The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. On October 2, President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a broad set of policies to combat “Islamist separatism,” which he described as a “methodical organization” to create a “countersociety” in which Islamists impose their own rules and laws on isolated communities, and defend state secularism against radical Islam. Among the measures in a draft law to be taken up by parliament, which Macron said were directed against radical Islamists that undermined French values rather than at Muslims broadly, were ending foreign financing of imams and abolishing unaccredited schools. On November 2, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced the government had closed 43 mosques for extremism since May 2017. Catholic Church officials criticized government COVID-19 restrictions that, they said, inordinately affected religious groups. In May, the country’s highest administrative court ordered an end to the ban on religious gatherings, calling freedom of worship a fundamental right. In November, the same court denied an appeal by Catholic bishops to overturn a new government prohibition on masses after a new wave of COVID infections. In June, the Constitutional Council invalidated core provisions of a law against online hate speech that parliament had enacted in May as part of the government’s plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism. In June, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the government had violated the free speech rights of Palestinian activists advocating for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. In January, demonstrators in Paris protested a 2019 court ruling that the killer of a Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, in 2017 was not criminally responsible. Jewish groups protested the Paris prosecutor’s decision not to charge a man with anti-Semitism after he painted swastikas on a landmark Paris street. President Macron and other government officials condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy security forces to protect religious and other sensitive sites.
There were instances of religiously motivated crimes and other abuses, including killings, attempted killings, assaults, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism. On October 29, a Tunisian man killed three Christian worshippers in a church in Nice. In October, a teenage Chechen Muslim refugee beheaded teacher Samuel Paty after he showed his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a discussion on freedom of expression. In September, a Pakistani man stabbed two persons outside the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, shortly after the magazine had republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Although 2020 statistics on anti-Christian incidents were not yet available, most incidents involved vandalism or arson of churches and cemeteries. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) reported 235 incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 154 in 2019. The Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ) reported 339 anti-Semitic incidents – a decrease of 50 percent compared with the 687 in 2019 – including a violent assault on a Jewish man and desecration of Jewish cemeteries. In October, authorities charged two women with assault and racist slurs for stabbing two women wearing Islamic headscarves. A January survey for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found 70 percent of Jewish respondents said they had been the targets of at least one anti-Semitic incident in their lifetimes. In the same survey, 47 percent of Jewish and non-Jewish respondents (and two-thirds of Jews) said the level of anti-Semitism in the country was high.
The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American presence posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and the Interministerial Delegation to Fight Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hate (DILCRAH). The Ambassador designated combating anti-Semitism as one of four key “pillars” of enhanced embassy outreach. The Ambassador and embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance. The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and religiously motivated hate crimes, such as projects bringing together youth of different faiths and roundtable events with religious leaders, and regularly used social media to convey messages highlighting issues pertaining to religious freedom.
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.
The constitution prohibits restricting freedom of conscience and belief, as well as forcing an individual to espouse a religious belief contrary to the individual’s convictions. It stipulates all religions are independent from the state, and religious groups have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes.” According to the law on religious freedom and religious denominations, the state recognizes the “important role” of the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the history of the country, but it also recognizes the role of “other churches and denominations.” The law specifies a three-tiered classification of religious organizations. In addition, civil associations wishing to perform religious functions may organize under a separate provision of the law. During the year, the government approved four applications for registration of religious associations. Religious groups stated restrictions meant to contain the spread of COVID-19 were unfair because a March ban on travel outside the home contained an exemption for travel to work but not for travel to places of worship. In September, the National Council for Combating Discrimination ruled the lack of an agreement with all recognized religious denominations on Easter observances while COVID-19 restrictions were in force constituted discrimination. The council recommended the Ministry of Interior be impartial towards all religious denominations and establish nondiscriminatory rules for the exercise of freedom of belief. There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially to the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community. During the year, the government rejected 500 restitution claims for confiscated religious properties and approved 83, compared with 474 claims rejected and 48 approved in 2019; it again approved no claims for the Greek Catholic Church. In February, the standing bureaus of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies appointed Parliamentarian Silviu Vexler to the honorary position of “High Representative of the Parliament for Fighting Antisemitism, Protecting the Memory of Holocaust Victims and Developing Jewish Life.”
Some minority religious groups continued to report at times ROC priests and adherents blocked their access to cemeteries. In June, the Impreuna Agency for Community Development released a survey on the perceptions of Roma and other ethnic and religious minorities in the country, including Jews. According to findings, 44 percent of respondents had little or no trust in Jews and 30 percent would accept Jews as friends or relatives. Some private media outlets depicted religious minority groups as a threat. In October, an article published by the news site activenews.ro mentioned the alleged religious affiliation of several government officials, purportedly members of the Baha’i, Unitarian, Reformed, Muslim, or Roman Catholic faiths, and called them “anti-Orthodox Talibans” for imposing COVID-19-related restrictions on religious activities. According to a study released by the Wiesel Institute in May, several articles published online stated Jews or the state of Israel were responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak and were profiting from the health crisis.
Embassy officials continued to advocate with the government for property restitution and religious tolerance. The Ambassador and a senior embassy official participated in several Holocaust commemorations and spoke out against anti-Semitism. Using its Facebook page, the embassy emphasized respect for religious freedom and paid tribute to Holocaust victims. The Ambassador met with leaders of the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Muslim community to discuss ways to promote religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.