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Algeria

Executive Summary

The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. In a constitutional referendum passed on November 1 and effective December 30, voters approved a new constitution that removes language providing for “freedom of conscience.” Christian leaders expressed concern the change could lead to greater government persecution of religious minorities. In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law. In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi Muslim leader to two years’ imprisonment on “unauthorized gathering” charges that followed a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. On December 22, a court in Tizi Ouzou sentenced four Ahmadis to two months’ suspended sentences and 20,000-dinar ($150) fines while releasing 27 other Ahmadis whom authorities arrested in November. Lawyers for the Ahmadis said their clients were arrested for “disseminating leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” There were 220 cases pertaining to Ahmadi Muslims pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end, mostly involving unauthorized gatherings. Ahmadi religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. The Ministry of Justice completed, but did not release, an investigation into the 2019 death following a 60-day hunger strike in pretrial detention of Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar. A court sentenced a prominent opposition leader active in mass popular demonstrations (known as the hirak) to 10 years in prison and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600) on charges of denigrating Islam following a raid on his house, during which police found a damaged Quran. The 18 Christian churches affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) and closed by the government since 2017 all remain closed. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work. Catholic leaders in Algiers reported the government refused to renew the residency permit of a Catholic priest in Tamanrasset, citing a meeting with foreign officials.

Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. In April, the press reported that the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.” Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.” Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they consider government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed with them the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers focused on pluralism and religious moderation in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups as well as with other members of the public. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance, although COVID-19 pandemic restrictions curtailed some of these activities during the year.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school. Religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims reside principally in the Province of Ghardaia. Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.

The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the EPA, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000. According to the Christian advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Christian Concern, there are approximately 600,000 Christians. According to government officials and religious leaders, foreign residents make up most of the Christian population. Among the Christian population, the proportion of students and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa without legal status has also increased in recent years. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.

Christians reside mostly in Algiers and the Provinces of Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, Ouargla, and Oran.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable. The new constitution, passed in a November 1 national referendum and effective December 30, removed language from the previous constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience. The previous constitution says, “Freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion shall be inviolable. Freedom of worship shall be guaranteed in compliance with the law.” The new constitution’s language reads, “The freedom of opinion is inviolable. The freedom to exercise worship is guaranteed if it is exercised in accordance with the law. The state ensures the protection of places of worship from any political or ideological influence.”

The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($7,600) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training…or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.

The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($380-$760) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.

The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations.

The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The President appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the President on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals and correct understanding of the religion. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the President.

The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. Under the Associations Law passed in 2012, the government required all organizations previously registered to reregister. The Ministry of Interior grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. The ministry registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; provide police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; demonstrate they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters.

The law requires the Ministry of Interior to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all required documentation. The ministry has 60 days to respond to applicants following the submission of a completed application. If the ministry does not respond within the 60-day timeframe, the application is automatically approved, and the receipt may be used as proof of registration. If the ministry considers the application incomplete, it does not issue a receipt for the application. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) has the right to review registration applications of religious associations, but the Ministry of Interior makes the final decision. The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.

The National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, a government entity, facilitates the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the committee, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs; the presidency; national police; national gendarmerie; and the governmental National Human Rights Council (CNDH).

The constitution requires a presidential candidate to be Muslim. Under the law, non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.

The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion. Membership in the Islamic Salvation Front, a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal.

The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Islamic or otherwise, must take place. The law states that religious demonstrations are subject to regulation, and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. Except for daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques.

Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, be run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Islamic religious events must be submitted to the relevant governor at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The individuals identified as the event’s organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali. The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would endanger public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or “symbols of the revolution.” If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, police may disperse the participants. Individuals who fail to disperse at the behest of police are subject to arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.

The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($760) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,500) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge.” The law states that such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.

By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel as well as for health care and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.

The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts and items, except those intended for personal use. Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.

The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” A 2017 decree established a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran. The decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information about the applicant and text. The ministry has three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application. A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.

The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.

The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam, although authorities do not always enforce this provision. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women. Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion. In the event of a divorce, a court determines the custody of any children.

The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk closure.

The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.

In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law.

The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the CNDH to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The CNDH may address religious concerns to appropriate government offices on behalf of individuals or groups it believes are not being treated fairly. The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions, but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court. It submits an annual report to the President, who appoints the committee’s members.

The government does not register religious affiliations of the citizenry and does not print religious affiliations on documents such as national identification cards.

By law, individuals who convert from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities unrelated to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.

Mohamed Fali, the former head of the country’s Ahmadi Muslim community, remained in Morocco, having fled there to seek asylum in December 2019. He told the online Moroccan news outlet Yabiladi that he fled to escape religious persecution from the MRA and Ministry of Justice and said he had seven pending charges related to his faith. In September 2017, authorities arrested and charged Fali with unauthorized fundraising, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and forming an unauthorized association. Courts convicted Fali and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison term. Authorities seized his passport upon his conviction, but the government returned it in 2019, and he fled the country.

In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi leader to two years imprisonment for charges related to a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. Authorities agreed to the officers’ meeting with the Ahmadi leaders at that time, but then arrested all seven of the Ahmadi participants on charges of “unauthorized gathering” after the meeting ended. In response, the Ahmadis said that they are nonviolent Muslims who want to cooperate with the government and that the meeting was intended to open a dialogue between Ahmadis and the government. In December, authorities convicted the other six Ahmadi Muslims of the same offenses.

On November 24, a court in Tizi Ouzou summoned a group of 31 Ahmadi Muslims for what their lawyers described as “the dissemination of leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” The lawyers said that authorities had arrested their clients for their Ahmadi beliefs. In the December 22 trial, the court sentenced four of the defendants to two-month suspended prison terms and fines of 20,000 dinars ($150) while releasing the remaining 27 Ahmadis.

In August, Ahmadi leaders reported authorities summoned a member of their community in Adrar and questioned him about his religious beliefs. Police searched his home and confiscated his computer, telephone, personal notes, and his Quran, which the authorities held as evidence for a future trial on unspecified charges.

On September 30, police searched the home of well-known opposition hirak activist Yacine Mebarki and arrested him after finding an old copy of the Quran with one of its pages ripped. The police charged Mebarki in connection with the damaged Quran, accusing him of inciting atheism, offending or denigrating the dogma and precepts of Islam, and undermining national unity. On October 8, a court sentenced Mebarki to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600). His lawyers said Mebarki stated he was a Muslim advocating for secularism and democracy.

In April, authorities arrested Hirak activist Walid Kechida in Setif Province and charged him with insulting the President and “offending the precepts of Islam” on Facebook. The government referred his case to the criminal court for trial. At year’s end, he remained in detention awaiting trial.

On December 15, a court in Amizour convicted Abdelghani Mameri, a Copt who promoted Christianity, for insulting the Prophet Muhammad and denigrating Islam. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($760). On December 3, the same court tried Mabrouk Bouakkaz, also known as Yuva, who was a Christian convert. The prosecution asked for a sentence of six months in prison and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,500) on the same charges as Mameri. According to social media, on December 17, the court sentenced Bouakkaz to three years imprisonment.

Ahmadi leaders stated there were 220 cases against community members pending with the Supreme Court at the end of the year. Charges included insulting the Prophet Muhammad, operating and belonging to an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, burning the Quran, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. Community representatives said that in some cases, police confiscated passports, educational diplomas, and approximately 40 laptops and 400 books. Among these cases, employers placed Ahmadi Muslims who were under investigation on administrative leave, and the government dismissed 20 public sector teachers and doctors. Ahmadi representatives stated they believed these individuals would appear before the Supreme Court in the next three to six years and that in the meantime, they would be prohibited from working. The government confined Ahmadi Muslims with pending cases to their wilayas and required they physically report to the local court once a week.

During the year, the Ministry of Justice completed an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of prominent Berber Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar in 2019 but did not release the findings publicly. Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike while in pretrial detention. Authorities arrested him on charges of “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices against Ibadi Muslims.

NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging the completed registration application submitted by the community to the government in 2012, to reregister the group under the 2012 Associations Law. Ahmadis also reported they had not received a government response to their outstanding 2018 request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns.

The Ahmadi community continued to report administrative difficulties and harassment since the community is not a registered association and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations. Members of the community said, after their initial attempt in 2012, the community again tried to reregister with the MRA and Ministry of Interior as a Muslim group in 2016 and in 2020, but the government refused to accept those applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis said they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.

The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church had yet to receive responses from the Ministry of Interior regarding their 2012 applications to renew their registrations. Both groups submitted paperwork to renew the registrations that had been issued prior to the passage of the 2012 Associations Law. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 application in 2015 and 2016 but was never reregistered despite several follow-ups with the government. Neither church received receipts for their registration attempts.

Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received a Ministry of Interior confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers such as utilities and banks refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.

Numerous Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration. A Christian NGO and Christian publication said there was no indication that the committee had ever met. They again stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment; the leaders attributed this to the emphasis of some Protestant groups on proselytizing and conversion, as well as to the EPA’s primarily Algerian composition.

The MRA said it does not view Ibadis as a minority group and considers the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community. Muslim scholars affirmed Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.

In January, Morning Star News reported that a pastor of an Oran church affiliated with the EPA received an order to close the church on January 11. Authorities originally ordered the church closed in 2017 because it was not registered with the government as an association. Following appeals, a court issued a judgment to close the church on November 10 but had not delivered the order to the church by year’s end, according to the pastor.

According to media reports and EPA statements, since 2017 the government closed at least 18 EPA churches, all of which remained closed. In August, the administrative court rejected the EPA’s request to reopen the EPA-affiliated Spring of Life church in Makouda, which the government closed in 2019 for hosting unauthorized gatherings. The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.

In December, an international group that described itself as being comprised “of organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates” signed a letter to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune regarding “violations of freedom of religion and belief of Christians in Algeria, including closure of numerous churches and a failure to renew the registration of the [EPA].” According to the letter, the government closed 13 churches and ordered seven more to close since 2018 because they lacked the required permit to hold non-Islamic worship services. The letter also stated that the National Committee for Non-Muslim Religious Worship, which is responsible for issuing permits, had not issued a single permit to EPA-affiliated churches.

In March, the government closed all places of worship as part of its COVID-19 response. In August, the MRA reopened larger mosques capable of supporting social distancing measures, although Friday prayer services remained limited to smaller, neighborhood mosques. Catholic and Anglican churches also reopened in August, but the government denied the EPA’s request to reopen its churches, including those which were closed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, the EPA submitted a complaint to the governor of Tizi Ouzou for closing its churches and requested permission to reopen, but local authorities ruled in the governor’s favor and denied the request. Seventh-day Adventists said they intended to reopen when mosques reopened fully.

Pastor Salah Chalah reported that the Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, remained closed. Police closed the church in October 2019.

Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the country’s primarily Berber Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.

According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.

MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited resources, it was unclear if the government continued the MRA’s stated practice of monitoring sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials in the past, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.

Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Seventh-day Adventists leaders reported they did not attempt to import religious literature during the year. Anglican leaders said most parishioners preferred to download the Bible and prayer applications on their cell phones rather than carry a physical Bible. Anglican leaders also reported it remained illegal to print copies of religious texts.

Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. In 2019, the government approved the first versions of the Quran in the Berber language, Tamazight, in the Arabic script.

The government continued to enforce its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

On November 1, voters approved a new constitution. According to the BBC, the major Islamic parties, including the Movement for the Society of Peace, the Movement for Justice and Development, and the Nahda Movement, said the proposed new constitution was “against the Islamic values of the Algerian society,” “a threat to the future of the nation,” and backed a “no” vote. The Association of Algerian Ulema expressed its reservations about some of the articles in the draft constitution before the vote, stating, “There is…ambiguity regarding issues such as freedom of worship, national unity, and language.” Christians stated that one change regarding religious freedom in the new constitution, the deletion of a reference guaranteeing the freedom of conscience, was concerning. As one Christian publication stated, unlike the previous constitution, “There is no more ‘freedom of conscience,’ possibly a way to stop churches and their members from discussing Christianity online or having web-based religious services.” Another stated that “the new constitution’s protection of places of worship means little, given the government’s track record regarding freedom of religion.” A representative of International Christian Concern told the U.S.-based website Crux, “This removal [of the freedom of conscience] is what worries many Christians as something which could cause future legal difficulties.”

Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.

The MRA required that couples present a government-issued marriage certificate before permitting imams to conduct religious marriage ceremonies.

According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

EPA leaders reported public and private institutions fired some of its members due to their Christian faith and that in the public sector, the government frequently withheld promotions from non-Muslims.

Both private and state-run media continued to produce reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.

Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. Catholic leaders continued to say their greatest issue with the government was the long and unpredictable wait times for religious workers’ visas. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as significantly hindering religious practice, although Anglican leadership reported they usually received visas in a timely manner. One religious leader again identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups. Catholic leaders in Algiers said the government denied a Tamanrasset-based priest’s residency renewal following his November 2019 meeting with foreign officials.

The government and public and private companies funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The Province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic, although many Amazigh Christians said they would prefer services to be broadcast in Tamazight. The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism included dedicated state-run religious television and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, state broadcasters aired religious programs countering extremism. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.

Religious and civil society leaders reported that the Jewish community faced unofficial, religion-based obstacles to government employment and administrative difficulties when working with government bureaucracy. The MRA said it had not received requests to reopen the synagogues that closed during the period of the country’s struggle for independence.

Government officials continued to invite prominent Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as Revolutionary Day celebrations at the People’s Palace on November 1.

Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.

In July, the Ministry of Education required teachers in the Province of Tizi Ouzou to report their religious affiliations. EPA leaders expressed concerns that Christian teachers could face religious persecution and employment discrimination, as teachers are public-sector employees.

Authorities arrested Houssame Hatri in Maghnia on July 23 and said they would try him for his role in a 2014 violent anti-Semitic attack on a young couple in Paris. In the 90-minute attack, Hatri and his companions subjected the couple to physical and verbal abuse, destroyed many Jewish religious objects in the couple’s apartment, and made jokes referring to the Holocaust. After arrest and trial in France in 2018, Hatri escaped and fled to Algeria. According to press reports, under the terms of an extradition agreement with France, authorities will try Hatri in Algeria and he will not face extradition. A French security source told AFP, “It’s a good signal.”

The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction. On October 28, the government opened the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. The Prime Minister and other officials attended the opening ceremony. According to press reports, the project cost one billion dollars and faced criticism for diverting funding from social needs and being a vanity project of former President Bouteflika. The seven-year construction work was completed in April, three years behind schedule.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Christian converts said they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community.

Several Christian leaders said some Muslims who converted or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity were assaulted by family members or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.

According to religious leaders, some individuals who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, pressured them to convert back to Islam, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.

Media criticized religious communities they portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they considered government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

Christian leaders continued to say when Christian converts died, family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued to prohibit Christians from being buried alongside Muslims. In these cases, Christians opted to be buried under Islamic rites so their remains could stay near those of their families.

In April, the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” According to the website Middle East Monitor, the posting sparked a wave of controversy, especially on social media, where some attacked him for interfering “in a purely religious issues only Islamic and medical scholars can tackle.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.”

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 16 percent of respondents in Algeria either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” the lowest percentage in the region, which compared with 65 percent regionwide. In contrast, 63 percent of Algerians either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 72 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, which was the highest level for a single country in the region and compared with a level of 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

Some Christian leaders stated they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment. Christian and Muslim leaders hosted each other during the year. EPA leaders reported Catholic and Muslim leaders sent letters in support of the EPA to the MRA. Other faiths privately expressed support to Protestant leaders, and the EPA reported excellent interfaith dialogue within the religious community. The EPA reported some local authorities expressed regret for church closures, but stated they were duty-bound to follow government directives, regardless of their personal opinions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. They also discussed church closures and jailed activists.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance and, in the case of religious minorities, their rights and legal status.

Embassy officials discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious and political roles of women with religious and political leaders as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and the High Islamic Council.

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states, “Freedom of belief is absolute” and “The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine [i.e., Abrahamic] religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states citizens “are equal before the law” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. On February 24, the government executed eight men at Borg al-Arab Prison in Alexandria for their role in attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, 2017, that resulted in 88 deaths. On June 2, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced seven defendants to 15 years’ imprisonment each for setting fire to the Kafr Hakim Church in Kerdasa in Giza Governorate in 2013. On December 6, a Cairo court extended the detention of Coptic rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied. In September, press and NGOs reported that police detained Quranist Reda Abdel-Rahman, a teacher in Kafr Saqr in Sharqia Governorate, on charges of joining ISIS, adopting takfiri extremist ideas, and promoting those ideas in print, reportedly based on papers seized from his residence at the time of his August 22 arrest. Authorities renewed Abdel-Rahman’s detention on December 31. On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan to a February 27 verdict and upheld his sentence of three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. On June 27, a court in Mashtoul al-Souk in Sharqia Governorate sentenced two men to one year in prison each on charges of “contempt of religions” for spreading and promoting Shia Islam. On February 23, an administrative court ordered all Shia websites and television channels closed, including the well-known website elnafisbook.com, which belongs to Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis, a professor who converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having approved 478 applications for legalization for churches and related buildings during the year, resulting in a total of 1,800 buildings legally registered since the law’s enactment in 2017. According to a report issued by the media center of the cabinet, the government allocated lands to build 10 new churches in eight cities. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. In a June 28 cabinet meeting, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the government should give “the highest priority to spreading awareness among students of the principles of religion, including freedom of belief.”

Press and NGOs reported that a fight broke out between Muslims and Christians in Dabbous in Minya Governorate on October 3 during a Coptic wedding that led to further violence two days later. Police arrested 12 individuals from both sides. Newspapers reported that a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian homes and a church in the village of al-Barsha in Minya on November 25 after rumors circulated that a local Christian man uploaded posts to social media viewed as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. According to an NGO, Mohammed Mahdaly, a sociology professor in the High Institute of Social Service in Alexandria, posted a video on his personal Facebook account that mocked the Prophet Mohammed, which resulted in the Ministry of Higher Education suspending Mahdaly. On February 24, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended well-known al-Azhar cleric Abdullah Rushdy for a post on social media in which he suggested that a Christian cardiac surgeon would not enter heaven due to his religious affiliation. In March, Islamic scholar Dr. Haitham Talaat posted a video online in which he said atheists were social outcasts, infidels, and apostates and were worse than terrorists or armed robbers.

U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, other embassy representatives, senior Department of State officials, and the acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development met with government officials and religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with the Grand Mufti, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, bishops and senior pastors of the Coptic Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches, and the Jewish community. In the meetings, embassy officials raised the importance of the need for accountability for sectarian violence, protections for victims of sectarian attacks, and concerns about religious discrimination, including through the inclusion of official religious designations on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on issues such as legalization and construction of churches, and the restoration and protection of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish religious sites.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 104.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Most experts and media sources estimate that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and 10 percent is Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent). Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population. These include Anglican/Episcopalian, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches. Most Protestant denominations are members of the umbrella group known as the Protestant Churches of Egypt (PCE), also known as the Evangelical Church Association. These include the Apostolic Grace, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Brethren, Christian Model Church (al-Mithaal al-Masihi), Church of Christ, Faith (al-Eyman), Gospel Missionary (al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), Grace (al-Ni’ma), Independent Apostolic, Message Church of Holland (ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-Day Adventists. There are an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses and an estimated 150 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the vast majority of whom are expatriates. Christians reside throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians is higher in Upper Egypt and in some sections of Cairo and Alexandria, according to religious and civil society groups.

Scholars estimate that Shia Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the population. Baha’i representatives estimate the size of the community to be between 1,000 and 2,000 persons. There are very small numbers of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and expatriate members of various groups.

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are six to 10 Jews.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation. The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime. The constitution prohibits political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.

The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents as defined by the government to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. The constitution states that al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world. The Grand Imam is elected by al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the President for a life term. The President does not have the authority to dismiss him. The constitution declares al-Azhar to be an independent institution and requires the government to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes.”

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the Grand Mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out. The Grand Mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the sentence.

The constitution stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders. Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) depending upon their official religious designation. The Ministry of Interior issues national identity cards that include official religious designations. Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens. Although the government designates Jehovah’s Witnesses as “Christian” on identity cards, a presidential decree bans their religious activities. Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash. The Minister of Interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize. The law states individuals may change their religion. However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but generally not from Islam to any other religion. The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to a Ministry of Interior decree pursuant to a court order. Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints. After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation. In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims. When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity and having that reflected on their identity cards.

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam. Christian and Jewish women are not required to convert to Islam in order to marry Muslim men. A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved. Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance. In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that personal status matters for Christian and Jewish communities are governed by their respective religious doctrine.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife; demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism; or harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months to five years’ imprisonment.

There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims): the al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the al-Azhar Islamic Research Center, the Dar al-Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s General Fatwa Directorate. Previously part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar al-Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of the Interior’s Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and al-Azhar. The President then reviews and decides on the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities. The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year, a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both. The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons written and disseminated by the Ministry of Awqaf. Ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques, and an imam who fails to follow the guidelines for ministry sermons may lose the bonus and be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.

The Prime Minister has the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith) and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates. The governor is to respond within four months of receipt of an application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification. The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor fails to respond within the required timeframe. The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches. It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented. Under the law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. Construction of new churches must meet specific land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum of 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1,884 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.” The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. Schools determine the religious identity of students, and the religious studies courses they should take, based on official identity card designations, not personal or parental decisions. Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other. A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including parochial schools. Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system that serves an estimated two million students from kindergarten through secondary school using its own curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to… religion or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment, a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both, as penalties for discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,200) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,400).

Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates modern judicial and legal systems and is recognized in the law in instances that do not involve serious crimes such as homicide, serious injury, or theft. Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions. Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.

Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Family House (Beit al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through communal reconciliation. With Family House branches throughout the country, al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations bring together opposing parties to a sectarian dispute with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. The Family House, however, is not uniformly active. Muslim and Christian religious leaders said that in some areas, such as Assiut, the Family House is quite active, while in others, such as Cairo and Alexandria, it has become largely inactive.

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim citizens with documentation from a cleric and does not recognize civil marriage for citizens. Marriages of Shia are recognized as Muslim. The government recognizes civil marriages of individuals from other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ, if one or both are foreigners. Authorities deny Baha’is the rights of married couples pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse. In practice, however, Baha’is are able to file individual petitions for recognition of their marriages in civil court.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws. In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program called “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain conditions are met, including requirements that the guardians share the same religion as the child and have been married to one another for a minimum of five years.

The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament under a 2016 law, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights. The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.

According to the constitution, “No political activity may be engaged in, or political parties formed, on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location.

The constitution mandates that the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. However, as of year’s end, parliament had not acted to implement the mandate.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

On February 24, the government executed eight men at Borg al-Arab Prison in Alexandria for their role in attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, 2017, that resulted in 88 deaths. The men were among a group of 17 defendants who were tried and sentenced to death in 2018 for their involvement in these and other attacks.

On June 2, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced seven defendants to 15 years’ imprisonment each on charges of membership in a banned group, possession of firearms, setting fire to a religious establishment, and other charges for their roles in the arson attack on the Kafr Hakim Church in Kerdasa in Giza Governorate in 2013. On September 17, the Court of Cassation ordered that an additional 22 defendants, who in 2018 were each sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for the attack on the church, have their sentences reduced to between two and five years’ imprisonment.

On June 27, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies condemned the continued detention of human rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied Salid and other activists. Authorities originally arrested Kamel in November 2019 following his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a UN forum in Geneva, where he had previously presented issues affecting the Coptic community. The government charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. On December 6, a Cairo court renewed his detention for 45 days.

On August 22, authorities arrested Reda Abdel-Rahman, a teacher in Kafr Saqr in Sharqia Governorate and member of the Quranists (Quraniyyun), who believe that the Quran is the sole source of Islamic law and reject the authenticity and authority of the hadith (the body of sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed). In September, press and NGOs reported that authorities were investigating Abdel-Rahman for joining ISIS, adopting takfiri extremist ideas, and promoting those ideas in print, based on papers seized from his residence at the time of his arrest. According to the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), security officers questioned Abdel-Rahman and seven of his relatives arrested at the same time about their relationship with Quranist leader Dr. Ahmed Sobhi Mansour and their adoption of Quranist principles before releasing the seven relatives. EIPR called for Abdel-Rahman’s release and for dropping the charges against him. On December 31, authorities renewed Abdel-Rahman’s detention.

On January 11, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced three defendants in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment each for a 2016 attack on Souad Thabet, a Christian who was stripped and dragged through her village of Karm in Minya, in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Authorities originally charged four persons with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. According to the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, Thabet welcomed the convictions and praised President al-Sisi for his public support for her and her family. Three defendants, sentenced in absentia, surrendered to authorities and faced automatic retrial on the same charges in the Minya Criminal Court. (The status of the fourth defendant remained unknown.) After announcing that it would hand down its verdict on August 24, the Minya Criminal Court ordered the case returned to the Beni Suef Criminal Court, which acquitted the three men on December 17. The same day, the Public Prosecutor ordered the formation of a technical committee to review and challenge the acquittal. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms told the al-Monitor news website the verdict demonstrated the deep-rooted bias within the judicial system against Christians. According to an analyst of customary reconciliation sessions from EIPR, local Christians whose houses had been damaged in the incident agreed to hold a customary reconciliation session with the alleged assailants after facing pressure from the local Muslim community in February.

On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan to a February 27 verdict sentencing him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. Authorities arrested Hassan in 2019 for publishing atheist ideas and criticizing the “divinely revealed religions.”

NGOs and press reported that on May 20, authorities assaulted a priest and arrested 14 Copts who were protesting the destruction of their church in Beheira Governorate. The lawyer for the Coptic community said that the church had been used for 15 years before the Abu al-Matamir city council ordered it removed. According to NGOs, after the church opened, local Muslims built a mosque next to the church with the aim of preventing the church from being legalized. According to NGO reports, security forces razed both the church and the adjacent mosque, since both appeared to encroach on agricultural land owned by the state. Church officials later stated that the government was within its rights to dismantle the church.

Although in late 2018 President al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing,” efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support. In 2019, al-Azhar founded a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa to “counter atheism” and prevent youth from “falling into disbelief.” The Bayan Unit published several social media pieces that were critical of atheism, and on August 25, as part of a training program, al-Azhar organized a workshop on “atheism, its types, and the most important methods of dealing with adherents of its ideas.”

On April 13, authorities in Beheira Governorate detained three Muslim teenagers on suspicion of blasphemy after they posted a video showing one of them smoking while performing prayers. According to local press, the three minors confessed, and said they posted the video to become famous.

On June 27, the State Security Misdemeanor Court in Mashtoul al-Souk in Sharqia Governorate sentenced two men initially arrested in 2019 to one year in prison each for violating laws against “contempt of religions” for spreading and promoting Shia Islam. According to an international NGO, the government based its prosecution of the two men on provisions in the penal code that criminalize the defamation of religion and spreading propaganda “insulting ‘the heavenly [Abrahamic] religions.”

On February 23, an administrative court ordered all Shia websites and television channels closed including the well-known website elnafisbook.com, which belonged to Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis, a doctor and professor who converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. The court’s decision followed a lawsuit filed by activist lawyer Samir Sabry, whose office told the press after the decision, “The reasons behind this verdict are based on the dangers of Shiite ideology on Egyptian society and national security, as Shiites in Egypt use religion for political manipulation.” Al-Nafis said the country’s Shia community was not interested in conversions and added, “We are not hurting anyone.” One press report stated that the verdict was issued despite the fact that there are no laws prohibiting the promotion of Shia beliefs and that a 1959 fatwa from al-Azhar recognized the legitimacy of the Shia Jafaari school along with the four main Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

On August 26, a Port Said criminal court sentenced a man in absentia to 15 years in prison for allegedly “distorting” the text of the Quran after he said he had received a divine revelation. The court convicted the man of producing a “new Quran” in violation of laws that regulate the printing of the Quran.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. On August 28, the MOI announced the arrest of Mahmoud Ezzat, acting supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ezzat had been a fugitive since 2013 when he was sentenced in absentia to two death sentences and life imprisonment on multiple terrorism-related charges. Following his arrest, the law required he face retrial on those charges. Upon Ezzat’s arrest, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated sources announced that Ibrahim Mounir, who lives in the United Kingdom, had become the new acting supreme guide.

The Court of Cassation in July upheld a life sentence for Mohammed Badie and five other Muslim Brotherhood leaders convicted for involvement in political violence in 2013. Essam al-Erian, whom the press identified as a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader who served as vice chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, died of a heart attack in Tora Prison on August 13.

On February 6, security authorities arrested Ahmed Sebaie, who managed a YouTube channel with 404,000 followers that focused on religion. Sebaie produced several videos in which he discussed Christian doctrinal issues, commented on social media posts of atheists, and discussed Islam. After 29 days in detention, authorities released Sebaie without charges. On November 27, authorities arrested Sebaie again after he posted a video discussing the Bible and Christian doctrine to social media and charged him with reading false news and misuse of social media.

On May 5, authorities in Alexandria arrested 10 persons for holding Ramadan night prayers in contravention of the Ministry of Awqaf’s closure of mosques due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All were subsequently released without charges.

On February 2, the director of the Alexandria Ministry of Awqaf ordered a deduction of three months’ salary from preacher Mohammed Kamal Mohammed for failing to adhere to the ministry’s official topic for Friday sermons. In August, the Ministry of Awqaf revoked the preaching license of an al-Azhar preacher after accusing him of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and calling for violence.

According to the NGO Arab Network for Human Rights Information, imprisoned labor activist Khalil Rizk asked a warden of Tora Prison that he be allowed to attend Coptic Christmas services on January 1. Although authorities told Rizk his request had been approved, they did not allow him to attend Christmas prayers or allow a priest to visit him.

On January 6, EIPR issued a statement criticizing the pace of legalization of churches and subsidiary buildings that had filed applications since 2016 and called for a single, uniform decree granting final legal status to all churches and subsidiary buildings.

According to official statistics, the government approved 478 applications for legalization for churches and related buildings during the year. Since September 2017, it approved 1,800 of the 5,415 pending applications for licensure of churches and related buildings.

According to a report issued by the media center of the cabinet, the government allocated lands during the year to build 10 churches in eight cities (Sadat, New 6th of October, New Beni Suef, Badr, Nasser, and New Sohag). At the May 21 inauguration of Project Good Hope 3 in Alexandria, a complex that will provide housing for 50,000 individuals and feature a centrally located new cathedral and mosque in close proximity, President al-Sisi stated, “The idea is that when we built the schools, the church, and the mosque, our young children will see that we are one country, one people.”

In September, the government announced that it would open and renovate more than 300 mosques in several governorates across the country in September and October. According to press reports, the step came in response to accusations by the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups that authorities had been demolishing mosques in a crackdown on illegal buildings.

A cabinet report stated that the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities allocated 41 million pounds ($2.61 million) for the Journey of the Holy Family project, a 2,100 mile trail that will extend from Sinai to Assiut, and will include stops at churches, monasteries, and water wells in 11 governorates. Those governorates have provided 448 million pounds ($28.55 million) for related development projects, according to the report.

According to a 2019 report by Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) in the country, and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. Members of the Shia community risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services, and from the security and intelligence services.

The press reported that a government committee charged with the seizure of Muslim Brotherhood assets filed a lawsuit in September to confiscate the funds of 89 Muslim Brotherhood members, including the heirs of former President Mohammed Morsi. The court scheduled a hearing for January 2021.

In January, the General Egyptian Book Organization, the government authority that oversees the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF), announced that it had excluded a number of publishers of Islamic titles from participating in the fair, held in January and February, and barred the sale of several authors for their alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including Sayyed Qutb, Hassan al Banna, and Youssef Qaradawi. A CIBF representative said publishers were required to submit lists of titles that they intended to display for approval, and security officials reportedly rejected some of the applications submitted by Islamic publishing houses. In a January 25 statement, the chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organization said that it took the actions to “prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from carrying out its activities.” On February 25, the Anti-Defamation League published a letter it had sent to President al-Sisi that condemned the presence of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other anti-Semitic literature at the book fair. The General Egyptian Book Authority did not bar the publishers, one of which was affiliated with the government, from participating in the fair or order the books removed, citing the government’s commitment to freedom of speech. The Simon Wiesenthal Center published a letter which stated that the CIBF continued to allow the publisher Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi to display anti-Semitic publications.

On September 26, the Supreme Administrative Court denied an appeal against a 2014 decision by the Alexandria Judicial Court upholding a prohibition of the annual celebration of the birth of Rabbi Yaqoub bin Masoud, also known as Abu Hasira, at his tomb in the Beheira Governorate; ordered the removal of the shrine from the government’s list of Islamic, Jewish, and Coptic antiquities; and rejected a request to move the rabbi’s remains to Israel. The court justified its decision to prohibit the annual celebration, citing “moral offenses and disturbances to public order,” and ruled that the shrine lacked archaeological significance. The government first listed the tomb and the Jewish cemeteries surrounding it as antiquities in 2001. The court ordered the government to inform UNESCO of its decision.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. At least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt continued to refuse to participate in reconciliation sessions, criticizing such sessions as substitutes for criminal proceedings which would address attacks on Christians and their churches. Other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions. Human rights groups and some Christian community representatives characterized the practice as an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship that regularly pressures Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.

On March 20 and 21, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Awqaf announced the closure of all churches and mosques to curb the spread of COVID-19. Churches and mosques remained closed through August. Religious institutions made concerted efforts to persuade the population to address the spread of COVID-19. On March 29, the Ministry of Awqaf, explaining its decision to close mosques, said that a fundamental goal of Islamic law was to preserve life. On March 15, al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the highest Islamic advisory body, declared it religiously permissible to suspend communal prayers in mosques to curb the spread of the pandemic. On March 17, Grand Mufti Shawky Allam said Egyptians should follow government guidelines on social distancing and hygiene, and on April 1, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa encouraging the distribution of alms to workers affected by COVID-19.

On July 4, the Ministry of Awqaf ordered barriers placed around the tomb of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, located inside al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, an action the ministry said was intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 after some worshippers kissed the shrine. In previous years, the government closed the room containing the tomb during the three-day Shia commemoration of Ashura.

On January 26, the High Administrative Court upheld a final verdict banning faculty and teaching staff of Cairo University from wearing the niqab (face veil) during classes, putting an end to a case first filed by 80 faculty members in 2015. The ban only applied to lecture halls during classes and did not apply to students. The ban came into force on February 8, with instructions that professors who did not comply were to be prohibited from teaching. On January 30, Ain Shams University issued a similar ban on the niqab for university staff.

The government largely continued to allow Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims to worship privately in small numbers but continued to refuse requests for public religious gatherings.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.

According to local media, on May 30, the Supreme Administrative Court dissolved the Islamist Building and Development Party based on an allegation of the Political Parties Affairs Committee, which oversees political parties, that the party was affiliated with an Islamist group in violation of the law. While authorities did not ban other Islamist parties, including the Strong Egypt Party, they added Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, leader of the Strong Egypt Party, to a list of designated terrorists on November 19.

The Minister of Immigration and Expatriate Affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. The governors of the Damietta and Ismailia governorates are Christian, as is a deputy governor of Alexandria Governorate. The governor of Damietta was the country’s first female Christian governor. The electoral laws governing the 2020 House of Representatives elections reserved 24 seats for Christian candidates in the closed-list portion of the electoral system. Three Christians won elections as independent candidates to the House of Representatives in November. In addition, 17 Christian senators and two Christian representatives were elected, and President al-Sisi appointed seven Christian senators. President al-Sisi has approximately five senior Christian advisors.

Christians reported being underrepresented in the military and security services, and they stated that those admitted at entry levels of government face limited opportunities for promotion to the upper ranks.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 27 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The Ministry of Education and Technical Education continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, third grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum. On September 8, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki said in a press conference that President al-Sisi directed third grade classes to begin universal instruction from the book Values and Respect for Others, a text to teach ethics drawn from Islamic and Christian religious traditions.

On February 18, the cabinet announced that the Ministry of Social Solidarity, in cooperation with the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents and the Ministries of Education and Technical Education, Awqaf, Culture, and Youth and Sports and the National Council of Women, signed eight protocols of cooperation with a number of Muslim and Christian NGOs to launch a program to promote equality in Minya Governorate, a region with a significant Christian population and a history of sectarian tensions. The cabinet announced a budget of 12 million pounds ($765,000) for the program that would target 44 villages.

Grand Imam El-Tayyeb made multiple public references to the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which he signed with Pope Francis in 2019, as a framework for “a world full of prosperity, tolerance, peace, and love.” In a January 18 meeting with a delegation of French Catholic bishops, El-Tayyeb said the document’s principles offered a “safe way out of the problems of the East and West.”

In January, the al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced that in addition to highlighting unity between Muslims and Christians and the concept of citizenship without distinction to religious belief, new textbooks in the 11,000 schools under its purview would include material based upon the principles of the Document on Human Fraternity. In 2019, the committee announced the introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff of approximately 100 individuals monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the al-Azhar International Academy, also continued to offer courses to imams and preachers in 20 countries on a wide range of subjects related to Islam. Al-Azhar largely curtailed travel and in-person training during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but continued to offer training virtually.

In a June 28 meeting with his cabinet, President al-Sisi urged “giving the highest priority to spreading awareness among students of the principles of all religions, including freedom of belief, tolerance and acceptance of differences.” On October 21, after images of the Prophet Mohammed that Muslims widely considered blasphemous were published and displayed in France, the President gave an address to commemorate the Prophet’s birthday during which he said freedom of expression should have limits if it offended more than 1.5 billion people. Al-Sisi said, “We also have rights. We have the right for our feelings not to be hurt and for our values not to be hurt,” adding that he firmly rejected any form of violence in the name of defending religion, religious symbols, or icons.

While the constitution declares al-Azhar an independent institution, its budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion pounds ($1.02 billion).

Dar al-Iftaa and al-Azhar issued several fatwas and statements permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays, to assist non-Muslims in need, and to “stop using [religious] beliefs as means to harm or diminish others.” On April 18, Grand Imam El-Tayyeb congratulated Christians on Easter Sunday, stressing the bond of “brotherhood and love” between the country’s Muslims and Christians and highlighting that Christians were “good people (who) set the most wonderful example of solidarity and cohesion in critical moments, especially during this pandemic.”

On May 14, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa stating that it is permissible for Muslims to give zakat (religiously mandated charitable donations) to non-Muslims in need of treatment for COVID-19 or other diseases or to meet any other material needs.

On June 16, Dar al-Iftaa issued a series of statements on social media following the death due to suicide of Sarah Hegazy, an Egyptian lesbian activist, writer, and reported atheist. Dar al-Iftaa wrote that “all heavenly religions” prohibit homosexuality and that atheism was an “intellectual problem” and a “psychological disease” requiring treatment. However, the statement continued, Muslims claiming “with full certainty” that a person “will never enter paradise” were “absolutely wrong, because such judgement of who goes to heaven and who does not is up to Allah.”

Following a government investment of 60 million pounds ($3.82 million), on January 10, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MOTA) reopened the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue in Alexandria. Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anani noted in his remarks at the opening ceremony that “the opening of the Jewish synagogue in Alexandria after its restoration is a message to the world that the Egyptian government cares about the Egyptian heritage of all religions.” On February 14, the government sent a representative to a rededication ceremony of the synagogue honoring 174 members of the diaspora Jewish community from approximately a dozen countries.

On July 20, the government demolished several Islamic cemeteries it said dated from the early 20th century as part of a roadworks project, but denied reports that it had demolished parts of Cairo’s oldest Islamic cemetery, the Mamluk Desert Cemetery. Activists asserted that the tombs were part of the country’s Islamic heritage and that the cost of moving the graves was prohibitive for the families of the deceased.

On January 27 and 28, under the auspices of President al-Sisi, al-Azhar held the International Conference on the Renovation of Islamic Thought attended by Muslim scholars from 47 countries. Al-Azhar announced the opening of a new center for the renewal of Islamic thought during the conference. In remarks made on behalf of President al-Sisi, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly urged the acceleration of reforming religious discourse, stressed the importance of countering “bogus” messaging and “pretentious” religious scholars who “hijack the minds of youth,” and called for practical solutions to the problems that divide Muslims. Al-Azhar Grand Imam El-Tayyeb criticized extremist religious thought and what he labeled as distorted and mocking images of Islam in the West. In an accompanying panel discussion, El-Tayyeb and Cairo University president Mohammed al-Khost presented contrasting views of the nature of possible reforms. Khost called for revisiting and revising sharia and the hadith for a modern world, while El-Tayyeb said that Muslims should build on, not abandon, Islamic tradition and attributed extremism in the Islamic world to politics, not to religious heritage.

A columnist in the government-owned newspaper Al-Youm7 wrote that the conference showed that the leaders of al-Azhar were “not concerned with the issue of renewing thought and enlightenment, but rather … in preserving the heritage that enables them to keep their great privileges in power and [to] collect the spoils and remain in the spotlight, using religion as a vehicle.” Former Minister of Culture and public intellectual Gaber Asfour told international press that “The current leadership of al-Azhar does not believe in renewal and is comfortable with the way things are.”

In July, press reported that al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars released a letter it had sent to the parliamentary speaker in February that rejected, on constitutional grounds, a proposed law drafted by the government that would have changed the status of the Dar al-Iftaa and the Grand Mufti, making them independent of al-Azhar. Sources told the press that the main objective of the proposed law was to create a parallel entity to al-Azhar, under the direct control of the government. The draft legislation, introduced in parliament in August, would have granted the President the right to appoint the Mufti. The State Council ruled the draft law was unconstitutional and returned it to parliament where the Religious Affairs Committee withdrew it from further consideration. After the decision to withdraw the bill, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb said that the decision to withdraw the bill demonstrated that the country continued to respect its constitution and appreciate its national institutions, including al-Azhar.

On June 22, the Ministry of Awqaf announced the formation of a committee “to counter extremist ideology.” The ministry said the committee was tasked with developing plans to confront extremist thought among ministry preachers and employees.

In 2019, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country, and that in the future, only mosques that complied with approved designs would be granted construction permits. Implementation of the new directive was pending at year’s end.

In 2019, the state-run University of Alexandria and the state-run University of Damanhour established centers of Coptic studies in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes include courses on the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art. The center at the University of Alexandria first began accepting applications in 2019. On March 4, the state-run Zagazig University and the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo signed an agreement for institutional cooperation in the fields of art, education, music, and the sciences. The agreement allows for an exchange of library services and publications and jointly held academic conferences.

On July 13, the Cairo Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 lower court ruling granting a Christian woman equal distribution of inheritance with her male siblings and declaring that the case was subject to Christian customary laws of inheritance rather than Islamic law.

On October 15, representatives from the Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical, and Catholic churches submitted a draft unified personal status law to the cabinet, covering such issues as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In December, senior Coptic Orthodox Church representatives and the press announced that the cabinet had concluded its review of the draft law, which, according to press reports, incorporates and regulates personal status matters that the churches hold in common, while retaining articles specific to the doctrinal teachings of the three denominations.

On February 20, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam met with the World Council of Churches general secretary, Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, in the council’s Ecumenical Center in Geneva to discuss promotion of interreligious dialogue and combating extremism.

In January, Mohammed Fayek, president of the National Council for Human Rights, called on parliament to approve two draft laws on equal opportunity and preventing discrimination and to establish the constitutionally mandated independent commission to eliminate all forms of discrimination.

On July 21, Prime Minister Madbouly visited the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, built in the sixth century. On the occasion of the visit, the government announced that it would allocate 40 million pounds ($2.55 million) to restore and develop the monastery and its neighboring city.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Terrorist groups, including Islamic State-Sinai Peninsula (formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) among others, conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets in the North Sinai Governorate.

In April, security forces said that a shootout with militants in the Amiriyah neighborhood of Cairo disrupted a plot against Coptic Orthodox Easter.

Press and NGOs reported that a fight broke out between Muslims and Christians in Dabbous in Minya Governorate on October 3 during a Coptic wedding that led to further violence two days later. Police arrested 12 individuals from both sides.

Newspapers reported that a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian homes and a church in the village of al-Barsha in Minya Governorate on November 25 after rumors circulated that a local Christian man had social media posts deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. There was minimal damage and no casualties, and police made multiple arrests of Muslims and Christians.

On January 12 in Cairo, a man attacked a Christian woman with a knife, injuring her neck. According to media reports, the man said he attacked the woman because “she was not covering her hair.” Authorities arrested the attacker and, according to press reports, the prosecutor referred him to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.

According to an NGO, Mohammed Mahdaly, a sociology professor at the High Institute for Social Service, posted a video on his personal Facebook account that mocked the Prophet Mohammed and was “insulting” to the Quran. A Ministry of Higher Education official told the press that it had suspended the professor and referred the matter for investigation to a committee of professors at the University of Alexandria. The ministry referred Mahdaly’s case to the Public Prosecutor. Mahdaly, who had been experiencing health issues, passed away on December 24.

On May 16, authorities arrested a man after he reportedly threw a Molotov cocktail at the Virgin Mary and the Martyr St. George Church in Alexandria. There were no casualties or property damage. Prosecutors subsequently requested that the man undergo a psychiatric evaluation and said he had previously been under psychiatric care.

While there have been reports of abducted Coptic girls and women, government officials, leaders in the Christian community, and NGOs stated that they were skeptical of the classification of the cases as abductions. In a report released September 10, “Jihad of the Womb:” Trafficking of Coptic Women & Girls in Egypt, the NGO Coptic Solidarity reported on what it described as “the widespread practice of abduction and trafficking of Coptic women and girls…and how they are a particularly vulnerable group.” In March, MRGI reported that there were at least 13 reported cases of abducted Coptic women since October 2019.

Eshhad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction of intercommunal violence in recent years.

The Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), the country’s media oversight agency, opened an investigation of television personality Radwa al-Sherbini after she said that women who wear the hijab are “100,000 times better than me and non-hijab [wearing] women…” and that “the devil inside women [who do not wear hijabs] is more powerful than their faith and strength.” The SCMR said it had received complaints from the public about the comments, and others criticized Sherbini on social media. One prominent women’s rights advocate said Sherbini’s statements instigated violence against nonveiled women. Sherbini later apologized for her comments.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, according to human rights groups and religious communities.

EIPR continued to call on the authorities to provide persons of unrecognized religious groups the right to obtain identity cards, marriage certificates, and private burials, and to sue in accordance with their own personal status laws.

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians. On February 24, Dar al-Iftaa criticized commenters on social media who wrote that Christian cardiac surgeon Magdi Yacoub would not enter heaven due to his faith. In its statement, Dar al-Iftaa said Yacoub “never looked at the religion of those he treated and saved from death but regarded them with compassion, mercy, and humanity.” The Ministry of Awqaf on February 24 suspended well-known al-Azhar cleric Abdullah Rushdy for a post he made on social media that was believed to have targeted Yacoub. Commenting on the controversy, the al-Azhar International Center for Electronic Fatwa urged Egyptians to recognize that “the belief of every human being…is a personal thing between him and his creator, and only Allah will inquire into it.”

In March, Islamic scholar Dr. Haitham Talaat posted a video online in which he said atheists were social outcasts, infidels, and apostates, and were worse than terrorists or armed robbers. Talaat said that engaging in dialogue with atheists could lead to the “inevitable outcome” of suicide.

In a January 24 interview with Russia Today TV, historian Mohammad al-Shafi said Jews benefitted the most from World War II by using the Holocaust to “extort the international community” and that other countries harmed by the war “did not receive booty, nor did they profit like the Jews did.” On April 25, the Israeli Foreign Ministry criticized the Ramadan science fiction television series The End as “unfortunate and unacceptable” for portraying a dystopian future in which “all of the Jews of Israel have returned to their countries of origin.”

A poll of Arab populations conducted between January and March by a Dubai-based public relations firm and involving a team of international experts, indicated that 69 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 – one of the highest results in the region – agreed that religion is “particularly important” to their personal identity.

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C., and released in November, 87 percent of respondents in the country either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” compared with 65 percent or respondents region-wide.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Ambassador, the acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other embassy officials, regularly raised religious freedom concerns. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed attacks on Christians, church legalization and construction, interfaith dialogue, and countering extremist thought with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, governors, the Grand Imam, the Grand Mufti, and the Coptic Orthodox Pope as well as with civil society and minority religious groups. In their meetings with government officials, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly.

Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant and Anglican churches. In these meetings, embassy staff members raised cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations including on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues such as issuance of permits for and new construction of churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the protection and restoration of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious sites. In February, the Ambassador delivered remarks on religious pluralism during the February rededication of Alexandria’s Eliyahu HaNevi Synagogue.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in meetings with government officials. Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Dar al-Iftaa, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Shia communities. The embassy promoted religious freedom on social media during the year, including two posts describing the context of religious freedom that reached 25,306 persons.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. Restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces (ISF) remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018 and 2019. In September, a Sunni Muslim parliamentarian from Diyala Province said government-affiliated Shia militia continued to forcibly displace Sunnis in his province, leading to widespread demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse from members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 50 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS. Christians said the PMF continued to control territory in Christian areas and trade routes in the Ninewa Plain, and militias reportedly coerced Christians to pay bribes to pass through PMF checkpoints. In August, former parliamentarian Kamil al-Ghurawi, a Sunni from Baghdad, accused government-affiliated Shia militia groups of forcibly displacing Sunni residents in al-Madain District on the outskirts of Baghdad and attempting to alter the district’s demography. According to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office, 2,874 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. Representatives of minority religious communities said that despite occasional harassment from local authorities, the central government generally did not interfere with religious observances by members of minority groups.

According to multiple sources in Khanaqin, ISIS attacks in May and June on several Kaka’i villages wounded and killed a total of 13 persons. In June, the director of the Kaka’i-affiliated Chraw Organization for Documentation reported that attacks of this kind were not isolated and were increasing. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced in March that 18 additional mass graves had been discovered throughout the country, marking more than 200 such graves discovered since 2017; they contained victims of al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, with some remains dating back decades. Two additional mass graves were discovered in Sinjar District during the year. In October, forensic teams, with support from the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began the exhumation of the last of 17 mass graves in Kocho and began work at a site at Solagh, known as the “Grave of Mothers,” where ISIS killed dozens of Yezidi women considered too old to be sold into sexual slavery. The Yezidi community in Sinjar District reported in August that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi children with the aim of recruiting them in the years since ISIS was defeated in Sinjar in 2015 and that 70 children were still missing.

In July, the Roman Catholic Church-affiliated organization Aid to the Church in Need released a report stating that the country’s Christian community faced “extinction” and that 87 percent of Christians living in the Ninewa Plain reported feeling a lack of security “remarkably” or “very much.” According to media and human rights organizations, societal violence perpetrated by sectarian armed groups, mainly pro-Iran Shia militias, continued, although there were no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Members of non-Muslim minority groups reported abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, including Father Yaqoub al-Saedy of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Father Bihnam Banoqa of the Syriac Catholic Church, both located in Bartella, and said they received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade. Interreligious entities, including the Masarat Foundation and the Iraqi Institute for Diversity, continued their work to promote respect for the country’s religious diversity, including through contributions of information on religious minority groups to school textbooks.

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The bilateral strategic dialogue held in Washington, D.C. in August provided additional opportunities to highlight the need for outreach to the country’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of members of religious minority groups. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for these communities and to assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2010 government statistics – the most recent available – 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population, of which Arabs constitute 24 percent, Kurds 15 percent, and Turkomans the remaining 1 percent. Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

According to Christian leaders as well as NGO and media reports, fewer than 250,000 Christians remain in the country, down from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Anglican, and other Protestants. There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice secretly.

Yezidi leaders continue to report that most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, with approximately 200,000 to 230,000 remaining displaced as of October 2020. The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia. Most Sunni Shabak and some Shia Shabak reside in Ninewa. According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk as well as in Diyala and Erbil. Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary, but according to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 to 15,000 members remain in Iraq, mainly in the south, with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad. Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians, both Armenian Apostolic Church (Armenian Orthodox) and Armenian Catholic. Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR.

There are fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community, according to a local Jewish community leader. In the IKR, there are approximately 80 Jewish families, according to the KRG international advocacy coordinator, although some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution, according to the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) and NGO sources, and the number could be higher. According to the KRG MERA, there are approximately 60 Zoroastrian families in the IKR. Zoroastrian sources report there are approximately 20,000 to 25,000 Zoroastrians in the country.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), approximately 1.2 million persons remain displaced within the country, predominantly in Ninewa, Dohuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Kirkuk Governorates, compared with 1.5 million persons at the end of 2019. According to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center, there are approximately 700,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the IKR. Forty percent of IDPs throughout the country are Sunni Arabs, 30 percent Yezidis, 13 percent Kurds (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent Christians. Other religious minorities comprise the remaining 10 percent.

According to the IOM, there were more than 205,000 IDPs in camps and approximately 104,000 in critical shelters throughout the country at year’s end.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law does not specify penalties for the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’is – including Wahhabi Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Yarsanism; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

Outside the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition. In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA. To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not “anti-Islam.” Eight faiths are recognized and registered with the KRG MERA: Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

According to the KRG MERA’s Directorate of Christian Affairs, there are 11 registered evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches in the IKR, several with multiple branches: Nahda al-Qadassa, Nasari Evangelical, Kurd-Zaman, Ashti Evangelical, Evangelical Free, Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd, al-Tasbih International Evangelical, Rasolia, the United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist groups.

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

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

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups. The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings. The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (26 cents) for such crimes.

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

The constitution provides minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages. While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac – typically spoken by Christians – and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.” In the IKR, there are 49 Syriac- and 18 Turkoman-language schools.

The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars. The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

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

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

By law, children with one parent who converts to Islam must be listed as Muslim on the application for the national identity card, even if the other parent is of another religion.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion.

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

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

The antiterrorism law defines terrorism as “every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.” Anyone found guilty under this law may be sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of having ISIS links. In July, parliamentarian and member of the Security and Defense Committee Mohammed al-Karbuli criticized the “random arrests of Sunnis in areas north of Baghdad.” Al-Karbuli said, “The security forces returned to committing past’s mistakes by arresting innocent people and terrorizing them.” According to al-Karbuli, more than 50 young Sunni men were arrested in those areas “in a humiliating manner and with false accusations.”

Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse from members of the PMF, a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 50 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS. According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some operating under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. In October, Salah al-Din Province Police Commander Major General Qandil al-Jabouri said police had found eight bodies belonging to residents of al-Farhatiyeh Subdistrict of Balad District in Salah al-Din Province, out of 12 civilians who were kidnapped by an unidentified armed force; the whereabouts of the other four was unknown. According to the families of the victims, the 42nd Brigade of the PMF, tied to U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), was responsible for the killings and kidnappings.

In December, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein stated that the country’s security situation had improved compared with previous years and that the government was making great efforts to return IDPs to their places of origin and to create a safe environment for them.

In September, parliamentarian Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned of continued forced displacement of Sunnis in Diyala by PMF forces or associated militias. Al-Dahlaki stated that government-affiliated Shia militia groups intimidated the Sunni population in the province, resulting in widespread demographic change along the border with Iran. Sunni parliamentarian Nahida al-Daini, also of Diyala Province, reported similar acts of intimidation.

Sources said some government officials continued to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, such as Bartella Subdistrict, and Sunni areas in Diyala Province and Babil Province, including Jurf al-Sakhar District. According to parliamentarian Rihan Hanna, a Christian from Kirkuk, the Iran-aligned Shabak PMF and the 50th (Babylon) PMF Brigades were making demographic changes by facilitating and giving permission to Arab and Shabak Shia to move into Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, while Christians refused to return to the area because they feared these forces. In August, former parliamentarian Kamil al-Ghurawi, a Sunni from Baghdad, accused government-affiliated Shia militia groups of forcibly displacing Sunni residents in the al-Madain District on the outskirts of Baghdad in order to make the district majority Shia.

In October, the administrator of the minorities’ portfolio of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, Ammar Polos, said the forcible return of displaced Christians in Baghdad’s Virgin Mary camp to the old city of Mosul, where their homes remain demolished and uninhabitable, amounted to a second displacement for Christians, adding, “We will not tolerate this measure.” Also in October, Christian parliamentarian Yonadum Kanna said he rejected the forced return of IDPs, considering it another displacement, especially in the absence of the government’s capabilities to reconstruct the IDPs’ destroyed homes and the state’s inability to provide employment opportunities and a decent standard of living for the IDPs.

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

Christians continued to report abuse, harassment, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, including the Shabak Shia-backed 30th Brigade in Bartella, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. The AAH reportedly was building an office in Bartella, while the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf reportedly controlled the local real estate market, selling land to non-Christians from outside the district, granting questionable security approvals, and taking bribes. The 30th Brigade also reportedly controlled trade routes in the Ninewa Plain through checkpoints, forcing Christian merchants to pay bribes to gain access. According to Father Behnam Benoka of the Syriac Catholic Church in the Bartella Subdistrict, on February 14, gunshots were heard near the construction site of the AAH office, after which the AAH closed the road in the area, inhabited mostly by Christians, and started investigating Christian families in the area. According to some of the families, AAH members were behind the shooting and sought to frighten Christians and convince them to leave the area.

According to Father Benoka, in July, four Christian women reported that Bartella’s police commander, Ghazwan Ali Qasim (Arab Sunni), attempted to coerce them into prostitution based on their difficult economic situations. Benoka added that although the community had raised complaints about Qasim’s conduct many times, the commander had been “promoted instead of being punished.” According to Father Yaqob Saedy of the Syriac Orthodox Church, 30th PMF Brigade members assaulted two Christians in July when the pair tried to pass through Bartella’s main checkpoint. Following an argument, Shabak PMF members forced the two Christians out of their car and beat them.

Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartella and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa. Members of the Christian community in Bartella said the brigade’s actions threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics. Local residents also said militias continued to post pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani, as well as of Iraqi militia leaders, such as AAH Secretary General Qais al-Khazali and former Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) Chief of Staff Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, on shops in Bartella. They also stated that the 30th Brigade continued to disregard 2019 government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain. Sources said Shabak members threatened priests, including Father Banoqa and Father al-Saedy, both in Bartella, on social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the 30th Brigade. According to al-Saedy, “some parties” in the Ninewa Plain were trying to change the demography of the traditionally Christian city. Although al-Saedy did not specify which group, his statement drew condemnation from members of the Shabak community.

In August, Shia Shabaks raised Shia ritual banners in front of a historic church in Karmles Town, which Christians said was an act of provocation. Local sources said that as of year’s end, two of six Shabak Sunni families had returned home after having left their homes in Bashiqa District in 2019 because the 30th Brigade had verbally harassed them and pressured them to sell part of their land.

Yezidi community leaders continued to report that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain identification cards, passports, and other governmental services – in part because the Yezidi community did not consider these children to be Yezidi. According to Yezidi journalist Khudar Domli, “What ISIS did to them by force, this [National Card] Act does by law.” The Yezidi religion traditionally required a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered a member of the community. Sources in the community estimated the number of these children ranged from several dozen to several hundred. They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers. Due to the position of Yezidi leaders and community on children born of rape, many Yezidi female survivors of ISIS said they were compelled to leave their children in orphanages in Syria or Iraq so they could rejoin their community. Some of the women preferred to stay in the camps’ harsh environment with their children rather than leave them behind.

According to Zoroastrian leaders, after the Zoroastrian NGO Yasna opened a branch in Duhokin, Salafist Islamist groups criticized the Zoroastrian religion’s practices and beliefs. According to one Zoroastrian representative, Zoroastrians in the IKR received death threats on social media from Salafists, who accused the Zoroastrian community of infidelity and incest. Zoroastrian leaders also reported that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by members of unrecognized religious minority groups due to the country’s constitution and its personal status law.

During the year, the NGOs CAPNI for Humanitarian Aids in Iraq (CAPNI) and Hammurabi Human Rights Organization sought amendments to the national identification card law that requires minor children to be listed as Muslim on the identification application form if one parent converted to Islam. The NGOs said the law was a “flagrant violation” of the rights on non-Muslims in the country. During a conference in December, CAPNI representatives said non-Muslim religious groups requested the government amend the national identity card law so that minor children would continue to follow the original religion of their parents before one parent converted to Islam until they became adults and could decide for themselves.

According to Christian leaders, Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith continued to be forced to either register their children as Muslims or to have the children remain undocumented by federal authorities, denying them the ability to legally convert from Islam. Remaining undocumented affected the family’s eligibility for government benefits, such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depend on family size. Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

Throughout the year, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam said he continued to resist political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue land grants in Hamdaniya, Ninewa Province, to the families (mostly Shia Muslim) of PMF victims who fought ISIS.

The committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders created in 2019 by the OPM to return all Christian properties in Ninewa Province to their Christian owners continued to operate. During the year, the committee returned dozens of houses to their Christian owners. According to Christian parliamentarians, there was no similar committee to help return properties in Baghdad or other provinces. According to Christian parliamentarian Yonadum Kanna, he and other Christian leaders continued to work individually to help Christians return to their homes. During the year, he managed to return fewer than 10 homes to their original occupants, compared with 180 homes returned in 2019. According to Kanna, during the year, he received fewer complaints from Christians because the security situation had significantly improved following the defeat of ISIS. He also said there were also fewer complaints of confiscated homes being occupied by someone other than the original occupant. Kanna said he had worked with the Higher Judicial Council to place restrictions on selling or buying real estate owned by Christians, making it more difficult for militias or others to use falsified documents to assume ownership of Christian properties. In November, unknown gunmen attacked a lawyer working with the Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad working to return houses to members of the Christian community.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. By year’s end, authorities in the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office reported 2,874 Yezidis, mainly women and children, were still missing both inside and outside the country, compared with up to 3,000 reported missing in 2019. According to the Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office, during the 2014-2020 period, approximately 100,000 Yezidis left the country, mostly moving to Germany and others to Turkey, Greece, Georgia, Armenia, France, the Netherlands, Croatia, the United States, Australia, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Approximately 62 Christians also remained missing, compared with 150 in 2019. According to the KRG MERA, as of September 5, more than 3,543 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or released from ISIS captivity since 2014, compared with 2,500 through 2019. According to Shabak parliamentarian Qusay Abass (Ninewa, Shia) via a media statement in August, 233 Shabak individuals kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 were still missing. According to Ninewa Governorate’s Advisor for Women’s Affairs Sukina Ali (Shia Turkoman of Ninewa), 900 Shia and Sunni Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS were still missing at year’s end.

According to some Yezidi sources, Yezidis in the IKR continued to experience discrimination when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish. They said only those Yezidis who identified publicly as Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face verbal harassment and restrictions from authorities. Sources reported that Shia militias and the Shia Endowment confiscated properties owned by the Sunni Endowments in Diyala and Ninewa Provinces, leading to sectarian tensions in those provinces. According to Sunni Endowment representatives, the Shia Endowment confiscated a shrine and cemetery in Baquba District in Diyala, while Shia militias, including AAH, Badr, and Khurasani, turned Sunni mosques into PMF headquarters in other Sunni areas in the province. In Ninewa, the Sunni Endowment reported that the Shia Endowment worked secretly to confiscate properties owned by the Sunni Endowment in Mosul by using false documents or claiming Shia Endowment jurisdiction over the properties based on some of the shrines and mosques bearing Shia religious names.

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

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

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

According to the Syriac Orthodox Parish of Mosul, in October, following a Ninewa court decision, Bishop Necodemos Dawod Sharf received 23 Syriac-language manuscripts that ISIS had stolen from the Tahera Church in the old city of Mosul. The manuscripts were part of a larger group of ancient manuscripts stolen in 2014.

In October, Yezidi NGOs in Sinjar reported that the PKK had seized control of local schools, transforming them into military camps and PKK indoctrination centers. In October, the Kurdish Directorate Deputy Manager in Sinjar, Shahab Ahmed, told media that the PKK had taken over a primary school in Sinjar City and transformed it into a military camp. Shahab said the PKK refused to leave the school and that his directorate had asked authorities in Ninewa to intercede. Despite the requests, the PKK refused to vacate these schools through year’s end.

The KRG Council of Ministers issued an executive order establishing a high committee with representatives from the IKP, IKR Presidency, KRG Judicial Council, KRG Ministries of Justice, Agriculture, Municipality, and Finance, and the head of IKR’s Independent Human Rights Commission to resolve outstanding land disputes affecting Christian communities. According to committee members, by year’s end, the committee had not taken any concrete steps.

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

Some non-Muslim students reported pressure from instructors and classmates to participate in Islamic education classes, even though they were not required to take part. Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they were not allowed to leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian religious education continued to be included in the curricula of at least 255 public schools in the country, including 55 in the KRG, according to the Ministry of Education. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but they had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and the lack of religious minority input on school curricula and language of instruction.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students. The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which were intended to accommodate Christian students. The curriculum in these schools did not contain religious or Quranic studies. During the year, minority NGOs along with the NGO Minority Alliance Network held numerous seminars and workshops to discuss education curriculum reform in IKR schools, recommending amendments to the current curriculum to emphasize religious minority rights.

In July, KRG State Minister for Component (Minority) Affairs Ayden Maroof announced the KRG Education Ministry was working on new curricula covering the history of religious and ethnic minority groups to be included in IKR history textbooks. According to Maroof, the adoption of the new curricula followed the KRG Prime Minister’s decision in July to embrace diversity and to challenge false stereotypes in IKR society.

In June, the head of the interreligious Masarat Foundation for Cultural and Media Development, Saad Salloum, announced the launch of a special curriculum for understanding different religions in the country, to be taught through the Iraqi Institute for Diversity. Religions included in the curriculum are Christianity, Yazidism, Sabean-Mandeanism, Judaism, the Baha’i Faith, Zoroastrianism, and Kaka’ism. According to the foundation, which includes both governmental and nongovernmental representatives, the curriculum would be used to instruct religious leaders, clerics, journalists, and university professors on the country’s diverse religions and the need to respect all faith traditions.

In September, the Ministry of Education allocated five billion dinars ($3.4 million) to build new schools in majority-Yezidi Sinjar District and to develop the district’s education sector.

According to a representative of the Yezidi NGO Yazda, KRG authorities continued to discriminate against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in the northern part of the country. In October, Yazda representative Jameel Shumar said Yezidi faced difficulties if they self-identified as Yezidis rather than Kurdish Yezidis, especially at IKR checkpoints. He said Yezidi politicians known for considering Yezidis a separate group from the Kurds were not allowed to enter the IKR.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for new construction and the renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities. The KRG MERA finished building the St. Peter and Paul Chaldean Church in Ankawa near Erbil and handed it over to the Chaldean Archdiocese in 2017. Restoration of the Syriac Orthodox Um al-Nour Church in Erbil continued through year’s end.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minority groups, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the central government Council of Ministers or the KRG Council of Ministers, a situation unchanged from the previous three years. Members of minority religious communities, including Christians, Yezidis, Kaka’is and Sabean-Mandeans, continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government – among them Minister of Displacement and Migration Evan Faiq Jabro, a Christian from Basra Province, and KRG Minister of Transportation Communication Ano Abdoka, a Syriac Orthodox Christian from Ankawa. Several KRG district and subdistrict mayoral positions were reserved for members of religious minority groups, in particular for Yezidis and Christians. Minority leaders, however, said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, and that the overall underrepresentation limited members of minority groups’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. In December, Christian parliamentarian Yonadam Kanna said Christians in the country were marginalized and not given high-ranking positions. In May, parliamentarian Nawfal al-Nashi said Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi had marginalized minority groups when he formed his cabinet. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members continued to include Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian.

Although the IKP had 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law did not restrict who could vote in quota seat races. Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority populations said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the minority quota seats and diluted the voice of members of minority groups in government, while others opposed restricting who could vote in quota seat races. Christian parliamentarians Rehan Hana and Yonadam Kanna supported restricting quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity, while Christian parliamentarians affiliated with Shia political coalition parties drawing votes from Shia-majority provinces opposed imposing restrictions.

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

In October, unknown individuals bombed a Christian-owned liquor store in Baghdad. According to local residents, the attackers were PMF-associated militia members who may have attacked the store after its owners refused to pay bribes.

Kaka’i community members said the central government’s Shia Endowment continued to occupy places of Kaka’i worship in Diyala and Baghdad, converting them into Shia mosques. In 2019, the Shia Endowment seized the Kaka’i House of Worship Baba Mahmud in Khanaqin District, Dyala Province, stating that Baba Mahmud was one of the Shia Imam Ali’s sons and therefore, the place of worship should be under the Shia Endowment’s control. According to Kaka’i representatives, the government did not respond to their request for the return of the Baba Mahmud House of Worship and because there was no endowment for the Kaka’i, the group had no legal recourse. Kaka’i representatives also reported that the Sunni Endowment continued to occupy Kaka’i houses of worship in Kirkuk.

In October, the central government and KRG reached an agreement on cooperation with the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) on a framework for the security and political administration of Sinjar District as well as a pledge of future reconstruction and development efforts. According to Yezidi parliamentarian Saeb Khudur, the agreement, although criticized by members of the Yezidi community for not having involved Yezidis in the negotiations, included many longstanding Yezidi requests, including providing a framework for appointing a mayor, the removal of the PKK from the district, and the recruitment of 2,500 Yezidi local police. The United Nations and several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, and Jordan, among others, stressed that for implementation to succeed, diverse sections of the Yezidi community, as well as others in Sinjar, needed be included in discussions on implementation. Yezidi leaders said they were particularly apprehensive about what removal of the PKK would entail, given the membership of several thousand Yezidis in the PKK-affiliated YBS.

Based on local media reports, there was increasing social recognition of the genocide that ISIS committed against the Yezidis. Cross-sectarian genocide commemoration events took place on August 3 for the third consecutive year. On August 3, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani issued a statement on the sixth anniversary of the genocide against the Yezidis, calling on “all parties to reconstruct Sinjar, normalize the conditions in the city, and to ensure that they are free of any foreign armed forces or militias,” adding, “The security and stability of the region should be protected in coordination between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government.” Barzani stated, “The efforts of the Kurdistan Regional Government are still ongoing in order to liberate the remaining kidnapped Yezidis,” and he called on “the federal government to work to compensate and assist the displaced Yezidis.”

In October, Yezidi parliamentarian Khaleda Khalel of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) submitted a bill to the Iraqi COR presidency to recognize the 2014 Yezidi genocide, stating that the law would compel the government to take responsibility for the victims, strengthen accountability for those who committed crimes against humanity, and provide psychological and medical care as well as reparations to the victims and survivors of ISIS crimes.

According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts continued to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

In September, the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs announced the first Zoroastrian temple would soon open in Erbil. According to a community source, the temple, supported by Yasna and located in a Yasna-run facility, was opened in December with the participation of Zoroastrian worshipers and a representative from KRG MERA in attendance.

In August, as part of an initiative to encourage minority religious groups to remain in the country, Prime Minister Kadhimi called on Christian emigres to return to the country. Leaders of non-Muslim communities continued to state that corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.

On November 14, Ammar Hakim, a politician and cleric as well as the head of the National Wisdom Movement, a coalition of political parties, said Christians were an important part of the country and emphasized the need to support Christians and others who suffered because of ISIS, including IDPs in the Ninewa Plain. On December 19, Hakim called for justice for Yezidis and the reconstruction of their cities.

The Central Post Office, under the authority of the Ministry of Communications, issued a set of postage stamps in October celebrating churches in Baghdad and their history. The stamps were designed by the Christian Endowment and printed at the Central Post Office. The issuance was part of an initiative by the Ministry of Communication to document the religious diversity of Iraqi society.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were continued reports of societal violence by sectarian armed groups across the country, but no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country continued to improve, reports of societal violence, mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias, continued. Members of non-Muslim minority groups reported abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Shia religious and government leaders continued to urge PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses. In November, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNAMI, told the UN Security Council during a videoconference that she was encouraged by improvements in the security situation in the country, with dramatically reduced levels of violence. She said that notwithstanding the improvements, forced disappearances and killings continued, and there was still a pressing need for justice and accountability.

In August, security forces reported that unidentified individuals set fire to a house belonging to a Kaka’i family in the Arab village of Kewey, in Kirkuk. No causalities were reported. Kaka’is said they believed the arson was the result of an Arab-Kaka’i land dispute.

On November 14, al-Abbas Combat Division, one of the brigades of the “PMF of the Shia Marjaiya in Najaf,” announced it had organized an aid campaign for Yezidis living in Ninewa Province.

On November 18, Yezidi Prince Hazim Tahseen Beg named Ali Elias Hajj as the new baba sheikh, following the death of Baba Sheikh Khartu Haki Ismail on October 1. According to some Yezidis, the selection of Ali over Khartu’s son Farhad sparked controversy within the Yezidi community because Farhad reportedly enjoyed widespread support of Yezidi religious, tribal, and community leaders. Yezidis opposed to naming Elias Hajj stated there was undue political influence by the KDP in the selection process.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when these observances coincided with Shia Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura. There were continued reports that members of non-Muslim minority groups felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior. Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after experiencing continual harassment.

In July, the Roman Catholic Church-affiliated organization Aid to the Church in Need released a report saying that the country’s Christian community faced “extinction.” The report stated that Christians living in the Ninewa Plain reported lack of security, and that 87 percent said they experienced this lack “very much,” or “remarkably.” Almost 70 percent of Christians cited violent local militia activity and the possibility of a return of ISIS as among the main reasons for this fear; 69 percent said these concerns were the primary reason they were considering emigrating. Christians also listed unemployment (70 percent), financial and administrative corruption (51 percent), and religious discrimination (39 percent) at the social level as the major challenges that pushed them to emigrate.

According to media reports, a mob set fire to the Dijla television station in Baghdad after it aired a program featuring music around the Ashura commemoration. A court issued a warrant for the station’s administrative head for “intentionally insulting the rites of a religious sect.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy addressed at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including then Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Issues raised included the presence of undisciplined armed groups in minority areas and creating conditions for the safe and voluntary return of displaced populations. These messages were reinforced through public speeches, and embassy interagency coordination groups promoted religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance. The bilateral Strategic Dialogue held in Washington, D.C. in August provided additional opportunities to highlight the need for outreach to the country’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities.

Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of members of religious minority groups – insecurity, lack of employment, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist in addressing these concerns. Efforts included promoting recruitment of members of minority groups into security forces operating on the Ninewa Plain. UNITAD and the embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, the central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards. U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, medical supplies, psychosocial support, and other interventions, including for education and livelihoods.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional ministries of education, justice (which includes the functions of the former national Ministry of Human Rights), labor, and social affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of members of religious minority groups and the protection of their rights.

The U.S. government awarded $9 million in small grants directly to seven local faith-based and community organizations in the north of the country for programs that were in progress during the year. In the Ninewa Plain, U.S. government officials or staff worked with an additional 83 local organizations and 17 faith-based organizations to provide assistance with recovery, including livelihoods, health, legal, and social cohesion services to minority communities in the northern part of the country. The U.S. government continued to rebuild critical infrastructure with the aim of restoring essential services, while also rebuilding heavily damaged and destroyed shelters in religious and ethnic minority communities.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Erbil continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.

The Ambassador and the Consul General in Erbil met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address the groups’ concerns, particularly regarding security and protection. Embassy officials met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: Israel

West Bank and Gaza

Executive Summary

The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation. The 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state.” The 2018 Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People law determines, according to the government, that “the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” In June, authorities charged Zion Cohen for carrying out attacks on May 17 on religious institutions in Petah Tikva, Ashdod, Tel Aviv, and Kfar Saba. According to his indictment, Cohen sought to stop religious institutions from providing services to secular individuals, thereby furthering his goal of separating religion and the state. He was awaiting trial at year’s end. In July, the Haifa District Court upheld the 2019 conviction and sentencing for incitement of Raed Salah, head of the prohibited Islamic Movement, for speaking publicly in favor an attack by the group in 2017 that killed two police officers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In his defense, Salah stated that his views were religious opinions rooted in the Quran and that they did not include a direct call to violence. He was in prison at year’s end. The government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount (the site containing the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque). Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign” after dawn prayers. Starting in January at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, Islamic organizations, including Hamas, called on worshippers to gather for Friday fajr prayers to defend the sites against Israeli “violations.” On July 2, the Jerusalem Police informed the Jordanian government’s Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) that they had petitioned the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court requesting the closure of the Bab al-Rahma/Gate of Mercy, a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, on the grounds that the move was necessary because of evidence that the building had been used in 2003 by an organization affiliated with Hamas. On January 1, the Department for Investigations of Police Officers (DIPO) indicted a detective from the Beit Shemesh police for assault and obstruction of justice after he detained an ultra-Orthodox protester and pulled him by his earlock. Following the announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab countries, Muslim visitors from the Gulf were at times harassed in person or vilified on social media by Muslim and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem for visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site in coordination with the government. The Palestinian Authority-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (who has no authority over the site) issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Waqf (which administers the site) rejected it, stating that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf. The government continued to implement some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Some minority religious groups complained about what they said was a 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.

In June, a Catholic friar reported being assaulted in public by three men wearing kippot (yarmulkes) who spit at and verbally attacked him before assaulting him physically. Yuri Logvanenko, a chef formerly employed by the Rehovot branch of the Yochanof supermarket chain, filed suit against the store after the chain demoted and then fired him after his Jewish identity was questioned by a kashrut (the body of Jewish religious laws concerning the suitability of food, the fitness for use of ritual objects, etc.) supervisor. According to press reports, on August 5, former member of the Knesset (MK) Moshe Feiglin posted a comment on Facebook calling the massive August 4 explosion in the port of Beirut “a gift from God” in time for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Tu B’av. Press and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said that the COVID-19 outbreak intensified tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis, some of whom shared viral videos showing large gatherings at ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals to reinforce a stereotype that the ultra-Orthodox disregarded state authority and the public good. Many ultra-Orthodox stated they disagreed with COVID-19 restrictions that limited religious gatherings but permitted months of large demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In its 2020 Israel Religion and State Index poll (of 800 adult Jews) published in September, the NGO Hiddush found that 65 percent of respondents identified as either secular (47 percent) or “traditional not religious” (18 percent), whose positions regarding public policy on religion and state were close to the positions of secular Israelis.

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 Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. 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.

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). 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.” This includes those who identify as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures, such as many immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There are also relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaite Jews, 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 77 percent of the country’s 180,000 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 the annual religion and state poll conducted by religious freedom NGO Hiddush, 60 percent of Jewish citizens do not affiliate with any religious group, 17 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 12 percent “ultra-Orthodox” (including 2 percent “Zionist ultra-Orthodox”), 7 percent “Reform,” and 4 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 563,200 Jews, 345,800 Muslims, and 12,850 Christians live in the current municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 936,400 as of 2019.

According to government and NGO data, there are approximately 330,000 foreign workers in the country, including 97,000 documented Palestinian workers; 31,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; 98,000 migrant workers with permits, 77,000 non-Palestinian undocumented workers (either migrant workers without a permit or tourists who overstayed their visa); and 31,000 asylum seekers, of whom an unknown number work. Foreign workers and asylum seekers include Protestants, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population include 30,000 Filipinos, 15,000 Indians, 5,000 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 individuals from South American countries.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The 2018 “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People” (Nation State Law) 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 laws. Municipalities may levy property taxes on religious properties not used for prayer, such as schools, monasteries, pilgrim hostels, and soup kitchens.

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

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

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

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

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled since 1993 that Jews have the right to pray on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but police can restrict this right in the name of public order and safety. The court reiterated in 2019 that its precedent on this issue is nonintervention in government decisions, “except in highly unusual cases when the decision constitutes a major distortion of justice or is extremely unreasonable.” The court upheld this position again in a decision on May 19.

The “Nakba Law” prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during 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 younger than 18 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 semiprivate) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools. Palestinian residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction. Some Israeli-funded public schools in Jerusalem use the Palestinian Authority curriculum. Religious education is part of the Palestinian Authority curriculum for students in grades one through six in these schools, with separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students in these schools could choose which class to take but could 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. The Population and Immigration Authority of the MOI recognizes Conservative and Reform conversions in the country for the purpose of being registered as Jewish in the population registry; however, those who convert through a non-Orthodox denomination, whether inside or outside Israel, are not able to obtain such religious services as marriage, divorce, or burial in a Jewish cemetery. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under this law regardless of the religious beliefs under which they were raised. The law considers those who were eligible for immigration and those who converted as adults 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, explicitly 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 some 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. The Jordanian Waqf administers Islamic courts in Jerusalem for Muslim residents, with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Jordan having appellate authority.

In accordance with halacha (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 example, if the couple lives abroad in a location where there is no rabbinical court).

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

Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late nineteenth century).

Religious Jewish women and ultra-Orthodox men may request an exemption from military service. For most ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Druze religious students, military service is postponed for several years, after which they receive an exemption. A petition on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men was pending at the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Arab Muslims and Christians as well as Druze and Circassian women receive a de-facto exemption by not being called for military service. Those exempt from military service may volunteer for it or for 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 450,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized are recorded as “lacking religion.” The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent.

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 Minister of Labor and Welfare to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse 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.

The law includes hostility based on the victim’s religion as an aggravating circumstance in a murder charge, making the offense punishable by life imprisonment.

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

The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant or factory’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws. On August 31, in response to a 2017 Supreme Court ruling, the Chief Rabbinate released guidelines formally permitting restaurants and other food businesses to display a declaration regarding the kashrut standards they observe and the organization that supervises those standards. A business may not use the words “kosher” or “certificate” and must clearly state that it does not have a kashrut license from the rabbinate.

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

Government Practices

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

On June 7, authorities charged Zion Cohen in the Central District Court for arson and attempted arson, producing and holding weapons, breaking and entering, and attempting to destroy property with explosive materials. The Ministry of Justice said Cohen, a resident of the Golan Heights, carried out attacks on May 17 on the Rabbinical Court in Petah Tikva, the Ashdod Religious Council, the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, the Kfar Saba Religious Council, and the Kfar Saba Rabbinical Court. According to his indictment, Cohen sought to stop religious institutions’ provision of services to secular individuals, thereby furthering his goal of separating religion and state. According to authorities, Cohen began visiting religious institutions around the country, posing as a homeless person, to collect information. He set off 12 devices simultaneously, causing thousands of shekels worth of damage. According to the newspaper Haaretz, the government also suspected Cohen of carrying out a 2005 attack on a Tel Aviv rabbinical court that caused 2.7 million shekels ($840,000) in damage. As of the year’s end, Cohen was awaiting trial.

In July, the Haifa District Court upheld the 2019 conviction and sentencing of Raed Salah for incitement after he spoke at the 2017 funeral of three terrorists in favor of an attack that they had carried out earlier in the year that killed two police officers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In the sermon, Salah, head of the prohibited Islamic Movement, described the men as “martyrs of al-Aqsa.” In his 2019 defense, Salah stated that his views were religious opinions rooted in the Quran and that they did not include a direct call to violence. The three-judge appellate panel said that Salah’s arguments were “outrageous.” On August 15, Salah briefly addressed hundreds of supporters gathered outside Kishon Prison, where he was about to begin his 28-month sentence (including 11 months credited for time served), stating, “Every Muslim and Arab in the world is proud of you. I do not respect the court’s decision.”

On January 1, DIPO indicted a detective from the Beit Shemesh police for assault and obstruction of justice after detaining an ultra-Orthodox protester in 2019 and pull him by his earlock. The police suspended the officer, and authorities continued to investigate the case as of November.

On December 4, police arrested an Orthodox Jewish man for trying to set fire to the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The suspect poured flammable liquid inside the Catholic church and set it on fire before a church guard detained him and police took him into custody. On December 31, a judge found the assailant mentally incompetent and remanded him to a psychiatric institution for up to 20 years.

On December 22, press outlets reported that hundreds of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators blocked several main roads in Jerusalem to protest the arrest of 20-year-old yeshiva student Shechna Rotenberg, who failed to report for induction into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after being conscripted. The protestors threw bottles at police who responded to the demonstration, injuring three. Protestors also surrounded the car of a senior IDF officer, Major General Yoel Strick, whom they identified as he passed by the area, threatening to physically harm him. A special police unit rescued Strick after he drew his handgun in self-defense. Police arrested three demonstrators.

Press reports stated that, on December 7, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators protested in Jerusalem against light rail construction on Bar Ilan Street, which borders neighborhoods inhabited by ultra-Orthodox Jews, arguing that it would harm the ultra-Orthodox character of the area. Police said 25 protesters were arrested, saying that one of them had been in possession of a pocketknife, a baton, and pepper spray. Organizers of the protest posted signs that said “Ultra-Orthodox Judaism will in no way accept the destruction of its neighborhoods, and the ultra-Orthodox of Jerusalem will all stand firmly…and will not rest until the complete abolition of the horrific decree.”

The government continued to allow controlled access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with only Muslims permitted to engage in religious worship there. The government stated it understood the post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to allow non-Muslim visitors but prohibit non-Islamic worship on the compound, while Israel respects Jordan’s “special role” at the site, as reflected in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty. Muslim representatives stated that they generally have a different understanding of the status quo and that the Waqf should have full autonomy in administering the site (reflecting wide Palestinian and Muslim rejection of Israeli authority or sovereignty at the site) and that only Muslim worshippers are entitled to unrestricted access to the site.

In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign,” after daily dawn prayers. Hamas and other Islamic organizations called on worshippers to gather for Friday fajr prayers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank to defend them against “violations” by Israeli Jews. Media reports on January 17 stated that police dispersed protestors at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after Friday dawn prayers. Press reports said that Palestinian demonstrators chanted slogans recalling the Muslim massacre of Jews at the Battle of Khaybar, near Medina, in the seventh century. Police broke up the impromptu demonstration without incident. Clashes between police and demonstrators occurred at other times near the site in January and February. Press reports stated that at least 10 Palestinian Muslims were injured by rubber bullets fired by police on January 31 and that police turned away “hundreds” of worshippers from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on February 7.

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administers the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The issue of the use of the Bab al-Rahma/Gate of Mercy, a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount that was reopened by the Waqf in 2019 after it had been closed since 2003, remained unresolved. The government stated it regarded the reopening as a violation of the status quo. On July 2, Israeli police asked the Jerusalem Magistrate Court to reimpose the court-ordered closure of the building, stating, according to the media, that it would be used again by Hamas, based on evidence that the building had been used in 2003 by an organization affiliated with Hamas. Police asked the Waqf to close the building permanently. On July 12, the court asked the Waqf to provide its views within 60 days regarding the closure of the Bab al-Rahma. The Waqf stated that it did not recognize the authority of Israeli courts over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Throughout the year, Muslim worshippers could generally enter the site, although Israeli police regularly conducted security searches there.

Israeli media reported that security forces arrested six Muslim worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on January 7 for “shouting nationalist rhetoric.” Video of the incident showed police kicking one of those arrested. Police and the Waqf reached agreement to close the site from March 22 to May 31 to both Muslim and non-Muslim visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Waqf said it sought to close the site on one other occasion but kept it open because Israeli authorities did not agree to simultaneously close it to non-Muslim visitors. The Israeli government stated that the public regulations in place at that time did not mandate closure of the site. Government authorities closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, other houses of worship, and holy sites for Passover, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter holidays as well as for the Ramadan and Lenten seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Christian leaders stated that they were frustrated when Israel restricted indoor gatherings, including religious services, to 10 persons, saying that the cap was based on the number of men required for a minyan (a Jewish prayer quorum) and did not allow for greater numbers by taking into account the size of religious buildings and ability to socially distance safely. Israeli authorities made exceptions to health restrictions for Easter and Christmas services, allowing greater but still limited public attendance. Authorities also restricted the size of synagogue congregations during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Government restrictions on gathering for prayer varied from March through December due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During a nationwide lockdown in the spring, no gatherings were allowed, including for prayer; at other times, prayer gatherings of 10 to 20 persons were allowed, including in roped-off groups at the Western Wall. Guidelines at other periods were more lenient.

On January 29, Israeli authorities briefly closed the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after two Palestinians were arrested for attempting to carry out a stabbing attack against police.

On September 6, an association of Islamic leaders in Jerusalem issued a statement accusing police and authorities of violating the sanctity of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by erecting ladders and installing loudspeakers at the entrance to the Lions Gate. The Waqf posted photos showing the police and other staff mounting the roof and installing the equipment. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the speakers were installed outside the compound and were for the safety of individuals visiting the site.

Authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site or incited others to violence, and public figures whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. Banned individuals included Waqf guards and administrative and maintenance staff and imams delivering sermons at the site. The Wadi Hilweh Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 46 Waqf staff during the year. The government stated the police banned individuals from accessing the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount only in cases of violation of public order or a disturbance to the freedom of worship. The government said that these bans were authorized according to procedures approved by police officials and courts, and that they targeted both Jews and Muslims who “called for violence and disrupted the peace” at the site. According to the government, 225 individuals, including Jews and Muslims, were banned from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for different time periods. The Wadi Hilweh Information Center reported Israeli authorities banned 315 individuals from the site during the year.

While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, as well as Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Palestinian civil society organizations said that starting in November, police checked the identify cards of individuals entering the Old City to visit the site for Friday prayers and would bar from entry those with West Bank identity cards and return them to the West Bank.

Media outlets reported Israeli authorities barred prominent Muslims from the site for periods of time. Radwan Amr, director of the manuscripts department at al-Aqsa Mosque was barred for six months. Sheikh Issam Amireh, a senior leader of the Hizb al-Tahrir political party, was also barred for six months after he called the beheading of a teacher by a Muslim terrorist in France a “great honor for all Muslims” during a sermon at the site. On January 18, the Israeli police barred Ekrima Sabri, the imam of the al-Aqsa Mosque, head of the private Islamic Higher Committee in Jerusalem, and the former Palestinian Grand Mufti, from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for a period of four months after accusing him of incitement in a January 17 sermon. On May 29, authorities detained Sabri again and later informed him that he would not be allowed to visit the site for an additional four months. On October 28, police raided the office of the deputy director of the Waqf, Najeh Bkirat, in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and told him to report to the intelligence services in seven days, when he was told that he would be banned from entering the site for six months. According to media, Bkirat was banned for “incitement” against the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries, and against the visitors from those countries to the site, as well as for his possible linkages to Hamas. On November 26, authorities presented him with an order that he would not be allowed in the site for three months. Bkirat told the International Middle East Media Center in November that since 2003, police had banned him from the site 21 times for a period of more than seven years, adding: “In 2019, I was admitted into the mosque only for one week.”

In addition, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities at times restricted some Muslims based on gender and age from entering the site. Israeli authorities have not issued permits for Gazans to visit the site during Muslim holidays since 2017, when it issued a few hundred permits during Ramadan, according to UN reports. Muslims who are Israeli citizens, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, or foreigners already present in Israel do not need permits to visit the site.

The Waqf also said that Israeli authorities interfered in the administration of the site by the Waqf, including maintenance and restoration work. Israeli officials and activists stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities. For example, pictures on the Waqf’s Facebook page showed their personnel digging at the site on March 31, while the site was closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the police banning individual Waqf staff members from visiting the site, the Waqf said that it had a greatly reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff.

In January, the Attorney General allowed the Chief Rabbinate, for the first time, to issue indictments against business owners who presented their products as kosher without having a kashrut certificate. During the year, the rabbinate filed 21 such indictments.

In July, the Chief Rabbinate council exempted, for the first time, importers of foods from presenting a local kashrut certificate prior to receiving a kosher stamp when the imported product already had been certified as kosher by a local kosher certification agency or rabbi.

Some religious minority groups complained of lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. Data from the NGO Tag Meir, which tracks hate crimes, and from media reports indicated in recent years authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites in the country.

According to the most recent data from the MRS, 30,260 individuals applied for Jewish marriage during the year, although no figures were available regarding the number of those who were asked by rabbinical courts to prove their Jewish identity. In 2019, 34,083 individuals registered a Jewish marriage and rabbinical courts instructed 3,064 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage. One-and-a-half percent of the 4,449 cases of proving Jewish lineage closed in 2019 were unsuccessful, some of which carried over from previous years. Jewish couples who could not marry through the rabbinate or travel abroad to marry due to government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions generally were left without an opportunity to marry. Similarly, those who otherwise wanted to marry outside the rabbinate were left without an alternative due to the pandemic. According to the CBS, 9,021 weddings took place abroad and were later registered in the country during 2018, the most recent data available.

In late December, according to the press and NGOs, several couples married online in the state of Utah in order to circumvent the law’s requirement that marriages must be performed according to the religious statutes of a recognized religious community in order to be registered. The Population Immigration and Border Authority accepted four couples’ marriage certificates and registered the marriages, including of a lesbian couple. Upon learning of the loophole, Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri ordered the registration process for the couples to be stopped to allow further review by senior officials. According to the NGO Hiddush, this action contradicted previous Supreme Court verdicts.

On August 17, the Jerusalem Administrative Court ruled that an initiative of the Jerusalem municipality to hold small ceremonies in public venues during the COVID-19 pandemic must not discriminate against couples who could not or were not interested in an Orthodox ceremony, although such marriages could not be officially registered.

On June 21, the Tel Aviv Municipality announced that it would allow couples who could not or chose not to marry under current laws to register and enjoy all the rights and financial benefits provided to married couples by the municipality. According to the announcement, LGBTI couples, interfaith couples, couples who could not marry under current laws, and secular couples who did not want to marry in the rabbinate were among those allowed to register. Registration as a couple provided discounts on such items as property taxes and preschool registration for children. Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai stated the city was taking the step to celebrate gay pride week, and the municipal government had decided to “challenge the [central] government [on the issue of civil marriage] and enable partnership based on a declaration.” The Ramat Gan and Rishon LeTzion municipalities adopted similar policies in November and December.

Local authorities circumvented the ban on public transportation on Shabbat by funding privately operated bus lines. On March 26, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected a petition filed by the NGO Chotam against the operation of transportation services on Shabbat by the Ramat Gan municipality, arguing that the services were planned to balance the different needs of Ramat residents, and an effort was made to minimize passage through religious areas. According to a September Hiddush poll, 71 percent of Jewish citizens were in favor of transportation on weekends, including 96 percent of citizens who described themselves as secular.

Women’s rights organizations, including the Israel Women’s Action Network, expressed concern about gender segregation in publicly funded or sponsored events and in academia, to accommodate ultra-Orthodox and some Orthodox Jews.

The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate. As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country. Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, however, officiated at a growing number of these ceremonies outside of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. The government continued not to allow Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim) to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha.

On August 4, following a 2019 order by the Supreme Court, an additional closed hearing was held by an expanded panel of the Supreme Court 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 2019, the petitioners argued that the rabbinical court put a heavy weight on the adultery in its decision, which they said should not be a consideration in decisions regarding property. The case was pending as of year’s end.

According to the NGO Mavoi Satum, not wanting to be married is not one of the specific causes for divorce allowed based on halacha, and over the years, some rabbinical courts have ruled against this argument as a cause for divorce. According to Mavoi Satum, in two cases during the year, rabbinical courts overreached their authority by allowing recalcitrant husbands to reopen negotiations over divorce agreements signed between partners and validated by another rabbinical court.

On September 21, the Supreme Court ordered the Minister of Justice to hold a disciplinary hearing for the chief rabbi of the city of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, for making racist and offensive statements against Arabs and for defaming state institutions following a 2016 petition against his comments filed by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs. The court stated, however, that comments the rabbi made against Arab, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community based on his religious perspective were protected within his freedom of speech as a city rabbi.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with police officers stationed inside the site and at entrances. Police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance through which non-Muslims entered the site and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access, citing security concerns.

Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer there. The government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the site; Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated this view in a campaign event in March. However, NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that in practice, police generally allowed discreet non-Muslim prayer on the site. 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 with police escort.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the al-Aqsa Mosque, unless they were participating in a Waqf-sponsored visit. The Waqf 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 objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals whom they perceived to be dressed immodestly or who caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials exercised only a limited oversight. The government extended visiting hours in the afternoon by 30 minutes to prevent large groups forming at the entrance for non-Muslims in accordance with COVID-19 health restrictions.

Following the announcement of normalized relations with several Arab countries, Muslim visitors from the Gulf were at times harassed in person and vilified on social media by Palestinian Muslims for visiting the site. The Palestinian Authority Mufti of Jerusalem, who has no authority over holy sites, issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Jordanian Waqf rejected the fatwa. The Waqf stated that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf. The government welcomed these visits as a positive outcome of normalization and as a demonstration of freedom of religion.

The NGO Returning to the Mount filed a petition to the Supreme Court May 4 demanding the government allow Jewish visitors to enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The NGO argued that the arrangement at that time – in which only Muslim Waqf staff were allowed to enter the site due to the COVID-19 pandemic – discriminated against Jews who wished to visit. The court rejected the petition on May 19, stating it did not find grounds to interfere with the government’s discretion. On June 23, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond by November 21 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 Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The case was ongoing as of the years’ end. The Waqf and others criticized non-Muslim visitors who entered the site escorted by police as “settlers” and said they “stormed” the site.

Many Jewish religious leaders, including the government-appointed rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for reasons of ritual purity. Some Jewish religious leaders, MKs, and activists called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors.

The government continued to allow MKs and ministers to visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. MKs were required to inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with police.

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

Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.

Within COVID-19 limitations, authorities allowed Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in a barricaded portion of the women’s area of the main Western Wall, or as a pod at the rear of the main plaza along with other separated prayer pods. However, when the Western Wall was open for prayers by groups of only 10 people at a time, Women of the Wall reported that rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz rejected their April 19 request for a group of 10 women from Jerusalem to pray there, despite approving such requests for ultra-Orthodox visitors from outside of Jerusalem.

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 main plaza, 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 police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. A 2017 petition to the Supreme Court by Women of the Wall asking that ushers and police prevent disruption of their services was under review at year’s end.

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. The Supreme Court criticized the government on November 4 for its lack of progress since 2018 on upgrading the area to a permanent egalitarian prayer space. The government blamed the delay on multiple rounds of national elections, the COVID-19 pandemic, and an obstacle posed by a Jerusalem municipality planning committee, but also stated that it was not under a legal obligation to implement the construction plan. The court ordered the government to make progress by April 4, 2021. This case was a combination of lawsuits against the government, some dating back to 2013, that would allow prayer for all religious streams of Judaism at the Western Wall. In 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that would have offered them symbolic recognition, in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. In 2018, a special government committee approved expansion of the temporary platform. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill their 2016 agreement with the government. The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year. In addition, observers stated that scaffolding prevented visitors from touching the sacred wall in the egalitarian prayer space since a rock fell there in 2018. Over the same period, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation managed large construction projects in the main plaza, making routine inspections for loose rocks at the main plaza without blocking access to the wall.

The government continued to promote the establishment of a cable car route from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City that would pass over a Karaite cemetery. In September, the Jerusalem Municipality published a tender for the construction of the cable car, and on September 9, a Jerusalem local planning committee approved the expropriation of more than 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) of private lands, mostly in Silwan, for construction of the project. According to the Karaite community, the cable car would desecrate the cemetery, thus preventing its further use. The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, but some NGOs said the project was meant to specifically promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem and to reinforce Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the area. The plan was pending final approval from the government at year’s end. Three petitions against the cable car, filed by the Karaite community, the NGO Emek Shaveh, and the NGO Israel Union for Environmental Defense were pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end.

After workers sent by the Jerusalem municipality demolished a wall and stairs in the Islamic al-Yusufiye Cemetery to make way for a park in November, local Palestinians gathered in protest and the work stopped. On December 24, the Jerusalem District Court issued a temporary restraining order against the municipality, forcing the city to suspend its work. The cemetery, which is hundreds of years old, is affiliated with the Islamic Waqf and adjacent to the Old City.

The barrier that divided the majority of the occupied West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons.

On November 30, a court cited the country’s Nation State Law in dismissing a lawsuit brought by two Arab schoolchildren against their northern town of Carmiel, ruling that the town’s “Jewish character” must be preserved. The children’s family asked to be reimbursed for expenses incurred for traveling to an Arabic-speaking school outside the city, because there are no such schools in Carmiel which has a population that is only 6 percent Arab. Although the court provided seven reasons for dismissing the suit, Haaretz reported that the ruling drew “criticism for citing the controversial nation-state law passed in 2018, which officially defines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people and asserts that ‘the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people’” and for stipulating that the Jewish people alone, as a people, have the right to self-determination in Israel. According to the magistrate court judge’s ruling, “Carmiel is a Jewish city which is intended to strengthen Jewish settlement in the Galilee.” The court ruling also said “The development of Jewish settlement is therefore a national value, one anchored in basic law. It ought to be an appropriate and dominant consideration in the array of municipal considerations, including for the issue of establishment schools and funding transportation.” A Justice Ministry attorney told a Knesset panel that the Nation State Law should not impinge on the individual civil rights of non-Jews. In a separate court proceeding, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit stated that he believed the dismissal of the case expressed a misinterpretation of that law. The children’s family said they would appeal the court’s decision. Bills to cancel or amend the Nation State Law have been submitted in the Knesset but have not been approved.

Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, continued to criticize the Nation State Law. On December 22, the Supreme Court heard 15 petitions filed by human rights groups and Arab and Druze citizens asking the court to strike down the law and declare as unconstitutional several specific articles the plaintiffs said were discriminatory. As the court was hearing arguments in the case, Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that the Supreme Court “has no authority to debate the validity of Basic Laws,” adding that the court “is not an absolute ruler.”

In 2019, six Orthodox women halacha students and NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court to permit women to take halacha examinations used to ordain rabbis. While Orthodox women cannot become rabbis, passing the examinations is equal to receiving a bachelor’s degree and grants an advantage when applying for certain public sector positions. On June 29, in its response to the petition, the government proposed to establish a parallel examination operated by the Ministry of Education rather than the rabbinate. On June 30, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef threatened that the rabbinate would not conduct any exams to ordain state-authorized rabbis, including for men, if the court ruled that women could be ordained, in contradiction to halacha. On July 27, the Supreme Court issued an injunction ordering the government to explain why the rejection of registration of women for halacha examinations does not constitute discrimination and why the court should not rule that the Chief Rabbinate must allow women to register for such examinations. At year’s end, the case was still pending.

Separate public and semipublic school systems varied widely in educational quality, according to NGOs and international organizations. Muslim, Christian, Druze, and ultra-Orthodox students passed the matriculation exam at lower rates than their non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish counterparts.

The government continued operating educational and scholarship programs to benefit Arab students. Between the academic years 2009/10 and 2020/21, the percentage of Arab students rose significantly in all university degree programs, increasing from 13 percent to 19 percent in undergraduate programs, from 7 percent to 15 percent in master’s programs, and from 5 percent to 7 percent in doctoral programs, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

According to the press, in June, a kosher supervisor from the Chief Rabbinate revoked the kashrut certificate of Kalo Cafe, a Jerusalem restaurant, for allegedly allowing a Palestinian cook to operate kitchen equipment in contravention of Kashrut rules that only allow Jews to do so. The cafe’s owner decided to renounce the kashrut certification, which the restaurant had maintained for 25 years, and said he regarded the rabbinate’s suggestion that he fire his employee as “racist.” Social media users protested the certificate decision on the Chief Rabbinate’s Facebook page, which, according to the Times of Israel, evoked “insulting” responses from the rabbinate’s account, for which the Chief Rabbinate apologized; the responses were also deleted.

In June, Falafel HaTeomim, a restaurant in Givataim, stopped paying the rabbinate for supervision of its kitchen after 42 years due to a downturn in business caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rabbinate subsequently withdrew its kosher certificate for the restaurant and according to media reports, placed notices in the nearby city of Bnei Brak that the rabbinate could no longer certify the restaurant as kosher and that the public should “know and beware.” Strong public reactions supporting the restaurant and its owners and against the rabbinate followed the press reports, including from the chair of the Reform movement, who said the rabbinate was “rotten from its base, filled with corruption and inconsiderate of business owners.”

In June, city officials in Lod stated that the Islamic call to prayer, particularly at high volume and in the early hours of the morning, was a violation of city ordinances. According to the website Al-Monitor, for several months municipal authorities measured the volume of the call to prayer and issued warnings to the imams of local mosques. The authorities asked police to enforce the law, stating the mosques were disturbing the peace. They also asked the MOI to summon one of the mosques’ imams to a hearing, stating that since his salary was paid by the ministry, he should follow their instructions. In April, Arab members of the city council, local imams, and the People’s Committee of Lod sent a letter demanding that the municipality refrain from intervening in the calls to prayer. The letter was distributed in mosques and stated that the muezzin and the call to prayer represented “our Islamic presence, identity, and roots.” The letter said the city’s efforts regarding the calls to prayer were a declaration of a “religious war” and that the clerics and the Arab leadership in the city would not be responsible if the situation worsened.

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 and MOI continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country. In June, the press reported that Interior Minister Aryeh Deri asked the Prime Minister to support a bill that was aimed at giving the rabbinate sole control over conversions, precluding private Orthodox conversions and those recognized by the Conservative and Reform movements.

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. On December 7, the Supreme Court, noting that the case had been pending since 2005 and that the government had filed numerous requests for delays while it sought a legislative solution, said that there was no reason to further delay a ruling. It asked the petitioners to update their legal briefs by December 21. The petition was pending at year’s end.

The rabbinate asked some individuals from the former Soviet Union to take DNA tests in order to prove their Jewish heritage. On January 22, the Supreme Court “erased” a petition against such DNA tests and gave the Chief Rabbinate a year to regulate the procedure, including setting clear criteria for when a test should be conducted and clarifying the meaning of refusal to be tested. If after one year the issue is not regulated, the court said the petitioners would be legally able to submit a new petition.

In February, Hiddush filed suit in the Jerusalem District Court challenging the Jerusalem municipality’s exclusion of synagogues representing Reform, Conservative, egalitarian Orthodox, and other independent Jewish communities as well as non-Jewish religious institutions (primarily Muslim and Christian) from the “Religion and Tradition” section of the municipal website, which only includes information about Orthodox synagogues and institutions. In July, after the city deleted the list of synagogues in the city from the municipal website, Hiddush stated the municipality took the step to avoid publicizing non-Orthodox synagogues and non-Jewish houses of worship.

According to a November 9 Times of Israel report, Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion and his administration proposed a plan to designate seats on Jerusalem community councils as either ultra-Orthodox or not. Jerusalem is the country’s only municipality to use community councils, which were established to provide greater communication between the city’s diverse populations and the municipal government. Each council has 15 members, nine elected and six appointed. Lion said the proposal was designed to reduce conflicts on the councils and to ensure that the views of minority communities were represented. Members of both the ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox communities expressed concerns about the proposal, with one describing it as “undemocratic.” There are eight community councils serving Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as well, but none of them has elected members.

On January 7, Ynet posted a video of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yosef speaking at a conference in which he referred to immigrants from the former Soviet Union as “not Jews at all,” “communists,” “hostile to religion,” and “haters of religion,” who “vote for parties that incite against the ultra-Orthodox and against religion.” The video also depicted Yosef saying the immigrants were brought to Israel to “act as a political weight against the ultra-Orthodox.” On February 16, the predominantly secular Yisrael Beitenu party filed a Supreme Court petition against the chief rabbi that demanded the court issue an injunction to force the Minister of Justice to explain why the religious court judges’ committee had not convened to discuss the termination of the chief rabbi and why a complaint had not been filed against him in the disciplinary tribunal. Reacting to the chief rabbi’s comments, the Prime Minister said that immigration from the former Soviet Union had been a “boon” for the country. The head of the Blue and White Party said that the chief rabbi needed to apologize and that the country had a “debt” to those who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

On July 9, media published a speech of Chief Rabbi Yosef in which he stated that Reform Judaism is “falsified Judaism.” On October 25 the ombudsman of the Israeli judiciary recommended the committee appointing rabbinic judges convene to discuss whether Chief Rabbi Yosef, who also acts as the president of the rabbinical court, should continue in this role, following a complaint by the NGO Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC) regarding his negative statements against the Reform movement, women, and the High Court of Justice. The chief rabbi stated that he stood behind his words.

Members of some minorities said that the government did not provide the same service and benefits to them as to the country’s majority Jewish population. In May, the Druze and Circassian communities called a general strike in their villages and protested in front of the Prime Minister’s office, complaining that budgetary funding for their communities at large and for their towns and villages was insufficient to meet their needs and that the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated their challenges. In May, Arab citizens’ local councils also led protests against what they described as the failure to offer Arab municipalities sufficient COVID-19 relief for tax shortfalls in those localities. Arab leaders also stated that there was insufficient information or COVID-19 testing provided to their community after the pandemic’s outbreak.

On April 30, a national labor court ordered an examination of retroactive salary compensation to 16 Ethiopian Israeli keisim (Jewish religious leaders) and rabbis as a result of wage gaps between them and other religious council employees from 1992 onward.

The MRS listed 28 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and West Bank settlements for civil burial and burial of persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only three were available for use to the general public regardless of residence, and one had been full for several years. The other cemeteries, located in agricultural localities, were permitted to bury only “residents of the area.” This, according to Hiddush, left the majority of the country’s population deprived of the ability to exercise its right, as mandated by law, to be buried in accordance with secular or non-Orthodox religious views. The two MRS-administered cemeteries in West Bank settlements were available only for the burial of Israeli citizens. On December 12, the Supreme Court, as a part of a petition by Hiddush, issued an order instructing the state to explain why it would not allow civil burial in agricultural localities for individuals who were not local residents and who do not have another alternative. The case was pending as of the end of the year.

According to Hiddush, an absolute majority of the MRS licenses for civil burial are held by Jewish Orthodox NGOs and religious councils. Some of these organizations, according to Hiddush, conducted a “less religious burial” rather than a secular one, did not allow burial in a coffin, and stated on their websites that their services were only for non-Jews. In an October letter, Hiddush called upon the Minister of Religious Services to cease issuing licenses to these groups and to set clear rules regarding the obligations of the organizations providing civil burial services.

The government again did not propose new draft legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews, despite its commitment to the Supreme Court following the 2017 Supreme Court verdict which struck down the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service. On November 3, after approving several postponements over the years, the Supreme Court rejected a government request to postpone the implementation of the verdict again, ruling that the amendment providing for the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service would be canceled on February 1, 2021. According to press reporting, the court determined that no additional deferrals would be granted to the government on the issue.

While some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of religious beliefs, the Ministry of Defense rejected this argument. The IDF reported increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox recruits since at least 2011, mainly into dedicated ultra-Orthodox units such as the Netzah Yehuda Battalion. A scandal arose in December 2019, however, when media reported that the IDF inflated the number of ultra-Orthodox men in its ranks over several years to meet its quotas. For example, 1,300 ultra-Orthodox men enlisted in 2017, but the IDF reported 3,070, according to KAN Radio. In 2018, the IDF established the Ultra-Orthodox Draft Administration. The commander of the administration, Lt. Col. Telem Hazan, opened an inquiry after an unnamed official asked him to file a falsified report with inflated numbers, according to press reports.

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

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 and young men studying in those yeshivas did not submit draft exemption applications. As a result, dozens of them were arrested every month, according to representatives of the community.

On August 9, the Supreme Court rejected a petition by members of the ultra-Orthodox Satmer community demanding an exemption from military service based on conscientious objection on religious grounds because they do not recognize the state. The court ruled it would not intervene in the state’s rejection of a blanket exemption for a specific community.

According to the Karaite community’s NGO, during the year the IDF requested religious Karaite women who sought to be exempted from military service to declare their status as religious women at a rabbinical court, which would be contrary to their beliefs. Up until 2020, Karaite women were able to submit a letter from a Jewish Karaite court to the IDF to prove their status.

On June 28, the government’s Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council announced that it had ordered a U.S.-based evangelical broadcaster, GOD TV, off the air, saying the company’s Hebrew-language Shelanu channel hid its missionary agenda when it applied for a license. The chairman of the council, in explaining the decision, said, “The channel appeals to Jews with Christian content.” Its original request was for a “station targeting the Christian population.” In a statement, the broadcaster said that the license unambiguously states that the channel will broadcast Christian content in Hebrew to the general Israeli public and accused the council chairman of revoking the license because he was close to former Communications Minister David Ansalem, who had condemned the license granted to the Shelanu channel before he left the ministry. A spokesman said the Shelanu channel would reapply for a license. According to Haaretz, several government ministers and the Chief Rabbinate were among those who complained to the council about the station’s proselytizing of Israeli Jews. During the council’s review of the station’s license following public criticism of its programming, Shelanu said that the threat to suspend its license was unprecedented and that such a suspension “could constitute blatant discrimination on the basis of religion.” On June 30, the cable provider that had carried the station said it would not act on Shelanu’s behalf to reapply for the license.

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

The Center of Scientology Israel reported that it was targeted by the NGO Israeli Center for Victims of Cults (ICVC) and falsely categorized as a “domestic violence and familial sexual abuse” organization. ICVC was partially funded by the government and paid for a campaign to target Scientology online.

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, in official events and ceremonies.

A Supreme Court petition by Jehovah’s Witnesses that requested official recognition as a religious community was pending as of the year’s end. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite repeated requests, the government had not taken action on the group’s original 2017 application for recognition. The court had not reached a decision by year’s end.

The Knesset’s finance committee rejected applications for tax-deductible status by Jehovah’s Witnesses NGO Watchtower Association of Israel and the Messianic Jewish NGO Yachad Ramat Hasharon, despite objections from legal advisors in the Ministry of Justice and the Tax Authority. A petition by the Jehovah’s Witness to the Supreme Court regarding the matter was pending at the year’s end.

According to the Secular Forum, growing “religionization” (hadata) of the education system continued, including in textbooks and through programs in schools taught by Orthodox NGOs. On February 6, the Supreme Court issued an injunction ordering the Ministry of Education to explain why it should not expand its criteria to fund religious NGOs conducting Jewish education in secular schools to include pluralistic organizations conducting religious education in secular schools. According to Molad – The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, the hadata in schools was politically motivated with the goal of increasing support for settlers.

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, mathematics, and science curriculum. The government, however, included that 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.

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

Seventh-day Adventists and others who worshipped on Saturday stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem. Some 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 said 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 for, and periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world and that any visa delays or denials were due to security reviews. The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from countries that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Church officials noted that the clergy 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 members of Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with the religious community without acknowledging their right to conscientious objection. Because members of the community were not legally exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as alternative service.

The government employed an “appropriate representation” policy for non-Jewish minorities in the civil service. The percentage of Arab employees in the public sector was 12.2 percent (61.5 percent of them entry-level), according to the Civil Service Commission. The percentage of Arab employees in the 62 government-owned companies was approximately 2.5 percent; however, during the year Arab citizens held 12 percent of director positions in government-owned companies, up from 1 percent in 2000, and Arab workers held 11 percent of government positions, up from 5 percent in 2000, according to Sikkuy, an NGO that supports full equality between Jewish and Arab citizens.

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

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

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

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

In March, the NGOs Adalah and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking that it order the investigation of the death of teacher Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qian be reopened. Police shot and killed Abu al-Qian, a teacher in his fifties, in 2017 during an operation to demolish homes in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran, which was scheduled to be replaced by the Orthodox-only Jewish town of Hiran. After he was shot, Abu al-Qian’s car struck and killed a police officer. The government accused Abu al-Qian of intentionally killing the officer. The then-Minister of Public Security said Abu al-Qian was a “terrorist.” The NGOs’ petition disputed the details of the government’s account of the incident and presented a review of the police investigation by outside experts to support their argument that Abu al-Qian was driving at a speed of 10 kilometers (six miles) per hour when police opened fire, that the officer who shot Abu al-Qian did not believe his life was in danger, and that police and medical personnel had not provided medical care that may have saved Abu al-Qian’s life, but allowed him to bleed to death. Similar accounts appeared in the media, including in television news reports featuring internal police communications about the incident and the newspaper Haaretz. On September 13, Adalah and PCATI submitted an urgent motion to the Supreme Court for an immediate hearing on their March petition and asked for a reopening of the investigation. No hearing had been held by year’s end.

Bedouin residents in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran continued to not fulfill their 2018 agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura. The agreement followed years of legal battles and negotiations on replacing Umm al-Hiran with a new community called Hiran. Jewish 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 Jordanian-administered Waqf in Jerusalem) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. According to the Turkish press agency Anadolu, a study prepared by Kamal Khatib of the High Follow Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel found that since the War of Independence, 15 mosques had been converted into synagogues by the government, 40 mosques were either destroyed, closed, or abandoned, while 17 others had been turned into barns, bars, restaurants, or museums.

On June 8, the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality decided to resume construction of a homeless shelter on the remains of the Ottoman-era al-Issaf Islamic cemetery, sparking protests from Jaffa’s Arab citizen residents. While the protests remained mostly peaceful, some residents were arrested for violently confronting the police and destroying municipal property. Several Arab and ultra-Orthodox political parties publicly showed support for the demonstrators, calling on authorities to respect the sensitivity of burial sites. Two city council members from Jaffa resigned from the city’s ruling coalition to protest the municipality’s decision. The Tel Aviv District Court initially ordered all construction to cease due to lack of up-to-date construction permits, but later approved the construction. The Islamic Council of Jaffa petitioned the High Court of Justice to stop construction but asked the court to delete the petition on August 27. Construction resumed soon after, and the Tel Aviv Municipality committed to excavate the site using manual methods acceptable for burial sites and avoid harming the remains of the cemetery.

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 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. The petition remained pending at year’s end.

The Government Press Office requested journalists to refrain from reporting from ultra-Orthodox areas in April due to the occasion of Passover.

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

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The Supreme Court ordered the Beit Shemesh municipality to remove such signs in 2018 or face fines. While the municipality took down some signs, it did not fully implement the ruling, and some that were removed were replaced by new ones. The court extended the deadline for the removal of the signs to September 30 to allow the municipality to discuss the matter with the residents.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements.

On April 30, the Supreme Court ruled on a petition by NGOs Adalah and the Secular Forum against a ban on bringing nonkosher foods (known as hametz) into public hospitals during Passover. According to the verdict, hospitals must allow nonkosher food for Passover, while finding appropriate arrangements within 10 months that would allow keeping the hospital food kosher. The alternatives offered include establishing hametz areas or using disposable plates and utensils for hametz. On June 16, the Chief Rabbinate requested an additional hearing on the case; the court had not ruled on the request as of year’s end.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including in Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). A Christian religious leader expressed concern that this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively affected the long-term viability of their communities.

According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, 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; the limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; the difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community itself.

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

On June 24, the Jerusalem District Court denied a request by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the transfer of three properties in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish prosettlement organization, which signed a 99-year lease for the properties in 2004. The District Court’s decision followed similar rulings by the Supreme Court in 2019 and a lower court in 2017. The Church had argued that its official who signed the lease was not authorized to do so. The Church filed the district court lawsuit after the Supreme Court decision, stating it had new evidence of corruption and fraud involving the sale. Following the district court decision, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate released a statement saying it received the ruling with “surprise” and that “We believe the court erred in its decision and intend to launch an appeal at the Supreme Court.”

On July 7, 13 heads of churches and Christian communities in Jerusalem issued a joint statement that the court’s ruling on the three properties threatened Christian presence in the city. The heads of the churches said that they stood united in their “commitment to safeguarding the historical status quo of the Holy Sites and rights of the churches which are universally recognized.” According to the statement, the case represented a “systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the holy city, to obstruct the Christian pilgrim route, and to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.” The heads of the churches called on the Israeli government “to act in order to safeguard the integrity of the Christian heritage and patrimony in the Old City as well as the holy sites and the rights of the residents of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem.”

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

The Secular Forum and Hiddush continued to demand regular family visits to army bases on Shabbat, although the IDF committee established in 2019 following a petition by the Secular Forum and Hiddush concluded its work, according to a July 7 letter to Hiddush. In the letter, the IDF stated that the committee created unified procedures for visits on Shabbat but had not yet published them. Secular Forum and Hiddush originally petitioned the IDF because family visits on Shabbat were regularly cancelled.

The NGO Secular Forum reported that in response to complaints it had filed about IDF members being punished for using private refrigerators to store personal food items, the IDF issued an order allowing soldiers to bring outside food, including nonkosher food, into IDF facilities and to store nonkosher food in private or communal refrigerators.

The Israel Women’s Action Network and other women’s rights NGOs continued to cite a trend of gender segregation in government institutions, including the IDF. The NGOs said this increased accommodation of Jewish religious observance was intended to attract more personnel from groups that strictly interpreted Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes. In 2019, 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. The IDF chief of staff, in a response to Supreme Court petitions on the matter, announced he would extend the pilot program and make a final decision on the matter in 2022. 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.

According to a November report in the Jerusalem Post, the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court convicted an unnamed Bedouin man of polygamy and sentenced him to seven months in prison, the second such conviction in two years. According to a 2019 Associated Press report, 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. On August 14, Haaretz reported that the government said it would change its method for selling building lots in Bedouin communities in order to prevent them from being purchased by women in polygamous marriages. 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 August 19, Minister of Education Yoav Galant intervened in Bible studies curriculum by cutting out Jewish history satirical sketches from the television show HaYehudim Baim (The Jews are Coming), posted on a Ministry of Education’s website including supplementary content for Bible studies teachers, following a protest from Orthodox rabbis. On August 21, the NGO Association for Civil Rights in Israel demanded that the Attorney General instruct the Minister that he has no authority to intervene in the school curriculum.

At year’s end, the Knesset had 17 members from religious minorities (11 Muslims, four Druze, and two Christians). 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.

Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting on them. In one incident in June, a Catholic friar reported being assaulted in public by three men wearing kippot (yarmulkes) who spit at and verbally attacked him. When the attackers began physically assaulting the friar, bystanders intervened and forced the attackers to leave. According to the priest, police did not respond to telephone calls for assistance during the attack but recorded a complaint filed by the victim.

On November 16, an employee of the emergency medical service Magen David Adom was filmed spitting on Christian icons placed in a hallway of a building after he collected a sample for a coronavirus test. Magen David Adom dismissed the Jewish worker, who said he did it because the symbols were “idol worship.”

Yuri Logvanenko, a chef formerly employed by the Rehovot branch of the Yochanof supermarket chain, filed suit against the store after the chain demoted and then fired him after his Jewish status was questioned by a kashrut supervisor. Four days after Logvanenko started work at the branch, the store’s kashrut supervisor approached him and demanded in front of other employees that he prove his Jewish identity. His attorneys said that Logvanenko, who had worked at another Yochanof location for seven months prior to transferring to Rehovot, was “abused and harmed in his workplace” because he was born in the Soviet Union. Logvanenko stated that he felt he was the victim of “racism.”

According to press reports, on August 5, former Knesset member Moshe Feiglin posted a comment on Facebook calling the massive August 4 explosion in the port of Beirut “a gift from God,” in time for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Tu B’av. In a subsequent radio interview, Feiglin said “We are all allowed to rejoice in that it exploded in the port of Beirut and not Tel Aviv.” Observers noted that Feiglin’s comments were not representative of public and government sentiment. Many social media users described Feiglin’s comments as “hateful” and disturbing; the government worked through diplomatic channels to offer medical and humanitarian assistance to the government of Lebanon. Feiglin later removed the Facebook post. On December 30, President Reuven Rivlin reiterated that the “State of Israel will always be committed to freedom of religion.”

During the funeral of Iyad Halak, a Palestinian student who was fatally shot on May 30 by police officers, hundreds of mourners reportedly chanted “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of [the Prophet] Mohammed will return,” a taunt referring to the seventh century Muslim massacre and expulsion of the Jews of Khaybar. Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City fatally shot Halak, who had autism, on June 30 after he allegedly failed to follow police orders to halt. Police stated they believed Halak was carrying a “suspicious object.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed regret for the incident and called for a quick investigation. On October 21, DIPO issued a statement that the prosecution intended to indict, pending a hearing, a police officer suspected of the shooting on charges of reckless homicide. According to the Ministry of Justice, investigators carefully examined the circumstances of the incident and determined that Halak had not posed any danger to police and civilians who were at the scene, that the police officer discharged his weapon not in accordance with police procedures, and that the police officer had not taken proportionate alternative measures that were at his disposal.

On June 10, Women of the Wall and the IRAC filed a petition against Rabbi David Yosef of the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, demanding a disciplinary hearing following repeated statements in which he allegedly incited against and disdained Women of the Wall. The case was pending at year’s end.

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.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, following a 2019 complaint regarding an attack on two Jehovah’s Witnesses members during a door-to-door activity in Bat Yam, police summoned one of the members and told her that the individual who had attacked her later submitted a complaint against her for making threats and trespassing in her efforts to convert him to Christianity. According to the government, the investigation into the incident was ongoing at year’s end.

Members of the Lehava antiassimilation organization, described by press as a radical right-wing Jewish group opposing romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews, continued to criticize or assault Arab men who were in relationships with Jewish women and to harass “mixed” couples. In a September video released online, Lehava indicated that over the previous Jewish year it had “explained to 278 Arabs, in a language they understand, the prohibition on dating Jewish women.” A trial against Lehava director Ben-Tzion Gopstein for offenses of incitement to terrorism, violence, and racism opened on June 8 and was ongoing at year’s end. Lehava and 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 Yad L’Achim’s website.

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 wearing clothing that they perceived as immodest. The harassment included verbal abuse, spitting, and throwing stones.

Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, participation in the workforce, and adherence to COVID-19 regulations. Press and NGOs said that the COVID-19 outbreak intensified tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis, as viral videos showing large gatherings at ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals reinforced a stereotype that the ultra-Orthodox as a whole disregarded state authority and the public good. Many ultra-Orthodox stated they disagreed with COVID-19 restrictions that limited religious gatherings but permitted months of large demonstrations against Prime Minister Netanyahu.

On March 14, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a major figure in the ultra-Orthodox community, ordered his followers to continue studies in their yeshivas and to continue large weddings and funerals, despite Ministry of Health orders to the contrary. In late March, Kanievsky reversed his earlier decision and called for his followers to pray alone. As a result of widespread failure to obey government directives, the ultra-Orthodox community accounted for a disproportionately high percentage of the country’s COVID-19 cases, according to the press. On April 2, the government declared Bnei Brak, one of the country’s poorest and most densely populated cities with a large ultra-Orthodox population, to be a “restricted zone.” The government subsequently ordered the IDF into the city to provide relief services and security. One government expert estimated that up to 38 percent of the city’s 200,000 ultra-Orthodox inhabitants were infected with the COVID-19 virus. The government later closed off other cities and neighborhoods because of the pandemic, many of them ultra-Orthodox.

Ultra-Orthodox communities across the country celebrated the holidays of Lag B’Omer, Sukkot, and Simhat Torah in mass gatherings, despite government restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 6, Haaretz reported that the Jerusalem police allowed several ultra-Orthodox communities in the city to hold mass events as long as there would not be “public documentation” of them. In October, Haaretz published an analysis that said, “On the coronavirus map, Israel is currently divided into two countries: the ultra-Orthodox population and all the rest.” Anat Hoffman, executive director of the IRAC and one of the founders of Women of the Wall, told the UK publication the New Statesman that COVID-19 “magnifies” the already fraught relationship between the ultra-Orthodox minority and the secular majority and that the country is witnessing a “backlash” against the central role of the ultra-Orthodox minority in national politics. In the article, Hoffman said “The feeling among the seculars…is that the [country’s] lockdown is on secular activities.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Ziv Medical Center refused to hand over the remains of Druze religious leader Sheikh Abu Zain Aldin Hassan Halabi after he died of the virus there on October 30. Members of the Druze community, however, took his body from the hospital for a funeral and burial on the Golan Heights. According to press, “thousands” attended the event, which was coordinated with police and the Ministry of Health in the city of Majdal Shams, which was under lockdown due to high rates of COVID-19 infection. “Price tag” attacks by Jewish individuals and groups continued to take place during the year against individuals – particularly Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and their property – with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests. On February 11, tires of 170 cars were vandalized and graffiti was sprayed on a mosque and on walls in Gush Halav, also known as Jish, that said, “Jews wake up” and “Stop intermarrying.”

“Price tag” attacks by Jewish individuals and groups continued to take place during the year against individuals – particularly Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and their property – with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests. On February 11, tires of 170 cars were vandalized and graffiti was sprayed on a mosque and on walls in Gush Halav, also known as Jish, that said, “Jews wake up” and “Stop intermarrying.”

Authorities opened an investigation following a suspected arson and price tag attack against a mosque in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on January 24. Press reported that the suspect left Hebrew graffiti on an outside wall of the building that appeared to be a reference to Kumi Uri, a settler outpost in which the IDF had demolished buildings earlier in the month.

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 ultra-Orthodox denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site due to 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. Many among the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in visiting the site. Groups such as the Temple Institute and Yaraeh 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 prevented individuals from praying and removed them; in other cases, reported by the Waqf, 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. Some Jewish visitors publicly noted that the National Police were more permissive to them in permitting silent prayer. According to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement decreased to 18,500 from 30,000 in 2019, largely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

NGOs reported that some LGBTI minors who revealed their sexual orientation in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization by rabbis. NGOs noted reports of mental illness among the LGBTI minor community, leading some to attempt suicide. Other NGOs noted that an increasing number of rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities were adopting a more inclusive approach to LGBTI minors.

On February 4, then-Minister of Education Rafi Peretz announced he would grant an Israel Prize for Torah literature to Rabbi Yaacov Ariel, the former rabbi of Ramat Gan, who made public statements against LGBTI persons, including a 2014 call not to rent apartments to lesbian couples. On April 26, the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the Israel LGBT Taskforce, an NGO (also known as the Aguda), against the granting of the prize to Ariel, stating the case did not justify the court’s intervention. Ariel refused to retract his statements.

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.

According to the NGO Panim, 2,486 weddings took place outside of the rabbinate’s authority in 2019, compared with 2,610 in 2018. These included unofficial orthodox, conservative, reform, and secular ceremonies.

According to Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get (divorce) 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.

NGOs, including Mavoi Satum and Itim, promoted the use of prenuptial agreements to prevent cases of aginut (in which a woman whose husband is unwilling or unable to grant her a get). Such agreements provide financial incentives paid by a refusing spouse until the termination of the marriage.

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, Tag Meir, 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.

Despite the labor law, some foreign domestic workers stated that some employers did not allow their domestic workers to take off their weekly day of worship.

In its annual Israel Religion and State Index poll of 800 adult Jews published in September, Hiddush found that 65 percent of respondents identified as either secular (47 percent) or “traditional-not-religious” (18 percent), with positions regarding public policy on religion and state close to the positions of secular Israelis. Of those surveyed, 83 percent supported freedom of religion and conscience, and 63 percent supported the separation of religion and state. Sixty-five percent supported equal status for the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform traditions. A large majority did not see the need for religious conversion approved by the Chief Rabbinate as a condition for the state to recognize the Judaism of new immigrants, with only 34 percent considering conversion via the Chief Rabbinate necessary, compared with 38 percent in the previous year. Thirty-six percent stated immigrants should be recognized as Jewish if they identify as such, and 30 percent stated immigrants should be recognized as Jewish if they undergo either an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform conversion. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they opposed the participation of ultra-Orthodox parties in the government in a way that gives the ultra-Orthodox the ability to dictate government policy and legislation on matters of religion and state. Of those surveyed, 22 percent accepted the position of the ultra-Orthodox parties that yeshiva students should be exempted from military or civic service.

According to the Hiddush poll, 65 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 survey, 51 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.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 77 percent of Israeli respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.

In June, the Pew Research Center released a poll completed in 2019 that stated that 48 percent of Israelis surveyed agreed with the statement that belief in God is needed to be moral while an equal number, 48 percent, disagreed. The median for the 34 countries polled showed 51 percent agreeing that a belief in God was needed to be moral, with 45 percent disagreeing.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with Israeli 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 in October to promote religious freedom in the region, and the Charge d’Affaires hosted a virtual interfaith reception for representatives of the country’s diverse religious groups. In January, the Vice President represented the United States at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, at Yad Vashem, which press called the largest-ever event focused on combating anti-Semitism.

Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The embassy awarded grants to the Jerusalem Intercultural Center for an interreligious community economic development program in the Old City. Additionally, the embassy presented a grant to the Interfaith Encounter Association to bring together three interfaith groups in Jerusalem’s Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods to meet with U.S. experts, coordinators, and fellow interfaith groups. The embassy also issued public statements condemning attacks on places of worship, including an attempted arson attack on the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane.

On April 20 and 23, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with government and civil society representatives to discuss increasing COVID-19-themed manifestations of anti-Semitic tropes against Israel and Jews, especially online. The Special Envoy and his counterparts agreed that increasing education, monitoring, legislation, and law enforcement could help combat this trend.

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 used social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.

Embassy-hosted events included a virtual interfaith iftar and a virtual interfaith Thanksgiving roundtable discussion. 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 project by the Citizens Accord Forum that brought together Bedouins and Jews of Ethiopian descent to address violence and build strong relationships between their communities. Another project continued to support joint training sessions for Muslim and Jewish teachers to promote interreligious tolerance in classrooms.

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.

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West Bank and Gaza

Jordan

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. It stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion. It does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their “true” religious beliefs and practices. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In October, the government eased COVID-19-related restrictions, allowing movement on all days of the week except Fridays. The government amended this decision after Muslim worshippers organized small-scale, uncoordinated, nationwide protests about what they viewed as an unfair limit on attendance at Friday prayers. On July 15, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) branch in country, saying the organization had failed to resolve its legal status. The court’s decision did not affect the MB’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), which won 10 seats in the November 10 parliamentary election, down from 15 in the previous election. Members of some unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages and the religious affiliation of their children, and also renewing their residency permits. The government continued to monitor mosque sermons and required that preachers refrain from political commentary and adhere to approved themes and texts

Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism, as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some worshipped in secret due to the social stigma they faced. Some converts reported persistent threats of violence from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor. Religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media. Some social media users defended interfaith tolerance, with posts condemning content that criticized Christianity, or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue. There were instances of anti-Semitism in the press and online. In media commentary, writers made anti-Semitic comments, saying, in one newspaper column, that “Jewish families” had taken over the global economy, and in an online article, “Judaism is a cancer.”

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population. Some church leaders estimate Christians make up approximately 1.8 percent of the country’s population. Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are considered as Muslims by the government). According to the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIFS), there is also a small community (consisting of a few families) of Zoroastrians. Most of the approximately one million migrant workers are from Egypt, South and Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia are often Christian or Hindu. There are an estimated 770,000 refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including more than 670,000 Syrians and 100,000 of other nationalities. The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim. Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one third of the Iraqi refugee population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

An annex to the 2014 Law for Councils of Christian Denominations lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic. In 2018, five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), were recognized by the MOI as associations, but none have been permitted to establish an ecclesiastical court: the Free Evangelical Church, Church of the Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptist Church. The government granted legal status as an association to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father. The Personal Status Law (PSL) stipulates that mothers, regardless of religious background, may retain custody of their children until age 18. Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion. Like citizenship, religion is transmitted only via the father.

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

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

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

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

Political parties may not be formed on the basis of religion.

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

Government Practices

Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as some instances of surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits. Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials. Because of the sharia ban on conversion, government officials generally refused to change the religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion. Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

During the year, the government Media Commission banned distribution of 20 books for insulting religion as well as displaying pornographic images and promoting homosexuality.

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

In March, as part of its COVID-19 response and prevention measures, the government ordered comprehensive lockdowns on Fridays and Saturdays. In October, the government eased the lockdown restrictions to Fridays only, allowing movement every other day of the week. On the day after that announcement, in response to the change, Muslim worshipers organized small-scale, uncoordinated, protests across the country. Protesters stated they viewed the decision as unfairly limiting religious services for Muslims, who attend prayers on Friday. Subsequently, the government amended its decision, lifting the lockdown for one hour on Fridays and allowing worshipers to commute to their local mosques by foot. Churches reported they continued to meet online and in-person.

The Ministry of Awqaf continued to monitor sermons at mosques and required that preachers refrain from political commentary. Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons. Imams violating these rules risked being fined or banned from preaching. Unofficial mosques continued to operate outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, and imams outside of government employment preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision. Ministry of Awqaf investigations uncovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques during the year. In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam. Friday prayers in major cities were consolidated into central mosques, over which the Ministry of Awqaf had more oversight, continuing a process that began in 2018. The Ministry of Awqaf allowed smaller mosques to continue Friday sermons along with their areas’ central mosque.

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

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

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

The government continued to deny official recognition to other religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some nonrecognized religious groups reported they continued to operate schools and hospitals and they were able to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.

Security forces were largely diverted to COVID-19 response and prevention measures, and the nationwide ban on large gatherings negated any need for enhanced security or protection for Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, unlike in previous years.

Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, continued to serve in parliament and as cabinet ministers. Christians served as deputy prime minister, cabinet ministers, senators, and ambassadors. The cabinet appointed in October 2020 included one Druze member and two Christian members, unchanged from the previous cabinet.

The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze. Druze continued to report discrimination hindered their coreligionists from reaching high positions in government civil service and official departments.

On July 15, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, dissolved the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) legal identity, according to the AFP, saying the organization had failed to resolve its legal status. Authorities shut down the Brotherhood’s headquarters and several offices in 2016 and transferred ownership of the property to a government-authorized offshoot, which claimed to have severed ties with the broader movement. In 2019, the court ruled the original group be dissolved on the grounds it did not renew its license as required by the law. Sheikh Hamza Mansur, head of the MB’s ruling council, said his group would appeal the decision. The court’s decision did not affect the MB’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), which won 10 seats in the November 10 parliamentary election, down from 15 in the previous election.

The government continued to permit non-Muslim members of the armed forces to practice their religion. Christians and Druze achieved general officer rank in the military, but Muslims continued to hold most senior positions across the security and intelligence services.

The national school curriculum, including materials on tolerance education, did not mention the Holocaust, but some private schools included it in their curricula.

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

In a March 8 program on Yarmouk TV, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Ahmad al-Shahrouri, a professor of sharia at the public Al-Zaytoonah University and also the imam of the university’s mosque, said that the Jews were more dangerous than coronavirus, AIDS, cholera, and every disease in the world.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation, from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members. Some reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts, while others reported persistent threats of violence from family members protecting traditional honor. According to international NGOs, female converts from Islam were particularly vulnerable to harassment. Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and persons in interfaith romantic relationships; the latter continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward those involved. Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence. Converts from Christianity to Islam also reported social stigma from their families and Christian society. Nonbelievers reported societal intolerance and discrimination.

Religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech, frequently through social media, directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation. One NGO reported increased online hate speech towards the Christian community in direct response to radio and internet broadcasts of Christian services. Religious broadcasts were an alternative to regular in-person services, which were not allowed under comprehensive lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same NGO reported some negative responses to the presence of an Orthodox bishop during televised, and widely viewed, COVID-19 updates from the government. NGO sources said the negative responses were the reactions of Muslims to their first real exposure to Christianity.

Criticism online and in social media continued to target converts from Islam to other religions. Religious minorities expressed concerns some Muslim leaders preached intolerance. Christians reported they self-segregated into Christian enclaves to escape social pressure and threats.

Observers reported friction between Christian denominations on the CCL and evangelical churches not recognized by the government. Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches said there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services. Members of the evangelical community said that some CCL leaders applied pressure on the government to not recognize evangelical churches in the country.

In an article posted in March on the website Al-Awai News, Kafa al-Zou’bi, a journalist and author, stated that “Judaism is a cancer that has harmed humanity since the dawn of civilized history” and that “capitalism could have been less barbaric had it not been anchored in the sources of Jewish philosophy.” In his July 11 column in the newspaper Al-Dustour, Abd al-Hamid al-Hamshari wrote that “Jewish families” took over the global economy in order to subordinate the world to the Zionist movement, and that the Rothschild family ordered the assassinations of U.S. presidents Lincoln and Kennedy because they threatened its economic interests.

In a September 15 television interview with a Lebanese channel, former Minister of Health and Deputy Prime Minister Mamdouh al-Abbadi said that neither the UAE nor Bahrain were familiar with Israel, which they had recently recognized and that the Jews were only “Shylocks” who were interested in Gulf money.

On a January 27 show on Yarmouk TV, host Omar Ayasra said the story of the Holocaust was not about massacres, crimes against humanity, and anti-Semitism but a story used by Israel to promote itself and to extort the West to garner sympathy and support. In the same program, he criticized the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League for his visit to Auschwitz earlier in the month.

In a November 3 post on social media, Abu Qatada al-Filastini recommended that his followers read Machiavelli’s The Prince, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Hitler’s Mein Kampf if they wished to understand modern political history. Abu Qatada said the texts had been misrepresented due to a “propaganda campaign against them run by the Jews, as well as by their negative reputation among the public.”

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 79 percent of Jordanian respondents either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” compared with 65 percent of the broader Arab world. On a separate question, 73 percent of those polled strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “The government has no right to use religion to win support for its policies,” compared with 71 percent of others in the region.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 20 percent of Jordan’s citizens aged 18-24 agreed religion was “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared to 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers, including the Ambassador, continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the Minister of Awqaf, Grand Mufti, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to advocate for the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of expatriate religious workers and volunteers.

Embassy officers continued to meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, including nonrecognized groups, religious converts, expatriate religious volunteers, and interfaith institutions, such as RIIFS and the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research, to discuss the ability to practice religion freely.

The embassy continued its sponsorship of the participation of religious scholars, teachers, and leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and understanding. The embassy continued to advise the government’s Baptism Site Commission on its efforts to increase revenue from religiously-based tourism, create jobs, preserve the country’s religious heritage, and highlight religious pluralism. The embassy used social media to promote religious tolerance and mark religious holidays, including through posting video messages.

Kuwait

Executive Summary

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

Individuals continued to face societal pressure against conversion from Islam; some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them because of their conversion. Leaders and members of religious communities said they did not convert Muslims in the country. An NGO reported that “Although Shia have the same legal rights as Sunnis and access to education, health care, and other state benefits, they are often perceived as being lower on the social scale and marginalized in religious, economic, social, and political terms.” Shia representatives consistently said, however, that discrimination was not an issue for their community. Hotels, stores, and businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. News media continued to publish information about celebrations of religious holidays, including material on the religious significance of Christmas. Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval on social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays.

In June, the Ambassador hosted a virtual roundtable with representatives from minority faiths to discuss a broad range of religious freedom issues. The group discussed the status of religious freedom in the country, the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns on their communities, and the challenges the pandemic has presented for worship and fundraising. During the year, embassy officials and religious leaders continued to discuss various religious groups’ needs, which continued to include more space for worship, more transparency in the registration process for new churches, and permission to obtain religious school accreditation.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). U.S. government figures also cite the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), a local government agency, as reporting that the country’s total population was 4.4 million for 2019. As of January 1, PACI also reports there are 1.4 million citizens and 3.1 million noncitizens. The national census does not distinguish between Shia and Sunni Muslims. PACI estimates approximately 70 percent of citizens are Sunni Muslims, while the remaining 30 percent are Shia Muslims (including Ahmadi and Ismaili Muslims, whom the government counts as Shia). Community leaders have indicated there are 290 Christian citizens and a handful of Baha’i citizens. There are no known Jewish citizens.

According to information from PACI released in 2018, 64 percent of the expatriate population is Muslim, 26 percent Christian, and 10 percent from non-Abrahamic faiths. Sources in various noncitizen communities state that approximately 5 percent of the expatriate Muslim population is Shia, while Buddhists and Hindus account for half of the non-Abrahamic faith population. Informal estimates by members of different faiths indicate there are approximately 250,000 Hindus, 25,000 Bohra Muslims, 10,000 to 12,000 Sikhs, 7,000 Druze, and 400 Baha’is.

While some geographic areas have higher concentrations of either Sunnis or Shia, the two groups are distributed uniformly throughout most of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

A national unity law prohibits “stirring sectarian strife,” promoting the supremacy of one religious group, instigating acts of violence based on the supremacy of one group, or promoting hatred or contempt of any group. Violations of this law by individuals are punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment, a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 Kuwaiti dinars ($32,900-$329,000), or both. Repeated crimes carry double penalties. If a group or an organization violates the law, it could have its license to operate revoked temporarily or permanently, and it could be fined up to 200,000 dinars ($658,000). Noncitizens convicted under this law are also subject to deportation.

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

The law criminalizes publishing and broadcasting content, including on social media, which the government deems offensive to religious “sects” or groups, providing for fines ranging from 10,000 to 200,000 dinars ($32,900-$658,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is illegal to possess or import pork products and alcohol. Importing alcohol carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment; consuming alcohol may result in a fine of up to 1,000 dinars ($3,300).

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

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

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

Courts may follow Shia jurisprudence in matters of personal status and family law for Shia Muslims at the first instance and appellate levels. If the case proceeds beyond the appellate level to the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, the case may be adjudicated via Sunni personal status law. The law allows for the creation of separate courts for Shia Muslims for cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. According to local sources, these courts have only three judges, none of whom has a formal background in Shia jurisprudence. The law also allows personal status cases to be adjudicated through the Court of Cassation under Shia doctrine. An independent Shia waqf (trust) administers Shia religious endowments. Cases are assigned to either Sunni or Shia judges based on the religious affiliation of the man. If a man is married to a non-Muslim woman, the husband’s religious practice is followed. If a couple is from one of the registered churches, the settlement offered by the church may be taken into consideration, although if the dispute is not settled, Sunni sharia is applied.

The law forbids, and the state does not recognize, marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, but Muslim men may marry women of other recognized Abrahamic faiths. The law requires the raising of children of such marriages in their father’s faith, and the father’s religion governs the settlement of marital disputes. Muslim marriage and divorce cases are heard in Sunni or Shia religious courts, depending on whether the marriage certificate is Sunni or Shia. Both Sunni and Shia marriage certificates need to be authenticated by appropriate notaries. Non-Muslim divorce and child custody cases are heard in Sunni religious courts. Christian couples who are part of a registered church may marry and divorce following their religious customs, with local authorities and courts recognizing their documents. Except for Hindus and Sikhs of Indian nationality, who may marry at the Embassy of India, members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches may not marry legally in the country but may have their foreign wedding certificates recognized. Citizens who are members of the Baha’i Faith may marry abroad and petition the court to recognize their marriage.

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

Although the law does not prohibit apostasy, the government continued its policy of not issuing new official documents for recording a change in religion unless the conversion was from another religion to Islam. According to press reports, in January, Yusuf Mehanna stated that the MOI had revoked his citizenship after he gave a public interview noting his intention to convert to Judaism. The government explicitly denied that it revoked any Kuwaiti’s citizenship during the year. At year’s end, Mehanna was living in the United Kingdom under the name Naftali ben-Yehuda.

In accordance with MAIA policy, the government continued to vet and appoint all new Sunni imams to ensure compliance with the government’s guidance on moderate and tolerant religious preaching. The Shia community continued to select its own clerics without government oversight. The government funded Sunni religious institutions, including mosques, and paid the salaries of all Sunni imams. The Shia community generally did not receive funding from the state for religious institutions and mosques. The government paid the salaries of some Shia imams. Some Shia mosques requested government assistance and received funds to pay for salaries and maintenance of their facilities.

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

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

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

During the year, due to the pandemic, MAIA organized several online courses for Sunni imams to make their messages more effective in promoting tolerance and countering radicalization. In December, the Director of the Center for the Promotion of Moderation, Abdullah al-Shuraika, said that the center had not received any reports of cases of extremism during the year and also stated that the center had launched a hotline for receiving such reports. The center also continued its efforts to promote tolerance and moderation via television, radio, and online media as well as to rehabilitate prison inmates who were convicted in terror and extremism cases.

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

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

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

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

The MOI continued to provide added security and protection at religious sites for all recognized non-Sunni religious groups. Muslim and Christian leaders continued to report that the government, citing security concerns, kept in place the ban on outdoor religious observances instituted following an ISIS bombing of a Shia mosque in 2015 that killed 27 persons.

The government continued to require the Shia community to conduct Ashura activities inside closed structures rather than at outdoor locations. The government did not permit public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein or public marches in commemoration of Ashura. The government continued to station security forces outside some Sunni mosques and all Shia and Christian religious venues during times of worship throughout the year as a deterrent to possible attacks. The government also continued to provide security to Shia neighborhoods during Muharram and Ashura.

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

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

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

Kuwait municipalities handled building permits and land issues for religious groups. The government said it received no applications for construction of new churches from religious groups during the year. The Greek Catholic Church indicated that it had requested additional land near its location in April to accommodate more worshippers. The government said it did not receive additional requests for registrations of new groups during the year.

Christian churches continued to report that government authorities did not respond to their petitions for expanding existing places of worship. Some churches said they stopped submitting such requests because the government did not respond.

Shia community members reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities caused by the government’s delay in approving repairs to existing mosques or constructing new ones. MAIA reported there were 1,686 mosques in the country, including 31 mosques opened during the year. According to 2018 government statistics, of the 1,601 mosques existing that year, 1550 were Sunni and 51 Shia. Five new Shia mosques received permission to be built that year. A source from the Shia community said the government opened no new Shia mosques in 2019. There were 20-30 husseiniyas registered with the MOI and thousands of smaller Shia gatherings that took place in private homes.

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

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

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

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

According to church leaders, although most churches provided faith-based instruction for children, none of them had government-accredited church-based schools. Accreditation for church-based schools would enable students to receive religious education while fulfilling government requirements and allow graduates to move on to higher education. The NECK repeatedly requested accreditation for its church-based school for many years, most recently in 2017, but authorities had not responded by year’s end. The Armenian Church and the Bohra Muslim community continued to operate accredited community schools in lieu of seeking accreditation as religious schools. Other groups continued to report they conducted religious studies in their places of worship.

Local sources suggested that the passage of the Shia Personal Status Law increased the need for Shia religious training facilities to help staff the courts with qualified judges. The government continued its practice of not responding to requests to establish Shia religious training institutions. Shia Muslims had to seek religious training and education abroad. According to members of the Shia community, the College of Islamic Law at Kuwait University, the only institution in the country that trains imams, provided some Shia jurisprudence courses but did not permit Shia professors on its faculty.

According to a September report in the newspaper Al-Qabas, more than 1,000 individuals applied for the first time to work as mosque imams and muezzins amid a vigorous drive to replace migrant workers with citizens. According to the report, MAIA eased testing criteria for these jobs in order to encourage qualified nationals to apply with the aim of raising the number of citizens working as imams and muezzins to 20 percent, up from the current 6 percent. Observers saw this as part of an ongoing and longstanding effort by the government to reduce reliance on foreign workers and to provide economic opportunities to its own nationals, an effort which accelerated during the year due to the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shia leaders continued to report that the lack of Shia imams limited their ability to staff Shia courts, causing a backlog of personal status and family cases. To address the backlog and shortage of staff, an ad hoc council the government created many years ago under the regular marital issues court to apply Shia jurisprudence continued to function.

Even though Shia make up an estimated 30 percent of the population, they remained underrepresented at all levels of government: six of 50 elected members in parliament, one of 16 cabinet members, one of six Amiri Diwan advisors, and disproportionately few senior officers in the military and police force. Shia community leaders continued to say there was a “glass ceiling” in promotions and difficulties in obtaining government jobs. Shia rarely held leadership positions in the security forces. Some Shia leaders said discrimination continued to prevent Shia from obtaining training for clerical positions and leadership positions in public sector organizations, including the police force and the military/security apparatus. According to the NGO Minority Right Group International (MRGI), “while Shia are able to work in the public sector without restrictions, some Shia have reported discrimination and barriers preventing them from obtaining senior leadership positions.”

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

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

Media coverage included news on events and celebrations held by various Christian denominations in the country, such as Christmas services and church inauguration anniversaries attended by high-level government officials. On Orthodox Christmas in January, the Minister of Amiri Diwan Affairs, Ali Jarrah al-Saah, visited St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

Libya

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

Mauritania

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Islam as the sole religion of the citizenry and state. The law prohibits blasphemy and apostasy, and defines them as crimes punishable by death. In February, police arrested 15 individuals in connection with a meeting of the Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State (AREM), an association that aims to promote a secular state. Authorities initially charged eight persons with blasphemy; five of them were held in pretrial detention from February to October. The court did not convict any of the eight of blasphemy, but instead convicted all of them on lesser counts of violating the “prohibitions prescribed by Allah.” All of the defendants were fined and sentenced to various prison terms. The five held in pretrial detention since February were all released by October 26, since their time in pretrial detention was counted towards their overall sentence. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education (MIATE) continued to collaborate with independent Muslim religious groups as well as with foreign partners to combat what it termed threats of extremism, radicalization, and terrorism, primarily through workshops throughout the country.

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

U.S. embassy officials raised apostasy, blasphemy, and other religious freedom issues with authorities on multiple occasions, and the Ambassador urged authorities to release the five individuals who were held in pretrial detention for nearly eight months on charges of blasphemy. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Islamic Affairs, and the Minister of Justice. Embassy staff also met with senior members of the opposition Tawassoul Party to discuss political and social issues, including religious freedom. The embassy also promoted messages of religious freedom on its social media platforms in English, French, and Arabic, including to celebrate International Religious Freedom Day.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to host government estimates, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 99 percent of the population. Unofficial estimates, however, indicate that Shia Muslims constitute 1 percent of the population and non-Muslims, mostly Christians and a small number of Jews, make up a further 1 percent. Almost all non-Muslims are foreigners.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and recognizes Islam as the sole religion of its citizenry and the state. The law and legal procedures derive from a combination of French civil law and sharia. The judiciary consists of a single system of courts that relies on a combination of sharia and secular legal principles.

The law prohibits apostasy. The criminal code requires a death sentence for any Muslim convicted of apostasy, but the government has never applied this provision since it was enacted in 2018.

The criminal code also treats blasphemy as a capital offense and subject to the death penalty. Courts may consider an individual’s repentance as a mitigating factor in determining the punishment for offenses related to blasphemy and apostasy. The government has never applied capital punishment for blasphemy.

The penal code stipulates that the penalty for unmarried individuals of any gender caught engaging in sexual activity is 100 lashes and imprisonment of up to one year. The penalty for married individuals convicted of adultery is death by stoning, although the last such stoning occurred more than 30 years ago. The penal code requires death by stoning for males convicted of consensual homosexual activity. These punishments apply only to Muslims.

The government does not register Muslim religious groups, but all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including humanitarian and development NGOs affiliated with religious groups, must register with the Ministry of Interior. Faith-based NGOs must also agree to refrain from proselytizing or otherwise promoting any religion other than Islam. The law requires the Ministry of Interior to authorize in advance all group meetings, including non-Islamic religious gatherings and those held in private homes.

By law, the MIATE is responsible for enacting and disseminating fatwas, fighting “extremism,” promoting research in Islamic studies, organizing the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, and monitoring mosques. The government also appoints the High Council for Fatwa and Administrative Appeals, which advises the government on conformity of legislation to Islamic precepts, and which has sole authority to regulate fatwa issuance and resolve related disputes among citizens and between citizens and public agencies.

The law requires members of the Constitutional Council and the High Council of Magistrates to take an oath of office that includes a promise to God to uphold the law of the land in conformity with Islamic precepts.

Public schools and private secondary schools, but not international schools, are required to provide four hours of Islamic instruction per week. Religious instruction in Arabic is required for students seeking the baccalaureate.

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

Government Practices

In early February, police arrested 15 individuals in connection with a meeting of AREM, an association that promotes a secular state. Although several of those arrested were released after questioning, eight were charged with blasphemy and other offenses related to holding unauthorized meetings and using social media to attack Islam. Five of the eight were held in pretrial detention from February until their court hearing on October 20. The court did not to convict the eight men of blasphemy, which is punishable by death, but instead convicted all of them on lesser counts of violating the “prohibitions prescribed by Allah.” All eight were fined and sentenced to various prison terms. The five who were held in pretrial detention since February were sentenced to six- and eight-month prison terms, but the judge said that their time spent in pretrial detention would be counted towards their overall sentences, and the five were released by October 26.

The government continued to forbid non-Muslims from proselytizing, although there was no specific legal prohibition. The government continued to ban any public expression of religion except that of Islam.

The possession of non-Islamic religious materials remained legal, although the government continued to prohibit their printing and distribution. The government maintained a Quranic television channel and radio station. Both stations sponsored regular programming on themes of moderation in Islam.

Authorized churches were able to conduct services within their premises but could not proselytize. An unofficial government requirement restricted non-Islamic worship to the few recognized Christian churches. There are Roman Catholic and other Christian churches in Nouakchott, Kaedi, Atar, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. Citizens could not attend non-Islamic religious services, which remained restricted to foreigners.

On January 21, President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani chaired the opening ceremony of the first international forum on the role of Islam in Africa. The government organized the forum in collaboration with Cheikh Mahfoudh Ould Boya’s forum for peace. The forum explored areas of cooperation among Islamic countries and published a statement outlining the importance of tolerance and moderation in Islam in Africa.

On May 6, the government adopted a draft bill to prevent violence against women and girls. The government adopted the bill after consultation with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the MIATE, which discussed ways to make the draft law more compatible with sharia principles. Although the draft law advanced in the legislative process, the National Assembly, which previously rejected two earlier drafts of this bill on grounds of “noncompliance with Islam,” had not voted on whether to adopt the law by year’s end.

During the year, relations between the government and leaders of the Islamist movement in the country continued to improve, according to media reports. On June 24, President Ghazouani met with the former president of the Islamist Tawassoul Party, Mohamed Jemil Mansour. The government also worked with Tawassoul, the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, to adopt legislation aimed at mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several international Christian NGOs reported they continued to operate successfully in the country. The government continued to advance the draft Law on Associations (the “NGO Law”) through the legislative process. The law, once adopted, would change the registration system to make it easier for NGOs, including faith based organizations, to register and operate.

The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Islamic religious groups and other foreign partners to combat what it termed extremism, radicalization, and terrorism. On September 10, the MIATE organized a two-day meeting with the European Union and G5 Sahel member states, including Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Niger, at which they shared best practices for preventing violent extremism and stressed the importance of a moderate, tolerant version of Islam.

The government continued to provide funding to mosques and Islamic schools and universities under its control. The government also organized an examination to recruit 800 imams and prayer callers, which officials said enabled them to select imams who supported moderate versions of Sunni Islam instead of imams that supported Wahhabism. The government paid monthly salaries of 5,000 ouguiyas ($140) to 800 imams who passed the examination conducted by a government-funded panel of religious authorities. It also paid monthly salaries of 2,500-10,000 ouguiyas ($68-$270) to 30 members of the National Union of Mauritanian Imams, an authority established to regulate the relationship between the religious community and the MIATE.

Islamic classes remained part of the educational curriculum, but class attendance was not mandatory and not required for graduation. Academic results in the classes did not count significantly in the national exams that determined further placement. Many students reportedly did not attend these classes for various ethnolinguistic, religious, and personal reasons. The Ministry of National Education and the MIATE continued to reaffirm the importance of the Islamic education program at the secondary level as a means of promoting Islamic culture and combating religious extremism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Justice, and Minister of Islamic Affairs. Embassy officials raised religious freedom issues with authorities on multiple occasions, including throughout the pretrial detention period for those whom authorities accused of blasphemy and proselytizing. Embassy officials also met with senior members of Tawassoul to discuss political and social issues, including religious freedom.

On several occasions, the Ambassador met with religious leaders to discuss issues related to religious tolerance. Visiting U.S. officials also routinely raised the importance of religious tolerance with a range of societal groups, including think tanks and journalists.

The embassy also frequently used its social media platform to share religious freedom posts, including on International Religious Freedom Day, in English, French, and Arabic.

Morocco

Executive Summary

The constitution states the King holds the title “Commander of the Faithful” and that he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. It prohibits political parties founded on religion, as well as political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam. The law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam. The government claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the area it controls by the same constitution, laws, and structures as elsewhere in the country, including laws that deal with religious freedom. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization seeking the territory’s independence, disputes this claim to sovereignty over the territory. In May, authorities arrested movie actor Rafik Boubker for making “blasphemous remarks against Islam and attacking the sacredness of worship” in a social media posting. After the government ordered the closure of mosques in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some Salafists objected to the closures as an assault on faith. After Salafist leader Abou Naim criticized the government’s decision in a March 16 Facebook post, authorities arrested him the next day and indicted him for incitement and compromising public order. On April 3, the Rabat Court of Appeal sentenced Naim to one year in prison and a fine of 2,000 dirhams ($220). In February, the Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the King’s spiritual authority, protested in Rabat and Tangier a decision made in 2019 to close unlicensed mosques in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane, which were operating in the homes of JCO members. On February 20, Agadir University expelled three students affiliated with JCO on charges of “insulting public officials and defamation of things intended for public benefit.” Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government rejected their registration requests. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. In January, the King inaugurated Bayt Dakira, a Jewish cultural museum in Essaouira.

On April 1, police in Casablanca arrested a man for hate speech for social media posts accusing a Jewish citizen and a foreign national of being directly responsible for the infection of a large number of persons with COVID-19. Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly. Foreign clergy discouraged some Christian citizens from attending services for fear of societal harassment. A member of the local Christian community stated that Christian services were held in secret house churches to avoid such harassment. According to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) annual report for 2018-19, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and in Friday sermons. Christian and Jewish representatives stated that they had seen a positive change in regard to societal tolerance, which they attributed to the 2019 visit of Pope Francis and statements at that time by the King. Representatives of Christian minority groups in the Western Sahara said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families and social ridicule, was the main reason leading them to practice their faith discreetly.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials, including from the Ministry of Interior and the MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities. In regular meetings and discussions with members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, embassy and consulate general representatives highlighted the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 35.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, and less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.

According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca. Some Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens.

Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and 10,000 Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked in the country for generations but do not hold citizenship. There are small foreign-resident Anglican communities in Casablanca and Tangier. There are an estimated 3,000 foreign residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small foreign-resident Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small foreign-resident Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca. Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers of foreign Christians are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north. In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, and Iraq. Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 750. Leaders of the Baha’i community estimate there are 350 to 400 members throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state and Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual the freedom to practice his or her religious affairs. The constitution states the King holds the title “Commander of the Faithful” and that he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society. According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam. A political party may not legally challenge Islam as the state religion. Religions other than Islam and Judaism are not recognized by the constitution or laws.

The government claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the area it controls by the same constitution, laws, and structures as elsewhere in the country, including laws that deal with religious freedom. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization seeking the territory’s independence, disputes this claim to sovereignty over the territory.

The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media or in public speeches. Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of up to 200,000 dirhams ($22,400).

The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or converts a Muslim to another faith by exploiting their weakness or need for assistance or through the use of educational, health, or other institutions. It provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($22 to $56) for violations. The same penalties apply to anyone who intentionally interferes with religious rites or celebrations where this causes disturbances or affects the dignity of such religious acts. The law also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense. Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law. The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.

By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($22 to $56). The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($22 to $56). Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.

The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate 5 percent of their airtime to Islamic religious content and to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times daily.

Sunni Muslims and Jews are the only religious groups recognized in the constitution as native to the country. A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters. Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts. Muslim judges trained in the country’s Maliki-Ashari Sunni interpretation of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups. According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam. Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children. Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and it requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.

Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some “foreign” Christian churches). The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group (e.g., open and hold bank accounts, rent property, acquire land and building grants, and have access to customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities) or to hold public gatherings. Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters. An individual representative of a religious group that is neither recognized nor registered as an association may be held liable for any of the group’s public gatherings, transactions, bank accounts, property rentals, or petitions to the government. The registration application must contain the name and purpose of the association; the name, nationality, age, profession, and residential address of each founder; and the address of the association’s headquarters. The constitution guarantees civil society associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the right to organize themselves and conduct their activities freely within the scope of the constitution. The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”

Many foreign-resident Christian churches (churches run by and attended by foreign residents only) are registered as associations. The Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Churches maintain different forms of official status. The Russian Orthodox and Anglican Churches are registered as branches of international associations through the embassies of Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively. Protestant churches and the Catholic Church, whose existence as foreign-resident churches predates the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, maintain a special status recognized by the government, which allows them to preserve houses of worship and assign foreign clergy.

By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence. Foreign-run and privately funded schools have the choice of including or omitting religious instruction within the school’s curriculum. Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.

According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the King with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the King’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliament. Such fatwas are considered binding only on Maliki-Ashari Sunni Muslims. If the King or parliament declines to ratify a decision of the council, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.

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

Government Practices

In May, authorities arrested movie actor Rafik Boubker for making “blasphemous remarks against Islam and attacking the sacredness of worship.” According to the Agence France Presse news agency, in a video posted to social media, Boubker appeared to insult imams, to call for making religious ablutions with “whiskey and vodka,” and to praise the benefits of alcohol for “connecting with God.” Boubker, who was released on bail pending a court hearing, faced a possible sentence of between six months and two years in prison and a fine of 20,000 to 200,000 dirhams ($2,200 to $22,400). On July 14, the Ain Sebaa Court of First Instance in Casablanca postponed his trial. At year’s end, the date of the trial remained unknown.

On March 16, the King ordered the High Council of Ulema to issue a fatwa mandating the immediate closure of mosques to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to the government, the mosques were opened four months later under strict compliance with COVID-19 measures.

Some Salafists who oppose the government objected to the closures as an assault on faith. One Salafist leader, Abou Naim, called on the government to close “casinos, bars, and debauchery…instead of talking about mosques.” He also said, “The country that closes its mosques renounces its religion. Do not despise the mosque, otherwise God will punish you.” Police arrested Abou Naim on March 17, the day after he posted a video on Facebook containing his criticism. After the government indicted him for inciting hatred and violence and compromising public order, the Rabat Court of Appeal sentenced him on April 3 to one year in prison and a 2000-dirham ($220) fine.

Authorities continued to deny Christian citizen groups freedom of worship in churches, the right to Christian or civil marriage and funeral services, and the right to establish churches (or, unlike foreign churches, to establish an association). The government denied official recognition to NGOs that it considered to be advocating against Islam as the state religion.

In February, the JCO protested in Rabat and Tangier a decision made in February 2019 to close unlicensed mosques in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane, which were operating in the homes of JCO members. According to press reports, on February 20, Agadir University expelled three students affiliated with JCO for “insulting public officials and defamation of things intended for public benefit.”

The JCO remained banned but largely tolerated, although the government continued to monitor its activities. It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered. The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations. According to media, there were instances in which the government prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO publications. On June 25, the JCO announced it did not consider itself a religious minority, but rather an Islamic advocacy organization deprived of basic rights.

During the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting nonregistered religious groups from practicing their religion in private.

Community leaders from various Christian groups said authorities continued to make telephone or house calls to demonstrate that they continued to monitor Christian activities. According to various sources, authorities said the purpose of such monitoring was to protect minority religious communities. Authorities also informed all religious communities they would be monitoring their compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, as they did with the general population.

A number of religious groups reported occasionally informing authorities of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.

According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious observations. There were no known Shia mosques. According to Shia community members, they were able to pray in Sunni mosques, but they risked criticism from other worshippers for their religious practices. Shia representatives reported they did not attempt to register during the year because they feared security forces would harass them, as had been the case in previous years.

AMDH applied for registration in 2019 but remained unregistered. At year’s end, a foreign religious association was still waiting for its organization’s registration to be renewed, limiting its ability to hold meetings and raise funds.

The U.S. NGO Open Doors stated in its annual World Watch List report for 2020 that the penal code, which criminalizes “shaking the faith” of a Muslim, put many Christians who talked to others about their faith at risk of criminal prosecution and arrest. The NGO also stated that while the penal code provision “only punish[ed] proselytization, converts to Christianity [could] be punished in other ways, such as loss of inheritance rights and custody of their children.”

Christian leaders said there were no reports of authorities pressuring converts to renounce their faith by informing friends, relatives, and employers of the individual’s conversion.

The government continued to allow the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. Christian citizen leaders reported that Christian citizens generally did not attend those services out of fear of incurring governmental harassment, including the opening of a file with security authorities. Some foreign-born clergy and Christian citizen leaders stated that some citizens who were well known to be Christian encountered no harassment from government security officers when they attended the services of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. Foreign residents and visitors attended religious services at those churches without restriction.

The 2017 ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa remained in effect. The Ministry of Interior cited security concerns as justification for the ban. The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use. Authorities continued to prohibit anchors on national television and police and army personnel in uniform from wearing a hijab or burqa.

MEIA’s Mohamed VI Institute remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious life and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam. It employed 2,100 morchidines (male Muslim spiritual guides) and 901 morchidates (female Muslim spiritual guides) in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country. The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning. The institute continued to provide government-required one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year. It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa. The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country. The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for religious leaders. On July 1, the Mohamed VI Institute announced that training would continue during the COVID-19 pandemic and released a number of future morchidine (150) and morchidate (100) openings for 2021.

The government required religious leaders who worked in the country to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher. The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.

On February 15, MEIA suspended the imam of an Oujda mosque because he criticized “the deal of the century,” a reference to potential normalization of ties between Arab states and Israel, during the Friday sermon. In response, an expert close to the Movement for Unity and Reform, the social Islamist movement closely linked to Party of Justice and Development, criticized the MEIA for limiting the imam’s freedom of speech and defended the suspended imam and his views.

The MEIA continued to monitor Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and to ensure teaching followed approved doctrine.

The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism. Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.

The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.

The government’s policy remained to ban the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered religiously extremist.

The government permitted the display and sale of Bibles in French, English, and Spanish. A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in higher education courses.

Some Amazigh (Berber)-rights activists reported intolerance and suppression of traditional Amazigh customs in rural Amazigh villages by government-appointed morchidates.

The government continued drafting and implementing an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.” The Ministry of Education continued a review of the religion curriculum used in primary and secondary education to make reforms based on “universal values of liberty, empathy, solidarity, and honesty.” Since the review began in 2016, 29 textbooks have been rewritten, and modifications to textbooks continued during the year.

On November 19, King Mohammed VI approved a decision to teach Jewish history and culture as part of the Arabic-language curriculum in public primary schools. A joint statement from the American Sephardi Federation and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called the decision an “enduring commitment to recognizing a pluralist past” and stated, “at the core of this effort is enhancing understanding and fostering the connection between Muslims and Jews.” MEIA in July announced plans to encourage public universities to include teachings about Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The University of al-Quaraouyine in Fez offered courses on the history of Judaism, Hebrew culture and language, and the Old Testament. Coursework also included the history of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

Jewish and Christian citizens continued to state that elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country. The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

The government continued to disseminate information about Islam and Judaism over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels. Television channel Assadissa (Six) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegeses, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam. For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development, the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.

From April to September, the Baha’is of Morocco community invited followers of its Facebook page from different faiths to pray for relief from COVID-19 and organized several online conferences.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance. According to the government and Jewish leaders, MEIA did not interfere in operations of or practices in synagogues after COVID-19 outbreaks in March that followed Purim celebrations and a wedding in Agadir.

The Prison Administration authorized religious observances and services, provided by religious leaders, for all prisoners, including religious minorities.

On March 30, the government launched an investigation into a list of members of the Jewish community that were said to have COVID-19. The list was posted on social media and contained names, contact information, and other sensitive personal information. Some sources from the Jewish community also said the list was used to refuse treatment at some private medical clinics.

On January 22, the King received Catholic Archbishop of Rabat Cristobal Lopez Romero to offer congratulations on his elevation to Cardinal. The King stated that the audience represented the values of coexistence, compassion, and understanding.

On January 16, the King visited Bayt Dakira, a museum and synagogue in a historic 19th century home that preserves the heritage of the country’s Jewish community in Essaouira and in the country more broadly. The King also held a banquet in honor of members of the Jewish community present.

According to press and NGO reports, Ahmed Abbadi, the head of the government-sponsored Rabita Mohammedia of Religious Scholars, an institute that promotes tolerance, participated in a January 23 visit by a delegation of senior Islamic scholars to Auschwitz. During the visit, he stated his condemnation of the Nazis’ “barbarity” and “crimes against humanity.”

Ministry of Interior and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches. On June 21, St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca, which is home to an expatriate Anglican community, hosted the grand opening of its community center, built with approval from government authorities. The church building was undergoing government-approved renovation at year’s end, with an expected grand opening in 2021.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly. Foreign clergy discouraged some Christian citizens from attending services for fear of societal harassment. A member of the local Christian community stated that Christian services were held in secret house churches to avoid such harassment.

Christian and Jewish representatives stated that they had seen a positive change in regard to societal tolerance, which they attributed to the 2019 visit by Pope Francis and statements at that time by the King.

On April 1, police in Casablanca arrested a man for hate speech for social media posts accusing a Jewish citizen and a foreign national of being directly responsible for infecting a large number of persons with COVID-19.

According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, a U.S. NGO, a man living in Tangier posted a video to YouTube on April 28 in which he stated that Jews were not the “offspring of apes and pigs” but rather the brothers of apes and pigs, because they resembled them in “conduct and traits.”

According to Mimouna, an NGO founded by young Muslims to promote and preserve the country’s Jewish heritage, a primary school textbook in Arabic introduced during the year featured the January 2020 royal visit to Bayt Dakira, a museum and synagogue that celebrates Jewish heritage in Essaouira. The text accompanying the pictures of the visit celebrated Jewish culture and heritage as well.

According to the 2018-19 AMDH annual report, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shia beliefs and practices in the press and through Friday sermons. Shia reported they observed Ashura in private to avoid societal harassment. Shia Muslims said that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

There were reports from media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends. Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families reportedly did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.

Representatives of Christian minority groups in the Western Sahara said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families and social ridicule, were the main reasons leading them to practice their faith discreetly.

Jewish citizens continued to state that they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety. They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations.

Baha’i leaders said they did not experience harassment during the year. Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors.

Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering a good education. According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.

According to the Arab Youth Survey, an annual poll conducted by a consulting firm based in the United Arab Emirates, 62 percent of the country’s youth reported that religion, not family, politics, language, or nationality, was the most important factor in their personal identity.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials, including from the Ministry of Interior and the MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities.

In regular meetings and discussions with members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, embassy and consulate general representatives highlighted the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, U.S. officials were unable to meet with members of religious groups in Western Sahara.

In October, the U.S. Department of State Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and the Ambassador visited the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca and held meetings with the president of the Jewish Moroccan Cultural Heritage Foundation.

In early October, the CEO of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and the Ambassador attended Yom Kippur services in Casablanca.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” According to the law, offending Islam or any other Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense. There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief. Proselytizing in public is illegal. All religious organizations must register with the government. The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams. Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration. Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and others, remained without permanent, independent places of worship. Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations. MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership, although the ministry did not review all imported religious material. In February, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) again called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair.

Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. In January, al-Bawaba, a regional news website, reported that activist Majda al-Balushi, who now lives in the United States, had received “massive backlash” on social media after she announced her conversion from Islam to Christianity, including criticism from some of her fellow citizens.

At various times throughout the year, the Ambassador and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials and religious minority leaders to discuss the needs and support the worship practices of all religious groups. In October, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable discussion with religious minority leaders to communicate U.S. support for religious freedom and to assess the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective beliefs in Oman.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The government’s National Center for Statistics and Information estimates the population at 4.5 million; citizens constitute 61 percent of the population (data as of December). The government does not publish statistics on the percentages of citizens who practice Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia forms of Islam. In 2015 the Dubai-based al-Mesbar Center estimated Sunni Muslims at nearly 50 percent of the citizen population, Ibadhi Muslims at 45 percent, and Shia Muslims, Hindus, and Christians at a combined 5 percent.

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation. It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion. According to the Basic Law, the Sultan must be a Muslim.

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

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

All religious organizations must register with the government. The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for gaining ministerial approval. Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by MERA. New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from MERA before they may register. Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor. MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form. For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, al-Amana Center (an interdenominational organization affiliated with the Reformed Church of America that promotes Muslim-Christian understanding), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors. The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

According to an NGO report, Zaher al-Abri, an Islamic scholar who serves on the government-appointed Council of State, said in a televised interview that women should wear the hijab and only expose their palms and faces in public. He also said that cosmetics lack divine sanction.

According to religious leaders, MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics. The government required all imams, regardless of their branch of Islam, to preach sermons within what the government considered politically and socially acceptable parameters. These parameters, which the government outlined monthly, included the distribution of a list of acceptable topics along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams. Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring. The government-appointed Grand Mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, remained the only imam able to speak publicly outside the designated government parameters. In November, the Grand Mufti criticized on Twitter the Pope’s comments expressing support for civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, describing this concept as “shameful and fallen.”

Religious groups continued to report opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration, but none reported they were actively seeking to register with the government. While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, leadership structure, and the availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration. MERA reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim. Observers said details of the process remained vague, although there were reports MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group. According to MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register. Representatives of some religious groups said that additional communication from MERA would help their communities navigate the process for obtaining property for religious facilities or clarify legal provisions governing religious practices.

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

Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations. Non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship. According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship. MERA was willing to work with other government ministries to secure additional, government-approved land to relieve the overcrowding that some minority groups were experiencing, a MERA official said. Although at least one of the groups said that it had submitted requests in the past to acquire land for a house of worship, these groups stated that they were not actively pursuing land with MERA during the year, in part because of the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

MERA approved major religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis. For example, in the past several Hindu groups held large religious celebrations in indoor and outdoor venues throughout the country, which they coordinated with MERA by submitting an annual calendar of events. Pandemic precautions precluded such large celebrations during the year.

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

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

According to members of the legal community, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings, although there is no law stating that custody is tied to religious affiliation.

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

In February, the ADL again called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair. According to the ADL, the listings included “numerous copies” of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and Henry Ford’s The International Jew, as well as “over a dozen” additional anti-Semitic books.

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although not prohibited by law, according to some minority religious leaders, conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. In January, al-Bawaba, a regional news website, reported that activist Majda al-Balushi had received “massive backlash” on social media after she announced her conversion from Islam to Christianity, including criticism from some of her fellow citizens. Al-Bawaba stated that in a now deleted tweet, al-Balushi said, “I am very fortunate to be in America, because if I were in Oman, they would kill me and imprison me as soon as I criticized or left Islam.”

The interfaith al-Amana Center, which was founded and is supported by the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination, continued to sponsor programs to promote interreligious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it shifted to hosting virtual programs in conjunction with MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations. The center also worked closely with MERA to promote interfaith dialogue.

In a poll of 200 of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm and involving a team of international experts, only 12 percent agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, among the lowest in the broader Middle East.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In October, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable discussion with religious minority leaders to communicate U.S. support for religious freedom and to assess the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective beliefs in the country.

In December, the embassy posted a video message on social media promoting tolerance and diversity, exemplified by Americans of diverse backgrounds who come together and respect various holiday traditions in the United States.

Embassy officers met with MERA officials to encourage the government to continue its efforts to support the worship practices of all religious groups. Embassy officers raised concerns about overcrowding at minority religious groups’ places of worship and encouraged MERA to find a solution for religious groups seeking officially sanctioned space for worship. Embassy officers also met with religious minority leaders to discuss the needs of their religious groups and the challenges they faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The embassy also promoted religious freedom through its online presence by posting a message to social media on the 22nd anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Mohammed). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In practice, there is some limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious exercise, but religious practices at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations (of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) were marked by improved sectarian relations and public calls for mutual tolerance. Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of their community on a religious basis with security operations and legal proceedings. In July, Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that security forces raided the largely Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one injury. In September and October, rights groups reported the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics arrested in 2017, sentencing them to between three to 10 years in prison. In February, rights groups reported the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat, who was convicted on charges including disrupting security and participating in demonstrations. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a member of the Council of Senior Scholars (CSS), delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” Government leaders, including the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League, continued to advocate for interreligious tolerance and dialogue and to denounce religious extremism. In September, following the UAE and Bahrain’s agreement to normalize ties with Israel, the government-appointed imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca said in a televised sermon that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors, and he urged listeners to avoid “passionate emotions.”

The Saudi-owned MBC television network aired a historical drama series during the prime Ramadan viewing season centered on a Jewish midwife living in an unnamed multireligious Persian Gulf community in the 1930s to 1950s. Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world. Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.

In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 34.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they are believed to constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, reportedly number several hundred, most of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering in total approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blasphemy against Islam is legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

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

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

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

Sunni Muslim clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA. Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by the MOIA in advance.

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

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses entail one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The CPVPV’s powers have been significantly curbed in recent years and its activities are now limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; these actions are explicitly reserved to the purview of law enforcement officials. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Shia activists said authorities committed a range of abuses against members of Shia communities. While NGOs and Shia activists stated that the prosecution of Shia was often based on religious affiliation, observers said that members of other religious groups faced arrest and trial for similar offenses.

In February, online activists reported that the Supreme Court upheld a death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat. The court convicted al-Khayat on charges including participating in demonstrations, disrupting security, and carrying weapons, according to the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).

On June 8, ESOHR reported that on January 24, 2019, the Public Prosecutor’s Office sought the hudood penalty for hirabah (unlawful warfare or insurgency) against Shia Jalal Hassan Labbad on a variety of charges, including participating in protests, some of which dated to when he was a minor. ESOHR also stated that authorities tortured Labbad during his imprisonment.

In July, SRW stated that security forces raided the predominately Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one individual being shot and injured.

As many as 53 individuals, most believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by ESOHR. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling. International human rights NGOs stated that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture” during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On October 29, ESOHR reported the SCC held a new hearing in the trial of eight Shia detainees, including five minors (Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed al Bati, Mohammed Hussein al Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Issam al-Faraj). Human Rights Watch reported that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for the eight men under hudood, which would leave them ineligible for pardons if sentenced to death. They faced charges that included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.” ESOHR reported that a total of 13 Shia youth who were arrested for crimes committed as minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher.

On August 26, the HRC said in a statement that the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered a review of the death sentences of al-Nimr, al-Zaher, and al-Marhoon as part of the implementation of a royal decree announced in April abolishing ta’zir death sentences for crimes committed as minors. The HRC stated that under the decree, the three will be resentenced based on the Juvenile Law, which provides for a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The Washington Post reported that authorities refused to return the bodies of at least 33 Shia Muslims executed in April 2019, ignoring repeated pleas from the families. ESOHR stated this refusal was “part of a cycle of persecution” against Shia and reported that from 2016 through the end of 2019, the bodies of at least 84 Shia men executed or killed in Saudi security raids were not returned for burial.

Shia inmates were in some cases held in separate wings of prisons and reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.

On August 25, ESOHR reported that the Public Prosecutor’s Office no longer sought the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests, but that the Public Prosecutor’s Office was still pursuing the death penalty for her codefendants, including her husband Moussa al-Hashim. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals.

On September 4, the Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, reported that in August, security forces arrested Quran reciter Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, an associate professor of sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. It added that authorities also arrested the former head of the Faculty of Sharia at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University, Dr. Saud al-Fanisan, in March. There was no further information on the charges; observers noted that persons of any religious affiliation who expressed views not supported by the government did so at personal risk, and when clerics were arrested, it was often for expressing views that are counter to government policy.

In February, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC in Riyadh upheld an eight-year prison sentence and travel ban against Murtaja Qureiris, a 20-year-old Shia whom authorities had arrested as a juvenile after he participated in protests when he was between the ages of 10 and 13. The SCC issued its verdict following a 2019 decision that had reversed the death sentence initially imposed on Qureiris. On May 11, seven UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hassan al-Habib and Murtaja Qureiris expressing concern at the use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and possible incriminating evidence.

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

Raif Badawi remained in prison based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols. On April 30, Badawi’s wife said authorities referred Badawi’s case to court after he staged a hunger strike to protest poor treatment and because he did not feel safe in prison after he was attacked by a fellow inmate. Badawi had originally been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but a court increased his sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes. The impact on Badawi’s case of the April Supreme Court directive ending flogging and replacing it with prison sentences or fines remained unclear at year’s end.

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

In September, local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery. A court in Jeddah sentenced an African businessman to six years in prison and deportation after serving his sentence on charges of fraud, impersonating a diplomat, and sorcery.

On March 21, Prisoners of Conscience reported the arrest of Islamic scholar Abdullah al-Saad after he posted a video online denouncing the government decision to suspend all prayers at mosques to limit the spread of COVID-19. Prisoners of Conscience reported in April that authorities released al-Saad 10 days after his arrest. On March 27, the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of four individuals for claiming the spread of novel coronavirus was a “punishment from God.” The Public Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement that it ordered the arrest of another three individuals who “exploited social media to interpret God’s will amid the coronavirus.”

On July 12, the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) issued a statement announcing the suspension of the children’s television show Green Wish after the host asked members of the audience to pin their wishes on a wishing tree and hope they would come true, which many viewers said was “a call for polytheism.” In the statement, the SBC affirmed the adherence of its programs to “tolerant” Islam.

On March 21, local media reported that Mecca police arrested a Saudi man and two female Yemeni residents in Jeddah for “mocking Islamic religious rituals” after the man appeared in a photo kneeling down before one of the women as a sign of worship in front of a mosque in Jeddah.

On April 30, local media reported that Riyadh police arrested a man for posting a Snapchat video “mocking prayers.”

During the year, the SCC held at least three hearings in the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by Human Rights Watch as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. Following a December 25 hearing, his son tweeted that the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed). According to Human Rights Watch, the charges against him also included criticism of several early Islamic figures, insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist.

The SCC, which specializes in terrorism and national security cases, continued trials of some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government continued to regard as a terrorist organization, a view also expressed by the CSS, which stated the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent the true values of Islam. The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. Most of the 37 charges against al-Odah concerned alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari government as well as his public support for imprisoned dissidents. Al-Odah’s son stated in a December press article that his father’s physical and mental condition had declined during three years of solitary confinement and that he had partially lost his sight and hearing due to medical negligence. Beginning in mid-May through mid-September, activists said authorities denied al-Odah access to family telephone calls.

Prisoners of Conscience stated a number of clerics were detained, charged, or sentenced for offenses related to their religious opinions, although the charges were not specified. In September, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics and religious leaders arrested in 2017 and charged for offenses related to free expression and their religious views, including Dr. Ibrahim al-Harthi, Abdullah al-Maliki, Khalid al-Ajeemi, Ahmed al-Suwayan, Dr. Yousef Ahmad al-Qasem, Sheikh Ghorom al-Bishi, Rabea Hafez, Fahad al-Sunaidi, and Dr. Ibrahim al-Faris. According to Prisoners of Conscience, the SCC sentenced them to between three and 10 years in prison.

On October 9, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced cleric Naif al-Sahafi to 10 years in prison. Authorities arrested al-Sahafi in a wide-ranging crackdown on Shia clerics in 2017.

On October 14, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC sentenced cleric Ali Badahdah, detained since 2017, to six years in prison. On October 15, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced Habib bin Mualla, in detention since 2017, to three-and-a-half years in prison. Mualla previously served as an advisor at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

On October 12, Prisoners of Conscience said authorities suspended clerics Khaled al-Mushaiqeh and Abdulrahman al-Aqel from preaching and giving religious lectures.

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

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. Members of the expatriate Christian community said that congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities. Members of other minority faith communities similarly reported less interference in private religious gatherings than public ones.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance to Sunni imams on the substance of Friday sermons. It restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. According to local observers, Shia clerics did not receive guidance on their sermons from MOIA and did not submit them for preapproval. However, Shia clerics continued to exercise significant self-censorship in light of the government’s well-known views on the scope and substance of acceptable preaching.

Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship, although husseiniyas (prayer halls) were found in areas inhabited by Shia residents. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any reported violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as in urban areas. In 2018, the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. An MOIA mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) allowed mosque-goers to monitor sermons and rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

There were media reports that some Sunni clerics who received government stipends used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. On May 26, Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif al-Sheikh announced Sunni imams were required to select their sermons from among those published on the MOIA portal. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to express discriminatory or intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

According to a report in the newspaper al-Watan, the government fired 100 imams and preachers for failing to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as instructed by MOIA.

On February 27, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, authorities suspended the Umrah for pilgrims traveling from outside the country and did the same on March 4 for citizens and residents of the country. The MOIA announced that on March 17, it was suspending daily prayers and weekly Friday prayers at all mosques in the country, except for the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. The government also closed Shia husseiniyas, allowing them to reopen in late-July to be used for August Ashura commemorations. On March 20, the Grand Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques announced that it would stop worshippers from entering the two Holy Mosques. Prayers resumed at mosques outside Mecca on May 31 and resumed in Mecca on June 21.

On June 22, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that the 2020 Hajj would be limited to approximately 1,000 pilgrims, all living in-country, approximately 700 of whom would be noncitizens representing 160 nationalities. On September 23, the government announced that it would start allowing pilgrims to perform Umrah in gradual stages beginning on October 1. On October 18, the government allowed citizens and noncitizen residents to pray in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

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

Authorities continued to permit public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the country’s largest Shia population, a practice begun in 2016. According to community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities; such events were also scaled down during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They stated that the Shia Ashura commemoration was marked by improved sectarian relations and publicity for mutual tolerance. In one instance, a photograph of a Sunni police officer aiding an elderly Shia follower was shared across social media platforms, drawing praise for the message of tolerance it depicted. In Qatif, authorities eased restrictions imposed after civil unrest in 2011-2012 and took steps to encourage development and tourism to improve conditions for the town’s predominantly Shia residents.

On October 6, according to SRW, authorities arrested two orators, Muhammad Bou Jabara and Ali Khulayya, for their participation in Arbaeen ceremonies (the Shia mourning observance occurring 40 days after the Day of Ashura).

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times, per Sunni practice) or in some instances not to close at all. Residents in Sunni and Shia communities noted that although businesses historically were required to close after the call to prayer, there appeared to be a gradual but growing tendency for businesses to remain open during prayer times.

According to the NGO SRW, on April 17, authorities bulldozed Shia graves in Awamiya, Qatif, damaging historical structures and monuments. SRW also reported that on May 14, military forces raided the neighborhood of Umm al-Jazm in Qatif, to prevent use of the Shia variant of the call to prayer. According to SRW, raids by government forces occurred in Shia-dominant neighborhoods in October, July, February, and January.

The al-Awamiyah mosque of former Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was demolished by authorities in December.

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

In January, Muslim World League (MWL) secretary-general Mohammed al-Issa announced that Saudi Arabia will stop funding mosques in foreign countries. According to the Swiss newspaper Le Matin Dimanche, the country planned to establish local administrative councils for each of these mosques in cooperation with the local authorities, in order to transfer these mosques to “secure hands.”

Observers stated that judges sometimes discounted the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam and favored the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under their interpretation of sharia and the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases, such as financial disputes or criminal charges.

The government continued to enforce Islamic norms, such as prohibiting eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. On October 13, local media reported that the CPVPV in Khobar Governorate intensified its field presence with foot and vehicle patrols in markets, malls, and streets to implement the programs and events of the “Prayer is Light” campaign, which aimed to highlight the importance of prayer. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasigovernmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.

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

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. According to a February report by the Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), Saudi curricula for the years 2016-2019 taught students that non-Muslims – including Christians and Jews – were infidels and described them as enemies of Islam. Christians were referred to derogatorily as “polytheists.” In addition, textbooks also taught students to consider Jews “monkeys” and “assassins” and “eternally treacherous, murdering prophets, committing irreparable evil, and determined to harm Muslim holy places.” In a separate study published in December on a review of textbooks used in the 2020-2021 school year, IMPACT-se found a notable reduction in anti-Semitic content. In a statement about the report, the NGO said, “While the latest…report did not find that new tolerant material had been injected into the curriculum, it did find that a substantial amount of offensive material had been removed.” IMPACT-se’s CEO said, “The Saudi authorities have begun a process of rooting out anti-Jewish hate.”

On February 19, Minister of Education Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sheikh dismissed Dr. Jamil bin Abdulmohsin al-Khalaf, dean of the Sharia Faculty at Imam Mohammed Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, after he reportedly invited “people with deviant ideology” to a faculty event. In a statement, the university said the decision was intended to “purify” its campus of intellectual impurities that could harm national security or contradict moderate Islam.

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

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

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring “objectionable” content, such as views of religion it considered extremist or misinformed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for “religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users under the cybercrimes law. The government also shut down websites it regarded as being used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In 2017, authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain applications, including FaceTime and Facebook Messenger. However, some users continued to report that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype remained blocked.

Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion when seeking government employment. Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population. They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including in the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education. According to HRW, the government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. Although Shura Council members’ religious affiliations are not publicly announced, there were an estimated seven or eight Shia on the 150-member council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis reside, had large proportions of Shia Saudis as members to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa.

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

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

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, with the remaining 30 percent located in private residences or built and endowed by private persons. The construction of any new mosque required permission from the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits. The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerics.

The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to officially endorse these mosques, according to some NGOs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Two Shia mosques in Dammam licensed by the government served approximately 750,000 worshippers. There were no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers, such as Jeddah and Riyadh. Shia in those areas had to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship.

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

Reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in Qatif and al-Ahsa. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

On April 16, Minister of Islamic Affairs al-Sheikh said the MOIA would refer to the Public Prosecutor’s Office a number of women preachers who delivered religious sermons and lectures without prior permits from the MOIA, which constituted a violation of the law.

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

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices to which one should report violations of this policy.

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

The government did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain in-person contact with clergy not resident in the country, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries.

On January 23, MWL secretary general al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim leaders to visit the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The visit was part of a joint enterprise between the MWL and the American Jewish Committee. In a June 9 online ceremony, the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the American Sephardi Federation presented al-Issa with their inaugural Combat Anti-Semitism Award. On February 20, King Salman received a delegation from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue that included Israeli Rabbi David Rosen, who became the first Israeli rabbi to meet with a Saudi king in recent history.

In February, a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited the country and met with senior government officials and MWL secretary-general al-Issa to discuss countering violent extremism in the Middle East. This was believed to be the first official visit to the kingdom by an American Jewish organization since 1993, when the American Jewish Congress sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to endorse the Oslo agreements.

On June 14, MWL Secretary-General al-Issa said that Jews and Muslims working together could defeat “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or any other form of prejudice.” In a speech delivered at the American Jewish Committee Virtual Global Forum 2020 and posted to YouTube, he said the MWL was proud to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Jewish brothers and sisters to build understanding, respect, love, and interreligious harmony.”

In August 22 remarks to an online media forum, al-Issa stressed the need for promoting coexistence among different faiths and cultures, and he called for confronting perpetrators of the ideology of hatred and racism to achieve lasting global peace.

On September 4, shortly after the UAE and Bahrain agreed to normalize ties with Israel, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Abdulrahman al-Sudais, said in a televised sermon that Muslims should avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” toward Jews, and he emphasized that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors and the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well.”

On October 13, the country hosted a virtual global interfaith forum as part of its presidency of the Group of 20, with participation from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, and Christian leaders, among other religious representatives. The online forum was accessible to Saudis and international participants.

Instances of anti-Semitic statements by public officials continued. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February, cleric and former director of the CPVPV in Mecca Ahmed al-Ghamdi said during a media interview that secularism was not tantamount to atheism and that it did not force people to renounce their religion or deny them the right to religious exercise.

In April and May, during the prime viewing month of Ramadan, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based MBC network aired Umm Haroun, a historical drama series centered on the life of a Jewish midwife in an unnamed, multireligious Persian Gulf community. The New York Times stated, “Fans laud the program, set in the 1940s and 1950s, for highlighting an often-overlooked aspect of the region’s past – Jewish communities in the Persian Gulf – while providing a much-needed example of coexistence among different faiths.” Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world.

Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. She called for embracing change, religious enlightenment, and the application of reason in religious interpretation to bring the younger generation closer to Islam.

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, but self-censorship was common, given the risk of official reprisals. While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, self-censorship on social media remained prevalent when discussing topics such as religion or the royal family. Online discussions included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms like “rejectionists” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were common in public discourse. In September, cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini referred to Shia as “rejectionists” in a tweet under the hashtag “rejectionists’ creed.”

Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy and consulate officials engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance issues. The Ambassador and embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, the National Society for Human Rights, members of the Shura Council, the National Committee for Interreligious and Multicultural Dialogue, the MFA, the MOIA, the MWL, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior U.S. officials pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.

Senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and restrictions of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices. Embassy representatives also met with non-Islamic religious leaders to discuss their ability to gather and practice their faith.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to inquire about the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns with members of religious minority communities, including Shia and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents. Embassy officials attended or sought access to a number of trials related to religious freedom. The embassy and Department of State officials also engaged Saudi officials regarding these detainees.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Sudan

Executive Summary

The constitutional declaration signed in August 2019 includes several provisions protecting the right to freedom of religious belief and worship “in accordance with the requirements of the law and public order.” Unlike the former constitution, it makes no reference to “sharia” or Islamic religious law as a source of law, although the clause restricting the death penalty permits its imposition as sharia-sanctioned (hudud) punishment of certain crimes. Laws promulgated under the former constitution remained in effect while the civilian-led transitional government (CLTG) worked to amend or abolish those laws and pass new legislation within the framework of the constitutional declaration. In July, the CLTG ratified the Miscellaneous Amendments (Fundamental Rights and Freedoms) Act of 2020 (MAA), repealing the article of law that made apostasy a crime subject to capital punishment and instead criminalizing the act of accusing others of apostasy. The MAA did not repeal the article that criminalizes blasphemy, as some media erroneously reported. In July, the CLTG removed flogging as a punishment for blasphemy. Some criminal laws and practices established by the previous government led by Omar al-Bashir remained in effect, including blasphemy, and were based on that government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups stated did not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups. The MAA rescinded laws under which authorities could arrest individuals for indecent dress and other reasons deemed injurious of honor, reputation, and public morality. It repealed the law prohibiting non-Muslims from drinking alcohol. In July, the rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), active in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan States and led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, extended and signed a cessation of hostilities. Among other measures, al-Hilu called for the separation of religion and state, with no role for religion in lawmaking. On September 3, Prime Minister (PM) Abdalla Hamdok and al-Hilu signed a declaration of principles that included the separation of religion and state. Media reported that on March 11, the government abolished all government-appointed church committees, which had been imposed under the Bashir government. In October, a judge acquitted Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) leadership of trespassing and illegal possession of SCOC properties charges. According to Church clergy, the SCOC dropped its lawsuit against the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments (MRA) ending the long-standing ownership dispute over SCOC headquarters and other Church properties. According to Muslim religious leaders, the CLTG discontinued the practice that had been in place in years past of security forces monitoring imams’ sermons. Members of minority religious groups continued to express concerns regarding the education system, which lacked sufficient non-Muslim teachers to teach courses on Christianity and textbooks that promoted religious diversity.

Media reported several church burnings during the year. According to Radio Dabanga, unknown individuals burned down one SCOC church in Omdurman on February 29 and another in Bout Village, Blue Nile State, on March 9. Individuals attacked one SCOC church in Jabarona near Khartoum four times between December 18, 2019, and January 29. Church leaders there said they also received threats from individuals characterized as Muslim extremists living in the area. They said one threat stated, “If the government gives you permission to build a church here, they’d better be prepared to collect your dead bodies.” Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported that on August 14, unknown individuals set fire to a temporary straw church the congregation had built. SCOC members said one suspect was arrested in connection with the incident; however, arsonists who perpetrated the previous incidents remained at large. During the year, some Muslim clerics made anti-Semitic statements in response to reports that the government had begun exploring the normalization of relations with Israel. On February 5, in an interview with Tayba TV, Islamic scholar Abd al-Hayy Yousuf said, “We know that the Jews raise their children on the hatred of Muslims, and on the killing of the Arabs.” On March 1, Imam Abdallah Hassan Jiballah posted a video on the internet in which he said hatred and hostility towards Jews was part of Islam, and, “If there is something [in a treaty] that negates the faith of a Muslim, yet he still normalizes relations with them, this is haram. Such normalization is forbidden by sharia law.”

U.S. officials encouraged respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups. They urged repeal of apostasy and blasphemy laws. In addition, they highlighted the need for a new and inclusive education curriculum and urged government officials to abstain from the former regime’s practices, which included confiscating and demolishing religious properties. The U.S. embassy maintained close contact with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Embassy representatives monitored the state of religious freedom in the country and stressed the importance of religious tolerance among the various religious groups.

On December 2, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State removed Sudan from the Special Watch List, determining that it no longer engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” Sudan had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 1999 to 2018 and was moved to the Special Watch List in 2019.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 45.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The Pew Research Center estimates that 91 percent of the population is Muslim, 5.4 percent is Christian, 2.8 percent follow folk religions, and the remainder follow other religions or are unaffiliated. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports 1,088,898 refugees and asylum seekers in the country, including 821,368 South Sudanese refugees. Some religious advocacy groups estimate non-Muslims make up more than 13 percent of the population.

Almost all Muslims are Sunni, although there are significant distinctions among followers of different Sunni traditions, particularly among Sufi orders. Small Shia Muslim communities are based predominantly in Khartoum. At least one Jewish family remains in the Khartoum area.

The Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) reports the presence of 36 Christian denominations, of which 24 are registered denominations. Christians reside throughout the country, primarily in major cities such as Khartoum, Port Sudan, Kassala, Gedaref, El Obeid, and El Fasher. Christians also are concentrated in some parts of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State.

Relatively small but long-established groups of Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians are in Khartoum; El Obeid in North Kordofan, River Nile, and Gezira States; and eastern parts of the country. Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox communities largely made up of refugees and migrants are in Khartoum and the eastern part of the country. Other larger Christian groups include the Catholic Church, Episcopal Anglican Church, Sudanese Church of Christ, Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and Presbyterian Church of the Sudan. Smaller Christian groups include the Africa Inland Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Sudan Interior Church, Sudan Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Government statistics indicate less than 1 percent of the population, primarily in Blue Nile and South Kordofan States, adhere to traditional African religious beliefs. Some Christians and Muslims incorporate aspects of these traditional beliefs into their religious practice. There is a small Baha’i community.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2019 constitutional declaration includes provisions regarding freedom of belief and worship. As stipulated in the constitutional declaration, existing laws and institutions governing religion remain in effect while the new government works to amend and restructure them. While the previous constitution stated all national legislation should be based on sharia, the constitutional declaration makes no reference to sharia, although the clause restricting the death penalty permits its imposition as sharia-sanctioned (hudud) punishment for certain crimes.

The constitutional declaration also has provisions providing for access to education regardless of religion, requiring that political parties be open to citizens of all religions, and ensuring all “ethnic and cultural” groups have the right to “exercise their beliefs” and “observe their religions or customs.”

Abuses of freedom of religion are often addressed in lower courts but may be appealed to the Constitutional Court.

Laws promulgated under the former constitution remain in effect while the CLTG worked to amend or abolish those laws and pass new legislation within the framework of the constitutional declaration.

National laws concerning personal and family matters of Muslims adopted during the Bashir administration remain largely in effect and are based on a sharia system of jurisprudence. The existing criminal code states the law, including at the state and local levels, shall be based on sharia sources and include hudood, qisas, and diyah principles (regarding punishment, restitution, and compensation for specific serious crimes). The criminal code takes into consideration multiple sharia schools of jurisprudence (madhahib). The Islamic Panel of Scholars and Preachers (Fiqh Council), an official body of 50 Muslim religious scholars responsible for explaining and interpreting Islamic jurisprudence, determines under which conditions a particular school of thought will apply. Other criminal and civil laws are determined at the state and local level.

Members of the Fiqh Council serve four-year renewable terms. In the past, the council advised the government and issued fatwas on religious matters, including levying customs duties on the importation of religious materials, payment of interest on loans for public infrastructure, and determination of government-allotted annual leave for Islamic holidays. The council’s opinions are not legally binding. Muslim religious scholars may present differing religious and political viewpoints in public. The Fiqh Council mandate is unclear under the CLTG.

In July, the CLTG ratified the MAA, rescinding a provision of a 1991 law that criminalized and imposed the death penalty for apostasy (conversion from Islam to another faith). The MAA replaced the apostasy provision with an article criminalizing takfir (the act of declaring someone a kafir or nonbeliever). Those charged with takfir face imprisonment not to exceed 10 years, a fine, or both.

The existing criminal code’s section on “religious offenses” criminalizes various acts committed against any religion. These include insulting religion; blasphemy; questioning or criticizing the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet; disturbing places of worship; and trespassing upon places of burial. In July, the CLTG removed flogging as a punishment for blasphemy. The criminal code states, “Whoever insults any religion, their rights or beliefs or sanctifications or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof” shall be punished with up to one year in prison and/or a fine. The article includes provisions that prescribe penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both for anyone who curses the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, or members of his respective households.

In July, the CLTG repealed a provision of law under which individuals could be arrested for indecent dress and other offenses deemed injurious to honor, reputation, and public morality. The MAA in July also removed penalties for anyone who imported or distributed alcohol to any individual regardless of religion.

Some parts of the criminal code specify punishments for Muslims based on government interpretation of sharia punishment principles. For example, the penalty for adultery with a married person is hanging and for an unmarried person is 100 lashes. An unmarried man may additionally be punished with banishment for up to one year. These penalties only apply to Muslims. Adultery is defined as sexual activity outside of marriage, prior to marriage, or in a marriage that is determined to be void.

Under the law, the Minister of Justice may release any prisoner who memorizes the Quran during his or her prison term. The release requires a recommendation for parole from the prison’s director general, a religious committee composed of the Sudan Scholars Organization, and members of the Fiqh Council, which consults with the MRA to ensure decisions comply with Islamic jurisprudence.

The MRA is responsible for regulating Islamic religious practice, supervising churches, and guaranteeing equal treatment for all religious groups. The MRA also provides recommendations to relevant ministries regarding religious issues that government ministries encounter.

To gain official recognition by the government, religious groups are required to register at the state level with the MRA. The MRA determines, along with the state-level entities responsible for land grants and planning, whether to provide authorization or permits to build new houses of worship, taking into account zoning concerns such as the distance between religious institutions and population density. The allocation of land to religious entities is determined at the state level.

The Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), formerly known as the Higher Council for Guidance and Endowment, oversees NGOs and nonprofit organizations. Religious groups that engage in humanitarian or development activities must register as nonprofit NGOs by filing a standard application required by the HAC. Only NGOs registered with HAC are eligible to apply for other administrative benefits, including land ownership, tax exemptions, and work permits. The HAC works with the Ministry of Interior to facilitate the visa process for NGO representatives seeking to obtain visas.

Customary practice does not permit followers of Shia Islam to hold worship services; however, they are allowed to enter Sunni mosques to pray.

The MRA has federal entities in each state that coordinate travel for the Hajj and Umra.

The state-mandated education curriculum requires that all students receive religious instruction from elementary school to secondary school. The curriculum further mandates that all schools, including international schools and private schools operated by Christian groups, provide Islamic education classes to Muslim students from preschool through the second year of university. The law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, and it mandates that public schools provide Christian students with other religious instruction if there are at least 15 Christian students in a class. According to the Ministry of Education, following the separation of South Sudan, this number was not reached in most schools. Non-Muslim students therefore normally attend religious study classes of their own religion outside of regular school hours to fulfill the religious instruction requirement. The Ministry of Education is responsible for determining the religious education curriculum. According to the ministry, the Islamic curriculum must follow the Sunni tradition.

Under the law, a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman. In practice, Muslim men follow sharia guidance, which advises they may marry “non-Muslim women of the book,” i.e., either Christian or Jewish women. A Muslim woman, however, legally may marry only a Muslim man. A Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man could be charged with adultery.

There are separate family courts for Muslims and non-Muslims to address personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody, according to their religion. By law, in custody dispute cases where one parent is Muslim and the other is Christian, courts grant custody to the Muslim parent if there is any concern that the non-Muslim parent would raise the child in a religion other than Islam.

According to Islamic personal status laws, Christians (including children) may not inherit assets from a Muslim. Children of mixed (Muslim-Christian) marriages are considered Muslim and may inherit.

Government offices and businesses are closed on Friday for prayers and follow an Islamic workweek of Sunday to Thursday. A 2019 decree mandates that academic institutions not give exams on Sunday, and it authorizes Christians to leave work at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday for religious activities. Individuals may also leave work to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, an official state holiday, along with several key Islamic holidays.

An interministerial committee, which includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the General Intelligence Service, and in some cases Military Intelligence, must approve foreign clergy and other foreigners seeking a residency permit.

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

Government Practices

Investigations continued into incidents in which government forces under former President Bashir allegedly attacked protesters outside mosques during antigovernment protests that took place from December 2018 to April 2019.

In July, the rebel group SPLM-N, active in Blue Nile and South Kordofan States and led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, extended and signed a cessation of hostilities. Al-Hilu called for the separation of religion and state with no role for religion in lawmaking. He had previously made repeated statements that sharia was incompatible with basic freedom for the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile States and was his primary rationale for armed struggle against the Bashir government. Bloomberg News reported that on September 3 in Addis Ababa, PM Hamdok and al-Hilu signed a declaration of principles that included the separation of religion and state. In November, a follow-up workshop on the declaration of principles was held between the SPLM-N and CLTG.

CSW reported that on August 13, a judge in Khartoum sentenced a Christian woman to two months’ imprisonment and a 50,000-Sudanese-pound ($910) fine for dealing in alcohol, despite amendments to the law that exempt non-Muslims from that prohibition except in cases where they supplied alcohol to Muslims.

During the year, the MRA recovered more than 48 endowments, with assets totaling more than $397 million, according to Minister Nasreddine Mufreh. The ministry also recovered assets from seven endowments located in Saudi Arabia. Under the former regime, sources stated that ministries funded their budgets by usurping endowments, properties, or services from the MRA. The MRA had opened its investigation into allegations of corruption pertaining to endowments and Hajj and Umra pilgrimages to Mecca in December 2019.

Although the MAA abolished the death penalty for apostasy, minority religious groups, including Shia and other Muslim minorities, expressed concern they could be convicted of apostasy if they expressed beliefs or discussed religious practices that differed from those of the Sunni majority. Some Shia said they remained prohibited from writing articles about their beliefs, and local media exercised self-censorship to avoid covering religious issues, due to concern regarding receiving a negative response from members of society.

Morning Star News reported that on March 11, the MRA abolished government-appointed committees imposed on churches under the Bashir government. Reverend Yahia Abdelrahim Nalu, head of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, described the abolition as a positive step. Church leaders said further legal action would be needed to regain some church properties lost under the former committees.

On October 19, a criminal court in Omdurman acquitted the SCOC leadership committee of criminal trespass and illegal possession of SCOC properties. The government had reopened the 2019 case in July despite a 2018 court ruling that the SCOC national leadership committee led by Moderator Ayoub Tilliano had ownership of the SCOC headquarters in Omdurman. The case arose from a 2015 raid by security forces on the SCOC headquarters, after which the security forces confiscated all of the group’s legal documents and brought charges against the leadership council for trespassing. The SCOC retained ownership of the headquarters.

In previous years, government security services reportedly monitored mosques and imams’ sermons closely, and they provided talking points and required imams to use them in their sermons. According to Muslim religious leaders, the CLTG discontinued this practice. Throughout the year, religious leaders’ sermons were varied and were sometimes critical of the CLTG.

Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims, but observers said authorities did not allow Shia prayers. Shia prisoners were permitted to join prayer services led by Sunni imams. Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance. Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular, according to SCOC and Roman Catholic clergy.

Members of minority religious groups continued to express concerns regarding the education system, which lacked sufficient non-Muslim teachers to teach courses on Christianity and textbooks that promoted religious diversity. Although the law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, some schools did not excuse non-Muslim students from these classes. Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students were not required to attend those classes. Most Christian students attended religious education classes at their churches based on the availability of volunteer teachers from their church communities.

On December 30, the Islamic Edict Council of the MRA prohibited the use of sixth-grade history textbooks because the books contained content that countered Islamic doctrine. Clerics also argued the newly proposed curriculum glorified Western history.

Local parishioners continued to state that compared with Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship were disproportionately affected by unclear zoning laws.

According to CSW, the Governor of Gezira State authorized the construction of four church buildings on empty land, three for SCOC and one for an evangelical church. This was the first time land had been granted to Christians since 2005.

The CLTG granted Christian churches or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status, which the Bashir government had only granted to Islamic relief agencies. Christian churches reported authorities no longer required them to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles. Church officials said the CLTG also dramatically eased restrictions. The CLTG increased the number of visas and resident permits it granted foreign Christian missionaries.

In July, Minister of Justice Naseredeen Abdulbari said the MAA was necessary to guarantee freedoms outlined in the 2019 constitutional declaration. He said the Ministry of Justice had abolished the death penalty for apostasy because it threatened social peace by putting people’s lives in danger, and that the new criminal law required prosecutors to protect the lives of those accused of apostasy.

In September, MRA Minister Mufreh said the 2019 constitutional declaration granted religious groups the right to worship as long as their practices did not infringe on others’ rights or instigate religious strife.

The MRA Minister hosted roundtables with religious leaders and civil society throughout the year on coexistence and tolerance. In October, the Minister hosted an event on religious freedom and coexistence entitled, “A Sudan for All.” PM Hamdok provided opening remarks and stated religious freedom “is the root of all human freedoms.”

In May, during Juba Peace Talks between the CLTG and the SPLM-N, both sides agreed to create an independent religious freedom commission to work through religious freedom issues from the previous regime.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On December 28, 2019, unknown assailants burned a Sudan Interior (Baptist denomination) church, Catholic church, and Orthodox church in Blue Nile State, according to international media. The government said a suspect was arrested and released due to lack of evidence.

CSW reported that on November 29, the trial of nine defendants accused of setting fire to a church in Omdurman began. The case continued at year’s end.

According to Radio Dabanga, unknown individuals burned down an SCOC church in Omdurman on February 29 and another in Bout Village, Blue Nile State, on March 9.

In March, CSW reported that unknown individuals attacked an SCOC church in Jabarona near Khartoum four times between December 18, 2019, and January 29. Church leaders said they also received threats from individuals characterized as Muslim extremists living in the area. They said one threat stated, “If the government gives you permission to build a church here, they’d better be prepared to collect your dead bodies.” Church leaders reported the incidents and threats to police. In March, MRA Minister Mufreh appointed commissioners to investigate the incidents. CSW reported that on August 14, unknown individuals set fire to a temporary straw church the congregation had built. SCOC members said one person was arrested in connection with the August incident, while perpetrators of the previous incidents remained at large.

According to Morning Star News, on October 6, three Christians were beaten by three Muslim men who said they were upset with the continued presence of Christians in the Alsamrab neighborhood of Khartoum North. The beatings were reported to police; media reported the victims were pressured to drop the case.

During the year, some Muslim clerics made anti-Semitic statements in response to reports that the government began exploring the normalization of relations with Israel. On February 5, in an interview with Tayba TV, Islamic scholar Abd al-Hayy Yousuf said he opposed the government’s policy. Al-Hayy said, “The Jews, according to the Quran, are the slayers of the prophets. They are the shedders of blood… It was the Jews who tried, three times, to kill the Prophet Muhammad.” Al-Hayy said, “We know that the Jews raise their children on the hatred of Muslims and on the killing of the Arabs.”

The Middle East Media Research Institute reported that on March 1, Imam Abdallah Hassan Jiballah posted a video on the internet in which he said, “The Jews are the slayers of the prophets. They are shedders of blood who disbelieved prophets, and Allah detailed many more of their characteristics. Therefore, hatred and hostility towards them is part of our faith.” He said, “If there is something [in a treaty] that negates the faith of a Muslim, yet he still normalizes relations with them, this is haram. Such normalization is forbidden by sharia law.”

In October, Unity International hosted a two-day International Religious Freedom Roundtable attended by Sovereign Council member Raja Nicola, religious leaders, and civil society members. The attendees signed a declaration on religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy staff met regularly with government officials and urged officials from the Foreign Ministry to rescind blasphemy and apostasy laws hindering religious freedom. In addition, embassy officials encouraged the government to develop an inclusive education curriculum and abstain from confiscating church property, establishing government appointed church committees, and restricting visas for foreign missionaries. To highlight efforts to address governmental interference in the internal affairs of religious groups, on January 8-10, the U.S Special Envoy for Sudan, the Charge d’Affaires, and PM Hamdok visited Kauda, a town located in South Kordofan State that was controlled by the rebel SPLM-N. During the visit, the U.S. Special Envoy and the Charge d’Affaires spoke with PM Hamdok about the separation of religion and state in an effort to broker peace in the rebel-held area.

Throughout the year, embassy officials engaged with religious leaders and civil society organizations to discuss legislation enacted under the CTLG and seek their views on actions needed to expand religious freedom. In meetings, embassy officials stressed the importance of identifying measures to collectively advance religious tolerance among the various religious groups. The Charge and embassy officials attended civil society and MRA hosted roundtables in October.

U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, utilized social media outlets to applaud the government’s actions to repeal laws hindering religious freedom and to create an inclusive society.

On December 2, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State removed Sudan from the Special Watch List, determining that it no longer engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” Sudan had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 1999 to 2018 and was moved to the Special Watch List in 2019.

Tunisia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam. The constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.” It prohibits the use of mosques and other houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. Media reported in June that Mounir Baatour, a lawyer and president of Shams, a group that advocates for sexual minorities, fled to France after the government accused him in late 2019 of “incitement to hatred and to animosity between races, doctrines, and religions.” Police arrested four foreign nationals in Sousse on February 18 for distributing flyers encouraging conversion to Christianity. On July 14, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced blogger Emna Chargui, who since fled the country, to six months in prison and a 2,000-dinar ($750) fine for a May 2 social media post, “Sura Corona,” that mimicked the format of a Quranic verse as a comment on the COVID-19 pandemic. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology. In spite of continued appeals from the Baha’i community, the government did not recognize the Baha’i Faith or grant its association legal status. On February 21, an administrative court ruled in favor of allowing the Baha’i Faith to establish an association. The General Prosecutor appealed the ruling and the case remained ongoing at year’s end. While face coverings used to guard against COVID-19 were permitted and mandated by the government, wearing the niqab remained prohibited. Christian citizens stated the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly as they pertain to the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. On May 19, the Minister of Cultural Affairs announced the ministry would include the synagogue of Tataouine in its national heritage registry and would place it under protection to prevent further degradation of the building. The multicultural Attalaki Association for Freedom and Equality reported continued positive exchanges with members of parliament from the Nahda political party, Tahya Tounes political party, and the Reform bloc in parliament, and the Union for Religious Affairs regarding efforts to combat hate speech based on religion and license a Christian cemetery and church.

Christian converts from Islam said threats from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith. On May 3, a neighbor called a woman an infidel and physically assaulted her for wearing a Christian cross. An article published by an international NGO stated that several historical factors “have contributed to a persistent societal perception of religious minorities in Tunisia as foreigners (Christians more than Jews due to the longer presence of the latter), or at least as not fully Tunisian.” Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials continued to maintain regular contact with government officials, including in the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA), Office of the Presidency, and Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights, to discuss issues concerning religious freedom and encourage tolerance of religious minorities. Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques, difficulties facing Baha’i Faith and Christian citizens, reports of anti-Semitic acts, and threats to converts from Islam to other faiths. Throughout the year, embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities. Embassy officers continued to engage, virtually, on a regular basis with a range of religious leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate), of which approximately 99 percent is Sunni Muslim. Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, and nonbelievers constitute less than 1 percent of the population. There are approximately 7,000 Christians who are citizens, according to the Christian community, most of whom are Anglicans or Protestants. The MRA estimates there are approximately 30,000 Christian residents, most of whom are foreigners, and of whom 80 percent are Roman Catholic. Catholic officials estimate their church membership at fewer than 5,000, widely dispersed throughout the country. The remaining Christian population is composed of Protestants, Russian Orthodox, French Reformists, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Jewish community numbers approximately 1,400, according to the MRA. One-third of the Jewish population lives in and around the capital, and the remainder lives on the island of Djerba and in the neighboring town of Zarzis. There is a small Baha’i community, but reliable information on its numbers is not available.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam is the country’s religion, but the constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and requires the president to be Muslim. It guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practices. The constitution also states that mosques and houses of worship should be free from partisanship. It obligates the state to disseminate the values of moderation and tolerance, protect holy sites, and prevent takfir (Muslim accusations of apostasy against other Muslims). The law requires that all religious services be celebrated within houses of worship or other nonpublic settings. These restrictions extend to public advertisement of religious services. The constitution lists reasons for potential restrictions on the rights and freedoms it guarantees, including protecting the rights of others, requirements of national defense, and public order, morality, or health. The constitution guarantees the right to public education and says the state will “work to consolidate the Arab-Muslim identity in the young generations.”

The penal code criminalizes speech likely “to cause harm to the public order or morality,” as well as acts undermining public morals in a way that “intentionally violates modesty.”

There is no legal prohibition of proselytism, but the law criminalizes forced conversions.

Religious groups may form and register associations under the law to establish a bank account, conduct financial activities such as charity work, and receive favorable tax treatment, including tax-free donations from government-approved associations, provided the association does not purport to represent all believers of a religious group or use the name of a religious group. To establish an association, a religious group must submit a registered letter to the Prime Minister’s Office stating the purposes of the association; copies of the national identity cards of its founders, who must be citizens; and two copies of the articles of association signed by the association’s founders or their representatives. The articles of association must contain the official name of the association in Arabic and any foreign language, if appropriate; its address; a statement of its objectives; membership criteria; membership fees; and a statement of organizational structure, including identification of the decision-making body for the association. The law requires that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles. The law prohibits associations from engaging in for-profit activities, providing material support to individual political candidates, or adopting bylaws or taking actions to incite violence or promote hatred, fanaticism, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Once established, an association may receive tax-exempt income from organizations, including foreign organizations that have a prior agreement with the government.

Once an association receives the return receipt from the Prime Minister’s Office, it has seven days to submit an announcement of the name, purpose, and objectives of the association to the government press. The government press has 15 days to publish the announcement in the government gazette, which marks the association’s official registration. In the event the government does not return a registered receipt within 30 days, an association may proceed to submit its documents for publication and obtain registration. A foreign association may establish a branch in the country, but the government may also reject its registration request if the government finds the principles or objectives of the foreign association contravene the law.

Violations of the provisions of the law related to associations are punishable, first by a warning of up to 30 days from the secretary general of the government, then by a court order suspending the association’s activities for up to 30 days if the violations persist. If the association is still in violation of the law, the secretary general may then appeal to the court for dissolution of the association. Under the law, associations have the right to appeal court decisions.

Registered associations have the right to organize meetings and demonstrations, to publish reports and leaflets, to own real estate, and to engage in “all types of civil activities.”

A 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See grants official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church. The modus vivendi allows the Church to function in the country and provides state recognition of the Catholic Church, although it restricts religious activities and services to the physical confines of authorized churches and prohibits construction of new churches and the ringing of church bells. A limited number of Catholic schools and charities may operate under the modus vivendi, but their financial activities are conducted through registration as an association and their affiliation with the Church is not publicized.

The law states that the government oversees Islamic prayer services by subsidizing mosques, appointing imams, and paying their salaries. The Grand Mufti, appointed by the President, is charged with declaring religious holidays, issuing certificates of conversion to Islam, attending to citizens’ inquiries, representing the country at international religious conferences, providing opinions on school curricula, and studying and writing about Islam. The MRA suggests themes for Friday sermons but does not regulate their content. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology.

By law, new mosques may be constructed, provided they are built in accordance with national urban planning regulations. The MRA pays for construction of mosques, although private and foreign donors also are able to contribute to construction costs. Mosques become government property upon completion, after which the government must maintain them.

It is mandatory for students in public schools to attend courses on the principles of Islam for approximately one hour per week. Non-Muslim students generally attend these courses but may seek an exemption. The curriculum for secondary school students also includes references to the history of Judaism and Christianity. Religious groups may operate private schools.

Provisions of law addressing marriage, divorce, and other personal status issues are largely based on principles of civil law, combined with elements of sharia. Laws of inheritance are principally based on requirements in sharia, but there are some provisions that allow for exceptions as outlined in the Code of Personal Status.

Newly married couples must state explicitly in the marriage contract whether they elect to combine their possessions or to keep them separate. Sharia inheritance law in some instances provides men with a larger share of an inheritance. Non-Muslim women and their Muslim husbands may not inherit from each other, unless they seek a legal judgment based on the rights enshrined in the constitution. The government considers all children of those marriages to be Muslim and forbids those children from inheriting from their mothers. Spouses may, however, freely give up to one-third of their estate to whomever they designate in their will.

The law does not list religion as a prohibited basis for political parties but prohibits political parties from using religion to call for violence or discrimination.

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

Government Practices

According to a June 9 Reuters report, Mounir Baatour, a lawyer and president of Shams, a group that advocates for sexual minorities, fled to France after the government accused him in late 2019 of “incitement to hatred and to animosity between races, doctrines, and religions,” under the country’s counterterrorism law. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the basis for the accusation was that he re-shared a post on his Facebook page that critics considered disparaging of the Prophet Mohammed.

Media reported that police arrested two Indians, an Australian, and a Filipino in Sousse on February 18 for distributing flyers encouraging conversion to Christianity. According to media reports, the individuals were released after interrogation and subsequently deported.

On July 14, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced blogger Emna Chargui to six months in prison and a 2,000 dinar ($750) fine for a May 2 social media post, “Sura Corona,” that mimicked the format of a Quranic verse as a comment on the COVID-19 pandemic. The prosecutor charged Chargui under the press code for “inciting hatred between religions through hostile means or violence” and “offending authorized religions.” Civil society organizations criticized the court’s decision and called on authorities to overturn Chargui’s conviction. Chargui, who told the New York Times she identified as an atheist, announced through a Facebook post on August 8 that she had departed the country to seek asylum elsewhere. Her appeal remained under court review at year’s end.

On November 3, following an October attack in Nice, France, in which three persons were stabbed to death at a church, reportedly by a Tunisian, the government’s regional director of local affairs in Bizerte announced the suspension of a local imam who had posted a video on his Facebook page that incited others to kill anyone who offends the Prophet Muhammad. Police arrested and interrogated the imam. He remained in detention pending trial at year’s end. According to HRW, on November 12, a Tunis court sentenced blogger Wajdi Mahouechi to two years in prison for posting a video to Facebook on November 1 criticizing the public prosecutor’s handling of the imam’s case. The police arrested Mahouechi on November 2.

The Attalaki Association reported on incidents of hate speech, including by Rached Khiari, a member of parliament and former al-Karama Coalition member, who wrote on his Facebook page following the October 16 beheading of a teacher in France, “Whoever attacks the prophet must bear the consequences.” The Ministry of Interior initiated an investigation into the statement. A Counterterrorism Department spokesperson told media that Khiari’s action could be classified as a terrorism crime under the antiterrorism law.

On February 20, a member of the political bureau of the People’s Movement political party, Moncef Bouazizi, said during a media interview that the People’s Movement had been responsible for the removal of then Minister of Tourism Rene Trabelsi from the government. According to Bouazizi, the People’s Movement expressed its disapproval of Trabelsi, a Jew, to then Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh and accused Trabelsi of “normalizing with the Zionist entity” when he stated that Israelis of Tunisian origin should be allowed to return to the country for the Djerba pilgrimage.

Throughout the year, the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) closed several media outlets for not complying with HAICA licensing requirements. On December 7, demonstrators in Tunis protested the government’s closing of the privately owned Radio Quran al-Karim. The HAICA said it ordered the closure because the station lacked an operating license. According to press reports, protestors said the action was rooted in Islamophobia and called for the station to return to the air. On December 31, the HAICA imposed a 100,000 dinar ($37,300) fine because of the defamatory and insulting content of its programs, saying that the station’s programs contained “erroneous” information and broadcast live religious discussions inciting hatred and violence, threatening people’s safety, public security, and social peace.

Local Jewish sources reported that the Jewish community respected the government’s COVID-19 general lockdown measures from March to May and that in turn, the government provided the Jewish community with flexibility as needed. For example, after the community expressed concern that the prison authority’s COVID-19 measures prevented family members from delivering kosher meals to a Jewish pretrial detainee, the courts released the detainee on bail, enabling him to join his family for Passover.

As part of the Ministry of Justice’s rehabilitation program for countering violent extremism, the Committee General for Prisons and Rehabilitation maintained an agreement with the MRA to permit vetted and trained imams to lead religious sessions with prisoners identified as extremists. As part of the ministry’s measures to counter violent extremism, prisons prohibited organized communal prayers but permitted individual detainees to have religious materials and to pray in their cells.

In contrast with the previous year, Baha’i leaders reported harassment by security force personnel during the year, including while preparing administrative documents at police stations.

On February 21, an administrative court ruled in favor of allowing the Baha’i Faith to establish an association. Baha’i Faith members reported that the General Prosecutor then presented an appeal to the court referencing a nonpublic fatwa issued by the Grand Mufti in 2016, which stated that Baha’i Faith members were apostates and infidels and therefore should not be permitted to practice their faith. The case remained ongoing at year’s end.

According to the NGO Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), because the Baha’i community remained unregistered, it could not have a bank account, organize money collection, or establish religious schools. The community petitioned the Minister of Local Affairs to establish a Baha’i cemetery but did not receive a reply by year’s end.

The government continued to publicly urge imams to disseminate messages of moderation and tolerance to counter what it said were threats of violent extremism. Since 2015, the MRA has conducted regular training sessions for imams on how to disseminate these messages. According to several local mosque committees in charge of mosque operations that are chosen by congregation members, the government generally allowed the committees to manage the daily affairs of their mosques and choose their own imams, with the exception of imams for Friday prayers, who were selected exclusively by the MRA. Regional MRA representatives within each governorate had to vet, approve, and appoint both the local mosque committees and the imams. According to an official from the MRA, the government standardized and enforced mosque opening and closing times, except for certain mosques with cultural or historical significance and very small community mosques.

The government mandated the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although the niqab remained officially prohibited. In 2019, in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in downtown Tunis, the government prohibited the wearing of face coverings in administrative and public institutions, in order to “maintain public security and guarantee optimal implementation of safety requirements.” The media subsequently reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab. Government officials denied that the restriction limited religious freedom and stressed that its goal was to promote improved security. Sources reported that the circular remained valid during the year.

On March 5, President Kais Saied visited the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, accompanied by the then Ministers of Defense, Transport and Logistics, a former Minister of Tourism, and regional officials. In a speech, Saied said, “Tunisian Jews are equal with the rest of Tunisians in the eyes of the law, especially in terms of rights and duties.”

Christian citizens continued to state there was strong governmental and societal pressure not to discuss a church’s activities or theology publicly. Christian sources stated that security forces banned a religious conference scheduled for February in a hotel in the city of Hammamat for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 concerns.

Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed churches to operate within set guidelines and provided security for their services. The government generally restricted public religious services or processions outside churches. On August 15, however, the Santa Costa Church held a celebration in the streets of the city of La Goulette in honor of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption. A number of Muslim citizens, including the Mayor of La Goulette, Amal El Imam, and regional Ministry of Interior representative Fathi Hakami, attended the celebration.

Christian citizens reported the government continued to deny them the right to establish a legal entity or association that would give them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. However, the Christian community again did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status during the year. Christian cemeteries existed for foreign members of the Christian community; Christian citizens, however, continued to need permission from the government to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Citizens reported they generally did not request such permission due to what they said was a pattern of governmental nonresponse. In August, the Attalaki Association reported that local officials refused to bury the body of a child of a Christian father in an Islamic cemetery because the cemetery was designated for use by Muslims only. After the family contacted the mayor of Tunis, the cemetery administration authorized the child’s burial. The Attalaki Association reported continued positive exchanges with members of parliament representing the Nahda political party, Tahya Tounes political party, the Reform bloc in Parliament, and the Union for Religious Affairs to discuss efforts to combat hate speech based on religion and to license a Christian cemetery and church.

On May 19, the mayor of al-Kram established the country’s first government-sponsored zakat fund (an Islamic religious duty to donate a portion of one’s income to the poor) since independence in 1956. Defenders of the country’s officially secular nature strongly criticized the creation of the fund, stating that religious initiatives should not replace the government’s civic duty and that it was contrary to the constitution. Civil society groups voiced concerns that the fund could benefit Islamist political groups at the expense of the state.

Jewish groups said they continued to worship freely, and the government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs. Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis but not those located in other cities, including Sousse and El-Kef.

In accordance with government permits, the Jewish community operated private religious schools, and Jewish children were allowed to split their academic day between public schools and private religious schools or attend either type of school full-time. The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba remained the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together, primarily because of the small size and geographic concentration of the Jewish community. At these schools, Muslim students attended Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba.

Representatives from the Jewish community reported that in early November, as a follow-up to applications first filed in 2019, they submitted legal documents related to establishing a Jewish community association to the MRA and to the Minister, who had vowed to support the request. The Jewish community initiated the applications to establish associations to better advocate with the government on behalf of Jewish community interests and serve as an organizing body for the Jewish communities in Gabes, Medenine, and Tunis.

On May 19, the Minister of Cultural Affairs announced the ministry would include the synagogue of Tataouine in its national heritage registry and would place it under protection to prevent further degradation of the building.

On November 15, during a visit to Doha, President Saied and the Qatari Emir proposed the holding of a “Western-Islamic conference…aimed at achieving greater understanding.” The President said that the conference would have the aim of avoiding confusion that Westerners might experience in distinguishing between “Muslims …[and] those extremists who claim to be Muslims,” and that there was a “need to differentiate between Islam and its true purposes and terrorism, which has absolutely nothing to do with Islam.”

In December, the government reported that 160 persons converted to Islam during the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some atheists reported receiving family and societal pressure to return to Islam or conceal their atheism, including, for instance, by fasting during Ramadan and abstaining from criticizing Islam. Some converts to Christianity reported strong family and societal rejection, and some of them were reportedly beaten and forced to leave their homes on account of their beliefs.

On May 3, a neighbor called a woman an infidel and physically assaulted her for wearing a Christian cross. The victim pressed charges against the attacker; the court case remained ongoing at year’s end.

According to the MRGI, some civil society organizations reported that there were a growing number of Muslim converts to Christianity, but that social taboos remained so strong and widespread that these individuals generally preferred to keep their conversions secret. Many faced ostracism and even violence from their own families due to the stigma surrounding conversion from Islam. Some members of the Christian community said that citizens who attended church services faced pressure from family members and others in their neighborhood not to attend. Christians reported that family members frequently accused converts of bringing “shame” to the family by their conversion. The Attalaki Association reported that security forces or family members harassed Christians.

Christian sources reported that local churches coordinated with government officials to help the churches’ sub-Saharan congregants pay for rent, food, and basic necessities after many had lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a July article on religion, identity, and ethnicity in the country, published in a journal of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, Sylvia Quattrini, the MRGI’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator, wrote that several historical factors “have contributed to a persistent societal perception of religious minorities as foreigners (Christians more than Jews due to the longer presence of the latter), or at least as not fully Tunisian.”

Baha’i leaders reported that the Baha’i Faith community held virtual religious gatherings, respecting COVID-19 lockdown and curfew orders. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Baha’i community postponed an event initially scheduled for October 19 to discuss different religions’ views on equal inheritance between men and women.

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C., and released in November, 57 percent of respondents in the country either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” which compared with 65 percent region-wide.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 59 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion was “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared to 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

In a global poll by the Pew Research Center published in July, 91 percent of respondents in the country agreed that “religion is very important in their lives,” compared to 24 percent of those polled in all 34 countries included in the survey. On other questions, 99 percent said that “God plays an important role in their life” and 97 percent said that “prayer plays an important role in their life.” This compared to results from across 34 countries in the survey where 61 percent say that God plays an important role in their lives and 53 percent say that prayer is important in their daily life. Eighty-four percent of respondents in country agreed that belief in God is necessary to have good values, compared with 45 percent for all 34 countries included in the poll.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy officials continued to maintain regular contact with government officials, including in the MRA, the Office of the Presidency, and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights to discuss issues concerning religious freedom and encourage tolerance of religious minorities. Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques, difficulties facing Baha’i and Christian citizens, reports of anti-Semitic acts, and threats to converts from Islam to other faiths.

Embassy officials maintained frequent contact with leaders of religious groups throughout the country to discuss the impact of the security situation on religious groups and the freedom of religious minorities to worship without restrictions by the government or threats from the community. The embassy supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance and counter violent extremism related to religion, including informal youth-led conversation groups to discuss issues of religious tolerance and alternatives to violence; a program working with scout troops to learn how to recognize and combat signs of religious radicalization; and several research programs aimed at identifying and countering religious radicalization and violent extremism, especially in youth.

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The constitution states that Islam is the country’s official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The law prohibits blasphemy and proselytizing by non-Muslims. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions. According to media reports in January, Dubai courts fined three Sri Lankan men 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) each and ordered them deported for insulting Islam in social media posts. In September, the Dubai Public Prosecution filed blasphemy charges against an Arab man after an altercation with police in which he reportedly insulted Islam. In January, local media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Jordanian man in absentia to three months in prison, fined him 500,000 dirhams ($136,000), and ordered him deported after the courts determined that he insulted Islam in WhatsApp messages. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques with the stated purpose of limited the spread of what the authorities characterize as extremist ideology. Some Shia imams chose to follow Awqaf-approved guidance, while the Dubai-based Jaafari Affairs Council, charged with management of Shia affairs, issued additional instructions to Shia mosques. Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families. The Abu Dhabi Emirate implemented a three-tier authorization system for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship by issuing licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations. Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders, and formally recommend to the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. A new Abu Dhabi guideline requiring religious leaders to work in the ministry full-time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa posed a challenge for the numerous religious leaders who serve their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who do not have a theology degree, and led to the denial of permits to leaders of some groups. Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths otherwise reported they could worship in private without government interference but faced some restrictions on practicing their religion in public. Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered religiously extremist. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting religious extremism. Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited certain charitable activities. In April, Dubai’s government granted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) a land concession at the Expo 2020 site, which Dubai will hand over after the event’s conclusion in 2022. COVID-19 related restrictions disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures. A phased reopening of all houses of worship began with mosques.

The press reported that a man identified as a citizen of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country tried to burn his grandmother alive because he believed she was using black magic to turn him into a woman. A court sentenced him to three years in prison and ordered him to pay 50,000 dirhams ($13,600) to the victim. In April, the press reported an Indian manager at an Abu Dhabi firm posted graphic anti-Islamic images on Facebook showing how the “jihadi” coronavirus could cause exponentially more deaths than explosives. His employer told the press that he would investigate the incident. An employer fired an Indian worker in Dubai and referred the case to police after the individual ridiculed Muslim worshippers in a Facebook posting about COVID-19. The press reported that three other Indians, in separate incidents, had been disciplined by their employers in Dubai and Sharjah for social media posts deemed offensive to Islam. In one case, the employer referred the matter to police. According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with the houses of worship officially recognized by the Abu Dhabi government in 2019, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged. Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however. In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported on difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations. On September 17, Dubai’s first kosher restaurant opened in the Burj Khalifa, a local landmark and the world’s tallest building, and the country’s first Jewish wedding was held in Dubai on December 1.

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, visiting U.S. government officials, and embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the DCD, and the Department of Culture and Tourism during the year. In meetings with government authorities, U.S. officials discussed issues related to the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In addition to discussing the implementation of licensing procedures, regulatory practices, and interfaith education and training, officers discussed international, bilateral, and governmental efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance as well as host government initiatives to promote what it believed were moderate interpretations of Islam. Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship. Remarks by both U.S. and local officials throughout the year praised efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Approximately 11 percent are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports. The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.

Of the estimated 89 percent of noncitizen residents, the majority comes from South and Southeast Asia. Although no official statistics are available on the percentage of the noncitizen population who are Muslim or the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population is Shia.

Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census, the most recent, found 76 percent of the population to be Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other noncitizen religious groups comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists, and also including Parsis, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews. Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, 2 percent Buddhist, with the remainder belonging to other faith traditions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.” The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The constitution states that the country is an independent, sovereign, and federal state comprised of seven emirates.

The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years and deportation for noncitizens.

The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; but the penal code’s blasphemy provisions punish behavior viewed as contemptuous of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad or offensive to Islamic teachings.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims. The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, insulting any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred. Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams ($545,000) and imprisonment that generally ranges from five to 10 years or more.

The law prohibits blasphemy, defined as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship. Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) to two million dirhams ($545,000); noncitizens may be deported. The law prohibits any form of expression, including through broadcasting, printed media, or the internet, that the government determines is contradictory to Islam as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive toward religions.

Federal law does not require religious organizations to register or obtain a license to practice, although the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions, such as opening a bank account or renting space. Each emirate oversees registration and licensing of non-Muslim religious organizations and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance; these procedures are not published by the emirate governments. The federal government has also granted some religious organizations land in free-trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license that allows them some operational functions. In Dubai, religious organizations are required to obtain a license from the Community Development Authority (CDA). The governments of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai also require religious communities to obtain permits for certain activities, including holding public events and worshipping in temporarily rented spaces, such as hotels.

The federal law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan. Violations of the law are punishable by one month’s imprisonment or a fine not exceeding 2,000 dirhams ($540). The law prohibits Muslims from drinking alcohol or knowingly eating pork throughout the year. The government announced a series of legal reforms in November decriminalizing the consumption of alcohol but had not published the text of the reforms by year’s end. Despite legal prohibitions on eating during daylight hours during Ramadan, most local authorities across the country grant exemptions allowing non-Muslims to eat during the day in malls, hotels, and some stand-alone restaurants.

The federal law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.

Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools. The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools. In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes. All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include teaching on Islam. The government permits Christian-affiliated schools to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student; for example, Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.

Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defaming any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure. All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government. Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education, and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry. Administrative oversight of the schools is a responsibility of each emirate’s government.

Land ownership by noncitizens is restricted to designated freehold areas. Outside of special economic zones and designated freehold areas, the law restricts majority company ownership to citizens except in certain exempted sectors. This restriction is an impediment to most minority religious communities, which consist of noncitizens, that wish to purchase property to build houses of worship.

The law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious, and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion through any form of expression. It also criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audio/visual or print media or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred. Violations of the law carry penalties of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to one million dirhams ($272,000).

According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case. Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage and divorce, and inheritance for both Muslims and non-Muslims; however, in the case of noncitizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply, rather than sharia. Sharia also applies in some criminal matters. Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters. Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system. When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties. In these cases, judges generally impose civil penalties. Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties.

In November, the country’s President announced decrees amending the federal laws on personal status, civil transactions, the penal code, and criminal procedures. Amendments to the penal code and criminal procedure law repealed “the article giving [a] reduced (lenient) sentence in what are called honor crimes.” “Honor” killings will henceforth be treated as normal murder cases. In other amendments, noncitizens may choose not to apply sharia in cases involving divorce and inheritance, and other acts “that do not harm others,” leaving to prosecutors and judges to define those specific acts.

The Fatwa Council, headed by the president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, is tasked with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research, in coordination with the Awqaf.

Under the law, citizen and noncitizen Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish). Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men. Marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are not recognized under the law; non-Muslim men and Muslim women who marry are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds of engaging in extramarital sex, which carries a minimum sentence of one year in prison; any extramarital sex between persons of any religion is subject to the same penalties.

Strict interpretation of sharia – which often favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases, and courts have applied the “the best interests of the child” standard since 2010. According to sharia, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach 13 years of age and sons 11 years of age. Women may file for continued custody until a daughter marries or a son finishes his education. The father, deemed the guardian, provides for the child financially, while the mother, the custodian, provides day-to-day care of the child.

The country’s citizenship law does not include religion as a prerequisite for naturalization. Non-Muslim wives of citizens are eligible for naturalization after seven years of marriage, if the couple has a child, or 10 years of marriage if the couple has no children. There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim. Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will. In the event of a divorce between a Muslim father and non-Muslim mother, sharia usually applies.

Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department permits Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for Christians and agnostics if the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate. The government permits church officials to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the couple must also obtain the marriage certificate from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department. In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development as officially recognized to perform these acts.

Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live. In November, the government announced changes to the personal status laws allowing the general terms of a will to be dealt with according to the law of the country specified in the will or, in cases where a country is not specified in the will, the law of the deceased person’s country of nationality. This is not applicable to property purchased in the UAE, however, which remains subject to UAE law. The government had not published the text of these reforms by year’s end. Non-Muslims are able to register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system as a way to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights. In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry, which may cover assets held in the UAE as well as abroad. The DIFC Wills Service Center allows non-Muslim business owners and shareholders to designate an heir. Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia. There are courts for personal status and for inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.

The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam. These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals. Punishment may include imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) to one million dirhams ($272,000). Electronic violations of the law are subject to a maximum fine of four million dirhams ($1.09 million). The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.

Under the law, local authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, determining the timing of the second call to prayer, organizing religious lectures, and preparing sermons. The law also defines acts prohibited in mosques, prayer spaces, and Eid Musallas (open prayer spaces outside of mosques or prayer halls smaller than mosques) without a license, such as giving lectures or sermons, holding Quran memorization circles, fundraising, and distributing written and visual material. The law further stipulates citizen applicants must be given first consideration for vacant positions at mosques. The law prohibits those working in mosques from belonging to any illegal group or from participating in any political or organizational activities.

The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities. Violations of the law are subject to a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600). Under the cybercrimes law, the use of any information technology to promote the collection of any type of donation without a license is subject to a fine between 200,000 dirhams ($54,500) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

Individuals who donate to unregistered charities and fundraising groups may be punished with a three-year prison term or a fine between 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

In Abu Dhabi, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments is entrusted with overseeing Muslim religious affairs across mosques, sermons, imam tutelage, and publications. Non-Muslim religious affairs fall under the mandate of the DCD, which regulates, licenses, and oversees non-Islamic houses of worship, religious leaders, religious events organized outside houses of worship, and fundraising activities across the emirate.

The Dubai CDA is the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups. The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events and monitors fundraising activities. The law states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval. Fines for noncompliance range from 500 dirhams ($140) to 100,000 dirhams ($27,200).

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

Government Practices

According to media reports in January, Dubai courts fined three Sri Lankan men 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) each and ordered their deportation for insulting Islam in social media posts. In September, Dubai Public Prosecution filed blasphemy charges against an Arab man after an altercation with police in which he reportedly insulted Islam. In January, local media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Jordanian man in absentia to three months in prison, fined him 500,000 dirhams ($136,000), and ordered him deported for insulting Islam in WhatsApp messages.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery. Customs authorities in Dubai and the northern emirates reported seizing shipments containing materials they said were intended for use in magic and sorcery. According to media reports, in late 2019, Abu Dhabi police arrested a European national for charges of witchcraft and fraud; the subsequent status of his case remained unknown. In February, local press reported Dubai Customs prevented 22 attempts in 2019 to smuggle material local authorities believed were related to witchcraft and sorcery.

Following a 2018 court ruling upholding his earlier conviction, the government continued to imprison Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017. Although specifics of the charges against Mansoor remained unknown, authorities stated that, among other violations of the law, Mansoor promoted “a sectarian- and hate-filled agenda.”

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, designated by the government as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. Since 2011, the government also has restricted the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.

Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services. In Abu Dhabi, some Christian clergy again raised concerns about lack of worship space for incarcerated Christians. They said that when they were granted prison access, they were permitted to take Bibles to the prisoners.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain websites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites. The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including ones with information on Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity. Following the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel, the government unblocked some websites containing information on Judaism.

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint Sunni imams, except in Dubai, based on their gender, educational background, and knowledge of Islam along with security checks. According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, with the exception of those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.” It continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website. Leading up to Ramadan, the Awqaf launched training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.

In January, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi announced on Instagram that well-known preacher and television personality Waseem Youssef was no longer an imam and preacher at the mosque. Although the reason for Youssef’s removal was not provided, according to the press it was tied to lawsuits that Youssef pursued against 19 individuals for “defamation” on social media, following his comments questioning the validity of one of the canonical sources of the hadith. The lawsuits culminated in the court finding four defendants guilty of defaming Youssef while dismissing the remaining cases.

Following these civil trials, in February, private citizens filed a civil law suit against Youssef in the Abu Dhabi criminal court, charging him under the cybercrime law with promoting ideas and programs that spread hatred and racism and harm national unity and social peace. Youssef maintained his innocence. In March, the court decreed in March that the case was outside its jurisdiction and referred it to federal prosecutors for further review. The government took no action in this regard.

The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf script for Friday sermons closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons. Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to use Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons. Friday sermons were translated into English and Urdu on the Awqaf’s website and mobile application.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques. All of the imams in Dubai’s more than 2,000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens. Qualification requirements were more stringent for expatriate imams than for local imams and starting salaries much lower.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, managed Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams. The council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.

The government did not appoint imams for Shia mosques. Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques. The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in Arabic, English, and Urdu. Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues. Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa. Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the telephones at the fatwa hotline.

The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private but not in public. There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates, where the majority of the country’s Shia population resides.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths said registration and licensing procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates. The federal government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases. The governments of individual emirates continued to require religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces such as hotels or convention centers.

The Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) implemented a new three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship. Under the system, the DCD issues licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations. Licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. The establishment of this system followed a 2019 DCD decision to grant licenses, and thereby formal legal status, to 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and the emirate’s first traditional Hindu temple. These changes did not apply to religious groups in the other emirates.

In August, Dubai’s Jewish community publicly announced that it was negotiating with the Dubai government for an official license.

The new Abu Dhabi guideline instituted in late 2019 and early 2020 requiring religious leaders to work in the ministry full time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa posed a challenge for religious leaders who serve their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who do not have a theology degree. Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders, and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. Some religious community members expressed concern that the new system discriminated against smaller and less-recognized denominations.

Since the September 2019 licensing of 18 houses of worship by the DCD, community sources reported that unregistered religious organizations faced challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances. The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes as long as this activity did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion. COVID-19 related restrictions, however, disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in early March, the government instituted a nationwide mandatory suspension of group prayers at all mosques, churches, and temples, followed by the ordered closure of all houses of worship in the UAE. From July through September, the Abu Dhabi and Dubai governments began the phased reopening of houses of worship, beginning with mosques and then non-Islamic houses of worship. Houses of worship located in labor camps and industrial zones, which included more than half of all churches located in Abu Dhabi and Al-Ain, were the last to receive permission to open.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

In Dubai, there were continued reports of delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds. The CDA oversees civil institutions, nonprofits, and non-Muslim faith communities in the emirate. There were continued reports of restrictions as well as confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies for obtaining licenses and event permits, which were not published by the CDA. There were also reports of last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

In May, the CDA ordered St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai to cease online live-streamed masses until it obtained a permit, following the government-ordered closure of religious facilities across the UAE due to the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Mary’s subsequently obtained a permit, and the CDA allowed live-streamed masses to resume. COVID-19 restrictions continue to restrict the activities of some churches in Dubai, including the Catholic and Anglican communities. While these churches were allowed to reopen at the same time as other religious facilities, local regulations prohibited practices such as receiving communion due to concerns these practices would contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Despite the closure of houses of worship as a result of COVID-19, the Abu Dhabi government encouraged non-Islamic houses of worship to live-stream services for major holidays, such as Easter.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications. School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation. Applicants were required to list a religious affiliation, creating potential legal issues for atheists and agnostics. According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they generally could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings or in private facilities or homes. While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions. In February, worshippers attended a prayer ceremony marking the start of the construction of Abu Dhabi’s Hindu temple.

News reports during the year quoted religious leaders, including from the Catholic, Anglican, and Hindu communities, expressing appreciation for government support for their communities and the relative freedom in which their communities could worship. Following a meeting in Abu Dhabi between UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and members of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushotta Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Hindu community, the BAPS said the meeting “spoke volumes” about the UAE leadership’s “vision and commitment for a more inclusive, more peaceful, and harmonious future.”

The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries. Cremation facilities and associated cemeteries were available for the large Hindu community. Non-Muslim groups said the capacity of crematoriums and cemeteries was sufficient to meet demand. The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits. The government allowed individuals from all religious groups except Islam to use the crematoriums.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection. The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community safety reminders.

The government did not always enforce the prohibition against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them, such as books. In addition, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft. Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, animal bones, knives, and containers of blood.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials, such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad. The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to texts it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting a religion other than Islam. The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation. The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam. The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

Except in the judiciary and military, religious minorities (including Shia Muslims) did not serve in senior federal positions.

In October, the Federal Supreme Court upheld a sentence of 100 lashes in an adultery case involving an unmarried Muslim man and woman who confessed to having illicit sex in one of the northern emirates. The court stated, “Article 1 of the Penal Code under the provisions of Islamic Sharia law stipulates giving 100 lashes and expatriation or distancing for a period of one year to an unmarried person.” Although the pair challenged the ruling, both the court of appeal and the Federal Supreme Court based in Abu Dhabi upheld the flogging sentence.

In October, the press reported that the government was considering a proposal to provide additional housing grants and loans to men who take second and third wives.

In November, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a letter to the Emir of Sharjah reporting that the Sharjah International Book Fair, held November 4-14, included displays of anti-Semitic books, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other titles. The Wiesenthal Center sent similar letters to the country’s UNESCO representative and to the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested a list of the anti-Semitic titles and vowed to work with the book fair authorities and other relevant ministries to address and prevent the presence of such books in the future.

Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious issues.

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis. Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space. Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different groups shared worship space, sometimes in private homes. In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic. Some smaller congregations met in private locations or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land. Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who generally made up the entire membership of minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship. For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. The country’s Christian churches were all built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations. Ajman and Umm Al Quwain remained the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations gathered in other spaces, such as hotels. In April, Dubai’s government granted the Church of Jesus Christ a land concession at the Expo 2020 site, which Dubai will hand over after the event’s conclusion in 2022 for construction of the Church’s first temple in the Middle East region.

There are two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple in Dubai. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed allocated land in Al-Wathba, Abu Dhabi, for the construction of a privately funded Hindu temple, scheduled to be completed by 2022. There are no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

There are no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays in private Dubai villas and hotels. Construction in Abu Dhabi of the first official synagogue in the country is scheduled to begin in 2021 as part of the larger government-funded Abrahamic Family House – a project slated to bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths. In October, international press reported members of Dubai’s Jewish community built a sukkah (a small shelter used during celebration of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival) outside a hotel at Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper. In December, Dubai’s Jewish community held several public Hanukkah celebrations, which included one congregation lighting a large Menorah in front of the Burj Khalifa.

Construction of a new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi remained stalled at 50 percent completion due financial issues; the projected completion date was not clear at year’s end.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some unlicensed noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization. Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

In January and February, the government hosted members of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, a nine-member multifaith committee that included representatives from the UAE, Egypt, Italy, the United States, Bulgaria, and Spain and was tasked with implementing the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together a declaration of reconciliation, cooperation, tolerance, and fraternity among believers and nonbelievers that was announced during the Pope’s 2019 visit to Abu Dhabi. During the meetings, the participants discussed their commitment to the goal of fostering coexistence, peace, and social fraternity.

In February, the government hosted the Voices of Human Fraternity Forum, which brought together 150 students, youth leaders, advocates, and educational representatives from around the world to promote the values reflected in the Document on Human Fraternity.

Following the announcement of normalization of relations with Israel, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism sent a letter to all hotels advising them to add kosher menus to their food services. The letter said that kitchens must be prepared for the requirements of Jewish dietary laws and that there would be ongoing kashrut supervision, similar to that of hotels in Israel. According to the letter, “All hotel establishments are advised to include kosher food options on room service menus and at all food and beverage outlets in their establishments.”

During a joint World Muslim Communities Council and Supreme Council of Imams and Islamic Affairs virtual seminar in August, entitled “The Role of Imams in Reinforcing Community Peace,” the chairman of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, Dr. Mohammed al Kaabi, said, “The right path to confronting extremism is to develop moderate religious awareness and support influential religious leaders.”

In September, the Minister of Culture and Youth said the government wanted to send “a message of hope to the community in Mosul, which has always been an incubator for religious and intellectual discourse.”

In November, the Education Affairs Office of the Crown Prince in Abu Dhabi announced that at least 1,500 teachers would receive moral education training to instill tolerance, community spirit, and compassion in students.

Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions. For example, the government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities. Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their place of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.

Prominent government figures routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays and promoted messages of tolerance through various print and media platforms. In September, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan extended New Year’s greetings to the country’s Jewish community on social media on Rosh Hashanah. In October, he visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, where he stated that the visit to the memorial “underscored the importance of human values such as coexistence, tolerance and accepting the other…as well as respect for all creeds and faiths.”

In November, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi opened a multifaith prayer room for use by hospital visitors.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January, local press reported that a man identified as a GCC national tried to burn his grandmother alive because he believed she was using black magic to turn him into a woman. The grandmother suffered second and third-degree burns over 25 percent of her body. The Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance sentenced the man to five years in prison and ordered him to pay 50,000 dirhams ($13,600) to the victim. The man challenged the ruling in the appellate court, which reduced the prison sentence to three years but maintained the compensation amount. The defendant then appealed to Abu Dhabi’s Court of Cassation, the emirate’s highest court, where the prosecution argued that the appeal be rejected and that the court order the defendant to pay the court costs. At year’s end, the status of the appeal remained unknown.

In April, the press reported an Indian manager at an Abu Dhabi firm posted graphic anti-Islamic images on Facebook showing how “jihadi” coronavirus could cause exponentially more deaths than explosives. His employer told the press it would investigate the incident. Later that month, an employer fired an Indian worker in Dubai and referred the case to police after the individual ridiculed Muslim worshippers in a Facebook posting about COVID-19. In May, the press reported that three other Indians, in separate incidents, had been disciplined by their employers in Dubai and Sharjah for social media posts deemed offensive to Islam. In one case, the employer referred the matter to police.

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam. Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively. By contrast, observers reported conversion from Islam was highly discouraged through strong cultural and social pressure, particularly from family members. In October, Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 2,570 Dubai residents converted to Islam in the first three quarters of 2020.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls, hotels, and major shopping centers. The news media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas festivities and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.

Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores, although bookstores generally did not carry the core religious works of other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.

Radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.

In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations.

According to press reports, Dubai’s first kosher restaurant, Kaf, opened in the Burj Khalifa, a local landmark and the world’s tallest building, on September 17. On September 18, the Dubai newspaper Khaleej Times published a Rosh Hashanah supplement. On December 1, Dubai hosted the country’s first Jewish wedding.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, visiting U.S. government officials, and embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Abu Dhabi’s DCD and the Department of Culture and Tourism during the year. U.S. representatives discussed efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance; licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious groups; and government initiatives to promote moderate interpretations of Islam. Embassy representatives also engaged with government entities on the importance of prohibiting anti-Semitic materials from government-sponsored book fairs.

The U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom spoke with the chairman of the UAE Fatwa Council and president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, on the subject of furthering religious freedom, protecting religious minorities, and the role of scholars in promoting peace. He also spoke with the head of the Fatwa Council about organizing joint events under the New Alliance of Virtue, an initiative launched by the government in 2019 aimed at fostering religious freedom, cooperation, and tolerance.

The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Dr. Ali al-Nuaimi of the government-affiliated Hedayah, a center focusing on countering violent extremism, to discuss combatting anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Embassy and consulate general officers regularly met with representatives of minority religious groups to learn more about issues affecting their communities as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship. As part of its Ramadan outreach activities, in May the embassy hosted a virtual iftar for the healthcare workers of Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. Remarks by U.S. and local officials throughout the year praised mutual efforts to understand different religions and cultures.

West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: West Bank And Gaza

Israel

Executive Summary

West Bank and Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of separate authorities, with different implications on the fabric of life. Palestinians in the occupied 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 small portions of the West Bank where it has some measure of control. Although PA laws theoretically apply in the Gaza Strip, the PA does not have authority there, and Hamas continues to exercise de facto control over security and other matters. The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion and states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation, but provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. It also proscribes discrimination based on religion, calls for respect of “all other divine religions,” and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. On December 4, Israeli security forces arrested Muayad al-Alfi in Nablus in suspicion of aiding in the 2009 killing of Rabbi Meir Chai near the settlement of Shavei Shomron. On May 18, an Israeli court found Israeli Jewish settler Amiram Ben Uliel guilty of murder, attempted murder, arson, and “conspiracy to commit a crime motivated by racism” in the 2015 deaths of three members of the Dawabsheh family. On February 17, Israeli police arrested a Palestinian man who attempted to stab a Border Police officer at a security checkpoint for the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The Israeli government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites in Jerusalem, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount (the site containing the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque). Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign,” after the dawn prayers. Islamic organizations, including Hamas, called on worshippers to gather for Friday fajr prayers starting in January at the site and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank to defend them against Israeli “violations.” On July 2, the Jerusalem Police informed the Waqf that they had petitioned the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court requesting the closure of the Gate of Mercy, a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, explaining that the move was necessary because of evidence that the building had been used in 2003 by an organization affiliated with Hamas. According to press reports, the Samaria Regional Council (which provides municipal services for Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank), in coordination with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), including the Ministry of Defense’s coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT), organized monthly visits to the site of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited, throwing rocks and bottles at IDF personnel providing security, who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. On November 20, Israeli security forces detained a Palestinian resident of the occupied West Bank suspected of planting an explosive device at Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem. In April, the Israeli government approved a 2019 decision by former Israeli Minister of Defense Naftali Bennett to bypass the Hebron Municipality and expropriate land at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of Patriarchs. Press reports stated that the land expropriated for the project was owned by the PA’s Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) and Religious Affairs. In May, Hifthi Abu Sneineh, the mosque’s imam, condemned the decision and said it was a “blatant and serious” violation of the Hebron protocol of the Oslo Accords. 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.” Senior Fatah and PA official Jibril Rajoub made several public remarks during the year extolling martyrs and prisoners in Israeli prisons convicted of terrorism. Anti-Semitic content also appeared in Fatah and PA-controlled media. In an August 15 interview on Palestine TV, Mahmoud al-Habash, religious advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, when asked about some Arab governments’ recognition of Israel, said, “It is normalizing relations with those who murdered your father and brothers. It is normalizing relations with the enemies of the Prophet Mohammed, who want to [build] a temple at the destination of Mohammed’s Night Journey [referring to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount].” The PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed while engaged in violence, including killings of Israeli Jews, and also continued to provide separate stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism involving Jewish targets. In September, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) IMPACT-se said that its annual review of Palestinian education found that extreme nationalism and Islamist ideologies remained widespread throughout the curriculum, including science and mathematics textbooks. Norway reduced funding to the Palestinian Ministry of Education due to incitement to violence and anti-Semitism in Palestinian textbooks. Following the announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab countries, Muslims and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem sometimes harassed Muslim visitors from the Gulf who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in coordination with the Israeli government or vilified the visitors on social media. The PA-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (who has no authority over the site) issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Jordanian government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf), which administers the site, rejected it, stating that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf.

Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, the 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.

According to local press and social media, some settlers in the West Bank continued to justify “price tag” attacks on Palestinian property, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, vandalism of cars and buildings, arson, and slashing of tires as necessary for the defense of Judaism. (“Price tag” attacks refer to violence by Jewish individuals and groups against individuals, particularly Palestinians and Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel, and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government contrary to the attackers’ interests.) According to media reports, on July 27, arsonists set fire to the Bir wal-Ihsan Mosque in al-Bireh City in a suspected price tag attack. The arsonists spray-painted graffiti on the walls of the mosque; Reuters said that the graffiti was a reference to “a biblical, historical, and political claim that includes the West Bank.” On February 22, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem issued a statement that, according to press reports, “condemned” the February 21 gathering of thousands of Israeli settlers on land owned by the Patriarchate in Tayasir in the northern Jordan River Valley. Various Israeli and Palestinian groups continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation.

Senior U.S. officials worked for increased normalization between Israel and predominantly Muslim countries, which would improve access for Muslim worshippers to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. 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. U.S. embassy officials met with Palestinian religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and a broad range of issues affecting Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities. They met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote interreligious tolerance and cooperation. U.S. representatives met with representatives of religious groups to monitor their concerns about access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship and also met with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about ongoing Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank.

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total Palestinian population at 2.9 million in the West Bank and 1.9 million in the Gaza Strip (midyear 2020 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 441,600 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.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates 563,200 Jews, 345,800 Muslims, and 12,850 Christians live in Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 936,400, as of 2019.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

West Bank and 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 Israeli military commander and Israeli law and legislation. West Bank Palestinian population centers mostly fall into Area A, as defined by the Oslo-era agreements. The PA has formal responsibility for security in Area A, but Israeli security forces frequently conduct security operations there. The PA and Israel maintain joint security control of Area B in the West Bank. Israel retains full security control of Area C (which constitutes approximately 60 percent of the West Bank) and has designated most Area C land as either closed military zones or settlement zoning areas.

Palestinians living in the portion of the occupied 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.

The Oslo Accords stipulate that protection of 12 listed Jewish holy sites and visitors in Area A is the responsibility of 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.”

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

The Israeli Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled since 1993 that Jews have the right to pray on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but police may restrict this right in the name of public order and safety. The court reiterated in 2019 that its precedent on this issue is nonintervention in government decisions, “except in highly unusual cases when the decision constitutes a major distortion of justice or is extremely unreasonable.” The court upheld this position again in a decision on May 19.

The Israeli “Nakba Law” prohibits institutions that receive Israeli 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.”

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 19th century status quo arrangements reached with Ottoman authorities, which recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Catholic Churches. The PA also observes subsequent agreements that recognize the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Council of Local Evangelical Churches (a coalition of evangelical Protestant churches present in the West Bank and Gaza). The PA recognizes the legal authority of these religious groups to adjudicate personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Recognized religious groups may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities. The PA Ministry of Religious Affairs is administratively responsible for these family law issues.

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

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

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

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

Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates as well as 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 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.

The Israeli 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 Ministry of Interior makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.

The Jordanian Waqf administers Islamic courts in Jerusalem for Muslim residents, with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Jordan having appellate authority.

There is no Israeli legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays and on Jewish holidays. The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. The law instructs the Israeli Minister of Labor and Welfare to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.

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

Government Practices

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

According to the Jerusalem Post, on December 4, Israeli security forces arrested Muayad al-Alfi in Nablus on suspicion of aiding in the 2009 killing of Rabbi Meir Chai near the settlement of Shavei Shomron.

On May 31, the Times of Israel reported that Israeli military prosecutors had charged Salah Hammad, a Palestinian security officer, with the killing of Ben-Joseph Livnat, an Israeli, and the injuring of three others in 2011 when he and two other officers opened fire on the Israelis’ car after the men had visited Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus without permission. Israeli military courts previously found other members of the Palestinian patrol guilty and sentenced them to prison terms.

On May 18, a court in Lod found Israeli Jewish settler Amiram Ben Uliel guilty of murder, attempted murder, arson, and “conspiracy to commit a crime motivated by racism” in the 2015 deaths of a Palestinian couple, Saad and Riham Dawabshe, and their 18-month-old son Ali in an arson attack. The prosecution said Ben-Uliel had spray-painted the words “revenge” and “long live the Messiah” at the site before committing the attack. A 19-year-old man arrested as a juvenile with Ben Uliel pleaded guilty in 2018 to his role as an accessory and entered prison in December to begin serving the remaining 10 months of a three-and-a-half-year sentence, with credit for previous time served under house arrest. On September 14, the court sentenced Ben Uliel to three life sentences plus 20 years. Ben Uliel’s attorney said he planned an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court. According to press reports, a crowd-sourced funding campaign endorsed by a number of rabbis began raising money for his defense team to challenge the convictions.

On February 17, Israeli police arrested a Palestinian man who attempted to stab a Border Police officer at a security checkpoint for the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating other instances of religiously motivated attacks and subsequent 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. Palestinians stated that they faced procedural difficulties in filing complaints with Israeli police, who are located at stations within settlements or at military-run liaison offices outside those settlements. Data from the NGO Tag Meir, which tracks hate crimes, and media reports indicated in recent years Israeli authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites.

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. The Israeli government said that there were “numerous investigations” of ideologically motivated criminal incidents in 2020.

In a fact sheet that it released in January, the Israeli NGO Yesh Din stated, “After 15 years of monitoring Israeli law enforcement authorities in their handling of complaints filed by Palestinian victims of ideological crimes committed by Israelis, the picture that emerges demonstrates that the State of Israel is failing in its duty to protect Palestinians in the occupied territories from those who would harm them and, in fact, leaves them defenseless as they face assault and harassment.” According to Yesh Din statistics, Israeli police failed in the investigation of 82 percent of the files opened between 2005 and 2019 and 91 percent of all investigation files were closed without an indictment.

Attacks by Israeli citizens, some of whom asserted their right to settle in what they stated is the historic Jewish homeland of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank, continued, as well as Palestinian attacks on settlers. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported 772 attacks by Israeli settlers and other Israeli civilians against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the year, with 168 Palestinians injured. This compared with 819 attacks and 140 Palestinians injured, respectively, in 2019. UNOCHA updated its metrics to incorporate more information from civil society about violence against Israelis. During the year, “in the context of the occupation and conflict,” UNOCHA estimated that there were 24 Palestinian fatalities and 2,694 Palestinians injured and three Israeli fatalities and 40 Israelis injured in West Bank violence, including in East Jerusalem. The Israeli government said that UNOCHA did not provide information about actions by Hamas in its public statistics and did not fully cover attacks targeting Israelis.

The Israeli government said that the Israeli intelligence community foiled “423 major terrorist attacks” against Israeli civilians (primarily targeting the majority Jewish Israeli civilians), of which 417 were planned by Palestinians from the West Bank and six by Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Of these, 70 percent were organized by Hamas, while “independent terrorists” organized the remaining attacks. The nongovernmental Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said 40 significant terrorist attacks occurred in the West Bank, an increase from 34 in 2019 after five consecutive years of decline. Meir Amit assessed that the West Bank remained relatively quiet due to efforts of Israeli security forces and limited motivation by the general Palestinian population in the West Bank to carry out terrorist attacks. Meir Amit also reported that the Israel Security Agency prevented 430 “significant terrorist attacks” in the West Bank and Jerusalem, down from 654 in 2019.

On October 20, the trial of an Israeli Jewish minor, accused in the 2018 killing of a Palestinian woman, Aysha al-Rabi, a resident of Bidya village, began at the Central District Court in Lod. Prosecutors accused the minor, then 17, of throwing a two-kilogram (4.4 pound) stone through al-Rabi’s windshield “with the intent of using it to harm Arab passengers out of an ideological motive of racism and hostility toward Arabs.” In 2019, authorities arrested and later released four other suspects who, like the defendant, were yeshiva students from the settlement of Rehelim. According to press reporting, the prosecution linked the defendant’s DNA to the stone that caused al-Rabi’s death and also linked him to Kahanism, which Haaretz described as a “far-right anti-Arab ideology inspired by Rabbi Meir Kahane.” In January, authorities acknowledged that the stone throwing that killed al-Rabi, a mother of eight, was a terror attack but declined to recognize her as a victim of terrorism. Press reports said that authorities said the decision was reached because al-Rabi was not an Israeli citizen and the killing occurred outside Israel’s recognized borders. At year’s end, the trial was continuing, and the accused remained under supervised house arrest.

The government of Israel continued to discourage Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A), with large road signs warning Israelis against entering these areas and stating it was dangerous for Israelis and against Israeli law to do so. Significant numbers of Arab Israelis, and some Jewish and other Israelis, chose to privately visit Area A without repercussions, according to media and individuals who visited. Media reported that, while these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting numerous Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A under Palestinian control, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and the Shalom al Israel Synagogue in Jericho. Some Jewish religious leaders said the Israeli government policy limiting travel to parts of the West Bank prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several religious sites in the West Bank including Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than permitted through IDF coordination. IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were necessary to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety. The Israeli government said that Jewish worshippers could only visit Areas A and B of the West Bank with the protection of the IDF and that the PA was not fulfilling its commitments to ensure freedom of religion for Jewish worshippers in these areas under the Oslo Accords. 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. The PA suspended security coordination with Israel in May and resumed coordination in late November. Israeli authorities stopped informing Palestinian authorities of these visits during the PA’s suspension of coordination and continued to provide security escorts to Jewish sites in PA-controlled territory, with some clashes occurring between Israeli security forces and Palestinians.

Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited holy sites in areas under Palestinian control, where freedom of access was guaranteed by the PA in the Oslo Accords in the West Bank, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (located in Area A). According to press, the Samaria Regional Council (which provides municipal services for Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank), in coordination with the IDF, organized monthly visits to the site. On February 25, Israeli authorities neutralized an explosive device planted near Joseph’s Tomb prior to the arrival of 2,000 Jewish worshippers. Palestinian protestors also clashed with IDF personnel providing security for the visit, throwing rocks at the IDF soldiers, who fired rubber bullets and used tear gas in response. Although routine visits paused after February 25 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, approximately 150 Jewish worshippers prayed at the tomb on June 3. According to the Times of Israel, due to the suspension of security cooperation between the Government of Israel and the PA, Palestinian security personnel withdrew from the site prior to the Israeli group’s arrival but returned after the pilgrims departed, when, according to press reports, they prevented an attempted arson attack on the site by Palestinian protestors. The Israeli government said Palestinian Civil Police protected the site throughout the year, except during visits organized by the IDF, and prevented more than one attack on the site by Palestinians.

Approximately 2,500 pilgrims visited the site on June 22 on the anniversary of Joseph’s death. Haaretz stated that this visit to the shrine was “essentially a political event” because worshippers said they would be praying for the success of plans announced by the government to annex parts of the West Bank. Media reported that Palestinians threw stones at IDF military escorts during the visit and that the IDF used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Press reports stated that an unspecified number of protestors were injured in the incident.

On December 3, as the IDF secured a route for buses carrying Jewish worshippers, Palestinians gathered, throwing stones and setting fire to tires. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets in response. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, located in Gaza City, stated that two Palestinians were injured in the encounter. On December 30, the Palestinian news agency WAFA reported that, after protestors attempted to block Jewish worshippers from entering the shrine, the IDF used rubber bullets and tear gas, resulting in nine Palestinians requiring medical attention. The Israeli government said the IDF facilitated six visits to the site during the year, with “terrorists” attacking the worshippers and IDF with stones and Molotov cocktails each time.

On November 20, Israeli security forces detained a Palestinian resident of the West Bank suspected of planting an explosive device at Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C. Israeli security forces shot and injured an individual in August suspected of attempting to throw a firebomb at the site. The shrine remained separated from the West Bank by a barrier built during the 2000-2005 Second Intifada, and Palestinians were able to access it only if permitted by Israeli authorities. Residents and citizens of Israel continued to have relatively unimpeded access. Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat).

The Israeli government continued to allow controlled access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with only Muslims permitted to engage in religious worship there. The Israeli government stated it understood the post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to allow non-Muslim visitors but prohibit non-Islamic worship on the compound, while Israel respected Jordan’s “special role” at the site, as reflected in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty. Muslim representatives stated that they generally had a different understanding of the status quo and that the Waqf should have full autonomy in administering the site (reflecting wide Palestinian and Muslim rejection of Israeli authority or sovereignty at the site) and that only Muslim worshippers were entitled to unrestricted access to the site.

In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign,” after the dawn prayers. Hamas and other Islamic organizations had called on worshippers to gather for Friday Fajr prayers starting in January at the site and at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank to defend them against “violations” by Israeli Jews. Media reported on January 17 that police dispersed protestors at the site after Friday dawn prayers. Press reports said that Palestinian demonstrators chanted slogans recalling the Muslim massacre of Jews at the Battle of Khaybar, near Medina, in the seventh century. Police broke up the impromptu demonstration without incident. Clashes between police and demonstrators occurred at other times near the site in January and February. Press reported that at least 10 Palestinian Muslims were injured by rubber bullets fired by police on January 31 and that police turned away “hundreds” of worshippers from the site on February 7.

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supported maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The issue of the use of the Gate of Mercy (Bab al-Rahma), a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple that was reopened by the Waqf in 2019 after it had been closed since 2003, remained unresolved. The Israeli government stated it regarded the reopening as a violation of the status quo.

On July 12, an Israeli court asked the Waqf to provide its views within 60 days regarding the closure of the Bab al-Rahma site after the Israeli police requested the court on July 2 to extend the current court-ordered closure and stated the building, if open, would be used by Hamas, according to media. Police also asked the Waqf to close the building permanently. In response, the Waqf said it did not recognize the authority of Israeli courts over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Throughout the year, Muslim worshippers could generally enter the site, although Israeli police regularly conducted security searches there.

Israeli media reported that Israeli security forces arrested six Muslim worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on January 7 for “shouting nationalist rhetoric.” Video of the incident showed police kicking one of those arrested. Police and the Waqf reached agreement to close the site from March 22 to May 31 to both Muslim and non-Muslim visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Waqf said it sought to close the site on one other occasion but kept it open because Israeli authorities did not agree to simultaneously close it to non-Muslim visitors. The Israeli government stated that the public regulations in place at that time did not mandate closure of the site. Israeli government authorities closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, other houses of worship, and holy sites for Passover, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter holidays, as well as for the Ramadan and Lenten seasons, due to the pandemic. Christian leaders stated that they were frustrated when Israel restricted indoor gatherings, including religious services, to 10 persons, saying that the cap was based on the number of men required for a minyan (a Jewish prayer quorum) and did not allow for greater numbers by taking into account the size of religious buildings and ability to socially distance safely. Israeli authorities made exceptions to health restrictions for Easter and Christmas services, allowing greater but still limited public attendance.

Israeli government restrictions on gatherings for prayer varied from March through December due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During a nationwide lockdown in the spring, no gatherings were allowed, including for prayer; at other times, prayer gatherings of 10 to 20 persons were allowed, including in roped-off groups at the Western Wall. Guidelines at other periods were more lenient.

Israeli authorities briefly closed the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on January 29 after two Palestinians were arrested for attempting to carry out a stabbing attack against police.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the only restrictions imposed by Israel during the year were due to COVID-19.

On September 6, an association of Muslim leaders in Jerusalem issued a statement accusing police and authorities of violating the sanctity of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by erecting ladders and installing loudspeakers at the entrance to the Lions Gate. The Waqf posted photos showing police and other staff mounting the roof and installing the equipment. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the speakers were installed outside the compound and were for the safety of individuals visiting the site.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site or incited others to violence, and public figures whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. Banned individuals included Waqf guards and administrative and maintenance staff and imams delivering sermons at the site. The Wadi Hilweh Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 46 Waqf staff during the year. The government stated that police banned individuals from accessing the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount only in cases of violation of public order or a disturbance to the freedom of worship. The government said that these bans were authorized according to procedures by police officials and courts and targeted both Jews and Muslims who “called for violence and disrupted the peace” at the site. According to the government, 225 individuals, including Jews and Muslims, were banned from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for different time periods. The Wadi Hilweh Information Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 315 individuals from the site during the year.

While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned Palestinians resident in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, and Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel from the site. Palestinian civil society organizations said that starting in November, police checked the identification of individuals entering the Old City to visit the site for Friday prayers and would bar from entry persons with West Bank identification cards and return them to the West Bank.

Media reported that Israeli authorities barred a number of prominent Muslims from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for periods of time, including for six months, including Radwan Amr, director of the manuscripts department at al-Aqsa Mosque, and Sheikh Issam Amireh, a senior leader of the Hizb al-Tahrir political party, after he called the beheading of a teacher by a Muslim terrorist in France a “great honor for all Muslims” during a sermon at the site. On January 18, the Israeli police barred Ekrima Sabri, the imam of the al-Aqsa Mosque, head of the private Islamic Higher Committee in Jerusalem and the former Palestinian Grand Mufti, from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for a period of four months, after accusing him of incitement in a January 17 sermon. On May 29, authorities detained him again and later informed him that he would not be allowed to visit the site for an additional four months. On October 28, police raided the office of the deputy director of the Waqf, Najeh Bkirat, in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and told him to report to the intelligence services in seven days, when he was told that he would be banned from entering the site for six months. According to media, he was banned for “incitement” against the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries and visitors from those countries to the site, as well as possible linkages to Hamas. Later, on November 26, authorities presented him with an order that he would not be allowed in the site for three months. Bkirat told the International Middle East Media Center in November that since 2003, police had banned him from the site 21 times for a period of more than seven years, adding, “In 2019, I was admitted into the mosque only for one week.”

Human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities at times restricted some Muslims based on gender and age from entering the site. Israeli authorities have not issued permits for Gazans to visit the site during Islamic holidays since 2017, when it issued several hundred permits for Gazans during Ramadan, according to UN reports. Muslims who are Israeli citizens, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, or foreigners already present in Israel do not need permits to visit the site.

The Waqf also said that Israeli authorities interfered in the administration of the site by the Waqf, including maintenance and restoration work there. Israeli officials and activists stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities. For example, pictures on the Waqf’s Facebook page showed their personnel digging at the site on March 31, while the site was closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the police banning of individual Waqf staff members, the Waqf said that it had a reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff hired to work at the site, leaving the Waqf seriously understaffed.

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 responsibilities for the site, although Israel retained full security responsibility for it while the Oslo Accords and 1997 Hebron Accords gave “civil powers and responsibilities” including “planning authority” for the site to the Hebron municipality. Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site.

The IDF again restricted Muslim access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs during 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, which was manned by soldiers with metal detectors, while granting Jews access via several entry points. Citing security concerns, the IDF periodically closed roads approaching the site and since 2001 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 in November 1994 following an attack earlier in the year by an Israeli that killed 29 Palestinians. Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Islamic call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, stating the government acted upon requests by Jewish religious leaders in Hebron in response to requests of Jewish worshippers at the site. The news website al-Monitor reported that Israeli authorities banned calls to prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque 56 times during the month of April; Passover was celebrated from April 8 to 16.

On March 31, the PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs issued a statement condemning the IDF for preventing mosque attendants and guards from entering the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron due to COVID-19 restrictions and limiting access to only one person to perform the call for prayer. On May 26, according to media reports, the IDF dispersed hundreds of Muslim worshippers who had arrived at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to perform prayers. Media reported the IDF allowed only 50 persons to pray inside the mosque and another 100 worshippers to pray in its courtyard, per Israeli restrictions to control the COVID-19 outbreak. The Palestinian Authority had reopened mosques to the general public as of May 26.

On July 31, Hebron mayor Tayseer Abu Sneineh said the IDF banned the entry to the Ibrahimi Mosque of thousands of Muslim worshippers trying to perform Eid al-Adha prayers and allowed only 35 individuals to attend the Eid prayers and sermon. The Israeli government said it managed access to the site in accordance with the status quo and based on the principle of religious freedom and in coordination with the Hebron municipality and PA Waqf managing the site. According to the Israeli government, Israeli authorities and the Waqf coordinated access during the Eid to allow 850 Muslim worshippers to enter the site in small groups, in accordance with the COVID-19 restrictions in place during the Eid, which limited access for both Muslim and Jewish worshippers. According to the Israeli government, authorities made the same arrangements during the celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, when only Muslims were allowed access to the site, and for Yom Kippur, when only Jews were allowed access. Israeli authorities closed the site to Palestinian worshippers for Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashana (September 18-20) and Yom Kippur (September 27-28), and then on September 30 closed the building due to COVID-19. Jewish worshippers living within one kilometer (0.6 miles) were still able to pray in the complex’s outside courtyard. On September 30, the imam of the Ibrahimi Mosque, Hifthi Abu Sneineh, said that the IDF had prevented staff and Muslim worshippers from accessing the mosque and attending prayers under what he said was the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic. Abu Sneineh said that the IDF evacuated staff and worshippers from the mosque after the noon prayer on Tuesday and closed all entrances to the site. He also stated the IDF banned the director of the Waqf, Jamal Abu Aram, along with a number of staff, from accessing it on Tuesday. Abu Sneineh said the IDF blocked Muslim worshippers from performing prayers but allowed Jewish worshippers to access the mosque to commemorate Yom Kippur. The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs issued a statement stating that this measure was a “blatant and serious” violation, an attack on the sanctity of the mosque, a provocation to the feelings of Muslims, a serious threat, and an attempt to control the rest of the mosque. The Israeli government said that the two sides at the site had an agreement to allow exclusive access to the Jewish and Muslim communities on specific holy days throughout the year specific to the two faiths.

In April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit approved a 2019 decision by former Israeli Minister of Defense Naftali Bennett, shortly before Bennett left office, to bypass the Hebron municipality and expropriate land at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron. COGAT issued an expropriation order on May 13. The Israeli government stated it intended to renovate the site and establish elevators to make it accessible to persons with disabilities in order to “promote the rights of people with disabilities and allow access to religious sites for every population.” The Israeli government said it proceeded with the plan after multiple attempts to gain PA, Hebron municipality, and Waqf support for increased access to the site for persons with disabilities. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Hebron’s Jewish community and right-wing politicians and activists have long lobbied to make the site wheelchair accessible.” The paper stated that the only way that Jewish sanctuaries within the site could be reached is by climbing a long staircase.

Press reports stated that the land expropriated for the project was owned by the PA’s Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs. In May, Hifthi Abu Sneineh condemned the decision and said it was a blatant violation of the Hebron Protocol of the Oslo Accords and that “The Israeli authorities did not notify the Waqf in charge of managing the mosque of the details of the project. The settlement project will facilitate the Judaization of Ibrahimi Mosque.” Separately, he told the Middle East Eye website, “This is their [Israelis’] goal: to make life harder for the Palestinians, and make life easier for the settlers. To restrict Palestinian worship, promote Jewish visitation, and forever change the history and Islamic character of this place.” On June 18, Palestinians from Hebron and the Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh filed objections with COGAT regarding the project. Emek Shaveh stated, “The plan is more political than humanitarian and marks a breach of the status quo, creating additional friction between Jews and Muslims in a place which is already suffering from extreme tension.” An Israeli court dismissed the case in August. On December 27, the Knesset Finance Committee voted to transfer 1.5 million shekels ($467,000) to the elevator project. Member of the Knesset Moshe Gafni, the committee chair, said, “It is enormously important to allow public sites to be accessible to the disabled, even more so for a sacred sited like the Tomb of the Patriarchs.” On May 14, members of the Fatah chapter in the Hebron district organized a protest in front of the site to protest the decision and said the Ibrahimi Mosque is a purely Islamic site, with all its parts and courtyards, and has no Jewish heritage.

On November 19, the Judea and Samaria planning committee rejected petitions by Emek Shaveh and Palestinian residents of Hebron against the plan. Emek Shaveh said it objected to the plan because it did not include a documentation and conservation study as is standard for construction at historical monuments and that the staff officer for archaeology at the Civil Administration was not involved in overseeing the plan. The NGO stated that the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarch was arguably the most important historical and holy site in the West Bank. Emek Shaveh also argued that the elevator, which was planned to be built near the Jewish end of the complex, would not aid Muslim worshippers who wished to access their prayer halls because of the stringent security checks that they would be forced to endure. A case in an Israeli court was pending at the end of the year.

On December 4, Israeli police arrested an Orthodox Jewish man for trying to set fire to the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The suspect poured flammable liquid inside the Catholic church and set it on fire before a church guard detained him and police took him into custody. On December 31, an Israeli judge found the assailant mentally incompetent and remanded him to a psychiatric institution for up to 20 years.

Israeli authorities and settlers, who are often armed, prohibited access by Palestinians to several mosques in the occupied West Bank located within Israeli settlements. Israeli authorities declared all legal settlements as restricted Israeli military zones. Palestinians were unable to visit them without Israeli government approval.

In an October 7 report, the Israeli NGO Machsom (“Checkpoint”) Watch stated that the Israeli government has used three strategies to “erase” Muslim religious sites in the West Bank: enclosing sites within closed military zones, including sites in nature reserves; divesting shrines of their Islamic religious identity by opening them to the general public; and declining to recognize the site as having any religious significance in Islam. The NGO said that Israeli authorities give more weight to sites associated with Biblical prophets than to sites that are significant only to Muslims. Machsom Watch said that Israeli authorities deny Palestinians any access to 13 sites in the West Bank that are of traditional heritage, worship, and Muslim prayer or that are important to multiple faiths. The NGO said some of these sites are dilapidated and frequently the object of vandalism by Israeli settlers.

The Israeli government said it coordinated access to the Prophet Samuel’s mosque during the year for 1,500 Palestinian residents of the Nebi Samuel and al-Khalaila villages. The site has both a mosque and synagogue and, with the villages, is located in the West Bank, but inside the Israeli barrier.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with police officers stationed both inside the site and at entrances. Police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance, through which non-Muslims may enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours. Police sometimes restricted this access, citing security concerns.

Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer. The Israeli government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, who reiterated this view at a campaign event in March. NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that in practice, police generally allowed discreet non-Muslim prayer on the site. 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 – the body of Jewish religious law), to enter with police escort.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the al-Aqsa Mosque, unless they were participating in a Waqf-sponsored visit. It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing. Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site. The Waqf objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals whom they perceived to be dressed immodestly or who caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials exercised only a limited oversight role. The government extended visiting hours in the afternoon by 30 minutes to prevent large groups forming at the entrance for non-Muslims in accordance with COVID-19 health restrictions. Following the announcement of the normalization agreements establishing relations between Israel and several Arab countries, Muslim visitors from the Gulf were at times harassed in person and vilified on social media by Palestinian Muslims for visiting the site as part of visits to Israel. The PA Mufti of Jerusalem issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Jordanian Waqf rejected the fatwa. The Waqf stated that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf. The government welcomed these visits as a positive outcome of normalization and as demonstrating freedom of religion.

On May 4, the NGO Returning to the Mount filed a petition to the Supreme Court demanding the state allow Jewish visitors to enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, arguing that the arrangement at that time – under which only Muslim Waqf staff were allowed to enter the site due to the COVID-19 pandemic – discriminated against Jews who wished to visit. The court rejected the petition on May 19, stating it did not find grounds to interfere with the state’s discretion. On June 23, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond by November 21 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 Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The case was ongoing at year’s end. The Waqf and others criticized non-Muslim visitors who entered the site escorted by the police as “settlers” and said they “stormed” the site.

Many Jewish religious leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for reasons of ritual purity. Some Jewish religious leaders, Knesset members, and activists called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors.

The government continued to allow Knesset members and ministers to visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. Members of the Knesset were required to inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with the police.

At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to 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, to the objection of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements. The organization Women of the Wall argued that its monthly presence at the wall for more than 30 years had established the group as part of the “customs of the place.”

Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.

Pending COVID-19 limitations, authorities allowed 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 or as a pod at the rear of the main plaza along with other separated prayer pods. However, during the period when the Western Wall was open for prayer by only 10 persons due to COVID-19 regulations, Women of the Wall reported that Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz rejected their April 19 request for a group of 10 women from Jerusalem to pray at the Western Wall, despite having approved similar requests for ultra-Orthodox visitors from outside of Jerusalem.

Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (WWHF), which administers the Western Wall main plaza, 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. The Supreme Court criticized the government on November 4 for its lack of progress since 2018 on upgrading the area to a permanent egalitarian prayer space. The government blamed the delay on multiple rounds of national elections, COVID-19, and an obstacle posed by a Jerusalem municipality planning committee, but it also stated that it was not under a legal obligation to implement the construction plan. The court ordered the government to make progress by April 4, 2021. This case is a combination of lawsuits against the government, some dating back to 2013, that would allow prayer for all religious streams of Judaism at the Western Wall. In 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that would have offered them symbolic recognition in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. In 2018, a special government committee approved expansion of the temporary platform. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill their 2016 agreement with the government. The court case was ongoing at year’s end. In addition, observers have stated that scaffolding has prevented visitors from touching the sacred wall in the egalitarian prayer space since a rock fell there in 2018. Over the same period, the WWHF managed large construction projects in the main plaza, making routine inspections for loose rocks at the main plaza without blocking access to the wall.

The government continued to promote the establishment of a cable car route from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City that would pass over a Karaite cemetery. In September, the Jerusalem municipality published a tender for the construction of the cable car, and on September 9, a Jerusalem local planning committee approved the expropriation of more than 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) of private lands, mostly in Silwan, for construction of the project. According to the Karaite community, the cable car would desecrate the cemetery, thus preventing its further use. While the original plan included a physical roof over the cemetery, which would contradict Karaite customs, the approved plan does not include a roof. Nonetheless, the project’s infrastructure still posed a problem for the Karaite community, according to community representatives. The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, but some NGOs said the project was meant to specifically promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem and to reinforce Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the area. The plan was pending final government approval at year’s end. A petition against the cable car was also pending at year’s end.

The barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals as well as the conduct of journalistic, humanitarian, and NGO activities. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons.

On July 20, the IDF seized a 1,500-year-old Byzantine-era baptismal font from Taqqou’a town, southeast of Bethlehem. The eight-ton font had been moved in 2000 from an ancient church in the archeological site of Khirbet Taqqou’a and had again been moved in 2002. Taqqou’a municipality retrieved the font and placed it in the vicinity of the mayor’s house, pending the construction of a local museum, according to media reports. According to press reports, the whereabouts of the font remained unknown after it was moved in July. The Israeli government said the Israeli Civil Administration (CA), which is part of COGAT, took the item as part of the CA’s efforts to “restore archeological items” and to “stop the theft of antiques” in the West Bank.

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.

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.

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 barrier begun by Israel during the Second Intifada 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.

According to a November 9 Times of Israel report, Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion and his administration proposed a plan to designate seats on Jerusalem community councils as either ultra-Orthodox or not. Jerusalem is the country’s only municipality to use community councils, which were established to provide greater communication between the city’s diverse population groups and the municipal government. Each council has 15 members, nine elected and the other six appointed. Lion said the proposal was designed to reduce conflicts on the councils and to ensure that the views of minority communities were represented on each council. Members of both the ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox communities expressed concerns about the proposal, with one describing it as “undemocratic.” While there are eight community councils serving Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, none of them has elected members.

The Government of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) listed 28 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and West Bank settlements for civil burial and burial of persons the government defined as “lacking religion.” Only three of the cemeteries, however, were available for use to the broader general public in Israel and Israeli West Bank settlements regardless of residence, one of which has been full for several years. The other cemeteries, located in Israeli agricultural localities, were permitted to bury only “residents of the area.” This, according to the NGO Hiddush, left the majority of the Israel’s population deprived of the ability to exercise its right to be buried in accordance with secular or non-Orthodox religious views, as mandated by Israeli law. The two MRS-administered cemeteries in West Bank settlements were available only for the burial of Israeli citizens. On December 12, the Supreme Court, as a part of a petition by Hiddush, issued an order instructing the state to explain why it would not allow civil burial in agricultural localities for individuals who were not local Israeli residents and who do not have another alternative. The case was pending as of the end of the year.

According to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the Israeli government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, as a condition of its lease of land for its campus on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

After workers sent by the Jerusalem municipality demolished a wall and stairs in the Islamic al-Yusufiye Cemetery to make way for a park, local Palestinians gathered in protest and the work stopped. On December 24, the Jerusalem District Court issued a temporary restraining order against the municipality, forcing the city to suspend its work. The cemetery, which is hundreds of years old, is affiliated with the Islamic Waqf and adjacent to the Old City.

Hizb al-Tahrir, a global pan-Islamic Salafi movement founded in Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem in 1953, among other groups criticized the PA for at times reopening parts of the economy while maintaining COVID-19 restrictions on religious sites. On September 7, the heads of Christian churches in Bethlehem issued a statement in which they commended President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, including Intisar Abu Amara, the chief of staff at the President’s office, for what they said as their effective role in support of the Palestinian Christian community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Media reported PA government spokesman Ibrahim Melhem said at an April 13 press conference that Israelis “are not only exporting [the virus]. They are agents of this virus…These are not accusations. These are facts.”

In an August 27 interview with Israel’s Kan TV, Yasser Arafat’s widow, Suha al-Tawil, said the PA, particularly Intisar Abu Amara, discriminated against PA Christian staff. The accusation was made following a PA decision to recall her brother, Ghabi al-Tawil, the PA ambassador to Cyprus. PA officials said al-Tawil was dismissed from his position after he refused to receive Fatah activists at the PA embassy who were organizing a protest against the Emirati-Israeli normalization agreement. Following the interview, heads of Christian churches in Bethlehem released a joint statement warning against attempts to harm Christian-Muslim relations.

Palestinian leaders, media, and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with Israeli security forces, whether those individuals were involved in confrontations or were innocent bystanders. Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, and terrorist organizations glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.” On May 12, IDF sergeant Amit Ben Ygal was killed by a rock thrown by a Palestinian during a security operation in the West Bank. According to a report by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Palestinians Ramp Up Incitement to Murder Jews, Fatah then began a widespread social media campaign that referred to Ben Ygal’s death by including the phrase, “If you don’t have a gun, kill an IDF soldier with a rock.” Several local Fatah chapters posted memorials, including photographs, of suicide bombers. On several occasions on PA television, senior PA and Fatah official Jibril Rajoub extolled “martyrs” and prisoners serving sentences in Israeli prisons for conducting terrorist attacks. On June 17, on the 90th anniversary of the execution by British mandate officials of three persons convicted of involvement in the 1929 massacre of the Hebron Jewish community, a PA television presenter praised their actions and “martyrdom.”

The PA and the PLO continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed during terrorist acts or to those who were killed as bystanders in Israeli-Palestinian confrontations, as well as stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those awaiting charges and 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 in 1993 and 1995. On April 16, Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud Aloul, speaking about Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, said on official PA Palestine TV, “The first amount of money Fatah was able to collect was allocated to prisoners’ and martyrs’ families. The Americans and Israelis tried to stop us from supporting Palestinian martyrs’ and prisoners’ families, but our decision was clear and it was given by President Abbas when he said that even if we had a few pennies, then we would offer them to the families of martyrs and prisoners.”

The Israeli Deduction Law provides that Israel must deduct a portion of the revenues it collects for the PA that is equal to the expenditures by the PA in the previous year for payments to families of persons killed, injured, or imprisoned for attacks on Israel. On October 26, Qadri Abu Bakr, the director of the PLO Commission for Prisoner Affairs, addressing the Deduction Law, said, “If we agree to deduct this money, it means that we agree that they are truly a group of terrorists – murderers, as Israel calls them. We would be defining their struggle as a crime and defining as a crime our people’s struggles for more than 50 years…” In accordance with the Israeli Deduction Law, Israel withheld a monthly sum equal to what the PA paid to these individuals and families (approximately 41.8 million shekels – $13 million) from its monthly transfers of tax revenues to the PA from January-March. Israel then suspended the deductions pending approval of the new amounts by the Israeli Security Cabinet, which did not occur until December due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 Awqaf and Religious Affairs continued to pay for construction of new mosques, maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank. The ministry also continued to provide limited financial support to some Christian clergy and Christian charitable organizations.

The PA’s Palestinian Broadcasting Company’s code of conduct states it does not allow programming that encourages “violence against any person or institution on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs, or sex.” Some official PA media channels as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling political movement Fatah, however, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence against Jews. Fatah announced September 26 that Facebook had restricted its ability to promote stories on its site. The Israeli NGO Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) stated this was due to concerns PMW had raised about Fatah’s promotion of terror and incitement to violence against Jewish Israelis. Following the announcement of diplomatic normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, on September 15, Fatah Central Committee-member Jibril Rajoub on official PA television referred to Prime Minister Netanyahu as “a distorted copy of Mussolini,” and said the situation was similar to “everything that had happened in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe.” Referring to statements made by Arab governments regarding their recognition of Israel, Rajoub stated, “I think that even their ‎speeches were written for them…in ‎Tel Aviv, of course….”

Both Palestinians and Israelis evoked ethnoreligious language to deny the historical self-identity of the other community in the region or to emphasize an exclusive claim to the land. On September 18, on official PA television, PA Grand ‎Mufti Muhammed Hussein said, “If an inch of the Muslims’ lands is stolen, jihad becomes a personal religious commandment for everyone.” Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media. A Christian columnist for the official PA daily, Muwaffaq Matar, wrote, “Christian Palestinians understood the danger of Judaization to their existence and to their holy sites…They also know that the Zionist plot is not limited only to Judaizing the holy sites of the Muslim Palestinians…Therefore, they view the sale of Palestinian lands to the Israeli racist colonialist occupiers and settlers as a betrayal of Jesus. They think that whoever does this…is not eligible to represent the church or any Christian citizen in Palestine.”

Press reports stated that on November 18, after a Jewish settler placed a hanukkiah (Hanukkah candelabra) on the roof of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Mahmoud al-Habash, the PA President’s religious affairs advisor, told the official WAFA news agency, “The occupation state…is exploiting every opportunity, and particularly the so-called ‘Jewish holidays,’ in order to commit crimes and plans that desecrate our Islamic holy sites in Hebron.” According to press, he also said that the Ibrahimi Mosque is a pure Islamic heritage site to which those who are not Muslim have no rights. The newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida reported that the PA’s Supreme Fatwa Council had called the action “a blatant violation, a true provocation of Muslims’ sensibilities, and an additional aggressive attempt to erase Islamic history in service of the goal to Judaize the Ibrahimi Mosque and create a fake Jewish character for it.”

In a July 18 appearance on Palestine TV, PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, in response to a question about an incorrect report that Apple Maps and Google Maps had removed the name “Palestine” from their apps, said, “It is clear that these two companies have obvious orientations. It is obvious who owns them, and the Israeli-Jewish influence on them is also obvious.”

The Middle East Monitor website, in a report that it attributed to the Palestinian news agency WAFA, said that the Palestinian Authority had condemned the “continuous and increasing aggression” of Israeli Jewish settlers on Palestinians and their properties in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. According to the report, the PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the settlers’ attacks as “part of a campaign supported and run by the occupation state and its institutions, aiming to Judaize Area C.”

In an August 15 interview on Palestine TV, Mahmoud al-Habash, commenting on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab states, said, “Normalization [of relations] is treason, full stop. It is treason. It is normalizing relations with those who murdered your father and brothers. It is normalizing relations with the enemies of the Prophet Mohammed, who want to [build] a temple at the destination of Mohammed’s Night Journey [referring to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount].”

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 religions, according to Palestinian Media Watch and IMPACT-se. Norway announced June 4 that it intended to withhold half of its funding designated for the PA’s education system until textbooks no longer promoted “hate and violence.” Foreign Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide said that Norway had raised these concerns with senior PA leaders.

In September, IMPACT-se released a report on the new Palestinian school curriculum (West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – UNRWA) for the 2020-21 academic term. The NGO reviewed each revision of the school curriculum released over the previous five school years. IMPACT-se’s report on the 2019-20 textbooks found no substantive changes from the previous revision of the curriculum. According to IMPACT-se, a Palestinian cabinet announcement on May 18 approved a plan to make changes to the PA curriculum for the then upcoming 2020-21 school year, and the PA presented the plan at a meeting with donor nations in Ramallah on May 21. However, the NGO said its analysis of the new curriculum “found it [the curriculum] to have moved further from meeting UNESCO standards, and the newly published textbooks were found to be more radical than those previously published. According to the report, there “is a systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom and jihad across all grades and subjects. Extreme nationalism and Islamist ideologies are widespread throughout the curriculum, including science and math textbooks.” Marcus Sheff, the CEO of IMPACT-se, told the Jerusalem Post in a September 22 report, “It is disastrous that 1.3 million Palestinian children are condemned to yet another year of sitting in PA and UNRWA schoolrooms to be fed hate and incitement on a daily basis.” In addition to providing teachers with training in human rights and tolerance in education to equip them to discuss controversial materials in PA textbooks, UNRWA publicly asserted there is no place for anti-Semitism in its programs.

According to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, on May 14, the European Parliament passed three resolutions that condemned the PA for using school textbooks that promote hate and violence. The resolutions were passed as amendments by the Committee on Budgetary Control in a budgetary report. One resolution called on the European Commission to make sure that “no Union funds are used to finance textbooks and educational material which incite religious radicalization, intolerance, ethnic violence and martyrdom among children.” The resolution said the European representatives were “concerned that problematic material in Palestinian school textbooks has still not been removed and is concerned about the continued failure to act effectively against hate speech and violence in school textbooks.” According to the resolutions, money allocated for textbooks should “be used for drafting and teaching curricula which reflects UNESCO standards of peace, tolerance, coexistence, and nonviolence.”

In 2019, the European Union commissioned the German NGO Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research to conduct a review of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 PA curricula to assess the extent of inciteful content. The findings are due in early 2021.

The Jerusalem-based Center for Near East Policy Research (CNEPR) reported in February that PA teacher guides published by the PA Ministry of Education between 2016 and 2018 delegitimized the State of Israel, demonized Israel and Jews, and lacked any attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully. In 2019, CNEPR described excerpts from the guides referring to Jews as “aggressive, barbarous, full of hate, and bent on extermination,” and “enemies of Islam since its early days.”

In November, Israeli media reported that the government had agreed to pay 400,000 shekels ($124,000) in compensation to the Old Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar to cover the cost of the building’s use by security forces since it was seized in 2014. The yeshiva, which the Times of Israel said was a “hotbed of violence against local Palestinians and Israeli security forces,” released a statement saying that total damage to the building was more than 800,000 shekels ($249,000) and that the government’s payment was “the beginning of rectification.” In the statement, the yeshiva added that it hoped to return to its original location at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus.

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

Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in the West Bank continued to state that 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. Emek Shaveh reported on September 9 that Israel’s Civil Administration issued expropriation orders for the antiquity sites Deir Sam’an and Deir Kala’, located in Area C of the West Bank, northwest of Ramallah. According to Emek Shaveh, both sites are on privately-owned Palestinian property and next to Israeli settlements. The expropriation orders stated that the sites were being expropriated for the purpose of preservation and safeguarding archaeology and were the first expropriation orders by Israeli authorities for archaeological sites in the West Bank since 1986. Emek Shaveh said that Israeli authorities were “using archaeological sites as a pretext for barring Palestinians from sites in Area C.”

The NGO Regavim’s Preserving the Eternal Project criticized the PA for damaging historical sites or attempting to erase Jewish heritage in areas under the PA’s control as well as in Area C and for failing to fulfill its obligations under the Oslo Accords to “protect and safeguard all archaeological sites,” including ensuring freedom of access to them. Regavim stated in September that constant vandalism and looting at historical sites in the West Bank “will be exacerbated if jurisdiction is transferred to the Palestinian Authority, which is intent on obliterating the physical record of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel…The physical remains of biblical history will be decimated under Palestinian custodianship.” Regavim identified sites the PA failed to protect or allow free access to, including the ancient synagogue at Samu’a; Tel Aromah in Area B; Mount Ebal (Tel al-Burnat) in Area C; Fatzalis, straddling Areas B and C; Sebastia or Ancient Samaria; and Archilaus. According to media, Israeli forces shot and killed a 15-year-old protestor during clashes with Palestinian protestors in response to a tour of Tel Aromah organized by Regavim and the Samaria Regional Council in March.

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 Israel. The Israeli government said during the year it did not receive any applications from clergy from states that did not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel and that religious workers from all countries working in the West Bank received visas that allow multiple entries. 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. In recent years, Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians to exit Gaza to attend religious services in Jerusalem or the West Bank and for Muslims from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem for Ramadan. Due to COVID-19, Israeli authorities did not issue permits to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to travel for Ramadan or Christmas during the year. The Israeli government said it did issue some permits for Gazan Christians to visit Israel and use Ben Gurion airport to travel abroad during Easter.

The Israeli NGO Gisha noted that while Israeli authorities did not issue permits to Gazans due to COVID-19, thereby essentially restricting them from being able to go to Israel or the West Bank except for urgent humanitarian cases, it permitted foreigners for much of the year to enter Israel for religious study and to attend weddings, funerals, and bat or bar mitzvahs. Furthermore, Israelis were able to move freely inside Israel as well as to and from settlements in the West Bank, including for religious worship and gatherings. Gisha said that even in previous years, religious travel from Gaza was extremely limited; no Muslims were issued permits for religious travel in 2019, according to Gisha and UN reports. In 2015, Israel issued 11,214 permits for Muslim worshippers to travel for Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, or Friday prayers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, which dropped to just 600 in 2017 and 2018, according to Gisha.

According to church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority, from entering Gaza. The Israeli government said it approved 64 of 83 requests during the year to visit Gaza for religious reasons from religious organizations and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, including for individuals from 19 nationalities, including Egypt and Jordan.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits under the citizenship and entry law with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). A Christian religious leader expressed concern that this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively impacted the long-term viability of their communities.

According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The 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 were allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. This public land includes approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who were not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian citizens in Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land. 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. Despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that the ILA Executive Council must have representation of an Arab, Druze, or Circassian member to prevent discrimination against non-Jews, there were no members from these groups on the council at year’s end.

On June 24, the Jerusalem District Court denied a request by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the transfer of three properties in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish prosettlement organization, which signed a 99-year lease for the properties in 2004. The court’s decision followed similar ruling by the Supreme Court in 2019 and a lower court in 2017. The Patriarchate had argued that its official who signed the lease was not authorized to do so. The Church filed the district court lawsuit after the Supreme Court decision, stating it had new evidence of corruption and fraud involving the sale. Following the decision, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate released a statement saying it received the ruling with “surprise” and that “We believe the court erred in its decision and intend to launch an appeal at the Supreme Court.”

On July 7, 13 heads of churches and Christian communities in Jerusalem issued a joint statement that the court’s ruling on the three properties threatened the Christian presence in the city. The heads of the churches said that they stood united in their “commitment to safeguarding the historical status quo of the Holy Sites and rights of the churches which are universally recognized.” According to the statement, the case represented a “systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the holy city, to obstruct the Christian pilgrim route, and to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.” The heads of the churches called on the Israeli government “to act in order to safeguard the integrity of the Christian heritage and patrimony in the Old City, as well as the holy sites and the rights of the residents of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem.”

At year’s end, Christians held minister-level positions in three PA ministries (Finance, Health, and Tourism) and the cabinet-level office of Deputy Prime Minister for Public Information.

The PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly condemned killings and terrorist attacks in France “under the slogan of religion” following the beheading of a teacher who had displayed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a class on free speech. The ministry rejected the killing of any human being regardless of his religion, nationality, or race, and stated, “Religion is innocent from such crimes that completely contradict the Islamic tolerant teachings.” The ministry also rejected insulting religious figures, symbols, and teachings and called for the prohibition of such insults through changes to national laws.

On January 10, a Catholic church, St. John the Baptist Chapel, near Qasr al-Yahud, located on the banks of the Jordan River, opened for prayer for the first time since the 1967 Six-Day War. The Israeli and Jordanian Armies laid approximately 6,500 landmines around the church during the 1967 and 1973 wars, resulting in its closure. Between 2018 and April, a British NGO, the HALO Trust, and Israeli authorities worked to clear the area of more than 1,150 landmines. A Catholic Church official specifically thanked Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for his support of the restoration efforts.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other militant and terrorist groups continued to be active in Gaza. Hamas remained in de facto political control of Gaza.

On October 13, a group of approximately 15 gunmen associated with the PIJ terrorist organization kidnapped and beat three worshippers from a mosque east of Khan Younis in Gaza during dawn prayers. According to media and NGO reports, the assailants targeted the victims because of a PIJ factional dispute. The kidnappers released all three victims, two of whom suffered broken bones, later that morning. Hamas stated it launched an investigation into the incident.

Hamas leaders and other militant groups continued to call for the elimination of the State of Israel, and some called for the killing of “Zionist Jews” 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, including a judicial system separate from the PA courts. Hamas courts occasionally prohibited women from departing Gaza due to ongoing divorce or family court proceedings, despite having Israeli authorization to travel. Media outlets reported the Hamas-affiliated Islamic University of Gaza required hijabs for all females. Gazan civil society leaders said Hamas in recent years had moderated its restrictions on dress and gender segregation in public.

Palestinians in Gaza reported interference by Hamas in public schools at the primary, secondary, and university levels. Hamas reportedly interfered in teaching methodologies or curriculum deemed to violate Islamic identity, the religion of Islam, or “traditions” as defined by Hamas. Hamas also interfered if there were reports of classes or activities that mixed genders. UNRWA, however, reported no Hamas interference in the running of its Gaza schools.

Christian groups reported Hamas generally tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law. According to media accounts, Hamas continued neither to investigate nor prosecute Gaza-based cases of religious discrimination, including reported anti-Christian bias in private sector hiring and in police investigations of anti-Christian harassment. Media reports quoted Gazan Christians as saying that Hamas generally did not impede private and communal religious activities for the Christian minority in Gaza. Hamas continued to not celebrate Christmas as a public holiday in Gaza, unlike in the West Bank.

On May 12, Hamas member of the defunct Palestinian Legislative Council Marwan Abu Ras said in an address uploaded to YouTube by the Palestine Islamic Scholars, “The criminal Zionist enemies of Allah occupy the al-Aqsa Mosque. They defile it day and night, kill Muslims, and violate the sanctity of Muslim women and holy places. Hating them is an obligation, according to the sharia.”

Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahhar, in an interview with Iran’s al-Alam TV discussing the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab states, said, “We cannot consider [normalization with Israel] to be ‘normal.’ It is a misleading term that is interchangeable with treason, or with stabbing the resistance in the back, or with betraying Allah and His Messenger. Particularly, and this is the central issue…This is primarily because it goes against what Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad…[The Quran says:] ‘Oh, believers do not…’ This is a total prohibition…‘Do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies…for they are allies of each other. Whosoever does so shall be counted as one of them.’ This means that normalization transfers anybody who normalizes with Israel from Islam to Judaism, from belief to heresy.”

In a July 3 interview on al-Aqsa TV, Nasser Maarouf of the Palestine Islamic Scholars Association said, “Millions of people were killed [in the two world wars], all because of these Jews, who ran wild, tyrannized the world, and spread corruption in it. Their corruption affects all walks of life. Look at the poverty all over the world. Look at the blood that is being spilled all over the world. Look at the honor of women being violated all over the world. If you check, you find that it is the Jews who are behind all that. They are the ones feeding all corruption on earth, and they are the ones financing it.”

In a rally in Gaza that was televised on July 9, Rajaa al-Halabi, head of the Hamas Women’s Movement, said, “These are the Jews. They are the ones who slayed the prophets, the ones who acted treacherously and violated [sanctities]…Indeed, my dear sisters, our conflict with the Zionist enemy is a matter of faith, not of borders. Needless to say, we will not make do with what we have here. We will not make do with partitioning the land and taking only a part of it. This land will be ours in its entirety, Allah willing, because our conflict with the Zionist enemy is an existential conflict, not a conflict about borders. This enemy, who came from all corners of the world, has no place here, but this is what Allah wanted for them… This is our fate, my beloved sisters – to be Allah’s hand on Earth, the hand that will finish off the Israelites, this Zionist enemy, Allah willing. Allah brought them here in droves, so that Palestine becomes their graveyard, Allah willing.”

Some Muslim students in Gaza continued to attend schools run by Christian institutions and NGOs.

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 worshippers and clergy, and vandalism of religious sites. There was also harassment by members of one religious group of another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and anti-Semitic content in media.

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, vandalism of cars and buildings, arson, and slashing of tires as necessary for the defense of Judaism. According to the Times of Israel, on January 28, Israeli police opened an investigation into “an apparent hate crime” after a classroom in a school in the northern West Bank village of Einabus was set on fire. The attackers also left Hebrew graffiti on the school wall, apparently referencing the Israeli government’s then recent razing of the unauthorized outpost of Kumi Ori, which was established in contravention of Israeli law: “Only the enemy’s property should be destroyed. Regards from Kumi Ori.”

In late February, according to press reports, vandals damaged several cars in the village of Yasuf; Yesh Din reported that vandals, believed to be residents of nearby settlements, slashed the tires on 13 vehicles. Those responsible also sprayed graffiti on two buildings, a Star of David on one building, and writing on the other that said in Hebrew, “There will be war over Judea and Samaria.”

On June 11, the Times of Israel reported that a parked car in the village of Jamma’in had been set on fire during the night with Hebrew graffiti that said “the nation of Israel lives” sprayed on a neighboring building. The price tag attack came three days after 12 cars in the nearby village of Sawiya were vandalized and the same graffiti and a Star of David sprayed on a village wall. According to the press report, Yesh Din stated that during the three-month March to May period, 44 price tag attacks against Palestinian villages occurred, 21 involving violence against Palestinians and the remainder targeting property.

According to media reports, on July 27, arsonists set fire to the al-Bir wal-Ihsan Mosque in al-Bireh City in a suspected price tag attack. The arsonists spray-painted graffiti on the walls of the mosque that said, “Siege for Arabs and not Jews” and “The land of Israel is for the people of Israel.” Reuters said that the graffiti was a reference to “to a biblical, historical and political claim that includes the West Bank.” After the attack, then Israeli Minister of Economy Amir Peretz condemned the incident on Twitter, calling for “the criminals and hatemongers” responsible for the blaze in the city of al-Bireh to be brought to justice.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that 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 prosettlement Israelis against Palestinians. The Nationalistic Motivated Crimes Unit of the Judea and Samaria Police District of the Israeli National Police is tasked with preventing and investigating ideologically based offenses in the West Bank and with supporting other police districts in the investigation of such crimes. The Israeli government maintained an interagency team overseeing law enforcement efforts in the West Bank related to incitement, “violent uprisings,” and “ideological crimes.”

The Israeli government said that several times during the year, graffiti was sprayed on Joshua’s Tomb in the Palestinian village of Kifl Hares in the West Bank.

On February 22, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem issued a statement that, according to press reports, “condemned” the February 21 gathering of thousands of Israeli settlers on land owned by the Patriarchate in Tayasir in the northern Jordan River Valley. The settlers gathered on the property without permission. The Patriarchate statement said that similar incidents had occurred in the past and that it “is very concerned not only from the settlers’ violations of its properties, but also from the lack of action by the Israeli authorities to put an end to such offenses.” According to media, the settlers gathered to signal support for annexation of the Jordan Valley.

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.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to state that burial of its members remained challenging since most cemeteries belong to churches. 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.

In a September 16 interview on a Lebanese television outlet, Nasser al-Laham, the editor in chief of the Ma’an News Agency, said that the Arab states “who normalize [their relations with Israel] believe – and I don’t know who planted this conviction in their brains – that the Israelis love them. They [Arabs] are clearly not well versed in the Bible, the Talmud, or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Al-Laham also stated, “Zionists do not love Arabs. The Zionists came to replace [the Arabs] and not to occupy them…They [Israelis] are after the billions of the Gulf.”

In late October, Hizb al-Tahrir and others organized largely peaceful protests in the West Bank to condemn perceived insults to Islam following the beheading of a teacher in France and another terrorist attack in response to the teacher displaying cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a class on free speech.

Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting on them. In one incident in June, a Catholic friar reported being assaulted in public by three men wearing kippot (yarmulkes), including by being spit at and verbally attacked, and fearing imminent physical risk. When the attackers began physically assaulting the friar, bystanders intervened and forced the attackers to leave. According to the friar, police did not respond to telephone calls for assistance during the attack but recorded a complaint filed by the victim.

During the funeral of Iyad Halak, a special needs student who was fatally shot on May 30 by police officers, hundreds of mourners reportedly chanted “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of [the Prophet] Mohammed will return,” a taunt referring to the Muslim massacre and expulsion of the Jews of Khaybar in the seventh century. Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City fatally shot Halak, a Palestinian resident with autism, June 30 after he allegedly failed to follow police orders to stop. Police stated they believed Halak was carrying a “suspicious object.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed regret for the incident and called for a quick investigation. On October 21, the Department for the Investigation of Police Officers in the Ministry of Justice issued a statement that the prosecution intended to indict, pending a hearing, a police officer suspected of the shooting on charges of reckless homicide. According to the Ministry of Justice, investigators carefully examined the circumstances of the incident and determined that Halak had not posed any danger to police and civilians who were at the scene, that the police officer discharged his weapon not in accordance with police procedures, and that the officer had not taken proportionate alternative measures which were at his disposal.

On June 10, Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center filed a petition against Rabbi David Yosef of the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem demanding a disciplinary hearing following repeated statements in which he allegedly incited against and disparaged Women of the Wall. The case was pending at year’s end.

Authorities opened an investigation following a suspected arson and price tag attack against a mosque in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on January 24. The press reported that the suspect left Hebrew graffiti on an outside wall of the building that appeared to be a reference to Kumi Uri, a settler outpost in which the IDF had demolished buildings earlier in the month.

The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where price tag attacks had occurred and to sponsor activities promoting tolerance in response to the attacks.

Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many ultra-Orthodox denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site due to 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. Many among the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in visiting the site. Groups such as the Temple Institute and Yaraeh continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there as well as for 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 by the Waqf, 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. Some Jewish visitors publicly noted that the National Police were more willing to permit them to engage in silent prayer. According to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement decreased to 18,500 from 30,000 in 2019, largely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Despite Israeli labor law, some foreign domestic workers in Jerusalem stated that some employers did not allow their domestic workers to take off their day of worship.

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. Bethlehem has traditionally had the highest unemployment rate among West Bank cities, which sources stated was a factor compelling many young Christians to emigrate. Due to its heavy reliance on the tourism industry, COVID-19 had significant impacts on the local economy, which Christian leaders feared would lead to increased emigration. The local Chamber of Commerce estimated that unemployment rose from 26 percent just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to 50 percent at the end of the year, compared with 14.9 percent for the West Bank in the last quarter of the year. Community leaders estimated Bethlehem and surrounding communities were only 12 percent Christian in 2019, compared with more than 70 percent in 1950, and 23 percent in 1998.

On October 6, Haaretz reported that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were virtually no Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land and that the religious tourism sector was “silently collapsing” after a record-breaking year in 2019. The Vatican website AsiaNews reported that tourism revenues would be close to zero for Palestinian Christians. AsiaNews said that through August, the Christian community had lost approximately $320 million.

On June 19, the Catholic News Agency cited a poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research on behalf of the Philos Project, an NGO that advocates for Christians in the Near East, which found that Christians were leaving the West Bank because of economic distress and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nearly six in 10 Palestinian Christians (59 percent) cited economic hardship as the main reason they considered emigrating. The vast majority (84 percent) said they feared the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands by Israel; a similar share of Christians (83 percent) said they were concerned about both attacks by Jewish settlers and the denial of their civil rights by Israel. While Christian and Muslim Palestinians both said they might emigrate for economic reasons, the survey showed that Christians also felt unsafe or insecure, not just because of the threat of attacks by settlers, but from their Muslim neighbors. Nearly eight in 10 Christians (77 percent) said they were worried about radical Salafist groups “in Palestine.” A large minority (43 percent) stated they believed that most Muslims did not want them “in Palestine” and 44 percent believed that Christians were subject to discrimination when applying for jobs. The Philos Project stated that Palestinian Christians were twice as likely as Palestinian Muslims to emigrate. According to the NGO, Christians as a share of the Palestinian population fell from nearly 10 percent in 1922 to 6 percent in 1967, to just 1 percent of the population in 2020.

In a survey conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 80 percent of Palestinian respondents either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels.” The results were among the highest in the region, which had a 65 percent rate of agreement overall.

In a survey by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year that involved a team of international experts, 28 percent of Palestinians between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared with 40 percent overall for youths polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

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.

Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The embassy awarded grants to the Jerusalem Intercultural Center for an interreligious community economic development program in the Old City of Jerusalem. Additionally, the embassy presented a grant to the Interfaith Encounter Association to bring together three interfaith groups in Jerusalem’s Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods to meet with U.S. experts, coordinators, and fellow interfaith groups. The embassy also issued public statements condemning attacks on places of worship, including an attempted arson attack on the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane.

On April 20 and 23, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with Israeli government and civil society representatives to discuss increasing COVID-themed manifestations of anti-Semitic tropes against Israel and Jews, especially online. The Special Envoy and his counterparts agreed that increasing education, monitoring, legislation, and law enforcement could help combat this trend.

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 used embassy social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.

U.S. government representatives 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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Israel

Yemen

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. The conflict that began in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end. The secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) remained in control of Aden, the temporary capital, until December 30, when the cabinet of a unity government, formed under the 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, returned to the city. The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory and had limited ability to address abuses of religious liberty. The government publicly condemned religious persecution by the Houthi movement. Sources pointed to the support of Shia-majority Iran for the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and the support of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia for the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year.

At year’s end, the Houthis continued to control approximately one-third of Yemeni territory and nearly 80 percent of the population. In areas they controlled, the Houthis followed a strict religious regimen and continued to discriminate against individuals who did follow those practices, particularly religious minorities. According to the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media, military actions by Houthis continued to damage places of worship and religious institutions, and to inflict casualties at religious gatherings. In January, media reported that Houthi militants launched a missile attack on a mosque at a government military installation in Ma’rib Governorate, killing at least 116 soldiers during prayers. The UN Panel of Experts reported a second Houthi attack in August on a mosque at a government security compound in Ma’rib killed seven. A Houthi-controlled court held hearings early in the year on the appeal of Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i sentenced to death by the Houthi-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in 2018 on charges of apostasy and spying for Israel. In March, Mahdi al-Mashaat, President of the Houthi Supreme Political Council (SPC) in Sana’a, ordered the release of all detained Baha’is and pardoned Haydara. In July, Haydara and five other detained Baha’is – part of a group of 24 Baha’is charged with apostasy and espionage in 2018 – were released and exiled. According to the Sana’a-based human rights organization Mwatana, the Specialized Criminal Court continued proceedings against the six exiled Baha’is, ordering them to return to Sana’a to face trial, and the court continued to hold hearings against the other 19 Baha’is charged in 2018. Mwatana reported more than 70 instances of abuse against the Baha’i community since 2015, such as arbitrary detentions of dozens of Baha’is for practicing cultural activities, and deportation and enforced disappearances of others. A local human rights organization reported that since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, the Houthis damaged or destroyed 49 mosques in Hudaydah alone and transformed more than 100 mosques throughout the country into military barracks and sniper positions. In January, Minister of Endowments Ahmed al-Attiyah stated that the Houthis had targeted 76 mosques in areas under their control. According to the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, the Houthis continued to use anti-Semitic rhetoric – including multiple speeches made by Houthi supreme leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi – that incited violence against Jews. The Group of Experts reported Jews faced Houthi-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement and constant threats to their lives and security. According to the United Nations, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active in Hadramawt, Shabwah, Ma’rib, Bayda’, and Abyan Governorates. According to media, gunmen killed Khalid al-Hameidi, a university professor known as a secular thinker and critic of religious extremism, in the city of Dhale on December 5. Local officials said they believed the gunmen were members of AQAP or of an ISIS affiliate.

Jewish community members said their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. No rabbis remained in the country, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with family members. Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the country’s small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.

The Department of State suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in 2015, and the embassy has operated since then as the Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU), based in Saudi Arabia. In March, the U.S. Ambassador expressed his concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Hamed bin Haydara, a Baha’i Faith leader imprisoned since 2013. The Ambassador emphasized that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear. In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 29.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), associating their beliefs with either the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or Zaydi Islam, a distinct form of Shia Islam. There are also significant numbers of Sunni followers of the Maliki and Hanbali schools, and significant numbers of Ismaili and Twelver followers of Shia Islam. While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 65 percent of the population is Sunni and 35 percent Zaydi. Baha’is, Jews, Hindus, and Christians, many of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents, comprise less than 1 percent of the population. Christian groups include Roman Catholics and Anglicans. According to the UN Group of Experts, many Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian economic migrants transit the country on their way to find work in Saudi Arabia, making the total number of Christians subject to fluctuation.

There is no firm estimate of the number of persons of Indian origin or of those who practice Hinduism, Sikhism, or the Dawoodi Bohra variant of Ismaili Shia Islam residing in the country. The preconflict Hindu population was 150,000 (2010 estimate), concentrated in Aden, Mukalla, Shihr, Lahaj, Mokha, and Hudayah. According to one source, the current number of Indian nationals is fewer than 3,000. Many members of the Indian-origin community have resided in the country for generations and hold Yemeni nationality.

The Jewish community is an indigenous non-Muslim minority religious group. Reports estimate approximately 20 to 40 Jews remain, concentrated in Sana’a and Raydah, in Amran Governorate north of Sana’a.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system.

Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system. The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases. Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.

The constitution states the President must be Muslim who “practices his Islamic duties”; however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.” The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.

The criminal code states that “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense. The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities to repent; upon repentance, they are spared the death penalty.

Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate. Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism). By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.

The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims. The law prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for public “ridicule” of any religion and prescribes up to five years’ imprisonment if the ridiculed religion is Islam.

There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.

By law, the government must authorize construction of any new buildings. The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.

Public schools must provide instruction in Islam, but not in other religions. The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization. The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education. Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum, but the government is unable to enforce it in Houthi-controlled areas, where instructional materials indicate schools are teaching Zaydi principles only.

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

Government Practices

Media reports noted Shia-majority Iran supported the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supported the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and they said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. Many sources, including international media and foundations, continued to describe the conflict as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

In July, the government and STC reached a new agreement to accelerate implementation of the November 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, which called for a ceasefire, military withdrawal, and power-sharing. In December, the parties reached agreement on the formation of a new unity government, and the cabinet returned to Aden on December 30. The government did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country throughout the year, which limited its ability to address abuses of religious liberty by nonstate actors in areas not under its control.

The September 2019 UN Group of Experts report Situation of human rights in Yemen including violations and abuses since September 2014, covering the 2014-2019 period, reported that military actions by all parties during the conflict had inflicted casualties at religious gatherings and damaged places of worship and religious institutions. According to the NGO Yemen Data Project, the number of airstrikes by Saudi-led coalition forces during the year increased significantly compared with 2019. The NGO reported a continued decrease in airstrikes against nonmilitary targets, however, while airstrikes on military targets increased, as did airstrikes of unknown origin on a variety of targets. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year, however. According to the UN Protection Cluster’s Civilian Impact Monitoring Project (CIMP), civilian casualties from air strikes fell from 2,588 in 2018 to 796 in 2019, and finally to 216 in 2020. Air strikes accounted for less than 10 percent of the 2,087 civilian casualties CIMP reported during the year (749 persons killed and 1,338 injured).

In August, the government publicly condemned, through the state news agency, Houthi authorities for persecuting religious minorities, in response to the Houthi deportation of six Baha’is to European countries and the United States.

Because of the conflict and the government’s absence from the country until the end of the year, the government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in private schools. Many public and private schools throughout the country remained closed, and those operating were open for only a few hours a day.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Jewish community members continued to report their declining numbers, which made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. The country’s only remaining rabbi – Yahyia Bin Youssef – fled the country in January 2019, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the UAE government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with relatives.

Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Department of State suspended embassy operations in Sana’a in 2015 and the embassy has operated since then as the YAU, based in Saudi Arabia. In meetings with officials from the government, U.S. government officials continued to stress the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. In March, the YAU released a statement from the Ambassador expressing deep concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Bahai’i leader Hamed bin Haydara and emphasizing that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear.

In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country, saying “We call on the Houthis to respect religious freedom, stop oppressing Yemen’s Jewish population, and immediately release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi.”

The YAU coordinated closely with the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, regional missions, and international organizations in facilitating the resettlement of Baha’is after their release. The YAU continued to closely monitor the conditions of religious minority detainees and to press for their release.