different faiths to participate. On July 16, President Chakwera declared three days of prayer and fasting for “religiously inclined citizens” against the COVID-19 pandemic. The President also asked citizens to observe a National Day of Thanksgiving on July 19. The prayers were conducted in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On October 28, a group of Muslim individuals set fire to the office of the head teacher of Mpiri Catholic Primary school, as well as to a house on school premises, after the teacher turned away a female student wearing a hijab. Mpiri is in Machinga District, where Muslims are in the majority. The head teacher and 28 others were transferred elsewhere for their own safety, and the school was temporarily closed. Police investigated the incident. Following a 2019 incident in neighboring Balaka District, the Ministry of Education, adopting a “nondiscrimination approach” that allowed religious dress in schools, including schools run by religious organizations, had issued guidance stating that female Muslim students should be allowed to wear the hijab.

Religious groups operated at least 18 radio and 10 television stations. Approximately 80 percent of the radio stations in the country were Christian-affiliated, while 20 percent were Muslim-affiliated.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials engaged with representatives of religious groups from Christian, Muslim, and other faiths to discuss religious freedom, interreligious relations, and community engagement.

On January 23, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith event to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day at which embassy officials and local religious leaders discussed interfaith coexistence and religious leaders’ and organizations’ relationships with the government.

The embassy facilitated discussions between the country’s Christian and Muslim communities and the visiting nonresident Israeli Ambassador.

Malaysia

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. Individuals diverging from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. Sources stated that there was some selective persecution of non-Muslim faiths through legal and extralegal means. In February, the human rights commission (SUHAKAM) initiated a public inquiry into the 2016 disappearance of a Christian pastor and his wife. A government-appointed panel formed in 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s findings on the enforced disappearances of another Christian pastor and a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings in 2016 made little progress. In February, the wife of the second Christian pastor initiated legal action against the federal government and senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s disappearance. In July, the High Court convicted a man for training members of a WhatsApp group to commit terrorist acts, including attacks on a Hindu temple and other houses of worship. The Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against a member of parliament who stated that sharia courts discriminated against women. The government continued to selectively prosecute speech that allegedly denigrated Islam, while it largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. Non-Muslims faced legal difficulties when they sought to use the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report challenges in registering as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship. Some political parties said only Malay-Muslim parties should be allowed to lead the country. In July, a court sentenced a man to 26 months’ imprisonment for insulting Islam and a Muslim politician. The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs and limited Malaysians ability to travel to Israel.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again expressed concern that society was becoming less tolerant of religious diversity. A joint council of minority religious communities released a statement expressing its “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.”

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance, respecting religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of the three Christians and a Muslim activist in 2016. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders and scholars in virtual conferences and webinars that promoted religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy funded a civic education curriculum and training program that will teach students in federal religious schools about freedom of expression and association, including freedom of religion.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent, Buddhism; 9.2 percent, Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions; and less than 1 percent each of other religious groups that include animists, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Baha’is. Almost all Muslims practice Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school. Ethnic Malays, defined in the federal constitution as Muslims from birth, account for approximately 55 percent of the population. Rural areas – especially in the peninsular east coast of the country – are predominantly Muslim, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have relatively higher numbers of non-Muslims. Two-thirds of the country’s Christian population inhabits the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The federal constitution states, “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion,” but gives federal and state governments the power to control or restrict proselytization to Muslims. The constitution names Islam as the “religion of the Federation,” and gives parliament powers to make provisions regulating Islamic religious affairs. Federal law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom. Federal and state governments have the power to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.” The constitution identifies the traditional rulers, also known as sultans, as “Heads of Islam,” are the highest Islamic authorities within their respective states. Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the King, selected to a five-year term from among the nine sultans in an established rotation order. Islamic law is administered by each state. The office of mufti exists in every state to advise the sultan in all matters of Islamic law. Sultans oversee sharia courts and appoint judges based on the recommendation of the respective state Islamic religious departments and councils who manage the operations of the courts. In states with no sultan and in the Federal Territories, the King assumes responsibility for this process.

Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law except in matters concerning Islamic law. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. However, since 2018, the Federal Court, the country’s highest, has held it has jurisdiction over the procedures of the sharia administrative authority in cases involving conversion of minors and that such jurisdiction may not be abrogated by a constitutional amendment.

The Sharia Judiciary Department (JKSM) is the federal agency charged with coordinating the sharia courts. The federal Department of Development of Islam (JAKIM) is the permanent secretariat of the federal Fatwa Committee, which consists of 14 muftis, one from each state and one representing the Federal Territories. The Sharia and Civil Technical Committee within the Attorney General’s Chambers oversee the process of sharia lawmaking at the federal level. A 1996 fatwa, supported by state laws, requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings of the Shafi’i school and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.

Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests, especially for those born Muslim and ethnic Malays, and are reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. Penalties for apostasy vary by state. In the states of Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. The maximum penalty for apostasy in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu is death, but this penalty has never been imposed, and its legal status remains untested. According to former Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir, from 2000 to 2010, the sharia court approved 135 of 686 applications to no longer identify as a Muslim. NGOs report that most converts from Islam prefer to do so privately, without legal approval. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam. In some states, sharia courts allow one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent. The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation. A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam for the sharia court to officially recognize the marriage.

A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without explicit parental permission; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15. A 2018 decision of the Federal Court ruled against the unilateral conversion of children by a sharia court without the consent of both parents. The judgment said civil courts had jurisdiction to exercise supervisory powers over administrative decisions of state Islamic authorities.

Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting Islam. Convictions may result in prison sentences of three to seven years or up to 20 years if there is physical harm or damage to property. The law also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”

Under sharia, which differs by state, individuals convicted of “deviant” religious activity face up to three years in prison, caning, or a 5,000-ringgit ($1,200) fine for “insulting” Islam. According to some state laws, Muslims may be fined 1,000 ringgit ($250) if they do not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what authorities deem immodest clothing. According to sharia law in some states, any individuals who sell food to fasting Muslims or Muslims who do not fast are subject to a fine, a jail sentence, or both.

JAKIM and state Islamic authorities prepare all Friday sermons for congregations as well as oversee and approve the appointment of imams at mosques. JAKIM and state Islamic officials must formally approve all teachers of Islam before they may preach or lecture on Islam in public.

There is no legal requirement for non-Muslim religious groups to register, but to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s Registrar of Societies (ROS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and by paying a small fee. These organizations are legally required to submit annual reports to the ROS to remain registered. The ROS may inspect registered organizations and investigate those suspected of being used for purposes “prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order, or morality.”

Tax laws allow a tax exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for individual donors. Donors giving zakat (tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate. Donors to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.

Under sharia, caning is permitted in every state. Offenses subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, include consensual same-sex sexual relations and prostitution. Caning is also permitted for a wider variety of offenses under the penal code.

The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, with punishments varying from state to state, including imprisonment and caning. The law allows and supports Muslims proselytizing without restriction.

State governments have exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship as well as land allocation for all cemeteries.

All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and prayer rooms – fall under the authority of JAKIM and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or prayer rooms.

Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses. Private schools may offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims.

Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. Non-Muslims have no standing in sharia proceedings, leading to some cases where sharia court rulings have affected non-Muslims who have no ability to defend their position or appeal the court’s decision, most frequently in rulings affecting custody, divorce, inheritance, burial, and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains largely unresolved in the legal system. When civil and sharia jurisdictions intersect, civil courts continue largely to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where sharia judgments affect non-Muslims.

Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have enacted hudood (the Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the implementation of that code. The states may not implement these laws without amendments to federal legislation and the agreement of the sultan.

The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim females and 18 for Muslim males, except in Selangor State, where Muslim and non-Muslim females must be 18. Sharia courts may make exceptions for marriage before those ages with the permission of parents. Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry, but may marry as young as 16 with the approval of their state’s chief minister.

National identity cards specify religious affiliation, and the government uses them to determine which citizens are subject to sharia. The cards identify Muslims in print on the face of the card; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is encrypted in a smart chip within the identity card. Married Muslims must carry a special photo identification of themselves and their spouse as proof of marriage.

Foreign missionaries and international students for religious courses must apply for a professional visit pass with the Department of Immigration. This visa is given on a year-to-year basis and must be endorsed by a national body representing the respective faiths.

JAKIM coordinates the Hajj, endowment (waqf), tithes (zakat), and other Islamic activities.

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

Government Practices

Police made little progress in investigating the disappearance in 2016 of Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Sitepu, reportedly due to a lack of information on the case. In February, SUHAKAM initiated a public inquiry into their disappearance. A witness testified that Hilmy had told him that “religious authorities were looking for him” due to his conversion from Islam to Christianity without following the required legal procedures. The witness said Hilmy told him he had not been threatened. Another witness testified in March that Hilmy had shown him an email from then Minister of Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin instructing Hilmy to “leave the country.” Jamaluddin denied the accusation in a statement, noting, “I never personally knew Joshua Hilmy, Ruth Hilmy, nor (the witness) Selvakumar Peace John Harris. I also deny having sent the alleged email, nor have I contacted them through any means of communication.” SUHAKAM’s inquiry was suspended in March after two of its commissioners tested positive for COVID-19, but it resumed in August and was ongoing at year’s end.

A government-appointed panel formed in June 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s determination that the Royal Malaysia Police intelligence unit, Special Branch, was responsible for the 2016 “enforced disappearance” of Shia Muslim social activist Amri Che Mat made little progress in its investigation, according to SUHAKAM. In August, the NGO Citizens against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED) urged the government to release the findings of the panel and police to reveal actions taken in response to the SUHAKAM report. The government-appointed panel did not investigate the disappearance of Christian pastor Raymond Koh in 2016, however, as the government argued it was “out of scope” of the panel, purportedly because prosecutors had previously charged him with extorting Koh’s son for information in the case.

In February, Susanna Liew, the wife of Pastor Koh, initiated legal action against the federal government and several senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s kidnapping, accusing them of negligence, misfeasance, and conspiracy to injure.

Despite calls from the High Court for police to locate Indira Gandhi’s former husband and their youngest child, whom he abducted in 2009, both remained missing as of September. Gandhi, a Hindu, had earlier sued successfully to deny her former husband’s unilateral conversion of their three minor children to Islam. In February, Gandhi initiated legal proceedings against the police and the police inspector-general (IGP) for failing to locate her daughter, Prasana. At year’s end, the IGP had not disclosed Prasana’s location nor announced any progress on her case.

In February, the Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against Member of Parliament Maria Chin Abdullah for statements she made in 2019 asserting that the sharia court discriminated against women. The prosecution said Chin’s comments harmed the reputation of the court.

In July, an Indonesian man was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment and fined 5,000 ringgit ($1,200) for training members of a WhatsApp group, “sejati sejiwa” (one true soul), to commit terrorist acts and for possessing items linked to ISIS. Police said the man had been preparing to attack a Hindu temple in Selangor in 2019 to “avenge” the death of a Muslim firefighter who was killed when responding to a riot at a Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur in 2018.

In May, the Federal Court allowed a man to challenge the constitutionality of a law in the sharia legal code against “unnatural sex.” The man’s lawyer argued that the Selangor State legislative body had no power to apply sharia because sharia pertained to criminal law, which falls under federal jurisdiction, and that there was already a federal law on “unnatural sex” in the penal code.

Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is a member party of the ruling Perikatan National coalition, said that the NGO G25, described by academics and the media as a promoderation group of eminent Malay individuals and civil servants, posed an intellectual threat to Muslims and was more dangerous than a militant group. A G25 report on the administration of Islam in Malaysia stated that Muslims who chose to convert to another faith or practice no faith should not face criminal punishment.

Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In February, a sessions court fined Wai Foo Sing 15,000 ringgit ($3,700) under the Communications and Multimedia Act for posting what the court said was an obscene graphic of the Prophet Muhammad and his wife on Facebook. The court said, “It is undeniable that the accused’s inappropriate, offensive, and obscene posting based on religion has transgressed the parameters of free speech guaranteed under our constitution.” In March, a judge fined Ain Zafira Md Said, a student, 4,000 ringgit ($1,000) in lieu of three months in jail for insulting the Prophet Muhammad on social media in 2019. In April, authorities detained two individuals and initiated investigations under the Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act relating to a social media video mocking Muslims praying. In July, a court sentenced Danny Antoni to 26 months in prison after finding him guilty on two counts of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and the president of PAS, Abdul Hadi Awang, in a Facebook post.

In September, police opened an investigation into Member of Parliament Nik Muhammad Zawawi Nik Salleh for his remarks in parliament stating that “the Bible was distorted or altered.” Zawawi said he had no reason to apologize, since his statement was “a fact,” and he said the Christian community had “no right to be offended.” The investigation against Zawawi remained open at year’s end.

Lawyers called for the Ministry of Education to issue a directive forbidding religious conversion of students in school. In January, a Christian family in Sarawak state sued authorities over the conversion of their son, a minor, to Islam by a ustaz (religious teacher) in his school without the parents’ knowledge or consent. “My client’s instruction is to challenge the validity of the conversion of their son. He is still a minor. The parents were unaware of the conversion. They were shattered when they found out,” said Priscilla Ruth Marcus, the family’s lawyer. According to Marcus, “This is not the first reported case.” NGOs reported that similar cases reinforced fears among parents of rural Christian communities in Sabah and Sarawak State about what might happen if they send their children to boarding schools.

In January, government and religious authorities in Sabah State initiated investigations into reports that the Malaysian Islamic Economic Development Foundation, a quasigovernmental charity trust fund, offered cash to individuals who agreed to convert to Islam. Then Assistant Education and Innovation Minister Jenifer Lasimbang told media, “It’s not a new thing. These things have been happening for a few years.” The foundation denied the allegations.

JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines on what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief. State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length but often lasted approximately six months. These counseling programs continued to be designed to ensure the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam. In January, the NGO G25 denounced various state laws penalizing apostasy, whether by fines, caning, imprisonment, or extended “rehabilitation,” as inconsistent with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri made a statement in July that religious authorities would arrest transgender individuals and provide them religious education to “return to the correct path.” In August, JAKIM filed a police report against activist Nicole Fong, accusing her of defamation because of her tweets detailing JAKIM’s religious conversion program that targeted the LGBTQ community. In a statement, 15 NGOs said JAKIM intimidated human rights defenders with heavy-handed tactics that “send a message to Malaysians that we are not allowed to question governmental policies and programs.”

NGO sources reported it remained difficult for Muslims attempting to convert and for non-Muslims mistakenly registered as Muslims to change the religious designation on their identification cards. A woman in Sabah State, Nusiah Pulod, faced significant bureaucratic challenges in attempting to remove the “Islam” designation printed on her identification card even though she said she was born Christian and had never converted. As a result, Nusiah was unable to marry her non-Muslim fiance, since the registration office would not recognize what it considered to be a mixed-faith marriage involving a Muslim. Nusiah said many Christian families in her village faced similar problems.

The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and it limited Malaysians’ ability to travel to Israel. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in a June interview with Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV that it is better for Muslims to attack Israelis directly rather than carry out terrorist attacks against European countries and the United States. “The enemy is Israel. [If] you want to do anything, do it to the Israelis, like some of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, who individually attack Israeli soldiers. That is the enemy.” He also said that Jews controlled the media in the United States. “It is a propaganda campaign on the part of the Jews. They own all the newspapers in America. They own the TV stations. So they have tremendous influence.”

All foreign missionaries – both Muslim and non-Muslim – coming to the country to conduct religious talks were subjected to mandatory background checks for what the government termed national security reasons to ensure missionary groups are free from “deviant” teachings.

State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex). In January, the Islamic Affairs and Religious Department in Kelantan State detained seven Muslim couples on suspicion of committing khalwat during a seasonal “antivice” operation in conjunction with the Lunar New Year celebration. A government representative said the operation was intended to “track down those who took the opportunity of the long public holiday to commit immoral behavior.” Four Muslim women were also issued summonses for wearing “sexy and tight clothing in public.”

In July, the Terengganu State government implemented a gender segregation policy in cinemas in what it said was a measure to ensure adherence to sharia. According to a local cinema operator, married couples needed to provide legal proof of marriage and were subjected to random checks. Muslim moviegoers were also required to dress according to Islamic regulations, while non-Muslim moviegoers were required to dress modestly.

Authorities in Terengganu State said they would soon introduce additional gender-segregation guidelines for event organizers barring female entertainers, including non-Muslims, from performing before male audiences.

In August, the chairman of the Kelantan State Community Unity, Culture, Heritage, and Tourism Committee said the state would review for “corrections” a century-old indigenous dance form, Main Puteri, that it considered “un-Islamic” in order to meet sharia compliance before the dance could be reintroduced for public entertainment.

Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed all sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion deemed contrary to Sunni Islam. In February, a mosque in the state of Perak that organized a Chinese New Year celebration was censured by the Perak Islamic Religious Department for “disrespecting the sensitivity of the Muslim community.” In December, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmad Marzuk Shaary reported that the National Fatwa Council was investigating the teachings of Asmaul Husna Wan Maseri, founded by former PAS council member Professor Wan Maseri Wan Mohd in Kelantan, on allegations of deviation from Sunni Islam. The group had been declared as heretical in the states of Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang and the Federal Territories.

The government continued to maintain restrictions on religious assembly and provisions; these denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Many churches and NGOs continued to find registration difficult, with the ROS denying or delaying many applications without explanation or for highly technical reasons. Representatives of religious groups continued to say the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups.

In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Religious groups reported registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization to conduct certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but registering did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of religious groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be “deviant” Islamic groups, including Shia, Ahmadiyya, and al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers, as these could only be performed in an officially registered mosque. In January, the Selangor State Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) said there were 15 Shia religious centers, which JAIS considered to be a significant increase. The chairperson of JAIS said the agency would intensify efforts to monitor Shia Muslims and raid Shia religious gatherings and would also provide information on the alleged dangers of Shia Islam to schools and mosques throughout the state. In response, the NGO Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) said JAIS was promoting “an intolerant religion [Islam] in this modern age.”

In August, the Court of Appeal petitioned the High Court to determine whether 39 Ahmaddiya Muslims were to be considered Muslim following an appeal by JAIS against a 2018 High Court decision stating that the sharia court had no jurisdiction over the Ahmadi community, since JAIS had refused to recognize them as adherents of Islam. The petitioners challenged their 2014 sharia offenses charged by JAIS on the basis that Islamic authorities in Selangor State did not recognize Ahmadiyya as Muslims and that the petitioners were therefore outside JAIS jurisdiction. The High Court ruled in August, “The Ahmaddiya were, as with all other persons, entitled to freedom of religion, subject to the Federal Constitution.” The court also said the country’s dual legal system and the issuance of identity cards stating their holders’ religion as Islam compounded the ambiguity of their religious status as Muslims. The three-member bench chaired by Justice Badariah Sahamid further stated, “It is timely that all states, along with the federal government, work out a unified regime to determine the religious status of the Ahmadiyya so that they are not put at risk of sharia investigations and prosecution.”

The country’s movement control order (MCO), established to prevent the spread of COVID-19, banned gatherings of any kind from March 18 through June 4, including religious gatherings. During Ramadan, the MCO prohibited Muslims from worshiping in mosques, breaking their fast outside their homes, and visiting Ramadan bazaars, a popular tradition. The government assured Muslims that all religious obligations could be carried out at home and noted exceptions for front-line responders and those who were ill. State religious leaders, including conservative representatives from PAS, supported the federal government’s measures, noting “we must accept it and obey the rules of social distancing to protect our lives.” Non-Islamic leaders said that they were not consulted or warned by the government before restrictions were imposed.

In September, the Federal Court allowed the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) to proceed with a hearing to seek a court declaration to invalidate a Selangor State law that enabled sharia courts to review decisions made by state religious authorities. In 2019, the High Court dismissed the NGO’s application for a civil court to review a 2014 Selangor State fatwa that found the organization “deviant” infringed the group’s and its members’ constitutional rights. The 2014 fatwa said SIS deviated from the teachings of Islam because the group subscribed to the principles of liberalism and religious pluralism. The fatwa did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” The fatwa also ruled that the NGO’s books and materials could be seized. At year’s end, no action had been taken against the NGO, which continued to function nationally.

In September, JAIS arrested Abdul Kahar Ahmad and 16 followers for spreading the teachings of a “deviant sect” that had been banned in 1991. JAIS confiscated books, cell phones, laptops, and other materials. Following the arrest, the Minister of Religious Affairs said the government will consider distributing reading materials on “deviant” teachings to imams and religious teachers appointed by religious authorities in order to warn the public of the dangers of such teachings. Abdul Kahar and three of those arrested were released on bail, while the other 13 remained in custody. Abdul Kahar, who proclaimed himself a Rasul Melayu (Malay prophet), was previously arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, six strokes of caning, and a fine of 16,500 ringgit ($4,100).

There were restrictions on the use of the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words by non-Muslims. These restrictions included saying certain words, such as “Allah,” “al Quran,” or “fatwa” out loud, or using or producing Bibles or recorded religious materials that refer to God using the term “Allah.”

In October, the Court of Appeal dismissed a discovery application by Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Christian church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the documents the Home Affairs Ministry used to support its ban on the Church’s and its Malay-language speaking congregation’s right to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications. The ministry argued that the documents sought by the Church fell under the Official Secrets Act 1972.

The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.” In February, the Court of Appeal overturned the government’s ban on three books written by IRF. The Ministry of Home Affairs originally banned the books in 2017 for content that did not comply with the government’s interpretation of Islam, a decision the High Court upheld in 2019. IRF representatives welcomed the court’s decision, stating it fulfilled its role as “the last bastion for the protection of freedom of expression.”

A 2019 investigation into the book Unveiling Choices by Maryam Lee remained open. The book was alleged by JAIS to “insult or bring into contempt the religion of Islam.” It narrates Lee’s personal reasons for removing her hijab as well as the sociopolitical relationship between Muslim women and the Malaysian state. Lee would be subject to a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,200), up to three years in prison, or both, if found guilty.

Non-Muslim groups continued to report regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services. Observers said this practice remained largely tolerated but left the religious groups vulnerable. In March, authorities demolished the 100-year-old Sri Maha Mariamman Temple located within the Kamunting detention center in Taiping, Perak State. According to media reports, authorities did not inform the temple’s leaders of the impending demolition. Facebook later removed a post by Penang Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy questioning whether the demolition was in part organized by a federal government dominated by ethnic Malay Muslims. “I think the title of the post, which asserted that the structure was probably the first Hindu temple demolished under the Perikatan National [ruling coalition] government, irked the powers that be,” Ramasamy commented to the media.

PAS party leader Hadi said during a September speech at the annual general meeting of party that only Malay-Muslim unity could lead and save the country. According to media reports, Hadi said, “The nation that is with Islam must rise so that it is not swept away by the influence of non-Muslims, who lose their identity.” In January, Hadi described choosing between Muslim and non-Muslim rule: “If we [Muslims] are patient with each other, and even if [the leadership] is cruel, we can at least be cow herders, but under other people’s rule, we will become pig herders.” Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the Democratic Action Party, which is part of the opposition coalition but has the most seats in the lower house of parliament, responded, “The advocates of this version of politics are gambling with the future of a multiracial, multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural nation.”

The Prime Minister’s office tasked government agencies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that no entity had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, and they cited the large footprint and budget for JAKIM compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration. That department’s annual budget was approximately 275 million ringgit ($68.41 million), while 1.4 billion ringgit ($348.3 million) was marked for the development of Islam under JAKIM alone.

In April, the government allocated 21 million ringgit ($5.22 million) to assist private Islamic schools whose operations were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government said the assistance was part of 100 million ringgit ($24.88 million) allocated to JAKIM under the 2020 budget supplement intended to finance the maintenance and upgrading of Islamic schools. Non-Islamic schools did not receive this funding.

During the year, JAKIM continued to fund a wide variety of Islamic education- and mosque-related projects. There were no funds in the government budget specifically allocated to non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and other activities.

At public primary and secondary schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with the recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader. Particularly in the country’s peninsula, community leaders and civil liberties groups said religion teachers in public schools pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school. Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils covering their faces except for their eyes. Homeschooling remained legal, but some families continued to report difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education.

There were continued complaints concerning what critics said were religious overtones and symbols in public schools. In January, family members of children enrolled in government residential schools questioned what they said was an overemphasis on religious practices: schools frequently compelled students to attend group prayers and rituals, causing the studies of other subjects to be neglected. In response, the schools stated the rituals were intended to obtain “blessings” that would ensure that students excelled academically, and that would elevate the status of the school. “They are competing on which school is more Islamic instead of being better academically,” said one parent. Another parent told the online news portal Free Malaysia Today that her daughter was compelled to attend a “ruqyah” (exorcism) session to be cured from the possession of “bad spirits” after skipping Islamic instruction to attend biology classes.

An effort by the government to revive Jawi, an archaic Arabic script, in lessons on Bahasa Melayu in vernacular primary schools sparked tensions along ethnic and religious fault lines. Following an outcry from Chinese groups that the Jawi revival was an attempt at Islamization, the Ministry of Education pared down the pages to be taught on Jawi from six to three. Then Deputy Minister of Education Teo Nie Ching later clarified that Jawi lessons in vernacular schools could only be introduced with majority approval from parent-teacher associations.

In January, Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz, vice president of Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia, a Malay nationalist political party, wrote that a public school in Puchong, Selangor State, was propagating religion to its students through decorations for Lunar New Year. He stated, “The complaints we’ve received show unease at the excessive Chinese New Year 2020 decorations….This is distressing for Muslim students and is also against Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution.” In a sign of support for the school, the then Deputy Prime Minister and six other cabinet ministers visited it and helped put up Lunar New Year decorations.

In the same month, the Ministry of Education issued a circular stating that JAKIM advised that Ponggal, a Tamil harvest festival, is haram (forbidden) in Islam. Responding to a public outcry, then Minister of Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said that JAKIM had not prohibited schools from celebrating the festival, since, “It was permissible for Muslims to take part in the celebration as long as Islamic ethics were observed.” Mujahid called for stern action against the Ministry of Education official responsible for the circular in question.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate. In a February ruling, the Federal Court determined that a Muslim child conceived or born out of what the state determined to be wedlock could not bear his or her father’s name, even if requested by the father. The court said the law “does not enable Muslim children to be named with the personal name of a person acknowledged to be the father” because ethnic Malays do not use surnames. The NGO SIS praised the court’s other ruling that children born out of wedlock do not have to automatically use the surname “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah,” which carries a social stigma in the country where children with these surnames are often “ridiculed, attacked, bullied, or targeted.”

Then Minister for Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said he would ask the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to take action against Nur Sajat, a prominent transgender entrepreneur, after she posted pictures of herself wearing a prayer garment on pilgrimage in Mecca in February. Muhajid said Nur Sajat’s actions were an “offense” and could compromise the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. JAKIM circulated copies of Nur Sajat’s passport and other documents were circulated on social media, raising concerns among civil society groups about her privacy and safety. The NGO Justice for Sisters condemned the government’s action, stating, “The real concern is not the telekung (prayer garment), but her safety and security, the breach of privacy, and the lack of rights and evidence-based response by the government.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

As in years past, local human rights organizations and religious leaders said society continued to become less tolerant of religious diversity. In September, the interfaith organization Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism (MCCBCHST) released a press statement to express “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.” NGOs also cited some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic” as well as heavily publicized statements targeting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups.

In January, the NGO ILMU, whose members were closely linked to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party and who have in the past spoken out against Shia Islam, hosted a national convention on “Knowledge of the Hadith,” in Kuala Lumpur. Sheikh Abdurrahman Ibrahim al-Rubai’in, the religious attache of the Saudi Arabian embassy, in his keynote speech, said it was useless to include Shia Muslims in any efforts to unite Muslims, since “They are deviant.” He added, “The difference between Sunnis and Shias is not merely over jurisprudence, but also between truth and falsehood.”

Hundreds of Muslim students gathered in January outside a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur to demand the government ban the Chinese educational group Dong Zong, on the grounds that Dong Zong opposed the inclusion of Jawi lessons in the national school syllabus. The PAS youth chief spoke at the protest and blamed Chinese majority political parties in the ruling and opposition coalitions for perpetuating baseless fears against Islam. The Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition said Dong Zong was attempting to foment a repeat of the country’s bloody 1969 race riots. Also in January, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad labeled Dong Zong as “racist” against the Malay-Muslim majority after the group petitioned against the government’s move to introduce Jawi lessons in schools on grounds that the measure would be a form of “Islamization.”

The leader of the apolitical group of Malay-Muslim NGOs Pertubuhan Pembela Islam (Pembela), Aminuddin Yahaya, called on the new Perikatan Nasional coalition government to appoint an ethnic Malay attorney general and to “take action” against insults to Islam. “We have to take this seriously because Malays don’t insult other religions or other races, but other races insult Malays and Islam. Therefore, there must be enforcement.”

Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from their former cobelievers, including friends and relatives.

Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. Muslim women who did not wear the headscarf or conform to religious notions of modesty were often subject to shaming in public and on social media.

In March, the Malaysian rock band Bunkface released its song “The End of Times,” which caused controversy over lyrics that urged the LGBTQ community to “go and die.” In a statement, the band defended the lyrics as a criticism of the growing Muslim LGBTQ movement in the country and indicated its rejection of any rights for LGBTQ Muslims, describing the LGBTQ community as haram. “What has been set as haram will always remain haram,” the band said in its press released. YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music removed the song from their platforms following international media attention.

In April, a video of a local man harassing a Rohingya individual from Burma surfaced on Facebook amid an increase in comments online aimed at the Rohingya community. In the four-minute video, the man demanded the Rohingya prove his Islamic faith. In April, activist Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi of the European Rohingya Council rights group said in response, “There is harassment [of Rohingya] on the streets and online. I’ve never seen anything like this in Malaysia before.” In the same month, Tengku Emma was threatened with rape on social media, including the online group “32 Million Malaysians Reject Rohingya,” after asking the government to allow boats carrying Rohingya asylum seekers to land.

Religious groups hosted virtual interfaith dialogues and intercultural celebrations throughout the year. In September, the Dalai Lama and a professor from the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, Osman Bakar, discussed compassion and mercy as common values in Islam and Buddhism in a virtual forum organized by the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious groups’ taking the opportunity to discuss different ways of promoting people’s right to pursue different ways of life. In an interfaith dialogue in December, Council of Churches Malaysia secretary general Hermen Shastri said the establishment of a “truly interfaith council” was hindered by a “majority vs. minority” mentality, since interfaith groups in the country have yet to form an entity that engages with the majority Islamic community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, as well as with other agencies, on religious freedom and tolerance issues throughout the year, including concerns about the denigration of religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children, and the disappearances of Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, and Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth Sitepu.

Embassy officials met with members of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups, who described heavy government restrictions on their religious activities and continued societal discrimination. The embassy also met with Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government, such as those from SIS, G25, and the Islamic Renaissance Front, and with MCCBCHST to discuss strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom.

The embassy broadcast messages related to religious freedom on its social media platforms on International Religious Freedom Day and throughout the year.

The embassy nominated Susanna Liew, wife of missing pastor Raymond Koh, for the International Women of Courage (IWOC) award and facilitated her travel to the United States to attend the annual IWOC ceremony in Washington D.C. in March.

Maldives

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the President, to be followers of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. The law criminalizes “criticism of Islam” and speech “in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.” The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as flogging, stoning, and amputation of hands, but no sentences were carried out during the year. During June and July, groups of religious scholars, island councils, and youth groups released statements calling on the government to deregister the women’s rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Uthema, citing the group’s Shadow Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women as including content derogatory to Islam. In October, a group of religious scholars called on the government to stop “allowing irreligious individuals and those who criticize Islam to remain free and take action against them as prescribed by Islamic Shariah and the law.” In March, Maldives Police Services (MPS) investigated a man from Thinadhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll for a second time on suspicion of “criticizing Islam” and in April charged him with the lesser charge of “obstructing justice.” He was convicted in June, sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, and remained in detention at year’s end. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government continued to prohibit resident foreigners and foreign tourists from practicing any religion other than Islam in public.

NGOs reported that religiously motivated violent extremists continued to issue death threats against individuals on social media, including employees of human rights organizations, labeling them “secularists” or “apostates” and calling for attacks against them. NGO representatives said they continued to see what they termed Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism among the populace, stating the government’s efforts to address this trend were insufficient. NGO representatives also said the open investigation against the NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), which was banned in 2019 on grounds of releasing a report that “criticized Islam,” and the failure of the government to publicly refute statements by popular religious figures characterizing NGOs as “irreligious” prevented them from publicly supporting those subjected to this harassment.

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Maldives, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and Embassy Colombo staff represents U.S. interests there. In contacts with government officials, embassy officials regularly encouraged the government to investigate threats against individuals targeted as “secularists” or “apostates,” to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, and to ease restrictions preventing non-Sunnis from practicing freely. In meetings with government agencies, embassy officials expressed concern over harassment of individuals and organizations characterized as “irreligious,” appealed against the dissolution of Uthema, and urged the government to formulate a longer-term strategy to deal with incidents of online hate speech and harassment of NGOs and individuals.

Section I. Religious Demography

The total population of Maldivians is 392,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). The government estimates the total population is 557,426, including 117,000 documented and 63,000 undocumented foreign workers in the country, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. While most citizens follow Sunni Islam (indeed, citizenship requires it), there are no reliable estimates of actual religious affiliations. Foreign workers are predominantly Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the country is a republic based on the principles of Islam and designates Islam as the state religion, which it defines in terms of Sunni teachings. It states citizens have a “duty” to preserve and protect Islam. According to the constitution, non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship.

The constitution states citizens are free to engage in activities “not expressly prohibited” by sharia, but it stipulates the Majlis (the country’s legislative body) may pass laws limiting rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” In deciding whether a limitation on a right or freedom is constitutional, the constitution states a court must consider the extent to which the right or freedom “must be limited” to protect Islam.

The constitution makes no mention of freedom of religion. Although it contains a provision prohibiting discrimination “of any kind,” it does not list religion as a prohibited basis for discrimination. The constitution states individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression, but only in a manner “not contrary to the tenets of Islam.”

The law prohibits the conversion of a Muslim to another religion. By law, a violation may result in the loss of the convert’s citizenship, although a judge may impose a harsher punishment per sharia jurisprudence. Although the law does not stipulate such punishment, sharia jurisprudence is often understood by the public and religious scholars to provide for the death penalty in cases of conversion from Islam (i.e., apostasy), but the government has made no such statement.

The law states both the government and the people must protect “religious unity.” Any statement or action found to be contrary to this objective is subject to criminal penalty. Specific infractions include expressing religious beliefs other than Islam, disrupting religious unity, and having discussions or committing acts that promote religious differences. The list of infractions also includes delivering religious sermons in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country or limiting the rights of a specific section of society. According to the law, sentences for violators may include a fine of up to 20,000 rufiyaa ($1,300), imprisonment for two to five years, or deportation for foreigners.

Laws criminalize speech breaking Islamic tenets, breaching social norms, or threatening national security. The penal code criminalizes “criticism of Islam.” According to the law, a person commits the offense of “criticizing Islam” by “engaging in religious oration or criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intent to cause disregard for Islam; producing, selling, or distributing material criticizing Islam; producing, selling, distributing, importing, disseminating, or possessing ‘idols of worship’; and/or attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizenry and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause ‘religious segregation.’” Individuals convicted of these offenses are subject to imprisonment for up to one year.

By law, no one may deliver sermons or explain religious principles in public without obtaining a license from the MIA. Imams may not prepare Friday sermons without government authorization. To obtain a license to preach, the law specifies an individual must be a Sunni Muslim, have a degree in religious studies from a university recognized by the government, and not have been convicted of a crime in sharia court. The law also sets educational standards for imams to ensure they have theological qualifications the government considers adequate. Government regulations stipulate the requirements for preaching and contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. The regulations prohibit making statements in sermons that may be interpreted as racial or gender discrimination, discouraging access to education or health services in the name of Islam, or demeaning the character of and/or creating hatred toward persons of any other religion. The law provides for a punishment of two to five years in prison or house arrest for violations of these provisions. Anyone who assists in such a violation is subject to imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320 to $1,300). The law requires foreign scholars to ensure their sermons conform to the country’s norms, traditions, culture, and social etiquette.

Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in prison or house arrest. Proselytizing to change denominations within Islam is also illegal and carries the same penalty. If the offender is a foreigner, authorities may revoke the individual’s license to preach in the country and deport the individual.

By law, mosques and prayer houses are under the control of the MIA. The law prohibits the establishment of places of worship for non-Islamic religious groups.

The law states, “Non-Muslims living in or visiting the country are prohibited from openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities, or involving Maldivians in such activities.” By law, those expressing religious beliefs other than Islam face imprisonment of up to five years or house arrest, fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320 to $1,300), and deportation.

By law, a female citizen may not marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he first converts to Islam. A male citizen may marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish; other foreigners must convert to Islam prior to marriage.

The law prohibits importation of any items the MIA deems contrary to Islam, including religious literature, religious statues, alcohol, pork products, and pornographic materials. Penalties for contravention of the law range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment. It is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen, although government regulations permit the sale of alcoholic beverages to foreigners on resort islands. Individuals must request permission to import restricted goods from the Ministry of Economic Development.

The constitution states education shall strive to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” In accordance with the law, the MIA regulates Islamic instruction in schools, while the Ministry of Education funds salaries of religious instructors in schools. By law, educators who teach Islamic studies must have a degree from a university or teaching center accredited by the Maldives Qualification Authority or other religious qualification recognized by the government. By law, foreigners who wish to teach Islamic studies may receive authorization to do so only if they subscribe to Sunni Islam. Islam is a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students. The curriculum incorporates Islam into all subject areas at all levels of education, specifying eight core competencies underpinned by Islamic values, principles, and practices. In practice, foreign, non-Muslim children are allowed to opt out of studying Islam.

The constitution states Islam forms one basis of the law, and “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.” The constitution specifies judges must apply sharia in deciding matters not addressed by the constitution or by law, but sharia is not considered applicable to non-Muslims.

The penal code prescribes flogging for unlawful sexual intercourse (adultery, fornication, and same-sex relations), incest, false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, failing to fast during Ramadan, or (for Maldivian citizens only) consuming pork or alcohol. Other sharia penalties are not specified, but the code grants judges the discretion to impose sharia penalties for certain offenses under sharia – including murder, apostasy, assault, theft, homosexual acts, drinking alcohol, and property damage – if proven beyond all doubt. The penal code requires that all appeal processes be exhausted prior to the administration of sharia punishments specific to these offenses, including stoning, amputation of hands, and similar punishments.

The Supreme Council of Fatwa has the authority to issue fatwas, or legal opinions, on religious matters. The council functions under the MIA and comprises five members appointed to five-year terms. The President names three members directly and chooses a fourth from the faculty of either the Maldives National University or the Islamic University of Maldives. The Minister of Islamic Affairs recommends the fifth member, subject to the President’s approval.

The constitution stipulates the President, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and judges must be Sunni Muslims.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation stating the government’s application of the principles set out in ICCPR Article 18, which relates to religious freedom, shall be “without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic.”

Government Practices

The government reported that eight adults were sentenced to flogging during the year, five for consuming alcohol and three for extramarital sex, but none of the sentences were carried out, pending completion of appeals.

In January, six men linked to a Maduvvari Island-based terrorist cell were charged with supporting a terrorist organization and promoting materials supporting terrorist organizations and producing or distributing obscene materials under the Anti-Terrorism Act and penal code. Their trial continued at year’s end, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office, but all six had been released from custody by the court because of an “excessive amount of detention.” The group was led by Maldivian ISIS leader and recruiter Mohamed Ameen, who was arrested in December 2019 and remained in custody with his trial underway at year’s end.

In March, MPS investigated a man from Thinadhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll for a second time on suspicion of “criticizing Islam,” and in April charged him with “obstructing justice.” He was convicted in June, sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, and remained in detention at year’s end. The man was initially arrested in 2019 after he posted on social media that he was holding “irreligious discussions” with the youth on his island with the intention to plan rallies encouraging secularism. The government filed charges of “criticizing Islam” against him in 2019, but the Thinadhoo Magistrate Court dismissed the case and released him from custody in March after police failed to present him for a court hearing. He was arrested again two days later for again posting social media content that authorities determined to be critical of Islam. In 2019, MPS told media it was separately investigating death threats against the man, but as of the end of the year, they had not made arrests or filed charges over the death threats.

In October 2019, MPS questioned a woman not identified by local media in relation to “content that criticizes Islam being posted on a social media account.” The case was closed with no further action when the woman left the country.

During the year, the government did not take further action on an investigation launched in 2019 against employees of the NGO MDN, which had been deregistered in December 2019 because the group’s 2015 Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives contained content that mocked Islam and the Prophet, according to MPS and the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment. MPS reported the investigation remained open as of year’s end.

In June and July, groups of religious scholars, island councils, and youth groups released statements calling on the government to deregister the women’s rights NGO Uthema because the group’s Shadow Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women included content the groups said was derogatory to Islam. The statements called on the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment to deregister Uthema as it had previously done with MDN. The government had not taken action against Uthema as of year’s end.

In January, the MIA announced it was looking into a complaint submitted by an unidentified party alleging the international NGO Quilliam Foundation had conducted “anti-Islamic” workshops for school students and parents in Hanimaadhoo Island in Haa Dhaalu atoll and Hithadhoo in Addu City in January. The ministry had taken no further action in the case as of year’s end.

NGOs reported the open investigation against MDN and failure of the government to publicly refute statements by popular religious figures characterizing NGOs as “irreligious” prevented them from expressing solidarity or publicly supporting those subjected to harassment in case of similar action against their organizations. In December, to mark one year since the deregistration of MDN, four international human rights NGOs released a statement that noted, “The Government of Maldives, by taking arbitrary and unconstitutional actions to silence civil society, has set a dangerous precedent that has resulted in a violent witch hunt of human rights defenders and civil society organizations.”

The trial of seven men for the 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed, a critic of religious fundamentalism and violent extremism, remained pending at year’s end.

Victims of online harassment and threats continued to say they believed themselves vulnerable because of the lack of police responsiveness to their complaints and because similar occurrences had preceded the 2014 disappearance and killing of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the 2017 killing of Rasheed. MPS reported investigating one case of online harassment, which was concluded without any arrests or action.

The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) continued to maintain an unpublished blacklist of websites containing material it deemed un-Islamic or anti-Islamic. CAM did not proactively monitor internet content but instead relied on requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites violating laws against criticism or defamation of Islam. Police reported investigating one website and 14 twitter handles for “criticizing Islam” because of un-Islamic content but had filed no charges as of year’s end.

The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government maintained its ownership and control of all mosques, including their maintenance and funding. The government continued to permit private donors to fund mosques as well.

According to the MIA, foreign residents, such as teachers, laborers, and tourists, remained free to worship as they wished in private, but congregating in public for non-Islamic prayer remained illegal, as was encouraging local citizens to participate in such activities

Customs authorities said the MIA continued to permit the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The MIA also continued to allow some religious literature for scholarly research. Customs officials reported 26 cases involving importation of religious idols, statues, and Christian crosses during the year. Authorities confiscated these items but did not press charges.

The Christian international NGO Open Doors said that Christians visiting the country reported being “closely watched.” The government reported that no such complaints were lodged with police or other authorities, and if any cases of this nature were identified, there would have been records of an investigation. There were no other reports of Christians being monitored in the country.

The MIA continued to conduct what it termed “awareness programs” through radio and television broadcasts in Male and on various islands to give citizens information on Islam, and it continued to provide assistance and counseling to foreigners seeking to convert to Islam. The ministry, in partnership with religious NGOs, continued to send imams to outer atolls to conduct workshops for students, youth, and others in schools and government buildings for the stated purpose of strengthening the islanders’ understanding and acceptance of Islam.

The National Institute of Education continued to implement a curriculum for public and private schools incorporating Islam into all subject areas. According to NGOs, passages in some textbooks portrayed democracy as being anti-Islam, encouraged anti-Semitism and xenophobia, glorified jihad, and demonized the West. The MIA continued to permit foreign individuals to opt out of Islamic instruction as a stand-alone subject. The MIA continued to permit foreigners to teach their own children religious content of their choice, but only in private.

In contrast with previous years, observers did not note any cases of the Family Court refusing to register children if one of the parents was a non-Muslim, although NGO representatives said they did not believe this was from any change in government policy.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs continued to report that persistent online and in-person threats against individuals perceived to be insufficiently Muslim effectively foreclosed the possibility of meaningful discussion on religious issues in the country. NGOs reported that online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam continued throughout the year with little action from authorities. MPS reported investigating one case of online harassment, which was concluded without any arrests or action.

NGOs reported continuing instances of individuals deemed “secularists” or “apostates” receiving death threats and being cyberbullied. As of the end of the year, MPS had yet to publicize any action taken in relation to an investigation into hate speech and death threats launched in 2019 after “Murtad Watch” (Apostate Watch), a public channel on the social media application Telegram, compiled a list and profiled citizens deemed to be “apostates” and pointed out that the sharia penalty for apostasy is death. MPS reported the lack of cybercrime legislation posed obstacles to investigation of online hate speech perpetrated by anonymous accounts and on social media channels. However, MPS reported in December that the Murtad Watch group “is currently not active on any platforms,” although MPS did not specify whether authorities had taken any action that resulted in the group’s removal, or if the operators deleted the group on their own accord.

In October, a group of religious scholars who had played a leading role in the campaign calling for deregistration of MDN in 2019 released a statement calling on the government to stop “allowing irreligious individuals and those who criticize Islam to remain free…,” and urging it to “take action against them, as prescribed by Islamic Shariah and the law.”

NGOs reported continued community pressure on women to wear hijabs and harassment of women who chose not to do so.

In its report covering 2020, Open Doors included the country on its World Watch List, noting that conversion to Christianity “can easily result in a report to Muslim authorities.” Open Doors reported that the children of converts experienced shunning and harassment in school if the conversion was discovered. They said that converts were forced to live secret lives and tried to conceal their conversion and blend in.

Media did not question Islamic values or the government’s policies on religion. NGO and journalist sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment for being labeled “anti-Islamic.” Several outlets continued to avoid publishing bylines to protect their journalists from punitive actions or harassment.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and Embassy Colombo staff represent U.S. interests there. In virtual meetings throughout the year, embassy officials continued to encourage the government to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, to ease restrictions preventing individuals other than Sunni Muslims from practicing their religions freely, and to prioritize investigations into threats against individuals targeted for their perceived “secular” viewpoints. In meetings with government agencies, embassy officials expressed concern regarding harassment of individuals and organizations characterized as “irreligious,” appealed against the dissolution of Uthema, and urged the government to formulate a longer-term strategy to deal with incidents of online hate speech and harassment of NGOs and individuals.

Mali

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and grants individuals freedom of religion in conformity with the law. In September, the transition government formed after an August military coup adopted the Transition Charter, which recognized the continued validity of the 1992 constitution that defined the country as secular and prohibited religious discrimination under the law. The law criminalizes abuses against religious freedom. The presence of groups identified by the government as violent extremist organizations and armed groups in the northern and central areas of the country limited government capacity to govern and bring perpetrators of abuses to justice, especially outside the main cities.

In October, kidnappers from Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), a U.S.-designated terrorist alliance, killed Swiss hostage Beatrice Stoeckli, a Christian missionary who had been held since 2016, according to the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An Italian priest was released by the group in October, along with three other hostages, in exchange for the release by the transition government of scores of suspected extremist prisoners. As of year’s end, Colombian nun Sister Gloria Cecilia Argoti remained a captive of the group. Individuals affiliated with groups identified by authorities as extremist used violence and launched attacks on civilians, security forces, peacekeepers, and others they perceived as not adhering to their interpretation of Islam. According to a report published on August 6 by the Human Rights and Protection Division of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, from April to June, extremist groups required women in the regions of Mopti and Timbuktu to wear veils. In the center of the country, JNIM continued to attack multiple towns in Mopti Region, and to threaten Christian, Muslim, and traditional religious communities. Groups identified by authorities as extremist organizations continued to target and close government schools for their perceived “Western” curriculum, replacing them with Quranic schools. In the region of Mopti, especially in Koro, groups identified as extremists and local populations reportedly entered into verbal “peace” agreements, such as one prohibiting the sale of alcohol and pork to individuals of all religions, in exchange for security.

Muslim religious leaders continued to condemn what they termed extremist interpretations of sharia, and non-Muslim religious leaders condemned what they characterized as extremism related to religion. Some Christian missionaries again expressed concern regarding the increased influence in remote areas of organizations they characterized as violent and extremist, with Caritas representatives citing a ban on alcohol and pork in some parts of the region of Mopti as signs of the growing influence of Islam in these parts of the country and a threat to the Christian community. They also raised concerns regarding the October prisoner release. Muslim, Protestant, and Roman Catholic religious leaders jointly called for peace and solidarity among all faiths at celebrations marking Christmas, the New Year, and Eid al-Fitr.

The U.S. embassy supported programs to counter violent extremism related to religion and to promote tolerance, peace, and reconciliation. The Ambassador and other officials discussed the importance of religious leaders helping bring peace to the country with religious leaders, as well as with human rights organizations. In March, the embassy released a video Ramadan greeting by the Ambassador on social media and sent letters to more than 40 mosques throughout the country highlighting the role of religious leaders in confronting challenges such as insecurity fueled by religious intolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 19.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to statistics from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship, Muslims constitute an estimated 95 percent of the population. Nearly all Muslims are Sunni, and most follow Sufism; however, one prominent Shia imam stated that as many as 10 percent of Muslims are Shia. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Christians, of whom approximately two-thirds are Catholic and one-third Protestant; groups with indigenous religious beliefs; and those with no religious affiliation. Groups adhering to indigenous religious beliefs reside throughout the country, mostly in rural areas. Many Muslims and Christians also adhere to some aspects of indigenous beliefs. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship estimates fewer than 1,000 individuals in Bamako and an unknown number outside of the capital are associated with the Muslim group Dawa al-Tablig.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state, prohibits discrimination based on religion, and provides for freedom of religion in conformity with the law. In September, the transition government formed after an August military coup adopted the Transition Charter, which recognized the continued validity of the 1992 constitution that defined the country as secular and prohibited religious discrimination under the law.

According to the penal code, any act of discrimination based on religion or any act impeding the freedom of religious observance or worship is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment or 10 years’ banishment (prohibition from residing in the country). The penal code also states any religiously motivated persecution of a group of persons constitutes a crime against humanity. There is no statute of limitations for such crimes.

The law requires registration of all public associations, including religious groups, except for groups practicing indigenous religious beliefs; however, registration confers no tax preferences or other legal benefits, and there is no penalty for not registering. To register, applicants must submit copies of a declaration of intent to create an association, notarized copies of bylaws, copies of policies and regulations, notarized copies of a report of the first meeting of the association’s general assembly, and lists of the leaders of the association, with signature samples of three of the leaders. Upon review, if approved, the Ministry of Territorial Administration grants the certificate of registration.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship is responsible for administering the national strategy for countering violent extremism, promoting religious tolerance, and coordinating national religious activities such as pilgrimages and religious holidays for followers of all religions.

The constitution prohibits public schools from offering religious instruction, but it permits private schools to do so. Privately funded medersas (madrassahs) teach the standard government curriculum, as well as Islam. Non-Muslim students in these schools are not required to attend Islamic religious classes. Private Catholic schools teach the standard government curriculum and Catholic religious classes. Non-Catholic students in these schools are not required to attend Catholic religious classes. Informal schools, known locally as Quranic schools and which some students attend in lieu of public schools, do not follow a government curriculum and offer religious instruction exclusively.

The law defines marriage as secular. Couples who seek legal recognition must have a civil ceremony, which they may follow with a religious ceremony. Under the law, a man may choose between a monogamous or polygamous marriage. The law states that the religious customs of the deceased determine inheritance rights. Civil courts consider these customs when they adjudicate such cases; however, many cases are settled informally.

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

Government Practices

The government and security forces struggled to tamp down violence generated by the spread of groups they described as violent extremist organizations in the northern and central regions of the country – including armed religious groups, as well as ethnically aligned militias. The presence of groups, identified by the government as violent extremist organizations, and armed groups in the northern and central areas limited government capacity to govern and to bring perpetrators of abuses to justice, especially outside the main cities.

In October, the National Secretariat for the Prevention and the Fight Against Violent Extremism in the Ministry of Religions Affairs and Worship, with the assistance of the UN Development Program, launched a study of factors influencing extremism related to religion. According to the ministry, the evaluation results, which were not released by year’s end, will form the basis of a new national action plan that includes interfaith efforts and promotion of religious tolerance.

A Moroccan-funded training program for 500 Sufi imams in Morocco, one objective of which was to improve interfaith tolerance, concluded in December 2019, with the fifth class of imams returning to the country.

The Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission launched in 2014 and renewed for an additional two years in 2019 continued operating during the year. In December 2019, the commission held its first public hearing, at which 13 victims of conflict recounted mistreatment they had suffered. The commission held a second public hearing on December 5 and heard cases ranging from abuses committed during a 1963 rebellion to 2019 mass killings in Ogossagou and Sobane Da. Both public hearings were broadcast on national television. As of December 16, the commission had heard the testimony of 3,329 individuals, compared with 5,324 in 2019, 3,592 in 2018, and 6,953 in 2017. Political events in the country, the COVID-19 pandemic, growing security concerns in the central and northern regions of the country, a lack of transportation for victims, and the lack of access in camps for displaced persons limited the collection of testimony. As of December 16, the commission reported it had collected more than 19,000 statements since it had begun its work in January 2017, including cases involving religious freedom violations.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship organized, in coordination with Archbishop of Bamako Cardinal Jean Zerbo, the annual Catholic pilgrimage to Kita, which took place in November. Cardinal Zerbo took part in the pilgrimage, as did the Union of Young Malian Muslims (UJMA). A UJMA representative marched from Kayes to Kita (approximately 250 miles) to demonstrate UJMA’s support for interfaith dialogue.

In November, the transition government announced the composition of a 121-member National Transition Council (its legislative body) that would include three seats reserved for representatives of religious organizations. The transition government’s Vice President reviewed applications and selected members of the council. Following the release of the names in December, representatives of the Catholic Church criticized the fact that no representatives of the Church were accorded seats.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In June and July, in response to violent antigovernment protests, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant interfaith leaders joined civil society leaders in creating a mediation and negotiation network called the Cadre for Action, Monitoring, Mediation and Negotiation of Religious Denominations and Civil Society. They jointly called for dialogue among the political parties to end the violence.

Some Christian missionaries again expressed concern regarding the increased influence in remote areas of organizations they characterized as violent and extremist, which the missionaries said could affect their ability to continue working in the country over the long term. Caritas representatives said priests in Minta, Mopti Region, were surrounded by extremist elements, preventing them from free movement. According to Caritas, the expanding influence of what it described as violent extremist organizations, particularly in remote areas, increasingly threatened religious freedom in the country. Caritas representatives said they were concerned that the closure of government schools and opening of Quranic schools by what they termed extremist groups would negatively impact interreligious understanding and cooperation and could endanger Christianity in the country in the long term. Caritas representatives said the ban on alcohol and pork in some areas and attacks on some bars in Bamako on July 14 following negative messaging from Muslim religious leaders were also threats to religious freedom. Caritas also expressed concern regarding what it said was the growing influence of Muslim religious leaders in the political field.

Ousmane Bocoum, a local Quranic teacher, civil society leader, and businessman with a broad social media reach, continued spreading messages of tolerance as a way of countering radical ideologies and messaging spreading via social media and driving violence and instability, particularly in the center of the country. Bocoum promoted religious freedom as a facilitator of youth programs and leader of a peacebuilding program in Mopti.

Following a January 21 workshop discussing the role of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM) in countering conflict-related sexual violence, the president of the HCIM signed a declaration making commitments to prevent gender-based violence, including the issuance of a fatwa to denounce conflict-related sexual violence. In June and July, the Coordination of Movements, Associations, and Supporters of Imam Dicko joined other political and civil society organizations in demanding the resignation of then-President Keita and the dissolution of his government. According to press reports, Dicko, the former long-term head of the HCIM believed by many observers to have political ambitions, was seen as the “moral authority” of the opposition movement. In an August 29 television interview following the August 18 military overthrow of the Keita government, Dicko stated he planned to remain an imam and had “no ambition to be president” of the country.

While media reporting highlighted religious leaders’ playing an increasingly important role in politics, it also noted that religious activism was not a new phenomenon in the country, and largely attributed it to the demands of citizens on their religious leaders. Members of religious groups commonly attended the religious ceremonies of other religious groups, especially baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy continued to encourage the government to promote interfaith dialogue and to maintain a tradition of religious tolerance. The embassy also continued to highlight the importance of countering violent extremism, including through working with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship to support programs to counter violent extremism related to religion. Embassy officials worked with vulnerable communities to build their ability to address conflict, radicalization, and religious violent extremism.

The Ambassador and embassy officers spoke with a wide range of religious leaders and human rights organizations to promote religious tolerance, including Imam Dicko and other imams. They urged religious leaders to advocate for tolerance and peace among various social and religious groups.

In February, a visiting Muslim-American from New York discussed religious tolerance and diversity in the United States with students and young professionals, as well as the importance of religious tolerance in promoting peace and social cohesion and in combating violent extremism.

In March, the embassy released a video Ramadan greeting by the Ambassador on social media and sent letters to more than 40 mosques throughout the country highlighting the role of religious leaders in confronting challenges such as insecurity fueled by religious intolerance.

The embassy highlighted the importance of tolerance and respect for religious diversity on its social media throughout the year. In June, following a meeting with religious and civil society leaders regarding the country’s political crisis, the Ambassador said in a televised statement that religious leaders played an important role in creating a stronger, more democratic, and more stable country.

Malta

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious worship and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion and mandates Catholic religious teaching in state schools, from which students may opt out. The government again failed to license any crematoria for use by the Hindu community or others, act on a Russian Orthodox application, pending since 2017, to build a church, or implement past proposals to offer voluntary Islamic religious education in state schools. In September, Catholic bishops in the country issued a public statement stating that two equality bills introduced in parliament in 2019 with the stated aim of preventing discrimination would instead threaten personal freedoms, including conscientious objection to promoting or participating in activities that went against one’s principles and values, and the rights of Catholic schools to appoint educators who reflected Catholic values.

As in previous years, Greek Catholics made a church available for use by a Russian Orthodox congregation, and Roman Catholic parishes made their premises available to various Orthodox groups.

The U.S. embassy advocated religious freedom through in-person engagement, opinion pieces in the media, and outreach on social media. Together with government officials, the U.S. Charge’ d’Affaires participated in the annual Hanukkah celebration in December and emphasized the importance of celebrating religious freedom during difficult times.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 457,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2018 survey conducted by the newspaper Malta Today, 94 percent of respondents identified as Catholic and 3.9 percent as atheist; 1.3 percent reported belonging to non-Catholic Christian denominations. Another survey conducted by Malta Today in 2016 reported 2.6 percent of respondents were Muslim, 1.8 percent said they only believed in God, 1.7 percent belonged to other religious groups, and 4.5 percent were atheist or agnostic. The Islamic Call Society estimates 6 to 7 percent of the population is Muslim, of whom most are Sunni, with a smaller Shia and Ahmadi presence. Additional religious communities with small numbers of members include Coptic Christians; Baptists; evangelical Protestants; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Seventh-day Adventists; Buddhists; Baha’is; members of the Greek, Russian, Ethiopian, Romanian, and Serbian Orthodox Churches; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification; and traditional African religions. According to Jewish community leaders, the Jewish population comprises an estimated 200 persons. A significant number of minority religious community members are migrants, refugees, foreign workers, or naturalized citizens.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates full freedom of conscience and religious worship, subject to restrictions in the interest of public safety, order, morality, health, or protection of the rights and freedoms of others. It prohibits discriminatory treatment based on creed. The constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion.

The law allows criticism of religious groups, but the criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred, with violators subject to imprisonment of six to 18 months. It also prohibits the disturbance of “any function, ceremony, or religious service of any religion tolerated by law” carried out by a minister of religion, both in places of worship and in areas accessible to the public. The penalty for violators is up to six months in prison or more if the disturbance results in “serious danger.” If the disturbance involves any act amounting to a threat or violence against a person, punishment is imprisonment for a period of six months to two years.

The criminal code prohibits individuals from wearing “masks or disguises” in public, unless explicitly allowed by law; there is no specific reference to – or exception for – coverings worn for religious reasons. Violations are subject to a reprimand, a fine of 23 to 1,165 euros ($28-$1,400), or a jail sentence of up to two months.

Cremation is legal and the law makes provisions for licensing, conditions for cremation, and the creation of a national cremation register listing the entities licensed to perform cremations.

The government does not require religious groups to be registered. A religious group has the option to register as a voluntary organization with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organizations. To qualify for registration, the organization must be nonprofit, autonomous, and voluntary; provide a resolution letter signed by all its committee or board members requesting registration; provide its authenticated annual accounts and annual report; and pay a 40 euro ($49) registration fee. The law does not provide registered groups with tax deductions or exemptions, but it allows them to engage in “public collections” without obtaining any further authorization. It also makes them eligible to receive grants, sponsorships, and financial aid from the government and the Voluntary Organizations Fund, an entity financed through the government and the European Union. The Minister of Education appoints the governing council of the fund, which includes members from voluntary organizations and a government representative.

Religious groups not registered as voluntary organizations with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organizations do not receive funding from the government or the Voluntary Organizations Fund and must obtain approval from the commissioner of police to carry out public collections. Approval is not required for collections from members or congregants. In all other respects, groups that do not register as voluntary organizations have the same legal rights as registered groups.

All registered and unregistered religious groups may own property, including buildings. Groups using property for a particular purpose, including religious worship, must obtain a permit for that purpose from the Planning Authority. All religious groups may organize and run private religious schools, and their clergy may perform legally recognized marriages and other religious functions.

The constitution states the Catholic Church has “the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.” The constitution and law make Catholic education compulsory in public schools; the state, rather than the Catholic Church, provides the course teachers, who may be non-Catholic. Students, with parental consent if the student is younger than age 16, may opt out of these classes and instead take an ethics course, if one is available. If a school does not offer an ethics course, students may still opt out of the religion class.

Students may enroll in private religious schools. The law does not regulate religious education in private schools. The law does not allow homeschooling for religious or other reasons except for physical or mental infirmity.

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

Government Practices

The Planning Authority again failed to make a decision on an application, pending since 2017, by the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Paul the Apostle to build a new church in Kappara.

As in previous years, the government did not enforce the legal ban on face coverings or disguises, including those worn for religious purposes.

According to the Ministry for Education and Employment, the number of public schools offering ethics as an alternative to religion classes and the number of students in both public and other schools remained similar to those of 2019. All students in training to become primary school teachers continued to receive training in the teaching of ethics.

NGOs and Catholic and other Christian groups criticized two draft bills prohibiting discrimination and promoting equality, under consideration in parliament since 2019. On September 15, Catholic bishops in the country issued a public statement on the Archdiocese of Malta website objecting to certain clauses in the bills. Specifically, the prelates wrote that Church schools should be free to appoint educators who reflected Catholic values and that the bills should include the right for individuals to conscientious objection to promoting or participating in activities “that go against their conscience, and the principles and values that they embrace.” LGBTQI groups raised concerns that such an exception to the bill would enable faith-based institutions to discriminate against LGBTQI persons and others. The letter was signed by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, president of the Maltese bishops’ conference, Bishop Anton Theuma of Gozo, and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Galea-Curmi. Parliament was still reviewing the bills at year’s end.

The government again did not introduce voluntary Islamic religious education as an after-school program in state primary or secondary schools despite statements in previous years that it was considering doing so. The Ministry for Education and Employment stated that it was collaborating with the Muslim community on the design of such a program. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools cancelled most after-school programs.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Greek Catholic Church Our Lady of Damascus in Valletta again made itself available for the congregation of the Russian Orthodox Parish of St. Paul the Apostle to use as the latter awaited the Planning Authority’s decision on its application to build a new church. Roman Catholic parishes also made their premises available to the Ethiopian, Romanian, Serbian, and Russian Orthodox Churches.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In December, the U.S. Charge d’Affaires participated in the annual Hanukkah celebration in Valletta together with the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and delivered brief remarks at the event about the importance of celebrating religious freedom and tolerance during difficult times. The Charge also advocated religious freedom on the embassy’s digital media platforms and wrote op-eds that were published in newspapers with the highest circulation in the country, including The Times of Malta and The Sunday Times of Malta. For example, in commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, the Charge wrote an editorial that appeared in The Malta Independent, highlighting the importance the U.S. Department of State gave to protecting freedom of religion and belief. In April, the Charge posted to Facebook greetings to everyone celebrating Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, and called for communities to support each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, the Charge posted to Facebook greetings to everyone celebrating Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, and said religious leaders and communities in the country played an important role in supporting each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marshall Islands

Executive Summary

The constitution provides protections for religious freedom with “reasonable restrictions” to ensure public order and the rights of other individuals. The constitution provides for the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and to the free exercise of religion.

Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community reported disparaging remarks on social media sites and occasional harassing phone calls. They said that some members of the general community seemed to have a general fear of their mosque. Protestant parishioners again reported feeling pressured to give substantial amounts of income to their church or face severe penalties from church leaders, including excommunication, if donation quotas were not met.

U.S. embassy officials met with the Foreign Minister to affirm the importance of religious freedom and to discuss how interfaith dialogue could promote religious freedom. Embassy officials also met with officials from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Assemblies of God, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the United Church of Christ.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 78,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). The Pew Foundation reported in 2010 that the population was more than 97 percent Christian. Major religious groups, according to the most recent census that covered religious affiliation (1999), include the United Church of Christ (formerly Congregational), with 54.8 percent of the population; the Assemblies of God, 25.8 percent; the Roman Catholic Church, 8.4 percent; Bukot nan Jesus (also known as Assembly of God Part Two), 2.8 percent; and the Church of Jesus Christ, 2.1 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Full Gospel, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Hindus, and atheists. Almost all those native to the country are Christian, according to government statistics. Many foreign-born residents and workers are also Christian, and the majority of non-Christians are foreign born.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief, as well as for free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law, regardless of religious beliefs. It also provides for “reasonable restrictions” imposed by law on the “time, place, or manner of conduct” – provided they are the least restrictive necessary for public peace, order, health, or security or the rights or freedoms of others, and they do not penalize conduct based on a disagreement with the ideas or beliefs expressed. The constitution states no law or legal action shall discriminate against any person on the basis of religion.

The constitution allows the government to extend financial aid to religiously supported institutions to provide nonprofit educational, medical, or social services, on the condition that such services do not discriminate among religious groups.

There are no requirements for the registration of religious groups, but if religious groups register as a nonprofit corporation or a cooperative, they may qualify for tax exemptions. The law states the tax on gross revenue shall not be applied to “corporations, associations, or societies organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, or educational purposes.” In addition, the goods imported into the country by “churches for their own religious, educational, or charitable purposes” are exempt from import duty.

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

Government Practices

Governmental functions, by continuing custom, usually began and ended with an ordained minister or other church official delivering a Christian prayer. While there was no religious education in public schools, most extracurricular school events began and ended with an interdenominational Christian prayer delivered by a minister. According to local residents, prayers before and after events were a longstanding cultural practice and part of the widely accepted tradition of the country.

During the year, the government provided funding totaling $795,000 to private schools, including religious private schools. All chartered private schools were eligible for government funding. The amount of funding religious schools received depended on how much was available after ensuring the basic needs of the public school system were covered first. The distribution of allocations was based on a combination of enrollment, test results, and accreditation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Ahmadiyya Muslim Community representatives said that disparaging remarks on their social media sites and occasional harassing phone calls stemmed from the misunderstandings of some that linked Islam to terrorism, including some encouraging them to leave the country. They also reported difficulty finding interpreters for some events and that some in the community seemed to have a general fear of their mosque. The Ahmadi leaders said they continued their efforts to dispel preconceptions and present Islam as a religion of peace by operating a daily soup kitchen and participating in various community service events.

Protestant parishioners reported feeling pressured to give substantial amounts of income to their church or face the threat of severe penalties from church leaders, such as being demoted within the hierarchy of the church or excommunication, which would have significant impact on social standing. There were reports of devout church members giving so much of their income to the church to meet the requirements and stay in good standing with the church that their families would occasionally go without basic food essentials.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with the Foreign Minister to affirm the importance the United States places on religious freedom and encourage government officials to promote interfaith dialogue and policy.

Throughout the year, embassy officials met with different religious officials, including representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Assemblies of God, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the United Church of Christ to discuss the climate of religious tolerance.

Mauritania

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Islam as the sole religion of the citizenry and state. The law prohibits blasphemy and apostasy, and defines them as crimes punishable by death. In February, police arrested 15 individuals in connection with a meeting of the Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State (AREM), an association that aims to promote a secular state. Authorities initially charged eight persons with blasphemy; five of them were held in pretrial detention from February to October. The court did not convict any of the eight of blasphemy, but instead convicted all of them on lesser counts of violating the “prohibitions prescribed by Allah.” All of the defendants were fined and sentenced to various prison terms. The five held in pretrial detention since February were all released by October 26, since their time in pretrial detention was counted towards their overall sentence. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education (MIATE) continued to collaborate with independent Muslim religious groups as well as with foreign partners to combat what it termed threats of extremism, radicalization, and terrorism, primarily through workshops throughout the country.

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

U.S. embassy officials raised apostasy, blasphemy, and other religious freedom issues with authorities on multiple occasions, and the Ambassador urged authorities to release the five individuals who were held in pretrial detention for nearly eight months on charges of blasphemy. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Islamic Affairs, and the Minister of Justice. Embassy staff also met with senior members of the opposition Tawassoul Party to discuss political and social issues, including religious freedom. The embassy also promoted messages of religious freedom on its social media platforms in English, French, and Arabic, including to celebrate International Religious Freedom Day.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to host government estimates, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 99 percent of the population. Unofficial estimates, however, indicate that Shia Muslims constitute 1 percent of the population and non-Muslims, mostly Christians and a small number of Jews, make up a further 1 percent. Almost all non-Muslims are foreigners.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and recognizes Islam as the sole religion of its citizenry and the state. The law and legal procedures derive from a combination of French civil law and sharia. The judiciary consists of a single system of courts that relies on a combination of sharia and secular legal principles.

The law prohibits apostasy. The criminal code requires a death sentence for any Muslim convicted of apostasy, but the government has never applied this provision since it was enacted in 2018.

The criminal code also treats blasphemy as a capital offense and subject to the death penalty. Courts may consider an individual’s repentance as a mitigating factor in determining the punishment for offenses related to blasphemy and apostasy. The government has never applied capital punishment for blasphemy.

The penal code stipulates that the penalty for unmarried individuals of any gender caught engaging in sexual activity is 100 lashes and imprisonment of up to one year. The penalty for married individuals convicted of adultery is death by stoning, although the last such stoning occurred more than 30 years ago. The penal code requires death by stoning for males convicted of consensual homosexual activity. These punishments apply only to Muslims.

The government does not register Muslim religious groups, but all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including humanitarian and development NGOs affiliated with religious groups, must register with the Ministry of Interior. Faith-based NGOs must also agree to refrain from proselytizing or otherwise promoting any religion other than Islam. The law requires the Ministry of Interior to authorize in advance all group meetings, including non-Islamic religious gatherings and those held in private homes.

By law, the MIATE is responsible for enacting and disseminating fatwas, fighting “extremism,” promoting research in Islamic studies, organizing the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, and monitoring mosques. The government also appoints the High Council for Fatwa and Administrative Appeals, which advises the government on conformity of legislation to Islamic precepts, and which has sole authority to regulate fatwa issuance and resolve related disputes among citizens and between citizens and public agencies.

The law requires members of the Constitutional Council and the High Council of Magistrates to take an oath of office that includes a promise to God to uphold the law of the land in conformity with Islamic precepts.

Public schools and private secondary schools, but not international schools, are required to provide four hours of Islamic instruction per week. Religious instruction in Arabic is required for students seeking the baccalaureate.

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

Government Practices

In early February, police arrested 15 individuals in connection with a meeting of AREM, an association that promotes a secular state. Although several of those arrested were released after questioning, eight were charged with blasphemy and other offenses related to holding unauthorized meetings and using social media to attack Islam. Five of the eight were held in pretrial detention from February until their court hearing on October 20. The court did not to convict the eight men of blasphemy, which is punishable by death, but instead convicted all of them on lesser counts of violating the “prohibitions prescribed by Allah.” All eight were fined and sentenced to various prison terms. The five who were held in pretrial detention since February were sentenced to six- and eight-month prison terms, but the judge said that their time spent in pretrial detention would be counted towards their overall sentences, and the five were released by October 26.

The government continued to forbid non-Muslims from proselytizing, although there was no specific legal prohibition. The government continued to ban any public expression of religion except that of Islam.

The possession of non-Islamic religious materials remained legal, although the government continued to prohibit their printing and distribution. The government maintained a Quranic television channel and radio station. Both stations sponsored regular programming on themes of moderation in Islam.

Authorized churches were able to conduct services within their premises but could not proselytize. An unofficial government requirement restricted non-Islamic worship to the few recognized Christian churches. There are Roman Catholic and other Christian churches in Nouakchott, Kaedi, Atar, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. Citizens could not attend non-Islamic religious services, which remained restricted to foreigners.

On January 21, President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani chaired the opening ceremony of the first international forum on the role of Islam in Africa. The government organized the forum in collaboration with Cheikh Mahfoudh Ould Boya’s forum for peace. The forum explored areas of cooperation among Islamic countries and published a statement outlining the importance of tolerance and moderation in Islam in Africa.

On May 6, the government adopted a draft bill to prevent violence against women and girls. The government adopted the bill after consultation with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the MIATE, which discussed ways to make the draft law more compatible with sharia principles. Although the draft law advanced in the legislative process, the National Assembly, which previously rejected two earlier drafts of this bill on grounds of “noncompliance with Islam,” had not voted on whether to adopt the law by year’s end.

During the year, relations between the government and leaders of the Islamist movement in the country continued to improve, according to media reports. On June 24, President Ghazouani met with the former president of the Islamist Tawassoul Party, Mohamed Jemil Mansour. The government also worked with Tawassoul, the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, to adopt legislation aimed at mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several international Christian NGOs reported they continued to operate successfully in the country. The government continued to advance the draft Law on Associations (the “NGO Law”) through the legislative process. The law, once adopted, would change the registration system to make it easier for NGOs, including faith based organizations, to register and operate.

The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Islamic religious groups and other foreign partners to combat what it termed extremism, radicalization, and terrorism. On September 10, the MIATE organized a two-day meeting with the European Union and G5 Sahel member states, including Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Niger, at which they shared best practices for preventing violent extremism and stressed the importance of a moderate, tolerant version of Islam.

The government continued to provide funding to mosques and Islamic schools and universities under its control. The government also organized an examination to recruit 800 imams and prayer callers, which officials said enabled them to select imams who supported moderate versions of Sunni Islam instead of imams that supported Wahhabism. The government paid monthly salaries of 5,000 ouguiyas ($140) to 800 imams who passed the examination conducted by a government-funded panel of religious authorities. It also paid monthly salaries of 2,500-10,000 ouguiyas ($68-$270) to 30 members of the National Union of Mauritanian Imams, an authority established to regulate the relationship between the religious community and the MIATE.

Islamic classes remained part of the educational curriculum, but class attendance was not mandatory and not required for graduation. Academic results in the classes did not count significantly in the national exams that determined further placement. Many students reportedly did not attend these classes for various ethnolinguistic, religious, and personal reasons. The Ministry of National Education and the MIATE continued to reaffirm the importance of the Islamic education program at the secondary level as a means of promoting Islamic culture and combating religious extremism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Justice, and Minister of Islamic Affairs. Embassy officials raised religious freedom issues with authorities on multiple occasions, including throughout the pretrial detention period for those whom authorities accused of blasphemy and proselytizing. Embassy officials also met with senior members of Tawassoul to discuss political and social issues, including religious freedom.

On several occasions, the Ambassador met with religious leaders to discuss issues related to religious tolerance. Visiting U.S. officials also routinely raised the importance of religious tolerance with a range of societal groups, including think tanks and journalists.

The embassy also frequently used its social media platform to share religious freedom posts, including on International Religious Freedom Day, in English, French, and Arabic.

Mauritius

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on creed and provides for the right of individuals to change, manifest, and propagate their religious beliefs. The government recognizes six groups as religions: Hindus, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Seventh-day Adventists. Other religious groups must register as associations. As such they may obtain tax-exempt status but may not receive subsidies like the six recognized religions. The government failed to act during the year on the Assemblies of God request to be recognized as a religion rather than an association.

Police said low level tensions between Hindus and Muslims continued. The Council of Religions, a local organization composed of representatives from 18 religious groups, has traditionally hosted regular interfaith religious ceremonies and celebrations to foster mutual understanding and enhance interfaith collaboration among faith communities, but COVID-19 restrictions postponed most events.

U.S. embassy officers posted articles on social media that discussed religious freedom and engaged with religious organizations.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 48 percent of the population is Hindu, 26 percent Roman Catholic, 17 percent Muslim, and 6 percent non-Catholic Christian including Seventh-day Adventists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, evangelical Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and members of the Assemblies of God. The latter state they are the second-largest Christian group after Catholics with approximately 50,000 members. The remaining 3 percent includes Buddhists, Baha’is, animists, and individuals who report no religious affiliation. More than 95 percent of Muslims are Sunni. There are approximately 100 Jews, according to the Jewish community president.

According to the 2011 census, the population of Port Louis is primarily Muslim and Catholic, while the remainder of the island’s population is predominantly Hindu. The island of Rodrigues, which contains approximately 3 percent of the country’s population, is approximately 90 percent Catholic.

There is a strong correlation between religious affiliation and ethnicity. Citizens of Indian ethnicity are primarily Hindu or Muslim. Those of Chinese ancestry generally practice Buddhism, Anglicanism, or Catholicism. Creoles (persons of African descent) and those of European descent are primarily Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on creed and provides for freedom of thought and religion, including the right of individuals to change, manifest, and propagate their religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance, alone or in community, in private or in public. These rights may be subject to limitations to protect public order, safety, morality, health, or the rights of others. The constitution also bars requiring oaths contrary to an individual’s religious belief and bars compulsory religious education or attendance at religious ceremonies in schools. It gives religious groups the right to establish schools and provide religious instruction to members of that group. These schools are open to the general population as well. Citizens may file religious discrimination complaints with the Equal Opportunities Commission, which may open investigations if it determines a citizen’s rights may have been infringed.

The constitution states that legislative candidates must identify themselves as belonging to one of the four national communities cited in the constitution: Hindu, Muslim, Sino-Mauritian, or general population.

A parliamentary decree recognizes the six main religious groups present prior to independence in 1968: Hindus, Catholics, Muslims, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Seventh-day Adventists. These groups receive annual lump sum payments from the finance ministry based on the number of members who identified as such during the last census. The registrar of associations registers other religious groups, which must have a minimum of seven members with designated leadership responsibilities. The finance ministry may grant these other groups tax-exempt privileges. Although registration of religious groups is required, the law does not prescribe penalties for unregistered groups.

Religious groups must obtain both residence and work permits for each foreign missionary. The Prime Minister’s Office is the final authority on the issuance of these documents. The government grants residence permits to missionaries for a maximum of three years, with no extensions.

Religious education is allowed in public and private schools, at both the primary and secondary levels. The Catholic catechism is taught in all Catholic schools, and on demand in public schools, generally by lay members of the staff. Students may opt out. Catholic schools offer civic education classes for non-Catholic students. Nonreligious classes about Islam and Hinduism are offered in private and public high schools. Religious classes in those faiths take place outside the school system.

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

Government Practices

The government again did not take action to recognize the Assemblies of God as a religion. The denomination began petitioning the government for such recognition approximately 20 years ago, but as of year’s end the government had not addressed the issue and the group was still considered an association. As a consequence, according to a pastor from the Assemblies of God, newborns could not be registered as Assemblies of God members and its pastors had limited access to hospitals and prisons.

Some Christians and Muslims continued to state the predominance of Hindus in the civil service favored Hindus in government recruitment and promotion, preventing Christians and Muslims from reaching higher level positions in the civil service. In general and dating back years, non-Hindus have stated they were underrepresented in government. There were no reliable statistics available on the number of members of different religious groups represented in the civil service. According to the Truth and Justice Commission’s 2011 report, however, civil service employment did not represent national ethnoreligious diversity, and observers believed its conclusion remained valid.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Unlike previous years, there were no reports of places of worship being vandalized. However, police said low level tensions between Hindus and Muslims continued.

Due to a lack of evidence, police discontinued investigation of the 2017 case in which unknown individuals vandalized five Hindu temples and other places of worship. The vandals destroyed deity statuettes and smeared blood on the places of worship. Police made no arrests in this case.

The court case against two Muslim men accused of vandalizing a Hindu temple in 2015 remained pending. There were no developments in a separate case involving five Hindu men who responded to the vandalism of the temple by vandalizing a mosque in the south of the island.

The Council of Religions, a local organization composed of representatives from 18 religious groups, traditionally hosted regular interfaith religious ceremonies and celebrations to foster mutual understanding and enhance interfaith collaboration among faith communities, but COVID-19 restrictions hindered those events. The council continued the distribution of booklets entitled “Peace and Interfaith Dialogue” to local schools and institutions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers posted articles on social media that discussed religious freedom and engaged with religious organizations.

Mexico

Executive Summary

The constitution provides all persons the right to religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. The constitution declares the country a secular state. Under the constitution, indigenous communities enjoy a protected legal structure, allowing them some measure of self-governance and to practice their own particular “uses and customs.” The General Directorate for Religious Affairs (DGAR) within the Secretariat of the Interior (SEGOB) continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups. During the year, DGAR investigated four cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with seven in 2019. The cases were in the states of Morelos, Chiapas, and Guerrero and mostly involved religious minorities. Government officials and leaders within the Catholic Church continued to state the killings and attacks on Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant pastors reflected high levels of generalized violence throughout the country and not attacks based on religion. According to media reports, in May, an indigenous community in the state of Chiapas expelled six evangelical Protestant families. Local community authorities arrested and jailed the families for not practicing Catholicism, according to the families. In October, media reported that local community leaders drove out 33 evangelical Protestants from a neighborhood of San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, because they did not adhere to the community’s traditional faith. In July, the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) issued a ruling guaranteeing reintegration and protection for a group of indigenous Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tuxpan de Bolanos, Jalisco. According to DGAR, it did not register any new religious associations during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism and are thus more vulnerable to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were two reported killings of evangelical Protestant pastors, and attacks and abductions of priests and pastors continued. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported unidentified individuals killed two religious leaders and kidnapped three others. The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) identified the country as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 12th year in a row, stating more than two dozen priests were killed over the past decade and emphasizing the ranking reflected the high levels of generalized violence in the country. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to say criminal groups singled out Catholic priests and other religious leaders for their denunciation of criminal activities and because communities viewed them as moral authority figures. According to media, in March, demonstrators in several marches organized for International Women’s Day vandalized church buildings, public structures, and businesses.

Embassy and consulate representatives met regularly with government officials responsible for religious and indigenous affairs at both the federal and state levels. Embassy and consulate human rights officers regularly and repeatedly raised religious freedom and freedom of expression issues with foreign affairs and interior secretariat officials. The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious and civil society leaders during travel throughout the country to highlight the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to reinforce the U.S. government’s commitment to these issues. In January, the Ambassador visited Colegio Israelita and gave brief remarks at its Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. The Ambassador stressed the United States would continue to defend human rights as well as combat anti-Semitism or any other form of hatred. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups and religiously affiliated NGOs, including the Central Jewish Committee, CMC, and CSW, to discuss the safety of religious workers focusing on humanitarian issues and expressed support for religious tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 128.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the Mexican government’s 2020 census, the total population is approximately 126 million. According to the 2020 census, approximately 78 percent of the population identifies as Catholic (compared with 83 percent in 2010); 11 percent as Protestant/Christian Evangelical; and 0.2 percent as other religions, including Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Islam. More than 2.5 percent of the population report practicing a religion not otherwise specified (compared with more than 2 percent in 2010) and nearly 8.1 percent report not practicing any religion (compared with 5 percent in 2010). Some indigenous persons adhere to syncretic religions drawing from indigenous beliefs.

Official statistics based on self-identification during the 2010 census, the most recent available for detailed estimates on religious affiliations, sometimes differ from the membership figures stated by religious groups. Approximately 315,000 individuals identify themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Church of Jesus Christ officials, however, state their membership is approximately 1.5 million. There are large Protestant communities in the southern states of Chiapas and Tabasco. In Chiapas, evangelical Protestant leaders state nearly half of the state’s 2.4 million inhabitants are members of evangelical groups and other Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists; however, fewer than 5 percent of 2010 census respondents in Chiapas self-identify as evangelical Protestant. There are also small numbers of followers of Luz del Mundo (LLDM), the Old Catholic Church (Veterocatolica), and the Church of Scientology, as well as Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Baha’is, and Buddhists. The 2010 census lists 5,346 Buddhists. According to media reports, there are 1.5 million followers of LLDM. According to a 2015 Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez report, there are 50,000 Methodists and 30,000 Anglicans in the country. According to the Baha’i Faith Facebook page, there are 12,000 Baha’is, with hundreds coming from small indigenous communities.

An estimated half of the country’s approximately 100,000 Mennonites are concentrated in the state of Chihuahua. According to the 2020 census, the Jewish community totals approximately 58,800 persons, with the vast majority living in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. According to the 2020 census, the Muslim community numbers 7,982 persons. According to SEGOB, nearly half of the country’s Muslims are concentrated in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. There is also an Ahmadi Muslim population of several hundred living in the state of Chiapas, most of whom are converts of ethnic Tzotzil Maya origin.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all persons have the right to follow or adopt the religion of their choosing, or not to follow a religion. This freedom includes the right to participate individually or collectively, both in public and in private, in ceremonies, devotions, and acts of worship if they do not constitute an offense otherwise prohibited by law. Article 40 of the constitution declares the country a secular state. Secularism is mentioned in three other articles, including one dedicated to education. Philosophical freedoms of conscience and religion receive equal treatment by the state. Congress may not dictate laws that establish or prohibit any religion. Religious acts of public worship should be held in places of worship. Individuals who conduct religious ceremonies outside of places of worship, which requires a permit, are subject to regulatory law. Active clergy may not hold public office, advocate partisan political views, support political candidates, or publicly oppose the laws or institutions of the state.

To establish a religious association, applicants must certify the church or other religious group observes, practices, propagates, or instructs a religious doctrine or body of religious beliefs; has conducted religious activities in the country for at least five years; has established domicile in the country; and shows sufficient assets to achieve its purpose. Registered associations may freely organize their internal structures and adopt bylaws or rules pertaining to their governance and operations, including the training and appointment of their clergy. They may engage in public worship and celebrate acts for the fulfillment of the association’s purpose lawfully and without profit. They may propagate their doctrine in accordance with applicable regulations and participate in the creation, management, maintenance, and operation of private welfare, educational, and health institutions, provided the institutions are not for profit.

Religious groups are not required to register with DGAR to operate. Registration is required to negotiate contracts, purchase or rent land, apply for official building permits, receive tax exemptions, or hold religious meetings outside of customary places of worship. A religious group registering for the first time may not register online; its representatives must register in person. Religious groups must apply for permits to construct new buildings or convert existing buildings into places of worship. Any religious building constructed after January 27, 1992, is the property of the religious group that built it and is subject to relevant taxes. All religious buildings erected before then are considered part of the national patrimony and owned by the state.

Religious associations must notify the government of their intention to hold a religious meeting outside their licensed place or places of worship. Religious associations may not hold political meetings of any kind or own or operate radio or television stations. Government permission is required for commercial radio or television to transmit religious programming.

The federal government coordinates religious affairs through SEGOB. Within SEGOB, DGAR promotes religious tolerance, conducts conflict mediation, and investigates cases of religious intolerance. If a party presents a dispute based on allegations of religious intolerance, DGAR may mediate a solution. Each of the 32 states has offices responsible for religious affairs. The National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) is an autonomous federal agency responsible for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, including for minority religious groups.

The law provides that prisoners receive dignified and equal treatment from prison staff without distinction based on religious preferences.

The constitution requires that public education be secular and not include religious doctrine. Religious groups may operate private schools that teach religion and hold religious ceremonies at their schools. Private schools affiliated with a religious group are open to all students regardless of their religious beliefs. Students in private schools are exempt from participating in religious courses and activities if the students are not affiliated with the school’s religious group. Homeschooling is allowed at the secondary level after completion of schooling at an accredited primary school.

A visa category exists for foreign clergy and religious associates to obtain a temporary resident visa or visitor visa without permission to perform paid religious activities.

The constitution recognizes the right of indigenous communities to autonomy and codifies their right to use their own legal systems for the resolution of conflicts within their communities, while respecting human rights as defined in the constitution and the international treaties to which the country is a signatory. The constitution also protects the right of indigenous leaders to practice their own “uses and customs.” This right of self-governance for indigenous communities sometimes conflicts with other rights provided by the constitution, including freedom of religion, for members of those communities.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It claims both an interpretative statement and a reservation relating to freedom of religion in the covenant. Article 18 of the ICCPR states that countries may limit religious freedom only when it is “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The country’s interpretative statement states that religious acts must be performed in places of worship unless granted prior permission and that the education of religious ministers is not officially recognized.

Government Practices

DGAR continued to work with state and local officials to mediate conflicts involving religious intolerance. DGAR investigated four cases related to religious freedom at the federal level during the year, compared with seven in 2019. The cases were in the states of Morelos, Chiapas, and Guerrero. Most of these cases involved religious minorities who stated members of the majority religious community where they lived had deprived them of their rights and basic services, including water and electricity. At year’s end, no updates were available on the cases. According to DGAR, most incidents of religious discrimination should have been filed with the state government because the federal government did not hold jurisdiction. Some NGOs stated municipal and state officials mediated disputes between religious groups, but government officials said this was not official practice. NGOs noted municipal and state officials frequently sided with local leaders at the expense of minority religions. Some groups also said officials rarely pursued legal punishments against offending local leaders, preferring instead to reach informal mediated solutions. According to CSW, informal mediated solutions rarely led to change in the status quo and favored the majority religious group.

During the year, CONAPRED did not receive any complaints of religious discrimination, compared with four in 2019. According to some sources, cases of religious discrimination were often not reported due to lack of awareness of the filing process.

As of September, DGAR listed 9,558 registered religious associations, including an additional 94 groups registered in December 2019. According to DGAR, it did not register any new religious associations during the year due to COVID-19. Registered groups included 9,515 Christian, 12 Buddhist, 10 Jewish, three Islamic, two Hindu, and two International Society for Krishna Consciousness groups as well as 14 new religious expression groups. According to DGAR, new religious expressions groups are philosophical or spiritual communities that might be born of new beliefs or be part of a broader religion; they are on the periphery of traditional religions.

According to media reports, on May 24, the indigenous community of San Jose Puerto Rico, Huixtan, in the state of Chiapas, expelled six evangelical Protestant families. The families said local community authorities arrested and jailed them for not practicing Catholicism. Following their arrests and release, the families abandoned their homes, belongings, and animals.

According to CSW, as of August, community members continued farming in their attempt to appropriate the land of one of four evangelical Protestant families forcibly displaced by community members of Cuamontax, in the state of Hidalgo, in July 2019. On June 15, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief made an inquiry of the government; on August 12, officials of the Mexican Permanent Mission to the United Nations acknowledged receipt of the inquiry and said they would relay it to relevant offices. As of year’s end, the government had not provided a substantive response.

NGOs and some religious organizations continued to state that several rural and indigenous communities expected residents, regardless of their faith, to participate in and fund traditional community religious gatherings and in some cases, to adhere to the majority religion. According to CSW’s 2020 report, some Protestant minority families from indigenous communities were denied access to crucial utilities, such as water and electricity, and some children were not allowed to attend local schools because their families did not adhere to the majority religion. In the state of Chiapas, 12 Protestants who were detained and then released in 2019 remained without access to water after declining to participate in Catholic festivities.

In July, the SCJN issued a ruling guaranteeing reintegration and protection for a group of indigenous Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tuxpan de Bolanos, in the state of Jalisco. In 2017, community members expelled the Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in Catholic community activities. The court decided the affected parties should reintegrate into the territory of their communities and ordered state authorities to guarantee their security. The court also ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be relocated to a different part of the territory and their prior community could continue to deny their “rights and obligations” as community members “as they no longer share an essential element, their religion.” The court ruling restored the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ access to housing and their personal belongings in the territory as well as the ability to make a living. The court also ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be relocated to a different plot of land within the territory because the indigenous community was allowed to exclude the Jehovah’s Witnesses from the rights and obligations they would enjoy as full community members. According to CSW, the SCJN’s ruling was the first to provide protection for indigenous persons whose rights were reportedly abused through an indigenous community’s legally protected “uses and customs.”

According to DGAR, the federal government continued to promote dialogue with religious actors with the goal of ensuring the exercise of religious freedom and resolving conflicts involving religious intolerance. In September 2019, SEGOB launched the National Strategy for the Promotion of Respect and Tolerance of Religious Diversity: We Create Peace. DGAR advanced the three main pillars of the strategy: dialogue, dissemination, and training to promote religious freedom. Through outreach, DGAR encouraged state and municipal directors to act as auxiliaries of DGAR and assist in resolving religious intolerance issues immediately to protect the human rights of minority religious group members. According to Jorge Lee Galindo, deputy director general in SEGOB’s Religious Issues Office, DGAR trained government employees and religious leaders on DGAR’s paperwork process during the year so they could access the services DGAR offers at the municipal and state levels.

Religions for Inclusion, a government-run interfaith working group, held several meetings to discuss gender-based violence, generalized violence, efforts to search for the disappeared, and COVID-19. The group regularly discussed their experiences with religious intolerance or discrimination. CONAPRED established Religions for Inclusion to create institutional dialogue to deepen its understanding of other faiths, build common ground, and coordinate collective action on issues involving shared social concerns. Members of the group included leaders of the Protestant, evangelical Christian, Roman Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ, LLDM, Old Catholic Church (Veterocatolica), Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Baha’i, Buddhist, and Church of Scientology communities.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religious leaders were often involved in political and social activism, thus often being exposed to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being based on religious identity. The CMC identified the country as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 12th year in a row, stating that over two dozen priests were killed over the past decade and emphasizing the situation reflected the high levels of generalized violence in the country. According to some NGOs and media reports, organized crime groups continued to single out some Catholic priests and other religious leaders and subject them to killings, extortion attempts, death threats, kidnappings, and intimidation, reportedly due to their perceived access to financial resources or their work helping migrants. According to CSW, while the high levels of fear and lack of documentation made it difficult to assess the extent of criminal group harassment of and attacks on religious figures, both Catholic and Protestant leaders said the impact on religious freedom was “alarming.” Also according to CSW, some religious leaders said local and state police labeled the attacks and killings of religious leaders as “common crime,” rather than investigating the cases fully. Federal government officials and Catholic Church authorities continued to state that these incidents were not a result of religious beliefs, but rather were incidents related to the overall security situation and crime. According to NGO sources, criminal elements attacked Catholic priests and other religious figures to create fear in the community and a culture of silence, which allowed their acts, such as drug and weapons trafficking, to continue unhindered.

Multiple NGOs said religious leaders of varied denominations and religions were attacked, kidnapped, and threatened throughout the year, including the killings of two evangelical Christian pastors in two separate incidents. According to CSW, in May, individuals kidnapped a pastor in the state of Guanajuato, whom they killed after they did not receive ransom; no additional details regarding motive were available. According to press reporting, in August, perpetrators of a targeted home invasion killed a female leader of the Christian group New Order in the state of Chihuahua. No motiv