The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam may exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property, according to the Sunni Islam Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The constitution states the Hanafi school of jurisprudence shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. The government again sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence. According to the Shia community, they saw no increase in ANDSF forces despite the plans; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Hindu and Sikh community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus, compared with 500-600 in 2018, fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries because of security threats and a perceived lack of government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts again did not grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.
ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. During the year, UNAMA recorded 20 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 22 attacks in 2018 – causing 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured), compared with 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured) in 2018. All were attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including shooting or hanging any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. In August ISIS-K attacked a wedding hall in a predominately Shia neighborhood of Kabul, killing 91 persons and wounding 143 others. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several deadly attacks on religious leaders, particularly those who spoke out against the Taliban. On June 28 in Samangan Province, the Taliban detonated a remote-controlled IED inside a Sunni mosque during Friday prayers, wounding 14 civilians. On October 18, at least 62 civilians were killed and another 58 wounded, including children, following the bombing of a Sunni mosque in Deh Bala District of Nangarhar Province during Friday prayers. No organization claimed responsibility for the attack. According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.
According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reticent to reveal their identities to anyone. One Christian citizen described being disowned by his family after they learned he had converted to Christianity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were teased and harassed in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims reported they continued to worship privately, sometimes in nondescript places of worship, to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites. Despite requesting and receiving local authority support for security during their cremation ceremonies, the community continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested police support, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. In August police arrested one protester. A special committee, promised by the Ulema Council in 2018 to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam, had not been established by year’s end.
U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of what religious freedom is and why it is important, as well on the need for acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. On August 27, a senior embassy official raised preparations for 10th of Muharram with Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, including minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days, and the Ambassador used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 35.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to the Pew Forum, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.
According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 120 Sikh and Hindu families totaling approximately 550 individuals, down from 700 in 2018 and 1,300 individuals estimated in 2017, mostly in Kabul, with a few communities in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are 35 remaining Afghan Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.
The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jew.
Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to Article 2 of the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”
The penal code outlines provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. According to the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts of the Supreme Court, there were no cases filed during the year. An article in the penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.” The penal code specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years. Article 817 of the penal code states, “A person who insults Islam using a computer system, program, or data, shall be imprisoned.”
Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 afghanis ($390-$770). In cases where killings or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the accused individual is tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.
While apostasy is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up the hudood as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood are punished according to Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of maturity for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females regarding marriage. Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty, and puberty is usually applied as the marriageable age, particularly for girls.
Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts and subject to the same punishment.
Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime, according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.
According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels.
Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a central office as well as a charter consistent with domestic laws. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.
A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country, all based on Islam. Some radio stations provide religious programming for Sunni Muslims, and a smaller number of radio stations provide religious programming for Shia Muslims. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.
According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education (MOE) registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students receive instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allow students to pursue higher education at government universities.
According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the MOE.
The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil codes address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.
A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.
The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion, as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.
The constitution requires the president and two vice presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office. No occasion to determine if this applies to non-Muslims has arisen since the constitution was adopted in 2004.
The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.
The law mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu and Sikh community. Four seats in the parliament are also reserved for Ismaili Muslims.
MOHRA is responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues. MOHRA has an office dedicated to assisting the faith practices of religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said promised government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, symbolic measures and the government had not implemented them. Media reported members of the Shia community continued to state the government did not provide them with adequate protection from attacks by nonstate actors. The Ministry of Interior again promised to increase security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under police authority, to provide extra security for Ashura. On August 27, Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi confirmed preparations were in place that involved integrating all the security forces. The minister stated he understood that ISIS-K posed a particular threat to the Shia community. According to the Shia community, the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Media reported the government arrested a group of three ISIS-K leaders just two days before the Shia community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul. Although National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces told the press these arrests thwarted attacks during Ashura, they provided no evidence these leaders were plotting to target the Shia community, and ISIS-K did not claim it had planned attacks. For the second year in a row, there were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.
As in the previous five years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime.
The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages. The government set aside a number of Hajj slots for residents of each province, with the higher-population provinces receiving more slots, and with no sect-based discrimination in the distribution of slots. The government charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses. MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims continued to report they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.
MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country. MOHRA continued to estimate that of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 6,000 registered mullahs were working directly for MOHRA at year’s end. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive an average monthly salary of 12,000 afghanis ($150) from the government. Mullahs of central mosques delivering special Friday sermons, or khatibs, were paid a salary of 14,000 afghanis ($180) by MOHRA. MOHRA again estimated 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered.
MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about new construction.
Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law against conversion of Muslims, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.
Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead by individuals who lived near the cremation sites. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations. Despite these challenges, community leaders acknowledged efforts by MOHRA to provide free water, electricity, and repair services for a few Sikh and Hindu temples, as well as facilitate visas for religious trips to India.
According to MOHRA, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were up to hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs, and because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. According to MOHRA, there was no system or mechanism for opening a new madrassah, particularly at the district level and in villages. MOHRA officials said it did not have a database or information on the number of madrassahs or mosques, except for information on the number of mosques located at provincial or district centers with imams on the MOHRA’s payroll. According to the ministry, there were 4,500 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country. The government registered additional madrassahs during the year but did not report how many. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in these registered madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to MOHRA’s estimates.
Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could teach violent extremist curricula intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups. In February the NDS arrested Kabul University lecturer Mawlai Mubashir Muslimyar on charges of encouraging approximately 16 students to carry out terrorist attacks targeting Shia Muslims. On June 30, two Kabul University sharia law faculty members were arrested by the NDS for promoting Salafist religious ideology and actively recruiting university students for ISIS-K.
Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Eighty MOE-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,200 public madrassahs were registered with the MOE, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of unregistered madrassas available.
Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.
Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims equal access to the courts and other legal redress, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.
Representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, reported a consistent pattern of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. As Taliban representatives engaged in peace process discussions, some Sikhs and Hindus expressed concern that in a postconflict environment, they might be required to wear yellow (forehead) dots, badges, or armbands, as the Taliban had mandated during its 1996-2001 rule. Non-Muslims said they continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence. Sikhs and Hindus again reported their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms, such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.
Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.
Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish; High Peace Council Chairman Karim Khalili; Minister of Transportation Mohammad Hamid Tahmasi; Minister of Telecommunication Mohammad Fahim Hashimi; and Minister of Refugees and Returnees Hussain Alemi Balkhi. Shia leaders, however, continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and predominance in the country’s Shia population. Observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity.
A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, one as a presidential advisor, and one as a member of the Ministry of Transportation.
Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.
The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.
The ONSC continued its work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism, which included policies to foster religious tolerance. The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism. Government officials said the ONSC approved, and the president signed, an interministerial strategy in mid-September; however, it was not widely publicized due to “sensitivities surrounding the issue.” According to the ONSC, it continued to work on an action plan for implementation of the policy, which was expected to be finalized before the end of the year.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Both groups attributed fewer cases of harassment of members of their communities to the continued emigration of Sikh and Hindu residents.
According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. Reportedly, the number of Christian missionaries in the country was estimated at 60, with 30 to 40 based in the capital.
According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.
Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts of urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable without what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public.
Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Although Ahmadis had maintained an unmarked place of worship in past years, during the year the Ahmadis said they decided not to use it after neighbors informed police of its location. Ahmadis continued to report the need to increasingly conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there were a peace deal with the Taliban.
Christian representatives again reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches.
According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in previous years. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said the list of seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Kandahar, and Paktiya Provinces they submitted to MOHRA in 2016 remained unresolved at year’s end.
Community leaders said they perceived the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul as a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders also reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.
According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, again said these schools were underequipped to teach students.
Sikh leaders continued to state the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples (gurdwaras and mandirs) because they could not afford permanent housing. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries, in addition to 500-600 who fled in 2018. Some Sikhs and Hindus reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to Islam; in response, many noted that their communities’ residence in the country predated Islam.
Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations. According to media, the Provincial Shia Ulema Council in Bamyan condemned the Bamyan Music Festival, and Shia religious leaders tried without success to stop it because the provincial governor and civil society supported the event. The Ulema also issued several statements against television programs, such as Afghan Music Star and Indian and Turkish series. In Herat, religious leaders threatened Tolo TV for recording the Afghan Music Star program in Herat, which caused the show to lower its public profile during filming.
Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Muslim cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform all his religious rituals. He said in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies attended the synagogue but could no longer do so due to security concerns and threats.
Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul, but security restrictions limited access.
Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.
NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with members of the president’s staff, ONSC, MOHRA, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, including informing the government of the conclusions of the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and the U.S. government’s recognition of August 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The Ambassador met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities to understand their relationship with the government and their ability to practice their faith. The U.S. Secretary of State hosted two Afghans at the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington on July 16-18, including one Shia victim of religious persecution whose brother, fiance, and future brother-in-law were killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing targeting a Shia shrine.
Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could encourage intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to assist the ONSC in creating a national strategy to combat violent extremism and enhancing its relevance to promoting respect for religious diversity.
Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials as well as the visiting Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs hosted iftars with government, civil society, and religious leaders during Ramadan to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. On January 16, a senior embassy official hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion at the embassy to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. During the roundtable, the government representatives recognized the right of certain communities, including Sikhs and Hindus, to practice their faith short of proselytizing. The embassy reaffirmed U.S. government commitment to promoting religious freedom.
The embassy hosted roundtables with researchers and religious scholars, including MOHRA representatives, to discuss the sources and means to counter violent extremism related to religion and promote tolerance. On March 14, the embassy conducted a virtual discussion via the Lincoln Learning Centers with sharia law faculty at seven universities across the country on interpretation of Islam promoting tolerance in the negotiation and its importance for implementing a lasting peace agreement. The embassy also facilitated and funded the coordination of research efforts on violent extremism related to religion, which included policies to foster intrafaith tolerance.
The embassy highlighted National Religious Freedom Day on July 16 and International Religious Freedom Day on October 27 through Twitter and Facebook posts. The Ambassador condemned the attacks on a mosque in Nangarhar Province and in front of a children’s madrassa in Laghman Province on October 18 and 16, respectively, through Twitter. On September 12, the embassy released a public statement on Facebook and Twitter recognizing the first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office. In August the government released draft religious freedom laws whose stated aim was to make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life. Some religious groups criticized the legislation as inadequate for not explicitly recognizing a positive right to freedom of religion, and for providing inadequate protections for religious groups engaging in commercial activities, such as retirement villages or youth camps. Some civil society groups said the draft legislation would give too much weight to religious views and would weaken existing protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTI) people and those from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. The government responded with a second draft in December, and invited further public comment. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, which had two senators in the federal parliament, called for a travel ban for certain countries until a solution can be found to “first, second, and third generation migrants who violently reject Australia’s democratic values and institutions in the name of radical Islam” and for limits on some Islamic practices. The Catholic Church opposed state and territory laws requiring priests to report evidence of child abuse heard in confession.
In August a Muslim woman reported being assaulted while on public transportation in Melbourne, and in November another Muslim woman, who was in an advanced state of pregnancy, was attacked by a man who reportedly yelled anti-Muslim hate speech. Two incidents of anti-Semitic bullying at Melbourne-area schools received widespread media attention during the year. Four incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in east Melbourne during the year, as well as similar vandalism in other cities. Unknown perpetrators painted anti-Muslim graffiti on the car of a Muslim family in Western Australia days after the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings.
The U.S. embassy and consulates general engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. This included well-publicized engagement with members of the country’s Uighur community, some of whom have reported harassment by the Chinese Communist Party in the country.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 23.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2016 census, 52.1 percent of residents are Christian, with Roman Catholics (22.6 percent of residents) and Anglicans (13.3 percent) comprising the two largest Christian groups. Muslims constitute 2.6 percent of the population, Buddhists 2.4 percent, Hindus 1.9 percent, Sikhs 0.5 percent, and Jews 0.4 percent. An additional 9.6 percent of the population either did not state a religious affiliation or stated affiliations such as “new age,” “not defined,” or “theism,” while 30.1 percent reported no religious affiliation.
Revised figures from the 2016 census indicate that indigenous persons constitute 3.3 percent of the population, and that there are broad similarities in the religious affiliation of indigenous and nonindigenous individuals. In 2016, less than 2 percent of the indigenous population reported adherence to traditional indigenous religions or beliefs. Fifty-four percent of indigenous respondents identify as Christian, and an estimated 36 percent report having no religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution bars the federal government from making any law imposing a state religion or religious observance, prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or establishing a religious test for a federal public office.
The right to religious freedom may be limited only when deemed necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Individuals who suffer religious discrimination may have recourse under federal or state and territory discrimination laws and bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The state of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution specifically provides citizens with the right to profess and practice their religion. In Queensland, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory, freedom of religion is protected in statutory human rights charters. The antidiscrimination laws of all states and territories, with the exception of New South Wales and South Australia, contain a prohibition against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. New South Wales prohibits discrimination on the basis of “ethnoreligious origin” and South Australia protects individuals from discrimination in employment and education on the grounds of religious dress. Complainants may seek redress through state and territory human rights bodies.
Religious groups are not required to register. To receive tax-exempt status for income or other benefits and an exemption from the goods and services tax (sales tax), however, nonprofit religious groups must apply to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Registration with the ATO has no effect on how religious groups are treated, apart from standard ATO compliance procedures. To receive tax-exempt status, an organization must be a nonprofit entity. An organization’s activities, size, and permanence are some of the factors taken into account when determining its tax-exempt status.
State and territory governments share responsibility for education policy with the federal government, and generally permit religious education in public schools covering world faiths and belief structures. Instruction in the beliefs and practices of a specific religion may also be permitted, depending on the state or territory. In some jurisdictions this instruction must occur outside regular class time, while in others alternative arrangements are made for the children of parents who object to religious instruction. Thirty-five percent of students attend private schools and 94 percent of these schools are affiliated with a religious group.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In August Attorney General Christian Porter released draft religious freedom legislation for public feedback. After receiving almost 6,000 written submissions, in December the government released a second draft for further consultation, with public submissions due by January 31, 2020. The government stated the purpose of the draft legislation was to prohibit discrimination on the ground of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life and create a new office of the Freedom of Religion Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The proposed legislation would implement several recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom and would be consistent with a pledge by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to enact religious freedom legislation. Media commentators linked this pledge, and the debate surrounding religious freedom issues, to pledges made during the passage of legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in 2017.
The government’s draft legislation explicitly would not create a positive right to freedom of religion, and the attorney general described the laws as a “shield” to protect people being discriminated against, rather than a “sword” allowing discrimination against others. Religious freedom advocates expressed concern that the laws would not provide a positive right and would neither override current laws in state jurisdictions that they said infringe on religious freedom nor prevent doctors from being compelled to refer patients to receive abortions, contrary to their religious beliefs. Managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Martyn Iles, expressed concern there would be insufficient protection for religious speech, citing as an example a 2015 case in which Catholic Archbishop of Hobart Julian Porteous was referred to Tasmania’s antidiscrimination tribunal over the publication of a booklet advocating the Church’s position on same-sex marriage. In response, the revised draft released in December would protect religious institutions from discrimination claims when “engaging in good faith in conduct to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of the same religion…”
According to news reports, the Sydney Anglican diocese rejected the legislation as originally proposed, citing inadequate protections for religious entities engaging in commercial activities, such as retirement villages or youth camps, and warning of unintended consequences. The reports stated that in response, the government’s revised draft proposed strengthening the ability of religious bodies (including hospitals, retirement homes, and accommodation providers) to give preference to persons who share their religion.
Some civil society groups criticized the draft for giving too much weight to religious views at the expense of other rights. Public submissions by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre warned the laws could permit discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and disability on the grounds of religion. LGBTI advocates raised concerns that the legislation would grant “religious exceptionalism” by giving new privileges to religious individuals while overriding existing protections from discrimination for others. Advocacy group Equality Australia CEO Anna Brown said the revised draft would “establish double standards in the law, allowing religious organizations the ability to discriminate against others with different or no belief.”
The draft laws would ban large businesses with a turnover of more than 50 million Australian dollars ($35.1 million) from setting codes of conduct that indirectly discriminate on the grounds of religion, unless the business can prove it would cause “unjustifiable financial hardship to the business.” Attorney General Porter said these provisions would provide protection for individuals in circumstances similar to those of Israel Folau – a well-known rugby player whose contract with Rugby Australia was terminated in May after he posted on social media that “hell awaits” for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters.” Many religious freedom advocates supported Folau, including the Australian Christian Lobby, which raised more than two million Australian dollars ($1.4 million) to fund Folau’s legal defense. In December Folau and Rugby Australia reached a settlement, which media reported involved an apology and an eight million Australian dollar ($5.6 million) payment to Folau.
In response to the pledge made in late 2018 by Prime Minister Morrison to remove religious schools’ ability to expel LGBTI students, in April Attorney General Porter tasked the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into religious exemptions in antidiscrimination legislation. The commission is due to report its findings in December 2020.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party had two senators in the federal parliament and maintained a platform calling for a travel ban for certain countries until a solution can be found to “first, second, and third generation migrants who violently reject Australia’s democratic values and institutions in the name of radical Islam.” They also called for limits on some Islamic practices. Senator Fraser Anning (originally elected as a member of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party before later founding his own Conservative National Party) lost his bid for reelection in May. Anning blamed immigration of “Muslim fanatics” for deadly attacks on New Zealand mosques by an Australian shooter in March. Following the shooting, Anning released a widely criticized statement saying that “while Muslims may have been victims today, usually they are the perpetrators” and said the attacks highlighted growing fear “of the increasing Muslim presence.” Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party received 1.28 percent of the senate vote in his home state of Queensland in the May federal election.
In September the Victoria state parliament passed laws requiring priests to report suspicions of child abuse discovered through confession. The law carries a sentence of up to three years in prison if a mandatory reporter (including persons in religious ministries) fails to report abuse to authorities. Catholic leadership in Victoria indicated the Church would refuse compliance, with Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli saying he would rather go to jail than report admissions of child sexual abuse made during confession. Other priests and Catholic leaders made similar pledges to defy mandatory reporting laws. One Sydney parish priest reportedly said he expected “the church throughout [Australia] will simply not observe” the new laws. In September 2018, Catholic leaders said they would not accept a recommendation by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to lift the seal of confession regarding child sex abuse. The Church stated that the recommendation impinged on religious liberties and that it would not change its tradition of keeping confessions confidential. The laws in Victoria followed similar legislation introduced in South Australia (2017), Tasmania (2018), Western Australia (2019) and the Australian Capital Territory (2019).
In March Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison following his December 2018 conviction by a Melbourne court of five sexual offenses committed against two 13-year-old boys in 1996. Pell maintained his innocence. In August an appeals court dismissed his appeal. In September Pell sought to appeal to the country’s highest national court. In November the court granted permission for Pell’s appeal.
The Victoria State Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received 56 complaints on the grounds of religion from 2018 to October 2019, a 21 percent increase from the previous year, and the highest number of complaints in three years. Complaints relating to employment under the Equal Opportunity Act and Racial Religious Tolerance Act increased from 22 in 2016/17, 23 in 2017/18, and 28 in 2018/19.
The government continued to provide funding for security installations – such as lighting, fencing, closed-circuit television cameras – and for the cost of employing security guards, in order to protect schools and preschools facing a risk of attack, harassment, or violence stemming from racial or religious intolerance. This funding was available at both government and nongovernment schools, including religious schools.
Due to what they stated was an increasing numbers of students in New South Wales (NSW) public schools who do not identify with a religion, some education groups advocated for the removal of Special Religious Education classes from high schools. The NSW Teachers Federation and the Secondary Principals Council stated that religious education was “a parenting responsibility, not an educational responsibility.” Government-approved Special Religious Education providers include representatives of Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other religious groups. The NSW government requires schools to provide “meaningful alternatives” for students whose parents withdraw them from Special Religious Education, which may include education in ethics. As of the end of the year, Special Religious Education remained in place in NSW public schools.
The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs. The government’s national multicultural policy, Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful, continued to be based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion and included religious freedom as a component.
The government continued to begin each session of parliament with a recitation of a short prayer and then the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice since 1901. Participation in the prayers remained optional. The Australian Greens and other groups continued to call for the practice to end.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In November a man in Sydney punched and trod on a Muslim woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy in what was described as an unprovoked and “Islamophobic” attack by a leading Australian Islamic association. The man was arrested and charged with “assault occasioning actual bodily harm and affray” and denied bail. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils said the man was heard “yelling anti-Islamic hate speech at the victim and her friends.”
In August a Muslim woman reported being assaulted while on a train in Melbourne. She stated she saw an assailant harassing another Muslim woman when she stepped in to help. The assailant turned on her, tried to take off her hijab and continued to threaten her. The assailant was later charged with unlawful assault.
Two reports of anti-Semitic bullying received widespread coverage during the year. A photo circulated on social media that appeared to show a 12-year-old Jewish student being forced to kiss the shoes of a Muslim classmate at a school in Cheltenham, a suburb of Melbourne. A second incident occurred in a Melbourne primary school in which a five-year-old Jewish student was subjected to insults including “Jewish cockroach.” The parents of both boys withdrew them from their respective schools, expressing disappointment at the lack of response to protect Jewish students on the part of school administrators
In January in Melbourne, the neo-Nazi group Antipodean Resistance defaced an aged care home catering to Holocaust survivors with swastika stickers bearing the group’s name. In July also in Melbourne, unknown perpetrators spray painted a Jewish-owned cafe with a swastika twice in one week. In both instances there was also graffiti painted denying the Holocaust. Internet reviews of the cafe included anti-Semitic comments. The same month “Hitler Youth” and “Hitler was right!” was scrawled on walls in east Melbourne. In September fences on a walking trail in Melbourne were defaced with swastikas and two “anti-Jewish messages.” All four instances took place in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. In February 20 swastikas were painted over a mural at Bondi Beach in Sydney.
Anti-Semitic vandalism appeared during the May federal election campaign. In Melbourne and Sydney, several Jewish candidates had their campaign posters defaced with swastikas and “Hitler moustaches.” In Sydney, a Jewish candidate was alerted to a letter being distributed opposing her candidacy and claiming Jews were spreading disease. Several non-Jewish candidates’ election posters were also defaced with swastikas.
In March West Australian police reportedly launched an investigation after anti-Muslim graffiti was painted on the car of a local Muslim family. The incident occurred within days of the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings.
According to media sources, indigenous followers of a foreign-born Christian missionary in the Aboriginal community of Wangkatjungka set fire to indigenous artifacts considered sacred by many local elders. The missionary said she did not instruct the converts to burn the artifacts, but said she supported their actions.
A sample exam paper for Year 12 students in Victoria schools stated that Israel persecutes Arabs by demolishing their homes because “they don’t follow the Jewish religion.” The local Jewish community protested the statement saying it was false and could fuel anti-Israel sentiments. Although a school official initially defended the statement, the sample exam paper was later recalled and reissued without the statement.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported 368 anti-Semitic incidents of threats or abuse during the year, compared with 366 the previous year. According to the council, there was a marked increase in more serious categories of incidents, including direct verbal abuse, harassment, and intimidation (114 in 2019, compared with 88 in 2018) and graffiti attacks (95 in 2019, compared with 46 in 2018).
Uighurs accused Chinese government authorities of harassing and intimidating members of their community in Australia. Members of the Uighur community told journalists they had been contacted by individuals claiming to be Chinese government authorities demanding personal details. Community leaders said these calls began in March, following protests aimed at highlighting the plight of China’s Uighurs. Uighurs in Adelaide told the Washington Post they believe their activism led to the imprisonment of relatives in China. An official from the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the Government was aware of “concerning reports” of Uighur residents being asked questions by the Chinese government and has raised the matter with Chinese authorities.
Prior to the federal election in May, Christian Schools Australia sent flyers to parents of students encouraging them to vote in the election. The flyer stated the election was “the most critical for religious freedom in living memory.” The flyer did not tell parents for which candidate to vote.
Prior to the federal election in May, members of the Muslim community expressed concern about anti-Muslim sentiment among 10 political parties and urged people not to vote for those parties. They stated the parties supported policies that would regulate the country’s mosques, ban Muslim immigration, and seek to end what they described as the “Islamization of Australia.”
In July a judge convicted three ISIS supporters who set fire to a Shia mosque in 2016. Two of the men were sentenced to 22 years in prison while the other was sentenced to 16 years. The justice who sentenced the men said their crime was an attack on religious freedom that was “impossible to excuse.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Officers from the embassy and consulates general met with government officials from federal and state departments of social services and multicultural affairs to promote interfaith understanding and tolerance programs.
In March officers from the Consulate General in Melbourne initiated contact with Adelaide’s Uighur community, the country’s largest and most active Uighur diaspora group. Leaders from the East Turkistan Australian Association detailed Chinese Communist Party harassment of their families and the wider community in Australia.
In March officers from the Consulate General in Melbourne met with a group of young Assyrian Christian refugees recently resettled from Iraq and Syria, who shared details of their persecution and trauma in their birthplaces, their experiences as refugees, and their relief at being welcomed to the country.
In April officers from the Consulate General in Melbourne took part in a roundtable with the Board of Imams Victoria organized by Mohammed Elrafihi, a former participant in a U.S. government exchange program. The Consul General underscored the importance of collaboration and continued community outreach in building cohesive communities.
Officers from the Consulate General in Perth highlighted the start of Ramadan on social media, which was reshared by the Australian Arab Association.
In July the embassy sponsored the participation of Rana Hussain in U.S. government exchange program aimed at leadership in a multicultural society.’
In August the Ambassador met with individuals from the Uighur community in Adelaide, and in a newspaper interview directly following the meeting, the Ambassador said, “I thought it was past time to meet with them face-to-face to express the support from the United States Government for the Uighur community, and to better understand their particular concerns, the pressures they’re under. Not only by the Chinese Government in China, but also by the Chinese Government in Australia.”
In August the Consulate General in Perth sponsored the visit of a U.S.-based Holocaust educator for a multiday program in Western Australia aimed at providing tools for young persons to become “upstanders” rather than a bystanders in the face of discrimination and inequality.
In October the Ambassador took part in the federal parliament’s National Prayer Breakfast together with the governor-general, prime minister, and opposition leader. Religious tolerance and understanding were promoted at the breakfast.
In December the embassy and consulates general organized an outreach tour by a U.S. Uighur activist, who met with the country’s Uighur diaspora. In media interviews and meetings with government officials, the activist noted that the diaspora community reported ongoing Chinese Communist Party harassment in the country.
The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. On November 27, a Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death seven of eight defendants accused in the 2016 killings of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, while the eighth was acquitted. Defense attorneys indicated they would appeal all verdicts. The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence.
In October protesters clashed with police and attacked a Hindu temple in response to the October 20 arrests of two Muslims in Bhola, who were accused of hacking the Facebook account of a Hindu student in an extortion scheme. There were more than 100 injuries in the clash, and police killed four persons in what they stated was self-defense. In August, according to multiple press reports, police found the body of Buddhist monk Amrita Nanda, vice principal of Gyanaratna Buddhist Monastery, under a railway bridge in Comilla, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Dhaka. According to media accounts, Nanda’s throat was slit. Buddhist community members said Nanda was returning to his hometown from Dhaka. The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for Christians who converted to Christianity from Hinduism and Islam. The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHCUC) said “atrocities” against minorities continued, but had slowed.
In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion, and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance. The embassy successfully urged government officials not to charge a Hindu activist with sedition. The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, NGOs, and religious leaders to continue to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and explore the link among religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism. Since 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $669 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled, and continued to flee, Burma.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 161.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2013 government census, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus 10 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Baha’is, animists, Ahmadi Muslims, agnostics, and atheists. Leaders from religious minority communities estimate their respective numbers to be between a few thousand and 100,000 adherents.
Ethnic minorities concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and northern districts generally practice a non-Islamic faith. The Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian, as are some of the Santal in Gaibandha. Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the CHT. Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, with relatively high concentrations in Barishal City and Gournadi in Barishal District, Baniarchar in Gopalganj District, Monipuripara and Christianpara in Dhaka City, and in the cities of Gazipur and Khulna.
The largest noncitizen population is Rohingya, nearly all Muslim. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than a million Rohingya refugees fled Burma in successive waves since the early 1990s. Most recently, in August 2017, approximately 740,000 Rohingya fleeing violence in Burma took refuge in Bangladesh. Nearly all who arrived during the 2017 influx sought shelter in and around the refugee settlements of Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar District. Approximately 450 Rohingya in the country are Hindu.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.” The constitution also stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion. It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions. The constitution states no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.
Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison. Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications. While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code, as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act, to charge individuals. The Digital Security Act criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” with penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of destroying religious harmony or creating discrimination on religious grounds.
Individual houses of worship are not required to register with the government. Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register as NGOs with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. The law requires the NGOAB approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects. The NGOAB director general has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation or closure of the NGO. NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence (NSI), Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, although the standards for this clearance are not transparent.
Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations. Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include certifying the name being registered is not taken; providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the NSI; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; work plan; copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative.
Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.
Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption contains separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. These laws are enforced in the same secular courts. A separate civil family law applies to mixed-faith families or those of other faiths or no faith. The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings. A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again. A Christian man may marry only one woman.
Hindu men may have multiple wives. Officially, Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur. Hindu women may inherit property under the law. Buddhists are subject to the same laws as Hindus. Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups is allowed and occurs under civil law. To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some marriages are not. Registration of marriages for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.
Under the Muslim family ordinance, a Muslim man may marry women of any Abrahamic faith; however, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim. Under the ordinance, a widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child. Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands. Civil courts must approve divorces. The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate. Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.
Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling out of court family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership. With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.
Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice. Fatwas may neither be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.
Religious studies are compulsory and part of the curriculum for grades three through 10 in all public government-accredited schools. Private schools do not have this requirement. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students receive instruction in their own religious beliefs, although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.
The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations by prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons. The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy or regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them. Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a faith of their choice before execution.
The Restoration of Vested Property Act allows the government to return property confiscated from individuals, mostly Hindus, whom it formerly declared enemies of the state. In the past, authorities used the act to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups, especially Hindus, who fled the country, particularly following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On November 27, a Bangladesh Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced seven defendants to death for their role in the July 2016 killing of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. An eighth defendant was acquitted. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said they would appeal the verdicts, the government appealing only the one acquittal. According to numerous reports, the attackers, who claimed loyalty to ISIS, singled out non-Muslims and killed the victims with machetes and firearms. According to media, a police investigation found 22 persons were involved in the attack: the eight whose trial just concluded, including two who had fled the country; five who were killed during the security response to the attack; and nine who died in a series of security actions in the country following the incident.
Legal proceedings against suspects allegedly involved in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. In March a Dhaka court transferred the murder case to the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal for trial proceedings. The trial of six men accused in the killing began in April. Machete-wielding assailants hacked to death Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, while he accompanied his wife, who was also injured in the attack, as they returned home from a Dhaka book fair. The press reported police suspected the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a militant Islamic organization claiming association with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent– accused of other acts of violence and banned by the government – was involved in Roy’s killing. Four of the accused appeared before the court during the year; the other two remained at large.
Law enforcement concluded one of eight investigations into a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District. In December 2017, 228 were charged with the attacks on the Hindu community, pending prosecution. However, according to media reports, all accused persons were since released on bail. According to media reports, in the three years since the attack, there was no further progress in this case following the completion of one of eight investigations, and no timeline was given for completing the other seven investigations or for scheduling hearings for the 228 charged. The courts held no hearings before the end of the year. The attackers injured more than 100 individuals and vandalized 52 Hindu homes and 15 temples following a Hindu resident’s Facebook post showing a Hindu deity pasted over the Kaaba in Mecca. The National Human Rights Commission stated the attack was orchestrated to drive Hindus from the area and obtain their land.
According to media reports in November, the government filed charges against members of the Santal Christian community, which was the target of a violent attack in 2016 that allegedly involved local authorities and law enforcement personnel. These charges necessitate these members paying legal and administrative fees, even if the cases fail to progress. Among those charged was the brother of a man killed in the attack. At the same time, authorities dropped charges against police officers videotaped in the attack for lack of sufficient evidence. On July 28, the UN Committee Against Torture reported the Police Bureau of Investigation submitted a report stating no police officers were involved in the burning of homes and schools and looting of property, despite the visual evidence suggesting their involvement.
Human rights organizations did not report the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions” during the year, in contrast with previous years.
Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and to provide guidance to imams throughout the country through the Islamic Foundation on the content of their sermons. This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy. In April the government instructed mosques to denounce extremism.
The government continued to prohibit transmission of India-based Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla, stating the program spread extremist ideologies, and closed “peace schools,” which the government said reflected his teachings.
In May police arrested Catholic poet Henry Sawpon for “offending the religious sentiments of Catholics” in his many social media posts criticizing and insulting members of the clergy. The arrest followed a complaint filed by Father Larence Gomes, a local priest in the town of Barisal, also the home of Sawpon. According to Gomes, Sawpon said young priests organized a seminar for youth where girls were raped. At year’s end, Sawpon remained in jail.
According to the Ministry of Land, authorities adjudicated 15,224 of 118,173 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act as of 2018, the most recent year figures were published. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 7,733 of the cases, recovering 8,187.5 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 7,491 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.
Religious minorities continued to state that religious minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes because of an insufficient number of religious minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 11.68 billion taka ($137.4 million) for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which covers June 2018-July 2019, the most recent year for which figures were available. The budget included 9.21 billion taka ($108.4 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.24 billion taka ($96.9 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 780.8 million taka ($9.2 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 37.5 million taka ($441,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2018-19 budget, it received 2.8 million taka ($32,900) to run its office.
Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, which remained unresolved at year’s end. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. In July three CHT villages filed a report with the deputy commissioner accusing Jashim Uddin Montu, a businessman, of land grabbing. In an investigative report, The Daily Star discovered Montu falsified residency documents in Bandarban for the right to purchase CHT land to build a tourist property. Villagers said Montu donated money and some of the purchased land in CHT to build a two-story police camp in Bandarban. According to minority religious associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups continued to attribute lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout, rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.
The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, celebrations during the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.
President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays and emphasized the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for religious minorities. In October the prime minister’s foreign policy advisor, Gowher Rizvi, said at an interreligious event the majority faith (Islam) had the responsibility to protect minority religious groups and urged all to work under a common umbrella and address common problems together.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In September according to press reports, unidentified individuals killed four members of a Buddhist family living in Cox’s Bazar. The victims included two children under the age of 10. The family lived in a predominantly Buddhist village in Cox’s Bazar, and the precise motive of the murder remained unclear at year’s end.
In August, according to multiple press reports, police found the body of Buddhist monk Amrita Nanda, Vice Principal of Gyanaratna Buddhist Monastery, under a railway bridge in Comilla, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Dhaka. According to media accounts, Nanda’s throat was slit, and Buddhist community members said he may have been killed and his body dumped from the train while returning to his hometown from Dhaka. Buddhists and human rights activists formed human chains and protest rallies throughout the country following Nanda’s death. At year’s end, however, no arrests were made.
In its Brief Yearly Report on the Minority Situation, the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) said atrocities against minorities continued, but slowed. Communal acts against religious minorities, including land grabbing, rapes, and arson, remained a “day to day affair” but BHBCUC did not provide specific numbers or give examples. In contrast with 2018, when BHBCUC documented 806 cases of religious persecution against minorities, the organization did not release any statistical data during the year.
The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights NGOs reported harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for converts to Christianity from Islam and Hinduism. The NGOs said individuals commonly associated a person’s faith with his or her surname. In spite of constitutional guarantees protecting an individual’s right to change faiths, according to the Christian Welfare Trust, when someone’s professed faith deviated from the faith tradition commonly tied with his or her surname, particularly if the professed faith was Christianity, harassment, threats and social isolation could ensue.
In October rioters clad in Islamic garb and brandishing Islamist banners protested the arrest of two Muslims in Bhola accused of hacking a Hindu student’s Facebook account to plant disparaging comments on Islam for extortion. The rioters demanded the incarceration of the Hindu student, ransacked a local Hindu temple, and incited local residents to join them. Police responded to the rioters, who they stated were armed with shotguns, and used lethal force in what they stated was self-defense, which resulted in four deaths. More than 100 people were injured in the riots. The two Muslims accused of the hacking remained under arrest, as did the Hindu student who reported to police the hacking and subsequent extortion attempt.
In November according to several media reports, unidentified persons broke into a Hindu Kali temple in Tangail and vandalized five idols. A local Hindu leader said the perpetrators acted in this manner to damage communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims in the area. Local authorities and law enforcement said they opened an investigation into the incident.
Actress Saba Kabir, according to media reports, was pressured to apologize after making remarks taken by some to be admitting to atheism. After heavy social media criticism, she apologized on her Facebook page for offending the religious beliefs of others.
The human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra said at least 101 people were injured in violence against religious minorities in the first 10 months of 2019. Apart from this figure, said the group, at least 65 temples/monasteries or statues were attacked and 53 homes of religious minorities were attacked and set on fire. Some Buddhists continued to say they feared local Muslims would commit acts of vengeance against them in reaction to Buddhist mistreatment of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma.
NGOs continued to report tensions in the CHT between the predominantly Muslim Bengali settlers and members of indigenous groups, primarily Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, largely over land ownership. The government continued its efforts to resolve land ownership disputes affecting indigenous non-Muslims, using a 2017 amendment to the law providing for more inclusive decision making and a harmonization of the law with the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord. According to some members of the indigenous community, procedural issues had delayed resolution of many of their property disputes.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Social Welfare, and local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. They discussed the interface among religions, religious freedom, and violent extremism, and the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights in security policy. Embassy officials stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from extremist attacks. The Ambassador’s visits and remarks were broadly covered in the country’s major national television networks and print media.
The embassy successfully urged government officials not to charge a Hindu activist with sedition.
The U.S. government has provided more than $669 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled Burma since August 2017. More than $553 million of that total has gone to assist Rohingya refugees and host communities in the country.
As part of U.S.-funded community policing training, the embassy encouraged law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year, including one held on August 25. Embassy officials attended several religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. In October the Ambassador attended festivals and events for all three major religious communities. At these events, the Ambassador and other embassy officials emphasized the importance of religious tolerance and respect for diversity.
The embassy conducted a social media campaign throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance. In July the embassy posted photographs on its social media platform of religious and civil society leaders at a meeting with the Ambassador before they left to attend the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, DC. On August 23, the embassy released a public statement on Facebook and Twitter recognizing the UN’s first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. In October the embassy published two Facebook posts highlighting the Ambassador’s participation in Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist events, with text and photographs.
Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for the rights of religious minorities and emphasized the importance of their protection. Embassy officials met regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, including the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, Bangladesh Christian Association, Buddhist Religious Welfare Trust, Christian Religious Welfare Trust, World Buddhist Association Bangladesh, Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, International Buddhist Monastery of Dhaka, and the Aga Khan Foundation. In these meetings, embassy and other U.S. government officials and representatives from the various groups discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, identified challenges religious minorities encountered, and discussed the importance of religious tolerance.
Embassy officials met regularly with a working group of 11 foreign missions to discuss a broad range of human rights concerns, including religious freedom.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The government does not require religious groups to register, but some registered groups may receive tax-exempt status. On December 7, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Canadian Church of Atheism did not qualify as a religion for purposes of obtaining charitable status. In June the Quebec government passed and implemented a law prohibiting certain categories of provincial government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions, while requiring individuals seeking certain provincial government services to do so with the “face uncovered.” Observers said the legislation targeted Muslim women and would also effectively exclude some religious Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from positions of authority, including positions in the national legislature, education, the courts, and law enforcement. The National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and an individual plaintiff filed a legal challenge to the law in the Quebec Superior Court. In May an Ontario court dismissed the appeal of Ontario physicians who objected on religious and/or moral grounds to a provincial policy requiring them to refer patients for “medical services such as medical assistance in dying, abortion and reproductive health services.” In conjunction with a new antiracism strategy addressing all forms of discrimination, including based on religion, in June the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. In March the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal heard the appeal of a 2017 lower court ruling in a decade-long case concerning whether the province could fund non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools. The appeal process continued through year’s end.
Reports continued of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic activity, including cases of violence, hate speech, harassment, discrimination, and vandalism. In July Statistics Canada released hate crime statistics for 2018 showing the number of police-reported religiously motivated hate crimes was approximately 24 percent lower in 2018 than 2017, dropping to a total of 639; reported crimes against Muslims decreased by 50 percent, while those against Jews decreased by 4 percent. In 2018, the most recent year for which there were statistics, the B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights reported in its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic occurrences there were 11 cases of anti-Semitic violence nationwide, 221 reports of anti-Semitic vandalism, and 1809 occurrences of harassment, approximately 90 percent of which reportedly occurred online; physical location and identities of those posting the online messages are unknown. B’nai Brith received a total of 2,041 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2018, compared with 1,752 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2017 and 1,728 cases in 2016. In February a Quebec judge sentenced a man to a minimum term of 40 years after he pled guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder for killing six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec in 2017. In August a taxi driver was arrested and charged with assaulting a Jewish man wearing a kippah, who reportedly wanted to take a photograph of the taxi to file a complaint about the taxi driver’s anti-Semitic comments. In November the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s adult population. It said 8 percent harbored anti-Semitic views, down from 14 percent in its previous 2014 survey – which it stated represented the percentage of persons who agreed that a majority of the 11 statements were “probably true.”
The Ambassador, embassy and consulate officials, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the national and provincial government. They also raised how we might partner to promote religious freedom around the world, better support individuals persecuted for their religion, and counter rising threats to religious freedom. Embassy officials discussed strategies to combat religious intolerance through engagement with religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious minority groups. The embassy sponsored and participated in public programs and events encouraging interfaith dialogue and freedom of religion. In October the Quebec City Consul General held a breakfast with faith leaders to discuss interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The embassy amplified these activities through social media.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, which has the most recent data available on religion, approximately 67 percent of the population self-identifies as Christian. Roman Catholics constitute the largest Christian group (38 percent of the total population), followed by the United Church of Canada (6 percent), Anglicans (5 percent), Baptists (1.9 percent), and Christian Orthodox (1.7 percent). Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Pentecostal groups each constitute less than 2 percent of the population. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints estimates its membership at approximately 190,000. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS Church) estimates its membership at 1,000. Approximately 3 percent of the population is Muslim, and 1 percent is Jewish. Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Scientologists, Baha’is, and adherents of Shintoism, Taoism, and aboriginal spirituality together constitute less than 4 percent of the population. Approximately 24 percent of the population lists no religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, and expression. Every individual is equal under the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The law imposes “reasonable limits” on the exercise of these religious rights only where such restrictions can be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The law permits individuals to sue the government for “violations” of religious freedom. Federal and provincial human rights laws prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. Civil remedies include compensation and/or changes to the policy or practice responsible for the discrimination.
The law does not require religious groups to register, but the government grants tax-exempt status to religious groups that register as nonprofit organizations with the Charities Directorate of the Canada Revenue Agency. Nonprofit status provides such organizations with federal and provincial sales tax reductions, rebates, and exemptions. To gain and retain tax-exempt status, a group must be nonpolitical and undergo periodic audits. Charitable status also grants members of the clergy various federal benefits, including a housing deduction under the tax code and expedited processing through the immigration system. The term “clergy” includes persons whose communities have licensed, ordained, or otherwise formally recognized them for their religious leadership and authority to perform spiritual duties and services within their religious organization. Individual citizens who donate to tax-exempt religious groups receive a federal tax receipt entitling them to federal income tax deductions.
The criminal code prohibits the practice of polygamy, which is an indictable offense subject to imprisonment of up to five years.
A Quebec government law passed and implemented in June prohibits certain government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. The law defines a religious symbol as “any object, including clothing, a symbol, jewelry, an adornment, an accessory, or headwear, that (1) is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief; or (2) is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation.” Among categories included in the law are president and vice presidents of the national assembly; administrative justices of the peace; certain municipal court employees; police, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs; certain prosecutors and criminal lawyers; and certain principals, vice principals, and teachers, among others. The law also requires anyone seeking certain provincial government services to do so with “face uncovered.” The bill invoked the “notwithstanding clause” of the federal constitution, which permits a province to override specific constitutional protections for a period of five years to prevent citizens from bringing challenges to the law based on the federal constitution. The religious symbols ban applies to public school teachers, government lawyers, judges, prison guards, and police officers, among others. It exempts provincial employees working prior to the implementation of the law, but they lose their right to wear religious symbols upon changing jobs or receiving a promotion.
Government policy and practices regarding education, including regulation of religious schools, fall under the purview of the provincial, rather than federal, governments. Six of the 10 provinces provide full or partial funding to some religious schools.
Catholic and Protestant schools in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan retain the federal constitutionally protected right to public funding they gained when those provinces joined the federation. Other provinces either had no legally recognized denominational schools that qualified for such protection at the time of federation or accession, or they subsequently secured a federal constitutional amendment to terminate religious education funding rights and introduce an exclusively secular publicly funded education system. Federal statutory protection for Catholic and Protestant publicly funded minority education exists in the Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories, which do not have provincial status. Constitutional or federal statutory protection for public funding of religious education does not extend to schools of other religious groups, although British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec offer partial funding to religious schools of any faith that meet provincial scholastic criteria. The law permits parents to homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools for religious reasons.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On December 7, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the Canadian Church of Atheism of Central Canada did not qualify as a charity under the Income Tax Act in part because it could not be found to be a “religion” in a charitable sense. The court based its finding on the Church’s failure to “demonstrate that its belief system was based on a particular and comprehensive system of doctrine and observances.” In its ruling, the court also noted that registration of an organization as a charity under the Income Tax Act is a privilege, and not a right.
In June the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and an individual plaintiff filed a legal challenge in Quebec Superior Court against the provincial law prohibiting certain categories of government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. According to press reports, observers said the legislation would exclude some religious Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from positions of authority, including in education and law enforcement. The observers also said the legislation unfairly targeted Muslim women in the province who wear hijabs or other head coverings. The challenged law was the third attempt by a Quebec government to pass such legislation regarding the delivery of provincial services; a Parti Quebecois government introduced a bill in 2013 but did not pass it before the 2014 Quebec election, and a Liberal government passed a bill in 2017 that never entered into effect because a series of judicial injunctions suspended its application. The plaintiffs also challenged portions of the newly passed law prohibiting individuals from receiving certain government services with their faces covered. The plaintiffs sought a temporary injunction against implementation of the law, but the Quebec Superior Court declined the request in July. In August the Quebec Court of Appeal agreed to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal of that decision, and in October the court declined to temporarily stay imposition of the law pending a ruling on its constitutionality; as a result, the law remained in force. In September a multifaith organization filed a separate challenge to the law on behalf of three teachers – a Roman Catholic and two Muslims – who wore religious symbols. In October the English Montreal School Board, the largest English language school board in Quebec, challenged the law in court. In November a Quebec teachers union representing 45,000 teachers also filed suit. In total, four different lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Quebec law remained pending at year’s end.
In May an Ontario court dismissed the appeal of Ontario physicians who objected on religious and/or moral grounds to a provincial policy that required them to provide patients with referrals for “medical services such as medical assistance in dying, abortion, and reproductive health services.” Federal law permits assisted death and abortion but specifies doctors have the right to freedom of conscience and the right not to perform or assist in providing the procedures. Ontario is the only province requiring referral directly to another individual physician if the treating physician has a religious or moral objection to providing the specified service. Ontario physicians had appealed a lower court ruling upholding the referral requirement. The Ontario Court of Appeals found that the physician referral mechanism struck the appropriate balance between a physician’s right to freedom of religion and a patient’s right to medical services.
In April a British Colombia (B.C.) court retried James Oler, a member of the FLDS Church, on charges that he unlawfully removed his underage daughter from Canada in 2004 to marry her to a 24-year-old U.S. citizen in Nevada. The court found Oler guilty after retrial, and in August sentenced him to 12 months in prison. A trial judge had acquitted Oler of the same charges following a trial in 2017 based on what the B.C Court of Appeal deemed to be the trial court’s erroneous interpretation of the required elements of the offense. The B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal in 2018 and ordered a new trial after the government appealed.
In February a federal trial court, which sits below the Supreme Court, stayed on procedural grounds seven of eight cases brought in 2018 by religious and other organizations seeking to reverse the denial of their federal grant applications. The federal government denied their applications over issues regarding an attestation the federal government imposed as a condition of receiving funding for the Canada Summer Jobs Program that year. For the first time, organizations were required to attest that their core mandate and the job for which they planned to use the federal funds respected the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as other rights and associated case law. The plaintiffs stated the attestation infringed on their rights to freedom of religion and of expression. The attestation included language that such rights “include reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, color, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” The court stayed seven of the cases until the first case, filed by Toronto and Area Right to Life (TRTL), is heard, based on a finding that there was “substantial overlap” of the legal issues involved in the eight cases.
In late 2018, the federal government made changes to the 2019 summer jobs application’s attestation, with new language focusing on activities for which the funds could not be used, rather than on the values of any given organization. According to media reports, TRTL filed a second lawsuit after it was also denied a grant in 2019. The cases were pending at year’s end.
In March the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal heard the appeal of a 2017 lower court ruling in a decade-long case concerning whether the province could fund non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools. In 2017, the lower court had ruled that providing public funding for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools discriminated against secular schools and those of other religious groups in favor of Catholic education; it ordered the province to stop funding those students by the end of June 2018. The court had also ordered the government of Saskatchewan and the provincial Catholic School Boards Association to pay 960,000 Canadian dollars (C$) ($738,000) toward the opposing public school board’s legal costs. The Court of Appeal stayed the imposition of the funding order pending resolution of the appeal. At year’s end, the appeal remained pending.
On January 27, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement for International Holocaust Memorial Day, stating that Canada must also acknowledge its “own history of anti-Semitism, and its devastating results.” He pledged to “stand guard and speak out against anti-Semitism in our communities, to embrace our differences, and to find strength in our diversity.” On May 1, the prime minister issued a statement for Holocaust Memorial Day in which he said anti-Semitism was on the rise and stating, “We will not be silent in the face of oppression, or indifferent in the face of hate. We will always speak out against anti-Semitism, discrimination, and hatred in all its forms, and together, we will counter them.”
On May 7, Prime Minister Trudeau attended the National Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony and delivered remarks in which he noted that “once again, people filled with hate are emerging from the shadows. Hateful words and speeches are spreading on social media and spreading across our daily lives.” He also stated, “The lessons of the Holocaust are at risk of being forgotten if we stand idly by, if we remain silent in the face of these events,” and that “it is our solemn duty as politicians, as leaders, as human beings, to stand united with one voice, and to say without equivocation, that anti-Semitic hatred has no place in Canada, or anywhere else.”
In June the government announced a new anti-racism strategy for 2019-2022 with the stated objective of combating systemic racism and discrimination of all kinds, including discrimination based on religion. The strategy also envisaged providing funding to empower religious minorities and others with expertise in addressing various forms of racism and discrimination and changing attitudes by increasing awareness of the historical roots of racism and discrimination. As part of that strategy, the country adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were reports of physical violence, vandalism, hate speech, and harassment directed at religious groups, in particular against Jews and Muslims. In July Statistics Canada released hate crime statistics for 2018, which showed a 24 percent decline in the number of police-reported religiously motivated hate crimes, from 842 in 2017 to 639 in 2018. Hate crimes targeting Muslims decreased by 50 percent. Hate crimes targeting Jews were down 4 percent, accounting for 19 percent of total police-reported hate crimes in 2018.
In February a Quebec judge sentenced a man to a minimum term of 40 years after he pled guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder for killing six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec in 2017. The defendant had said he planned the assault after hearing news that Canada was prepared to accept more refugees from Muslim countries. He said he believed that Muslims posed a threat to his family’s safety. In June government prosecutors recommended the country’s longest sentence in history, 150 years, but the court rejected that request on the grounds that sentences exceeding a defendant’s life expectancy constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In March both the prosecution and the defense appealed the sentence. The case remained pending at year’s end.
In July a taxi driver reportedly assaulted a Jewish man wearing a kippah after an altercation in a parking lot in Montreal. The taxi driver allegedly yelled anti-Semitic statements at the man during the incident, which the Jewish man recorded on video. In August authorities arrested and charged the taxi driver. According to media reports, the victim was not seriously injured. The taxi company employing the driver fired him immediately after learning of the incident and issued a statement that “we don’t tolerate assaults, anti-Semitism, or racism.” The case remained pending at year’s end.
In January an Ontario court found two men who served as the editor and the publisher of a free Toronto newspaper guilty of using the publication for years to repeatedly promote hatred of Jews and of women. In August an Ontario court sentenced the editor of the newspaper to one year in prison. In August the same judge also sentenced the paper’s publisher, an indigenous person, to one year of house arrest. The judge said he took the publisher’s indigenous status, poor health, and expression of remorse into account at sentencing. The law requires judges to consider adverse cultural factors faced by indigenous persons as mitigating factors when sentencing indigenous offenders. According to news reports, both men were appealing their sentences. The cases remained pending at year’s end.
In August The Edmonton Journal apologized after running a cartoon some viewed as anti-Semitic.
In August a medical regulatory authority in British Columbia determined that a physician committed no wrongdoing when she participated in the medically assisted death of an elderly patient who had requested it but was a resident of an Orthodox Jewish nursing home that prohibited the practice on its premises. To provide medical assistance in the patient’s death as permitted by law, the doctor concealed her actions from the nursing home. The regulatory authority found the doctor had complied with all legal requirements. According to news reports, the case was believed to be the first where a medical regulator had opined on whether a physician could be punished for defying the wishes of a faith-based healthcare facility in order to satisfy the legal right to a medically assisted death.
In 2018, the most recent year for which there were statistics, the B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights reported 11 cases of anti-Semitic violence, compared with 16 in 2017; there were 221 reports of vandalism, including the painting of swastikas on buildings, and 1,809 reports of harassment, compared with 327 and 1409, respectively, in 2017. The league received 2,041 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2018, compared with 1,752 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2017, and 1,728 cases in 2016. Nearly 90 percent of the occurrences (1,809) involved harassment. Eighty percent of all incidents reported in 2018 occurred online or had an online component; the physical location and identities of those posting the online messages were unknown. The greatest number of reports (709) came from Quebec, which saw a 49.6 percent increase in the total number of incidents in 2018 – from 474 reports in 2017 to 709 in 2018. In 2018, two of the cases involved violence, 30 vandalism, and 677 harassment. B’nai Brith recorded a 40.5 percent decrease in the total number of reports in Ontario, from 808 incidents in 2017 to 481 incidents in 2018. In 2018 the greatest number of violent incidents, eight, occurred in Ontario, down from 13 the previous year.
In March the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of two Muslim students barred from praying at their nondenominational private school. In 2011, the students had been allowed to perform Islamic prayers for several weeks after enrolling there. According to media reports, however, the school subsequently told them they would not be allowed to pray because it was “too obvious and went against the academy’s nondenominational nature.” When the boys continued to pray, the school expelled them. The boys filed a religious discrimination action, and in 2015 the Alberta Human Rights Commission found in the boys’ favor and ordered the school to pay a C$26,000 ($20,000) fine. The school appealed, and the Alberta Court of Appeal eventually overturned the commission’s finding. In its ruling, the appeal court ordered a new hearing before the Alberta Human Rights Commission, which the commission then appealed to the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, the Human Rights Commission held a new hearing in October and agreed to accept written closing arguments post-hearing. The hearing proceedings were not final by year’s end, and as a result, no decision had been rendered by the commission.
In March airport security screening agents in Halifax refused to allow an indigenous elder’s traditional herbal medicine pouch to be x-rayed, instead requiring the elder to open it for review, according to media reports. The elder wore the pouch around her neck and said it contained several grams of tobacco, sweetgrass, sage, and cedar. She said opening the pouch desecrated the contents and was contrary to her indigenous spirituality but opened the pouch so she could travel. According to media reports, Canadian airport screening policy states that if a traveler informs officers that the individual is carrying an item of religious significance, the officers may provide travelers with “screening options for the item based on the nature of the item” and the traveler’s preference.
In June an Ontario court ruled that a town council acted lawfully when it decided not to rename a street named “Swastika Trail.” Two residents of the Ontario town of Puslinch had petitioned the court to intervene in 2018 to implement the name change, according to media reports, after residents voted by a slim margin to keep the name.
According to media reports, in September an individual filmed himself heckling Sikh politician Gurratan Singh while Singh was giving a speech about discrimination against Muslims at Muslimfest, a two-day annual summer festival in Ontario. The man sought out Singh after the speech, reportedly to film himself yelling that “Islamophobia was created by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1990” and to otherwise harass Singh. Organizers of the event escorted the individual out of the venue.
In November the ADL released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 25 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Canada; 17 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 28 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
Numerous interfaith and ecumenical organizations at the national, provincial, and local levels continued to sponsor programs to foster respect for religious diversity, tolerance, and equal treatment for all religious groups. The groups included the Canadian Council of Churches, United Church of Canada, Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, other Protestant communities, as well as Jewish and Muslim associations. The Canadian Interfaith Conversation, a collaboration of 41 faith communities and faith-based organizations that collectively “advocate for religion in a pluralistic society and in Canadian public life,” continued to spotlight religious inclusion events held across the country throughout the year on its website, such as interfaith dialogues; a weeklong event exploring 11 world religions; and “Meet your Neighbor” dinners featuring different religious traditions.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, embassy and consulate officials, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the national and provincial governments. They also raised how we might partner to promote religious freedom around the world, better support individuals persecuted for their religion, and counter rising threats to religious freedom. Embassy and other U.S. government officials met with representatives from Global Affairs Canada’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion to discuss issues of religious freedom in the country, including issues raised in this report. The U.S. Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities visited Ottawa in May for meetings with Global Affairs Canada and civil society in which he discussed religious freedom, including our mutual efforts to promote religious freedom around the world.
Embassy and consulate officials conducted outreach to religious leaders, NGOs, and religious groups to discuss strategies for combating religious intolerance. In May the Quebec City consulate hosted an interfaith iftar that brought together interfaith leaders, youth, and government representatives. In June the Quebec City consulate hosted an event with a U.S. delegation, interfaith leaders, and community workers who promote interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding. In August an officer from the Toronto consulate delivered remarks at Pakistan Minority Day in Brampton, Ontario, where she emphasized religious freedom as a fundamental right. In September the Toronto consulate partnered with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, a nonprofit organization that works to counter anti-Semitism and promote tolerance, to host a Rosh Hashanah event for guests in Toronto from the religious, civil society, and government spheres. In October the Quebec City Consul General held an event with faith leaders to discuss interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
The embassy and consulates amplified these events through social media and used their social media platforms to highlight messages of religious tolerance from senior Department of State officials in Washington.
The country’s constitution, in effect since February 25, contains written provisions for religious freedom and prohibitions against discrimination based on religious grounds. According to human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and religious leaders, however, the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life. According to CSW, following the passage of the constitution, which was criticized by some religious groups, the government increased pressure on religious leaders, including through violence, detentions, and threats; restricting the right of prisoners to practice religion freely; and limiting or blocking international and domestic travel. Media and religious leaders said the government escalated its harassment and detention of members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez, Christian rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro, his wife and fellow activist Ariadna Lopez Roque, and Patmos Institute regional coordinator Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso. According to CSW, in July and November, authorities detained, without charges, Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre, a member of the Apostolic Movement and journalist. Many religious groups said their inability to obtain legal registration impeded the ability of adherents to practice their religion. The ORA and MOJ continued to deny official registration to certain groups, including to several Apostolic churches, or did not respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). According to CSW, many religious leaders practiced self-censorship because of government surveillance and infiltration of religious groups. In April media reported authorities arrested and sentenced homeschooling advocates Reverend Ramon Rigal and his wife Ayda Exposito for their refusal to send their children to government-run schools for religious reasons. In July the government prevented religious leaders from traveling to the United States to attend the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. According to CSW, on November 10, authorities prevented the president of the Eastern Baptist Convention from leaving the country. A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Roman Catholic Church continued to press for constitutional amendments, including easing registration of religious groups, ownership of church property, and new church construction.
The Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” again held an interfaith meeting – “Bridges of Peace” – in Havana on September 22-23 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace. Approximately 800 participants from different religious groups in the country attended the meeting, which focused on the importance of peaceful interfaith coexistence.
U.S. embassy officials met briefly with Caridad Diego, the head of ORA, during a Mass in September celebrating Pope Francis’s elevation of Havana Archbishop Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez to the rank of cardinal; Diego declined to hold a follow-up meeting. Embassy officials also met regularly with a range of religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics concerning the state of religious freedom and political activities related to religious groups’ beliefs. In public statements and on social media, U.S. government officials, including the President and the Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion. Embassy officials remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating meetings between visiting civil society delegations and religious groups in the country.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Cuba on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Catholic Church estimates 60 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent. According to some observers, Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 150,000 members; the four Baptist conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000.
Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists 50,000; Seventh-day Adventists 36,000; Anglicans 22,500; Presbyterians 25,000; Episcopalians 6,000; Quakers 1,000; Moravians 750; and the Church of Jesus Christ 150 members. There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International. According to some Christian leaders, evangelical Protestant groups continue to grow in the country. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,200 members, of whom 1,000 reside in Havana. According to the local Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims, of whom an estimated 1,500 are native born. Immigrants and native-born citizens practice several different Buddhists traditions, with estimates of 6,200 followers. The largest group of Buddhists is the Japanese Soka Gakkai; its estimated membership is 1,000. Other religious groups with small numbers of adherents include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Baha’is.
Many individuals, particularly those of African descent, practice religions with roots in the Congo River Basin and West Africa, including Yoruba groups, and often known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership. Rastafarian adherents also have a presence on the island, although the size of the community is unknown.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, “the state recognizes, respects, and guarantees religious liberty” and “distinct beliefs and religions enjoy equal consideration.” The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs. It declares the country is a secular state and provides for the separation of religious institutions and the state.
The constitution also “recognizes, respects, and guarantees people’s freedom of thought, conscience, and expression.” It states, “Conscientious objection may not be invoked with the intention of evading compliance with the law or impeding another from the exercise of their rights.” It also provides for the “right to profess or not profess their religious beliefs, to change them, and to practice the religion of their choice…”, but only “with the required respect to other beliefs and in accordance with the law.”
The government is subordinate to the Communist Party; the party’s organ, the ORA, enlists the MOJ and the security services to control religious practice in the country. The ORA regulates religious institutions and the practice of religion. The Law of Associations requires all religious groups to apply to the MOJ for official registration. The MOJ registers religious denominations as associations on a basis similar to how it officially registers civil society organizations. The application process requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities, their proposed leadership, and their funding sources, among other requirements. Ineligibilities for registration may include determinations by the MOJ that another group has identical or similar objectives, or the group’s activities “could harm the common good.” Even if the MOJ grants official registration, the religious group must request permission from the ORA each time it wants to conduct activities other than regular services, such as holding meetings in approved locations, publishing major decisions from meetings, receiving foreign visitors, importing religious literature, purchasing and operating motor vehicles, and constructing, repairing, or purchasing places of worship. Groups failing to register face penalties ranging from fines to closure of their organizations and confiscation of their property.
The penal code states membership in or association with an unregistered group is a crime; penalties range from fines to three months’ imprisonment, and leaders of such groups may be sentenced to up to one year in prison.
The law regulates the registration of “house churches” (private residences used as places of worship). Two house churches of the same denomination may not exist within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of one another and detailed information – including the number of worshippers, dates and times of services, and the names and ages of all inhabitants of the house in which services are held – must be provided to authorities. The law states if authorization is granted, authorities will supervise the operation of meetings; they may suspend meetings in the house for a year or more if they find the requirements are not fulfilled. If an individual registers a complaint against a church, the house church may be closed permanently and members may be subject to imprisonment. Foreigners must obtain permission before attending services in a house church; foreigners may not attend house churches in some regions. Any violation will result in fines and closure of the house church.
The constitution states, “The rights of assembly, demonstration and association are exercised by workers, both manual and intellectual; peasants; women; students; and other sectors of the working people,” but it does not explicitly address religious association. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.
Military service is mandatory for all men, and there are no legal provisions exempting conscientious objectors from service.
Religious education is highly regulated, and homeschooling is illegal.
The country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008 but did not ratify it. The government notes, “With respect to the scope and implementation of some of the provisions of this international instrument, Cuba will make such reservations or interpretative declarations as it may deem appropriate.”
Many religious groups said notwithstanding constitutional provisions providing for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibiting discrimination based on religion, the government continued to use threats, detentions, violence, and other coercive tactics to restrict certain religious groups, and leaders’ and followers’ activities, including the right of prisoners to practice religion freely, and applied the law in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Religious leaders said before and following implementation of the new constitution on February 25, the government increased its pressure on religious leaders, while curtailing freedom of religion and conscience.
According to CSW, reports of authorities’ harassment of religious leaders increased in parallel with churches’ outspokenness regarding the constitution. CSW reported that, before the passage of the constitutional referendum in February, officials told religious leaders they would be charged as “mercenaries and counterrevolutionaries” if they did not vote for the new constitution. According to CSW, on February 12, CCP officials summoned Christian, Yoruba, and Masonic leaders in Santiago, to “confirm” they and their congregations would vote to adopt the new constitution. According to online media outlet CiberCuba, on February 22, security agents from the Technical Department of Investigation (Departamento Tecnico de Investigaciones, or DTI) arrested Roberto Veliz Torres, a minister of the Assembly of God in Palma Soriano, allegedly for pressuring his congregants to vote “no” in the constitutional referendum. Several other pastors, mostly Protestants, were arrested, threatened by state security officials, and attacked in official media for the same motive, such as Pastor Carlos Sebastian Hernandez Armas of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana’s Cotorro neighborhood. In a February 23 article in a state newspaper, Herndandez Armas was attacked by name as a “counterrevolutionary” for refusing to support the new constitution. According to media outlet 14yMedio.com, an official from the ORA named Sonia Garcia Garcia telephoned Dariel Llanes, head of the Western Baptist Convention, of which Hernandez Armas’ church is a member, to inform him that the pastor would “no longer be treated like a pastor, but instead like a counterrevolutionary.” One church leader stated government officials sought to intimidate religious leaders because the officials thought some religious leaders were openly promoting a “no” vote on the constitution. Some religious groups stated concerns the new constitution significantly weakened protections for freedom of religion or belief, as well as diluting references to freedom of conscience and separating it from freedom of religion.
According to the U.S-based Patmos Institute, police summoned and interrogated Yoruba priest Loreto Hernandez Garcia, vice president of the Free Yorubas of Cuba, which was founded in 2012 by Yorubas who disagreed with the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, which they allege is controlled by the ORA. According to the U.S. based Global Liberty Alliance, authorities accused the Free Yorubas of “destabilizing society,” and subjecting their leaders to arbitrary detentions and beatings, destruction of ceremonial objects, police monitoring, and searches-and-seizures without probable cause.
According to media, prison authorities continued to abuse Christian rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro for his refusal to participate in ideological re-education programs while incarcerated. Diaz Paseiro, imprisoned since November 2017 and recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, was beaten, prohibited from receiving visits or phone calls, denied medical and religious care, and confined to a “punishment” cell. Diaz Paseiro was serving a three year and five-month sentence for “pre-criminal dangerousness” for protesting municipal elections in 2017.
Media reported that police continued their repeated physical assaults against members of the Ladies in White, a rights advocacy organization, on their way to Mass. Reports indicated the group’s members typically attempted to attend Mass and then gathered to protest the government’s human rights abuses. Throughout the year, Soler Fernandez reported repeated arrests and short detentions for Ladies in White members when they attempted to meet on Sundays. According to media, because of the government’s intensified pressure on the movement, the women were placed under brief house arrest on Sundays in order to prevent them from attending Mass. Soler Fernandez said she was arrested every Sunday she tried to exit her house to protest. She and other Ladies in White members were frequently physically abused while in police custody, as shown by videos of their arrests. After being taken into custody, they were typically fined and released shortly thereafter.
According to media, authorities specifically harassed and threatened journalists reporting specifically on abuses of religious freedom. On April 22, police arrested and assaulted journalist and lawyer Roberto Quinones while he was reporting on a trial involving religious expression. Officers approached and arrested Quinones while he was interviewing a daughter of two Protestant pastors facing charges because they wanted to homeschool their children because of hostility and bullying their children were subject to in state schools due to their faith. When Quinones asked why he was being arrested, an officer pulled Quinones’ hands behind his back, handcuffed him, and threw him to the ground. The officers then dragged him to their police car. One of the arresting officers struck Quinones several times, including once on the side of the head with enough force to rupture his eardrum. On August 7, a court sentenced him to one year of “correctional labor” for “resistance and disobedience”; he was imprisoned on September 11 after authorities denied his appeal. Quinones continued to write while in prison, especially about the bleak conditions of the facility, although he wrote a letter stating he was happy to “be here for having put my dignity before blackmail.” When the letter was published on CubaNet, an independent domestic online outlet, prison authorities reportedly punished Quinones and threatened him with disciplinary action. Patmos reported that on August 9, Yoel Suarez Fernandez was detained and threatened for reporting on the Rigal and Quinones cases, and authorities confiscated his phone.
According to media, in April authorities arrested homeschooling advocates Reverend Ramon Rigal and his wife Ayda Exposito. The couple said they objected to the atheistic ideological instruction integral to the Communist Party curriculum of state schools and the abuse their children were subjected to for their parents’ beliefs, including the bullying of their daughter at school because she was Christian. The couple withdrew their children from the state school and enrolled them in an online program based in Guatemala. The reports stated the family, who belong to the Church of God in Cuba, were given 30 minutes’ notice before their trial began on April 18. At trial, the prosecutor stated education at home was “not permitted in Cuba because it has a capitalist foundation” and only government teachers are prepared to “instill socialist values.” In addition to a fine for truancy, Rigal was sentenced to two years in prison and Exposito 18 months for refusing to send their children to the government school, as well as for “illicit association” for leading an unregistered church. In December, Diario de Cuba reported state judicial officials denied Ayda parole. Another couple in their church was also sentenced to prison for refusing to send their children to state schools.
According to CSW, on July 12, state security agents detained Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre after he left the Havana headquarters of the Ladies in White where he had been documenting human rights abuses. A member of the Apostolic Movement and a journalist, Fernandez was released on July 19 and reportedly never charged. According to CSW, on November 13, authorities summoned Fernandez and his wife Yusleysi Gil Mauricio to the Camaguey police station. After separating the couple, security agents reportedly told her that Fernandez “would be judged for being a counterrevolutionary.” Fernandez was released November 19 after four days of detention, again without charge. Fernandez said he believed the detentions were because of his reporting on authorities’ religious freedom abuses.
Patmos reported that on October 31, authorities detained, interrogated, and threatened Velmis Adriana Marino Gonzalez for two hours for leading a female Apostolic movement. Another member of the Apostolic Movement and leader of the Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba, Alain Toledano Valiente, reported to CSW that police had summoned him three times during the year. He said authorities opposed the construction of a new church (authorities demolished the previous Emanuel Church and detained hundreds of church members in 2016), even though he had the permits to build the new church. Following one summons, Toledano stated, “In Cuba pastors are more at risk than criminals and bandits… I cannot carry out any religious activity; that is to say they want me to stop being a pastor.”
Patmos reported during the year authorities repeatedly pressured and threatened 17-year-old Yoruba follower Dairon Hernandez Perez for his refusal to enlist in the military due to his religious beliefs.
According to CSW, many religious groups continued to state their lack of legal registration impeded their ability to practice their religion. Several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to await a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official registration, some dating as far back as 1994. On October 23, Ambassador to the United States Jose Cabanas met with the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ in Salt Lake City and told church leaders the denomination was “welcome” in Cuba; however, the ORA did not approve the Church’s registration by year’s end.
Representatives of several religious organizations that had unsuccessfully sought registration said the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the ORA and the MOJ to deny registration of certain groups. In some cases, the MOJ delayed requests for registration or cited changing laws to justify a lack of approval. EchoCuba, a U.S.-based international religious freedom advocacy group, reported that some Apostolic churches repeatedly had their attempts to register denied, forcing them to operate without legal status. According to Patmos, in June seven registered groups formed the Alliance of Evangelical Churches (AIEC), but the ORA denied their registration.
Members of Protestant denominations said some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of house churches in private homes, although some unregistered house churches could operate with little or no government interference. According to EchoCuba, however, several religious leaders, particularly those from smaller, independent house churches or Santeria communities, said the government was less tolerant of groups that relied on informal locations, including private residences and other private meeting spaces, to practice their beliefs. They said the government monitored them, and, at times, prevented them from holding religious meetings in their spaces. CSW reported authorities continued to rely on two 2005 government resolutions to impose complicated and repressive restrictions on house churches.
According to EchoCuba, the ORA approved some registration applications, but it took up to two to three years from the date of the application to complete the process. Soka Gakkai was the only Buddhist group registered with the government.
According to religious leaders and former prisoners, authorities continued to deny prisoners, including political prisoners, pastoral visits and the ability to meet with other prisoners for worship, prayer, and study. Many prisoners also said authorities repeatedly confiscated Bibles and other religious literature, sometimes as punishment and other times for no apparent reason.
According to media, in August the ORA informed Catholic leaders that it had cancelled the annual Catholic public youth day celebrations, except in the city of Santiago. The announcement came after police prevented some Catholic priests, journalists, and others from attending the funeral of Cardinal Jaime Ortega at the Havana cathedral on July 28.
According to CSW, the government, through the Ministry of Interior, systematically planted informants in all religious organizations, sometimes by persuading or intimidating members and leaders to act as informants. The objective was to monitor and intimidate religious leaders and report on the content of sermons and on church attendees. As a result, CSW assessed, many leaders practiced self-censorship, avoiding stating anything that might possibly be construed as anti-Castro or counterrevolutionary in their sermons and teaching. Catholic and Protestant Church leaders, both in and outside of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), reported frequent visits from state security agents and CCP officials for the purpose of intimidating them and reminding them they were under close surveillance, as well as to influence internal decisions and structures within the groups. In October state security officials reportedly summoned and interrogated a Protestant leader and a Catholic leader, warning both to leave their churches for their “counterrevolutionary” activities and threatening them with imprisonment if they did not comply. Many house church leaders continued to report frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued with their activities. In March an officer informed Yoel Ruiz Solis in Pinar del Rio that he was operating an illegal church in his home and threatened to confiscate his house and open criminal proceedings against him. In August and October officials from the Ministry of Physical Planning accused Rudisvel Ribeira Robert of various violations; during the second visit they threatened him with a fine if he continued to allow religious activities on his property.
Many house church leaders continued to report frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued with their activities. In March an officer informed Yoel Ruiz Solis in Pinar del Rio that he was operating an illegal church in his home and threatened to confiscate his house and open criminal proceedings against him. In August and October officials from the Ministry of Physical Planning accused Rudisvel Ribeira Robert of various violations; during the second visit they threatened him with a fine if he continued to allow religious activities on his property.
According to Patmos, the Rastafarians, whose spiritual leader remained imprisoned since 2012, were among the most stigmatized and repressed religious groups. The Patmos report said reggae music, the primary form of Rastafarian expression, was marginalized and its bands censored. According to Sandor Perez Pita, known in the Rastafarian world as Rassandino, reggae was not allowed on most state radio stations and concert venues, and Rastafarians were consistently targeted in government crackdowns on drugs, incarcerating them for their supposed association with drugs without presenting evidence of actual drug possession or trafficking. Authorities also subjected Rastafarians to discrimination for their clothing and hairstyles, including through segregation of Rastafarian schoolchildren and employment discrimination against Rastafarian adults.
According CSW, Christian leaders from all denominations said there was a scarcity of Bibles and other religious literature, primarily in rural areas. Some religious leaders continued to report government obstacles preventing them from importing religious materials and donated goods, including bureaucratic obstructions and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on computers and electronic devices. In some cases, the government held up religious materials or blocked them altogether. Patmos reported one pastor witnessed authorities at the airport confiscate 300 Bibles U.S. tourists attempted to bring in with them. According to Patmos, the Cuban Association for the Divulgation of Islam was unable to obtain a container of religious literature embargoed since 2014. Several other groups, however, said they continued to import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods.
The Catholic Church and several Protestant representatives said they continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.
By year’s end, the government again did not grant the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCB) public requests to allow the Catholic Church to reopen religious schools and have open access to broadcasting on television and radio. The ORA continued to permit the CCB to host a monthly 20-minute radio broadcast, which allowed the council’s messages to be heard throughout the country. No other churches had access to mass media, which remained entirely state-owned. Several religious leaders continued to express concern about the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.
According to media, the government continued to prohibit the construction of new church buildings. All requests, including for minor building repairs, needed to be approved by the ORA, which awarded permits according to the inviting association’s perceived level of support for or cooperation with the government. For example, despite spending thousands of dollars in fees and finally receiving ORA approval in 2017, in April the ORA rescinded permission for renovations to the Baptist Church in Holguin after church leaders participated in a campaign to abstain from nationwide voting on the new constitution. Berean Baptist Church, whose request for registration was pending since 1997, could not repair existing church buildings because as an unregistered group it could not request the necessary permits.
According to CSW, “The use of government bureaucracies and endless requirements for permits that can be arbitrarily cancelled at any time is typical of the way the Cuban government seeks to control and restrict freedom of religion or belief on the island. The leaderships of the Maranatha Baptist Church and the Eastern Baptist Convention have done everything right and have complied with every government requirement. In return, the Office of Religious Affairs has once again acted in bad faith and subjected them to a Kafkaesque ordeal, where they find themselves right where they started over two years ago.” Reportedly, the ORA’s processes meant many communities had no legal place to meet for church services, particularly in rural areas. Other denominations, especially Protestants, reported similar problems with the government prohibiting them from expanding their places of worship by threatening to dismantle or expropriate churches because they were holding “illegal” services.
According to CSW, several cases of authorities’ arbitrary confiscation of church property remained unresolved – including land owned by the Western Baptist Convention the government confiscated illegally in 2012 and later transferred to two government companies. Many believed the act was in retaliation for the refusal of the Western Baptist Convention to agree to various ORA demands to restructure its internal governance and expel a number of pastors. One denomination reported the Ministry of Housing would not produce the deeds to its buildings, required to proceed with the process of reclaiming property. The ministry stated the deeds had been lost. The Methodist Church of Cuba said it continued to struggle to reclaim properties confiscated by the government, including a theater adjacent to the Methodist church in Marianao, Havana. The Methodist Church reportedly submitted all necessary ownership documentation; government officials told them the Church’s case was valid but took no action during the year. According to CSW, In March officials threatened to confiscate a church belonging to a registered denomination in Artemisa. On April 17, during the week before Easter, officials notified the Nazarene Church of Manzanillo that they intended to expropriate the church building used by the congregation for 20 years. The government took no further action regarding the Manzanillo church through the end of the year.
According to media, religious discrimination against students was a common practice in state schools, with multiple reports of teachers and Communist Party officials encouraging and participating in bullying. In November Olaine Tejada told media authorities were pressuring him to retract his earlier allegations that his 12-year-old son, Leosdan Martinez, had been threatened with expulsion from a secondary school in Nuevitas Camaguey in 2018 because they were Jewish. On December 3, media reported schoolmates took off his kippah and beat him in the face with a pistol. According to CSW, on December 11, education authorities forbade sons from entering the school if they wore the kippah. The Nuevitas municipal director of education imposed the kippah ban after a government commission found a school guard guilty of failing to protect the older of the two boys, who had been beaten by fellow students on a regular basis for several months. Rather than sanctioning the guard, they instituted a kippah ban. Authorities threatened to open legal proceedings against the parents for refusing to send the children to school.
According to religious leaders, the government continued to selectively prevent some religious groups from establishing accredited schools but did not interfere with the efforts of some religious groups to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before- and after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs. The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework, including entrepreneurial training leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners. Several Protestant communities continued to offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however, the government did not recognize these degrees.
Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs since their religion prohibited them from political involvement.
CSW reported a new development in the government’s use of social media to harass and defame religious leaders. In some cases, posts were made on the Facebook accounts of public figures targeting religious leaders or groups. In most instances, the accounts posting attacks targeting religious leaders seemed to be linked to state security. In the run-up to the constitutional referendum, Pastor Sandy Cancino, who had been publicly critical of the draft constitution, was criticized on social media and accused of being a “religious fundamentalist paid by the imperialists.”
According to CSW, on October 18, a Catholic lay leader running a civil society organization with a Christian ethos was stopped on his way to Havana, where he planned to visit a priest for religious reasons. His taxi was stopped in what first appeared to be a routine police check, but a state security agent came to the checkpoint, interrogated him for an hour and a half, and threatened him with prison if he continued to work for this organization.
According to Patmos, immigration officers continued to target religious travelers and their goods and informed airport-based intelligence services of incoming and outgoing travel. Patmos reported that in May Muslim activists from the Cuban Association for the Divulgation of Islam traveled to Pakistan to attend a training session. Throughout their stay in Pakistan, Cuban security officials sent threatening messages through their relatives in Cuba, warning them they would be arrested if they returned. Reportedly, the activists returned home despite the threats.
The government continued to block some religious leaders and activists from traveling, including preventing several religious leaders from traveling to the United States to attend the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department of State in July and other religious gatherings outside of Cuba. The Patmos Institute’s annual report listed 24 individuals who were banned from traveling due to their religious affiliation. CSW reported that a pastor from the Western Baptist Convention was prohibited from traveling to the United States in September to attend a spiritual retreat. According to CSW, on November 10, the president of the Eastern Baptist Convention, one of the largest Protestant denominations on the island and one of the founding members of the Cuban Evangelical Alliance, was stopped from boarding a flight and informed that he was banned from leaving the country.
According to 21Wilberforce, a U.S.-based Christian human rights organization, in November the government prevented several church leaders affiliated with the AIEC from leaving the island to attend the AIEC’s general assembly in Indonesia. One pastor said that in addition to harassment, intimidation and interrogations, authorities prevented the AIEC from receiving visits from overseas pastors and church leaders by denying them the necessary visitor visas.
According to Patmos, the government denied a considerable number of religious visas, including to a group of missionaries from Florida that had visited annually to rebuild temples. On September 13, immigration officials interrupted an Apostolic conference in Mayabeque Province and threatened foreign visitors with deportation for participating in an “illegal conference.” Also, according to Patmos, pastors on tourist visas reported constant and obvious monitoring by security officials and occasional interrogations and threats.
According to EchoCuba, the government continued to give preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others. EchoCuba reported the government continued to apply its system of rewarding churches obedient and sympathetic to “revolutionary values and ideals” and penalizing those that were not. Similarly, the government continued to reward cooperative religious leaders and threatened revocation of rights for noncooperative leaders. According to EchoCuba, in exchange for their cooperation, CCC members continued to receive benefits other nonmember churches did not always receive, including building permits, international donations of clothing and medicine, and exit visas for pastors to travel abroad. EchoCuba said individual churches and denominations or religious groups also experienced different levels of consideration by the government depending on the leadership of those groups and their relationship with the government. Of the 252 violations of freedom of religion or belief reported to CSW during the year, only 5 percent involved members of CCC religious groups.
Reportedly because of internal restrictions on movement, government agencies regularly refused to recognize a change in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to a new church or parish. These restrictions made it difficult or impossible for pastors relocating to a different ministry to obtain government services, including housing. Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups. According to EchoCuba, the application of the decree to religious groups was likely part of the general pattern of government efforts to control their activities. Some religious leaders said the decree was also used to block church leaders from traveling within the country to attend special events or meetings. Church leaders associated with the Apostolic churches regularly reported they were prevented, sometimes through short-term detention, from traveling to attend church events or carry out ministry work.
Some religious leaders said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas, citing a measure prohibiting churches and religious groups from using individuals’ bank accounts for their organizations and requiring individual accounts to be consolidated into one per denomination or organization. Reportedly, it continued to be easier for larger, more organized churches to receive large donations, while smaller, less formal churches continued to face difficulties with banking procedures.
Some religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs and to share their religious beliefs. International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana. Caritas continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to all individuals regardless of religious belief.
Some religious groups again reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before- and after-school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. They attributed the increase in access to the government’s declining resources to provide social services. Religious leaders, however, also reported increased difficulties in providing pastoral services.
Media reported that during the year, the government-run historian office in Havana helped restore the Jewish cemetery, the oldest in the country, as part of its celebration of the 500th anniversary of the founding of the city.
On January 26, the first new Catholic church since the revolution, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was opened in Sandino, near the town of Pinar del Rio. This church was the first of three Catholic churches for which the government issued building permits.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” again held an 800-person interfaith meeting – “Bridges of Peace” – in Havana on September 22-23 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials had a brief encounter with Caridad Diego, the head of ORA, during a Mass in September celebrating the Vatican’s appointment of Cardinal Garcia Rodriguez; Diego declined to hold a requested follow-up meeting. In public statements and through social media postings, U.S. government officials, including the President and Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect its citizens’ fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion and expression.
Embassy officials met with the head of the CCC and discussed concerns unregistered churches faced to gain official status.
Embassy officials continued to meet with a range of registered and unregistered religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics, to discuss the principal issues of religious freedom and tolerance affecting each group, including freedom of assembly, church expansion, access to state-owned media, and their inability to open private religious schools.
Embassy engagement included facilitating exchanges among visiting religious delegations and religious groups, including among visiting representatives of U.S. religious organizations. The groups often discussed the challenges of daily life in the country, including obtaining government permission for certain activities, and difficulty for local and U.S. churches to maintain connections in the face of increasing travel restrictions imposed by the government that prevented religious leaders from leaving the country, and increased refusal rates of visas for U.S. travelers to Cuba for religious purposes.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed the country on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced that since 2018 authorities had closed 159 institutions open to the public, including 13 places of worship, to combat Islamism and secluded communities. President Emmanuel Macron and other government officials again condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government augmented from 7,000 to 10,000 the number of security forces it deployed to protect religious and other sensitive sites. President Macron publicly stated anti-Semitism had grown and reached its worst level since World War II. He called anti-Zionism a modern form of anti-Semitism and said it was why the government would implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. The National Assembly separately passed a resolution adopting the IHRA definition. Interior Minister Castaner and Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet announced additional measures to combat anti-Semitism, including enhanced security for religious sites and improved guidance for prosecutors evaluating hate crimes. As part of the 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism, the government awarded the first annual national anti-racism prize and dedicated 2.3 million euros ($2.58 million) for local projects on the issue. The government continued to enforce a ban on full-face coverings in public and the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools and by officials offering public services. Police in Grenoble fined female Muslim protesters for bathing in burkinis in a public swimming pool. An assemblyman in Dijon turned away a Muslim woman accompanying her son to the regional legislature for refusing to remove her hijab. Interior Minister Castaner included “rigid religious practice, particularly exacerbated in Ramadan,” and “regular and ostentatious practice of ritual prayer” in a list of possible indicators of Islamist radicalization. The minister of the armed forces acknowledged government responsibility for the 1942 roundup of 13,000 French Jews deported to extermination camps.
Religiously motivated crimes included attempted murder, assault, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism. The government reported 1,052 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or arson of churches and cemeteries, compared with 1,063 in 2018; 154 incidents targeting Muslims, including attempted murder, compared with 100 in 2018; and 687 anti-Semitic incidents, including a violent assault against a Jewish taxi driver, death threats against a mayor, harassment of a prominent Jewish philosopher, and desecration of Jewish cemeteries, an increase of 27 percent compared with the 541 incidents recorded in 2018. The rise in anti-Semitic incidents stemmed from a 50 percent increase in threats; other incidents, including attacks on persons – which fell by 44 percent – declined by 15 percent. Authorities charged a man with attempted murder for shooting outside a mosque two persons who caught him as he tried to set fire to the mosque. A court ruled the confessed killer of a Jewish woman in 2017 could not be held criminally responsible because he was in a delusional state from smoking marijuana before the killing. Lawyers for the family announced their intention to appeal the ruling. A Paris court of appeals convicted Abdelkader Merah of complicity in the 2012 killings by his brother of seven persons outside a Jewish school. A study found 42 percent of Muslims reported experiencing religious discrimination at least once in the previous five years. A European Commission (EC) survey found 72 percent of respondents thought anti-Semitism was a problem in the country and another EC survey found 69 percent believed religious discrimination was widespread. A sports retailer cancelled plans to sell a hijab for runners after widespread criticism of the measure.
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 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. The embassy sponsored the participation of interfaith representatives in a U.S. program with themes of religious cooperation and pluralism. It also funded religious tolerance workshops for youths led jointly by Jewish and Muslim organizations in Bordeaux.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 67.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The law prohibits government collection of data based on race, ethnicity, or religion. However, a wide range of unofficial statistics and studies circulate.
A report released in July by the Observatory for Secularism, a government-appointed commission, in cooperation with polling company Viavoice, presented estimated figures of those who identified as part of a religion or felt tied to a religion. According to the report, whose figures are consistent with other estimates, 48 percent of respondents identify as Catholic, 3 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 2 percent Buddhist, 0.7 percent Jewish, 0.6 percent, and 1 percent other religion; 34 percent said they have no religious affiliation and 7 percent preferred not to respond. The same report estimates “other” religions’ numbers as follows: Jehovah’s Witnesses, 140,000-250,000, and Hindus, 150,000-300,000. In addition, the observatory’s report stated 31 percent consider themselves nonbelievers or atheists.
The report stated the number of residents linked to Islam in the poll was likely underestimated, as some Muslim and Muslim-affiliated residents may have declined to state their religion. According to the report, the “most precise” estimate of the Muslim population, based on multiple polls and demographic extrapolation, is likely between 3.3 and 5.0 million residents. The report stated the Muslim population corresponds with the arrival of immigrant populations, particularly from the Mediterranean and West Africa. The report also tied Hindu and Buddhist populations to immigrant communities.
The report attributes the growth in the Protestant community, from 2.5 percent of the population in 2010 to 3.1 percent during the year, to the growing number of Evangelical Christians, who number approximately one million.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and shall respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.
The law, as well as international and European covenants to which the country adheres, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,700) and imprisonment of one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.
Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Additional penalties beyond those for the underlying crime for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000 to 75,000 euros ($50,600-$84,300), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, defined as an allegation of fact that affects the honor of a person or body, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($50,600). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.
Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories. For example, Catholics perform religious activities through their associations of worship and operate schools through their cultural associations.
Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. In order to qualify as an association of worship, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include liturgical services and practices, religious training, and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. The association must also engage in public worship and respect public order. Among excluded activities are those that are purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. To apply for this tax-exempt status, the association must provide to the prefecture its estimated budget for the year, annual accounts for the previous three years or since the association’s creation, whichever is shorter, a written justification of eligibility for the status, and the number of members of the association. In Paris, the association must have a minimum of 25 members. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the Ministry of Interior (MOI), 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status. The number of cultural associations, many of which are not associated with religious groups, is in the thousands and changes frequently. Cultural associations may be declared using an online form through the government’s public administration website. Cultural associations, even if associated with religious groups, may operate without applying for government recognition.
The law states, “Detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They may practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”
Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($8,400). The core provisions of the legislation will expire at the end of 2020 unless renewed by parliament.
The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. According to the law, police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($170) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($33,700) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.
The law prohibits agents of the administration, public services, and companies or associations carrying out public services from demonstrating their religion through visible signs of religious affiliation, such as the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, or Christian cross. The prohibition applies during working hours and at the place of employment.
By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.
The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories. Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the interior ministry, and the country’s president, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg. The prime minister appoints the chief rabbi and the presidents of the Jewish and Protestant consistories in Alsace-Moselle, and the interior minister appoints ministers of the three Christian churches in the region. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings. The overseas department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees from wearing visible signs of religious affiliation and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories. In Alsace-Moselle, religious education regarding one of the four recognized faiths is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents. Religious education classes are taught by laypersons who are trained and nominated by the respective religious groups but are paid by the state. Elsewhere in the country, public schools teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.
By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of their religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools or whether students must be allowed to opt out of such instruction.
Missionaries from countries not exempt from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries from non-exempt countries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The law criminalizes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On November 28, at a conference of the country’s prefects, Interior Minister Castaner announced the nationwide expansion of an initial program authorities had implemented since February 2018 to counter “Islamism and communitarianism,” the latter term referencing, according to the Observatory for Secularism, a trend for community withdrawal and separation from the rest of society, up to and including enforcement of rules specific to that community. The initial project targeted 15 communities “particularly touched by the phenomenon of political Islam,” according to Secretary of State to the Minister of the Interior Laurent Nunez in a November 15 interview. In these communities, the MOI had conducted 1,030 inspections of establishments open to the public, including pubs, cafes, and liquor stores; cultural and sports establishments; private schools; and places of worship. As a result of the inspections, during that period the MOI closed 133 drinking establishments, 13 places of worship, four schools, and nine cultural establishments because, according to Nunez in his interview, those establishments employed a “communitarian” or “political Islam” discourse that put “the laws of God before the laws of the Republic.” The government did not identify the specific sites it closed under the initial program.
The prefect of Isere, who is subordinate to the minister of interior, closed the Al-Kawthar Mosque in Grenoble for six months starting February 7. The MOI stated it closed the mosque because it posted videos on its YouTube channel that incited hatred and violence towards Christians and Jews; its imam’s sermons justified armed jihad; and the mosque was frequented by known extremists. There were no reports the mosque reopened after the six-month period. The government said it closed one other mosque and monitored 63 mosques during the year but did not identify them or provide other details. On June 13, the association Action Muslim Rights (ADM) released a report criticizing the MOI’s closures of mosques. ADM stated that while the mosques were shut down, the government did not investigate them for terrorist ties. According to the report, none of the mosques had reopened, although the law limits the closures to a period not to exceed six months.
Between January 1 and July 18, the interior ministry expelled 44 foreigners it considered radicalized, a new record, Le Point magazine reported. While the article did not cite 2018 deportations, it reported that in 2017 the country deported a total of 20 radicalized foreigners. (A 2018 report the country had expelled 300 radical imams since 2017 was incorrect.)
On October 8, as President Macron paid tribute to four victims of an insider knife attack at the Paris police headquarters, he stated the country must develop a “society of vigilance” in which citizens look out for signs of individuals being influenced by Islamist extremist networks in the fight against the “hydra” of Islamist militancy. The attacker, a police employee who had converted to Islam, had contacts with individuals believed to be linked to an Islamist Salafist movement, according to prosecutors, who also said they believed the attacker harbored work-related grievances linked to his disabilities.
In response to the same knife attack, Interior Minister Castaner spoke before the National Assembly October 8 and articulated several signs that might indicate a person’s radicalization through changes in behavior, including “rigorous religious practice, particularly exacerbated during the period of Ramadan,” “wearing a beard,” whether or not he greets a woman with a traditional kiss on the cheek, if the person “has a regular and ostentatious practice of ritual prayer,” and the presence of hyperpigmentation on the forehead, widely interpreted as a reference to the zabiba, a mark often resulting from repeated contact of the forehead with a prayer rug.
The government maintained the deployment of security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sites and other places of worship, and increased their number from 7,000 to 10,000. After the March terrorist attacks against mosques in New Zealand, the MOI increased patrols around religious sites.
At year’s end, the Paris Appeals Court had not issued a ruling in the case of Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four and injuring 40. In 2018 investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Diab and ordered his release. Prosecutors appealed the case’s dismissal, and the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling. Upon his release in 2018, Diab returned to Canada where he remained at year’s end.
In June police fined a group of Muslim women 35 euros ($39) each for bathing in burkinis at a municipal swimming pool in Grenoble in protest of local regulations banning the garment. Women from the same association reported the Citizen Alliance of Grenoble had carried out a similar protest “Operation Burkini” in May, which they called an “act of civil disobedience.” One of the women told the BBC they were being deprived of their civil rights and that “We must fight against discriminatory policies and prejudice in France….” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe expressed support for the mayor of Grenoble and the regulations, saying, “No citizen can be released from the respect of the law or the common regulation on the basis of his religious convictions.” Marlene Schiappa, Junior Minister of State for Gender Equality and the Fight against Discrimination, said, “There is a political message” behind the burkini, which is: “cover up.” She added, however, “Women, whatever their religion or their way of life, must be able to access municipal swimming pools.” In 2016 the Council of State, the country’s highest court on administrative matters, overturned several burkini bans on the basis that local authorities could only restrict individual liberties if there was a “proven risk” to public order. The court ruling did not overturn other anti-burkini regulations nor did it make them illegal; other anti-burkini regulations thus remained in force unless mayors or prefectures suspended them. The ruling did, however, set a legal precedent upon which persons could contest those regulations.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported three cases in which authorities had interfered with proselytizing during the year. They did not provide additional details on the incidents.
According to the Ministry of Justice, as of August 2017, the latest year for which statistics were available, the penitentiary system employed the following number of chaplains: 695 Catholic, 347 Protestant, 224 Muslim, 76 Jewish, 54 Orthodox Christian, 170 Jehovah’s Witness, and 19 Buddhist. In detainee visiting areas, visitors could bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Prisoners could pray in their cells individually, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.
At year’s end, the government did not respond to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) following the latter’s October 2018 finding that French authorities violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing niqabs in two separate cases in 2012. The UNHRC gave the government a deadline of 180 days to report to it action taken to respond to the violation and prevent other such violations. According to a statement the government issued on the same day as the UNHRC ruling, the law prohibiting concealment of the face in public spaces was legitimate and did not infringe upon freedom of religion. The government added it would convey its views to the UNHRC in a follow-on report.
During an October 11 meeting of the Burgundy-Franche-Comte Regional Assembly in the central-eastern part of the country, Julien Odoul, an elected official representing the National Rally (RN) Party, told a woman who was accompanying her son on a school outing to the legislature to remove her hijab or leave. The law does not prohibit women from wearing hijabs while attending an assembly session. In response, Junior Minister Schiappa said that “it is by publicly humiliating mothers in front of their children that we create divisions” in society. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, however, said, “The law does not prohibit veiled women from accompanying children, but we do not wish to encourage the phenomenon,” which is “not in agreement with our values.” Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire stated the veil “is legal, but not necessarily desirable.” The woman filed one legal complaint against Odoul with the Dijon public prosecutor’s office for violence of a racial nature by persons of authority, and a separate legal complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office for “incitement of racial hatred by elected officials.” The complaints were pending at year’s end.
In April the Ministry of Culture created a five-person Mission for Research and Restitution of Spoliated Cultural Property in April to seek out the rightful owners or heirs of artworks, including those in museums and galleries, stolen or sold under duress during the country’s occupation. In the spring the government transferred authority for final decisions on art restitution claims from the Ministry of Culture to the Commission for the Compensation for Victims of Spoliation, a separate administrative body reporting directly to the prime minister, in order to address criticism that museum officials would be reluctant to hand over valuable artwork. On April 1, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attended a ceremony returning artwork to its pre-WWII owners at the French consulate in New York.
The government continued to implement a 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism in the country, with a strong focus on countering online hate content. As part of the plan, Prime Minister Philippe awarded the first annual national anti-racism prize, named for Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man tortured and killed in 2006. In October DILCRAH dedicated 2.3 million euros ($2.58 million) and announced a call for local projects addressing education, prevention, training, and aid for victims of racism and anti-Semitism. The government also continued with an initiative for European Union legislation to require faster removal of illegal content online; created a national reaction team to improve education countering racist and anti-Semitic behavior; funded two thesis grants annually to finance work on racism and anti-Semitism; and established an online precomplaint system for victims of discrimination or racist or anti-Semitic acts.
Prime Minister Philippe advocated for a bill requiring websites to remove “obviously hateful” content, specifically racist or anti-Semitic content, within 24 hours. Deputy Laetitia Avia introduced the draft bill at the direction of Prime Minister Philippe and as part of the 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism. The National Assembly passed the bill in July, but the senate did not vote on it by year’s end. Among other critiques on freedom of expression grounds, the European Commission published a letter November 22 raising concerns about the bill’s impact on freedom of expression and its potential conflict with European Union free speech directives. Facebook and others questioned the 24-hour window to remove content, citing the legal analysis needed to evaluate posts.
On April 2, Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet introduced a circular, which she said was part of the effort to combat anti-Semitism, urging prosecutors to use simplified, faster procedures (such as civil referrals to block access to “hate sites”) and criminal orders (trial without a hearing) to prosecute and convict authors of “racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” writings.
In a September 12 speech before the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) in Bordeaux, Interior Minister Castaner detailed several government measures to fight what he called “the poison of anti-Semitism,” including enhanced surveillance of 800 places of worship, the dissolution by decree of the Council of Ministers of several neo-Nazi groups, including Bastion Social and six affiliated associations, Combat 18, and Blood and Honor Hexagon, and an increase in the government contribution for the Shoah Memorial. He repeated President Macron’s February statement that the National Assembly would take up a proposal to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and said, “Anti-Zionism often has nothing to do with criticism of the foreign policy of the State of Israel; it is too often aimed at people of Jewish faith. It has become a disguised anti-Semitism.”
On July 10, the Observatory for Secularism, a body composed of 15 senior civil servants, parliamentarians, legal experts, and intellectuals who advise the government on the implementation of the “principle of secularism,” released its sixth annual report evaluating secularism in schools, public spaces, and hospitals. According to the report, the subject of secularism remained a sensitive one, although “direct attacks on secularism” appeared better contained, for the third year in a row. The report credited a proliferation of training on secularism and treatment of religious subjects, as well as improved targeting of implementing partners for the training. Since 2013, the Observatory for Secularism said it had directly or indirectly contributed to training more than 250,000 persons to respond to questions of secularism in the workplace.
On April 14, a fire broke out at the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, destroying the roof and spire and causing extensive damage to the windows and vaulted ceilings. President Macron, Prime Minister Philippe, and Secretary of State to the Minister of the Interior Nunez visited the cathedral, which is government-owned, while the fire still burned. Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said in a statement June 26 that a preliminary investigation found no signs the blaze was started deliberately, and that it was likely due to negligence. Macron vowed in a televised address on April 16 that the country would rebuild the cathedral in five years.
Interior Minister Castaner did not attend the iftar hosted by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), but attended an iftar in Strasbourg hosted by the Alsace Regional Council of Muslim Faith (Alsace CRCM) on May 29. At that event, Castaner, whose ministry oversees government relations with religious communities, expressed his disappointment with CFCM for its “reluctant” approach to implementing reforms. He praised the Alsace CRCM, however, as a “laboratory of ideas for the future of Islam in France.” He lauded the “peaceful and constructive approach” of the Alsace CRCM, specifically its work on prevention of radicalization, creation of a council of imams and religious leaders, and interreligious dialogue. Attendees at the event included regional Muslim community leaders, interfaith leaders, other government officials, and the mayor of Strasbourg.
Interior Minister Castaner continued a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the structure and the funding of Islam in the country. In his New Year’s address to CFCM at the Grand Mosque of Paris on January 23, he called for “powerful representatives” of Islam in the country, and stated, referencing the recurring “Yellow Vest” cost of living protests in the country, that he counted on Muslim leaders “to influence public debates including on nonreligious issues such as the protests”. “Islam,” he said, “like every organized religion, has its place in France. There is no incompatibility between praying to Allah and loving the Republic.” In December prefects in each department held a second round of listening sessions with local representatives from the Muslim community on issues related to institutional representation, financing of Islamic places of worship, and training of imams.
On October 28, President Macron met with Muslim leaders of the CFCM and called on them to fight Islamism and “communitarianism,” which he called a form of “separatism” in the country. He urged the CFCM to adopt clear position on issues including public wearing of the veil, women’s roles, and education in the Muslim community.
On August 29, President Macron met with the newly elected President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of France, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, to discuss reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, migration, relations between religions and the state, and proposed legislation on access to medically-assisted reproduction treatments. Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort expressed his concern about the proposed legislation, but said it was not the role of the bishops to prescribe political actions to Catholics. In September the archbishop stated those who were concerned about the law should protest it, but did not call on Catholics to do so. At year’s end, the national assembly passed the legislation, but the senate did not vote on it.
On September 19, Interior Minister Castaner attended the inauguration of the French Institute of Muslim Civilization (IFCM), a new national Islamic cultural center in Lyon. At the opening ceremony, Castaner spoke out against anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and all types of hate, and called the organization an essential initiative to fight prejudice and make Islam better understood in the country. Secretary General of the Muslim World League Mohammed al-Issa and Lyon Mayor Gerard Collomb also delivered remarks at the event. Collomb expressed his expectation that the IFCM would be “an instrument of peace.” The project was funded by one million-euro ($1.12 million) grants each from the central government, the city of Lyon, and the greater metropolitan region of Lyon, in addition to 1.5 million euros ($1.69 million) from the Muslim World League.
On January 9, Interior Minister Castaner, Justice Minister Belloubet, then-government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux, and Junior Minister for the Disabled Sophie Cluzel attended a CRIF-organized memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where four years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other persons hostage.
On February 20, President Macron delivered a televised speech at the annual CRIF dinner. Among the guests in attendance – who all wore badges reading “All united against Anti-Semitism” – were First Lady Brigitte Macron, former president Francois Hollande, former prime ministers Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve, 10 current cabinet members, the U.S. Ambassador, and the Israeli Ambassador. Macron stated anti-Semitism had grown and reached its worst level since World War II in the country and Europe and had gotten “worse in recent weeks.” He said he was drawing “new red lines” in the fight against hatred of Jews and announced a package of measures – some previously announced, some new – to combat the rise of anti-Semitism. Among these were that the country would define “anti-Zionism as a modern-day form of anti-Semitism,” putting it in line with the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. The government adopted the IHRA definition based on this direction, and the National Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution adopting the definition on December 3. Macron also announced the Ministry of Education would investigate the phenomenon of parents pulling their Jewish children out of public school over fears of anti-Semitism, and the government would dissolve several far-right extremist groups.
In response to a May 13 written request from Parliamentarian Meyer Habib of the Union of Democrats and Independents Party, Interior Minister Castaner declined to prohibit regular protests in favor of BDS in Paris. The minister cited as justification the right of assembly and protest enshrined in the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Before the July 25 Europa League match between Strasbourg Racing and Haifa Maccabi (professional soccer teams from France and Israel, respectively), the local police subprefecture announced a ban on any display that could serve to identify someone as a supporter of Haifa Maccabi in key areas of Strasbourg – including in all areas in and around the stadium. The ban included not only team logos, clothing, and paraphernalia, but any “national flag” associated with the team, widely accepted as a reference to the Israeli flag. The police notice specifically stated the risk for violence, referencing that contact had been established between “violent supporters of both teams, some of whom are politicized or identified as being at the origin of manifestations of anti-Semitism.” The notice, which stated identifying as a Haifa supporter “implicated risk” to that person, was followed by an outcry on social media in both France and Israel. Critics said the ban limited freedom of expression of the potential victims of anti-Semitism rather than demanding and enforcing law-abiding behavior from all fans. Following outreach to the interior ministry by leaders of the Jewish community and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the Israeli Embassy in Paris, the subprefecture issued a new notice on July 25 – just before the match – rescinding the rules.
On July 21, Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup in which 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps. “France betrayed its own children,” Parly said in her statements, adding, “The roundup … was the work of the French government, accomplished by the French.” She also promised to take up the late 19th century Dreyfus Affair, where authorities wrongly convicted Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason before eventually pardoning and reinstating him in the army. Parly said it was time to posthumously recognize the honor and years taken from Dreyfus and said she would take up the case “personally.”
President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions, including a February 19 visit to the Shoah Memorial, the same day thousands marched in Paris and elsewhere in protest of anti-Semitic acts; the February 20 annual CRIF dinner; the March 19 commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 Judaism Day observance. On October 29, President Macron, along with several government officials, attended the inauguration of the European Center of Judaism in Paris. “Judaism has played a key role across the continent to build all that is thought and all that is European civilization, to fundamentally forge who we are,” said President Macron in his speech.
As part of an established exchange program, the government continued to host the visit of 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities. The imams’ countries of origin paid their salaries. During Ramadan, when there was an increased number of worshippers, between 250 and 300 imams came to the country temporarily, including 164 from Morocco.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The MOI reported 154 registered incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 100 in 2018. Of the 154, 91 were threats and 63 were other acts, two of which involved shootings in front of a mosque in Brest in June and in front of a mosque in Bayonne in October. The government had not yet released figures on the number of acts of vandalism against Muslim places of worship (there were 45 in 2018) and of desecration against Muslim cemeteries (six in 2018) that occurred during the year. Reported anti-Semitic incidents (threats or acts) totaled 687, of which 536 were threats and 151 other acts, compared with 541 total incidents in the previous year. The rise in anti-Semitic incidents came entirely from an increase (of 50 percent) in anti-Semitic threats, whereas other acts – including attacks against persons, which fell by 44 percent – declined by 15 percent from 2018. The government also reported 1,052 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property, compared with 1,063 in 2018. Of the anti-Christian incidents, 56 were threats and 996 other acts, primarily of vandalism or arson against churches and cemeteries.
On October 28, police arrested an 84-year-old man, Claude Sinke, suspected of shooting and seriously injuring two elderly Muslim men as they approached after spotting him trying to set fire to the door of the mosque in the southwestern city of Bayonne. Sinke ran in 2015 as a local candidate in Seignanx for the National Rally Party, the party confirmed in a statement. President Macron condemned the “odious attack” in a tweet and vowed to “do everything” to punish attackers “and protect our Muslim compatriots.” The country “will never tolerate hate,” he said. Interior Minister Castaner called for “solidarity and support for the Muslim community.” National Rally leader Marine Le Pen tweeted, “These crimes must be treated with the most total severity.” At year’s end, police placed Sinke in custody for attempted murder, and judicial police opened an investigation, but the national anti-terrorism prosecutor declined to investigate the case as a terrorist incident.
On May 22, perpetrators mugged and beat a Jewish driver working for a ride-sharing company in a Paris suburb because of his Jewish-sounding name, according to authorities. The victim reported a man in his 20s was waiting for him at the appointed place and asked to sit in the front seat. Then a group of approximately 10 young men surrounded the car. One of the perpetrators told him, “You must have money, we’re going to need to frisk you.” The men then beat the driver, causing him to lose consciousness. He sustained injuries and a concussion. In July authorities charged four persons with the attack and placed one teenager in pretrial detention, stating they considered the anti-Semitic nature of the attack to be an aggravating circumstance. The others were not held in pretrial detention, either because they were minors or because of the level of charges against them. There was no further information on the case at year’s end.
On September 21, a man crashed a car into a mosque in Colmar, in the eastern part of the country, breaking down the gate and doorway of the mosque before hitting a wall. Police subdued the man, who was shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”), in the prayer hall. No one was injured in the attack, although the former president of the Grand Mosque of Colmar stated approximately 60 persons were about to arrive for prayer. At year’s end, the attacker was in pretrial detention, and his motive was still under investigation. The public prosecutor of Colmar stated he charged him with attempted murder, degrading a place of worship, and willful violence with a weapon.
Authorities continued to investigate the 2018 killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, which they were treating as a hate crime, but had not set a trial date by year’s end. The two individuals arrested in connection with the killing remained in pretrial detention.
On December 19, the investigative chamber of the Paris Court of Appeals determined that Kobili Traore, charged with the 2017 killing of his 65-year-old Jewish neighbor, Sarah Halimi, was “criminally irresponsible” for her killing. In a reversal of a 2018 ruling, the court ruled Traore could not be held criminally responsible because he was in a delusional state from smoking marijuana heavily in the hours before the killing. The court maintained anti-Semitism as an aggravating circumstance. Traore, who confessed to killing Halimi, was reportedly heard yelling in Arabic, “Allahu Akbar” and “Shaitan” (“Satan”) as he beat Halimi. Psychiatric evaluations of Traore differed in their assessment of his mental state. The third evaluation, released March 18, judged he acted during a “delusional state” caused by cannabis use. Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against anti-Semitism (BNVCA), said, “There has been a series of failures” in police and judiciary handling of the case. He added, “Today I no longer have full confidence that anti-Semitic hate crimes in France are handled properly.” CRIF President Francis Kalifat called the decision “unsurprising but difficult to justify.” He criticized a system that “renders a murderer, who is voluntarily under the influence of drugs, unfit for trial, while condemning with greater severity a motorist who has committed an accident under the influence of the same drug.” In April 39 intellectuals wrote an opinion piece in Le Figaro newspaper expressing outrage over the possibility Traore would not stand trial. On December 20, lawyers for the family said they would appeal the ruling. At year’s end, Traore was held in a psychiatric hospital.
On April 18, the Paris Special Criminal Court convicted Abdelkader Merah of complicity in the killing by his brother, Mohammed Merah (who was killed by police), of seven persons outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. The court overturned the 2017 acquittal of Abdelkader Merah on the complicity charge by a Paris criminal court, which convicted him on the lesser charge of criminal terrorist conspiracy. The Special Criminal Court ordered Abdelkader Merah to serve his existing 20-year prison sentence on that lesser conspiracy charge concurrently with the 30-year sentence for complicity.
On July 16, the BNVCA reported the judge in charge of investigating the September 2017 attack on a Jewish family in Livry Gargan did not order anti-Semitism be added to the case as an aggravating circumstance. The suspects are accused of breaking into the home of Roger Pinto, the president of Siona, a group that represents Sephardic Jews, and beating Pinto’s son and wife. One of the burglars said, “You Jews have money,” according to family members.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported four incidents of physical assault against their members and two cases of vandalism during the year. In one case, Church officials reported a man punched a Jehovah’s Witness in the chest and stated he “did not want to see” Jehovah’s Witnesses. In another, a man apparently under the influence of alcohol interrupted two Jehovah’s Witnesses while they were evangelizing and asked what they were doing. Church officials said the man then held a knife to the throat of one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and threated to kill him if he returned. In both cases, the individuals filed complaints with the police. As of year’s end, law enforcement did not file charges in either case.
On February 2, police arrested 19 persons in Strasbourg when approximately 50 Yellow Vest protesters threw rocks at police and tried to damage local property, including the main synagogue. Some protesters shouted anti-Semitic insults and launched firecrackers toward the synagogue entrance.
On June 21, authorities found death threats and racist and anti-Semitic graffiti targeting Thal-Marmoutier Mayor Jean-Claude Distel on the walls of the city hall of the nearby town of Schirrhoffen in the Bas-Rhin Department. Schirrhoffen has a large Jewish population, and Distel is a supporter of refugees and migrants. The graffiti included swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs, and the threats included, “A stabbing is coming quickly,” and “Distel you are going to die.” Another threat, “Distel-Lubcke,” referred to a pro-immigrant German leader who was assassinated in early June.
On March 21, Education Minister Blanquer announced that among 130 racist and anti-Semitic acts teachers reported occurring in schools during the first three months of the year, 16 percent were anti-Semitic. The figures were the result of the online platform the government established in late 2018 to enable teachers to report these cases. The ministry did not release figures of anti-Semitic acts in schools that occurred later in the year.
In a joint study released November 6, the French Institute of Public Opinion and the Jean Jaures Foundation found that 42 percent of Muslims in the country reported being targets of discrimination due to their religion at some point during their life, and 32 percent said they had been targeted in the previous five years. The study reported the most common contexts for discrimination were in interactions with police (28 percent), while searching for employment (24 percent), and while seeking housing (22 percent). The study, commissioned by the DILCRAH, was the first time the government publicly researched the experiences of the Muslim community. According to the survey, 45 percent of women – and 60 percent of those who regularly wore a veil – reported experiencing discrimination, compared with 35 percent of men.
The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the prime minister, released in April, included the results of an Ipsos poll conducted in November 2018 and involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,007 residents over the age of 18. The results were almost identical to a poll Ipsos conducted a year earlier. According to the poll, 36 percent of the respondents (2 percentage points fewer than in 2017) believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 20 percent thought Jews had too much power in the country. The poll found 29 percent of respondents had a negative image of Islam and 44 percent of them considered it a threat to national identity. The commission’s report again cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as women wearing a veil. It also stated there was an increase in anti-Semitic acts, which numbered 541, up 74 percent from 311 acts in 2017.
In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 32 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to France; 29 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 31 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
In January the EC issued a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 72 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in France, and 51 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 78 percent; on the internet, 74 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 80 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 80 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 84 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 83 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 73 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 59 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 63 percent.
In May the EC carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 69 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 27 percent said it was rare; 83 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 95 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 95 percent said they would be with an atheist, 94 percent with a Jew, 93 percent with a Buddhist, and 92 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if a child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups , 94 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 93 percent if atheist, 90 percent if Jewish, 87 percent if Buddhist, and 81 percent if Muslim.
A Pew Research Center survey released in October found 22 percent of residents had an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, down 7 percentage points from 29 percent in 2016. Individuals aged 60 and older were much more likely to hold an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, at 38 percent, than those aged 18 to 34 (11 percent). The same survey found that 6 percent of persons had an unfavorable opinion of Jews.
On October 2, a Paris criminal court convicted Alain Bonnet, known as Alain Soral, of public anti-Semitic insults and “provocation to discrimination, hatred, or violence against Jews” and sentenced him to one year in prison for referring to the Pantheon, a national mausoleum of French notables, as a “kosher wasteland” in a video posted on his website. The court stated his language evoked the dehumanization and suffering Jews faced in concentration and death camps. The court also ordered Soral to take down the video and pay 1,000 euros ($1,100) in damages to the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, as well as one euro ($1) in symbolic damages to three other civil society organizations. It was Soral’s fourth conviction of the year, following previous violations for Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic insults, and publishing an anti-Semitic video, for which he was sentenced to one year, one year, and 18 months, respectively, in addition to multiple earlier convictions on similar charges. Soral remained free while he appealed all four convictions.
In February a Muslim convert, Benjamin Weller, shouted anti-Semitic epithets, such as “Go back to Tel Aviv,” and “We are the French people, France is ours,” at Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut during a Yellow Vest protest. Finkielkraut is a member of the Academie Francaise, the country’s preeminent intellectual institution, and the son of a survivor of Auschwitz. In response, President Macron tweeted, “The anti-Semitic insults he was subjected to are the absolute negation of what we are and what makes us a great nation. We will not tolerate them.” Interior Minister Castaner and then-government Spokesperson Griveaux, among others, also condemned the incident. On July 12, the Paris Criminal Court convicted Weller of making public insults based on “origins, ethnic origin, country, race, or religion” and sentenced him to a suspended two-month prison sentence.
On February 10, unknown persons wrote the word “Juden” (German for “Jew”) on the window of a bagel shop in central Paris. Minister of Interior Castaner and then-government spokesperson Griveaux both condemned the act. The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation for “aggravated voluntary damage” and “provocation to racial hatred.” At year’s end, authorities did not identify any suspects.
On February 11, unknown persons chopped down a tree planted in a Paris suburb in memory Ilan Halimi, the Jewish man killed in 2006. Police opened an investigation, and DILCRAH Head Prefect Frederic Potier described the incident as “ignominious.” Interior Minister Castaner said anti-Semitism was spreading like poison, and the attack on Halimi’s memory was an attack on the republic.
In February in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, vandals defaced more than 90 graves at a Jewish cemetery. President Macron and Interior Minister Castaner visited the site on February 19, and prefecture and local politicians condemned the attack. On December 2, vandals desecrated more than 100 graves in the Jewish cemetery of Westhoffen, a town near Strasbourg. Spray-painted swastikas and the number “14,” associated with white supremacy, covered headstones. On the same day, residents found similar graffiti scrawled on the synagogue and the mayor’s office in the town of Schaffhouse-sur-Zorn, approximately 12 miles from Westhoffen. Both President Macron and Interior Minister Castaner condemned the acts, and Castaner visited the Westhoffen cemetery with community leaders on December 4. The gendarmerie in Westhoffen opened an investigation into the incident there, led by a special investigative unit.
Following a series of anti-Semitic incidents in the eastern part of the country, in April the Departmental Council in the Lower Rhine Department approved a list of 10 initiatives, mostly aimed at youth, to counter anti-Semitism and foster a culture of mutual understanding and respect. Citizen volunteers, Jewish and non-Jewish, also organized a Jewish cemetery watch in the Upper Rhine Department.
In March workers building a mosque in the southwestern town of Bergerac found a pig’s head and animal blood at the entrance to the site. The Bergerac police commissioner condemned the act.
In April two persons filmed themselves urinating on the property of UEJF at Dauphine University in Paris and streamed it live on social media. The UEJF called the act anti-Semitic and filed a police complaint against the men.
In late December 2018, according to press reports, a car belonging to a Jewish family in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles was broken into, filled up with trash, and had a mezuzah glued to its windshield. The mezuzah had been stolen from the family’s home months earlier. The family filed a complaint with police for a hate crime.
On May 13, police opened an investigation into the vandalism of a commemorative plaque in Paris devoted to Jewish children arrested by the Vichy government in the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup and deported to Nazi death camps. The graffiti included the number 4,115, representing the number of Jewish children arrested by the Vichy police and the word “extermination.” Paris 15th District Mayor Philippe Goujon denounced the act, and Paris City Hall and BNVCA filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office. At year’s end, authorities did not identify any suspects.
In February there were reports of at least 10 incidents of vandalism and desecration of Catholic churches. Incidents included smashing statues, knocking down tabernacles, scattering or destroying the Eucharist host, burning altar cloths, and tearing down crosses. Individuals vandalized five churches in separate incidents over the span of a week in Dijon, Nimes, Lavaur (Tarn Department), Maisons-Laffitte, and Houilles (Yvelines Department). At the Notre-Dame-Des-Enfants Church in the southern city of Nimes, vandals broke the tabernacle, damaged religious objects, and smeared excrement in the shape of a cross on the interior walls. In May police arrested a 21-year-old local resident, who admitted involvement in the Nimes incident. His trial was scheduled for March 2020. In response to the acts, Prime Minister Philippe said, “In our secular republic, we respect places of worship. Such acts shock me and must be unanimously condemned.” He also discussed the incidents with the Conference of Bishops. In June unknown persons toppled more than 100 tombstones in the main Catholic cemetery in Toulouse, The Catholic Herald reported.
A Jewish school in southern Paris received a letter in February with anti-Semitic messages, including “France is the base for Zionism in Europe” and “If Adolf Hitler had exterminated all the Jews, the Arab countries would live in peace.” The school filed a complaint with the police, who opened an investigation. At year’s end, they did not identify any suspects.
After reports that an administrator at an Orthodox Jewish high school leaked national exam materials to students in an effort to boost the school’s results, users posted hundreds of anti-Semitic posts on Twitter. The tweets included accusations that the students would avoid punishment because of their “protected community” status and that Jews “control everything” in the country.
On October 27, nearly 100 graves in a Christian cemetery in Cognac were vandalized and Christian symbols, including crosses, crucifixes, and angels, were damaged. Police arrested an 18-year-old man in connection with the incident. In online postings, the suspect had written about being a “Satanist” and “hating religion,” and also stated that “voices tell [him] to do certain things.” Prosecutors said he would undergo psychiatric evaluation before facing trial. Authorities placed him under a curfew and judicial control (similar to parole), pending trial.
On November 4, three burglars gained access to the Oloron-Sainte-Marie Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques Region, by ramming and destroying its medieval wooden door with their car. They then stole art and artifacts from the cathedral’s treasury, including gold and silver works, a chalice, and a monstrance. Local police launched an investigation.
In December France 24 reported the country’s Uighur Association said the Chinese government was threatening members of the Muslim Uighur community in France to induce it to spy on fellow Uighurs. The report cited a spokesperson for the association, who said a French Uighur provided personal information to Chinese police on her Uighur work colleagues out of fear of reprisals against her family in Xinjiang. Another Uighur testified his family in Xinjiang was arrested because he refused to return to China. The spokesperson added the Chinese government had successfully sowed distrust within the local Uighur community.
In November CRIF held its tenth annual convention in Paris, titling it, “Fractured France: Can We Unite Against Anti-Semitism?” CRIF President Francis Kalifat cited the challenges of growing anti-Semitism and stated 12 Jews had been killed in the country in the previous 20 years because they were Jewish. Education Minister Blanquer outlined the government’s strategy to combat anti-Semitism in schools and Interior Minister Castaner said, “I want zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism,” adding that the government was committed to combating online hate speech.
On June 16, Strasbourg celebrated the 12th anniversary of its interfaith dialogue initiative, which continued to bring together religious leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths.
In August for the third consecutive year, young Christians and Muslims from across the country, Europe, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East participated in a three-day “weekend of friendship” event at the Taize Ecumenical Community in the Department of Saone-et-Loire. The approximately 200 participants attended panels and shared religious experiences. The conference focused on two themes: hospitality; and the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” a joint statement signed in February by Pope Francis and Egypt’s Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar.
The Council of Christian Churches in France, composed of 10 representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, continued to serve as a forum for dialogue. One observer represented the Anglican Communion on the council. The council met twice in plenary session and twice at the working level.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with relevant government officials, including at the religious affairs offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. The Ambassador met with Interior Minister Castaner and DILCRAH Head Prefect Potier. Topics discussed included religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in lessening violent extremism, the BDS movement, Holocaust-related compensation, and bilateral cooperation on these issues.
In November embassy personnel and the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs Counselor for Religious Affairs Ambassador Jean-Christophe Peaucelle, Ambassador at Large for Human Rights and Holocaust Issues Francois Croquette, and other government, religious, and civil society leaders to discuss means of countering anti-Semitism. The Ambassador met in Paris with Rector of Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris Patrick Chauvet to exchange views on religious freedom and tolerance and to express support for the reconstruction of the cathedral.
On November 26, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable dinner of civil society, business, and government leaders, and the Israeli Ambassador to solicit recommendations and share best practices on combating anti-Semitism. On November 23, the Ambassador spoke at the 75th anniversary of the discovery of the Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp on the issue of religious freedom and combatting religiously based hate crimes.
Staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs met regularly with religious community leaders, activists, and private citizens throughout the country to discuss issues of discrimination and to advocate tolerance for diversity. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and interfaith dialogue and tolerance with senior Christian, Muslim, and Jewish representatives and NGOs such as Coexister and AJC Europe. They also hosted meetings with representatives from CRIF, the Israelite Central Consistory of France (the main Jewish administrative governance body), the CFCM, and the Paris Great Mosque, Catholic priests, and Protestant representatives working on interfaith dialogue.
The Ambassador and mission personnel engaged regularly with senior Israeli embassy representatives on efforts and best practices to counter anti-Semitism in the country. Embassy officials closely monitored and reported on the official government position on the BDS movement and anti-Semitic incidents. The embassy highlighted such incidents on embassy social media platforms to bring more visibility to the issue and to publicly express U.S. concern.
The embassy continued to support Coexister, a local association promoting interfaith dialogue and social cohesion, with funding assistance for the association’s Interfaith World Tour. With some embassy funding, four young interfaith representatives began an eight-month world tour in August to meet and conduct interviews with interfaith leaders in 25 countries, including the United States. The team will produce a documentary film from the tour to be used for presentations at French public schools and conferences with the aim of deepening awareness of, and interest in, international initiatives on interfaith dialogue.
The embassy also funded the participation of a representative from the Hozes Institute – which, among other activities, provides civic and French language classes for imams – in an exchange program in the United States to examine the role and impact of religion in society and bridge gaps among faith groups.
Through a grant, the embassy and the APP in Bordeaux supported a film shown in November and December on national television channel ARTE. The film, the story of an imam in Mont-de-Marsan, was shown to youth audiences and associations in and around Bordeaux to encourage dialogue and religious tolerance.
Through a grant for past participants in U.S. government-funded exchange programs, one Jewish organization and one Muslim organization in Bordeaux began a series of workshops in September to promote religious tolerance among youth.
In September the Consulate General in Marseille hosted an interfaith lunch with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Greek Orthodox clergy, where participants discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in lessening violent extremism, and local, private efforts to increase communication and interfaith social engagement.
Also in September the Consulate General in Strasbourg hosted an interfaith lunch with key local government, civil society, and religious authorities to present key points from the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington in July and to solicit recommendations for actions the United States could take to combat the rise in anti-Semitic acts in eastern France.
On October 25, the embassy hosted a ceremony commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue attack in Pittsburgh. Addressing an audience that included France’s Grand Rabbi Haim Korsia, government officials, and Jewish, Muslim, and Christian community representatives, the Ambassador noted the rise of anti-Semitic attacks around the world, including locally. She used the event to condemn acts of intolerance and call for unity and action against hate.
The embassy regularly amplified messages from the Secretary of State and Department of State on religious freedom via embassy social media platforms in French and in English. The embassy also complemented Washington messaging with original content in French, for example in marking the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief and the International Day of Religious Freedom. Embassy social media outreach highlighted the importance of religious freedom as a core American value and demonstrated how France and the United States worked together on the issue.
Israel, West Bank and Gaza
Read A Section: Israel
West Bank and Gaza →
This section covers Israel, including Jerusalem. In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises no authority over Jerusalem. In March 2019, the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A report on the West Bank and Gaza, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the PA, is appended at the end of this report.
The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation, and the 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” protects additional individual rights. In 2018, the Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.” According to the government, that “law determines, among other things, that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” The government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites, including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (the site containing the foundation of the first and second Jewish temple and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque). Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27 following clashes with Muslim protesters. Violence occurred between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police on August 11 near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, on a day marking both the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av. According to the International Crisis Group, the first months of the year saw low-level violence erupting over control of the Gate of Mercy building within the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which evolved into a power struggle among the government, Jordan, and the Jerusalem Waqf (which under the status quo in place since 1967 remains a Jordanian government institution; the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan recognized Jordan’s “special role” in relation to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem). Violence occurred between Muslims and the police on Jerusalem Day, the June 2 national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and Israeli control over the Old City, after hundreds of Jews were allowed into the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and which coincided with the last 10 days of Ramadan. It was the first time these two holidays overlapped in years and the first time in three decades that non-Muslims entered the site during the final days of Ramadan. Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including Members of the Knesset (MKs), whose presence authorities said they feared would inflame tensions. The government continued to implement policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Local authorities sought to change the status quo regarding prohibitions on public transportation on Shabbat by operating bus lines sponsored by the municipality. Press reporting cited a growing “religionization” (hadata) of the society, its politics, and institutions. Some minority religious groups complained about what they said was lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups, but stated that members of unrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion.
On June 8, Jewish youths and seminary students of the Armenian Church each stated that they had been attacked by the other in Jerusalem near the Armenian Church’s seminary in Jerusalem. On May 16, religiously observant Jewish teenagers shouting “Death to Arabs” attacked a Muslim teen from East Jerusalem, who was subsequently hospitalized after being knocked unconscious. Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing and spitting on them. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity. Approximately 40 individuals, including members of the right-wing organization Lehava, attacked Messianic Jews during a community concert in Jerusalem in June, according to press reports. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in August a man attacked two of their members, during a door to door activity in Bat Yam and threatened to kill one of them after she called the police. In January Christians launched demonstrations protesting the Haifa Museum of Art’s display of an artwork depicting Ronald McDonald as Jesus on the cross, the center of an exhibition about consumerism and religion.
Visiting high-level U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious freedom and respect for all religious groups. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate), including residents and citizens. According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) classification system, approximately 75 percent of the population is Jewish, 18 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 1.6 percent Druze. The remaining 4 percent consists of those the CBS classifies as “other” – mostly persons, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who identify themselves as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures – as well as relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaite Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Messianic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Baha’i Faith. The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab origin. This includes approximately 78 percent of the country’s 175,000 Christians, according to the CBS, as of December. Non-Arab Christians are mainly those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s as descendants of Jews or alongside Jewish family members, and their descendants.
According to a poll by the local NGO Hiddush published in September, 58 percent of Jewish citizens do not affiliate with any religious stream, 18 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 12 percent “ultra-Orthodox” (including 2 percent “Zionist ultra-Orthodox”), 7 percent “Reform,” and 6 percent “Conservative.”
Muslim, Druze, and Christian communities are located throughout the country. For example, in the Galilee region, some communities are homogenous, while others feature a mix of these groups. There are also dozens of Muslim-majority communities in the Negev. In addition to an Alawite community in Ghajar, there are several Druze communities in the Golan Heights.
The CBS estimates 546,100 Jews, 328,600 Muslims, and 15,900 Christians live in Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 901,300, as of 2018.
According to government and NGO data, there are approximately 350,000 foreign workers in the country, including 100,000 documented Palestinian workers; 40,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; 102,000 migrant workers with permits, 75,000 undocumented workers; and 30,000 asylum seekers. Foreign workers and asylum seekers include Protestants, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population include 30,000 Filipinos, 8,000 Indians, 2,000 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 individuals from South American countries.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Although the country has no constitution, a series of “Basic Laws” enumerate fundamental rights, which are country’s constitutional foundation. The 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion. The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law, which applies to citizens and non-Israeli residents.
The 2018 “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People” recognizes only the Jewish People as having a national right of self-determination and calls for promotion of “Jewish settlement” in “the Land of Israel. The law recommends – but does not require – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedent.
The Chief Rabbinate retains the sole authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.
The government provides funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs. Relatives of Jewish converts may not receive residency rights, except for the children of converts born after the parent’s conversion was complete.
The law recognizes only Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze Faith, and the Baha’i Faith. Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal. The Anglican and Baha’i communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government. The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct ethnoreligious communities. There are two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period: by petitioning either the Prime Minister’s Office according to the Order in Council or the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.
Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status law. Municipalities may levy property taxes on religious properties not used for prayer, such as monasteries, pilgrim hostels, and soup kitchens.
Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze. The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder. The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze. The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs annually convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities.
The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions to “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment). Certain religious sites considered antiquities receive further protection under the antiquities law. The Ministry of Tourism (MOT) is responsible for the protection and upkeep of selected non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains selected Jewish religious sites. The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” with regard to their religious sites. The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites.
The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting. It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment. Government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.
The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups. The law criminalizes statements demeaning, degrading, or showing violence toward someone based on race, but provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless there is proof of intent to incite racism. The infliction of “injury to religious sentiments” constitutes a criminal offense and is punishable by one year’s imprisonment. Such injury includes publishing or saying something that is liable to offend the religious sentiment or faith of others.
The “Nakba Law,” passed in 2011, prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”
The law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the prime minister for travel to countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel, including Hajj travel to Saudi Arabia; the government issues these permits in the vast majority of cases. Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.
It is illegal to proselytize to a person under 18 years of age without the consent of both parents. The law prohibits offering a material benefit in the course of proselytizing.
The government provides separate public schools for Jewish and Arab children, with instruction conducted in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families. Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. Minor children have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference. By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semi-private) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools. Non-Israeli residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction. Israeli education authorities use the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum in some public schools in Jerusalem. Religious education is part of the PA curriculum for students in grades one through six in these schools, with separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students in these schools may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses.
The Law of Return provides the right for any Jew, including those who converted to Judaism, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to the country from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. The minor children of a grandchild of a Jew receive humanitarian status but are not automatically granted citizenship. Non-Jews who are not descendants of Jews do not have this route to immigration. Under this law, those who completed an Orthodox Jewish conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. Those who completed conversion to Judaism outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under this law regardless of the religious beliefs under which they were raised. The law considers those who were eligible for immigration and as adults converted to another religion, including Messianic Judaism, as no longer eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.
The Law of Citizenship and Entry, renewed annually, prohibits residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the MOI makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.
The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards. The law provides for the right of any individual to burial in a civil ceremony and requires the government to establish civil cemeteries in various areas around the country. The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.
Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country, or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry. A law mandating women’s equality contains language that explicitly exempts matters of marriage, divorce, and appointments to religious positions.
The only domestic marriages with legal standing and that may be registered are those performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities. Marriages performed outside of the country may be registered with the MOI. Members of nonrecognized groups may process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, only through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agree.
The law imposes a two-year prison sentence for persons who conduct, or are married in, a Jewish wedding or divorce outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.
Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases when the husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion. Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts. Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of interfaith and same-sex couples.
Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under the parallel jurisdiction of religious and civil courts. The first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it.
In accordance with halacha (Jewish religious law), a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country. While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses. In such cases, rabbinical courts may impose community-based punishments on the husband, including avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public. The law permits rabbinical courts to hear cases of get refusals in which the spouses are not Israeli citizens, if certain other conditions are met (for instance, if the couple lives abroad in a location where there is no rabbinical court).
Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement. Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review. The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters.
Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late 19th century).
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women may request an exemption from military service. For most ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Druze religious students, military service is postponed for several years, after which they receive an exemption. A petition on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men was pending at the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Arab Muslims and Christians, as well as Druze and Circassian women receive a de-facto exemption by not being called for military service. Those exempt from military service may volunteer for it or for civil-national service.
Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children, unless a person changes it through a formal conversion to another recognized religion. Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.
All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion). Approximately 400,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish,” as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized, are recorded as “lacking religion.” The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent.
For those who do not wish to be identified with a religion, there is no mechanism to change one’s registration to “lacking religion.”
There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays. The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. The law instructs the labor and welfare minister to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.
The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation based on age, race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and disability. The Equal Employment Opportunities Law prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees, contractors, or persons seeking employment.
On January 10, the Knesset approved an amendment to the penal code that includes a motive of racism or hostility based on the victim’s religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation, or on racism toward or hate for foreign workers as an aggravated circumstance in a murder offense. In the explanatory notes of this amendment, the Knesset noted that murder committed out of racism or hostility justifies severe treatment in the form of mandatory life imprisonment.
The law states public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities, and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.
The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant or factory’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws. Alternatively, restaurants are permitted to display “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance” without using the word “kosher.”
The Muslim Mufti of Jerusalem, who has no legal status vis-a-vis Israeli authorities, has issued “fatwas” (religious edicts) prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of land by Palestinians to Israelis.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned, and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the Covenant.
Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The government continued to allow controlled access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif allows non-Muslim visitors but prohibits non-Islamic worship on the compound. According to the AP, violence occurred between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police on August 11 near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, on a day marking both the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av. According to the AP, the incident occurred after large numbers of Muslims had gathered at the site’s gates in response to rumors that police would allow Jewish visitors to enter the site. The protestors threw stones at police, who responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets. After clashes broke out, police allowed access to “several dozen” Jews and provided a police escort. Muslims responded by throwing chairs and other objects at the group, which left shortly thereafter.
According to the International Crisis Group, the first months of the year saw low-level violence erupting over control of the Gate of Mercy building within the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which evolved into a power struggle among Israel, Jordan, and the Waqf. The Jordanian government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) in Jerusalem maintains the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The Waqf opened the building, which media reported had not been open or used for prayers since 2003, on February 14 when worshippers began using it as a prayer hall. The government issued restraining orders against more than 20 Waqf guards and arrested 19 Muslims, including two minors who confessed to throwing a Molotov cocktail into a police post at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which resulted in a one-day closing of the site on March 12. According to the government, this closure was done in order to allow the police investigate the incidents and check the scene. Police also closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27 following clashes with Muslim protesters. Tensions continued at the site, although Muslim worshipers continued to have access to it at the end of the year.
Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including MKs, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. According to Makor Rishon journalist Arnon Segal, 152 persons were arrested between September 10, 2018 and August 25, 2019. The government stated the police banned individuals from accessing the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif only in cases of violation of public order or a disturbance to the freedom of worship. According to the government, 334 individuals were banned from Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for different time periods. While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem residents, as well as Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. In addition, these organizations said Israeli authorities at times restricted Muslim males under a certain age from entering the site during periods of tension.
Israeli authorities allowed West Bank Muslims to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif during Ramadan and facilitated transportation for tens of thousands of Palestinian worshipers. Israeli authorities allowed men over 40 years old, boys under 16, and women of all ages to enter Jerusalem without permits issued by the Israeli military on the four Fridays of the month. Married men between 30 and 40 were eligible to apply for military permits valid Sunday-Thursday during the month – normally, only men over 50 and women over 45 may transit Israeli checkpoints from the West Bank for worship without military permits.
On April 15, Israeli authorities allowed Temple Mount activists to conduct a ritual slaughter of sheep for Passover in Jerusalem’s Old City. On April 18, the police detained at least two suspects who allegedly sought to make a Passover sacrifice at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, as well as two journalists who were with them. According to media reports, the suspects were interrogated on offenses of behavior which might disturb public order, and for animal abuse.
On August 6, a police officer detained an ultra-Orthodox protester and pulled him by his earlock. The police suspended the officer, and authorities continued to investigate the case as of November.
On July 24, the state prosecutor’s office announced it would indict, pending a hearing, a senior official in the Chief Rabbinate for bribery and breach of trust regarding the expediting of kashrut certificates. A 2017 report from the state comptroller called for comprehensive reform of the kashrut regulation system and criticized the MRS, Chief Rabbinate, and local religious councils for structural failures that enabled fraud, waste, poor supervision, and nepotism.
Press reported that prosecutors dropped a case against two Jewish activists, Yinon Reuveni and another man who was a minor at the time of his arrest, for membership in a terror organization and vandalizing the Benedictine Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem in 2016, due to lack of evidence. A court had previously dismissed as inadmissible the second defendant’s confession, ruling that authorities obtained it illegally. The vandalism of the abbey, considered by some Christians the site of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, included graffiti that said “death to Christians” and “Jesus is a monkey.” A spokesman for the church said the decision to acquit the two men was “unacceptable.”
According to the Times of Israel, Muslims and police clashed violently on Jerusalem Day, the June 2 national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and which coincided with the last 10 days of Ramadan, after police allowed hundreds of Jews onto the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. It was the first time in three decades that non-Muslims were able to enter the site during the final 10 days of Ramadan. The government stated that each year police assess the security situation and decide whether it is necessary to close the site to non-Muslims during this period, “in order to allow for a proper course of prayer for Muslim worshipers during Ramadan.” Prior to the incident, police had announced the compound would be closed to Jews and tourists after the High Court of Justice rejected a petition to overturn the closure. The court subsequently rejected a case that sought to change the route of the “flag march” marking Jerusalem Day, when thousands of Jews participate in the annual parade through Jerusalem’s Old City, where the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is located, including its Muslim quarter. According to the Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Day has been embraced by the “national religious” community. The paper said marchers consisted mostly of young people singing songs of praise and prayer for the unification of the city and the capture of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in the 1967 Six Day War. One Muslim bakery worker said that the march through the Muslim Quarter was a provocation. Another stated that he objected to the staging of the parade during Ramadan, and that the march was disrespectful to Muslims.
According to press and NGO reports, following an appeal of a decision by the Central Elections Committee, the High Court of Justice barred the leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, Michael Ben Ari, from running in Knesset elections because of expressed anti-Arab ideology and incitement. The attorney general had urged the court to ban Ben Ari for his “severe and extreme” racism. The Otzma Yehudit party has described itself as proud disciples of Meir Kahane, the founder of the Kach party, which was banned in 1988 for being racist and antidemocratic. The appeal cited a 2019 statement by Ben Ari, “We have to change the equation regarding anyone who dares to speak against a Jew…. [Such a person] is a dead man. He must not come out alive. No expelling him, no stripping him of his citizenship. He does not live! A firing squad takes him out as the Arabs understand [best].” Ben Ari later said he was talking about Hamas leaders and not all Arabs.
Some religious minority groups complained of lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. Data from the NGO Tag Meir and media reports indicated in recent years authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites in the country.
According to data from the MRS, of 70,326 individuals who registered for a Jewish marriage in 2018, rabbinical courts instructed 3,996 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage. Of these, 122 were unsuccessful. On November 6, the Jerusalem Post reported on new rabbinate regulations allowing marriage registrars to approve marriage applications of converts based on the list of rabbinical courts approved by the Chief Rabbinate, clarifying the criteria for recognition of conversions.
According to the Jerusalem Post, data compiled by the religious freedom NGO Hiddush, which was based on multiple surveys conducted in recent years through the Smith Polling Institute, showed that 70 percent of the country’s adult Jewish population supported recognition by the state of freedom of choice in marriage, doing away with the rabbinate’s monopoly, and equally recognizing civil and non-Orthodox religious marriages. According to the same sources, 53 percent of the public stated that had they been allowed a choice, they would not have married in an Orthodox ceremony, compared with 35 percent who expressed the same sentiment in 2009, 39 percent in 2013, and 47 percent in 2016.
The Chief Rabbinate continued to require Jewish women to complete bridal counseling sessions prior to marriage. Existing instructions from the Chief Rabbinate require these sessions to address only the wedding ceremony, but in practice the content varied widely and often included marital relations and “family purity” in accordance with halacha, according to a report in Ma’ariv newspaper. Neither halacha nor civil law mandated such counselling sessions, according to the NGO ITIM.
On April 7, a magistrate court convicted an individual who refused to give a get to his wife of violating a legal order and sentenced him to 15 months’ imprisonment and seven months’ probation. On August 20, President of the Rabbinical Courts Chief Rabbi David Lau instructed authorities to delay the burial of a get refuser’s mother as a means to pressure him. The refuser then agreed to give a get to his wife.
Local authorities circumnavigated the ban on public transportation on Shabbat by funding privately operated bus lines. On July 7, the municipal council in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, approved the operation of two bus lines on Shabbat in central areas of the city as long as they did not enter residential neighborhoods. In November the Tel Aviv city council approved and funded free bus lines on Shabbat for the entire city as well as other major cities in the central area of the country. MK Uri Maklev of the United Torah Party denounced the initiative and called on the transportation minister to stop the service. The orthodox organization Hotam criticized the proposal as “harming Shabbat,” while the secular group Be Free Israel said that the initiative recognized public transportation as a “basic right.” On December 11, the nearby city of Bat Yam decided against offering public transportation on the Sabbath. In a poll released by Hiddush on December 9, 71 percent of Jewish citizens were favor of transportation on weekends, including 94 percent of citizens who described themselves as secular.
Some observant Jews, based on their religious beliefs, may only attend concerts and other entertainment events in venues that allow for the separation of genders. As permitted by attorney general directives until August, cities and municipalities with significant population groups of observant Jews were able to plan and execute events with these guidelines observed. Some women’s rights organizations, including the Israel Women’s Action Network (IWN), expressed concern about gender segregation in any publicly funded or sponsored events, arguing that gender segregation as supported by Orthodox Jews violated antidiscrimination laws and attorney general directives. On August 14, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an NGO petition objecting to a gender-segregated concert held by the Afula municipality in accordance with the religious practices of a large percentage of its population. The event went forward prior to the Supreme Court ruling as a lower court had initially ruled in favor of the municipality. Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri made an appearance onstage at the concert and criticized the NGO for attempting to impose requirements on all Afula residents irrespective of their beliefs. On August 18, the Office of the Attorney General issued a directive stipulating certain circumstances in which gender-segregated events could be held, pending further examination of the issue. The new guidelines deviated from a previous directive that permitted segregation only in events of a religious nature, under which many observant Jews were not able to participate in municipality events.
In June MK Bezalel Smotrich said the justice system should adhere to religious law, and the country should run itself as “in the days of King David” and “restore the Torah justice system.” Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu responded to Smotrich’s remarks by saying that the country “will not be a halacha state.” On August 5, Smotrich, who had then been appointed as minister of transportation, told a conference of rabbis in Jerusalem “We would all like the state to act according to the Torah and halacha.” Smotrich also said that he would work to prevent construction, infrastructure, and maintenance work on Shabbat. On August 6, after criticism, Smotrich said that while his comments reflected the “religious will of any observant Jew,” they also made clear that “we all understand we cannot, nor do we want to, force our beliefs on others” and that policy solutions must consider the views of the entire public.
The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage. As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country. Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, however, officiated at a growing number of these ceremonies outside of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. Likewise, the government continued not to allow Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim) to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha.
On May 3, Walla News reported that in a new book, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called reform synagogues idolatrous.
The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for early 2020 on its 2018 injunction that required the government to explain why it had not held a disciplinary hearing for Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu for allegedly making racist and offensive statements against Arabs, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community, following a 2016 petition by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs.
Israeli police continued to be responsible for security of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, with police officers stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance. Israeli police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance through which non-Muslims may enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access, citing “security concerns.” Local media, the Waqf, and Jewish Temple Mount groups reported that Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas without coordinating with Waqf guards inside. Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer. NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that changes in relations between police and the Temple Mount advocacy movement created a more permissive environment for non-Muslim religious acts on the site. In response, the government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles. Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter the site with police escort.
The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing. Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.
Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site. The Waqf reportedly objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals who dressed immodestly or caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials said they were able to exercise only a limited oversight role. The government stated that most of the time, police and the Waqf worked in full coordination, including regular joint sessions regarding routine activities.
In August 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond within 60 days to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The case was ongoing as of the years’ end.
Many Jewish leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for reasons of ritual purity. Some MKs, however, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors. Some Knesset members continued to call on the government to implement time-based division at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif by setting aside certain days or hours for Jewish access and/or worship, similar to the arrangement used at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank.
The government continued to allow MKs and ministers to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site once a month, after obtaining approval of the Chairman of the Knesset and after reviewing police security assessments. This was in accordance with a 2018 decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which rescinded his 2015 blanket prohibition of MKs and ministers visiting the site. MKs also must inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with the visit with the police.
At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to enforce a regulation prohibiting the performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.” Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies not conforming to Orthodox Judaism.
Members of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements continued to criticize gender segregation and rules governing how women may pray at the Western Wall. Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.
Authorities allowed the group Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza but in a barricaded area. In March and October, Jerusalem Rabbi Shlomo Amar called on people to arrive at the Western Wall to oppose Women of the Wall during their monthly prayer service, referring to their activities as an effort to “hurt the sanctity of the place.” Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall site, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. In response, the government stated that large numbers of Israeli police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. Women of the Wall filed a petition to the Supreme Court in March 2017 to require ushers and police to prevent disruption to their services. The case was ongoing as of the end of the year.
Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. In response to an ongoing Supreme Court case from 2013 on the issue of prayer access at the Western Wall, the government stated in January it intended to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space. In June 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform Judaism movements in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. In August 2018 a special government committee approved expansion of the platform. According to the government, the renovation of the platform has not been accomplished due to regulatory procedures. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement with the government. The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year.
On June 3, the National Infrastructure Committee approved, in an expedited process, a plan for the establishment of a cable car from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City. On November 4, the Housing Cabinet approved the plan. The cable car route would pass over a Karaite cemetery, something opposed by the Karaite community and which, according to the Karaite belief would desecrate the cemetery, preventing its further use. While the original plan included a physical roof over the cemetery, which contradicted Karaite customs, the approved plan does not include a roof. The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, although some NGOs said the project was meant to promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem. The plan was pending final approval from the government at year’s end.
The security barrier dividing most of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities within Jerusalem, affecting access to places of worship. The Israeli government previously stated the barrier was highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.
Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, continued to criticize the 2018 Nation State Law. During the April and September general election campaigns, members of the Druze community, as well as others, demonstrated in front of the residences of party candidates and demanded a promise to amend the law by adding an equality clause, or to rescind it. Several politicians, including Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, voiced support. As of the end of the year, multiple lawsuits challenging the Nation State Law were pending with the Supreme Court. In the campaign for the April election, PM Netanyahu wrote on Instagram, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens … it is the nation-state of the Jewish people only.” In November the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights released observations stating that it was “deeply concerned about the possible discriminatory effect” of the Nation State Basic Law on non-Jews.
Press reporting cited growing “religionization” (hadata) of the society, its politics, and institutions. According to the August 23 issue of the New Yorker, “manifestations of hadata appear throughout civic life,” but “nowhere have those changes been more pronounced or more influential than in the public school system.” According to the article, “much of the curriculum these days is being taught through the narrow prism of religious orthodoxy.” A November report in Haaretz noted, “According to the Education Ministry, Jewish-Israeli culture is taught in a pluralistic and sometimes critical fashion. But countless examples prove otherwise.”
On April 16, six orthodox female halacha students and NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court, demanding that women be allowed to register for the Halachic exams of the State of Israel. This petition followed a rejection of their registration by the Chief Rabbinate, which the petitioners stated they viewed as wrongful discrimination. In May 2018, the government began recruiting women as legal advisors in rabbinical courts, following a petition to the Supreme Court by ITIM and Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women.
The MOI continued to rely on the sole discretion and approval of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or descendant of a Jew. The government continued to deny applications from individuals, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs, whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion.
A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country.
A series of Supreme Court cases on conversion rights, including a petition demanding immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country, continued through year’s end.
According to ITIM, some individuals from the former Soviet-Union were asked by the rabbinate to take DNA tests in order to prove their Judaism. While the Supreme rabbinical court overturned two such requests, in a response to a Supreme Court petition, the government stated on September 16 that it supported consensual DNA tests as a last resort. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
According to a June report in Haaretz, a “large majority” of Jews in the country would strip the Chief Rabbinate of its authority to determine who qualified as Jewish in the country, according to a survey published July 2 by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.
District courts declared two Jewish men as “lacking religion” due to their requests in January and March to change to this status and demanded that the MOI change their status in the civil population registry.
Petitions of four municipalities against Interior Minister Deri’s rejection of their bylaws that would have legalized commerce on Shabbat were pending at the Supreme Court. An additional petition was dismissed without prejudice on July 23.
The MRS listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and the West Bank for persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only two were available for use to the broader general public regardless of residence. The one MRS-administered cemetery in the West Bank was available only for the burial of Israeli citizens. Additionally, 13 MRS-administered cemeteries in 10 agricultural localities were authorized to conduct civil burial (i.e., not affiliated to a religion) for these localities and nearby residents. Some persons, however, who sought a civil burial for a relative reported several civil cemeteries near Tel Aviv were unusable because they were full or restricted to local residents. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the distant location of such cemeteries made it difficult to arrange and attend burials. In 2018, the MRS published a call for proposals to develop or expand cemeteries for civil burials, following a 2016 report by the state comptroller that criticized the MRS for not implementing the civil burial law and thereby preventing the right of citizens to civil burial. On July 18, Hiddush petitioned the Supreme Court demanding the state to allow civil burial in agricultural localities. On July 4, following another Hiddush petition, the IDF announced it would change its orders to allow for non-Orthodox military burial ceremonies.
The government again did not propose new draft legislation to respond to the 2017 Supreme Court decision striking down the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service and setting a deadline of one year to pass new legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews. The government requested additional time to pass a new draft law and received a postponement until January 2020. Some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious beliefs; however, the Ministry of Defense rejected this argument. Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs. According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from “national religious” Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.
Members of the ultra-Orthodox “Eda Haredit” community did not receive an exemption from military service based on its members’ conscientious objection on religious grounds. Because its yeshivas were not recognized by the state, they did not receive the same postponement and exemption from military service as other yeshiva students. As a result, dozens of them were arrested every month, according to representatives of the community.
In December, the IDF stated that it had made a counting mistake in recent years in the number of ultra-Orthodox in the military. According to media reports, numbers were doubled and even tripled to meet the objectives set by the law. The IDF stated data was not skewed intentionally and the Chief of Staff appointed a committee to inquire regarding the gaps in the figures.
According to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Some other nonrecognized Christian communities reported the MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs discouraged them from proselytizing or holding large public gatherings outside their houses of worship.
The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from nonrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated no religious community had attempted to apply for recognition during the year. The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.
On June 13, a judicial panel reviewed an appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Supreme Court that requested official recognition as a religious community. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite repeated requests, the government had not taken action on their 2017 application. The panel did not make a decision by year’s end.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on January 16, a judicial panel reviewed an appeal to the Supreme Court in connection with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ efforts to obtain recognition of the Watchtower Association of Israel as a “public institution” under the Land Taxation Law. The Jehovah’s Witnesses made their original application in 2012 and although the tax authority approved the application, the Finance Committee of the Knesset, which has the authority to grant such exemptions, placed the application on hold. In response to a 2017 lawsuit by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the committee stated it was within its rights to deny tax exemptions to “missionary associations.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses then appealed to the Supreme Court. The judicial panel gave the tax authority additional time for further review and investigation and ordered it to present a final position on whether or not the Watchtower Association met the requirements for an exemption. After a hearing on May 22, the tax authority informed the Supreme Court on November 7 that it approved the application for tax exemption. At year’s end, the Knesset Finance Committee had not reviewed that decision.
Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts. Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools in the “recognized but not official” category continued not to offer the basic humanities, math, and science curriculum. The government, however, included the basic curriculum in public ultra-Orthodox schools. Public Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes. For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonalities in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
According to the NGO Noar Kahalacha, dozens of Jewish schoolgirls were still unable to attend ultra-Orthodox schools due to discrimination based on their Mizrahi ethnicity (those with ancestry from North Africa or the Middle East), despite a 2009 court ruling prohibiting ethnic segregation between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi schoolgirls. A 2017 report from the state comptroller criticized the Ministry of Education (MOE) for failing to respond effectively to discrimination in educational institutions, including discrimination against girls in ultra-Orthodox schools. The government stated the MOE did not tolerate any form of discrimination, and schools that refused to accept students for discriminatory reasons were summoned to hearings, sometimes leading to delays and denial of their budgets until the schools resolved the discrimination.
The government funded approximately 34 percent of the budget of Christian school systems in the “recognized but not official” category, in which schools have autonomy over hiring teachers, admitting students, and the use of school property, according to church officials. The government repeated its offer made in previous years to fully fund Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but churches rejected this option, stating that, unlike in Orthodox schools, they would lose autonomy over those decisions. Church leaders criticized the disparity in government funding between their school system and those affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but received full government funding.
Seventh-day Adventists stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem. Some nonrecognized religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, received a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhists and the Church of Scientology, did not. The government has stated local authorities conducted tax collection from nonrecognized religious groups in accordance with the law. The government stated it was unaware of any recent case in which a religious house of worship was not granted a property tax exemption, although representatives of religious groups stated that tax collection by local authorities remained a concern.
Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country, except for Christian clergy from Arab countries, some of whom reported long delays and periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world and that any visa delays or denials were due to security reviews. The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from countries that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Church officials noted the clergy visa did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who had served in the country for more than 30 years.
The government continued to approve annual “delays” of conscription to military service for individual Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with their religious community, although without acknowledging their right to conscientious objection. Because members of the community were not exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as alternative service.
The MOI continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country. Muslim leaders criticized the MOI for appointing non-Muslims to head the Muslim Affairs Department at the ministry, mostly Druze former military officials. Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. According to the government, the government did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.” The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were not state employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budget. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives.
No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study. The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa. Muslim leaders rejected this assertion, stating the institutes in Umm al-Fahm and Kfar Baraa, operated by an NGO that teaches some Islamic studies, were not recognized as educational institutions by the Israeli Council for Higher Education. The Muslim leaders also said Al-Qasemi College in Baqa’a al-Gharbia was a teachers’ college that included a program for teaching Islam in schools. The leaders stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.
The government continued to promote measures to encourage increased Israeli residence and economic development in the thinly populated Negev Desert in the south of the country, including development plans for military industries, railways, the expansion of Road 6, and a phosphate mine. Civil society organizations criticized the government for these plans, stating they could lead to the displacement of 36,000 Bedouins. The government made more funding available for government-approved Bedouin cities and towns to relocate Bedouins displaced by the economic expansion.
The government also took measures aimed at strengthening the nine Bedouin municipalities in the Negev by improving the municipalities’ management to better utilize the three billion shekels ($870 million) provided through the Ministry of Agriculture’s (MOA) Socioeconomic Development Plan for Negev Bedouin 2017-2021 to improve infrastructure, education, public services, and employment in government-approved Negev Bedouin cities and towns. The government held joint planning forums to address violence, women’s employment, strategic planning, and education in Bedouin municipalities, with the stated intention of improving communication between the Bedouin municipalities and the government. According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, 115 of 126 communities in the Negev maintained admission committees to screen new residents, which the NGO stated effectively excluded non-Jewish residents. Following objections by multiple NGOs, authorities canceled plans for new communities called Daya, Eshel HaNasi, and Neve Gurion that would have replaced existing Bedouin villages.
As of year’s end, Bedouin residents in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran had not fulfilled the agreement they reached in 2018 with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to self-demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura. This agreement followed years of legal battles and negotiations, in preparation for replacing Umm al-Hiran with a community called Hiran. Families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Israeli population of the Negev and Galilee regions) to move to Hiran remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for the village land to become available.
Some former mosques and Islamic cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims. These sites belonged to a defunct prestate Waqf (distinct from the Jerusalem Jordanian-administered Waqf of the Haram al-Sharif) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. In December 2018, following a decades-long legal battle between the Jaffa Muslim community and a real estate developer, the government approved a request from the Tel Aviv Municipality to recognize Tasou Cemetery in Jaffa as an Islamic cemetery. This decision included authority for the Muslim community to manage the cemetery but did not transfer its ownership. The Islamic Council in Jaffa welcomed the decision, publicly calling it “a just decision that’s been waiting for more than 70 years.”
Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities, but they sometimes faced difficulty in Jewish-majority localities.
On June 6, the Karaite community submitted a second petition to the Supreme Court, which remained pending at year’s end, to block the expropriation of land, previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramla, for the construction of a highway interchange. The Karaites stated that the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity. In 2018, the Ministry of Transportation ordered the expropriation of the land, and the Karaites subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court. Later in 2018, the Supreme Court dismissed the Karaites’ appeal on procedural grounds, stating the case should be submitted to a lower court. The government subsequently reported it had reached an agreement with the Karaite community that would minimize the amount of land expropriated and optimize use of the land for the synagogue’s needs. The Karaites, however, denied an agreement had been reached and submitted the second petition to the Supreme Court.
The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian clergy of different faiths as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service. The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals for Muslim soldiers according to Islamic customs.
In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The local municipality of Beit Shemesh failed to comply with court orders from 2015 and 2016 to remove the signs, and the Jerusalem District Court ruled in 2017 that the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,700) per day if the signs remained posted. Following the municipality’s refusal to remove the signs, the Supreme Court ruled in November 2018 that authorities must comply with the order by December 31, 2018 or start paying fines. The Supreme Court later extended the deadline until August 30. According to the government, the municipality did not fully implement the ruling by the end of the year, and some signs that were taken down were replaced by new ones. Vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements.
NGOs Adalah and the Secular Forum organized petitions against a ban on bringing non-kosher-for-Passover foods (known as hametz) into public hospitals during Passover. On March 5, the Supreme Court issued an injunction demanding that the government explain why it could not implement “proportional solutions” to the problem, such as the use of disposable plates and utensils at the hospital. In response, on July 15, the government maintained its support for establishing “hametz zones” on hospital premises but outside of hospital buildings and explained that solutions such as the use of disposable utensils were technically problematic. In October, the Chief Rabbinate told the Supreme Court it opposed the use of disposable utensils as well as the establishing “hametz zones.” It stated that bringing hametz into hospitals during Passover would violate religious freedom and the right to life, as it would lead some individuals to avoid going to the hospital during Passover.
According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of non-Israeli residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some non-Israeli residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). A Christian religious leader expressed concern this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively impacted the long-term viability of their communities.
In a May 20 statement, leaders of the Catholic churches in Jerusalem said the failure of international diplomacy and the peace process led many residents to feel “their lives have become more and more unbearable,” causing some to emigrate, with “many more consider leaving … [while] some are resorting to violence.” According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, other factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community.
While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. This public land includes approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who are not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of non-Israeli citizens in Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land. Arab citizens are allowed to participate in bids for JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA will grant the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab citizen of Israel wins a bid.
On June 11, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court 2017 decision in favor of Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish pro-settlement organization, which signed a 99-year lease through three companies in 2004 for three properties owned by the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Church had argued that its official who signed the lease was not authorized to do so. In a July 11 protest of the court’s ruling, Christian leaders prayed outside the disputed buildings and, according to the Times of Israel, the Greek Orthodox patriarch said that “extremist groups [were] trying to weaken the unity and identity of the Christian neighborhood.” In August the Greek Orthodox Church filed a new lawsuit seeking to overturn the Supreme Court decision, stating it had new evidence of corruption and fraud involving the sale. After filing the case, the patriarchate said that changing Jerusalem’s status quo “threatens the continuous hundreds-of-years old mosaic and balance that shores [up] the good relations between Jerusalemites of different faiths.” In November, after representatives of the three companies used by Ateret Cohanim failed to respond to the Church’s lawsuit, the Jerusalem District Court ordered the case reopened.
Some NGOs reported incidents in which they said authorities violated the freedom not to practice religion, particularly in the secular public education system and the military. For example, the Secular Forum continued to criticize the MOE’s “Jewish Israeli culture curriculum” for students in the first to ninth grades, referring to it as “religious indoctrination to young children.” The Secular Forum also opposed religious programs in those schools by private religious organizations, such as presentations about Passover in March by the Chabad ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. The government denied students were subjected to religious indoctrination or coercion, stating the secular public school curriculum included lessons “on the culture of the Jewish people,” including elements of the Jewish faith and traditions, such as the Jewish calendar and holidays. According to Haaretz, in May the minister of education canceled a regulation that required schools to inform parents of activities of religious NGOs in schools and the option to allow children to opt out of participation.
In November the Secular Forum and Hiddush filed a freedom of information petition to a district court in order to obtain information regarding the repeated cancelation of visits of families in some IDF bases on Shabbat, according to the Secular Forum, in order not to discriminate against religiously observant soldiers. The IDF responded to the petition, admitting that some bases were not holding visits on Shabbat, and established a committee to offer recommendations. The recommendations were pending as of the year’s end. In some instances, IDF soldiers were punished for keeping non-kosher foods in their rooms.
Women’s rights organizations cited a growing trend of gender segregation reflecting increased incorporation of Jewish religious observance in government institutions, including in the IDF, as accommodation to increase the enlistment of participants who follow strict interpretations of Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes. On April 14, following a wave of protests by national religious rabbis, the IDF stopped allowing women to serve in combat positions in the armored corps despite a successful pilot program, citing economic and logistical reasons. Many observers, however, stated that the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.
Following a petition by Tebeka, a human rights group focusing on issues involving the Ethiopian Jewish community, the Chief Rabbinate Council adopted recommendations on October 31 according to which it would be prohibited to verify a person’s Judaism based on their origin or skin color. Tebeka petitioned the Supreme Court to object to a demand by the Kiryat Gat rabbinate to verify the Judaism of Ethiopian workers of a catering company in order for the business to receive a certificate for the most stringent level of kosher supervision.
Certain NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions. Archeologists from the NGO Emek Shave disputed the government’s representation of the “pilgrim’s road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan on June 30, as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple; Emek Shemek said the excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road. NGOs such as the Ir David Foundation and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies supported the government’s position.
According to the AP, the government was trying to end the custom of polygamy among Bedouins in the Negev and, for the first time, prosecuted suspected polygamists. Many Bedouins stated they saw this new policy as a means to curb their population growth and criminalize community members. Emi Palmor, the former director general of the Ministry of Justice, stated she was determined to enforce the law but was trying to do so with input from the community, and said she spent two years researching the issue and discussing solutions with Bedouin activists. Although the country outlawed polygamy decades ago, approximately 20 to 30 percent of Bedouin men practiced polygamy, according to government figures, with the rate as high as 60 percent in some villages. On September 20, the Beer Sheva District Court convicted Amin Abu Sakik from the Bedouin town of Rahat of polygamy and sentenced him to seven months in prison. The decision superseded a lighter sentence issued by the Beer Sheva Magistrate’s Court of community service, one-year suspended sentence, and a fine. Abu Sakik was the first person to be convicted of polygamy since enforcement of the law was renewed in 2017.
At the beginning of the year, the 120-member Knesset had 16 members from religious minorities (12 Muslims, three Druze, and one Christian). At year’s end, following two elections, the Knesset had 14 members from religious minorities (nine Muslims, three Druze, and two Christians). As of June, the 23-member cabinet included one Druze minister; there were no Muslim or Christian cabinet members. At year’s end, there were no Druze, Muslim, or Christian members of the cabinet.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
According to an article in the Jewish Press, a U.S. weekly newspaper, on June 8, 60 seminary students from the Armenian Church punched and kicked two Jewish youths in Jerusalem. Both victims required medical treatment, and one was hospitalized. Subsequently, the Armenian Patriarchate said the newspaper’s article about the incident was “a pure lie and malicious slander.” In its statement, the patriarchate stated that a group of 20 seminarians and the seminary’s dean were attacked by three Jews and their dog, which, after its muzzle was removed, was ordered to attack the dean. According to the patriarchate, the three Jews also attacked the group, while the seminarians shielded the priest from the dog. One seminarian’s hand was broken in the attack. Both sides filed complaints at the local police station.
According to Haaretz, on May 16, five or six religiously observant Jews shouting “Death to Arabs” attacked a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem. The attackers hit the youth, identified as Ibrahim Sawilam, knocking him unconscious and requiring that he be taken to the hospital. Although his family filed a complaint with the police, who said they would open an investigation, Haaretz reported that they had not followed up with either Sawilam or any of his friends who were with him at the time of the attack.
Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting on them. According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity, such as Messianic Jews. For example, approximately 40 individuals, including members of the right-wing organization Lehava, attacked Messianic Jews during a community concert in Jerusalem in June, cursing, screaming, using pepper spray, and tossing live frogs at them, according to Haaretz. Several eyewitnesses said the police did not respond appropriately in defense of the concertgoers and organizers. The police detained two persons for questioning and later released them without charges. In a written response, the Israel National Police said it denounces all violence and closed the case for lack of evidence.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in August that a man in Bat Yam attacked two of their members during door-to-door activity and threatened to kill one of them after she called the police. The police closed the investigation four days after it was opened, and Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the decision on September 23. The case remained pending at year’s end.
Lehava members continued to criticize or assault Arab men who were in relationships with Jewish women and to harass “mixed” couples. In May Lehava Director Ben-Tzion Gopstein sent a letter to MK Gideon Saar of the Likud Party demanding he put a stop to a relationship between Saar’s daughter and her Arab partner. Another organization, Yad L’Achim, continued to stop instances of cohabitation between Jewish women and Arab men by sometimes “launching military-like rescues from ‘hostile’ Arab villages,” according to its website. Following a 2017 petition from the Israel Religious Action Center, which represents the Reform Movement, to the High Court demanding Ben-Tzion Gopstein be indicted on a series of offenses, the Jerusalem district attorney held a pre-indictment hearing in 2018 and indicted him on November 26, 2019 for incitement to terrorism, violence and racism. In August the Central Elections Committee disqualified Gopstein’s Knesset candidacy due to incitement to racism.
There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox Jews in public areas of their neighborhoods harassing individuals who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as by driving on Shabbat or not wearing modest dress. The harassment included verbal abuse, spitting, and throwing stones.
On January 30, unknown individuals removed the cross from a church in the Golan Heights, abandoned since 1967. According to Kan News, the police received a complaint alleging a hate crime.
According to media reports, on November 15, unknown individuals spray painted a swastika on a Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance whose staff were treating a patient in Tel Aviv. The MDA team filed a police complaint.
Muslim activists reported hijab-wearing women experiencing harassment by non-Muslims. According to a September report in Haaretz, a dental clinic in Netanya would not hire a dentist because she wore a hijab. In a conversation with the dentist, which the applicant recorded, the clinic director conceded that the Muslim woman had made a positive impression on the clinic’s staff members but said patients would not want her to treat them because of her hijab. In a subsequent lawsuit, the Tel Aviv Regional Labor Court awarded the dentist 40,000 shekels ($11,000) in compensation, finding that employer’s refusal to hire her constituted illegal discrimination.
On June 4 a group of Muslim students at David Yellin College of Education, a teachers’ college in Jerusalem, wrote “Ramadan Kareem” (“Blessed Ramadan”) on a communal student chalkboard. This same chalkboard was being used for commemorative notes recognizing Israel’s Day of Remembrance. Other members of the community who filmed the incident said the Muslim students had “desecrated the memory” of fallen Israeli soldiers. The college punished the students for “inappropriate conduct,” and banned two students, Reem Jouabra and Maram Abu Sneineh, from entering the college campus until August and revoked academic honors and grades awarded to them. The college also ordered the students to complete community service and to apologize to the community and the college president. Following an appeal by the NGO Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the college rescinded most of the penalties imposed on the two students.
Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, and participation in the workforce. On January 26, unknown individuals burned Torah scrolls and spray-painted graffiti on a Conservative synagogue in Netanya, following several vandalism cases at the same synagogue in 2018. On January 29, unknown individuals vandalized an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, cut the ark in which Torah scrolls are kept, destroyed Torah scrolls, and broke into the safe. On June 11, unknown individuals broke into the safe of an Orthodox synagogue in Bnei-Brak and stole Torah scrolls.
The most common “price tag” offenses, according to police, included attacks on vehicles, defacement of real estate, damage to Muslim and Christian holy sites, assault, and damage to agricultural lands. For example, on July 27, vandals sprayed graffiti on a truck and walls in Kfar Qasim referring to marriages between Jews and Arabs that said: “the daughter of Israel to the people of Israel,” and “enough with the intermarriage.” On December 12, unknown individuals sprayed Stars of David and sayings including “Muhammad is a pig” and damaged a car in the village of Manshiya Zabda in northern Israel.
The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and to sponsor activities promoting tolerance in response to the attacks.
Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site due to concerns relating to Jewish religious beliefs regarding the ongoing halakhic debate about whether it is permissible or forbidden for Jews to enter the Temple Mount, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible. Increasing numbers of the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site. Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there, as well as the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site. In some cases, Israeli police acted to prevent individuals from praying and removed them; in other cases reported on social media and by NGOs, police appeared not to notice the activity. According to local media, some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration. According to the Jerusalem Waqf and Temple Mount activist groups, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement increased during the year to record levels, including a single-day record of 1,451 visits on “Jerusalem Day” in May. According to Temple Mount activist groups and the Waqf, during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, activists conducted 3,009 visits, a 25 percent increase over 2017. According to Yareah, an organization that promotes Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, 30,416 Jews visited the site during the year, the first time the number of Jewish visitors exceeded 30,000 since Israel’s founding.
Individuals affiliated with the Northern Islamic Movement, which the government declared illegal in 2015, continued to speak of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as being “under attack” by Israeli authorities and an increasing number of Jewish visitors. Some small Jewish groups continued to call for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple.
In January Christians launched demonstrations protesting the Haifa Museum of Art’s display of an artwork depicting Ronald McDonald as Jesus on the cross, the center of an exhibition about consumerism and religion. On January 11, hundreds protested the exhibit and police arrested one man on suspicion of assault and searched for two other persons who had thrown firebombs at the museum. Police said that three police officers were hurt as dozens of demonstrators tried to forcibly enter the museum. On January 17, Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem said the sculpture would be taken out of the exhibition following consultations with church leaders, noting that it was due to return to the Finnish museum from which it was borrowed at the end of January. The Association for Civil Rights condemned the move, stating that the decision was “a capitulation to violence and a severe violation of artistic freedom of expression.”
NGOs reported that some LGBTI minors who revealed their sexual orientation in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization from rabbis. NGOs noted reports of mental illness among the LGBTI minor community, leading some to attempt suicide. Other NGOs noted an increasing number of rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities were adopting a more inclusive approach to LGBTI minors.
Some religious figures and politicians spoke against LGBTI individuals. On July 18, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and former Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar called on religious LGBTI individuals to throw away their kippahs and Shabbat observance, saying they were sinning against the Jewish people with their bodies.
Several religious NGOs, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, sought to break the rabbinate’s monopoly over issues that included kashrut certificates for burial, marriage, and divorce. In its first year, the unofficial kashrut certification of Tzohar, a network of Zionist Orthodox rabbis, gained 150 businesses.
According to the NGO Panim, more than 2,610 weddings took place outside of the Rabbinate’s authority in 2018, compared with 2,400 in 2017. These included unofficial orthodox, conservative, reform and secular ceremonies. The Chuppot initiative, an effort by some Orthodox Jews to challenge the Rabbinate’s exclusive supervision of Jewish religious ceremonies and practices, held 216 unofficial Orthodox weddings during 2019. The only mechanism for Jews to gain state recognition of a non-Rabbinate Orthodox wedding remained to wed outside the country and then register the marriage with the MOI.
According to the Rackman Center, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get refusals, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. The Rackman Center stated that in some instances a woman’s husband made granting a get contingent on his wife conceding to extortionate demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody. One in three Jewish women who divorced faced such demands, according to the Center for Women’s Justice. A child born to a woman still married to another man is considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which restricts the child’s future marriage prospects in the Jewish community. In February, Mavoi Satum, an organization that deals with issues of divorce in Israel, tried to set a precedent through an appeal to the High Rabbinical Court, which demanded that the court not close cases until a get is issued. The court did not take up the issue.
A rabbinical court in September ruled that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship was entitled to only 20 percent of joint property, accumulated from the date of her infidelity. On June 6, the president of the Supreme Court ordered an additional hearing for April 2020 on a 2018 Supreme Rabbinical Court ruling which found that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship had no rights to her and her husband’s home.
In an October decision, a rabbinical court moved the custody of children from their mother to their father because the mother stopped observing Judaism, although the father had been previously convicted in violent offenses, according to Haaretz. Haaretz reported that state social services were against the move but could not intervene because the divorce case was taking place in a rabbinical court. As a part of the custody agreement, the mother had to sign an agreement tying custody to a religious lifestyle, in order to obtain a get.
A variety of NGOs continued to try to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities, including Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Givat Haviva, the Hagar and Hand-in-Hand integrated Jewish-Arab bilingual schools, Hiddush, Israeli Religious Action Center, Mosaica, and Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA). For example, IEA held 384 interfaith encounters throughout the year. The number of children studying at integrated Yad BeYad Jewish-Arab schools in the school year beginning in September was 1,800, up from 1,700 in the previous year.
The Tomb of the Kings, a 2,000-year-old archaeological site in Jerusalem owned by the government of France, reopened to the public two days a week in October for the first time since 2010. Ultra-Orthodox Jews were seeking unrestricted worship at the ancient Jewish tomb and challenged French ownership of the site.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with government officials, embassy officials stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups. The Ambassador spoke at the Christian Media Summit hosted by the government to promote religious freedom in the region, and the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith reception for representatives of the country’s diverse religious groups. Additionally, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism represented the U.S. government at President Reuven Rivlin’s emergency conference on combating anti-Semitism.
Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The embassy continued to support workshops at the American Center in Jerusalem that addressed topics including religion in public schools, democracy and religious freedom, and prevention of societal attacks on religious minorities.
Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated a shared society for Arab and Jewish populations. Embassy officials advocated for the right of persons from all faiths to practice their religion peacefully, while also respecting the beliefs and customs of their neighbors.
Throughout the year, embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i communities and used embassy social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.
In March the Ambassador visited the Beit Jimal Monastery to condemn the vandalism of the monastery’s cemetery. The embassy produced a video that included the Ambassador’s remarks and amplified the video on Twitter and Facebook.
In July the embassy held a roundtable discussion on religious freedom issues hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute and livestreamed by the Jerusalem Post, with the participation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NGOs.
Embassy-hosted events included an interfaith iftar, an interfaith Rosh Hashanah reception, and an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner. The embassy also promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnerships by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience. Embassy programs supported mixed Jewish-Arab educational and community initiatives to reduce societal tensions and violence through sports, the arts, environmental projects, and entrepreneurship. Initiatives included a continuing project by the Citizens Accord Forum that brought together ultra-Orthodox, Muslim, and Christian citizens to create a shared civic agenda and language to deal with common issues and concerns in their communities. Another project supported joint training sessions for Muslim and Jewish teachers of religion.
The embassy worked to mitigate interreligious and intercommunal tensions between the country’s non-Jewish and Jewish citizens through the greater integration of the Arab minority into the broader national economy – especially the high-tech sector. An ongoing grant supported efforts by Arab, ultra-Orthodox, and Ethiopian Jewish NGOs to break down social and religious barriers and better integrate their communities into the technical workforce.
The embassy awarded a grant to the Mosaica religious peace initiative to establish a mechanism for crisis prevention and management in Jerusalem, with particular focus on Islamic and Jewish holy sites in the Old City.
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The constitution provides all persons the right to religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. Article 40 of 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 Associations (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 seven cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with 11 in 2018. Government officials again stated that the killings and attacks on Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant pastors reflected high levels of generalized violence throughout the country and not targeted attacks based on religious faith. The press reported representatives from federal, state, and municipal governments worked with members of an indigenous community in Altamirano, Chiapas State, to resolve a conflict that began in 2018 and led to the expulsion of evangelical Protestant families from the town for practicing a religion other than Roman Catholicism and refusing to support traditional cultural events. Under terms of a signed agreement, members of the displaced families returned but lived in a separate community. According to DGAR, 182 new religious associations were registered during the year, of which 28 were Catholic and 154 represented other groups, primarily evangelical Pentecostals.
Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism, thus often being exposed to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Killings and abductions of priests and pastors continued. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported the killings of five religious leaders and the kidnapping of three others by unidentified individuals. The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) identified Mexico as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 11th year in a row, stating it was a reflection of the high levels of generalized violence in the country. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to say criminal groups targeted Catholic priests and other religious leaders for their denunciation of criminal activities and because communities viewed them as moral authority figures. According to CSW, the 28 families whom local authorities expelled from Yashtinin, Chiapas State, in 2015 were still unable to return home because they refused to participate in traditional indigenous cultural events. According to the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED), non-Catholics and atheists were most likely to face discrimination in education, health, and at the workplace. The report found religious minorities tended to have slightly lower than average rates of school attendance, labor contracts, and access to medical benefits. Individuals identifying with these groups said they also had a slightly higher rate of illiteracy compared with the national average.
U.S. embassy and consulate officials met with government counterparts, religious organizations, and NGOs throughout the country to discuss concerns about violence toward religious leaders, as well as reports of discrimination toward religious minorities in some communities. Embassy officials met with members of religious groups and NGOs to gather details about specific cases, including the Cuamontax Huazalingo Protestant community in Hidalgo State.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 127.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 83 percent identify as Catholic, 5 percent evangelical Protestant, 1.6 percent Pentecostal, 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 0.5 percent Jewish. Other religious groups include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Muslims. More than 2 percent of the population report practicing a religion not otherwise specified, and nearly 5 percent report not practicing any religion. Some indigenous persons adhere to syncretic religions drawing from indigenous beliefs.
Official statistics based on self-identification during the 2010 census sometimes differ from the membership figures stated by religious groups. Approximately 315,000 individuals identified themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Church of Jesus Christ officials, however, state their membership is approximately 1.3 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, including Seventh-day Adventists; however, fewer than 5 percent of 2010 census respondents in Chiapas identified themselves as evangelical Protestant.
According to the 2010 census, the Jewish community totals approximately 67,500 persons, of whom nearly 42,000 live in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. According to SEGOB, nearly half of the country’s approximately 4,000 Muslims are concentrated in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. According to a 2017 Pew Foundation study, the Muslim community numbers fewer than 10,000 persons. There is also an Ahmadi Muslim population of several hundred living in Chiapas State, most of whom are converts of ethnic Tzotzil Maya origin. There are also small indigenous communities of Baha’is that number in the hundreds. An estimated half of the country’s approximately 100,000 Mennonites are concentrated in the state of Chihuahua.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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. 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. CONAPRED is an autonomous federal agency responsible for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, including for minority religious groups.
The law provides prisoners 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.
DGAR continued to work with state and local officials to mediate conflicts involving religious intolerance. DGAR investigated seven cases related to religious freedom at the federal level during the year, compared with 11 in 2018. Most of these cases involved religious minorities, generally families, 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, all of the cases were pending; three were from Hidalgo State, one from Guerrero State, one from Puebla State, one from Chiapas State, and one from Mexico State. According to DGAR, most incidents of religious discrimination should have been filed with the state government because the federal government did not have jurisdiction. Municipal and state officials commonly mediated disputes between religious groups. Some groups again 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. For example, Protestants in the community of Cuamontax, Hidalgo State, signed a conflict resolution agreement in February mandating their participation in, and financial contribution to, Catholic festivals. The groups continued to report there were insufficient resources devoted to federal and state agencies that work on religious freedom.
According to press reports, local authorities expelled an indigenous family of 10 from their village of Tajlovijho, Chiapas State, in August after the family converted to evangelical Protestantism.
Representatives from federal, state, and municipal governments worked with members of an indigenous community in Altamirano, Chiapas State, to resolve a conflict that began in 2018 between community members and evangelical Protestant families, who were expelled from the village for practicing a religion other than Catholicism. Under terms of a signed agreement, members of the displaced families returned but lived isolated from the main community.
In April CSW published follow-up reporting on a case that began in 2012 in the community of Yashtinin, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas State. In 2012 village authorities detained 16 individuals and then expelled them from the community for converting from Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism. By 2015, 28 families had been forced to leave Yashtinin for their religious beliefs. During the year, CSW representatives met with some of the displaced persons and found that although authorities were notified of the situation and promised recourse, the individuals still were not allowed to return.
As of November 7, there were 9,464 religious associations registered by DGAR, compared with 9,416 in 2018, an increase of 48. Registered groups included 9,421 Christian (an increase of 315 from 2018), 12 Buddhist, 10 Jewish, three Islamic, two Hindu, and two International Society for Krishna Consciousness groups. Baha’is and Ahmadi Muslims remained unregistered. According to DGAR, 182 new religious associations were registered during the year, of which 28 were Catholic and 154 representing other groups, primarily evangelical Pentecostals. The total number of associations was only 48 higher than 2018 because some previously registered groups removed themselves.
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 adhere to the majority religion. Local authorities detained 12 evangelical Christians in April in the community of Chiquinivalvo, located in the municipality of Zinacantan, Chiapas State, for refusing to participate in a Catholic celebration. Authorities released the detainees after federal government intervention with the Zinacantan City Council. When the detainees returned home following their release, local authorities had disconnected their water and electricity.
According to DGAR, the federal government continued to promote dialogue with religious actors with the stated goal of ensuring the exercise of religious freedom and resolving conflicts involving religious intolerance. On September 20, SEGOB launched the “National Strategy for the Promotion of Respect and Tolerance of Religious Diversity: We Create Peace.” Government officials emphasized the separation of church and state would not be impacted by the new strategy. According to Jorge Lee Galindo, deputy director general in SEGOB’s Religious Issues Office, the strategy was a concerted effort by elements of the government to work together to promote religious freedom. It comprises three pillars focused on raising awareness about the country’s religious diversity; improving dialogue among religious groups; and creating networks at the state and municipal levels dedicated to religious freedom. Actions included convening roundtables and workshops and implementing courses for state-level officials and elementary school students about religious freedom issues.
In May the Commission for Human Rights in Mexico City held the “First Gathering for Cultural Diversity,” which focused on religious diversity. Present at the event were representatives from CONAPRED, the federal Council to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination in Mexico City, and the federal Department of Education. During the event, CONAPRED President Alexandra Haas Pacuic acknowledged religious minorities in the country faced prejudice and barriers, including at institutional levels. She also identified religion as one of the main causes of discrimination in the country, particularly in public settings, public transportation, school, and work. Haas Pacuic further noted discrimination based on religion often intersected with other forms of discrimination, including racial and ethnic, and that religious disputes were also commonly related to disputes over natural resources or political issues. Representatives from Anglican, Baptist, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Lutheran, Muslim, and Sikh religious groups participated in the meeting.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism, thus often being exposed to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. The CMC identified Mexico as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 11th year in a row. According to some NGOs and media reports, organized crime groups continued to target 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. Federal government officials and Catholic Church authorities stated these incidents were not a result of targeting for religious beliefs, but rather, incidents related to the overall security situation and crime. Some NGOs stated they believed criminals targeted Catholic priests because communities viewed them as moral authority figures.
According to press reports in June, attackers shot and killed Pastor Aaron Bosques Montes of the Roma Christian Church in Cuernavaca, Morelos State. Bosques Montes reportedly resisted extortion attempts by a criminal group and evaded an attempted kidnapping by the same group. The pastor had filed a formal complaint against local gang leaders, the Ortega Velez brothers, with the Attorney General’s Office, the contents of which were allegedly leaked.
According to CSW, an assailant killed Pastor Alfrery Lictor Cruz Canseco in his car after an August 19 church service in Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca State. Members of the congregation detained the attacker, who was subsequently arrested by authorities, but a possible motive for the crime was not made public. Media sites suggested the attack could be related to criminal groups perceiving religious leaders as threats to their authority.
According to media reports and an official statement released by the Diocese of Matamoros, on August 22, Catholic priest Jose Martin Guzman Vega was found stabbed to death inside his parish, Cristo Rey de La Paz, on the outskirts of Matamoros, Tamaulipas State. Neighbors said they heard cries for help and found the priest near the church’s entrance. The Tamaulipas State Attorney General’s Office was investigating the killing but made no arrests by year’s end.
In November nine members of families belonging to an offshoot Mormon group associated with the Church of Jesus Christ and living in Rancho La Mora, Sonora State, were ambushed and killed by individuals associated with a drug cartel. According to Mexican and FBI investigations of the killings, the motive of the killers was not related to the victims’ faith or membership in a religious group, because neither the individuals nor the Mormon group were the intended targets.
CSW expressed particular concern about religious freedom violations in Hidalgo State because of continuing problems related to displacements of minority religious groups and lack of progress in addressing these displacements. In September attackers killed evangelical Protestant Pastor Omar Romero Cruz and another person in Ixmiquilpan, San Miguel, Hidalgo State. CSW reported the assailants were believed to be members of organized crime, but authorities reported they had not established a motive, and the investigation continued through year’s end. CSW reported that on August 3, a criminal group that had previously attempted to kidnap Cuban migrants for ransom abducted evangelical Pastor Aaron Mendez Ruiz, director of a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas State. Media outlets stated the Cartel del Noreste (Northeast Cartel) was responsible for the kidnapping. At year’s end, the pastor’s whereabouts remained unknown. Media outlets and social media accounts reported the same cartel was responsible for the disappearance of Pastor Ricardo Alcaraz in Nuevo Laredo on September 15. He had not been released or found by year’s end.
Jewish community representatives said they conducted an assessment of online anti-Semitic messages, symbols, and language from January through June, finding that Twitter accounted for 87.1 percent, news sources 8.5 percent, online forums 3.5 percent, and blogs 0.9 percent. The representatives said the number of anti-Semitic attacks was approximately the same as in 2018. Anti-Semitic tweets typically referenced the Holocaust and Hitler, along with other derogatory language.
Religions for Peace, an interreligious working group, continued to be active in the country, conducting interfaith roundtables and outreach events. Member groups included the Jewish Communities of Mexico, Buddhist Community of Mexico, Sufi Yerrahi Community of Mexico, Sikh Dharma Community of Mexico, Anglican Church, Lutheran Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
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 these issues with foreign affairs and interior secretariat officials. U.S. officials raised concerns regarding the continued killings of Catholic priests and abuses against religious minorities, especially evangelical Protestants, by religious majority groups and local authorities.
The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious and civil society leaders during travel throughout the country to highlight the importance of the issue and reinforce the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.
The embassy posted multiple times on social media using the hashtag #LibertadReligiosa (Freedom of Religion), including posts by the former ambassador on Rosh Hashannah, Hanukkah, and Virgen de Guadalupe holidays.
Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups and religiously affiliated NGOs, including the Central Jewish Committee, Tribuna Israelita, CMC, and CSW, to discuss the safety of religious workers working on humanitarian issues, assess the status of religious freedom, and express support for religious tolerance.
The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The government restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” In October parliament passed legislation (not yet in effect at year’s end) that will allow the minister of home affairs to take immediate action against individuals deemed to have insulted a religion or to have incited violence or feelings of enmity against a religious group. The same bill will limit foreign funding to, leadership of, and influence over, local religious organizations. There is no legal provision for conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 11 conscientious objectors remained detained at year’s end. The government continued to ban all religious processions on foot, except for those of three Hindu festivals, including Thaipusam, and it reduced restrictions on the use of live music during Thaipusam. Authorities cancelled a concert by Swedish band Watain after public complaints that the group was offensive towards Christians and Jews. Authorities banned a foreign clergyman from preaching in Singapore after he refused to return to the country for a police investigation into anti-Muslim comments he had reportedly made at a Christian evangelical conference in 2018. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony and respect for religious differences, including in June during a 1,000-person international conference it had organized to discuss religious diversity and cohesion in diverse societies. Government organizations initiated interfaith programs and funded community-led interfaith initiatives.
Seventy-seven percent of the population said they followed a religion, according to survey data. Most local residents perceived followers of other religions positively, although 16 percent saw Muslims as “threatening,” or “somewhat threatening.” A separate survey found that 97 percent of residents described the level of racial and religious harmony in Singapore as moderate, high, or very high. There were numerous community-led initiatives to promote religious tolerance and build interfaith understanding.
The Charge d’Affaires discussed the country’s approach to religious harmony and amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) legislation with the minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. U.S. embassy officials engaged with senior government officials and religious leaders at a May iftar, during which the Charge d’Affaires gave a speech embracing religious diversity. Visiting representatives from the Office of International Religious Freedom met with the imam of Ba’alwie Mosque. Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of groups to support religious freedom including the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), the government’s Islamic Religious Council (MUIS), the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), and representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Shia Muslim, Sikh, Sunni Muslim, Taoist, and interfaith groups. The embassy used social media, including a Facebook item featuring the work of a former participant in a U.S.-sponsored exchange program, to highlight its religious outreach and to demonstrate respect for the country’s religious diversity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Of the four million individuals the local government counts as citizens or permanent residents, 81.5 percent stated a religious affiliation in the 2015 General Household Survey. According to the data, approximately 33.2 percent of the population of citizens and permanent residents are Buddhist, 18.8 percent Christian, 14 percent Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 10 percent Taoist, and 5 percent Hindu. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Unification Church. Although estimates varied widely, the government estimated there are 2,500 members in the Jewish community.
According to a report by the Department of Statistics, 74.3 percent of the resident population is ethnic Chinese, 13.4 percent ethnic Malay, 9.0 percent ethnic Indian, and 3.2 percent other, including Eurasians. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim. According to a 2016 national survey, among ethnic Indians, 59.9 percent are Hindu, 21.3 percent Muslim, and 12.1 percent Christian. The ethnic Chinese population includes Buddhists (42.3 percent), Christians (20.9 percent), and Taoists (12.9 percent).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to or employment in any office under a public authority. It states every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs, and it does not prohibit restrictions on employment by a religious institution. The constitution states no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own.
The government maintains a decades-long ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds the religion was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the rights of individual members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious beliefs. The government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish or import their literature. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.
The MRHA authorizes the minister for home affairs to issue a “restraining order” (RO) against a person in a position of authority within a religious group if the minister ascertains the person is causing feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promotes political causes, carries out subversive activities, or encourages disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. An RO places various restrictions on public activities in which a religious authority can participate. Under the MRHA, the minister must provide any individuals or religious groups 14 days to make written representations before an RO may be issued against them, and the minister must also consult and take into consideration the views of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH) as to whether an RO should be issued. In addition, under the penal code, “Wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious or racial groups” may result in detention or imprisonment. Imprisonment may last up to five years.
The amended MRHA will require that key leadership roles in religious organizations be filled by Singaporeans or permanent residents, and that the majority of each organization’s governing body be composed of Singapore citizens. The law, as amended, will hold that, with some exceptions, religious organizations must disclose foreign donations of 10,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) ($7,400) or more, and that they must declare any affiliation to foreign groups that are in a position to exert influence. The minister could issue an RO against any religious group, which would prevent or reduce foreign influence affecting the group, if he or she believed this foreign influence could undermine religious tolerance or present a threat to public peace and order.
The PCRH reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred by the minister for home affairs or by parliament. The president appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires two-thirds of PCRH members to be representatives of the major religions in the country, which according to law are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore” and requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The MUIS, established under the Ministry for Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY), administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, preparation of Friday sermons, and the Hajj. The MUIS includes representatives from the Sunni majority as well as Muslim minority groups, including Shia. Use of MUIS sermons is not compulsory, but imams who use their own content are responsible for it and may be investigated if there are complaints.
The government appoints all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board and nominates four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards manage various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.
The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows property ownership, the ability to hold public meetings, and the ability to conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enable them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemptions. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered society may be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 SGD ($3,700), imprisonment of up to three years, or both.
Prisoners, including those in solitary confinement, are allowed access to chaplains of registered religious groups.
Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests, or they could be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.
By law, a publication is considered objectionable if it describes, depicts, expresses, or deals with, among other things, matters of race or religion in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between racial or religious groups. The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. For offenses involving the publication of objectionable material, an individual may be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding 5,000 SGD ($3,700), imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both. A person in possession of a prohibited publication may be fined up to 2,000 SGD ($1,500) and imprisoned for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.
The Ministry of National Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The ministry and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in an allotted zone and meeting the maximum plot ratio and building height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups; they apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or exclusively leased to religious organizations or limited to religious use and must also be available to rent out for nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.
Registration with the MUIS is compulsory for all Muslim religious teachers and centers of learning. Registration requires adherence to minimum standards and a code of ethics, as well as fulfilment of certain training requirements.
The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law is used, but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over marriage issues where both parties are or were married as Muslims, including disposition of property upon divorce, custody of minor children, and inheritance. The president of the country appoints the president of the sharia court. A breach of sharia court orders is a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment of up to six months, and an individual may lodge a complaint for breach in the civil courts. The sharia court does not have jurisdiction over personal protection orders or applications for maintenance payments. Divorce proceedings in the sharia court may be moved to the civil courts for decisions on custody or division of matrimonial assets. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeals board, which is composed of three members selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of at least seven Muslim individuals nominated every three years by the president of the country. The ruling of the appeals board is final and may not be appealed to any other court.
The law allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives, reviewing the husband’s financial capability, and evaluating his ability to treat the wives and families fairly and equitably. By law, the president of the country appoints a “male Muslim of good character and suitable attainments” as the Registrar of Muslim Marriages.
Under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam. This includes publicly teaching or expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law, which carries a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD ($1,500), maximum imprisonment of 12 months, or both. It is also a criminal offense for Muslims to cohabit outside of marriage, but that law has not been enforced in decades.
Under the law, Muslim couples where one or both parties are under the age of 21 must complete a marriage-preparation program and obtain parental or guardian consent before applying for marriage. Each party to the marriage must be at least 18.
According to legal experts in inheritance, Islamic law governs Muslims in the context of inheritance issues by default, but under certain circumstances civil law will take precedence when it is invoked. Islamic law may result in a man receiving twice the share of a woman of the same relational level. A man may also incur financial responsibilities for his female next of kin, although this provision is not codified in the country’s law.
The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-subsidized religiously affiliated schools (mostly Christian but including three Buddhist schools). Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time and must not include proselytization; students have a right to opt out and be given alternatives such as civics and moral education in lieu of religious instruction. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not aided by the government. At the primary level, however, the law allows only seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to educate citizen students; these schools must continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools. Public schools finish early on Fridays, which enables Muslim students to attend Friday prayers, or they allow Muslim students to leave early to attend prayers. Secondary school students learn about the diversity of the country’s religious practices as a component of their character and citizenship education.
The law empowers the Ministry of Education (MOE) to regulate primary and secondary schools. MOE rules prohibit students (but not teachers) in public schools from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform, including hijabs or headscarves. Schools have discretion to grant a child dispensation from wearing the official uniform based on health but not religious requirements. International and other private schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, which are all under the purview of the MUIS, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning.
The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service, including for religious reasons. Male citizens or second-generation permanent residents are required to complete 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service.
The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group the parliament or the government refers to it.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The official website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that at year’s end, 11 Jehovah’s Witnesses were held in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing on religious grounds to complete national service. Conscientious objectors are generally court martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months. Although they remained technically liable for national service, men who had refused to serve on religious grounds were generally not called up for reservist duties. They do not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharged them from reservist duties.
The government reduced restrictions on the use of live music at the Tamil Hindu procession for Thaipusam, one of three religious foot processions, all Hindu festivals, permitted in the country. In January authorities permitted the use of percussion instruments in the two-day procession for the first time since 1973, and increased the number of hours, from 7:00 a.m. (one hour earlier than the previous year) to 10:30 p.m., during which live music could be played.
In March the authorities cancelled a concert by the Swedish band Watain. Authorities initially agreed to the band performing under an R18 (Restricted to 18 years and above) rating and with “religiously offensive” songs and “ritualistic acts” removed from the performance, but they retracted permission on the day of the concert after Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam raised concerns about the group’s history of denigrating religions and promoting violence. The ministry assessed that allowing what they called a Satanist band to play had the “potential to cause enmity and disrupt Singapore’s social harmony.”
Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab while the government continued to evolve its stance “gradually and carefully.” Some in the Muslim community continued to quietly petition for a change in government policy.
In March authorities banned a U.S. clergyman from preaching in the country after he refused to return to the country for a police investigation into anti-Muslim comments he reportedly made at a Christian evangelical conference in 2018.
While the government did not formally prohibit proselytization, it continued to discourage its practice through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly based on concerns that proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations. In March media reported that police investigated a complaint against a Christian man for allegedly preaching to Muslim schoolchildren; media did not report that charges were filed.
The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived. The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and to prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.
As part of the MOE’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. Secondary school students visited diverse religious sites, including Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, churches, and synagogues. All schools celebrated the annual racial harmony day in July, which promoted understanding and acceptance of all religions within the country. Children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were encouraged to recite the “Declaration of Religious Harmony,” which repeatedly affirms the importance of religious harmony for the country.
The government instituted a requirement that Islamic teachers, known as asatizah, must complete a mandatory three-hour ethics class prior to 2020 in order to fulfil registration requirements. Among other requirements, the code of ethics requires teachers not to denigrate any individual or group by means of terms or concepts that could erode social harmony.
In July the director of the Public Service Commission defended awarding a taxpayer-funded scholarship to a student of Buddhist studies after the local newspaper published two letters of complaint about the award. She said that to make sound policy, the public service needed a diversity of strengths and a deep understanding of the country’s religions: “Secularism does not mean being devoid of religious content.”
President Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and government ministers regularly stressed the government’s commitment to the country as a multiracial and multireligious society and cited religious harmony as an important policy goal. Ministers frequently gave speeches on strengthening religious pluralism. In October Prime Minister Lee wished Hindus a happy Diwali on his Facebook page and wrote, “Here in Singapore, we are fortunate that we can share in the joy of one another’s cultural and religious festivals.” In September when accepting a World Statesman Award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, he praised the country’s institutions that protect multiculturalism, including the Presidential Council for Minority Rights and the IRO.
In June 1,000 delegates attended the government’s inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS), at which President Halimah celebrated religious diversity and distinctive cultures, while calling on different communities to accommodate others’ differences and to build interfaith understanding. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat delivered the conference’s closing speech, during which he noted that the country must also learn to take into account the perspectives of the nonreligious, who comprise approximately 20 percent of the local population.
Members of parliament (MPs) expressed support for religious freedom, respect, and harmony. In July Ruling People’s Action Party MP Zainal Bin Sapari recommended on Facebook that employers accommodate male Muslim employees by allowing them to attend Friday afternoon prayers at mosques.
In May Muslim MPs from the ruling party, the opposition, and independent lawmakers held the first ever cross-party breaking of the fast within parliament. In March in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, Muslim MP Amrin Amin led a political-constituency visit by Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists to St. Andrew’s Cathedral, built on land donated by an Arab Muslim.
Under the auspices of the MCCY, local government and government-affiliated organizations advocated for interreligious understanding and support for followers of other religions. In February the country’s five district mayors launched a national interfaith initiative called Common Senses for Common Spaces, which included activities such as community dialogues on Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.
Interfaith activities occurred in each of the country’s five mayoral districts through the expansion of programs such as Common Sense for Common Spaces, while 89 “Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles” (IRCCs) continued to operate in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. The IRCCs conducted a variety of local interreligious dialogues, counseling and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities. In May more than 100 volunteers from IRCCs, district council Racial Harmony Youth Ambassadors, and religious organizations joined Muslim MP and Mayor Maliki Osman in an interfaith iftar after the group had packaged and distributed adult diapers to the elderly in local nursing homes.
The government continued to work with religious groups through a community engagement program which trained community leaders in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony. It also worked through the BRIDGE initiative (Broadening Religious/Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education), which provided financial support for community-based initiatives that fostered understanding of different religious practices and beliefs.
The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was established to promote greater religious understanding. The Harmony Center houses artifacts and information about Islam and nine other major religious groups in the country. It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from different religious groups.
Authorities helped Muslims undertake travel for religious reasons through the MUIS, which maintains a national Hajj registration process, and which provides medical and welfare support for citizens making the Hajj. Ministers continued to advocate an increase in the number of permits that Saudi Arabia allocates to the country for pilgrims annually.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
A joint study of more than 4,000 residents by the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and OnePeople.sg found that almost 97 percent of local residents described the level of racial and religious harmony as moderate, high, or very high. When asked if they knew someone of another religion to clarify any concerns about religious practices, more than half of respondents said they were acquainted with a Buddhist, Catholic, other Christian, Muslim, or Taoist, while 40 percent of respondents knew a Hindu, and 22 percent a Sikh with whom they could do the same. While 88 percent of respondents reported not experiencing any form of religious tension in their daily lives, some respondents reported negative experiences associated with religion; more than a quarter reported being upset in the last year over proselytization attempts as well as by something they watched on social or mainstream media that insulted their racial or religious customs. Religion was identified as an important potential fault line, with just under half of respondents saying the mismanagement of religion could result in suspicion, mistrust, and anger among communities in Singapore, while a third said it had the potential to engender violence.
Seventy-seven percent of the population said they followed a religion, according to a separate IPS survey of 1,800 residents. Most local residents perceived adherents of other religions positively, although 16 percent saw Muslims as “threatening,” or “somewhat threatening.” Seventy-three percent believed that persons of different religious backgrounds could get along when living close together.
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, the patron of the IRO, called on followers of all religious beliefs to “always protect the freedom to interact with each other as friends, neighbors, and fellow Singaporeans” when he opened the organization’s 70th anniversary Harmony of Faiths exhibition in March. The exhibition encouraged visitors to learn about all the religions practiced in the country. The IRO also worked with the National Library Board to organize interfaith gatherings. The IRO includes leaders of the 10 major religious groups in the country with the stated objective of inculcating a spirit of friendship among various religious groups by conducting interreligious prayer services, seminars, and public talks throughout the year.
In September remarks made on social media by a local blogger about the turbans of two Sikh men “obstructing” her view during an event gained national attention for their insensitivity. A subsequent invitation to the blogger from the Young Sikh Association to visit the Central Sikh Temple to learn about Sikhism was widely reported on social and local media.
Religious groups and humanists continued to promote interfaith and intrafaith understanding. In August the Archdiocesan Catholic Council for Interreligious Dialogue hosted Buddhist, Muslim, and Catholic representatives to discuss the concept of fasting. Throughout the year, the Center for Interfaith Understanding, chaired by a Muslim and a Taoist, hosted a range of seminars, including on such subjects as Chinese religion in everyday life, Christian-Muslim relations, and interfaith dialogue.
Shia and Sunni Muslims continued to cooperate and to share Sunni mosques, hosting intrafaith iftars during Ramadan. The organization Roses of Peace held several events in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, including a forum of Singaporean youth, to exchange ideas on race and religion.
Religious groups cooperated to provide practical support for their communities. Under a program run by the local community organization Giving Back Beyond Faith, religious groups collaborated with Sewa Pledge, a Sikh community project, and a Sikh temple, Gurdwara Sahib Yishun, to host an event for migrant workers in a place of worship, during which participants learned about Sikh culture and worship. Buddhist volunteers from Shinnyo-en served as road marshals to divert traffic from the nearby Abdul Razak Mosque during the Eid al-Adha prayers in August, when the road was closed off due to an overflow from the mosque. During Ramadan, the Hindu Endowments Board donated two tons of rice to local mosques, while the Singapore Buddhist Lodge donated 35 tons.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires discussed the country’s approach to religious harmony and amendments to its MRHA with the minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. In May at an embassy iftar attended by Senior Minister of State for Defense and Foreign Affairs Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, religious leaders of numerous faiths, the diplomatic corps, and others, the Charge d’Affaires gave remarks promoting religious freedom and embracing religious diversity. The Charge’s speech was featured on Malay language television and in the leading English- and Malay-language newspapers.
Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of religious groups, including the IRO, MUIS, PPIS, interfaith groups such as the Center for Interfaith Understanding, and representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Shia Muslim, Sikh, Sunni Muslim, Taoist, and interfaith groups, to reinforce the importance of religious freedom. Visiting representatives from the Office of International Religious Freedom met with the imam of Ba’alwie Mosque, who displayed the mosque’s collection of old Qurans, Bibles, Judaica, and Buddhist scriptures. The embassy used social media to highlight the visit, including a post covering the embassy iftar in May, and to demonstrate appreciation of and respect for the country’s religious diversity. The embassy used social media to feature the work of a former participant in a U.S.-sponsored exchange program focused on peace, social cohesion, and interfaith harmony.
The embassy facilitated the engagement of visiting U.S. citizens with local community and religious groups to support the promotion of religious freedom. In September embassy representatives and the U.S. nongovernmental organization Writing Through conducted workshops with the staff of PPIS and the youth that benefit from its programs. The workshops focused on building the research and persuasive writing abilities of the staff and on improving critical thinking and writing skills of the at-risk youth PPIS supports. In April embassy representatives organized a visit by a Muslim American entrepreneur, who spoke with Muslim organizations, student groups, the business community, and media about becoming a successful entrepreneur and how being a Muslim impacted his perspective in business.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition its practice does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders stated the de facto Maduro government and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property. Representatives of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Venezuela (CEV) and the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (ECV) said the government harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against their clergy and other members for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis. On October 12, the Military Counterintelligence Agency (DCGIM) arrested evangelical Protestant pastor Jose Albeiro Vivas in Barinas State as he delivered a prayer calling for the “spiritual liberation” of the country during an annual religious event. Vivas, also an active duty air force officer, was reportedly arrested for disobedience and remained in detention through year’s end. Media reported armed groups (colectivos) aligned with de facto President Nicolas Maduro attacked churches and their congregants during the year. According to Archbishop Jose Luis Azuaje, on January 27, a group of colectivos forced their way into Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Church in Maracaibo, Zulia State during Mass. The colectivos attacked and injured approximately 15 worshippers inside, fired their weapons, defaced and destroyed church property, and confiscated items of value. Azuaje said police officers stationed nearby did not intervene during the attack. Some members of the Jewish community stated the de facto government and those sympathetic to it used anti-Zionism to mask anti-Semitism. During the year, editorials in pro-Maduro media outlets accused Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly and recognized by the United States as the legitimate interim president, and Guaido-nominated representatives, as agents or lobbyists of Zionism. Representatives of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela (CAIV) said criticism of Israel in Maduro-controlled or -affiliated media continued to carry anti-Semitic overtones, sometimes disguised as anti-Zionist messages. They said de facto government-owned or -associated media and government supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust, citing media reports of Maduro’s comparing sanctions against Venezuela to Nazi persecution of Jews.
The CAIV representatives said many private citizens in addition to government officials continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and placed U.S. interests above those of the country, which made them concerned their community could become targets of anti-Semitic acts.
The United States has no diplomatic relations with Maduro’s de facto government and recognizes Interim President Juan Guaido as the legitimate president. The U.S. embassy suspended operations in Caracas on March 8 and continued to operate from Bogota and Washington, D.C. through the end of the year. Prior to March 8, Maduro administration officials again did not respond to U.S. embassy requests for meetings on religious freedom and related issues. The embassy maintained close contact with a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic communities. Embassy representatives and these groups discussed the de facto government’s imposed registration procedures and delays; harassment by its aligned and armed civilian gangs; anti-Semitic posts in social media and in government-controlled media; and other anti-Semitic acts.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32.1 million (2019 midyear estimate). This number, however, does not reflect the October UN estimate that approximately 4.5 million refugees and migrants had left the country since 2015. The U.S. government estimates 96 percent of the population is Catholic. The remaining population includes evangelical Protestants, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Baha’is, and Jews.
The ECV estimates 17 percent of the population is Protestant, the majority of whom are members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates its numbers at 167,000. The Muslim community numbers more than 100,000 and consists primarily of persons of Lebanese and Syrian descent living in Nueva Esparta State and the Caracas metropolitan area. Sunnis are the majority, with a minority Shia community primarily in Margarita Island in Nueva Esparta State. According to the Baha’i community, its membership is approximately 5,000. According to CAIV, the Jewish community numbers approximately 6,000, with most members living in Caracas. According to an article released in May by the Adam Smith Institute, a think tank located in the United Kingdom, approximately 5,000 Jews live in the country, compared with 30,000 in 1999. Media reported approximately 20,000 Jews had left the country since the 1990s.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition that the practice of a religion does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. A 1964 concordat governs relations between the government and the Holy See and provides for government funding for Catholic Church-run schools. In 2017 the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), which the opposition and much of the international community consider illegitimate, passed an anti-hate law criminalizing acts of incitement to hatred or violence. Individuals who violate the law face 10 to 20 years in prison. The law includes 25 articles stipulating a wide array of directives, restrictions, and penalties. The law criminalizes political party activities promoting “fascism, intolerance, or hatred,” which comprise numerous factors, including religion. It also criminalizes individual acts promoting violence or hatred, the publication or transmission of any messages promoting violence or hatred by any media outlet, and the publication of messages promoting violence or hatred on social media. Among the violations are those committed by individuals or media outlets, including by members of religious groups or media associated with a religious group.
The Directorate of Justice and Religion (DJR) in the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace (MOI) maintains a registry of religious groups, disburses funds to religious organizations, and promotes awareness and understanding among religious communities. Each religious group must register with the DJR to acquire legal status as a religious organization. Registration requires declaration of property belonging to the religious group, identification of any religious authorities working directly for it, and articles of incorporation. Religious groups are required to demonstrate how they will provide social services to their communities and to receive a letter of acceptance from the government-controlled community council in the neighborhood(s) where the group will work. The MOI reviews applications and may delay approval indefinitely. Religious groups must register any new statutes with the DJR.
The law neither prohibits nor promotes religious education in public schools. An 18-year-old agreement between the CEV and the state allows catechists to teach Christian and sacramental values in public schools in preparation for First Communion; this agreement, however, is not enforced.
The law provides for Catholic chaplains to minister to the spiritual needs of Catholics serving in the military. There are no similar provisions for other religious groups.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On October 12, DCGIM arrested evangelical Protestant pastor Jose Albeiro Vivas in Barinas State as he delivered a prayer during the March for Jesus, an event held annually throughout the country since 2006. Vivas, also an active duty air force officer, was arrested for disobedience and improper use of military medals, badges and titles. Vivas’ prayer called for the “spiritual liberation” of the country. He remained in detention at year’s end.
Media reported armed groups aligned with the de facto government attacked churches and their congregants during the year. Archbishop Jose Luis Azuaje said that on January 27, colectivos forced their way into Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Church in Maracaibo, Zulia State during Eucharist for children receiving their first communion and confirmation. Colectivos numbering approximately 40 individuals armed with sticks, guns, and grenades attacked and injured approximately 15 worshippers inside, discharged their firearms, defaced and destroyed church property, including the altar, and confiscated other items of value. Among the injured was a nun, who was taken to a local hospital for emergency treatment. Azuaje reported police officers stationed nearby did not intervene during the attack. Church leadership announced they would close the church until the de facto government could guarantee the safety of parishioners.
The CEV reported increased repression against the Catholic Church in the wake of the April 30 uprising against Maduro and his de facto government. On May 1, a group of 40 Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) officers attacked the Our Lady of Fatima Church in San Cristobal, Tachira State, at the end of a religious service, according to Bishop of San Cristobal Mario Moronta. According to Moronta, two officers entered the church on motorcycle, followed by a contingent of 40 GNB officers and their commanding officer. Unable to gain entry, the GNB officers fired tear gas into the church, forcing the pastor to evacuate the congregation, many of whom were elderly, from the building.
On February 8, media reported the external walls of Sweet Name of Jesus Church in the Petare District of Caracas were defaced with written expletives directed at Father Hector Lunar, including “pedophile” and “terrorist.” The defacement occurred after Maduro followers blasted loud music outside the church in an apparent attempt to drown out Lunar’s Mass. According to media reports, Lunar came under attack by the city council, controlled by Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for speaking out against the country’s humanitarian crisis. In January the city council of Sucre declared Lunar persona non grata.
On January 23, priests, seminary students, and 700 protesters remained trapped in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Maturin, Monagas State for hours while colectivos and military personnel attempted to break into the church, according to the CEV.
CEV and other Catholic Church leaders and ECV representatives said the de facto government continued to retaliate against church leaders and clergy members who made statements criticizing it, including by imposing arbitrary registration requirements, and threatening and detaining clergy.
CEV representatives said illegal armed groups supporting the de facto government also targeted members of the clergy. On April 24, CEV denounced death threats from the National Liberation Army (ELN) that Father Richard Garcia, a priest in Tachira State, received for speaking out against the humanitarian crisis and lack of public services during a homily. Garcia’s church was sprayed with graffiti, featuring the initials of the ELN. He also received a pamphlet that stated he was a “political target and public enemy of the revolution.” Media reported a second priest, Father Jairo Clavijo, also received threats that declared him a “military target.”
Church leaders reported Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) officials continued to intimidate priests who criticized Maduro in their sermons. SEBIN officers followed and harassed Catholic laity involved in delivering humanitarian aid or participating in public demonstrations and photographed their homes. Archbishop Antonio Lopez Castillo reported SEBIN officials interrogated him in an attempt to convince him to stop issuing complaints against the de facto Maduro government, which the archbishop had labeled an “oppressive regime.”
There were reports that security officials prevented clergy opposing the Maduro de facto government from holding religious services. According to the CEV, on April 7, authorities attempted to block Bishop Moronta from officiating Mass at the Patrocinio Penuela Ruiz Social Security Hospital in San Cristobal, Tachira State by locking him out of the building, despite his having a letter of authorization from the hospital board. Moronta was able to gain entry when a parishioner obtained a second key. On April 18, authorities barred Moronta, this time successfully, from holding a religious service by blocking his access to the Western Penitentiary Center in Tachira, where he was to celebrate a previously scheduled Mass with prison inmates. Maduro’s Minister for Prisons Iris Varela stated she had denied Moronta’s visit because he had “gotten into politics” by issuing proclamations against the Maduro de facto government; she added his diocese was guilty of protecting priests who abused children.
According to the Anti-defamation League (ADL), most anti-Semitic messaging on social media and other media continued to originate from Maduro and his supporters. Some members of the Jewish community stated the de facto government and those sympathetic to it used anti-Zionism to mask anti-Semitism. During the year, editorials in pro-Maduro media outlets accused Guaido and Guaido-nominated representatives as being agents or lobbyists of Zionism. A tweet posted in January by a self-described “revolutionary communicator” stated, “What a coincidence that the first gringos [U.S.] Senators who have come out to support Guaido are all members of the lobby Oil-Financial-Jew. Vultures begin to fly over Venezuela.”
In August Maduro likened U.S. government policy towards the country to Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1940s, stating sanctions against the country were the same as Hitler’s efforts to persecute, exterminate, and prevent the Jewish people from leaving.
Jewish leaders stated to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, the de facto government and media supporting it continued to replace the word “Jewish” with “Zionist.” In a February interview, Maduro said Interim President Juan Guaido served the interests of the Zionists. During a June 26 television broadcast, president of the ANC Diosdado Cabello stated the de facto government had disrupted an alleged Zionist coup against Maduro on June 24. On August 21, Cabello called U.S. charges of narcotics trafficking and money laundering against former vice president and current Minister of Industry and National Production Tareck Zaidan El Aissami part of a campaign of the “Zionist lobby.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
CAIV representatives said many private citizens in addition to de facto government officials continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and placed U.S. interests above those of the country, which made them concerned their community could become targets of anti-Semitic acts.
On August 31, the National Experimental University of the Arts held the First National Interreligious Meeting in Caracas.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The de facto government again did not respond to the embassy’s requests for meetings to discuss religious freedom and related topics such as freedom of assembly, conscience, and expression.
Embassy officials communicated regularly with a wide range of religious communities and leaders to discuss the de facto government’s treatment of religious groups, registration issues, and government and societal reprisals on some faith groups that disagreed with the de facto Maduro administration’s political agenda. Embassy officials held meetings with representatives from the CEV, ECV, CAIV, and the Muslim community. Each community expressed interest in maintaining communications and exploring possible outreach programs in the future.
West Bank and Gaza
Read A Section: West Bank And Gaza
West Bank and the Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities. Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli Military Commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and in the relevant areas, Palestinian Authority (PA) law. Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the military commander and Israeli law and Israeli legislation. The PA exercises varying degrees of authority in the West Bank. Although PA laws apply in the Gaza Strip, the PA does not have authority there, and Hamas continues to exercise de facto control over security and other matters. The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion and states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation, but provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. It also proscribes discrimination based on religion, calls for respect of “all other divine religions,” and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. Violence between Palestinians and Israelis continued, primarily in the West Bank and the periphery of Gaza. PA President Mahmoud Abbas granted legal recognition to the Council of Local Evangelical Churches, a coalition of evangelical churches operating in the West Bank and Gaza. Continued travel restrictions impeded the movements of Muslims and Christians between the West Bank and Jerusalem. The PA released in January an individual holding a Jerusalem identification card whom Palestinian courts had found guilty of participating in the sale of land in Jerusalem to Israelis, and who had been sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. The Israeli government stated that authorities maintained a zero-tolerance policy against what it described as “Israeli extremists’ attacks” on Palestinians and made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank. During the first six months of the year, Israeli police had investigated 31 allegations of nationalistic-based offenses committed by Israelis in the West Bank and 87 allegations against Palestinians. Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling Fatah political movement, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence, at times referring to assailants as “martyrs.” The Fatah branch in the city of Salfit in March praised Omar Abu Laila – suspected of carrying out an attack in which two Israelis were killed – following his killing by Israeli security forces. Anti-Semitic content also appeared in Fatah and PA-controlled media. The PA and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed while engaged in violence, including killings against Israeli Jews. They also continued to provide separate stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism. Both the European Union and Norwegian parliaments called for funding restrictions to the Palestinian Ministry of Education if incitement to violence and anti-Semitism were not removed from Palestinian textbooks. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a report in August 2019 that expressed concern for the first time about “hate speech in certain media outlets, especially those controlled by Hamas, social media, public officials’ statements, and school curricula and textbooks, which fuels hatred and may incite violence, particularly hate speech against Israelis, which at times also fuels anti-Semitism.” In his September UN General Assembly (UNGA) remarks, President Abbas said, “We… reaffirm our condemnation of terrorism in all its forms….” However, he concluded, “We salute our honorable martyrs, courageous prisoners and wounded heroes, and salute their resilient families whom we will not [abandon].” Senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders condemned violent acts, including property crimes, by Jewish individuals and groups against Palestinians. The European Union announced in March that it would conduct a review of new Palestinian school textbooks following a study that found them to be more radical than in the past and containing incitement and rejection of peace with Israel.
Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other extremist groups disseminated anti-Semitic materials and advocated violence through traditional and social media channels, as well as during rallies and other events. Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia.
In some cases, Palestinian and Israeli perpetrators justified incidents of violence on religious grounds. Palestinians violently clashed with Israeli security forces in multiple instances when Jewish groups visited Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. On two occasions, Israeli security forces prevented attempts to detonate explosive devices when Jewish worshipers visited the Tomb. In June and October, unknown persons also threw explosive devices at Rachel’s Tomb from the West Bank. Various Israeli and Palestinian groups continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation. Some Jewish settlers in the West Bank continued to justify “price tag” attacks on Palestinians and their property as efforts to obtain compensation for government actions against the settlers, or as necessary for the defense of Judaism. According to a report by the Israeli MOJ, Israeli officials, including high-ranking politicians and senior officials from law-enforcement bodies, have declared an unequivocal zero-tolerance policy towards “price-tag” offenses by Israelis against Palestinians.
Senior U.S. officials publicly raised concerns about anti-Semitism by PA officials and more broadly in Palestinian society throughout the year. Senior White House officials and other U.S. officials repeatedly pointed out that Palestinian leaders did not consistently condemn individual terrorist attacks nor speak out publicly against members of their institutions, including Fatah, who advocated violence. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and other senior officials advocated with Israeli authorities to issue permits for Gazans to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank for religious reasons. U.S. government representatives, including the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, met with Palestinian religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and a broad range of issues affecting Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities. They met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote interreligious tolerance and cooperation. U.S. representatives met with representatives of religious groups to monitor their concerns about access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship, and also met with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about ongoing Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total Palestinian population at 2.8 million in the West Bank and 1.9 million in the Gaza Strip (midyear 2019 estimates). According to the U.S. government and other sources, Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims, with small Shia and Ahmadi Muslim communities. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reports an estimated 427,000 Jewish Israelis reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to various estimates, 50,000 Christian Palestinians reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and according to media reports and religious communities, there are at most 1,000 Christians residing in Gaza. According to local Christian leaders, Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at rapid rates. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder includes Roman Catholics, Melkite Greek Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Maronites, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, other Protestant denominations, including evangelical Christians, and small numbers of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christians are concentrated primarily in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus; smaller communities exist elsewhere. Approximately 360 Samaritans (practitioners of Samaritanism, which is related to but distinct from Judaism) reside in the West Bank, primarily in the Nablus area.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
West Bank and the Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities. Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and in the relevant areas, PA law. Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the Military Commander and Israeli law and legislation. Palestinians living in the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord are subject to military ordinances enacted by the military commander. Palestinians who live in Area B fall under PA civil and criminal law, while Israel retains the overriding responsibility for security. Although per the Oslo II Accord, only PA civil and security law applies to Palestinians living in Area A of the West Bank, Israel applies military ordinances enacted by its military commander whenever the Israeli military enters Area A, as part of its overriding responsibility for security. The city of Hebron in the West Bank – an important city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians as the site of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs – is divided into two separate areas: area H1 under PA control and area H2, where approximately 800 Israeli settlers live and where internal security, public order, and civil authorities relating to Israelis and their property are under Israeli military control.
In 2007, Hamas staged a violent takeover of PA government installations in the Gaza Strip and has since maintained a de facto government in the territory, although the area nominally falls under PA jurisdiction.
An interim Basic Law applies in the areas under PA jurisdiction. The Basic Law states Islam is the official religion, but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.” It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. It criminalizes the publishing of writings, pictures, drawings, or symbols, of anything that insults the religious feelings or beliefs of other persons. The Basic Law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. The law states the principles of sharia shall be the main sources of legislation. It contains language adopted from the pre-1967 criminal code of Jordanian rule that criminalizes “defaming religion,” with a maximum penalty of life in prison. Since 2007, the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, controlled by Hamas, has not convened. The Palestinian Constitutional Court dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council in December 2018 and called for new elections. The President of the PA promulgates executive decrees that have legal authority.
There is no specified process by which religious organizations gain official recognition; each religious group must negotiate its own bilateral relationship with the PA. The PA observes nineteenth century status quo arrangements reached with the Ottoman authorities, which recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Catholic Churches. The PA also observes subsequent agreements that recognize the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) and Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The PA recognizes the legal authority of these religious groups to adjudicate personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Recognized religious groups may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities. The PA’s Ministry of Religious Affairs is administratively responsible for these family law issues.
Islamic or Christian religious courts handle legal matters relating to personal status, including inheritance, marriage, dowry, divorce, and child support. For Muslims, sharia determines personal status law, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians. By law, members of one religious group may submit a personal status dispute to a different religious group for adjudication if the disputants agree it is appropriate to do so.
The PA maintains some unwritten understandings with churches that are not officially recognized, based on the basic principles of the status quo agreements, including the Assemblies of God, Nazarene Church, and some evangelical Christian churches, which may operate freely. Some of these groups may perform some official functions such as issuing marriage licenses. Churches not recognized by the PA generally must obtain special one-time permission from the PA to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters if these groups want the actions to be recognized by and registered with the PA. These churches may not proselytize.
By law, the PA provides financial support to Islamic institutions and places of worship. A PA religious committee also provides some financial support for Christian cultural activities.
The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Oslo Accords) stipulated that protection of 12 listed Jewish holy sites and visitors in Area A is the responsibility of the Palestinian police, and created a joint security coordination mechanism to ensure “free, unimpeded and secure access to the relevant Jewish holy site” and “the peaceful use of such site, to prevent any potential instances of disorder and to respond to any incident.” Both sides agreed to “respect and protect the listed below religious rights of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Samaritans” including “protection of the Holy Sites; free access to the Holy Sites; and freedom of worship and practice.”
Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates, as well as some Palestinian schools in Jerusalem that use the PA curriculum. There are separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses. Recognized churches operate private schools in the West Bank, which include religious instruction. Private Islamic schools also operate in the West Bank.
Palestinian law provides that in the defunct 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, six seats be allocated to Christian candidates, who also have the right to contest other seats. There are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group. A 2017 presidential decree requires that Christians head nine municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for the same, plus one additional municipal council.
PA land laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to “any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf.” While Israeli law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority, which administers the 93 percent of Israeli land in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.
Although the PA removed the religious affiliation category from Palestinian identity cards issued in 2014, older identity cards continue to circulate, listing the holder as either Muslim or Christian.
Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Media reported the PA released in January an individual holding an Israeli residency card that Palestinian courts had found guilty of “seizing/tearing away part of the Palestinian Territories to a foreign State” – participating in a land sale in Jerusalem to Israelis – and who had been sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. Palestinian authorities arrested the defendant in 2018 for his involvement in the sale of a property in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter owned by Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini, the representative of a Muslim family historically entrusted with safeguarding the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
On July 10, Israeli authorities arrested four individuals suspected of planning to plant an explosive device at Joseph’s Tomb prior to the arrival of 1,200 Jewish worshippers. On July 29, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) neutralized a pipe bomb planted near Joseph’s Tomb and responded to rioters when attacked with stones and burning tires, reportedly resulting in injuries to 13 Palestinians.
Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating other instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests. In general, however, NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that arrests in religiously motivated crimes against Palestinians rarely led to indictments and convictions. The Israeli NGO Yesh Din also reported Palestinian victims generally feared reprisals by perpetrators or their associates. Both of these factors increased Palestinian victims’ reluctance to file official complaints, according to Yesh Din.
On April 25, a clash occurred in the majority Christian West Bank town of Jifna, near Ramallah, between town residents and armed persons media reported were affiliated with a faction of the Fatah political party. Some of the armed individuals demanded the Christians pay jizya, a historical Muslim poll tax, the Begin-Sadat Center reported.
The Israeli government stated that authorities maintained a zero-tolerance policy against what it described as “Israeli extremists’ attacks” on Palestinians and made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, including through task forces, increased funding, and hiring additional staff members. During the first six months of the year, in the West Bank, Israeli police investigated 31 allegations of what the MOJ described as involving “ideologically-based” offenses by Israelis, 21 of which involved “nationalistic-based” and public order offenses against Palestinians and others (e.g., the police or IDF) and 87 such allegations involving Palestinian offenses. This compared to 100 cases opened against Israelis during 2018, of which 68 were allegations of nationalistic-based offenses. By July Israeli authorities issued two indictments in these cases, including from prior years’ investigations. Offenses against property constituted 16 of these cases. Israeli authorities investigated four cases of Israelis allegedly physically assaulting Palestinians.
According to local human rights groups and media, Israeli authorities rarely prosecuted Jewish suspects in attacks against Muslims and Christians, failing to open investigations or closing cases for lack of evidence. The Israeli government stated it had made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, which led to a decrease in ideologically based offenses and an increase in the numbers of investigations and rates of prosecution.
Attacks by Israeli citizens, some of whom asserted their right to settle in what they stated is the historic Jewish homeland in the West Bank, continued, as well as Palestinian attacks on settlers. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported 816 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2019, and140 Palestinians injured. In 2018, UNOCHA reported 712 attacks, and 195 Palestinians injured. In 2019 UNOCHA reported 175 attacks by Palestinians against Israelis in the West Bank, with 34 Israeli injuries. In 2018, UNOCHA reported 397 attacks by Palestinians and 47 Israelis injured. In November Nadav Argaman, head of the Israel Security Agency, said that in 2019 the agency had prevented more than 450 “significant terrorist attacks.” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said terrorism in the West Bank in 2019 continued a multiyear trend of declining in number of incidents and causalities, due to efforts of Israeli security forces, security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and a disinterest by the general Palestinian population in the West Bank to “take a significant part in terrorism and protest activities against Israel.”
In 2018, Aysha al-Rabi, a Palestinian resident of Bidya Village, died when an unidentified individual threw a two-kilogram (4.4 pound) stone through her car windshield. Israeli authorities announced in January they had arrested five suspected perpetrators, yeshiva students from the nearby settlement of Rehelim. Authorities arraigned one of those arrested in May on a charge of manslaughter; at year’s end, he remained under house arrest awaiting trial. The other four were conditionally released in January due to a lack of evidence. At year’s end, the case remained under investigation.
PA President Abbas granted legal recognition on October 30 to the Council of Local Evangelical Churches, a coalition of evangelical churches operating in the West Bank and Gaza. The presidential decree authorized the council to issue civil documents for members such as birth and marriage certificates. The decree also allowed the churches to have legal rights, open financial accounts, and possess property rights. It permits members of the churches to address family matters, such as divorce and child custody, in the Christian religious court system most affiliated with them.
The PA continued to provide imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and to prohibit them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.
The PA recognized Easter as a public holiday for government employees, after a public outcry in 2018 when it was only given as a holiday to Christian public servants.
Unrecognized religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a continued PA ban on proselytization but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered. Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis personal status documents issued by unrecognized churches. The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents (e.g., marriage certificates) issued by some of these unrecognized churches, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples. Many unrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad to register the action officially in that location. Some converts to unrecognized Christian faiths had recognized churches with which they were previously affiliated perform their marriages and divorces. Members of some faith communities and faith-based organizations stated they viewed their need to do so as conflicting with their religious beliefs. During the year, Palestinian authorities established a procedure for registering future marriages involving Jehovah’s Witnesses that would also enable couples to register their children and protect the children’s inheritance rights.
Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem continued to state that the security barrier begun by Israel during the Second Intifada (2000-2005) impeded their work, particularly south of Jerusalem in West Bank Christian communities around Bethlehem. Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints restricted their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship. Christian leaders continued to state the barrier hindered Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They also said it made visits to Christian sites in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who lived on the west side of the barrier. Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers also reported difficulty or delays accessing Christian religious sites in the West Bank because of the barrier. The Israeli government previously stated it constructed the barrier as an act of self-defense, and that it was highly effective in preventing terrorist attacks in Israel.
Christian expatriate workers in Israeli settlements complained that lack of public transportation on Saturdays prevented them from participating in religious activities and worship in Jerusalem.
Bethlehem residents said political instability affected tourism, Bethlehem’s key economic sector. Christians also criticized the PA for failing to better protect their communities and way of life, which was under pressure from lack of economic opportunities and other drivers of emigration. During the year, Bethlehem had the highest unemployment rate among West Bank cities, which sources stated was a factor compelling many young Christians to emigrate. Community leaders estimated Bethlehem and surrounding communities were only 12 percent Christian, compared with more than 70 percent in 1950, and 23 percent in 1998.
President Abbas said on Palestinian media on March 24, “We want to achieve our right and our state peacefully…We will not choose a path other than negotiations to achieve our right.” According to Palestinian media, however, based on a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Abbas said on August 10 while visiting a refugee camp, “Jerusalem is ours whether they like it or not…We shall enter Jerusalem – millions of fighters! We shall enter it! All of us, the entire Palestinian people, the entire Arab nation, the Islamic nation, and the Christian nation…They shall all enter Jerusalem…We shall remain, and nobody can remove us from our homeland. If they want, they themselves can leave. Those who are foreign to this land have no right to it. So we say to them: Every stone you [used] to build on our land and every house you have built on our land is bound to be destroyed, Allah willing…No matter how many houses and how many settlements they declare that they [plan to build] here and there – they shall all be destroyed, Allah willing.”
Palestinian leaders, media and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with security forces. Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, and terrorist organizations glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.” On April 27, Omar Yunis allegedly attempted to carry out a stabbing attack on an IDF unit, whereupon Israeli soldiers shot and killed him. Fatah published on its official Facebook page a poster of Yunis referring to him as a “martyr.” Several local Fatah chapters on social media referred to individuals who had engaged in terrorist attacks as “martyrs” and posted memorials, including photographs of suicide bombers. The Fatah branch in the city of Salfit in March praised Omar Abu Laila – suspected of carrying out a terrorist attack in which two Israelis were killed – following his killing by Israeli security forces, and referred to him as a “martyr.” The Fatah Bethlehem Chapter in January commemorated the 1979 “martyrdom” of Ali Hassan Salameh, who was connected with the attack against the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics among other violent attacks.
The PA and the PLO continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed during terrorist acts, as well as stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism. Such payments and separate stipends were initiated by the PLO in 1965 and have continued under the PA since the signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel. PA President Abbas reiterated support would continue for the families of the prisoners and “martyrs.” In accordance with the July 2018 Israeli Deduction Law – which states that Israel must deduct that portion of the revenues it collects for the PA equal to the expenditures by the PA in the previous year for payments to families of people killed, injured, or imprisoned for attacks on Israel – Israel withheld the monthly sum equal to what the PA paid to them (approximately 41.8 million shekels –$12.1 million) from its monthly clearance transfers to the PA. The PA subsequently in March refused to accept any of the remaining approximately 496 million shekels ($144 million) in tax revenues from Israel, which altogether represented approximately 65 percent of the PA’s budget. As the PA’s fiscal situation worsened, Israel and the PA eventually reached an agreement on October 5 for the PA to accept most of the taxes Israel collected on the PA’s behalf. In December Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced that the Israeli government would begin withholding an additional 149 million shekels ($43.1 million) annually from PA revenues for payments to families of Palestinians who were wounded or died while committing terrorist acts or in connection with terrorism. The PA stated that these payments were social payments for families who lost their primary breadwinner. The Israeli government stated that the payments incentivized, encouraged, and rewarded terrorism, with higher monthly payments for lengthier prison sentences tied to more severe crimes.
The PA Ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs continued to pay for construction of new mosques, maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank. The ministry also continued to provide limited financial support to some Christian clergy and Christian charitable organizations.
Israeli officials demolished a mosque under construction near Hebron in area C September 2 for lacking an Israeli building permit, according to UNOCHA and media reports. UNOCHA estimated the mosque would have served approximately 300 community members.
The Israeli government and the PA sometimes prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting Jewish religious sites in PA-controlled territory in the West Bank for security reasons, due to the threat of tensions and violence between Palestinian protestors and the visitors. The Kohlet Policy Forum, an Israeli NGO, assessed that the obligation to provide free access to Jewish religious sites in PA-administered areas of the West Bank lay entirely with the PA under Oslo II and that the PA had failed to fulfill that obligation.
An Israeli NGO reported in August that Israeli authorities and settlers prohibited access by Palestinians to several mosques in the West Bank located within Israeli settlements. Israeli authorities declared all legal settlements as restricted Israeli military zones. Palestinians were unable to visit them without Israeli government approval.
The government continued to discourage Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A), with large road signs warning Israelis against entering these areas and stating it was dangerous for Israelis and against Israeli law to do so. Some Israelis chose to privately visit Area A, without repercussions. While these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting several Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A under Palestinian control, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Some Jewish religious leaders said this policy limiting travel to parts of the West Bank prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several religious sites in the West Bank, including Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than permitted through IDF coordination. IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were necessary to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety. Palestinian and Israeli security forces coordinated some visits by Jewish groups to PA-controlled areas within the West Bank, which generally took place at night to limit the chance of confrontations with Palestinians who opposed the visit.
Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C, remained separated from the West Bank by the security barrier built during the Second Intifada, and Palestinians could only access it if Israeli authorities permitted them to cross the barrier. Residents and citizens of Israel continued to have relatively unimpeded access. Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays, for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat). In June and October unknown individuals threw explosive devices at the shrine from the West Bank.
The IDF continued occasionally to limit access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, another site of significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham. Palestinian leaders continued in statements to local media to oppose the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo-era agreements that gave Israel and the PA shared administrative responsibility for the site, although Israel retained full security responsibility for it. Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site. The IDF again restricted Muslim access during the 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays, and Jewish access during the 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays. The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point, manned by soldiers and metal detectors, while granting Jews access via several entry points that lacked security screening. Citing security concerns, the IDF periodically closed roads approaching the site, and since 2001 has permanently closed Shuhada Street, the former main Hebron market and one of the main streets leading to the holy site, to Palestinian-owned vehicles. The government said the closure was done to prevent confrontations. Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously in separate spaces, a physical separation that was instituted by the IDF following a 1994 attack by an Israeli that killed 29 Palestinians. Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Islamic call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, stating the government acted upon requests by Jewish religious leaders in Hebron in response to requests of Jewish worshippers at the site.
In his September UNGA remarks, President Abbas said “We… reaffirm our condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and sources.” However, he concluded, “We salute our honorable martyrs, courageous prisoners, and wounded heroes, and salute their resilient families, whom we will not [abandon].” He also said Israel is “[attempting] to violate the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” and to deny worshipers access to the holy sites. Following an August 15 terrorist attack near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, Israeli authorities briefly closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif while conducting a security search. On August 19, President Abbas’s Advisor on Religious Affairs and Chief Justice of the Sharia Court Mahmoud al-Habbash said the closure was a “declaration of war against Islam and the Muslims,” and he called on Muslims to “religiously defend” the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the PA official news agency WAFA reported.
The PA’s Palestinian Broadcasting Company’s code of conduct states it does not allow programming that encourages “violence against any person or institution on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs, or sex.” Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling political movement Fatah, however, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence against Jews. Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media. On October 7, a host on the program The Cause in the Egyptian Halls broadcast on PA TV, summarized a commentator’s remarks by saying that Israeli authorities were creating “a forgery of history” in respect to Jewish history in Jerusalem. On October 6, a guest speaker on another program on PA television, Palestine This Morning, said the children of Israel [Jewish people] were historically never present in the “land of Palestine.” On July 7, official Palestinian television aired a speech by Jordanian Ibrahim Badran describing Israel as “a barbaric, racist state that has outdone what Hitler did.” In March, the PA official daily newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida published an opinion piece which made anti-Semitic remarks regarding prominent U.S. Jewish officials, according to the National Council of Young Israel. On February 10, on social media, Fatah Central Committee Secretary Jibril Rajoub protested a conference on peace and security in the Middle East by describing the meeting as part of “a plan to carry out a ‘holocaust’ against this [Palestinian] cause.” Media reported that Fatah preemptively restricted access to its official Facebook page in September so it could only be viewed by those expressly invited due to concerns that the site would be shut down because of its content.
Both Palestinians and Israelis evoked ethnoreligious language to deny the historical self-identity of the other community in the region. On July 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on social media, “The Palestinians’ connection to the Land of Israel is nothing compared to the 4,000-year connection the Jewish people have with the land.” On August 26, official PA television broadcast an interview with the PA minister of culture in which he said the State of Israel “came out of nowhere, without a history and without geography.”
Anti-Semitic, militaristic, and other adversarial content continued to be directed against Israel in Palestinian textbooks, while references to Judaism were absent in the context of discussions of other religious, according to Palestinian Media Watch and the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se). The European Union announced in March that it would conduct a review of new Palestinian school textbooks following a study that found them to be more radical than in the past and containing incitement and rejection of peace with Israel. IMPACT-se reported in September that PA schoolbooks for the 2019-2020 school year contained material glorifying terror and promoting violence, with a “systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom, and jihad across all grades and subjects.” The Jerusalem-based Center for Near East Policy Research reported in August that PA teacher guides published in 2016-18 delegitimize Jews’ presence, and demonize Jews as “aggressive, barbarous, full of hate, and bent on extermination,” and “enemies of Islam since its early days.”
Both the European Union and Norwegian parliaments called for funding restrictions to the Palestinian Ministry of Education if incitement and anti-Semitism were not removed from Palestinian textbooks. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a report in August that expressed concern for the first time about “hate speech in certain media outlets, especially those controlled by Hamas, social media, public officials’ statements, and school curricula and textbooks, which fuels hatred and may incite violence, particularly hate speech against Israelis, which at times also fuels anti-Semitism.”
Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the ministers of culture, justice, and religious affairs. The government stated the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), a government entity, conducted impartial evaluations of all unearthed archeological finds, and the IAA was obligated by law to document, preserve, and publish all findings from excavations. It added that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research on ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk and Ottoman periods.” Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in the West Bank continued to state the IAA exploited archaeological finds to bolster Jewish claims, while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds involving other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites. In July an Israeli court ruled that administration of the Tel Shiloh site could remain under the control of the Benjamin district council, with involvement of the Israeli Civil Administration in the site’s management, instead of direct administration by Israeli authorities. Israeli NGOs Emek Sheveh and Yesh Din had filed the case, arguing that the site under the administration of the district council focused on its Jewish heritage and did not give sufficient weight to its Christian and Islamic history. Tel Shiloh is identified with the site of ancient Jewish worship before the construction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The ruins of a Byzantine Church are also located there, and sources stated that it also has significance for some Messianic beliefs in Christianity, as well as some Islamic attachment.
The Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in the West Bank, regulations Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy and other religious workers from entering and working. The government continued to limit Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank to single-entry visas, which local parish leaders said complicated needed travel to other areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem, such as Jordan. Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries said they continued to face long delays in receiving visas and reported periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated visa delays or denials were due to security processing, and visitors from states without diplomatic relations with Israeli could face delays. Officials from multiple churches expressed concerns that non-Arab visa applicants and visa-renewal applicants also faced long delays. While Christian clergy generally were able to obtain visas, Christian leaders said Israel’s visa and permit policy adversely affected schoolteachers and volunteers affiliated with faith-based charities working in the West Bank. Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians to exit Gaza to attend religious services in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Christian leaders said Israel issued insufficient permits to meet the full demand, and the process was lengthy and time consuming.
According to some church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority, from entering Gaza. Israel facilitated visits by clergy, including bishops from non-Arab countries, to Gaza on multiple occasions.
At year’s end, Christians held minister-level positions in three PA ministries (Finance and Health, plus Tourism, traditionally occupied by a Christian) and the cabinet-level office of deputy prime minister for public information.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
There were incidents of deadly violence that perpetrators justified at least partly on religious grounds. Actions included killings, physical attacks and verbal harassment of worshipers and clergy, and vandalism of religious sites. There was also harassment by members of one religious group of another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and anti-Semitic content in media.
On March 18, a Palestinian shot and killed Rabbi Achiad Ettinger and an Israeli soldier and wounded another soldier near the West Bank settlement of Ariel. On August 8, an Israeli soldier in a religious studies program was abducted and killed while returning to his yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Ofra. On August 23, media reported that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine detonated an explosive device at a popular tourist site near the West Bank settlement of Dolev, injuring a rabbi and his son and killing his daughter.
Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited holy sites where freedom of access was guaranteed by the PA in the Oslo Accords in the West Bank, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. Palestinians threw stones and Molotov cocktails and clashed with IDF escorts during visits of Jewish groups to Joseph’s Tomb (located in Area A) on several days during the year. The IDF used tear gas, rubber bullets, and live fire to disperse Palestinian protesters, secure the site, or evacuate Jewish worshippers. On two occasions, Israeli security forces prevented attempts to detonate explosive devices when Jewish worshipers visited the Tomb. In June and October, unknown persons also threw explosive devices at Rachel’s Tomb from the West Bank. Media reported in October that vandals spray painted swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans on the tomb of Joshua Bin-Nun and Kalev Ben Yefune, in the Palestinian village of Kafel Harath (located in Area A), prior to an IDF coordinated visit by Jewish worshippers.
According to local press and social media, some settlers in the West Bank continued to justify their attacks on Palestinian property, or “price tag” attacks, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, as necessary for the defense of Judaism. Israeli officials, including high-ranking politicians and senior officials from law-enforcement bodies, have declared an unequivocal zero-tolerance policy towards the phenomenon of “price tag” offenses by pro-settlement Israelis against Palestinians.
Media reported that NGO Tag Meir, which monitors hate crimes, expressed concern in April after Rabbi Shlomo Avenir of Beit El in the West Bank wrote on a website that burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was “a divine punishment against Christianity,” and that there was a religious duty (“mitzvah”) for Jews to burn Christian churches in Israel, but that it was not worth doing as they would simply be rebuilt.
According to members of more recently arrived faith communities in the West Bank, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, established Christian groups opposed the efforts of the recent arrivals to obtain official PA recognition because of the newcomers’ proselytizing.
Political and religious groups in the West Bank and Gaza continued to call on members to “defend” Al-Aqsa Mosque.
According to the NGO Middle East Media Research Institute, Maryam Abu Moussa, identified as a “Gaza Return Activist,” told a foreign television network that Palestinians would soon bury the Jews in “the ditches of Hitler.” She added that when Hitler ordered the Russians to dig ditches to bury the Jews in World War II, they refused to do so because they were “humane.” Conversely, she said when Hitler ordered the Jews to bury the Russians in ditches, “they did so immediately.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that burial of its members remained challenging since most cemeteries belong to churches. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said the challenge was greatest in Bethlehem, where churches from the main traditions control most graveyards and refused access to them.
According to Palestinian sources, some Christian and Muslim families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip pressured their children, especially daughters, to marry within their respective religious groups. Couples who challenged this societal norm, particularly Palestinian Christians or Muslims who sought to marry Jews, encountered considerable societal and family opposition. Families sometimes reportedly disowned Muslim and Christian women who married outside their faith. Various Israeli and Palestinian groups continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation.
According to polling information released in November by Arab Barometer, an international research consortium, “relatively few Palestinians favor a role for religion in politics.” Approximately three quarters (73 percent) of Palestinians (74 percent in the West Bank and 73 percent in Gaza) said they agreed or strongly agreed that religious leaders should not interfere in voters decisions in elections.” The survey stated, “A considerable proportion (53 percent overall; 49 percent in the West Bank and 59 percent in Gaza) think that laws in Palestine should be either mostly or entirely based on the sharia.” Most Palestinians (45 percent in the West Bank and 51 percent in Gaza) said they believed that the most essential aspect of a government that applies sharia is a system without corruption, and 32 percent of respondents in both the West Bank and Gaza said that a government implementing sharia is one that provides basic services such as health facilities, schools, garbage collection, and road maintenance. Only 8 percent in the West Bank and 14 percent in Gaza said that the most essential aspect of the sharia was a government that used physical punishments to make sure people obey the law, and 3 percent in the West Bank and 2 percent in Gaza said that government employing sharia should restrict women’s roles in public. The report concluded: “These results suggest that people conceptualize sharia based on instrumentalist characteristics, improving public services and preventing misappropriation of sources.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Senior White House and other U.S. officials publicly raised concerns about anti-Semitism by PA officials and more broadly in Palestinian society throughout the year. Senior White House officials and other U.S. officials repeatedly and publicly pointed out that Palestinian leaders did not consistently condemn individual terrorist attacks nor speak out publicly against members of their institutions, including Fatah, who advocated violence. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and other senior officials advocated with Israeli authorities to issue permits for Gazans to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank for religious reasons.
U.S. government representatives, including the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, met with representatives of a range of religious groups from Jerusalem, the West Bank, and when possible, the Gaza Strip. Engagement included meetings with Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Reform rabbis, as well as representatives of various Jewish institutions; regular contacts with the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Armenian Orthodox patriarchates; and meetings with the Holy See’s Custodian of the Holy Land, leaders of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and leaders of evangelical Christian groups, as well as Muslim community leaders. U.S. government representatives also met with political and civil society leaders to promote tolerance and cooperation to combat religious prejudice. These meetings included discussions of the groups’ concerns about religious tolerance, access to religious sites, respect for clergy, attacks on religious sites and houses of worship, as well as concerns by local Christian leaders about ongoing Christian emigration from the West Bank and Gaza.
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