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Albania

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has distinct agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization. The agreements recognize each group as one of the country’s main faith communities and address property restitution and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. VUSH reported the government continued not to allocate funds to evangelical Christian churches, despite the State Committee on Religion’s advocacy on their behalf for financial support. The government legalized 92 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, compared with 164 in 2019, while the status of 32 additional properties remained under review. Corruption, lack of knowledge of competencies and jurisdiction on property cases, and large caseloads in the court system hampered religious communities’ ability to claim their property, according to numerous civil society sources. The AMC, Bektashi community, and the Orthodox Church continued to express concerns about property restitution, including provisions in the law that required them to resubmit their claims in a new forum. VUSH leaders reported continued difficulties in acquiring permission to construct places of worship as well as problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi community and the Albanian Muslim Community (AMC, formerly translated as the Albanian Islamic Community) reported problems defending the title to certain properties. The AMC reported the government denied its application for a permit to build a new campus for Beder University, requested in early 2018. Prior to its October 28 online forum against anti-Semitism, parliament unanimously adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Religious leaders expressed support for the government’s COVID-19 preventive measures, canceling gatherings, including for worship, for two months. The Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, held several online and in-person meetings domestically and internationally.

The U.S. embassy urged government officials to accelerate the property claims process and to return religious groups’ buildings and other property confiscated during the communist era. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed embassy-sponsored programs focused on developing community inclusivity, promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities, and emphasizing the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism among young people. On November 5, the AMC launched another round of an embassy-sponsored project to develop critical thinking skills among young people and to encourage them to think about the relationship between democracy, society, and faith.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. Government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer an optional census question about religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states there is no official religion, recognizes the equality of all religious communities, and articulates the state’s duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually or collectively, in public or in private. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate in or be excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties and other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion, and it prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.

By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies that the State Committee on Religion, under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding.

The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time. This provision of the law does not include VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.

Religious communities must take claims for restitution of and compensation for property confiscated by the communist government to court, as must all other claimants.

The law allows religious communities to operate educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.

Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits instruction in the tenets of a specific religion. The law allows the teaching of the history of religion or comparative religions as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 113 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, and VUSH communities operated numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The AMC runs four madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.

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

Government Practices

The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built after the fall of communism in the early 1990s. The newly established State Agency of the Cadaster – the official register showing quantity, value, and ownership of real estate – reported that during the year, it legalized 92 religious buildings, including 22 Catholic churches and other buildings of the Catholic church, 58 mosques and other buildings of the Muslim community, four Orthodox churches, and seven tekkes. Thirty-two other buildings remained under review. There were some discrepancies between the figures reported by the Cadaster and those of the religious communities. The AMC reported it obtained legalization papers for 27 mosques out of 353 applications remaining. The Orthodox Church reported the Cadaster legalized four of 15 buildings during the year for which the Church had petitioned. The AMC reported it received 1.26 million leks ($12,600) in compensation for unlawful buildings constructed on its property.

Religious communities expressed concern over the Cadaster, stating the bureaucratic process for legalizing property produced delays, including numerous requests for documents and statements from the Cadaster that it could not locate files.

The AMC again expressed concern that the Cadaster gave it title only to buildings and not to the land on which they were built.

In 2019, the Agency for the Treatment of Property, which adjudicated claims for restitution for property confiscated by the communist government, ceded jurisdiction on outstanding cases to the court system, as required by law. At that time, 401 cases related to religious communities were pending. The shift in jurisdiction required petitioners, including religious communities, to pursue their claims in court. The AMC, the Bektashi community, and the Orthodox Church continued to express concerns about court proceedings, which required them to begin their claims again in a new forum.

According to numerous civil society and other sources, corruption, lack of knowledge of competencies and jurisdiction over property cases, and large caseloads in the court system hampered religious communities’ ability to advance claims to their property. Thousands of cases were with the Supreme Court, which was replenishing its quorum with judges who passed a comprehensive vetting process; lacking a quorum, the Supreme Court was unable to decide cases. The Orthodox Church reported it had outstanding claims on 890 properties. The AMC reported that since 2016, it had submitted approximately 500 applications dealing with approximately 23,000 hectares (57,000 acres) of property and was pursuing 15 legal cases. The AMC reported there were four judgments in its favor providing compensation that had not yet been paid. The Catholic Church reported four cases, two of which had not yet had a first hearing.

The AMC reported the Municipality of Tirana rejected a permit to build a main campus building for Beder University, for which it had applied in early 2018 to save funds spent on renting the university’s current facilities. The municipality concluded the construction would block the view of oncoming traffic.

The Bektashi community stated the State Advocate, which represents the government in court, unfairly challenged title to property in Ksamil. The claim for the Ksamil property has been in the court system since 2015.

VUSH reported it asked the government in March 2017 for land to build a main church similar to the main cathedrals and mosques of other faith communities, but the government had not responded by year’s end.

VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering the property of one of its churches with the local registration office in Korca. VUSH also stated the Tirana municipal government unlawfully issued a permit for construction of residential and commercial buildings on VUSH land but did not issue permission to VUSH to build on its own land. VUSH also reported one of its churches in Tirana that was damaged by the 2019 earthquake would be demolished. The local government informed the church it would not be able to occupy space in the new building because the government could not subsidize churches.

Leaders of the five main religious groups continued to express concern over a pilot project curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students, which was introduced in 2016 but put on hold. The groups stated they did not participate in the drafting and were never informed about the results of the piloting stage or post-pilot plans for the project. State authorities explained that religious communities would be able to provide input before the project resumes.

The State Committee on Religion and the AMC expressed concern the government continued not to recognize diplomas in theology and religious studies received from foreign institutions.

The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support was 109 million leks ($1.09 million), a sum that has not changed since 2015. The Sunni Muslim community received approximately 32 million leks ($319,000), while the remaining three communities each continued to receive approximately 26 million leks ($259,000). The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community used part of the funds to pay part of the wages of its staff. It used the rest to build the Grand Tekke of Elbasan and for raising awareness of the Bektashi community overseas.

VUSH reported it had not obtained a formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, although in 2018, the State Committee on Religion had provided a written commitment to advocate for extending financial support to VUSH.

Religious communities faced financial problems during the year due to COVID-19 containment measures, which they urged members of their communities to follow. They reported the government did not respond to individual or collective requests through the Interreligious Council regarding additional financial support during the lockdown, which lasted from March 11 to June 11.

The Council of Ministers did not finish adopting regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion. The Orthodox Church raised its concerns over the missing regulations, particularly in the south of the country, home to many members of the Orthodox faith.

A State Committee on Religion census of religious organizations conducted in 2017 and updated continuously thereafter counted 195 organizations, 174 of which were evangelical organizations. The AMC has one organization, the Orthodox Church has four, and the Catholic Church has 16. The government postponed the 2020 population census to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Religious communities said the government consulted them in the initial phase of drafting census legislation but not during the final stages of refining the law. They expressed concern that this would reduce their groups’ reported numerical strength within the country, with a corresponding reduction in representation and government support.

As the Chairperson-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2020, Prime Minister Edi Rama hosted a conference on combating anti-Semitism on February 4-5 in Tirana. On October 28, parliament held an online forum on combating anti-Semitism. Prior to the forum, parliament unanimously adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to financial constraints, including a drop in donations as a result of the closure of religious services during the pandemic, the AMC closed two madrassahs.

Religious leaders expressed support for the government’s COVID-19 preventive measures. In March, when the government implemented a lockdown, religious communities cancelled gatherings, including religious services, for two months. The Interreligious Council held several online and in person meetings domestically and internationally.

On November 5, the AMC launched the fourth version of a project to promote critical thinking in young people and discuss the relationships between democracy, faith, and society. The project focused on communities that had sent individuals to fight in Syria.

The Interreligious Council provided books and other donations to children living in areas affected by the 2019 earthquake.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with the State Committee on Religion, embassy officers continued to urge the government to accelerate its handling of religious property claims and to restore to religious groups their property confiscated during the communist era.

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed embassy-sponsored programs focused on developing community inclusivity, promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities, and emphasizing the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy, however, continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the appeal of violent extremism. As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values. Another embassy program focusing on schools as community centers expanded into six additional communities, promoting tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement bodies. The success of the program’s two pilot locations led to its expansion into the six additional ones.

On November 5, the AMC launched another round of an embassy-sponsored project to develop critical thinking skills among young people and to encourage them to think about the relationship between democracy, society, and faith.

Armenia

Executive Summary

The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. The law prohibits, but does not define, proselytism, which may be interpreted as forced conversion. The trial continued of a prominent Baha’i lawyer, charged in 2017 with organizing illegal migration to the country. Baha’i community members said they believed the charges were brought because of his religion. On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled as unconstitutional the blanket restriction on religious membership among law enforcement in the Law on Police Service. Following the ruling, a police officer dismissed in 2018 for his religious affiliation was reinstated in his position. Societal debate continued concerning government plans to review the public school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, which was in progress at the end of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the hostilities, the government declared martial law, under which restrictions were imposed on freedoms of expression, assembly, and movement. Most of the restrictions were lifted December 2. In the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists, numerous incidents of neglect, destruction, and desecration of religious sites were reported. The Azerbaijani government stated 63 of the 67 mosques in these territories had been destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. Some mosques were reportedly used to house livestock, including pigs. International journalists visiting these territories following the fall fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.

Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media, although many reported a decrease in negative commentaries in mid-November after the end of intensive fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to observers, anti-Semitism increased in the country after Israeli-supplied weapons were used by Azerbaijan during the conflict. The Holocaust and Genocide Memorial – a memorial in downtown Yerevan marking the Holocaust and mass killing of more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey – was vandalized on two occasions under unknown circumstances. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were no instances of verbal harassment towards the group’s members during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year. Sources stated that societal and family pressure remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than the Armenian Apostolic faith.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual members of the Muslim community, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials engaged government officials and civil society representatives to discuss the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Apostolic. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics; Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics; Orthodox Christians; and evangelical Christians, including Armenian Evangelical Church adherents, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also followers of the Church of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East; Molokan Christians; Yezidis; Jews; Baha’is; Shia Muslims; Sunni Muslims; and pagans, who are adherents to a pre-Christian faith. According to an International Republican Institute (IRI) poll released in December 2019, 97 percent of the country’s population identifies as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent other, and 1 percent none. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 to 1,000 Jews in the country.

According to the country’s 2011 census, there are more than 35,000 Yezidis, with some more recent estimates suggesting approximately 50,000. Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats. Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes the “exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church” as the national church in the “spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to incite religious hatred.

The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion. The law prohibits religious organizations with spiritual centers located outside the country from receiving funding from those foreign centers, but there is no mechanism to enforce the law. The law also prohibits religious organizations from funding or being funded by political parties.

The law does not categorize or regulate the residence status of foreign religious volunteers.

By law, a registered religious group may minister to the religious and spiritual needs of its faithful; perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; establish groups for religious instruction; engage in theological, religious, historical, and cultural studies; train members for the clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; use media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must do so to conduct business in their own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, and establish bank accounts). The law does not stipulate rights accorded to unregistered groups.

To register as a legal entity, a religious community must present to the Office of the State Registrar an assessment from the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities stating its expert opinion whether the community complies with the requirements of the law that it be based on “historically recognized holy scripture.” It also must be “free from materialism and [be] of a spiritual nature,” have at least 200 adult members, and follow a doctrine espoused by a member of the “international modern system” of religious communities. The law does not define “free from materialism” or state which religious communities are part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities, including Assyrians, Kurds, Russians, and Yezidis, among others. A religious community may appeal a decision by the Office of the State Registrar through the courts.

The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($390) to detention for up to two months.

The Office of the Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) has a mandate to address violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of state and local governments.

The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice. A joint Ministry of Defense-AAC agreement allows only AAC clergy to serve as military chaplains.

The law allows the AAC free access and the right to station representatives in hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only with permission from the head of the institution. The law also stipulates the state will not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.

The law mandates public education be secular and states, “Religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited,” with the exception of cases provided for by law. While adding a course in the history of the Armenian Church (HAC) in a public or private school is optional, once a school chooses to do so, the course becomes mandatory for all students in grades five to 11; there is no opt-out provision for students or their parents.

The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for the HAC course and to define the qualifications of the teachers. While the Church may nominate candidates to teach the course, HAC teachers are state employees. The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities but not within the premises of state educational institutions.

The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on the religious views of employees. Changes to the labor code, adopted by the National Assembly on June 2, authorize up to four days of unpaid leave for observing national and religious holidays or remembrance days, regardless of religious affiliation.

The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service: alternative (noncombat) military service for 30 months or alternative labor service for 36 months. Evasion of alternative service is a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months detention to eight years imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the case.

The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred calling for violence through public statements, mass media, or using one’s public position and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($390 to $970) to prison terms of between three and six years.

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

Government Practices

During the year, Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the Baha’i community, continued to face 2017 charges of facilitating illegal migration to the country by advising Iranians wishing to settle in the country. He was held in pretrial detention for eight months before the trial court judge released him on bail in 2018. On July 17, the Court of Appeals rejected two of the 2019 appeals filed by the Baha’i community against the NSS in connection with concerns over surveillance of Baha’i community members preceding Manasyan’s arrest. The Baha’i appeal stated the NSS illegally used wiretaps to surveil the community’s office as well as the community secretary and used the information gathered as the basis to charge Manasyan. The community’s appeal of these decisions with the Court of Cassation remained pending by year’s end. At year’s end, Manasyan’s trial was also ongoing.

According to sources, throughout the year, Narek Malyan, the founder of the initiative Veto, and his supporters continued to harass the Yezidi Center for Human Rights and its founder, Sashik Sultanyan, as part of their broader online campaign of harassment of Open Society Foundations-Armenia, a donor organization of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights. On September 8, Malyan stated he applied to the NSS to launch a criminal case against Sultanyan, accusing him of inciting national religious enmity, based on an interview Sultanyan gave to an Iraqi-based media outlet in which he discussed the issues faced by the Yezidi community in the country. The NSS launched a criminal case based on what civil society organizations called a fake and baseless accusation. While authorities did not charge Sultanyan as a defendant in the case, according to civil society, at year’s end, the NSS continued to investigate him and the Yezidi Center for Human Rights, hindering the organization’s activities and harassing those affiliated with the NGO.

Most public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11.

Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” While schools with an all-Yezidi student body were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended schools with a mixed student body were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections. There were anecdotal reports again stating that at least one public school in Yerevan and two public schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.

Several non-AAC religious groups again said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and making the signs of the cross that reportedly occurred during the classes, and they said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. One Christian group stated that while religious education was important, it should include “all religions that are traditional to Armenia.”

NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC continued to publicly voice concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity.

In June, the government’s announced plans to remove HAC courses from the mandatory school curriculum, generating public debate. While many individuals, including parents, teachers, and AAC clergy, said the course helped to develop a value system based on Armenian identity, others said schools should remain secular and moral values could be developed outside the HAC course. At year’s end, sources stated that a major rethinking of the entire school curriculum by the government remained in process.

The NGO Eurasia Partnership Foundation again stated its concerns about the existing HAC course and how its content affected the rights of religious minority groups. The foundation also welcomed the efforts of the Ministry of Education to develop new criteria for public school curriculums, stating that many of the foundation’s suggestions to address existing concerns were taken into consideration in the drafting process.

Although official figures for the 2020-2021 school year were not available, during the 2019-2020 school year, 74 schools included an optional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four.

The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.

According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, to satisfy the spiritual needs of detainees and convicts, AAC clergymen regularly visited penitentiaries, organized baptisms, offered liturgies, and celebrated holidays. The state of emergency announced on March 16 due to COVID-19 prohibited the “organization of religious rites and participating therein,” ending clergy visits to penitentiaries until the quarantine was lifted in September and penitentiaries started providing limited religious services that adhered to strict protection measures.

On February 11, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2019 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of a teacher in Yelpin Village in Vayots Dzor Region against her school administration. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the teacher became a subject of discrimination based on her religion when her instruction hours were reduced after parents of students accused the teacher of belonging to a “sect” because she was a member of an evangelical Christian church. The center requested rescission of the 2017 decision reducing her classes, restoration of the number of classes she taught, payment of back wages, and acknowledgement of the fact she was subjected to discrimination on religious grounds. According to the court ruling, the teacher was reinstated to her former position and paid back wages, but the court denied that discrimination had taken place.

On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled that the article of the Law on Police Service that contained a blanket restriction on membership in a religious organization was unconstitutional. In the ruling, the Constitutional Court also stated that membership in religious organizations – as a form of freedom of expression and a way to exercise the right of freedom of association – is a right that may not be denied regardless of service in any militarized body, including police.

On June 4, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2018 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of police officer Edgar Karapetyan, who was dismissed from his position on the grounds he was attending an evangelical Christian church and, according to police, was a member of a religious organization, although it was not customary for religious groups to maintain membership records. Karapetyan was reinstated in his position and paid back wages.

Although there was no mechanism for enforcing the legal provision prohibiting funding of religious organizations by spiritual centers located outside the country, several religious organizations said they adhered to the ban and restricted their operations because they did not want to violate the law.

Beginning in August, some foreign citizen volunteers at local churches were denied requests to renew their residence permits as authorities applied a new interpretation of related laws and procedures. Government officials said churches could start paying their volunteers and apply for work papers or the volunteers could leave the country and return, allowing them to remain in the country for an additional 180 days. The provision affected some churches that decided to limit their volunteers’ service to 180 days.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said that the group halted construction of churches due to COVID-19 and therefore did not face difficulties building places of worship, unlike previous years. They largely suspended construction during the COVID-19 pandemic, although some minor renovations were completed. At year’s end, one case dating from 2016 was pending before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Armenian Missionary Association of America continued its construction projects without interference and was planning additional construction the following spring.

At year’s end, 127 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program, compared with 129 in 2019. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals, local utility companies, park maintenance services, boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. During the fall conflict, the government allowed men in the alternative civilian service program to continue in that program. Additionally, in nearly all cases, Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served in the military prior to their conversion and were called up for service during the conflict were released from service after stating that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses or providing relevant documentation. According to government sources, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only individuals participating in these programs, and none chose to serve in the alternative military service (military service that does not involve combat duty or the carrying, keeping, maintaining, or using of arms). Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the Armenia-supported de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities allowed them to worship in the region without hindrance but denied them registration as a religious group, as well as the right to conscientious objection to military service. They also reported all Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Nagorno-Karabakh evacuated to Armenia, and none were forced to serve in the military.

According to AAC spokesperson Vahram Melikyan, following its formation, the working group on government-AAC relations held ongoing meetings to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the spiritual health of the country’s citizens.

The government’s National Security Strategy, adopted in July, recognized the importance of the Armenian Catholic Church, Armenian Evangelical Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, and Christianity in the formation of national values. The strategy recognized respect and tolerance toward other peoples, nations, and religions as a national value. It emphasized the important role played by the three churches within the context of Armenia-diaspora relations and the government’s commitment to fully protecting the rights and freedoms of every person residing in the country. The strategy also stressed the importance of fully integrating ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups into every area of public life and the system of state governance. The strategy also stated the country’s commitment to protecting the right to life of ethnic, religious, and racial groups and their members as well as the prevention of genocide.

During 44 days of intensive fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.

The Azerbaijani government reported 63 of the 67 mosques in the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists were completely destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. There were also reports of desecration of Muslim religious sites. Videos circulated on social media showed pigs in a mosque in Zangilan with defaced interior religious calligraphy; livestock in the Juma Mosque in Aghdam; and pigs in a mosque in Mamar, in the region of Qubadli. Armenian observers said the videos were staged or stated livestock entered the mosques of their own accord. International journalists visiting the territories following the intensive fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.

After Azerbaijan reestablished control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani government accused the Armenia-supported de facto authorities who previously controlled the territory of seeking to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Azerbaijani heritage. For example, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities in Shusha renovated the Yukhari Govhar Aga Mosque with Iranian funding and labeled it a “Persian mosque.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh contributed to a rise in anti-Semitism, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers who largely attributed this to the Azerbaijani use of Israeli-produced weapons. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were again posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. The use of offensive slurs was particularly prevalent in posts on Facebook by anonymous antigovernment individuals targeting the Jewish leader of an international foundation. During the intensive fall fighting, the number of anti-Semitic posts increased, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers. Members of the Jewish community also reported anti-Semitic comments directed at them on public transport. The Hebrew and Armenian sides of Yerevan’s Holocaust and Genocide Memorial were defaced on two occasions, first on October 14 with paint, and again on October 22, when a fire was lit with wood around the bronze monument, resulting in discoloration and damage. Members of the Jewish community repaired the damage.

Other religious groups reported incidents of harassment during the year. A religious volunteer reported a car with a passenger drove up next to him when he was returning to his residence in Artashat, showing him what appeared to be a weapon through the window. On several occasions, persons walking past religious volunteers in Gyumri reportedly slapped them. The volunteers did not report the incidents to police.

The NSS continued its 2018 criminal case, on charges of incitement of religious hatred, against the creators of a 2018 Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party. The case remained pending at year’s end.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, unlike previous years, there were no incidents of verbal harassment toward the group’s members publicly manifesting their religious beliefs during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year.

One Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, served all Islamic groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and political party representatives. Embassy officials engaged government officials from the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport and the Office of the Human Rights Defender to discuss the impact of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants; Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Church of Jesus Christ; Yezidis; the Jewish community; Apostolic Assyrians; Pentecostals; and Baha’is, as well as individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. On several occasions, the Ambassador publicly underscored the importance of fostering an inclusive society in which a diversity of viewpoints and beliefs is welcomed and encouraged. Embassy officials also discussed religious freedom with civil society, including addressing religious discrimination faced by minority religious groups and the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites that were significant to Armenian communities.

Austria

Executive Summary

Historical and modern constitutional documents provide for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and prohibit religious discrimination. The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against religious groups and classifies registered religious groups into one of three categories: religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. The 16 groups recognized as religious societies receive the most benefits. Unrecognized groups may practice their religion privately if the practice is lawful and does not offend “common decency.” In December, the government recognized Sikhs as a confessional community. On December 11, the Constitutional Court struck down the ban on headscarves for children in elementary schools, stating it was discriminatory for singling out Muslim students. The Church of Scientology and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) said that government-funded organizations continued to advise the public against associating with them. After a mass shooting in Vienna in November by a gunman described as an ISIS supporter, the government presented draft legislation introducing a new criminal code provision on “religiously motivated extremism” that would expand government monitoring of Muslim groups in the country. The Islamic Religious Authority of Austria (IGGO) criticized the establishment of a new office in the Federal Chancellery with the stated aim of combating political Islam and Muslim extremism. In October, the government said it would strip 40 percent of Turkish/Islamic associations of their charity status because of tax violations. In February, parliament unanimously adopted a resolution condemning any form of anti-Semitism and calling on the government to condemn and end any support for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel. In August, the government, in cooperation with the Jewish Community of Vienna (IKG), announced measures to combat anti-Semitism among immigrants and refugees. The opposition Freedom Party (FPOe) continued to use anti-Muslim rhetoric and imagery, particularly during campaigning for Vienna municipal/provincial elections in October.

According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 13 anti-Semitic and six anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in the first half of 2020. For all of 2019, the ministry cited 30 anti-Semitic and six anti-Muslim incidents, compared with 49 and 22 incidents, respectively, in the previous year. Most incidents involved hate speech. For 2019, IGGO cited 1,051 anti-Muslim incidents and the IKG reported 550 anti-Semitic incidents. Government figures, unlike those from the IKG and IGGO, only included incidents in which authorities filed criminal charges. In August, a Syrian man living in the country attempted to assault Graz Jewish Community leader Elie Rosen with a baseball bat and vandalized the Graz synagogue. Rosen escaped uninjured, and police arrested the suspect, who was awaiting trial at year’s end. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and other senior government and political figures and religious representatives condemned the assault and vandalism. As a result of the incident, the government provided additional security protection for the Graz Jewish Community. In March, also in Graz, youths assaulted a Jewish teen, shouting “Are you a Jew?” at him and injuring his face.

U.S. embassy representatives met with officials from the Federal Chancellery and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior on religious freedom, the protection of religious minorities, and measures to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment. In August, the Secretary of State, accompanied by the Ambassador and the head of the IKG and the country’s senior Roman Catholic prelate, laid a wreath at the Vienna Holocaust Memorial. The Ambassador met with leaders from the IGGO, IKG, Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and various Orthodox churches to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination and interreligious dialogue, and the impact on their respective communities of the COVID-19 crisis. The embassy continued its engagement with the Muslim Youth Organization of Austria to promote religious dialogue and tolerance, particularly with a training program that covered how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can counter violent extremism and promote religious tolerance online. Embassy officials continued to serve on the advisory board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency, a governmental agency that promotes Holocaust remembrance. Embassy representatives spoke on religious freedom at public ceremonies and supported programs to combat anti-Semitism and promote religious dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to religious groups and December 2019 figures from the government’s Austrian Integration Fund, Roman Catholics constitute 56 percent of the population, and Muslims – predominantly Sunni – 8 percent, while approximately 25 percent is unaffiliated with any religion. According to estimates from the fund and religious groups, Eastern Orthodox churches (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian, and Bulgarian) constitute 5 percent of the population, and Protestants (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions) 3.2 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and other Christian and non-Christian religious groups.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law provides for freedom of religious belief and the rights of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from association with any religious community. It stipulates, “Duties incumbent on nationals may not be impeded by religious affiliation.”

Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, and treaties and conventions, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which form part of the constitution. Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.

The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement is perceivable by “many people,” which an official government commentary on the law and the courts interpret as 30 or more individuals. The prohibition also applies specifically in the case of incitement in print, electronic, or other media available to a broad public. The law also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against religious groups, if such action violates human dignity.

The law divides registered religious groups into three officially recognized legal categories (listed in descending order of rights and privileges): religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category possesses specific rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities. Members of religious groups not legally recognized may practice their religion at home “insofar as this practice is neither unlawful nor offends common decency.”

There are 16 recognized religious societies: the Roman Catholic Church; Protestant churches (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); the IGGO; Old Catholic Church; IKG; Eastern Orthodox Church (Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and Antiochian); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; New Apostolic Church; Syrian Orthodox Church; Coptic Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Methodist Church of Austria; the Buddhist Community; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Alevi Community in Austria; and Free Christian Churches.

The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs; to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members; to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers; and to provide pastoral services in prisons and hospitals. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities, such as government-funded religious instruction in both public and private schools, which the government denies to confessional communities and associations. The government grants all recognized religious societies tax relief in two main ways: donors do not pay taxes on donations and the societies receive exemption from property tax for all buildings dedicated to the active practice of religion or administration of such. Additionally, religious societies are exempt from a surveillance charge, otherwise payable when the state provides security to religious groups, and a municipal administrative fee for garbage collection and other municipal services. Responsibilities of religious societies include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural activities that serve the common good and – like all religious groups – to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards, which the law does not define.

Religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status for the first time must apply for recognition with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. Religious groups recognized as societies prior to 1998 retained their status. The government grandfathered in 14 of the 16 recognized religious societies under this provision of the law. To gain recognition as a religious society, religious groups not recognized prior to 1998 must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 17,700 persons) and have existed for 20 years, at least 10 of which must have been as an association and five as a confessional community. The government recognizes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Alevi Muslims as religious societies under these post-1998 criteria. Groups that do not meet these criteria may still apply for religious society status under an exception for groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active as an association in the country for 10 years. Groups sharing a broad faith with an existing society or confessional community, for example Christianity, may register separately as long as they can demonstrate that they have a different theology.

The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. The government recognizes 10 confessional communities: the Baha’i Faith, Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians, Pentecostal Community of God, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindu Community, Islamic-Shiite Community, Old-Alevi Community in Austria, Unification Church, United Pentecostal Community of Austria, and Sikhs.

A recognized confessional community has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services, but it is not eligible for the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. Contributions to confessional communities’ charitable activities are tax deductible for those who make them and tax free for the groups receiving them, but the communities are not exempt from property taxes. Confessional communities may provide pastoral care in prisons and hospitals.

To gain government recognition as a confessional community, a group must have at least 300 members and submit to the Office for Religious Affairs its statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members as well as membership regulations, a list of officials, and financing information. A group must also submit a written description of its religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The Office for Religious Affairs determines whether the group’s basic beliefs are consistent with public security, order, health, and morals and with the rights and freedoms of citizens. A religious group seeking to obtain confessional community status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the chancellery. After this period, groups that have applied automatically receive the status unless the government issues a decree rejecting the application.

Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations, a status applicable to a broad range of civil groups. Some groups organize as associations while waiting for the government to recognize them as confessional communities.

The Church of Scientology and a number of smaller religious groups, such as Sahaja Yoga and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, have association status.

According to the law, any group of more than two persons pursuing a nonprofit goal qualifies to organize as an association. Groups may apply to the Ministry of Interior to gain such status. To become an association, a group must submit a written statement citing its common, nonprofit goal and commitment to function as a nonprofit organization. Associations have juridical standing, the right to function in public, and many of the same rights as confessional communities, including the right to own real estate and to contract for goods and services. Associations may not offer pastoral care in hospitals or prisons or receive tax-deductible contributions.

Pursuant to the law governing relations between the government and the Roman Catholic Church, the Church is the only religious group to receive government funding for pastoral care it provides in prisons. The law also makes various Catholic holidays official national holidays.

The law governing relations between the government and the IGGO and Alevi Muslim groups stipulates that funding for the day-to-day operations of mosques must be derived from domestic sources, Islamic teachings and practices must not violate federal law (compliance with which is determined by the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery), and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. According to the Office for Religious Affairs, there are similar restrictions on foreign funding for other religious groups, and religious groups generally are obliged to finance themselves from domestic sources and not violate federal law. The law provides an explicit legal definition of, and legal protection for, Islamic practices, such as circumcision and preparation of food in conformity with religious rules, and states Muslims may raise children and youth in accordance with Islamic traditions. Muslim groups with at least 300 members and a theology not distinct from a pre-existing Islamic religious society or confessional community are considered cultural communities and fall under the umbrella of the pre-existing, legally recognized Islamic religious society or confessional community. This includes the IGGO and the Alevi Community in Austria, which are both religious societies, or the Islamic-Shiite Community and the Old-Alevi Faith Community in Austria, both of which have confessional community status. The law allows for Islamic theological university studies, which the University of Vienna offers.

Separate laws govern relations between the government and each of the other 14 state-recognized religious societies. The laws have similar intent but vary in some details, since they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years. As with the Muslim community, a law provides explicit protections for Jewish religious practices, including circumcision and ritual slaughter.

The law bans full-face coverings in public places as a “violation of Austrian values,” with exceptions made only for artistic, cultural, or traditional events, in sports, or for health or professional reasons. Failure to comply with the law is an administrative violation. The law prescribes a 150-euro ($180) fine but does not entitle police to remove the face covering.

Until a Constitutional Court ruling in December struck it down, the law banned headscarves and other head coverings for children in elementary schools. The ban exempted kippahs and Sikh patkas. Prior to the Constitutional Court ruling, in some federal states, parents of children in violation of the ban were subject to fines of up to 440 euros ($540).

The government funds, on a proportional basis, religious instruction for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies by clergy or instructors provided by those groups for children in public schools and government-accredited private schools. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in the respective religion classes is mandatory for all students who are members of those religious groups unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students younger than age 14 require parental permission to withdraw from religion classes. Religious instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups as comparative religious education.

The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory antibias and tolerance education, including religious tolerance, as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German-language instruction.

Holocaust education is part of history instruction and is also treated in other courses such as civics.

The Equal Rights Agency, an independent agency falling under the jurisdiction of the Federal Chancellery Minister for Women and Integration, oversees discrimination cases, including those based on religion. The agency provides legal counseling and mediation services, and it assists with bringing cases before the Equal Treatment Commission, another independent government agency. In cases where it finds discrimination, the commission makes a recommendation for corrective action. In a case of noncompliance with the recommendation, the case goes to court. The commission may issue expert reports for plaintiffs to present before the court. Only a court may order corrective action and compensation.

The law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification “of the National Socialist genocide” or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.

In August, a 2019 amendment of the Citizenship Act that extends citizenship to descendants of Austrian victims of Nazi crimes entered into force. Direct descendants, such as children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren of victims, may obtain citizenship by reporting to Austrian consulates. Dual citizenship is also possible.

The law bans certain symbols the government considers extremist, including those pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and the Croatian Ustasha.

The government requires a visa for visitors from non-visa waiver countries or individuals who would stay beyond 90 days, including religious workers of confessional communities or associations. Foreign religious workers of groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment or family based and is subject to a quota. Foreign religious workers belonging to religious societies also require immigrant visas but are exempt from the quota system. Religious workers from Schengen or EU-member countries are exempt from all visa requirements.

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

Government Practices

In December, the government granted Sikhs status as a confessional community, after they had applied for the status in 2019.

On December 11, the Constitutional Court ruled that the ban on headscarves introduced in 2019 for children in elementary school was unconstitutional because it singled out Muslim students. Judge Christoph Grabenwarter told the Catholic News Agency that the ban carried the risk of “hindering Muslim girls’ access to education and more precisely of shutting them off from society.” The ruling was based on complaints that two Muslim families, supported by the IGGO, filed in January. The complaints stated the ban interfered with religious freedom and the right to raise children in a religious manner and called for lifting the ban. After the ruling in December, the government abandoned a proposal, first made in January, to expand the ban to middle school students up to age 14, and possibly to teachers.

Scientologists continued to state the Federal Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities. The office offered advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults,” including Scientologists and members of the Unification Church. A scientologist representative stated that the office provided biased information against the Church of Scientology when counseling its clients by not including sufficient input on how Scientologists view themselves. The office was nominally independent but government-funded, and the Minister of Labor, Family, and Youth appointed and oversaw its head.

A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society Against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO that described itself as an organization working against harm caused by “destructive cults” such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to schools and the general public and provide counseling for former members of such groups. According to the website of the society’s founder, Friedrich Griess, the society received funding from the government of Lower Austria. All provinces funded family and youth counseling offices that provided information on “sects and cults,” which members of some minority religious groups, such as Scientologists or the Unification Church, stated were biased against them.

On November 2, Kujtim Fejzullai, a man described as an ISIS supporter, shot and killed four persons and injured 22. Police killed the gunman. Chancellor Kurz called the incident “clearly an Islamist terror attack,” and said, “We will create a ‘criminal offense’ called political Islam … to take action against those who are not terrorists themselves, but who create the breeding ground for them.”

On December 16, the government presented draft legislation to parliament that would introduce a new statutory offense banning “religiously motivated extremism.” The legislation would also oblige the IGGO to present registries of all its mosques and imams to the government and speeds up processes enabling the government to close down radical mosques. It would also raise fines for Muslim organizations failing to provide information on their accounts and more strictly monitor how Muslim organizations are financed. Interior Minister Karl Nehammer called the legislation a “strong signal against extremism.” On December 18, the government sent the draft legislation for a six-week review to stakeholders and legal experts.

In the aftermath of the November attack, the government and the IGGO agreed to close the Tewhid Mosque, registered with the IGGO, which Fejzullai attended. According to a government spokesperson, the Tewhid Mosque lacked “a positive attitude toward Austrian society and the state” as required by the law governing relations between the government and Muslim groups. The government also closed an unregistered facility, the Melit Ibrahim Association, used as a mosque and also attended by Fejzullai and other persons previously convicted on terrorism charges.

In a separate police action in November, authorities raided homes, businesses, and associations that they said were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Hamas, arresting 30 individuals. The Office of the Public Prosecutor stated the raids were preceded by “extensive and intensive investigations lasting more than a year” and had “no connection with the terrorist attack in Vienna on November 2.” Individuals detained in the raids, who were reportedly questioned and released, told media the raids were “mere guesswork by the police” and that there was no evidence of terrorist financing.

In July, Integration Minister Susanne Raab established a new office in the Federal Chancellery with the stated aim of combating political Islam and documenting religiously motivated Islamic extremism, including scientific research on the structures of various Muslim organizations. Raab stated the new office was not directed against Islam itself, but only against the “extremist ideology of political Islam.” IGGO President Uemit Vural criticized the government for not including the IGGO in the planning of the office and called for expanding the office’s mandate to include all forms of religiously motivated extremism and racism. Vural also said establishment of the office demonstrated the government’s “hostile attitude” toward Muslims in the country.

At year’s end, the government had not closed the Vienna-based, Saudi Arabia-funded King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. In 2019, the foreign ministry announced it would close the center, consistent with a nonbinding parliamentary resolution calling on it to do so because of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

In October, revenue authorities reported investigating 211 Turkish/Islamic associations in the country since 2019 and finding a large number of instances of tax evasion. Revenue authorities stated they would strip 40 percent of these associations of their charity status, since they abused that status to conduct business activities. The Turkish Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation (ATIB) and the Islamic Federation, an organization affiliated with the Turkish Islamic group Milli Gorus, criticized the announcement.

According to media, the Federal Office for Foreigner Affairs and Asylum (BFA) continued to refuse to issue or renew residence permits for foreign imams financed by foreign sources. The BFA rejected the permits and renewals on the grounds that, since the law forbids foreign funding of religious groups, it considered that imams receiving foreign funding had no income and were therefore ineligible for a residence permit. ATIB reported in April that, because of the ban on foreign financing, it had no imams in half of its 65 mosques. There were no reports that other religious groups faced similar problems in obtaining residence permits for their foreign clerics, although the government stated the restrictions on foreign funding applied to all religious groups.

In September, Federal Chancellery Minister for the EU and Constitution Karoline Edtstadler announced the government was developing a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism and would establish a new office in the Federal Chancellery to coordinate measures by all ministries to implement the new strategy. At year’s end, the government had not yet announced the strategy or established the office.

In a resolution adopted unanimously in February, parliament called upon the government to condemn and end any support for the BDS movement against Israel. The resolution stated that parliament condemned any form of anti-Semitism, including Israel-related anti-Semitism. IKG President Oskar Deutsch said he welcomed parliament’s initiative to counter anti-Semitism “veiled as criticism of Israel.”

Jewish leaders condemned the FPOe’s appointment of Johannes Huebner to the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, due to an anti-Semitic comment he made at a 2016 political rally in Germany. Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress, said, “It is unconscionable that a renowned anti-Semite would be given such a respectable position,” while IKG President Oskar Deutsch commented, “The political return of Mr. Huebner is a confirmation of the lack of credibility of the Freedom Party.”

In December, parliament passed a law on hate speech, effective January 1, 2021, requiring online platforms to identify and delete posts considered to be hateful or defamatory. The platforms may be sued in court for failing to remove posts that plaintiffs allege are hateful or defamatory. The legislation received widespread support from civil society groups, including Amnesty International and the Association for Civil Courage and Anti-Racism. National media reported the legislation was partly motivated by an increase in online hate speech and government advocacy for better protection of victims, including by Justice Minister Alma Zadic (Green Party), who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and had been a target of online hate speech during the year.

Following the assault against a Jewish leader in the Styrian capital Graz in August, police provided additional protection to the Graz Jewish community. Police also continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions, such as schools and museums throughout the country, to combat historically higher numbers of incidents directed at Jewish institutions. In addition, Integration Minister Raab announced special measures to combat anti-Semitism among immigrants and refugees, in cooperation with the IKG. These included special courses on anti-Semitism for refugees in the context of mandatory integration classes and expanding a program for Jewish youth to visit schools to talk about Judaism.

The governing coalition agreement between the People’s Party (OeVP) and Green Party, presented in January, stated the government was committed to fighting anti-Semitism and that the country would not support any initiatives or resolutions in international organizations that ran counter to its commitment to the state of Israel.

Following the IKG’s presentation of its annual report on anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, Chancellor Kurz stated in May that the country must be “even more united and determined in fighting any form of anti-Semitic tendencies.”

The international NGO Anti-Defamation League continued to conduct teacher-training seminars on Holocaust awareness with schools in the country, reaching approximately 100 teachers. School councils and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Research again invited Holocaust survivors to talk to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.

In October, the government announced it would provide 200,000 euros ($245,000) for the maintenance and restoration of the historic Waehring Jewish cemetery in Vienna over the next three years. Chancellor Kurz had promised aid for the cemetery in 2018. IKG President Deutsch welcomed the support. President Alexander Van der Bellen also visited the cemetery in September with Deutsch and stated it was “Austria’s duty to maintain the cemetery.”

In a video message from Jerusalem ahead of the World Holocaust Forum in January, President Van der Bellen deplored the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and pledged continued engagement to fight it: “Racism, anti-Semitism, human degradation must never again become political instruments.” While many Holocaust victims were Austrians – predominantly Jews – Austrians were also perpetrators, Van der Bellen stated.

Following slogans on FPOe posters for the Vienna municipal election in October that equated traditionally dressed Muslims with radical, violent Islamism, the Association of Social Democrat Academics filed incitement charges against the FPOe in Vienna with the Vienna Prosecutor’s Office. The association stated that the posters violated human dignity and religious freedom. The case was pending at year’s end.

In September, the Vienna public prosecutor requested lifting the immunity of FPOe Third Parliamentary President Norbert Hofer after Hofer stated at a June party rally that the Quran was more dangerous than COVID-19. The IGGO filed charges against Hofer of denouncement of religious teachings and incitement. In October, the case was dismissed after the parliamentary immunity committee decided against lifting Hofer’s immunity, stating he made the statement in the context of his political activity.

Following clashes in Vienna between Turkish nationalists and Kurdish groups in July, FPOe Secretary General Michael Schnedlitz said he considered his party “a weed killer against unlimited immigration.” Three parliamentary parties – the Social Democrats (SPOe), Greens, and NEOS – condemned the language as “Nazi rhetoric” and called for Schnedlitz’s resignation. Vienna FPOe Chairman Dominik Nepp stated Schnedlitz had been misunderstood and that he had not equated immigrants with weeds.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in refugee shelters in Vienna in May, Nepp called COVID-19 an “asylee virus” and “intolerable.”

The government continued to allow headwear for religious purposes in official identification documents, provided the face remained sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.

According to statistics presented by Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in December, the government granted citizenship to 633 descendants of Austrian victims of Nazi crimes, including persons from the United States, Israel, and Great Britain.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 13 anti-Semitic and six anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in the first half of the year. In all of 2019, there were 30 anti-Semitic and six anti-Muslim incidents, compared with 49 and 22 such incidents, respectively, in 2018. Most incidents, according to the ministry, involved hate speech. Government figures included only cases where authorities filed criminal charges. The ministry did not provide details on any of the incidents.

The IGGO’s Documentation Center on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism reported 1,051 anti-Muslim incidents in 2019, while the IKG reported 550 anti-Semitic incidents in the same year. The data were the most recent available. Both groups included incidents regardless of whether they were reported to police or criminal charges were filed.

In September, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released an overview of anti-Semitic incidents covering January 1, 2009 – December 21, 2019 across EU member states where data from official and unofficial sources were available. According to FRA, the overall trend for recorded anti-Semitic offenses in Austria was increasing, despite the decrease in the number of offenses from 49 in 2018 to 30 in 2019. In the period 2009-19, recorded cases of anti-Semitic offenses reached a peak of 58 in 2014.

In August, a Syrian living in the country attempted to assault Graz Jewish Community President Elie Rosen with a baseball bat. Rosen escaped to his car uninjured. The suspect also vandalized the Graz synagogue and an LGBT community center. Police arrested the man, who was awaiting trial at year’s end. The Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, federal ministers, governors, opposition leaders, and religious representatives stated there was no place for anti-Semitism in the country. IGGO President Vural stated that “we must be determined and united in fighting anti-Semitism.” Following the incident, the IKG reiterated its concern regarding what it described as anti-Semitism by Muslims in the country and participated in government programs to address anti-Semitism among refugees and immigrants.

In March, two unidentified youths attacked a Jewish teen wearing a Star of David ring in the Styrian provincial capital Graz, shouting, “Are you a Jew?” The victim was treated in a local hospital for cuts and bruises to his face. Police had not identified the assailants by year’s end.

In November, according to press reports, a woman accosted a Jewish rabbi at knifepoint, knocking the skullcap off his head, ripping it, and yelling anti-Semitic insults before fleeing. Police were unable to find the woman. Interior Minister Nehammer condemned the incident as an “attack on Jewish life in Vienna,” and the agency that investigates acts of extremism and terrorism took over the case.

The IGGO reported that the number of anti-Muslim incidents almost doubled in 2019 to 1,051, compared with the 540 reported in 2018. In 2015, the first full year in which it collected such statistics, IGGO reported 156 anti-Muslim incidents. Most 2019 cases (700) concerned hate speech and insinuations of violence on the internet, followed by insulting language and property damage. Six cases involved physical assaults. Men were more likely to face anti-Muslim behavior on the internet, while Muslim women were more likely to face it in person. According to the report, in October 2019, a man who had posted threatening comments on social media was caught bringing a knife to a university lecture; in February 2019, a man slapped a Muslim woman in the face on a streetcar; and in May 2019, a man wrote on social media “ragheads, shut up or go home.” Property damage cited in the report consisted primarily of graffiti, with slogans such as “[expletive] Islam” on toilets, public walls, or elsewhere.

The IKG reported anti-Semitic incidents increased by 9 percent in 2019, compared with the 503 cited in 2017 (it did not publish figures for 2018). Most of the reported incidents concerned insulting behavior, followed by mass mailings/internet, property damage, and threats. Six reports concerned physical assaults. According to the report, in one case of assault in October 2019, a teenager kicked a Jewish teenager wearing a kippa on the subway and insulted him; the Jewish teenager ran away. In December 2019, a man in a subway shouted “[expletive] Jews” to two Jewish teenagers wearing kippas, adding, “If I see you again, I will kill you.”

A report presented in June by the NGO Initiative for Discrimination-Free Education listed a total of 403 cases of discrimination in schools in 2019 and attributed 43 percent of these cases to religion, with 73 percent of those cases connected to what the NGO called Islamophobia and 25 percent to anti-Semitism. The remaining 2 percent involved discrimination against atheists. Examples included pressure on a Muslim religion teacher to participate in extracurricular activities by other teachers, who stated that the teacher otherwise was “not integrated in Austria.” The NGO classified the incident as discrimination based on religion. In another example, school pupils posted Nazi symbols in their WhatsApp group. The NGO stated the headscarf ban in elementary schools was discriminatory.

In 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, the government recorded 740 investigations into cases of incitement to hatred based on national origin, race, or religion and 43 convictions, compared with 1,005 investigations into cases and 72 convictions in 2018. The government did not provide information on how many of the cases involved religion.

The organizers of the annual May gathering of Croatians and Bosnians in Bleiburg to commemorate Nazi-allied Croatian troops and civilians killed in 1945 canceled the event due to COVID-19 concerns. In a parliamentary resolution passed in May, the OeVP, SPOe, Greens, and NEOS called on the Ministry of Interior to prohibit the event in coming years.

In August, a court in the Lower Austrian capital of St. Poelten convicted a former FPOe member of the provincial legislature on charges of neo-Nazi activity and issued him a 12-month suspended prison sentence. On April 20, 2014, the 125th birthday of Adolf Hitler, the man had written on Facebook “congratulations to all whose birthday is today.”

In August, in a separate case, a court in St. Poelten convicted a former local FPOe politician in Melk on charges of neo-Nazi activity, issuing a 15-month suspended prison sentence. The man had displayed the Nazi salute on several occasions in 2014 and had shouted “Heil Hitler.”

In March, a court in the Carinthian capital of Klagenfurt convicted a man on charges of neo-Nazi activity and sentenced him to 18 months’ imprisonment. The man had neo-Nazi tattoos and had called for “reopening concentration camps” on Facebook in 2010.

In an interview in May, the Secretary General of the IKG, Benjamin Naegele, stated that anti-Semitic sentiments occasionally surfaced at demonstrations against COVID-19-related restrictions or in debates about COVID-19 in social media. Naegele did not provide details or examples.

Fourteen Christian groups, consisting of the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, and eight Orthodox and Old Oriental Churches, continued to meet twice a year within the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria to discuss religious cooperation. Baptists and the Salvation Army had observer status on the council. Two permanent working groups on “Religion and Society” and “Media” remained in place.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, including from the Federal Chancellery’s Office of Religious Affairs, the Department for Integration and Division of Dialogue of Cultures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Interior, to discuss religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities. Topics discussed included the concerns of religious groups, integration of Muslim refugees, cooperation with religious groups in combating terrorism, and measures to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

The Ambassador met with religious group representatives from the IGGO, IKG, Roman Catholic Church, Protestant churches, and various Orthodox churches to discuss their relations with the new coalition government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue, as well as how their communities were handling the COVID-19 crisis. Embassy officers also met with youth groups of religious organizations to discuss issues such as anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

The embassy continued to engage with and support the Jewish community to discuss ways of promoting religious tolerance and combating anti-Semitism. The embassy hosted a university seminar on “The Jewish Entrepreneurs of Hollywood,” which showed how religiously persecuted groups could succeed and counter the religious intolerance of others. Embassy representatives continued to serve on the International Advisory Board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency to promote remembrance of the Holocaust and Holocaust education. In November, the Department of State Deputy Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues made a presentation to the advisory board on the challenges museums, memorials, and other institutions face in organizing Holocaust remembrance activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The embassy continued its engagement with the Muslim Youth Organization of Austria to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. The embassy nominated three members of the organization to participate in a training program that covered how NGOs can counter violent extremism and promote religious tolerance online.

In August, the U.S. Secretary of State, accompanied by the Ambassador, IKG President Deutsch, and Roman Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, laid a wreath at the Vienna Holocaust Memorial in remembrance of the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust.

In May, the Ambassador and the U.S. Department of State Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues recorded video messages for the virtual commemoration of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp. In their remarks, they stressed the importance of religious freedom, Holocaust remembrance, and never forgetting the horrors of the Nazi regime to ensure they are never again repeated.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities; it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity”; or hinder secular education. In two separate decisions in January and June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of five individuals by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) under the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered it to pay compensation. According to Forum 18, an international human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), three of the five were arrested for gathering to study the works of the late Turkish Sunni theologian Said Nursi. One of the men said authorities physically abused him during his detention. In September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission it had violated the rights of multiple Muslim individuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet for worship or religious study at members’ homes. Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after a July 2018 attack on the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee and the subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities alleged those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Civil society activists and human rights groups considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated and estimated 43 individuals remained in prison at year’s end in connection with the events in Ganja. Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered Muslim Unity Movement (MUM), which the government characterized as an extremist group. Civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the incarceration of MUM members to be politically motivated. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. According to these groups, the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 41 to 48 at the end of the year. Religious communities continued to express frustration that communities with fewer than 50 members were not allowed to legally register. The government stated that reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added “restriction of freedom” (i.e., probation) to preexisting penalties that included fines and imprisonment for publishing or distributing material with religious content without government approval. The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region or surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the conflict, Human Rights Watch reported two separate attacks on October 8 on the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha by Azerbaijani forces. In connection with attacks on and vandalism of religious sites following the Fall fighting, Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives expressed concerns for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious heritage as the sites passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control.

Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics. Groups viewed as “nontraditional,” however, were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers urged government officials to address longstanding issues with the registration process for smaller religious communities and to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of registered and unregistered religious groups and civil society to discuss religious freedom in the country. Embassy officers also had consultations with theologians.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2011 data from the State Committee on Religious Associations in Azerbaijan (SCWRA) (the most recent available), 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are mainly Muslims and non-Muslims are mainly Russians, Georgians, Armenians, and other national minorities. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.

Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief. It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs. It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality. The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.

According to the code of administrative offenses, an administrative offense is applicable to nonviolent crimes. An administrative arrest may last up to three months.

The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application. A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration. Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.

To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.

By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradict the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter or other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.

The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.

While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as believing no one outside of one’s religious group may criticize that group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature; setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions; and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms ranging from 15 years to life.

The law specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity, such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.” Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.

Rituals and ceremonies related to Islam may be performed only by citizens of the country. The law allows foreigners invited by non-Islamic registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they obtain special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2,900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

The administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”

The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishments for “production, sale and distribution of religious literature (on paper and electronic devices), audio and video materials, religious items, and other informational materials of religious nature with the aim of importation, sale and distribution without appropriate authorization” are proscribed by law. Punishments for first-time offenders include a fine of between 5,000 and 7,000 manat ($2,900 and $4,100), up to two years’ restricted freedom, or up to two years’ imprisonment. Violations by a group of people “according to a prior conspiracy,” an organized group, an individual for a second time, or an official carry a fine of between 7,000 and 9,000 manats ($4,100 and $5,300), between two and four years’ restricted freedom, or imprisonment of between two and five years. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added the alternative punishment of “restriction of freedom” (probation) – two to four years in cases involving an individual first-time offender and two to five years in aggravated cases – to the preexisting punishments.

There is no religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may study religion at higher educational institutions, such as the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.

Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds. Refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.

The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist acts; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.

According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to parliament. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in a position of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.

The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity. The law also prohibits threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on religious belief.

The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so. In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.

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

Government Practices

Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.

On June 4, the ECHR ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of four individuals whom it arrested between 2013 and 2015 by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. According to Forum 18, authorities arrested the four – Taleh Bagirov (aka Bagirzade), Zakir Mustafayev, Ismayil Mammadov, and Eldaniz Hajiyev – for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The government acknowledged the length of pretrial detention had been excessive. The ECHR ordered the government to pay each of the men 3,000 euros ($3,700) in compensation. It awarded Mustafayev an additional 500 euros ($610) for costs associated with applying to the court. Representatives of the men said the compensation was too low and wanted the court to continue hearing the case, but it refused. The ECHR ruling in June followed a similar decision by the same court on January 16 concerning the extended detention of Hajiyev, Mammadov, and a third man, Revan Sabzaliyev, arrested in April 2014 when they met to study the works of Nursi. Hajiyev and Mammadov were also among the four men included in ECHR’s June decision. Bagirov said authorities tortured him during his detention. In 2015, authorities arrested Bagirov on charges of extremism following a police raid of a home where he was preaching. Five attendees and two officers died in the raid.

In nine cases concluded in September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission that it had violated the rights of multiple individuals to freedom of religion or belief. One case involved seven Muslims who were detained when they met at a home in Baku in 2015 to discuss the works of Nursi. In another case, authorities detained four Jehovah’s Witnesses when they met at a member’s home in Ganja in 2010. The government paid 4,400 euros ($5,400) in compensation to the Muslims and 4,000 euros ($4,900) to the Jehovah’s Witnesses following the decisions. In these cases, as well as in earlier cases where the government admitted culpability, the victims said they were concerned by both the low level of compensation the government offered and what they saw as its failure to change the laws to ensure similar violations did not occur again. Forum 18 said there were 34 cases alleging violations of freedom of religion or belief involving 61 individuals and five religious communities that were pending before the ECHR at year’s end.

Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after the July 2018 assault on Elmar Valiyev, the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee, and the subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. In response to the 2018 events, police killed five persons and detained 77 others during special operations in Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the convicted individuals were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed had resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government’s account of events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed hade not resisted arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. With the exception of Yunis Safarov, who was accused of trying to shoot Valiyev, civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated. They estimated 43 individuals connected to the events in Ganja remained in prison at year’s end.

Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered group MUM. Authorities stated the movement mixed religious and political ideology and said they were concerned about its ties to Iran. Charges against MUM members included illegal possession of weapons, violation of the COVID-19 quarantine regime, and “resisting police” (a broad offense that includes not obeying police orders). As in prior years, human rights advocates and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity. According to data collected by human rights advocates, at year’s end, the estimated number of believers who were political prisoners ranged from 41 to 48, compared with 45 to 55 in 2019.

On March 13, police detained MUM member Elvin Muradov. On September 25, the Narimanov District Court sentenced him to two years and three months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. On June 22, police detained MUM member Shamil Hasanov. On October 27, the Binagadi District Court sentenced him to four years and six months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. During the year, authorities placed multiple members of MUM under administrative arrest for allegedly violating the COVID-19 quarantine regime and “resisting police.” For example, on March 21, the Sabunchu District Court sentenced Samir Babayev to 30 days of administrative arrest. On April 12, the Khatai District Court sentenced Hikmat Agayev to 25 days of administrative arrest. On June 10, the Imishli District Court sentenced Alik Aslanov to 15 days of administrative arrest.

On April 6, a presidential pardon released a number of individuals over the age of 65 because of concerns over COVID-19-related risks to elderly prisoners. The released individuals included two religious activists whom human rights advocates considered political prisoners, including one person arrested after a large November 2015 police operation targeting members of MUM.

Some minority Christian communities said the SCWRA made efforts to create more favorable conditions for their activities than in prior years, such as by becoming more responsive to their requests and concerns and establishing closer communication with them. The groups said there were fewer instances of officials raiding the premises of religious communities or detaining and fining individuals in connection with peaceful practice of their religion or beliefs than in years past. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated there were no detentions related to practice of their religion during the year, compared with 18 in 2019. They attributed the lack of incidents to improved relations with the SCWRA and their reduced public proselytizing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government did not implement alternative military service for conscientious objectors, despite being required to do so by the constitution, or make any draft law public. According to Forum 18, on March 30, ruling party deputy Siyavush Novruzov recommended parliament adopt an alternative service law. In April 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. Mehdiyev and Abilov filed an appeal with the ECHR, on which the court had not ruled as of year’s end.

During the year, the SCWRA registered 14 new religious communities (12 Muslim and two Christian), compared with 34 religious communities registered in 2019 (31 Muslim and three Christian). There were a total 963 registered communities at the end of the year, of which 37 were non-Muslim – 26 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also said 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered. There were 23 Christian prayer houses (worship spaces that did not have the status of a church), one Baha’i house of worship, and one Krishna Consciousness house of worship in the country at year’s end.

The SCWRA said it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA maintained its prohibition on these communities’ religious activities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.

The government said the inability of some groups to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members and that the government did not take administrative action against unregistered religious communities. The government said reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. Religious communities continued to state frustration with government registration requirements, particularly the 50-member minimum. For example, Baptist communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration. Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered only in Baku. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated they were unable to obtain legal registration, although they stated they were able to worship openly despite being unregistered. Forum 18 reported that in January, the SCWRA told the Baptist community in the village of Aliabad, which has been seeking legal status since 1994, that SCWRA had “no objection” to the group meeting once per week for two hours, despite it not having legal status. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders stated their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities quiet for fear of government repercussions.

On September 23, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the Baku Administrative Court, which on January 30, 2019 declined to review the complaint of former parliament employee Rahim Akhundov. Akhundov stated that in December 2018 he was forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal if he did not resign voluntarily. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home, and informed parliamentary leadership that he held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.

On August 28, authorities did not permit Shia believers to gather in mosques or mosque courtyards to mark the Ashura religious commemoration because of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions that applied to all public gatherings, regardless of the purpose. Police detained numerous individuals in Shamkir, Yevlakh, Barda, and Lankaran for trying to observe Ashura in spite of the prohibition on gatherings. Judges sentenced at least six individuals to administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days.

Forum 18 said government officials sometimes refused to give birth certificates to Georgian-speaking families for children with Georgian first names or to Baptists wishing to give their children biblical names. According to Forum 18, without a birth certificate, a child may not attend kindergarten or school, be treated in a hospital, or travel abroad. The NGO said that in the early part of the year, following a one-year delay, officials granted a birth certificate to a family in Aliabad who had named their son Daniel. An individual close to the family told Forum 18, “The parents chose the name for religious reasons. But officials refused and insisted they choose an Azeri name.”

The SCWRA stated it prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 3,680 and the publication of six books out of 205. By comparison, in 2019 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239.

On October 22, the ECHR ruled in the case of Jehovah’s Witness Nina Gridneva. The court dismissed the case because the parties had reached a settlement in which the government recognized it had violated her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and committed to pay her 4,500 euros ($5,500) as compensation. In 2010, police stopped Gridneva while she was distributing religious literature on the street and officers seized the materials. A local court subsequently fined her for distributing “illegal” religious literature.

The ECHR ruled on February 20 that the government had violated the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses by banning three of their publications from importation and distribution in 2008. The ECHR ordered the government to pay compensation for the violation and refund court fees Jehovah’s Witnesses incurred trying to challenge the bans in local courts.

According to Shia Rights Watch, in June, officials demolished the Hazrat Zahra Mosque in Baku, saying the building was condemned, and undertook construction of a new mosque on the same site. The government had attempted to demolish the mosque in 2008; however, due to demonstrations, demolition was postponed.

The government continued to allocate funds to “traditional” religious groups. On June 2, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1.18 million) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews, the same amounts as in 2019. The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,200) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku, and 100,000 manat ($58,800) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, the same amounts as in 2019. Some observers stated the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.

The government did not exercise control over Nagorno-Karabakh or the surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting in the fall in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.

Human Rights Watch stated Azerbaijani forces attacked and damaged the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha in two separate incidents on October 8. Reporters on-site during the attack reported a drone flying overhead at the time and that the two strikes were made by high-precision missiles. There was reportedly no evidence the site was used for military purposes. In an October 26 interview, President Aliyev denied purposefully bombing the church, saying it was bombed by accident or was done by the Armenians themselves to frame Azerbaijan. Armenian religious officials accused Azerbaijan forces of desecrating the Holy Savior Cathedral after taking control of the city of Shusha on November 14. Photographs circulated on the internet showed graffiti on the outer walls of the cathedral. Azerbaijani media said the graffiti in the online images had been photoshopped.

Numerous videos circulated during and after the fall fighting that showed attacks on and vandalism of cultural and religious sites. These videos prompted Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives to express serious concerns regarding the preservation of the sites as they passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control. Following the ceasefire, leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church requested that Russian peacekeepers protect the medieval Dadivank Monastery in the district of Kalbajar, a territory returned to Azerbaijani control after the fall fighting, fearing its carvings could be destroyed and that without protection the site would become inaccessible. Russian peacekeepers took control of the site immediately following a November 14 call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. President Aliyev’s public claim that “the churches in Kalbajar belong to the ancient Caucasian Albanian state” raised concerns among Armenians that Azerbaijan might seek to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Armenian heritage.

Armenian media reported both during and after the fall fighting that representatives of the Azerbaijani armed forces deliberately targeted monuments of historical, religious, and cultural significance. On November 14, a person whom local media identified as Azerbaijani posted a video on Facebook showing the alleged destruction of the dome and the bell tower of the St. John the Baptist Church (also known as Kanach Zham/Green Church) located in Shusha.

There were also videos of soldiers desecrating and damaging the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin, located in Mekhakavan settlement, including the breaking of the church’s cross. When the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin was constructed in 2017 by Armenia-supported de facto authorities as a military chapel, Azerbaijan formally protested the construction on “occupied lands” in a depopulated area as a violation of international humanitarian law.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups, such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust.

The executive director of the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, Mehman Ismayilov, said that during the year, the foundation provided monthly assistance to 984 Muslim religious figures serving in mosques, including imams and deputy imams, and transferred 100,000 manat ($58,800) to 22 non-Muslim communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals that NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed the government to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. They met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues regarding the registration process for smaller religious communities and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in the months following the ceasefire arrangement, the Ambassador consistently underscored the importance of granting unimpeded access to religious and cultural sites to UNESCO and international journalists with Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, alternative military service, and relations with SCWRA. Officials also consulted with theologians. In a program intended to empower women involved in work with religious organizations, the embassy sponsored the travel of a group of five female employees working for the SCWRA and CMB to the United States from March 4 to March 13. In the United States, the group met with representatives of different interfaith and religious organizations, visited different houses of worship, and learned about the role of women in American religious communities.

Belarus

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” A concordat grants the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional faiths” of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law prohibits all religious activity by unregistered groups. The country experienced massive peaceful protests met with what most observers considered a brutal government crackdown following the August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent. Demonstrators protested electoral fraud, and authorities responded with widespread violence against peaceful protesters, the opposition, journalists, and ordinary citizens. Most of those detained, jailed, or fined – including clergy – were charged indiscriminately with “organizing or participating in unauthorized mass events.” Authorities continued their surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups. Religious groups met less frequently at their own discretion due to COVID-19 infection concerns. At the same time, authorities focused less on monitoring religious groups as they were preoccupied with other issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a struggling economy, the presidential campaign, and the election-related protests that followed. Some minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to have difficulty registering, and most said they avoided trying to register during the year because of COVID-19 and the unsettled political situation. Roman Catholic groups again stated the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign clergy (notably priests from Poland). On August 31, the government blocked the return of Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz from a visit to Poland, despite his being a Belarusian citizen. Authorities allowed the Archbishop to return on December 23. Throughout the year, authorities continued to support commemoration of victims of the Holocaust and preservation of Jewish cemeteries.

Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians. Interdenominational Christian groups continued to work together on education and charitable projects.

Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with the government, including at the highest levels, on religious freedom issues, including registration of religious communities, the return of Archbishop Kondruszewicz, and anti-Semitism. The Secretary of State and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom publicly called on the country’s authorities to allow Archbishop Kondrusiewicz to reenter the country and lead the Roman Catholic Church there. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officials also met with Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about their religious activities and discuss government actions affecting the exercise of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration (the latest such data available), approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and six percent to the Roman Catholic Church. According to the state survey, eight percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.” Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately two percent of the population include Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics (“Uniates” or members of the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church), Old Believers (priestist and priestless), members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Most ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, are Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious belief and participating in the performance of acts of worship is not prohibited by law. It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law. The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.” It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality. The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.

The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters. The office takes part in drafting and implementing state policies on religious affairs, enforces and protects religious rights and freedom, monitors activities of religious organizations and compliance with their charters, regulates relations between the state and religious organizations, liaises with state agencies and religious organizations upon their request, promotes tolerance and mutual understanding between religious organizations of various faiths and nationalities, and researches dynamics and trends in interdenominational relations to prevent “religious exclusiveness” and disrespectful treatment of religions and nationalities. OPRRNA has one deputy and the office has two subdivisions, a section for religious affairs and a section for nationalities affairs. The executive committees of the country’s six regions and Minsk city have departments for ideology and youth engagement, which include religious issues. These departments are independent from OPRRNA but share information. The plenipotentiary representative heading OPRRNA is appointed and dismissed by the President, based on a nomination from the Council of Ministers. The plenipotentiary office performs the functions of a government body and is subordinate to the Council of Ministers.

The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC, an exarchate (affiliate) of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. The law does not consider as traditional faiths newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Greek Catholics (Uniates), and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.

A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the Church with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” Although it states it does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies. In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s Orthodox patron saint.

The concordat serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies. There are at least a dozen agreements, including with the Ministries of Defense, Health Care, and Information. There is also an agreement with the Ministry of Education through 2020 that provides for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.

The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons older than 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, and one of these communities must have been active in the country for at least 20 years. National-level religious associations have the ability to institute regional and local level religious associations. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.

According to OPRRNA data, as of January 1, there were 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,389 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,709 religious communities, 15 dioceses, six schools, 35 monasteries, one mission, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. (The latter two are clergy-led lay organizations.) The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, six schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 498 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 13 denominations encompass 1,038 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 34 registered religious communities of Old Believers. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 53 communities, including 10 autonomous communities. In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.

The national religious associations are the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, Union of Reform Judaism Communities, Muslim Religious Association, Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Baha’is.

To register, a religious community must submit an official application containing the following information: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes. A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs. The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts. The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion as well as its rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches toward marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements. In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion. It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.

Regional government authorities as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk) review all registration applications. Permissible grounds for denial of registration include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, and a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts. Communities may appeal refusals in court.

To register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress. Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities. All applications to establish religious associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond. Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities, except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community. Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.

The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law does not contain a provision for appealing a warning or suspension.

The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission. Local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements. The government does not grant such permission automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.

By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.

The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event, including those involving religious groups, planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the event. Authorities must inform organizers of a denial no later than five days before the event. Denials may be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group; or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the event.

The government has a system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services required from organizers of mass events, including religious events held outside of religious premises and sites, rallies, competitions, cultural events, festivals, concerts, and similar occasions. If an application is approved, organizers must sign contracts for such services two days in advance and must reimburse all costs within 10 days.

The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.

Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for restitution to local authorities. The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property being used for cultural or sports purposes

The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy but does not permit religious communities to do so.

The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions. The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education; the BOC is the only religious group to have such an agreement. Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval. According to the law, “Such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’s sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”

The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves. It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.

The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, or senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.

The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons. The law allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.

Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country. OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign clergy may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work. The government generally grants such permission for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended. OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation. There is no provision for appeals.

By law, the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered. Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission. By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups. Authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities. Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country – a decision which cannot be appealed.

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

Government Practices

The August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent, prompted massive peaceful protests. The government responded with what most observers considered a brutal crackdown against what it deemed to be “unauthorized mass events.” Human rights groups reported more than 33,000 persons were detained and at least four killed by security forces by year’s end. Some of the “unauthorized” gatherings were organized by religious groups in response to violent actions by security forces and widely reported human rights abuses. Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents in which religious communities participated as being solely based on religious identity.

The peaceful public protests generally sought an end to violent action by police and called for the release of political prisoners, investigations into human rights abuses by the authorities, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s peaceful departure from office, and new free and fair elections. Those postelection protests that involved public prayer largely focused on calling for peace and an end to violent actions by authorities. Some clergy were among those detained during the postelection protests. For example, on August 13, Orthodox priest Uladzimir Drabysheuski stood in front of the investigative committee office in Homyel holding a banner that said, “Stop the Violence.” A district court convicted him on charges of participating in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 10 days in jail on September 18. He was additionally convicted on similar charges for a protest on September 6 and given a sentence of 15 additional days of arrest on September 28.

Forum 18, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on international religious freedom, said in October there were “violations of freedom of religion and belief and of the interlinked freedoms of expression, association, and assembly in the country” that “worsened amid widespread continuing protests against falsified results of the August 2020 presidential election and against the regime’s other serious violations of the human rights of the people it rules.” The NGO stated that the government detained and charged individuals with civil penalties for participating in unauthorized mass events when they took part in public prayer events that called for peace and an end to violent actions by security forces in Minsk, Hrodna, Lida, and other cities.

On August 26 and 27, members of religious communities were among the protesters in Minsk’s Freedom Square – also the location of Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals – who intended to march to Independence Square. During the protest events, Uladzimir Vladimir Mayoraurov, a Protestant, was detained and sentenced to eight days in jail after preaching against violence to riot police in Freedom Square. On August 27, a group of Protestants led by Pastor Taras Telkouski of Trinity Church prayed outside the doors of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Cathedral on Freedom Square and then marched to the nearby Roman Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral. Telkouski was detained, charged with “organizing an unauthorized mass event,” and fined 810 rubles ($310).

According to media reports, on August 16, while security forces indiscriminately detained and beat protesters in Minsk, riot police also detained Aleksandr Fruman. Upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him with a rubber truncheon while shouting anti-Semitic insults, according to Fruman, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” He was released a few days later. Jewish community leaders said they observed no increase in anti-Semitism during the postelection protests, and they did not express concerns that their community members who participated were targeted for their ethnicity or religious beliefs by police.

Religious leaders spoke out together against violence and in favor of societal dialogue after the August 9 election, expressing sympathy for those hurt in the violence. On August 14, in his address to Lukashenka and government officials, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said, “In the name of such a necessary peace in our Fatherland and national harmony, I appeal to authorities to start a constructive dialogue with society, end the violence, and immediately release all innocent citizens detained at peaceful rallies.” He condemned “the bloodshed on the streets, the beating of peaceful demonstrators who want to know the truth, the cruel treatment of detainees, and their detention in inhuman conditions in prisons” as “a grave sin on the conscience of those who give criminal orders and commit violence.” On August 17, then Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel visited a Minsk hospital, where he stated that the BOC was apolitical, but he spoke out against violence and noted the hospital’s patients included protesters, bystanders, and those injured in police custody. On August 18, the Catholic Church in Belarus – together with the BOC, Protestant denominations, and Jewish and Islamic communities – hosted an interfaith service in Minsk to pray for a peaceful resolution to the postelection crisis and an end to violence and hatred among all sides. In response, authorities said remarks by religious leaders constituted interference in political affairs.

On August 31, border guards denied Archbishop Kondrusiewicz reentry into the country after a trip to Poland. The Archbishop had spoken out against violent actions by security forces and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit peaceful protesters arrested following the August election. Kondrusiewicz, a Belarusian citizen, said he was given no explanation at the border for why he was denied his legal right to return. Authorities said they placed him on a no-entry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The Archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. On December 23, Lukashenka allowed Kondrusiewicz to return, following repeated intervention by the United States, EU member states, and the Vatican.

Religious community leaders condemned the authorities’ actions barring Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from the country. Bishop of the Pentecostal communities Leanid Varanenka stated on September 1 that Kondrusiewicz “raised his voice in defense of peace, mercy, and unity and in condemnation of violence, lies, and hatred. This is the spiritual, moral, and ethical duty of any clergy and does not represent political activity.”

On April 7, the Prosecutor General’s Office refused a request from Russia to extradite member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Russian citizen Nikolai Makhalichev, who was subsequently released after being arrested during an identity check in Haradok, Vitsebsk Oblast, on February 21. Makhalichev applied for asylum on the day of his arrest, and the government later approved his request. He told the press that he was not aware of a criminal case opened against him in Russia in 2019 on charges of “organizing and financing an extremist organization,” allegedly based on his religious practice as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses are classified as “extremists” under Russian law.

Human rights defenders said they remained concerned about the authorities’ ability to apply charges arbitrarily for organizing, running, or participating in unregistered religious organizations. Authorities did not use this provision of law specifically against religious organizations during the year, but human rights organizations said they continued to view it as a threat against religious freedom.

Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from unfavored groups.

Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. During the year, authorities in Lida and Barysau rejected applications from communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses – two new applications in Lida and an appeal of a denied application in Barysau. In addition, OPRRNA denied two applications from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to register a mission.

Some minority religious groups stated that they did not apply for registration because their members feared harassment by authorities and did not want to submit their names, as required by the application process. Other minority religious groups preferred to negotiate registration and other concerns with local authorities, but few registration attempts were made during the year. Some communities said they decided to postpone their registrations until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic due to health concerns.

As of year’s end, the government had taken no action on a November 2018 UN Human Rights Committee recommendation that the state repeal mandatory state registration of religious communities.

Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of fear of prosecution and perceived government hostility. Some registered religious communities said they were reluctant to report restrictions because they feared drawing attention to themselves.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities granted permission on a regular basis to clergy who requested access to visit prisoners. Some clergy were denied permission to visit protestors who had been detained after the August 9 election. Many prisons maintained designated Orthodox religious facilities that Belarusian Orthodox clergy were occasionally allowed to visit through the year.

On September 16, a district court in Lida fined local resident Alyaksandr Shor 270 rubles ($100) for praying outside the Catholic Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He was part of a group of residents who had gathered to pray there for the return of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from Poland.

On October 16, a court in Lida fined Roman Catholic and Polish community activist Irena Bernatskaya 810 rubles ($310) for an “unauthorized mass event” led by a group called “Mothers in Prayer,” in which participants gathered to pray for an end to violent actions by security forces outside the walls of the local Roman Catholic cathedral on August 12.

On October 21, Slutsk police dispersed a flower-laying ceremony by Slutsk residents to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. The traditional red and white carnations used for the commemorations matched the historical Belarusian national colors that the opposition and protestors adopted as their own and authorities opposed. Police arrived after approximately 12 to 14 persons placed the flowers near a Holocaust memorial. The small group left the area after a police detention van arrived. According to the organizer, the group did not plan a large rally and had not applied for permission to gather in advance. On October 26, at least four Slutsk residents were fined or were sentenced to 10 days in jail for participating in an “unauthorized mass event.”

On November 18, the General Prosecutor’s Office issued warnings to BOC spokesperson Father Syarhey Lepin and Catholic Bishop Yury Kasabutski. The two were rebuked for their Facebook criticism of authorities’ decision to destroy an unofficial memorial at the site of the beating of Raman Bandarenka, a Minsk resident who died on November 12 after he had been detained and sustained fatal injuries while in police custody. Lepin wrote, “What was the purpose of this diabolic trampling upon candle lamps and icons?” The General Prosecutor said the clergymen’s “statements were aggressive” and “increased tension in society [and] stirred up hatred against the government and hostility towards these social groups.” The warnings came after Lukashenka’s November 17 remarks that “we can’t tolerate this mockery” and his instructions to law enforcement authorities “to make legal assessments of the church officials’ words,” since “there will be no memorials heralding a civil war, as they say, in Minsk or elsewhere.” Lepin resigned as BOC spokesperson after the warnings.

On November 30, a court in Ivatsevichy in Brest Oblast tried Greek Catholic priest Vitali Bystrou for participating in an alleged “unauthorized mass event” in the city of Brest on October 25 and sentenced him to 10 days in jail. While police claimed Bystrou was among protesters holding red and white flags, the priest explained he was simply walking from the church to a train station in his religious clothing, which “is acceptable for my faith.”

On December 3, a court in Rasony District sentenced local Roman Catholic priest Vyachaslau Barok to 10 days in jail for propagating Nazi symbols. Barok, who is also a well-known blogger, posted a photograph of a red and green swastika (the colors of the official Belarusian flag that Lukashenka introduced in 2012) and an emblem with the slogan “Stop Lukascism” on his Instagram account, referencing Lukashenka.

On December 7, police in Vitsebsk arrested local resident Ala Raschinskaya, who had prayed for victims of political repression outside the Catholic cathedral on November 13, and sentenced her to 10 days in jail.

On December 8, authorities in Vitsebsk detained Greek Catholic priest Alyaksei Varanko, Roman Catholic priest Viktar Zhuk, and layman Alyaksei Karyakau for participating in “unauthorized mass events.” They were released the next day after a court dismissed their cases. In a retrial on December 24, the three were warned not to participate in such events in the future.

According to observers, the government continued surveillance of various Protestant denominations. The sources stated that government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. Government officials, including from the security forces, reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.

Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to their perceptions that they could face intimidation or punishment.

Orthodox literature remained available countrywide. According to media accounts, the BOC was free to proselytize without restrictions on television and in print media as well as in public spaces. Unlike other religious groups, the BOC continued to participate in government-sponsored public events, such as rallies or celebrations, without the need to seek prior approval from authorities. For example, on July 3, the Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan participated in the annual “Belarus Remembers” Independence Day commemoration along with Lukashenka, veterans, public officials, soldiers, civil society representatives, and Minsk residents. In addition, regional authorities often engaged BOC representatives in their events. On June 5, forestry officials in the town of Slonim and students and faculty of the Minsk Spiritual Seminary planted birch and pine trees, an event which the BOC reported was inspired and organized by Navahrudak Diocese archpriest Dimitri Syemukha.

The national government approved the importation of literature requested by Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year.

After religious leaders called on the security forces to end violent action against peaceful protestors and urged a genuine national dialogue between Lukashenka and the opposition, state-run Radio Belarus One stopped the nationwide broadcast of the 40-minute Roman Catholic Sunday masses from the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Minsk, as well as a brief news summary from Vatican Radio on August 23. Roman Catholic leadership noted the importance of broadcasts during the COVID-19 pandemic, when believers chose not to attend services in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. The state-run Belarusian TV and Radio Company refused to air the annual December 25 Christmas message from the Roman Catholic Church without explanation. The television station did, however, stream the Roman Catholic midnight Mass on December 24.

Authorities continued to deny requests to give the Belarus-based Catholic radio station Radio Mariya a media broadcasting license that would supplement its internet broadcasting. The Ministry of Information denied Radio Mariya’s fifth application in April.

According to local religious groups, communities chose not to pursue many new purchases or rentals of properties as places of worship during the year, partially due to the political situation and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many communities reported that they did not believe that they faced impediments to purchases or rentals of sanctioned places of worship. Some religious communities with outstanding property cases continued to engage with the government and the legal system to resolve them. Converting residential property for religious use remained difficult. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups because they were less likely to own religious facilities, and they said they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.

Saint Simon and Helena Roman Catholic Church parish continued to use its existing church building (also known as the “Red Church”), even though it was owned by the government. During the year, Minsk city authorities billed the parish for costs related to 2018-2019 renovation work, in addition to monthly rent, utilities, and real estate and land taxes, which amounted to a total of 160,000 rubles ($61,600) for 2019. The parish continued to refuse to pay for the land tax, property tax, and renovation work. The parish in 2020 was billed 12,000 rubles ($4,600) monthly. On July 21, St. Simon and Helena Church community members launched a petition seeking the return of the building from the government and collected more than 5,000 signatures in support.

Because of its location in one of Minsk’s main protest sites, authorities occasionally restricted access to the Red Church or chased protesters into it. On August 26, riot police pushed peaceful protesters and journalists into the church and stood guard at the doors, effectively locking them in for approximately an hour. Many of those forced inside engaged in prayer until they were allowed to leave. The government changed the locks on the church’s doors the next day, leaving the parish with one set of keys. Authorities also reportedly cut electricity to the building during rallies outside the church on August 23-25. On August 26, the then-vicar general of the Minsk-Mahilyou Archdiocese, Bishop Yury Kasabutski, condemned the “unacceptable and illegal actions” of riot police and the government and called on authorities to investigate incidents and guarantee freedom of conscience and expression. On September 11, riot police blocked entrances into the church to prevent protesters from hiding inside and detained a number of protesters who fled there. Police reportedly did not detain worshippers or individuals in the church who were present to pray.

Representatives of the Roman Catholic, Belarusian Orthodox, and Protestant communities said authorities did not charge them fees for their religious events. In some cases, however, community leaders had to take personal responsibility for maintaining order and safety at such events. Observers stated that the system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services for organizers of mass events adopted in 2019 was not intended to prohibit regular worship, nor was it doing so in practice. There were fewer religious events in 2020 due in part to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For the ones that were held, authorities did not charge fees, seek reimbursements, or implement other restrictions that had previously forced organizers to cancel similar events.

According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the government. School administrators continued to invite Belarusian Orthodox priests to lecture to students, organize tours of Church facilities, and participate in Belarusian Orthodox festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.

On January 23, Lukashenka signed a decree allocating 1.2 million rubles ($474,000) from reserve funds to cover salaries of professors and employees, as well as stipends for students, of the Belarusian Orthodox seminaries. Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church said their schools did not receive any financial support from the government.

On March 26, the BOC and the Ministry of Education signed a 2020-2025 program of cooperation, noting the importance of continued engagement between the church and the government. The program included seminars, lectures, tours to BOC sites, and joint commemorations and celebrations.

Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations inconsistently, which affected the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. On September 2, OPRRNA on short notice canceled permission to work and preach for Father Jerzy Wilk, a Polish citizen and priest of St. Michael the Archangel Church in the village of Varapaeva in the Vitsebsk region. Wilk departed the country shortly afterwards after having served the community since 2003. While OPRRNA gave no explanation for the decision, representatives of religious communities continued to say that unofficially the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than rely on foreigners.

On September 29, Bishop Kasabutski denied allegations that the Roman Catholic Church was used by external forces for political purposes. In a sermon, he said the political allegations made by the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, as reported by the SVR press service on September 29, were “fake.” The bishop added that Naryshkin’s allegations that “the United States of America, the CIA, and other organizations are trying to use the Roman Catholic Church to undermine the state system in [Belarus]” were absurd and were “a lie that has nothing to do with the truth.” He said, “Today the Roman Catholic Church tells the truth about the situation in the country, denounces the violence, and calls for solidarity, unity, concord, peace and forgiveness,” adding, “This is how we probably prevent someone from implementing certain scenarios aimed at causing a split in our society and bloodshed.” The bishop also dismissed speculation about tensions in relations among various religious groups in the country. State media reported only Naryshkin’s allegations against the Catholic Church and not the bishop’s statements.

Roman Catholic bishops continued to state that foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including a lengthy government approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; visas often issued for only three to six months; and administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas. In August, however, local bishops reported that authorities renewed all requested visa applications that had been submitted or were pending review.

According to Forum 18, the government continued to refuse Klemens Werth, a Catholic priest from Russia, permission to engage in religious work. He was allowed to remain in Vitsebsk to continue building a new church, but since he was a foreigner, he was banned from celebrating Mass or otherwise serving.

During the year, Lukashenka repeatedly stated that the political unrest in the country had been supported and financed by Poland along with the Baltic states and the West more broadly. He said the Roman Catholic Church was involved. After authorities barred Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from reentering the country from Poland, Lukashenka stated on September 1 that the Archbishop, a Belarusian citizen, had received “instructions” while in Poland on how to “destroy” Belarus. On November 2, Lukashenka said, “The BOC is not bringing clergy from abroad, from countries foreign to our country, as it is being done by some other denominations. We cannot accept any clergy from Poland when Catholic Poland has taken such a [hostile] position against us. It is not normal.” He urged the Roman Catholic Church to train “more local clergy.”

During the year, the leaders of New Life Church in Minsk continued discussions with city authorities on its status and operations. The government froze the assets of the Church in 2010. The Church continued to use its building for religious purposes, but there were no developments regarding the asset freeze, which remained in place at year’s end.

Authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property. While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties. The groups said they faced government harassment if they tried to raise donations at other locations.

Speaking at a January 27 event to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Dapkiunas emphasized the importance of commemorating the Holocaust “in reiterating the moral, political, and social meaning of the call ‘Never Again,’” which, he said, was “a challenge that still faces humanity – one that demands continuous work.” The chairman of the House of Representatives, Uladzimir Andreichanka, joined world leaders at the January 23 World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, and the deputy chairman of the Council of the Republic, Anatoly Isachanka, attended the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

On October 15, the Vitsebsk Jewish community, private donors from Russia, and local authorities unveiled a memorial honoring the 350-year-long history of the local Jewish population at the site of the Jewish cemetery in the village of Yanavichy in Vitebsk Oblast. Community members and local authorities also cleaned the cemetery and cataloged unearthed gravestones.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

An interreligious working group comprising the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized seminars and educational events, some of which were virtual due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The theme for 2020 was “Religions in Belarus in the Period of Social Transformations.” The group held an in-person seminar on February 12 on spiritual development of the country’s society in the context of social justice. In April, the group held an interreligious youth forum that involved seminars dedicated to the “contribution of different religious communities in resolving environmental issues in the interest of Belarus’s sustainable development.” In June, the group organized a seminar targeting youth and discussing different faiths and new methods for the spiritual and moral upbringing of youth and children. On December 21, the group held an online seminar, “Religions in the Context of Innovations in Society and the Economy.”

Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians.

The BOC continued its annual commemoration in honor of Hauryil Belastoksky (Gabriel of Bialystok), a child allegedly killed by Jews in Bialystok in 1690. The Russian Orthodox Church considers him one of its saints and martyrs, and the BOC falls under the authority of the Russian Church on traditional practices such as this. Jewish community leaders continued to express concern over the traditional memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, which states the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty” although a trial after the boy’s death acquitted the Jew who was charged with the crime. The BOC in recent years removed some anti-Semitic references about Belastoksky from its online materials and focused more on his role as a regional patron saint of children. Prayers for the commemoration reportedly continued to include anti-Semitic references, however.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with government representatives to discuss religious issues. Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires regularly engaged with officials at the highest levels of government on issues related to religious freedom, registration of religious communities, and anti-Semitism.

The U.S. Secretary of State and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom issued several public statements in support of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, calling for authorities to allow him to return to the country to lead his religious community after being refused reentry from Poland.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Protestants, and minority religious groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about religious activities and discuss government actions that affected religious freedom. They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups as well as government restrictions on registration and operations with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups. Embassy officials also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance. Embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom on social media.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely. The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the Presidency and one house of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – who are predominantly SOC, Roman Catholic, and Muslim, respectively. The government again failed to comply with a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision calling on it to open these positions to other minorities. By law, no Muslim group may register or open a mosque without the approval of the Islamic Community (IC). The human rights ministry made little progress implementing instructions making it responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The Presidency again failed to approve a previously negotiated agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. Religious groups, in communities where they are a minority, reported authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against them in providing services and granting building permits. UNICEF reported students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious discrimination in schools. The Interreligious Council (IRC), comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported inadequate investigation and prosecution of religiously motivated crimes.

The IRC registered 14 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites, including one involving a shooting at a cross, but said the number of actual incidents was likely much higher. In October, vandals damaged the Sultan Sulaiman Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina, a designated national monument. The Saint Sava Orthodox church in Blazuj near Sarajevo was repeatedly vandalized, and several Catholic memorials and chapels were also vandalized. In 2019, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to the police. The incidents ranged from threatening religious leaders and disturbing religious ceremonies with threats to vandalizing cemeteries and other religious sites. In contrast with the previous year, the OSCE did not report any anti-Semitic incidents. Slightly more than two-thirds of respondents in an August survey expressed support for maintaining religious education in schools.

U.S. embassy representatives emphasized the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities to government officials. In May, the Ambassador met with the newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge the groups to improve interreligious dialogue to help develop a peaceful and stable society. The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and to fund some of its interfaith and reconciliation-themed activities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population, Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent, Roman Catholics 15 percent, and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.

There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion.

The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.

The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It provides for equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion and prohibits any incitement to religious hatred or intolerance. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.

The laws of Brcko, a self-governing district, do not encompass freedom of religion. Instead, national laws on religious freedom are applied.

A national law on religion provides for freedom of conscience and grants legal status to “churches and religious communities.” To acquire official status as recognized religious communities, religious groups must register. The constitutions of BiH, the Federation, and RS state that registered religious organizations are allowed to operate freely. Simplified registration procedures applied to religious groups recognized prior to adoption of the law, primarily the Orthodox Church, IC, Jewish Community, Catholic Church, and other Christian groups, including the Evangelical, Baptist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Unregistered religious groups may assemble to practice their religion, but they have no legal status and may not represent themselves as a religious community.

Registration affords numerous rights to religious communities that are not available to those that do not register, including the right to conduct collaborative actions such as do charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees (MHRR) is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.

According to law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Requirements for registration include presenting statutes that define the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application. The law stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.” A group may appeal a negative decision to the BiH Council of Ministers. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction.

The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.

In addition to registered churches and religious communities, there are educational, charitable, and other institutions, known as “legal subjects,” that belong to these communities but are registered as separate legal entities in the MOJ registry. The IC has 120 legal subjects, the Catholic Church 398, the Orthodox Church 526, and other churches and religious communities and alliances (primarily of Protestant groups) of these communities have 47.

A concordat between the BiH government and the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including to establish educational and charitable institutions and carry out religious education in public or private schools, and it officially recognizes Catholic holidays. The government and the Catholic Church created a commission to implement the concordat. A similar agreement exists between the BiH government and the SOC, and a commission to implement it was created in September.

The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.

The law on religion states that churches and religious communities are obligated to pay taxes and contributions on earnings of their employees (pension, health, and disability insurance). In the Federation, two of 10 cantons – Western Herzegovina Canton and Herzegovina-Neretva Canton – include religious officials in their health insurance system. Sarajevo Canton does not include religious workers in its health insurance system but offers such insurance to religious officials under more favorable provisions than those available to average citizens. The RS provides pension benefits and disability insurance to religious workers while they have residence in the RS.

All three BiH administrative units have hate crimes regulated within their criminal codes. The provisions in these codes regulate hate crimes as every criminal act committed because of the race, skin color, religious belief, national or ethnic origin, language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the victim. The criminal codes also stipulate that this motivation is to be taken as an aggravating circumstance of any criminal act unless the code itself stipulates harsher punishments for qualified forms of criminal acts.

The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to assume responsibility for teaching religious studies in public and private preschools, primary and secondary schools, and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers, who are employees of the schools where they teach, although they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.

The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions.

In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course, or students may take a course in ethics. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools may attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week or take a course in ethics. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS that do not have Croat majorities, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. The RS Ministry of Education offers elective religious education in secondary schools.

The BiH constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion.

The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the House of Peoples (one of two houses of parliament) and apportions other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups according to quotas. Members of religious minorities are constitutionally ineligible to hold a seat in the House of Peoples. The three-member presidency must consist of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.

A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based specifically on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.

The country has no law on restitution that would allow for the return of, or compensation for, property, including property owned by religious groups, nationalized or expropriated under communist rule.

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

Government Practices

The human rights ministry made little progress in implementing 2019 instructions for implementation of the national religious freedom law. In accordance with the instructions, the ministry is responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The MHRR took no steps to draft proposals for resolving the issues of rights to pension, disability allowance, and health insurance for religious officials, despite issuing instructions in 2019 stating it would do so and submit the proposals to the government for approval. National, Federation, and RS governments had still not made provisions for religious officials to fully qualify for pensions and health and disability insurance, more than 16 years after the adoption of the law on religious freedom and the 2019 issuance of instructions on implementation of the law stating the MHRR should work with religious group representatives to resolve the issue.

The government again failed to comply with a 2009 decision by the ECHR stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of minority groups, including Jews, to run for president and the House of Peoples.

The MOJ said it generally processed registration applications by religions groups within a week. There were no reports the ministry denied any registration applications by religious communities.

The Presidency again failed to reach a consensus on the approval of a 2015 agreement between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers, as well as one-time travel to Mecca for the Hajj. The Presidency did not inform the MHRR what part of the agreement was not acceptable to it.

In September, the IRC reported the government prohibition against employees of judicial institutions wearing any form of “religious insignia,” including headscarves, at work, remained in place. While there were no instances of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council applying the prohibition during the year, an IC representative stated its existence caused uneasiness and uncertainty among Muslims working in or visiting these institutions.

According to officials of religious groups constituting a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits to build new, or repair existing, religious properties. On March 3, three years after the original application, Drvar municipal authorities issued a location permit to the Catholic Saint Joseph Parish in Drvar for the construction of a pastoral and charity center on property owned by the Catholic Church. In 2019, the Livno Canton Ministry of Construction, Space Planning, and Environment ordered Drvar Municipality to issue a location permit to the Catholic Church in Drvar for the construction of the center, overturning the municipality’s initial rejection of the Church’s request.

As of September, the government of BiH had only partially implemented an ECHR ruling ordering it to remove a Serbian Orthodox church the court found was illegally built on plaintiff Fata Orlovic’s property in Bratunac. The lawyer representing Orlovic confirmed the RS government paid Orlovic and her relatives for financial damages. At the end of February, SOC officials removed all religious items from the church, and, for the first time, there was no church liturgy held on the church’s patron saint’s day on September 11. At year’s end, the church building remained in place on Orlovic’s property.

Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s continuing lack of any institution responsible for the rights of religious communities and the lack of a law on restitution – for both religious communities and private citizens – hindered efforts on the part of religious communities to resolve the issue of property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, repeatedly said the country was the only one in the region that had done nothing to resolve the restitution problem. He said the lack of resolution posed a burden on religious communities, as disputed properties could be an important and much-needed source of revenue for them.

According to religious community leaders, political disagreement over whether the state or the country’s two entities – the Federation and RS – had competency over restitution, as well as the potential cost, were the main barriers to the country’s adopting a law on restitution. According to a study done by the Economic Institute of the Faculty of Economics, University of Sarajevo, just under 7 percent of the total nationalized property in the country belonged to religious communities, and each major religious group had unresolved restitution claims involving high-profile properties. For example, the SOC sought return of its former seminary building, which housed the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Economics; the Jewish Community was seeking return of its La Benevolencija building in the center of Sarajevo, which housed the Ministry of Interior of Sarajevo Canton; the Catholic Church was seeking return of its Saint Augustine Institute building in Sarajevo, which housed the Music Academy; and the IC had a claim on the Palata Gazihusrevbeg building in downtown Sarajevo. In some cases, municipal, cantonal, and entity governments engaged in “silent restitution,” where they allowed religious communities to use a property but did not transfer legal ownership. All main religious groups expressed concerns regarding discrimination and unequal treatment of religious communities by the Federation and the RS. All major religious groups in the country said they agreed on the urgent need for a restitution law to be adopted.

In welcoming remarks during a Christmas reception on January 16, SOC Metropolitan Hrizostom called on the BiH Presidency to support, and the BiH Parliament to adopt, a law on restitution of property. He stated that, by failing to return seized properties to churches and religious communities, the government continued to violate basic human and religious rights of believers. On September 17, Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic, in a meeting with High Representative Valentin Inzko, the official responsible for overseeing implementation of civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement, said the government should either return all nationalized properties to religious groups or pay them compensation. In its October report, Key Findings of the Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovinas EU Membership Application and Analytical Report, the European Commission criticized BiH authorities for failure to adopt a legislative framework for handling restitution cases.

At the end of 2019, the Municipality of Stari Grad Sarajevo began construction of a 5,800 square-meter (62,000 square-foot) building in the center of Sarajevo on a plot of land, ownership of which was partly claimed by four Jewish families and partly by the IC. The Stari Grad Municipality registered itself as the owner of the land, even though the Jewish Community informed the municipality that one of the four original Jewish owners was still alive and the remaining three had living heirs. The families and Jewish Community submitted an appeal to the municipality in 2018, but the municipality rejected it in 2019 and issued a building permit to itself and private investor Amko Komerc. Unlike the Jewish families, several online media outlets, including tacno.net and klix.ba, reported that the IC was compensated for its share of the property.

According to a UNICEF report issued in March, students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious segregation, intolerance, and division in a number of ethnically homogenous schools throughout the country, especially in the “two schools under one roof,” where children were segregated from each other based on ethnicity.

Returnee students (those belonging to a minority ethnic group returning to their homes after being displaced by the war) continued to face barriers in exercising their rights to language education. For the seventh consecutive year, parents of Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation of BiH Ministry of Education with support from the governments of the Sarajevo and the Zenica-Doboj Cantons and the IC. According to media and international organizations, the boycott was based on the refusal of the RS Ministry of Education and Culture (RS MoEC) to approve a group of national subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students are entitled and taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity). Parents of one of these schools in Vrbanjci, Kotor Varos, won a court case in December 2019 in which the RS Supreme Court ruled they were entitled to the national group of subjects in the Bosnian language. The RS MoEC, however, failed to implement the decision by the beginning of the new school year in September. As a result, 60 children continued learning in the Hanifici Islamic Center building, with teachers traveling from Zenica-Doboj Canton, approximately 80 kilometers (48 miles) away. In June, lawyers representing Bosniak parents filed a request for execution of the RS Supreme Court decision at the Kotor Varos Basic Court. By year’s end, that court had not responded. Lawyers representing the parents also reported that they had tried to meet with the RS MoEC officials twice, but without success.

According to nongovernmental organizations and media reports, parents often chose to send their children to public school religious education classes to avoid having their children stand out from other children who attend the classes and be exposed to peer pressure. In August, the PRIME Communications agency asked 1,500 persons whether religious education should remain in schools in the country; 52.8 percent of respondents opposed removing religious education from schools; 16 percent were largely against removal; 11.5 percent favored removal; and the remainder did not answer the question.

According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Bosniak returnees again complained that schools in the RS celebrated Saint Sava Day as an official holiday for their schools; Bosniaks said they considered this discriminatory, since Saint Sava is an Orthodox saint.

Representatives of religious minority communities throughout the country reported that their members had difficulties accessing government services and protections, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. For example, in July, Cardinal Puljic told an Italian Catholic media outlet that thousands of Catholics left the country every year because of discrimination.

On several occasions, IRC leaders again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate in providing police protection and investigating threats of violence and harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated the cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. According to the IRC, the officials rarely investigated the motives of the acts, which would help distinguish cases of theft from hate crimes. In many instances, IRC leaders said they hesitated to report incidents to the police or media, particularly in areas where their religious group is a minority, fearing that public attention could result in retaliation and greater problems for their community in the future.

The Sarajevo Canton Assembly again failed to implement its 2018 decision to change the name of an elementary school and street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad named after Mustafa Busuladzic. Busuladzic was a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. Both the school and street retained the Busuladzic name.

According to representatives of the Catholic Church, the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See had not met since 2016, and the government had not implemented the agreements reached by the commission earlier, such as legislation on observing religious holidays.

In September, the government and the SOC formed a commission to implement the agreement between the government and the SOC. According to the MHRR, the implementation of the agreement with the SOC had likely been stalled for years due to the absence of a similar agreement between the state and the IC.

The MHRR stated in September it had launched a process to unblock the process of adopting an agreement between the IC and the government.

International and local nongovernmental organizations, academics, and government agencies said each of the country’s major political parties continued to align with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership: the largest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the largest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The IRC stated it believed the actual number of incidents was much higher but remained significantly underreported because members of religious groups feared that reporting them could trigger retaliation or further episodes.

In July, unknown persons fired several shots from a small-caliber weapon at a Catholic cross in Bisnje near Derventa. Authorities reported there were no victims; they failed to identify any suspects by year’s end.

On October 11, unknown persons vandalized Sultan Sulaiman’s Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina by breaking glass on two windows. The mosque was a designated national monument previously restored after being destroyed in the 1992-95 war. Mirnes Kovac, a columnist for Al Jazeera Balkans, tweeted: “This is just one more sign of the dramatic rise of ultranationalist forces among the Serb population in the Balkans.” Mayor of Bijeljina Mico Micic condemned the incident and called for tolerance and coexistence in the municipality, as “animosities, mistrust, and instability can bring nothing good.”

In July, unknown persons sprayed insulting graffiti on the Saint Sunday Orthodox Church in the village of Dobric near Siroki Brijeg. According to the IRC, the incident led to a more proactive and constructive attitude towards the SOC by local authorities in Siroki Brijeg, who agreed to help what the IRC described as the small and long-neglected Orthodox returnee community in the village by initiating a project to provide regular water supply to its residences.

In February, vandals damaged the parish house next to the Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kotor Varos Municipality in the RS in February. Police arrested two suspects and initiated criminal proceedings against them, but further information on the case was unavailable at year’s end.

In January, police arrested two minors after they damaged a window and the facade of the Carsijska Mosque in Kozarska Dubica. The perpetrators later visited the imam, together with their parents, and apologized to him, offering to pay for the damage. The local mayor also offered to cover the cost of repairs.

In August, on the first day of the Islamic New Year, a dead pig was found in the yard of the mosque in Bratunac. The perpetrators were not identified.

In 2019, the OSCE mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to police. Incidents ranged from disturbing religious ceremonies with threats and shootings, to threatening religious leaders, to vandalizing graveyards and religious facilities through property destruction and graffiti.

On February 26, Danijel Rajkovic from Gacko was sentenced to one year in prison for provoking ethnic, racial, and religious hatred. In 2019, Rajkovic defecated in front of the mosque in Gacko and, on several occasions, sent threatening messages to the imam in Bosanski Novi. In addition to his prison sentence, the court ordered Rajkovic to undergo psychiatric treatment.

The Council of Muftis of the IC said it was continuing efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease what they described as “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. The IC reported 11 active para-jamaats during the year, compared with 21 in 2019 and 64 in 2016.

In May, Cardinal Puljic, the most senior Catholic prelate in the country, held a memorial Mass for the victims of Bleiburg, where Yugoslav partisans killed thousands of Nazi-allied Ustasha fighters who fled the advance of the communist forces, as well as innocent persons, including women and children. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Cardinal Puljic could not travel to Bleiburg, Austria, for the annual commemoration. The Jewish Community, Israeli Embassy in Tirana, Albania, and SOC criticized the Cardinal’s plans to hold the commemorative Mass, which also drew sizeable but peaceful protests in the center of Sarajevo. The press reported that the Mass, which was also broadcast by a regional television station, included a prayer for all victims of World War II, and there was no mention of Ustasha leaders. Online newspaper Crux Now reported that in an interview with local Catholic radio station Marija, Cardinal Pujlic said he had received threats related to the memorial Mass and that his church had prayed “for all the victims, not for Ustashas or criminals.”

The IRC organized six training sessions for youth, religious leaders, and IRC staff on usage of social media in promoting positive narratives (stories designed to promote interreligious and interethnic dialogue). The IRC continued to monitor and condemn attacks on religious leaders and buildings. It also organized “youth corners” – booths in public areas providing pamphlets and other information promoting the work and mission of the IRC – in Tuzla, Trebinje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Zepce.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In May, the Ambassador met with newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees Milos Lucic and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. Embassy officials engaged with the Presidency, Ministry of Security, and MHRR and underscored the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment under the law for religious minorities.

Embassy officials had numerous meetings with the Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Orthodox communities and community leaders. The Ambassador had individual meetings or calls with the leaders of the traditional religious communities, and embassy officials attended events hosted by the religious communities to commemorate religious holidays. Embassy officials continued to have small in-person meetings and representational events with the representatives of the Islamic, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish communities. At these events, embassy officials emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and respect for religious diversity and urged the religious communities to continue efforts to foster reconciliation and condemn intolerance and hate speech. The embassy reinforced its messages of support following the events and meetings on its social media platforms; the postings, particularly on Twitter, included calls for tolerance and the importance of interreligious dialogue and reconciliation.

The embassy continued supporting the Interreligious Studies and Peacebuilding master’s program, a long-term project in its fourth year of operation, implemented jointly by the Catholic Theological Faculty, Faculty of Islamic Studies (University of Sarajevo), and Orthodox Theological Faculty (University of East Sarajevo). During the year, the embassy supported the program by financing a Fulbright fellow. The program is accredited by the Universities of Sarajevo and East Sarajevo. Its goal is to bring together professionals and students across ethnic and religious backgrounds. Thirty-five students enrolled in the program since its inception; there were 12 enrollees for 2020-21.

The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and supported its activities by providing funding. In January, the embassy approved a one-year project to help the IRC better respond to hate speech and attacks against religious sites and officials. The project involved technical assistance to the IRC to improve its strategic messaging; increase cooperation with authorities, civil society, and the media; and bolster its outreach and networks among youth. Its main objective was to minimize the potential for escalation following negative events and send messages to prevent a cycle of recrimination and violence, while strengthening interreligious dialogue as a tool for promoting empathy and preventing violence. The project focused on five communities where hate-based attacks and speech had been prevalent in recent years (Tuzla, Trebinje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Zepce).

The Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development visited the country in February and participated in the signing ceremony for the project with the IRC leaders. During her visit, the Deputy Administrator toured holy sites of all four traditional religions with leaders of the IRC. She congratulated the members of the IRC for their efforts to set a positive example of tolerance and collaboration across faiths by engaging citizens of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Bulgaria

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and conscience. Religious groups may worship without registering, but registered groups receive benefits. The constitution recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s “traditional” religion, and the law exempts the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) from registration. In December, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began hearing an appeal by 14 Romani Muslims convicted in 2019 of spreading Salafi Islam, among other charges. Muslim leaders again said several municipalities denied permission to build new or rehabilitate existing religious facilities. The Evangelical Alliance and some other religious groups stated the government did not apply COVID-19 restrictions on religious groups equally, favoring the BOC. The European Court of Human Rights stopped the deportation of three Uyghur Muslims to China. In February, a Shumen court ruled the municipality’s ordinance restricting proselytizing was unconstitutional. A parliamentarian and member of the governing political coalition criticized the ruling, which was being appealed, calling Jehovah’s Witnesses a “dangerous sect.” In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the Sofia mayor’s ban on the annual march honoring Hristo Lukov, leader of a pro-Nazi organization in the 1940s, restricting the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque. The academy of sciences published a report, backed by several government ministries, denying the World War II-era government had sent Jews to forced labor camps but instead had tried to save them from the Nazis.

The Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) Shalom reported death threats, increased incidents of anti-Semitic hate speech in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and periodic vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported fewer instances of harassment and threats, attributing the change to COVID-19 restrictions. Jehovah’s Witnesses said some media continued to misrepresent their activities. Protestants stated media published information about members of their community who tested positive for COVID-19, while not doing so for members of any other religious group. An Alpha research survey issued in January of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers found rates of mistrust of Muslims was 26 percent, of Jews and Protestants 10 percent, and of Catholics 8 percent.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly discussed cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives supporting interfaith dialogue with government officials, including representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local governments. The Ambassador and embassy officials also met with minority religious groups and supported civil society efforts to encourage tolerance and stimulate interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 76 percent of the population identifies as Eastern Orthodox Christian, primarily affiliated with the BOC. The census reports Muslims, the second largest religious group, are approximately 10 percent of the population, followed by Protestants at 1.1 percent and Roman Catholics at 0.8 percent. Nearly 95 percent of Muslims reported being Sunni; most of the rest are Shia, and there is a small number of Ahmadis concentrated in Blagoevgrad. Orthodox Christians of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Sri Chinmoy, and other groups together make up 0.2 percent of the population. According to the census, 4.8 percent of respondents have no religion and 7.1 percent did not specify a religion. According to a 2019 report by the think tank Agency for Social Analyses, 74 percent of individuals identify as Orthodox Christians, 10 percent as Muslims, 13 percent as atheists, and 3 percent with other religious traditions.

Some religious minorities are concentrated geographically. Many Muslims, including ethnic Turks, Roma, and Pomaks (descendants of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) live in the Rhodope Mountains along the southern border with Greece and Turkey. Ethnic Turkish and Romani Muslims also live in large numbers in the northeast and along the Black Sea coast. Some recent Romani converts to Islam live in towns in the central region, such as Plovdiv and Pazardjik. According to the census, nearly 40 percent of Catholics live in and around Plovdiv. The majority of the small Jewish community lives in Sofia, Plovdiv, and along the Black Sea coast. Protestants are widely dispersed. Many Roma are Protestant converts, and Protestants are more numerous in areas with large Romani populations. Approximately 80 percent of the urban population and 62 percent of the rural population identifies as Orthodox Christian. Approximately 25 percent of the rural population identifies as Muslim, compared with four percent of the urban population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states freedom of conscience and choice of religion or no religion are inviolable, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the state shall assist in maintaining tolerance and respect among believers of different denominations, as well as between believers and nonbelievers. It states the practice of any religion shall be unrestricted except to the extent its practice would be detrimental to national security, public order, health, and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. It states no one shall be exempt from obligations established by the constitution or the law on grounds of religious or other convictions. The constitution also stipulates the separation of religious institutions from the state and prohibits the formation of political parties along religious lines or organizations that incite religious animosity, as well as the use of religious beliefs, institutions, and communities for political ends. The law does not allow any privilege based on religious identity.

The constitution names Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s traditional religion. The law establishes the BOC as a legal entity, exempting it from the court registration that is mandatory for all other religious groups seeking legal recognition.

The penal code prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for persons attacking individuals or groups based on their religious affiliation. Instigators and leaders of an attack may receive prison sentences of up to six years. Those who obstruct the ability of individuals to profess their faith, carry out their rituals and services, or compel another to participate in religious rituals and services may receive prison sentences of up to one year. Violating a person’s or group’s freedom to acquire or practice a religious belief is subject to a fine of between 100 and 300 levs ($63-$190). If a legal entity commits the infraction, the fine may range from 500 to 5,000 levs ($310-$3,100).

To receive national legal recognition, religious groups other than the BOC must register with the Sofia City Court. Applications must include: the group’s name and official address; a description of the group’s religious beliefs and service practices, organizational structure and bodies and management procedures, bodies, and mandates; a list of official representatives and the processes for their election; procedures for convening meetings and making decisions; and information on finances and property and processes for termination and liquidation of the group. The Directorate for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers provides expert opinions on registration matters upon the court’s request. Applicants must notify the Directorate for Religious Affairs within seven days of receiving a court decision on their registration. Applicants may appeal negative registration decisions to the Sofia Appellate Court and, subsequently, the Supreme Cassation Court. The law does not require the formal registration of local branches of registered groups, only that branches notify local authorities, and local authorities enter them in a register. Local branches are not required to obtain registration from the local court. The law prohibits registration of different groups with the same name in the same location. The Directorate for Religious Affairs and any prosecutor may request that a court revoke a religious group’s registration on the grounds of systematic violations of the law. There are 203 registered religious groups in addition to the BOC.

Registered religious groups must maintain a registry of their clergy and employees, provide the Directorate for Religious Affairs with access to the registry, and issue a certificate to each clerical member, who must carry it as proof of representing the group. Foreign members of registered religious groups may obtain long-term residency permits, but for the foreign member to be allowed to conduct religious services during his or her stay, the group must send advance notice to the Directorate for Religious Affairs.

The law requires the government to provide funding for all registered religious groups based on the number of self-identified followers in the latest census (2011), at a rate of 10 levs ($6) per capita to groups that comprise more than one percent of the population and varying amounts for the rest.

Registered groups have the right to perform religious services; maintain financial accounts; own property such as houses of worship and cemeteries; provide medical, social, and educational services; receive property tax and other exemptions; and participate in commercial ventures.

Unregistered religious groups may engage in religious practice, but they lack privileges granted to registered groups, such as access to government funding and the right to own property, establish financial accounts in their names, operate schools and hospitals, receive property tax exemptions, and sell religious merchandise.

The law restricts the wearing of face-covering garments in public places, imposing a fine of 200 levs ($130) for a first offense and 1,500 levs ($940) for repeat offenses.

The law allows registered groups to publish, import, and distribute religious media. The law does not restrict proselytizing by registered or unregistered groups. Dozens of municipalities, including the regional cities of Kyustendil, Shumen, Stara Zagora, and Sliven, have ordinances prohibiting door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature without a permit. The ordinances in Stara Zagora and Kyustendil remained in effect despite a 2018 Supreme Administrative Court ruling that they were unconstitutional. Several municipalities, including Shumen, Kyustendil, and Sliven, prohibit unregistered religious groups from conducting any religious activities. Some municipalities prohibit religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children.

By law, public schools at all levels may, but are not required, to teach the historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of religion and introduce students to the moral values of different religious groups as part of the core curriculum. A school may teach any registered religion in a special course as part of the elective curriculum upon request of at least 13 students, subject to the availability of books and teachers. The Ministry of Education and Science approves the content of and provides books for these special religion courses. If a public school is unable to pay for a religion teacher, it may accept financial sponsorship from a private donor or a teacher from a registered denomination. The law also allows registered religious groups to operate schools and universities, provided they meet government standards for secular education.

The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent government body charged with preventing and protecting against discrimination, including religious discrimination, and ensuring equal opportunity. It functions as a civil litigation court adjudicating discrimination complaints and does not charge for its services. The commission’s decisions may be appealed to administrative courts. Upon accepting a case, the commission assigns it to a panel that then reviews it in open session. If the commission makes a finding of discrimination, it may impose a fine of 250 to 2,000 levs ($160-$1,300). The commission may double fines for repeat violations. Regional courts may also try civil cases involving religious discrimination.

The law establishes an independent ombudsman to serve as an advocate for citizens who believe public or municipal administrations or public service providers have violated their rights and freedoms, including those pertaining to religion, through their actions or inaction. The ombudsman may request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals for terminating existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request that the Constitutional Court abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.

The penal code provides up to three years’ imprisonment for forming “a political organization on religious grounds” or using a church or religion to spread propaganda against the authority of the state or its activities.

The penal code prohibits the propagation or incitement of religious or other discrimination, violence, or hatred “by speech, press, or other media, by electronic information systems or in another manner,” as well as religiously motivated assault or property damage. Either offense is punishable by imprisonment for one to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 10,000 levs ($3,100-$6,300), as well as “public censure.” The propagation of “fascism or another antidemocratic ideology” is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to 5,000 levs ($3,100). Courts have found that Nazism falls within the purview of “antidemocratic ideology.” Desecration of religious symbols or sites, including places of worship or graves, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 to 10,000 levs ($1,900-$6,300).

The law provides for restitution of real estate confiscated during the communist era; courts have also applied the law to Holocaust-related claims.

The law allows religious groups to delay until 2029 paying back outstanding revenue obligations incurred before December 31, 2018.

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

Government Practices

On December 10, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began proceedings involving 14 Romani Muslims, 12 of whom appealed their lower-court convictions on charges of supporting ISIS, assisting foreign fighters, and propagating Salafi Islam, characterized by the government as an antidemocratic ideology, and incitement to war. The prosecution appealed the sentences of 13 defendants to seek more severe punishments. In 2019, the Pazardjik District Court sentenced the group’s leader, Islamic preacher Ahmed Mussa, to 8.5 years in prison, while the rest of the men received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 42 months. The only woman in the group received a two-year suspended sentence.

Some religious groups complained of unequal treatment by the authorities during a COVID-19 state of emergency in effect from March 13 to May 13 when all indoor public gatherings were prohibited. Catholic, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and most Protestant churches switched to online services, while Muslims and Jews closed mosques and synagogues. BOC churches remained open, without penalty. In October, authorities initiated prosecution against Church of God-Bulgaria pastor Nikolay Vasilev, accusing him of holding an Easter service in Samokov in breach of the ban on public gatherings. According to press reports, more than 100 of the participants at the outdoor event received administrative fines. In a public declaration in April, the Evangelical Alliance stated the authorities’ actions against the Samokov church interfered in the internal affairs of a Protestant church in an attempt to disrupt its services and persecute its clerics and worshippers. According to Vasilev as well as videos from the event posted online, the organizers observed all required health measures, including maintaining appropriate physical distance and wearing masks. At year’s end, the trial had not been scheduled. The maximum penalty for a conviction is five years’ imprisonment and a 15,000-lev ($9,400) fine.

In February, the European Court of Human Rights ordered interim measures to stop the expulsion of three Uyghur Muslims who had been denied asylum in 2017 and were facing deportation to China. The State Agency for National Security ordered their expulsion in 2018 on national security grounds. NGOs reported the Uyghurs had already fled Bulgaria in 2019 to another European country.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said the legal requirement for reporting to the government the names and contact information of all clerics violated the freedom of nondeclaration of religious affiliation guaranteed by the constitution. The Church of Jesus Christ said the legal requirement for providing the government full access to the records of its clerics and personnel was a violation of privacy. The Papal Nuncio also said the requirement imposed a burden on the local Catholic community, which did not have enough staff.

In February, the Shumen Administrative Court determined that the provision in a Shumen municipality ordinance restricting proselytizing violated the country’s constitution but stated the provisions prohibiting religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children were an “adequate and proportionate measure to protect children.”

Dean Stanchev, Member of Parliament from the United Patriots coalition and part of the governing coalition, posted on social media his “outrage” at the court’s decision, describing Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “dangerous sect” and stating that the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) political party would continue to “fight against its [Jehovah’s Witnesses’] parasitic activities” in order to “clear them from public spaces and people’s homes.” At year’s end, both the municipality and Jehovah’s Witnesses had appealed the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court.

Contrary to previous years, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not report any acts against their members while engaged in proselytizing. They attributed the change to reduced proselytizing due to COVID-19 restrictions. In February, the mayor of Dobrich and the local chief of police met with representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses to apologize for a December 2019 incident in the city center, when police brought two proselytizing Witnesses to the local precinct and accused them of violating public order. The mayor and the police chief said the officers had acted out of ignorance and inexperience and committed to providing police with the necessary information to avoid further incidents.

In May, June, August, and December, the government allocated 10.2 million levs ($6.4 million) in funding for repair and maintenance of BOC facilities in Sofia, Varna, Krustova Gora, Rila, Shipka, and Koprivets. In June, the Council of Ministers said it would provide an annual subsidy of one million levs ($627,000) to the three monasteries under the BOC Patriarch’s jurisdiction.

In July, the Supreme Administrative Court overturned a lower court’s decision and ruled the Catholic Church did not owe property tax from a 2009 claim by Sofia Municipality, which had not recognized the religious status of two Catholic monasteries located in the municipality.

The Office of the Grand Mufti and regional Muslim leaders said several municipalities, including Sofia, Stara Zagora, and Haskovo, continued to reject, on what they said were nontransparent grounds, their requests to build new, or rehabilitate existing, religious facilities. In October, Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji raised the issue in a meeting with Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova, but by year’s end, the mayor’s office had not provided any information on the city’s continued rejections of the construction applications.

According to Razgrad Mufti Mehmed Alya, local public perception about restoring the landmark Makbul Ibrahim Pasa Mosque in Razgrad, which had been closed for nearly 50 years, to a functioning mosque shifted from negative to positive due to efforts by Regional Governor Gunai Husmen in the previous three years. In October, local authorities used a 2.3-million-lev ($1.44-million) grant from the national government to start renovating the mosque, which was listed officially as a cultural monument and therefore owned by the national government. New Mayor Dencho Boyadjiev agreed that the mosque could reopen for religious services after restoration, while the Muslim community, in turn, agreed that the mosque would be available for tourist visits when not in religious use.

The Office of the Grand Mufti said it was continuing to search for ways to litigate its recognition as the successor to the pre-1949 Muslim religious communities for the purpose of reclaiming approximately 30 properties, including eight mosques, two schools, two baths, and a cemetery seized by the former communist government. Pending a decision on who was the rightful successor to the Muslim religious communities, the courts continued to suspend action on all restitution claims by the Office of the Grand Mufti.

The national public school elective curriculum continued to provide three sets of classes at various grade levels in religious studies: one for Christianity, one for Islam, and one for all religions as ethical systems. In July, the Ministry of Education approved official school textbooks for students from first to fifth grade in the three programs that schools began using in the academic year. The Office of the Grand Mufti stated that some regional education inspectors attempted to persuade principals of schools offering an Islamic studies program to select members of their faculty to be trained as teachers for the program in order to replace teachers who were alumni of the High Islamic Institute. In November, the High Islamic Institute and the Office of the Grand Mufti commenced a project to retrain members of the Muslim community in pedagogical education as teachers of Islam.

In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld Sofia Mayor Fandakova’s ban on an annual march of right-wing extremists from across Europe to honor Hristo Lukov, the 1940s leader of the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The mayor’s ban cited serious concerns that a torchlight march in downtown Sofia would disrupt public order and restricted the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque in front of his house on February 22. In previous years, the Sofia Administrative Court had overturned the mayor’s banning of the march. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Democratic Bulgarian alliance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions had denounced the rally. On February 10, a Sofia prosecutor petitioned the Sofia City Court to deregister the rally organizer, Bulgarian National Union-Edelweiss, stating its activity violated individual rights; incited ethnic, racial, and religious hostility and homophobia; spread anti-Semitic propaganda; and undermined national integrity. At year’s end, the case continued in the Sofia City Court.

On January 17, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences organized a roundtable cohosted by the Ministry of Defense to present a report, Jews’ Labor Obligation during World War 2: Rescue Plan or Repressive Measure?, which denied that authorities forced the male Jewish population into labor camps in the early 1940s and stated that instead the Army Labor Corps drafted Jews as part of a government plan to save them from the Nazis. The Ministries of Education and Culture, VMRO, and several NGOs, such as the Bulgarian-Jewish Research Institute and the Independent Historical Society, supported the roundtable. Shalom criticized the event as “an alarming revisionist attempt to distort the history of the Holocaust” at all institutional levels. In a speech on January 30, Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva stated that sending Jews to labor camps during World War II was part of the “anti-Semitic repressive machine” established with anti-Semitic legislation.

In July, the municipal council in Blagoevgrad, at the request of Sunni Muslim community leaders, rejected a 10,000-euro ($12,300) donation from the Ahmadi Muslim Community to the city for general emergency relief assistance “in order not to legitimize the organization and its activity in the region.”

The national budget allocated 33.34 million levs ($20.92 million) to registered religious groups for current expenses, such as remuneration for their employees and clerics, education activities, and cemetery maintenance, as well as capital investments, such as construction and maintenance of religious facilities and related expenses, compared with 31.27 million levs ($19.62 million) in 2019. Of the 33.34 million, 27.2 million levs ($17.06 million) went to the BOC; 5.77 million levs ($3.62 million) to the Muslim community; 160,000 levs ($100,000) to Protestant denominations; and 70,000 levs ($43,900) each to the Catholic Church, AAOC, and the Jewish community. No other registered religious groups received government funding. Evangelical Alliance representatives again said Protestants did not receive their fair share of government funding, possibly because they were not represented by a single organization, even though their numbers exceeded one percent of the population.

According to NGOs, souvenirs exhibiting Nazi insignias and imagery continued to be widely available in tourist areas around the country and local governments lacked political will to deal with the problem. The National Coordinator for Combating Anti-Semitism stated that when alerted to them, the national government took steps to close vendors selling Nazi souvenirs.

In May, during Ramadan, President Rumen Radev met with Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji. Both stated that government and religious institutions must promote solidarity, charity, and mutual assistance among the people.

In August, Shalom expressed concern regarding a statement by Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, who invoked the name of a Jewish-American financier, saying that NGOs linked to him “want to take the power in order to introduce gay marriage.” Shalom stated that, while such statements did not mention the financier’s Jewish heritage, they “have a strong anti-Semitic character and suggest that Jews interfere in the social and economic affairs of countries in the world.”

In March, the Supreme Cassation Court found Boris Yachev, Member of Parliament from the United Patriots coalition, guilty of slander and ordered him to pay 3,000 levs ($1,900) to Jehovah’s Witnesses for a series of statements about them on his party’s SKAT TV that the court ruled “incite religious hatred and threaten to hinder [the religious group’s] activity.” The court overturned two lower court rulings that had found Jehovah’s Witnesses were not eligible to receive compensation for damages resulting from the statements. In his statements, which he made in 2014, Yachev vowed to use his position in parliament to “restrict the unhindered invasion by [religious] emissaries of Bulgarian cities and villages,” describing Jehovah’s Witnesses as “one of the most dangerous and arrogant sects” that needed to be restricted by legal means.

Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev served as the national coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, publicly denouncing hate speech and anti-Semitism. On November 9, Georgiev commemorated the Kristallnacht anniversary, saying he is proud to be “part of a common cause for ensuring an environment free of any forms of hate speech” by remembering the lessons of history. On December 23, Georgiev denounced the defacement of Plovdiv Synagogue’s front gate with graffiti reading “Israel=Nazis,” calling it a “repulsive,” “undignified,” and “barbarian” act. He stated, “It is essential for every democracy to allow the free expression of political and civilian views, but not by vandalizing, insulting, and violating others’ rights.”

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In August, Shalom received a threat via email of a bomb at the synagogue in Plovdiv. In November 2019, Shalom received an emailed death threat from Black Front, an organization Shalom described as white supremacist. Authorities were investigating both threats.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites, in online media articles, and in the mainstream press, and anti-Semitic graffiti, such as swastikas and offensive inscriptions such as “dirty kikes,” appeared regularly in public places. Jewish community leaders also expressed concern regarding what they said was an increasing trend of anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda and graffiti.

On December 16, Sofia University fired Mihail Mirchev, a part-time professor, after its ethics commission found his lectures included negative ethnic stereotypes. The firing came after Shalom and other NGOs protested that Mirchev’s lectures featured racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic content such as, “Is it possible that Bulgaria could turn into a Jewish country if they, being fewer than one percent, own the state, the capital, the media, and the art?” Mirchev said his words had been taken out of context. In November, prior to Mirchev’s dismissal, Shalom’s criticism of him generated numerous anti-Semitic commentaries such as, “Jews can only learn from a heavy hand and a bullet in the back of the head.”

In November, Shalom notified Sofia Municipality about anti-Semitic and racist posters put up all around Sofia by activists of the Nationalist Social Club 131. In June, Shalom stated organizations such as Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity and Military Union-Bulgarian National Movement “Shipka” were spreading online propaganda stating Jews were involved with the COVID-19 pandemic in order to provide “a deadly pseudo-antidote” aimed at “mass extermination of people.” After authorities issued a summons to Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity leader Lyudmila Kostadinova informing her that she would be held criminally liable if she continued, the messaging stopped.

According to Jewish community leaders, incidents of vandalism continued, including damaging Jewish graves and painting swastikas and offensive graffiti. For example, in January, vandals broke tombstones and damaged fences in the Jewish cemetery in Shumen. In June, vandals defaced a playground and the facades of adjacent houses in Sofia with 56 swastikas. At year’s end, authorities had not identified any suspects in either incident.

On February 26, Sofia University withdrew honorary degrees it had awarded to Hans Frank, Bernhard Rust, Ewald Robert Valentin von Massow, and Eduard Kohlrausch between 1933 and 1940, complying with a petition from the Bulgarian Association of Holocaust Survivors and Their Children indicating the recipients had been members of the German Nazi Party. According to a university statement, its honorary doctors should not be persons “connected with a hateful ideology or involved in crimes.”

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, 58 percent of Bulgarian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it seventh of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported negative media characterizations of them again declined but that some local online media outlets, such as Konkurent, Blitz, and Utro, continued to misrepresent the group’s activities and beliefs. On April 21, local Ruse media Utro described Jehovah’s Witnesses as “the most dangerous sect in the world” and advised its readers to avoid any contact with the group. Unlike in previous years, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported no cases of hostility or harassment against their members by nongovernment officials, which they attributed to the COVID-19-related restrictions that forced them to switch to online gatherings.

In June, the Evangelical Alliance protested to health authorities that a number of media publications released personal information, such as names and addresses, about members of the Protestant community, including pastors, who tested positive for COVID-19. The alliance stated, “Such information has never been released regarding persons of the Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, Judaic, Armenian, or any other faith,” and asked health authorities to check whether they had disclosed the information to media. Information as to who released the information was unavailable at year’s end.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ reported three instances of harassment of missionaries in Varna and Sofia in the first 11 months of the year, a number comparable to the previous year. In 2018, there were 13 instances involving physical assault and harassment against members of the Church.

In June, BOC Metropolitan Ioanikiy called for the removal of a plaque from Sozopol’s main street commemorating the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run. In a letter to the local government, the Metropolitan stated that many countries considered the Sri Chinmoy Center a “totalitarian religious community” that “degrades the family institution, attacks Christians, and undermines the prestige of the Holy Orthodox Church.” Municipal councilors from the ruling GERB political party in Sozopol expressed support for the Metropolitan’s call to remove the plaque. At year’s end, the plaque, inaugurated by the mayor and the chair of the municipal council, remained in place.

In May, the Supreme Cassation Court refused to review the appeal of the Sri Chinmoy Center against the lower-instance Sofia City Court’s decision dismissing the organization’s claim against Desislava Panayotova, Director of the Center for Religious Research and Consultations and Chief Editor of the webpage of the BOC’s Holy Synod, for discrimination. Panayotova described in a 2008 media article the Sri Chinmoy Center as a “dangerous sect” that operates illegally and spreads “unhealthy religious teachings.”

In January, Alpha Research published a survey of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers/atheists on their attitudes toward religious minority groups which found 3.4 percent of respondents hated, and 5.6 percent feared, Muslims; two percent hated, and 0.4 percent feared, Jews; 1.5 percent hated, and 2.6 percent feared, Protestants; and 0.5 percent hated, and 0.6 percent feared, Catholics. The rates of mistrust of various groups – which the survey’s authors interpreted as reluctance to openly disclose hatred – were: of Muslims, 25.8 percent; Jews, 10.4 percent; Protestants, 10 percent; and Catholics, 7.6 percent. While the average rate of acceptance of a person of a different religion in one’s neighborhood or working environment was approximately 50 percent, only 3.2 percent of respondents would consider marrying a Muslim, 6.3 percent a Jew, 8 percent a Protestant, and 11.7 percent a Catholic.

On February 14, Regional Mufti of Plovdiv Taner Veli hosted the annual Tolerance Coffee, gathering representatives of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities, local government officials, foreign diplomats, and representatives of civil society. According to the press release from the Mufti’s office, the event commemorated a 2014 attack on the local Cumaya Mosque and was intended to improve relations among religious groups and to prevent the future occurrence of such attacks.

The National Council of Religious Communities, whose members include representatives of Bulgarian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities, continued to serve as a platform for the largest religious groups to organize joint events and defend a common position on religious issues, such as legislative proposals, political statements, and actions by others, and religiously motivated vandalism. In February, members of the council participated in working meetings of the Muslim Denomination and the Central Israelite Religious Council, in which the host groups presented their faiths and ongoing projects. On February 10, the council conducted an interfaith discussion in Sofia on each of its member group’s views on divine revelation. The council substantially curtailed activity soon thereafter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued discussions with representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local government administrations about cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives to support interfaith dialogue. In February, the Ambassador discussed religious tolerance during a visit to Vidin with Mayor Tsvetan Tsenkov.

Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of the BOC, National Council of Religious Communities, Office of the Grand Mufti, Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Catholic, Protestant, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss religious discrimination, restitution of religious properties, and legislative proposals restricting foreign funding. Embassy officials also met with human rights groups, such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and Inforoma Center, to discuss these issues.

The Ambassador discussed religious tolerance, support for interfaith dialogue, and opposition to persecution with the Grand Mufti in January. In February, the Ambassador visited the mosque in Vidin, which was under renovation with U.S. funding, where she discussed interfaith dialogue and mutual support with Regional Mufti Necati Ali and Orthodox Metropolitan Daniil. In March, the Ambassador discussed with the Papal Nuncio the Catholic community’s concerns regarding the funding of religious groups and new administrative requirements under the law, such as providing the government with contact information on clerics and other staff.

Crimea

Read A Section: Crimea

Ukraine

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

Read a Section

Ukraine

Croatia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. All religious communities have the same religious protections under the law. The government has written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that provide state financial support and specific tax and other benefits; 19 other registered religious communities have agreements with the state offering benefits not available to registered religious communities without such agreements or to unregistered religious groups. Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) representatives said that although some property had been returned, the restitution of property seized by the Yugoslavia government remained an outstanding issue. This was echoed by representatives of the Catholic Church. The British newspaper The Guardian reported that some police officers spray-painted Christian crosses on the heads of presumably Muslim migrants attempting to illegally enter the country during Ramadan with the intent to “mark, humiliate, and traumatize” them. The Interior Ministry said The Guardian’s report was a “premeditated attack” against the government that incited religious intolerance without knowledge of the facts, as authorities maintained “excellent relations with the Islamic religious community.” Interior Ministry officials said they investigated all allegations and found no irregularities in the conduct of police in this case. In October, Minister of Culture and Media Nina Obuljen Korzinek attended the installation of the first of 20 Stolpersteine stones or “stumbling blocks” recognizing Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Zagreb and said the project would educate society regarding the Holocaust. Senior government officials, a representative from the Alliance of Anti-Fascists, and leaders of the Serbian, Roma, and Jewish communities jointly commemorated victims of the World War II concentration camp at Jasenovac for the first time since 2015. On January 23, the parliamentary Education, Science, and Culture Committee for the first time adopted a resolution encouraging state institutions and civil society organizations to promote the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.

SOC representatives anecdotally reported incidents targeting individuals of Serbian ethnicity increased compared with 2019, including physical and verbal attacks, especially in the city of Vukovar, a site of intense fighting during the war in the 1990s, although they said they did not have detailed records on the number of incidents. According to SOC representatives, it was unclear if these incidents were religiously or ethnically motivated. As in recent years, members of some Jewish groups reported hate speech, especially on the internet, and incidents such as graffiti on Jewish-owned buildings. Representatives of the Jewish community expressed concerns regarding the use of Ustasha (pro-Nazi World War II era government) insignia in society. On February 4-5, the country’s Islamic leaders and the Muslim World League, in cooperation with the Croatian Conference of Catholic Bishops, organized an international conference entitled “Human Fraternity as the Foundation of Peace and Security in the World,” focusing on world peace and coexistence.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the status and treatment of religious minorities, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism with cabinet ministers and other senior government officials. During the year, embassy officials attended major events that emphasized the importance of Holocaust remembrance and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials continued to encourage the government to amend legislation covering Holocaust-era property restitution to allow for restitution and compensation claims with a revised deadline for new applications. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues, including freedom of expression and efforts to counter discrimination, with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and representatives from a broad spectrum of religious groups. In January, the embassy launched a monthly diversity and inclusion initiative in which embassy staff engaged representatives from different religious and secular groups to promote tolerance and discuss challenges and cooperation among different religious communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 86.3 percent of the population is Catholic, 4.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, and 1.5 percent Muslim. Nearly 4 percent identify as nonreligious or atheist. Other religious groups include Jews, Protestants, and other Christians. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 1,700 Jews.

Religious affiliation correlates closely with ethnicity. Ethnic Serbs are predominantly members of the SOC and live primarily in cities and areas bordering Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most members of other minority religious groups reside in urban areas.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for equality of rights regardless of religion, as well as freedom of conscience and religious expression. It prohibits incitement of religious hatred. According to the constitution, religious communities shall be equal under the law and separate from the state; they are free to conduct religious services publicly as well as open and manage schools and charitable organizations under the protection and with the assistance of the state.

The Roman Catholic Church receives state financial support and other benefits established by four concordats between the government and the Holy See. One of these agreements provides state financial support for some religious officials. Another agreement stipulates state funding for religious education in public schools.

The law defines the legal position of religious communities and determines eligibility for government funding and tax benefits. Registered religious communities are exempt from taxes on the purchase of real estate, the profit/capital gains tax, and taxes on donations. According to the law, a religious community previously active as a legal entity before enactment of the current law in 2002 (amended in 2013) need only submit its name, the location of its headquarters, information on the office of the person authorized to represent it, and the seal and stamp it uses to register. To register as a religious community, a religious group without prior legal status as a religious community must have at least 500 members and have been registered as an association, with at least three members, for at least five years. To register as a religious community, a group submits a list of its members and documentation outlining the group’s activities and bylaws and describing its mission to the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration. Nonregistered religious groups may operate freely but do not receive tax benefits. They may conduct financial transactions as legal entities. A contractual agreement with the state, which grants a registered religious community eligibility for further funding and benefits, defines the community’s role and activities and provides for collaboration with the government in areas of joint interest, such as education, health, and culture.

There are 55 registered religious communities, including the Roman Catholic Church, SOC, Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Christian Adventist Church, Church of Christ, Church of God, Croatian Old Catholic Church, Catholic Old Church, Evangelical Church, Macedonian Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Reformed Christian Church, Union of Baptist Churches, Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Union of Pentecostal Churches of Christ, Coordination Committee of Jewish Communities in Croatia (an umbrella group of nine distinct Jewish communities), Jewish Community of Virovitica, Bet Israel (a Jewish group), and the Islamic Community of Croatia. In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, 19 of the registered religious communities have formal agreements with the state that more clearly define activities and cooperation, such as in the areas of marriage and of religious education in public schools. These groups may access state funds for religious activities.

The state recognizes marriages conducted by registered religious communities that have concluded agreements with the state, eliminating the need for civil registration. Marriages conducted by registered communities that have not concluded agreements with the state, or by nonregistered religious groups, require civil registration.

Registered religious communities that have not concluded agreements with the state and nonregistered religious groups may not conduct religious education in public schools. Nonregistered religious groups have no access to state funds in support of religious activities, including charitable work, counseling, and building costs. Registered religious communities that have not concluded agreements with the state and nonregistered religious groups may engage in worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature. Only registered religious communities, with or without agreements with the state, may provide spiritual counsel in prisons, hospitals, and the military.

Public schools at both the primary and secondary levels must offer religious education, although students may opt out without providing specific grounds. The Catholic catechism is the predominant religious text used. Other religious communities that have agreements with the state may also offer religious education classes in schools if there are seven or more students of that faith. Eligible religious communities provide the instructors, and the state pays their salaries. Private religious schools are eligible for state assistance and follow a national curriculum. Registered religious communities may have their own schools. Unregistered religious groups may not have their own schools.

Education regarding the Holocaust is mandatory in the final year of elementary school (eighth grade) and during the final year of high school.

The law allows foreign citizens whose property was confiscated during and after the Holocaust era to seek compensation or restitution if the applicant’s country has a bilateral restitution treaty with the state; however, no such bilateral treaties currently exist. Two court cases have held that such treaties are not required; however, the law has not changed. The law does not allow new property claims because the deadline expired in 2003.

The ombudsperson is a commissioner appointed by parliament responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The ombudsperson examines citizens’ complaints pertaining to the work of state bodies, local and regional self-governments, and legal persons vested with public authority. The ombudsperson may issue recommendations to government agencies regarding human rights and religious freedom practices but does not have authority to enforce compliance with his or her recommendations.

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

Government Practices

In May, during Ramadan, an article with photographs in the British newspaper The Guardian stated local police officers spray-painted Christian crosses on the heads of (presumably Muslim) migrants attempting to enter the country illegally. According to the article, the police officers intended to “mark, humiliate, and traumatize” the migrants, since the migrant population is predominantly Muslim. In a press release responding to the allegations, the Interior Ministry said, “The publication of such an article during the month of Ramadan, which incites religious intolerance, is especially worrisome and warrants scathing denunciation. The fabrication that migrants are marked in the sign of the cross because of their faith demonstrates the author’s ignorance and a premeditated attack against Croatia without any knowledge of the basic facts. Croatian authorities have excellent relations with the Islamic religious community, which is greatly valued in the Croatian society and which the worldwide public recognizes as an exemplary cooperation between religious communities.” Interior Ministry officials said they investigated all allegations and found no irregularities in the conduct of police in this case.

SOC representatives said their community still had outstanding issues with the government, mainly regarding repossession of property and residential buildings that the government appropriated during the Yugoslav period. The government reported that since 1999 the state had returned in-kind or provided compensation for 323 properties, including businesses and agricultural and forest land, to the SOC. Representatives of the Eparchy of Slavonia (a territorial division of the SOC) said the government returned 383 hectares (946 acres) of forest during the year, which belonged to the SOC’s Pakra Monastery. Some SOC representatives reported problems with enforcement of legal decisions in their favor regarding return of their properties, which in some cases, such as for properties with tenants, led to delays in the SOC being able to physically take possession of the properties.

Catholic Church representatives also said there remained a significant number of outstanding claims for Catholic properties appropriated during the Yugoslav period.

In September, the ombudsperson for children said her office “sees a problem in religious content being practiced often in some schools even outside religious education classes, for example at school events and during the school lessons, which are intended for all pupils,” and said this was unacceptable. In response, media quoted Prime Minister (PM) Andrej Plenkovic, who said he “did not understand the criticism, noting that religion was part of the Croatian tradition and identity.” The ombudsperson also said some elementary students not enrolled in religious studies courses were required to attend those classes because due to COVID-19 restrictions, there were no alternative spaces within the schools while the religious studies classes were in session. She stated that religious education, like any other elective subject, should be held at the start or end of the day, with an alternative elective offered to elementary students who do not attend such classes, similar to the practice in secondary schools, which offer ethics as an alternative subject.

Atheist, Jewish, and Serbian Orthodox organizations continued to report that although the law allows students to opt out of religious education, in practice most public primary schools did not offer any alternatives to Catholic catechism.

Atheist groups continued to complain that Roman Catholic symbols remained prevalent in government buildings such as courtrooms, prisons, and public hospitals. They said they believed this practice was inconsistent with the constitution, which states religious communities shall be separate from the state.

On July 23, President Zoran Milanovic held talks with Porfirije Peric, Metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana, on the activities and concerns of the Church and its relationship with the government, as part of the government’s regular engagement with leaders of the country’s major religious groups.

On June 3, the High Misdemeanor Court in Zagreb ruled the use of the slogan Za Dom Spremni (For the Homeland, Ready) by singer Marko “Thompson” Perkovic contained in one of his songs was not illegal. The slogan was used by the pro-Nazi World War II-era government of the Independent State of Croatia. According to a majority ruling, Perkovic’s use of the slogan did not violate the Law on Misdemeanors against Public Order and Peace because it was used in the context of a song. In its statement on June 3, the Zagreb-based chapter of NGO Human Rights House said the decision was contrary to the article of the constitution prohibiting incitement of national, racial, or religious hatred. In 2019, the court ruled in a separate case that the slogan “conveyed hatred towards people of different races, religions, and ethnicities” and fined a singer who performed Perkovic’s song.

On October 1, Minister of Culture and Media Nina Obuljen Korzinek attended the installation of the first of 20 Stolpersteine stones or “stumbling blocks” recognizing Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Zagreb. Obuljen Korzinek said the project would educate society regarding the Holocaust, and such education was a vital component to nurturing a modern, democratic society in the European Union. The Center for Promotion of Tolerance and Preservation of Holocaust Remembrance, the Bet Israel Jewish community, and the Spuren Foundation organized the installation.

On April 22, PM Plenkovic and President Milanovic attended the annual commemoration for the victims killed by the Ustasha regime at the Jasenovac World War II prison camp. The Jewish community, along with the Serb National Council, a representative of the Roma minority, and the Alliance of Antifascist Fighters joined the official commemoration for the first time since 2015. PM Plenkovic said his government had no tolerance for historical revisionism, while President Milanovic said the commemoration “sent a message with no speeches.” Head of the Jewish Community of Zagreb Ognjen Kraus said he attended to “extend the hand of friendship and goodwill” but still sought tangible results from the government in the fight against historical revisionism. Serbian Independent Democratic Party President and Member of Parliament Milorad Pupovac stated the participation of the victims’ groups, in spite of a March earthquake in Zagreb and the COVID-19 pandemic, represented a show of solidarity.

On February 5, PM Plenkovic opened a Holocaust exhibition in Zagreb entitled “If I forget you…The Holocaust in Croatia 1941-1945 – Final destination Auschwitz” near the site where Jews were transported to concentration camps in the country and across Europe. Plenkovic highlighted the Ustasha in his speech, noting, “We forget every time we fail to clearly speak about the Holocaust, notably about the consequences of the undemocratic, totalitarian, and racist Ustasha regime in Croatia.”

In January, in remarks at the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, Plenkovic said, “Awareness and education of young people about historical atrocities, particularly about the Holocaust, is key so that present and future generations can build a society in which there is no room for exclusion, intolerance, and violence.” He also stated, “The unspeakable pain of Auschwitz and many other Nazi camps commits us to strongly resist any such attempts and all forms of discrimination and hatred, and to advocate the values of peace, tolerance, and dialogue.”

PM Plenkovic and other officials laid wreaths in the Jewish section of the Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb on January 24 to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Plenkovic said the country needed to work not only on a culture of remembrance, but also on protecting human rights and promoting tolerance in society.

In January, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a press statement saying the country, as a member of the IHRA, had been recognized as actively involved in Holocaust education, research, and commemoration. On January 19, together with ministers from other member countries, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gordan Grlic-Radman participated in an IHRA ministerial conference and said, “Croatia attaches great importance to educating the youth about the causes and consequences of the Holocaust. Holocaust education is a part of Croatia’s school curriculum. The IHRA’s recommendations on Holocaust education have been translated to Croatian and will be presented at the national conference on Holocaust education.”

On January 23, the parliamentary Education, Science, and Culture Committee for the first time adopted a resolution on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The resolution encouraged state institutions and civil society organizations to promote the working definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the IHRA. The committee emphasized that education, particularly of children and young people, has an essential role in the prevention of intolerance and xenophobia, and highlighted the need for remembering the victims of the Holocaust in a dignified manner.

During the year, the government did not take action to adopt amendments to legislation providing for restitution of private property from the Holocaust era for foreign claimants or reopen the deadline for potential new claims.

On January 20, as part of an event hosted during the country’s EU presidency, PM Plenkovic met with European bishops who underscored the importance of the EU in promoting and protecting the right to religious freedom both within its borders as well as in relations with third countries.

According to the Office of the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities, the government budgeted 293.1 million kuna ($49.26 million) during the year for the Roman Catholic Church for salaries, pensions, and other purposes, compared with 299.5 million kuna ($50.34 million) in 2019. The government provided funding to other religious communities that had concluded agreements with the state, a portion of which was based on their size, in addition to funds provided to support religious education in public schools and the operation of private religious schools. The government budgeted 22.7 million kuna ($3.82 million) to these groups, compared with 22.0 million kuna ($3.7 million) in 2019. Atheist groups again criticized the government for allocating more to the Roman Catholic Church than to other groups.

Some minority religious and secular groups, including atheist groups, continued to say the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed a special status in relation to other religious communities, in part because of its concordats with the government, which provided the Church with significant financial support, and in part because of its far-reaching cultural, educational, and political influence as the majority religion.

The ombudsperson’s 2019 report released in April stated that as in previous years, there were not many complaints regarding discrimination on the grounds of religion. The complaints mostly referred to religious symbols and religious content in public institutions and the inability to use nonworking days for religious holidays. Amendments to the Law on Holidays, which entered into force in January following recommendations from the Ombudsperson’s Office, stipulated more precisely that Muslims who celebrated Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha and Jews who celebrated Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah had the right not to work one day of their choice for each of these holidays with full salary compensation, while Orthodox Christians who celebrated Easter according to the Julian calendar had the right not to work on Easter Monday, also with the right to full salary. The Ombudsperson’s Office said it also received several complaints of potential discrimination against persons who did not belong to the majority Catholic Church because of the overt display of Catholic religious symbols in public spaces, primarily in schools and hospitals. The office received a complaint that one county official held an event on official premises during working hours that included a blessing offered by a priest.

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.

SOC representatives anecdotally reported increased incidents targeting individuals of Serbian ethnicity compared with 2019, including physical and verbal attacks, especially in Vukovar, a site of intense fighting during the war in the 1990s. They said, however, it was unclear to what extent religious motivations played a part.

According to the Ombudsperson’s Office, the Croatian Bishops’ Conference complained of what it said were sensational or untrue media articles regarding the Catholic Church. As in recent years, members of some Jewish groups reported hate speech, especially on the internet, and incidents such as graffiti on Jewish-owned buildings. Representatives of the Jewish Community of Zagreb expressed concerns regarding the inappropriate use of Ustasha insignia in public.

On February 4-5, the country’s Islamic leaders and the Muslim World League, in cooperation with the Croatian Conference of Catholic Bishops, organized an international conference entitled “Human Fraternity as the Foundation of Peace and Security in the World,” focusing on world peace and coexistence. The conference was held under the auspices of the country’s EU presidency. At the event, the mufti of the Islamic community, Aziz Hasanovic, said that there was no alternative to religious dialogue, highlighting the value of systematic dialogue between the Islamic community and Catholic Church. Then-President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said, “This valuable initiative was an opportunity for Croatia to present itself as a country that promotes the highest standards of religious rights and dialogue.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy staff regularly discussed religious freedom issues, including the status and treatment of religious minorities, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism, with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Public Administration, and Culture and Media; the ombudsperson; representatives of parliament; youth representing different religious groups; and other officials.

The Ambassador and embassy staff met with the Ministers of Justice and Administration, Education and Science, senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, staff from the Ministry of Culture and Media, and leaders of Jewish organizations to discuss a wide range of issues, including restitution of private and communal properties from the Holocaust era, restitution of art, and Holocaust education and remembrance. U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to adopt amendments to legislation to provide for restitution of private property, including provisions that would unequivocally allow for foreign claims and reopen the deadline for potential new claims. Embassy engagement also focused on the restitution of Jewish communal properties, including resorts, land, cultural centers, synagogues, and cemeteries.

During the year, embassy officials attended major events that emphasized the importance of Holocaust remembrance and interreligious dialogue. On October 1 in Zagreb, embassy officials, along with city and national government officials, select other foreign diplomats, and Jewish group members, attended the installation of the first of 20 Stolpersteine stones recognizing Jewish victims of the Holocaust. During the event, embassy officials discussed with participants the importance of the Holocaust remembrance activities. On February 5, the Ambassador and embassy staff attended the opening of the Holocaust exhibition in Zagreb, during which embassy officials discussed challenges and priorities with the Jewish representatives and the importance of Holocaust remembrance with government officials. Also in February, embassy officials attended the international conference organized by the leadership of the Islamic community and the Muslim World League in cooperation with the Croatian Conference of Bishops. During the conference, embassy staff engaged with senior government officials and religious leaders on the importance of interfaith dialogue.

In January, the embassy inaugurated a diversity and inclusion program that brought representatives from different religious and secular groups each month to speak to the embassy community and share personal views and experiences. The program deepened embassy engagement on religious freedom issues with the invited groups, which included a Jewish group, the SOC, the Islamic community, an atheist group, the Roma community, and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues, including freedom of expression and efforts to counter discrimination, with NGOs such as Human Rights House, Documenta, and Protagora, as well as with representatives from Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups. During the COVID-19 pandemic and March 22 earthquake in Zagreb that damaged or destroyed many religious buildings, embassy officials discussed with religious community representatives their challenges and new opportunities for utilizing social media (rather than meeting in person) to support their members and the most vulnerable within their respective communities. Embassy representatives provided grants to local NGOs for the advancement of education on Holocaust issues in the country. The embassy used social media platforms to highlight a range of religious freedom issues, including support for Holocaust commemorations, and a pluralistic view of faith and religion, particularly among youth in the country.

Czech Republic

Executive Summary

The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplement to the constitution, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and states everyone has the right to change, abstain from, and freely practice religion. The Ministry of Culture (MOC) registered one religious group, rejected two, and left one pending at year’s end. In a retrial, the Zlin Regional Court convicted in absentia Jaroslav Dobes, the leader of the Path of Guru Jara (PGJ), and another PGJ member of rape in six cases and acquitted them in one case. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) granted permanent residence to two of 70 Chinese Christians whose applications for asylum it rejected in 2018. The ministry was reviewing 16 other applications from the group and said it would review the applications of the other 52 asylum seekers as well. The government did not deport any of the applicants. The government concluded processing restitution claims filed by religious groups in 2012-13 for properties confiscated by the communist regime. The opposition Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) Party continued to publicly criticize Islam and Muslim migrants.

In IUSTITIA, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), said it received reports of seven religiously motivated incidents in the first half of the year – four against Muslims, two against Jews, and one against Christians – compared with 14 (12 against Muslims and two against Jews) in all of 2019. The government reported 23 anti-Semitic and 11 anti-Muslim incidents in 2019, compared with 15 and eight incidents, respectively, in the previous year. The Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) reported 694 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 – 95 percent of which were internet hate speech, which the federation actively monitored – twice as many as in the previous year. The MOI reported nine “white power” concerts in which participants expressed anti-Semitic views.

U.S. embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, including property restitution for religious groups and religious tolerance, with MOC officials and the envoy for Holocaust issues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Embassy officials met with Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant religious leaders to reaffirm U.S. government support for religious freedom and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, of the 56 percent of citizens who responded to the question about their religious beliefs, approximately 62 percent held none, 18 percent were Roman Catholic, 12 percent listed no specific religion, and 7 percent identified with a variety of religious faiths, including the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, other Christian churches, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. Academics estimate there are 10,000 Jews, while the FJC estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000. Leaders of the Muslim community estimate there are 10,000 Muslims, most of whom are immigrants. According to a 2017 Pew Research Survey, 72 percent of adults in the country do not identify with a religious group, and 25 percent identify as atheists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution does not explicitly address religious freedom, but the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplementary constitutional document, provides for freedom of religious conviction and the fundamental rights of all, regardless of their faith or religion. It states every individual has the right to change religion or faith; to abstain from religious belief; and to freely practice religion, alone or in community, in private or public, “through worship, teaching, practice, or observance.” The charter defines religious societies, recognizing their freedom to profess their faith publicly or privately and to govern their own affairs, independent of the state. It stipulates conscientious objectors may not be compelled to perform military service and that conditions for religious instruction at state schools shall be set by law. The charter states religious freedom may be limited by law in the event of threats to “public safety and order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.”

The law states the MOC’s Department of Churches is responsible for religious affairs. Religious groups are not required by law to register with the government and are free to perform religious activities without registering. The law establishes a two-tiered system for religious groups which choose to register with the ministry. The ministry reviews applications for first- and second-tier registration with input from other government bodies such as the Office for Protection of Private Data and outside experts on religious affairs. The law does not establish a deadline for the ministry to decide on a registration application. Applicants denied registration may appeal to the MOC to reconsider its decision and, if denied again, to the courts.

To qualify for the first (lower) tier, a religious group must present at least 300 signatures of adult members permanently residing in the country, a founding document listing the basic tenets of the faith, and a clearly defined structure of fiduciary responsibilities to the Department of Churches. First-tier registration confers limited tax benefits, including exemptions from taxes on interest earned on current account deposits, donations, and members’ contributions. It also establishes annual reporting requirements on activities, balance sheets, and the use of funds.

For second (higher) tier registration, a group must have been registered with the Department of Churches for 10 years, have published annual financial reports throughout the time of its registration, and have membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the population, or approximately 10,700 persons. The group must provide this number of signatures as proof. Second-tier registration entitles religious groups to government subsidies as well as the tax benefits granted to first-tier groups. The law phases out direct state subsidies to second-tier religious groups over a 17-year period ending in 2029. Additionally, only clergy of registered second-tier religious groups may perform legally recognized marriage ceremonies and serve as chaplains in the military and at prisons. Prisoners who belong to unregistered religious groups or groups with first-tier status may receive visits from their own clergy.

Religious groups registered prior to 2002 received automatic second-tier status without having to fulfill the requirements for second-tier registration. These groups, like other registered groups, must publish financial reports annually.

There are 42 state-registered religious groups, 18 first- and 24 second-tier.

Unregistered religious groups are free to assemble and worship but may not legally own property. Unregistered groups may form civic associations to own and manage their property.

The law authorizes the government to return land or other property that was confiscated during the communist era and is still in the government’s possession to 17 religious groups (the largest of which are the Roman Catholic Church, FJC, Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, and Hussite Church). The government estimates the total value of property in its possession eligible to be returned at 75 billion crowns ($3.61 billion). The law also sets aside 59 billion crowns ($2.84 billion) in compensation for property – mostly in possession of private persons or entities or local or regional governments – that cannot be returned, payable over a 30-year period ending in 2043. Based on an agreement among the affected religious groups, the law allocates approximately 79 percent of these funds to the Catholic Church and 21 percent to the other 16 groups. The law prescribed a one-year deadline ending in 2013 for religious groups to file restitution claims for confiscated property. The government agency in possession of a property for which a group has filed a restitution claim adjudicates that claim. If the government agency rejects a property claim, the claimant may appeal the decision in court.

The law permits second-tier religious groups to apply through the MOC to teach religion in state schools if there is a demand for such classes. Eleven of the 23 second-tier groups, all of them Christian, have permission to teach religion classes. The teachers are supplied by the religious groups and paid by the state. If a state school does not have enough funds to pay for its religious education teachers, religious groups pay for them. Student attendance at religious classes is optional. According to law, if seven or more students register for a particular religious class at the beginning of the school year, a school must offer that class to those who registered.

The government does not regulate religious instruction in private schools.

The law prohibits speech that incites hatred based on religion. It also limits the denial of communist-era crimes and the Holocaust. Violators may be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

Religious workers who are not from European Economic Area countries or Switzerland must obtain long-term residence and work permits to remain in the country for more than 90 days. There is no special visa category for religious workers. Foreign missionaries and clergy are required to meet the conditions for a standard work permit.

The law designates January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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

Government Practices

In May, the MOC upheld its 2019 denial of an application from Ecclesia Risorum (Church of Laughter) for first-tier status, first submitted in March 2018. The MOC rejected the application on the grounds the group failed to meet the legal definition of a first-tier religious group. The group appealed to court. In June, the MOC registered the Association of Buddhism in the Czech Republic, which had applied for registration in 2019. Also in June, the Religious Society of Slavs applied for registration; the application was pending at year’s end. In August, the ministry stated it rejected a registration application from the Holy Dyad because the group failed to provide required information by an administrative deadline. The group has the option to reapply. A 2017 appeal by the Lions of the Round Table – Order of the Lands of the Czech Crown of an MOC registration rejection remained pending with the Prague Municipal Court. There was no information available on the status of the application.

In March, the Zlin Regional Court found PGJ leader Jaroslav Dobes and member Barbora Plaskova guilty of the rape of six women and acquitted them of a charge of rape of a seventh woman. The pair appealed the verdict, and the case was pending at year’s end. Dobes and Plaskova continued to seek asylum in the Philippines, where they were in immigration detention, and international arrest warrants by Czech authorities for the pair remained outstanding. According to PGJ officials, the group submitted two separate complaints to the European Court of Human Rights in March, regarding the cases against Dobes and Plaskova. The court rejected further examination of Plaskova’s case and was still reviewing Dobes’ at the end of the year.

The PGJ’s 2017 lawsuit against the government’s Office for Personal Data Protection alleging abusive investigation of the group’s registration application and against the MOC’s rejection of its registration application remained pending in the Prague Municipal Court at year’s end. There was no further information available on the case.

According to Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), on February 24, the Zlin Regional Court ruled against restituting 190,000 euros ($233,000) to the Poetrie esoteric yoga school, which was tied to the PGJ. The court seized the funds in 2010 as part of the prosecution against Jaroslav Dobes and Barbara Plaskova. In its most recent ruling, the court stated it dismissed the restitution claim because the funds continued to be important to the criminal proceedings. According to HRWF, PGJ attorney Vit Brozek stated the court’s ruling contravened the criminal code, which requires the return of seized items that are “no longer necessary for further proceedings.” Brozek filed a complaint with the High Court in Olomouc, asking it to annul the lower court’s decision and release the frozen funds to the Poetrie school. In his complaint, Brozek stated the Zlin Regional Court’s conduct “threatens confidence in independent, impartial, professional, and fair decisions of the courts.”

The MOI granted permanent residence to two of 70 Chinese Christians whose applications for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution in China it had denied in 2018. The MOI indicated it would accept similar applications for permanent residence from other Chinese Christians whose asylum applications it had denied. The decision followed the 2019 ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court, which considered five appeals of the MOI’s 2018 denial of the asylum applications and returned them to the MOI for review. The Supreme Administrative Court based its remand of the cases to the MOI on insufficient reasoning by the ministry in evaluating and addressing the applicants’ stated fears of persecution. At year’s end, the MOI was reviewing the remaining 16 applications the courts had remanded to it for further review and said it would review the applications of the other 52 asylum seekers as well. The government had not deported any of the 70 asylum applicants.

The government concluded processing restitution claims religious groups made between 2012 and 2013 for confiscated land and other real and personal property.

In June, the Constitutional Court upheld a 2019 ruling by the Supreme Court and a 2017 ruling by the South Moravian Regional Court in Brno that the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and not the Brno Jewish Community was the legal owner of a building in Brno. The community filed a restitution claim in 2013, and the ministry rejected the claim in 2014.

The government provided 17 second-tier religious groups with approximately 3.3 billion crowns ($159 million): 1.1 billion crowns ($53 million) in government subsidies and 2.2 billion crowns ($106 million) as compensation for communal property in private and state hands that would not be returned. Five of the 22 second-tier groups declined all state funding. While accepting the state subsidy, the Baptist Union opted not to accept compensation for unreturned property. In addition, the MOC provided 2.4 million crowns ($116,000) in grants for religiously oriented cultural activities in response to applications from various religious groups.

The government paid the annual allotment of 20 million crowns ($964,000) of the total of 100 million crowns ($4.82 million) earmarked for 2019-2023 as contribution to the Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims for projects focused on Holocaust remembrance and education, welfare for Holocaust victims, and care for Jewish monuments.

In November, the Kolel Damesek Eliezer Foundation, a U.S. charity, the FJC, and the Hanacky Jerusalem Association met with the municipal council of Prostejov to continue discussions on the plan to restore a former Jewish cemetery in that city that the MOC designated a cultural monument. In 2019, the three parties signed a memorandum on restoration of the cemetery, which was destroyed by the Nazis and later converted into a park.

In January, the municipal council in Prague approved a building permit for the Association for the Renewal of the Marian Column. The group completed construction of the column, with a statue of the Virgin Mary, in the city’s Old Town Square in June. Roman Catholic Cardinal Dominik Duka, Archbishop of Prague, consecrated the statue in August. The original, Baroque-era column was torn down in 1918 shortly after Czechoslovak independence. Critics of the project said the statue was a symbol of Habsburg Empire-enforced Catholicism on the country.

The SPD and its leader, Tomio Okamura, continued to criticize Islam and Muslim migrants. In December, Okamura posted on his party’s website, in reaction to the killing of a teacher in France, that “the horrors of Islam are fully laid bare. SPD promotes a full ban on promotion of hateful Islamic ideology and rejects immigration from Muslim countries.” Also in December, Okamura complained on his Facebook site that his proposed legislation “banning propagation or hateful ideologies, and by that I mean Islam” had been pending in the Chamber of Deputies for two years. In February, Okamura stated in an interview for a prominent magazine that his party “stopped Islam,” asking the journalists to look out the window and tell him if they see “any Islam” or “any Arabs on camels.” In October, Okamura aired video on his YouTube channel of an earlier statement he made on television that “it is fully confirmed that Islam is not compatible with freedom and democracy. There will be either freedom or democracy, or Islam. There is nothing in between.”

In July, the government approved the 2019 Report on Extremism and Hate Crime and the annual Strategy to Combat Extremism for 2020 that outlined specific tasks for various ministries, such as the MOI, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education, MOC, and Ministry of Finance, in fighting extremism and hate crimes, including hate crimes against religious groups. Steps the document outlined to reduce incidents included raising public awareness about extremist activities, campaigns to reduce hate speech on the internet, education and prevention programs at schools, specialized training for law enforcement, and assistance to victims.

In January, Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek called for stricter measures against anti-Semitism, particularly on the internet, at the opening of an exhibition honoring victims of the Holocaust. Organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the exhibition opened in conjunction with International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

On January 27, the Senate, in cooperation with the FJC, again organized a ceremony to honor victims of the Holocaust as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Radek Vondracek and Deputy Speaker of the Senate Jiri Oberfalzer delivered remarks and called for religious tolerance.

In April, organizers cancelled the annual march and Culture against Anti-Semitism Festival due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead the organizers initiated a public campaign entitled, “We All Are People” and an online event in which Speaker of the Senate Milos Vystrcil, director of the Jewish Museum Oto Pavlat, Member of Parliament Jan Bartosek, member of the Ecumenical Council of Churches Daniel Fajfr, Prague municipal representative Jan Wolf, and others spoke out against hatred and violence based on ethnic and religious grounds. Vystrcil highlighted the importance of societies coming together to face challenges, comparing the fight against coronavirus to the fight against anti-Semitism. Bartosek stated that adverse circumstances, such as coronavirus and the “horrors of World War II and mass deaths in gas chambers” bring people together regardless of religion, race, and political persuasions. Other speakers urged the viewers to remember victims of Nazism and communism and highlighted the importance of remembering the Holocaust. The online event also included the personal testimony of a woman who described friends and family who perished in the Holocaust.

The government provided grants for religiously oriented cultural activities, including the annual Night of Churches held in several cities; the annual National Pilgrimage of St. Wenceslaus (consisting of a march through Prague and masses celebrated in that city and Brandys nad Labem); the annual Concert in Memory of Holocaust Victims; the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Hussite Church; and Litomysl Days of Baroque Tradition (a festival consisting of liturgical music, masses, and readings). Some of the events, including KRISTFEST (a festival of seminars, workshops, and musical performances on religious themes) and the Archaion Kallos festival of Orthodox music for which the government approved grants were postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19.

According to the FJC, the MOI continued to provide security to the Jewish community and Jewish sites based on a memorandum of cooperation signed in 2016. Police provide enhanced protection of Jewish sites in the country after terrorist attacks in Vienna, Austria, in November.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In IUSTITIA stated it received reports of seven religiously motivated hate crimes during the first half of the year: four against Muslims, two against Jews, and one against Christians, compared to 14 such cases – 12 against Muslims and two against Jews – in all of 2019. In IUSTITIA did not provide details of the incidents.

In 2019, the most recent year data were available, the MOI reported 23 criminal offenses with anti-Semitic motives and 11 with anti-Muslim motives, compared with 15 and eight offenses, respectively, in 2018. The MOI reported only incidents that it investigated.

The FJC, which actively monitored the internet for instances of anti-Semitism, reported 694 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, compared with 347 in 2018, including nine directed against specific persons or institutions – three cases of property damage, and six cases of harassment. In one incident, a taxi driver threatened a Jewish passenger with death, and in another, on public transportation, a woman shouted at a passenger, “You dirty Jews should die out!” In a third incident, a woman at Jewish sites in Prague shouted insults in English, such as “You [expletive] Jews, Holocaust was good, you deserve to be gassed.” The other 685 incidents included graffiti, videos, articles, and online comments. For example, vandals damaged the walls of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, writing, “Palestine Libre.” According to the FJC, the largest increase was in anti-Semitic hate speech on the internet, which accounted for 95 percent of the incidents. It stated 80 percent of incidents involved stereotypical statements and conspiracy theories about Jews, such as allegations Jews controlled the economy and government. In 14 percent of the cases, the writers attacked Israel and supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, while 2 percent denied the Holocaust. The FJC stated the sharp increase in the number of anti-Semitic hate speech incidents found on the internet might be the result of more effective FJC monitoring and not an indicator of increased anti-Semitic sentiment in the country.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as a 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, 47 percent of Czech respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the lowest of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.

In February, the FJC filed a criminal complaint against the company Guidemedia for publishing an anti-Semitic children’s book, Poisonous Mushroom, first published in Germany in 1938 as part of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda. In May, the FJC filed a criminal complaint against the Nase vojsko company for publishing a 2021 calendar featuring Nazi figures. Police investigations in both cases were ongoing at year’s end.

The MOI reported nine private “white power” concerts were held during the year in which participants expressed anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views, compared with 11 such concerts in 2019. The ministry estimated approximately 50 to 100 persons attended each concert.

In January, unknown perpetrators sprayed graffiti on a mosque in Brno that read, “Don’t Spread Islam in the Czech Republic! Otherwise, we’ll kill you.” Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Cardinal Duka condemned the attack. Police suspended their investigation after failing to identify any suspects.

According to a report on hate crimes in the country in 2019 from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, citing the FJC as the source, a public official received a letter containing death threats, anti-Semitic insults, and statements expressing approval of the Holocaust. The OECD also cited the FJC as the source of two reports of vandalism against Jewish cemeteries in 2019 and In IUSTITIA as reporting anti-Semitic threats against a Jewish shop owner, whose shop was located near Jewish schools.

The OECD report also included 2019 incidents against Muslims, citing In IUSTITIA as the source. In one, an Egyptian man, his wife, her friend, and three children were subjected to threats while on a tram, and the harassers then chased the man and knocked him to the ground. In other incidents, a group on the street directed anti-Muslim threats at a woman wearing a headscarf, and an individual directed anti-Muslim threats at two girls, one of whom was wearing a headscarf.

In October, the Prague Higher Court upheld a three-year suspended sentence for Jakub Weingartner for posting online comments expressing approval of the deadly attacks on two mosques in New Zealand in 2019. The lower Prague Municipal Court convicted and sentenced Weingartner in July. Also in July, in a separate case, the Prague Municipal Court issued a two-year suspended sentence to Milan Jaros for publicly approving of the attacks. Jaros apologized and donated money to Red Cross aid for orphans in Syria.

In October, the Ostrava Regional Court sentenced Roman Mariancik, who in March pretended to be a Muslim terrorist and threatened to bomb a shop in Ostrava, to three-and-a-half years in prison. The verdict was final.

In February, the Czech Railroads Administration financed the restoration of the Valediction Memorial to Jewish children who escaped the Holocaust. Vandals damaged the memorial in 2019. Police investigated the case but did not identify the perpetrators.

According to PGJ members, in May, a PGJ representative asked Radio Wave, a listener-funded public radio station, to correct what he called misinformation against the group’s leader and practices presented in an October 19 program broadcast by the station. Radio Wave agreed to publish a rebuttal to the show by the PGJ but rejected the submission after reviewing it as not meeting publication standards.

The PGJ reported that its members feared harassment, including losing their jobs, position at a university, and child custody disputes if their affiliation with the group became known. One member reported undergoing a “two-month intensive examination of moral qualities” while trying to complete an international certification in gestalt psychotherapy from an institute in Prague because of the individual’s public connection with the PGJ.

The Jewish community reported receiving several shipments of gravestone fragments during the year, pursuant to the 2019 agreement with the Prague mayor’s office on the return of Jewish gravestones the communist government had taken from a 19th century Jewish cemetery in the 1980s and cut into cobblestones it laid down in various areas of the capital, notably in Wenceslas Square and Na Prikope Street. Community leaders planned to reinstall the stones in the cemetery as a memorial to be designed by a leading Czech sculptor.

The government-funded Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims, established by the FJC, contributed four million crowns ($193,000) to 14 institutions providing health and social care to approximately 450 Holocaust survivors.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives continued to engage government officials from the Department of Churches on issues including property restitution to religious groups, religious tolerance, and the Prostejov Jewish cemetery. Embassy officials also met with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, Robert Rehak, regarding property restitution. Embassy officials participated in the Holocaust commemoration ceremony in Prostejov and engaged with the local mayor to support the efforts to restore the Jewish cemetery.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet with representatives from the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish communities to reaffirm U.S. commitment to religious freedom and tolerance and to hear their views on interfaith relations.

Estonia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares there is no state church and protects the freedom of individuals to practice their religion. It prohibits the incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. The law establishes registration of religious associations and religious societies and regulates their activities. Unregistered religious associations are free to conduct religious activities but are not eligible for tax benefits. The government continued to provide funds to the Council of Churches for ecumenical activities. On January 27, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. In April, the government pledged two million euros ($2.45 million) for support of religious associations struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, both to the members of the Council of Churches and to other independent congregations, including the Estonian Jewish Congregation and the Jewish Community of Estonia.

According to government statistics, in 2019 (the most recent data available), police registered eight cases of physical abuse, breach of public order, or threats (as defined by law) that included hatred against persons from religious or other minorities, compared with no cases in 2018. According to government sources, most of the cases were tied to the victim’s race or national origin. On October 25, at the height of the renewal of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, pigs’ heads were found in front of the Estonian Islamic Center and the embassies of Turkey and Azerbaijan. The perpetrator was charged for littering and fined 20 euros ($25).

U.S. embassy staff continued to support dialogue on religious freedom, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust education in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The embassy used social media to promote religious freedom, including a Facebook post celebrating International Religious Freedom Day.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent data available), 29 percent of the population is religiously affiliated, 54 percent do not identify with any religion, and 17 percent do not state an affiliation. According to the Estonian Council of Churches data from December 2019, 13.8 percent of the population belong to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, while 13.1 percent belong to the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP), and 2.3 percent belong to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church. The Union of Free Evangelical and Baptist Churches of Estonia and the Roman Catholic Church in Estonia together comprise 1 percent of the population. Other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Russian Old Believers, collectively constitute 1.1 percent of the population. According to the 2011 census, there are small Jewish and Muslim communities of 2,500 members and 1,500 members, respectively. Most religious adherents among the Russian-speaking population belong to the EOCMP and reside mainly in the capital or the northeastern part of the country. According to 2011 census data, most of the country’s community of Russian Old Believers lives along the west bank of Lake Peipsi in the eastern part of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares there is no state church and stipulates freedom for individuals to belong to any religious group and practice any religion, both alone and in community with others, in public or in private, unless doing so is “detrimental to public order, health, or morals.” The constitution also prohibits incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. According to the penal code, an act inciting hatred is a crime if it results in danger to the life, health, or property of a person. The law also states that violations are punishable by fines or up to three years in prison. The constitution recognizes the right to refuse military service for religious reasons but requires conscientious objectors to perform alternative service for the same amount of time required for military service as provided by law.

The law criminalizes activities that publicly incite hatred, violence, or discrimination on the basis of religion or other minority status if it results in danger to the life, health, or property of a person. Violators are subject to a fine or detention. The law prohibits any activity that knowingly interferes, without legal grounds, with the acknowledgement or declaration of religious beliefs or the absence thereof or exercise of religion or religious rites. Violators are subject to a fine or up to one year’s imprisonment.

The registration office of the Tartu County Court registers all religious associations and religious societies. To register, a religious association must have at least 12 members, and its management board must submit a notarized or digitally signed application, the minutes of its constitutive meeting, and a copy of its statutes. The law treats registered religious associations as nonprofit entities entitled to some tax benefits if they apply for them, such as a value-added tax exemption. There are more than 550 religious associations registered with the government.

The law does not prohibit activities by unregistered religious associations. Unregistered religious associations, however, may not act as legal persons. Unlike registered religious associations, unregistered associations are not eligible for tax benefits.

Religious societies are registered according to the law governing nonprofit associations and are entitled to the same tax benefits as religious associations. To register as an NGO, a religious society must have a founding contract and statutes approved by its founders, who may be physical or legal persons. The minimum number of founders is two. The society must submit its registration application either electronically or on paper to the Tartu County Court registry office.

The law requires the commanding officer of each military unit to provide its members the opportunity to practice their religion. Prison directors must also provide the opportunity for inmates to practice their religious beliefs. The state funds police and border guard, military, and prison chaplains, who may belong to any registered religious denomination, and must guarantee religious services for individuals of all faiths.

Optional basic religious instruction is available in public and private schools and is funded by the state. All schools must provide religious studies at the primary and secondary levels if students request these studies. The courses offer a general introduction to different faiths. Religious studies instructors may be lay teachers. There are also private religious schools. All students, regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation, may attend religious schools. Attendance at religious services in religious schools is voluntary.

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

Government Practices

According to the government’s NGO register, two religious associations – one Protestant and one Buddhist – were registered during the year.

The government allocated 646,000 euros ($793,000) to the Estonian Council of Churches. The council, which comprises 10 Christian churches – including the Lutheran Church and both Orthodox Churches – continued to serve as an organization joining the country’s largest Christian communities. The government continued to fund ecumenical activities, including ecclesiastical programs broadcast by the Estonian Broadcasting Company, youth work by churches, activities promoting interreligious dialogue, and religious publishing.

In April, the government pledged two million euros ($2.45 million) for support of religious associations struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, both to the members of the Council of Churches and to other independent congregations, including the Estonian Jewish Congregation and the Jewish Community of Estonia.

During the year, project coordinators completed plans for the restoration and renovation of Alexander’s Cathedral of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Narva. The project was being carried out using 844,000 euros ($1.04 million) in government funds pledged in 2019.

On January 27, the government held its annual memorial event for Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. Schools again participated in commemorative activities throughout the country. The Education and Research Ministry, in cooperation with the Jewish Community of Estonia, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the Estonian Memory Institute, and the Museum of Occupation, organized an essay-writing competition for children on topics related to the Holocaust again this year.

The government is a member of IHRA.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On October 25, at the height of the renewal of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, pigs’ heads were found in front of the Estonian Islamic Center and the embassies of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Police identified the perpetrator and initiated misdemeanor proceedings pursuant to article regulating incitement to hatred. The perpetrator was ultimately charged for littering and fined 20 euros ($25).

According to government statistics, in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered eight cases of physical abuse, breach of public order, or threats (as defined by law) that included hatred against persons from religious or other minorities, compared with no cases in 2018. According to government sources, most of these cases were tied to the victim’s race or national origin.

According to many religious and other civil society leaders, there was societal support for religious freedom and tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials raised the importance of combating anti-Semitism, promoting religious tolerance, and promoting Holocaust education in meetings with government officials from the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs.

Embassy officials met with members of the Jewish community, leaders of religious associations, representatives of the Council of Churches, civil society groups, and NGOs to discuss religious tolerance and the state of religious freedom in the country. The embassy used social media to promote religious freedom, including a Facebook post celebrating International Religious Freedom Day.

Georgia

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes equality for all regardless of religion, subject to considerations of public safety or health or the rights of others, and it stipulates the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) from the state. The constitution recognizes the “outstanding role” of the GOC in the history of the country. It prohibits persecution based on religion. Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC unique privileges. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tolerance and Diversity Institute (Tolerance Institute) stated that prosecutors continued to fail to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes. NGOs criticized the government during the COVID-19 state of emergency between March 22 and May 22 for allowing the GOC exceptions from restrictions on in-person religious services while not responding to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on applying restrictions. The government did not approve the registration application of any new religious group. It rejected the application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. Parliament again failed to pass legislation to comply with a court order to amend the law under which the GOC received exclusive tax and property privileges. Some religious groups advocated legislation that would address a broader range of religious issues, while others expressed concerns about the potential impact of such a law on smaller groups. Religious leaders criticized parliament for passing amendments in May that grant only the GOC ownership rights to state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries. Some Muslim community leaders said the government continued to influence and favor the state-funded religious group All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG). Following the December 2019 election of Mufti Adam Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, AMAG education department head Rezo Mikeladze, AMAG press center head Otar Nadiradze, and two other leaders within the organization resigned, and Mikeladze made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the State Security Service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Mikeladze and Nadiradze subsequently rejoined AMAG. The Armenian Apostolic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches and some Muslim groups reported continued difficulties in obtaining government recognition of their ownership claims of religious properties. Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions on mosques and their construction. NGOs continued to state there was bias in public schools favoring Georgian Orthodox religious teachings, although the government took some steps to involve human rights groups in the textbook selection process. NGOs and some religious groups continued to criticize legislation that excluded some religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from receiving compensation for damages suffered during the Soviet era.

According to religious leaders, de facto authorities in the Russia-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the administrative control of the central government, continued to restrict or prohibit the activities of some religious groups. De facto authorities in both areas continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses could continue to rent space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia. Both the GOC and the Russian Orthodox Church formally recognized Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sources stated that the Russian Orthodox Church tacitly and unofficially supported breakaway churches that did not have official autocephaly from the GOC. De facto South Ossetian authorities permitted GOC religious services but said they were illegal. De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited Georgian Orthodox clergy from entering the occupied territory. Some religious figures in Abkhazia reportedly continued to advocate the establishment of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in the territory or a merger with the Russian Orthodox Church.

According to NGOs and minority religious groups, religiously motivated crimes declined compared to 2019 due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity. During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOIA) investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared with 44 cases in 2019. The Public Defender’s Office received seven complaints of religiously based crimes or discrimination during the year, compared with 19 complaints in 2019. Two of these complaints involved violence. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) obtained convictions for two individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance, and a case against a third was pending at year’s end. Jehovah’s Witnesses said attacks against members declined because the group, in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach or door-to-door evangelism. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight incidents against the group, its members, or Kingdom Halls, including one involving violence, compared with 20 in 2019. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared to prior years in classifying crimes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses as motivated by religious intolerance. The Public Defender’s Office and religious minorities continued to state there was widespread societal perception that religious minorities posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s values. The NGO Media Development Foundation documented 20 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media by media figures, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 in 2019. In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili said the prayers of the Roman Catholic Church “have no merit.” In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told a news outlet that Jehovah’s Witnesses were the main source of COVID-19 in the city of Zugdidi. In December, the Tolerance Institute condemned as anti-Semitic a sermon by Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Ioane Gamrekeli in which he referred to nonbelievers as “a lineage of infidels.” The Georgian ambassador to Israel said Gamrekeli’s words had been misinterpreted, and the GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including the leadership of the State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARI), the public defender, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights, and officials at various ministries to encourage dialogue and tolerance between the government and minority religious groups. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior Church leaders to stress the importance of the GOC in promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with minority religious groups throughout the country, and the embassy and its regional information offices sponsored events in Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country to encourage religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In November, the Secretary of State met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi to discuss the promotion and protection of religious freedom. The embassy continued to support long-term programming to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and promote greater integration.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church at 2.9 percent. The remaining 3 percent includes Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups, such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference.

Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected. Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC. A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the Russian Orthodox Church, Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers). Ethnic Azeris are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli. Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast; both groups are predominantly Sunni. Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in the south-central region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the Armenian Apostolic Church and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.

Reliable information from the Russia-occupied regions in Georgia continued to be difficult to obtain. According to a census conducted in 2016 by the de facto Abkhaz authorities, there were 243,000 residents of Russia-occupied Abkhazia. A survey conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent as Muslim, 8 percent as atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent as followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions. The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.

According to a 2015 census conducted by de facto South Ossetian authorities, there were 53,000 residents of Russia-occupied South Ossetia. The majority of the population practices Orthodox Christianity; other minority groups include Muslims and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion, subject to considerations of public safety and the health and rights of others, and equality for all regardless of religion. It prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also prohibits political parties that incite religious strife. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.

The constitution recognizes the GOC’s special role in the country’s history but stipulates the Church shall be independent from the state and that relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (concordat). The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the Georgian Orthodox patriarch, exemption of Church clergy from military service (although by law, clergy from all religious groups are exempted), and a consultative role in government, especially in state education policies. The concordat states that some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s right to a consultative role in state education policies. There is currently no implementing legislation for the concordat.

A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a legal entity of public law (legal entity) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition, tax exemptions for donations and other “religious activities” (a term not clearly defined by law), and the right to own property and open bank accounts. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered for legal entity status. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.

To register as a legal entity, the law specifies a religious group must have a historic link with the country or be recognized as a religion “by the legislation of the member states of the Council of Europe.” A religious group must also submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and members of its governing body. Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.

The law grants the GOC exceptions from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. It exempts the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate, but not other religious groups, from taxes on “profit from the sale of crosses, candles, icons, books, and calendars used…for religious purposes.” In addition, the law states only the GOC may acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale by the government. Should other religious groups wish to acquire this type of property, they must participate in public tenders. Only the GOC has the right to acquire agricultural state property free of charge; all others must pay a fee. On May 22, parliament passed amendments to the forest code granting the Church ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.

The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization; the code does not define “establishment.” Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by a fine, correctional work (community service) for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by larger fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim, although the law does not define “insult” and does not specify an amount or time limit for punishment under those circumstances. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years, depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and the damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, the offender may face up to five years in prison.

According to a 2010 Ministry of Justice decree, accused and convicted individuals may meet only with spiritual representatives of the GOC and registered religious organizations. Prison regulations state prisoners have the right to possess and use religious literature and objects of worship.

Although the law states that public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions, pending additional legislation, and authorizes the state to pay for Georgian Orthodox religious schools. The law states that students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals on school grounds “of their own accord,” but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. The law includes no specific regulations for private religious schools. Private schools must follow the national curriculum, although they are free to add subjects, including religious studies, if they wish.

The MOIA’s Department of Human Rights is responsible for assessing whether crimes are motivated by religious hatred and for monitoring the quality of investigations into hate crimes.

By law, the PGO, which is separate from the MOIA, prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the Public Defender’s Office serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center carries out educational activities and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination. It also coordinates the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions and Council of Ethnic Minorities. The Council of Religions has a mandate to protect religious freedom; facilitate a constructive multilateral dialogue among various religious groups; promote a tolerant, fair, and peaceful environment for religious groups; and engage religious minorities in the process of civic integration. It produces an annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country that includes policy recommendations.

The State Inspector Service, a separate investigative body from the PGO, investigates crimes such as torture, degrading treatment, and abuse of power and abuse of office perpetrated by representatives of law enforcement and public officials if they are committed by use of force or violate the personal dignity of a person and involve discriminatory elements or features, including religious motives. Following the investigation, the service refers these cases to the PGO for prosecution. Since its creation in May 2019, the service has not received any information on a religiously motivated crime.

SARI’s mandate is to promote and ensure peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance. Its stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for government consideration, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations. SARI may issue nonbinding recommendations to relevant state institutions regarding approval of applications for the construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations. SARI distributes government compensation to the GOC and to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as legal entities for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.”

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

Government Practices

The Tolerance Institute again stated that the MOIA generally correctly applied the appropriate articles of the criminal code in most cases and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred continued to improve. The institute stated, however, that the PGO continued to fail to determine whether an individual was a “victim” of a crime under law (i.e., a person who has incurred moral, physical, or material damage as a result of a crime) and to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government declared a state of emergency from March 21 through May 22. According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to the public’s and religious groups’ adherence to government-imposed restrictions, public religious activity declined. NGOs said SARI was unresponsive to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on restrictions relating to in-person religious services, while it granted the GOC exceptions to or not did not enforce restrictions, thereby enabling the Church to continue hosting in-person religious services, including Orthodox Easter services on April 19.

The NAPR did not register any new religious organization as a legal entity during the year. It rejected the registration application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. The NAPR found the group’s legal documentation was insufficient and requested additional documentation. As of year’s end, the group’s registration process remained suspended pending presentation of additional materials.

Most prisons continued to have Georgian Orthodox chapels and areas for prayer. Muslims were allowed to pray in their cells or prayer areas and to possess Qurans and prayer rugs. According to SARI and Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, prisoners had access to counseling and services for their religion upon request. The government provided accommodation for the dietary restrictions of Muslim and Jewish prisoners. During religious holidays, prisoners were exempt from fulfilling their regular duties.

According to NGOs and minority religious groups, many religious issues, such as tax exemptions and restitution issues, continued to lack a clear legislative framework. SARI and some religious groups’ representatives, including members of the Jewish community and the Armenian Apostolic Church, said they remained in favor of drafting a new, broader “law on religion” to define which groups would be eligible for these and other benefits and to address issues pertaining to the registration and legal status of religious groups and the teaching of religion in public schools. Many civil society representatives and members of other religious groups, including some individuals from the Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, however, remained opposed, arguing such legislation would allow the government to discriminate against smaller religious communities and increase its leverage over them. They advocated instead making benefits available to all religious groups or to none.

Parliament failed to take action during the year to amend the law granting the GOC tax and property privileges not available to other religious groups, despite a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that the law was unconstitutional and mandating parliament make legislative changes to either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31, 2018.

On May 13, the Constitutional Court announced its decision that the case brought by nine religious organizations claiming the GOC’s exclusive property tax exemption on land used for noneconomic purpose violated the constitutional provision guaranteeing equality before the law had merit and would be admitted for substantive consideration. The court had not started this review at year’s end.

On February 20, the Constitutional Court heard arguments on whether to accept for substantive consideration a case brought by nine religious organizations challenging restrictions on the rights of religious organizations other than the GOC to purchase or exchange state-owned property. As of year’s end, the court had not reached a decision.

The Tolerance Institute and other NGOs criticized as unconstitutional and discriminatory amendments passed in May to the Forest Code that granted only the GOC ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.

NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to favor and influence the state-funded AMAG, including by influencing the selection of AMAG’s religious leader and selectively transferring land to AMAG. The groups said AMAG was a “Soviet-style” organization that served as a tool of the state to monitor and control religious groups. A number of Muslim groups remained critical of AMAG for insisting it represented all Muslim communities in the country within one organization. Following the December 25, 2019, election of Mufti Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, head of the AMAG education department Mikeladze resigned and made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the state security service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Three other leaders – press center head Nadiradze, advisor to the mufti Temur Gorgadze, and publishing house head Gela Gogitidza – also resigned. During the year, Mikeladze and Nadiradze returned to AMAG, and Mikeladze continued to hold senior offices in the education department. Mikeladze and Nadiradze made no statements addressing their departure or return.

At year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on the Armenia Apostolic Church’s January 2018 appeal of the NAPR’s decision to register as the GOC’s property a church that the Armenian Apolstolic Church claimed to own since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenian Apostolic Church continued to petition SARI for restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. As of year’s end, SARI had not officially responded to any of the Armenian Church’s 57 petitions, 20 of which it filed in 2015 and 37 in 2018, for ownership or right-of-usage status. The Armenian Apostolic Church said the only communication from SARI during the year was SARI chairman Zaza Vashakmadze telling the group the issue was “under consideration.” The Church reported it operated all 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. The Church also stated it had not petitioned NAPR during the year to register them as Church-owned property. SARI said the Armenian Apostolic Church had not provided sufficient evidence of ownership but that it was in communication with the Church and expressed willingness to cooperate in the future.

Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions regarding construction of mosques. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. The government owned the land as a legacy from the Soviet period and, in some cases, said the existing mosques were former Georgian Orthodox houses of worship that had been converted during the Ottoman and Persian empires or were constructed during those periods on land where Georgian Orthodox houses of worship had once stood. AMAG reported that when the government transferred state-owned mosques, it only did so for AMAG to use for a 49-year or unlimited period; the government did not transfer full ownership of the property or land.

The Kutaisi Court of Appeal held hearings in February and July on the Batumi city government’s appeal connected to its 2017 decision to deny the local Muslim community a permit to build a mosque but did not reach a decision by year’s end. In 2019, the Batumi City Court ruled that the Batumi city government had discriminated against the New Mosque Construction Fund (an entity representing members of the Batumi Muslim community seeking to establish a new mosque) by denying the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. The lower court ordered the mayor’s office to reconsider its decision. The Batumi city government rescinded the 3,000 lari ($920) fine it had imposed in 2017 for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land, pending the outcome of the appeal. The NGO Human Rights Education Monitoring Center (EMC) described the status of the case as “frozen.”

The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 1.91 million lari ($584,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, compared with 2.3 million lari ($703,000) in 2019.

As of year’s end, the Supreme Court failed to act on a 2018 EMC appeal of a lower court ruling that the MOIA had not discriminated against Muslims when it failed to prevent vandalism against an Islamic boarding school that was under construction in Kobuleti, near Batumi, in 2014. The vandalism followed anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim protests concerning the school. As a result of the protests, the local municipality refused to connect sewage and water systems. In 2018, a lower court ruled the municipality had to connect the school to utility services, but the municipality took no action, and the boarding school remained incomplete as of year’s end, without water and sewage services.

Tolerance Institute representatives continued to state that religious education in public schools persisted, although the law provided for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination. The GOC did not offer any formal religious studies classes in public institutions. Although the GOC had the right to have direct involvement in public institutions, such as schools, under the concordat, the government did not define clear legal structures for it to do so. Prior to schools being closed in February due to COVID-19 restrictions, NGOs and non-Georgian Orthodox organizations, such as the EMC, reported Georgian Orthodox clergy often visited classes during the regular school day, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators, despite the law restricting such visits to after hours.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government shifted the majority of schools to online instruction, and there were no reports of religious discrimination in schools during the year. The Tolerance Institute stated that students were also hesitant to report cases of religious discrimination in schools for fear of reprisal from fellow students, teachers, or school officials. The institute also reported the process for selecting textbooks became more inclusive, with the Ministry of Education inviting human rights experts to review the content for discriminatory or biased language that favored the GOC.

During the year, the Tolerance Institute represented two Seventh-day Adventist university applicants who, due to their religious beliefs, could not take entrance examinations on Saturday and were denied a date change by the government. The institute filed suit with the Tbilisi City Court, and the court ruled that the government was obligated to reschedule the examination to accommodate the applicants’ religious beliefs. The court stressed the importance of freedom of religion and respecting the needs of religious minorities in the context of the right to equality. The Equality Department of the Public Defender’s Office issued a general proposal to the Ministry of Education, based on information provided by the Tolerance Institute, recommending the ministry take into account the needs of religious minorities. Although the applicants successfully passed the examinations and enrolled in university, the case remained pending at year’s end, as the Tolerance Institute asked the court to find that the ministry had discriminated against the applicants because of their religion and to award “symbolic compensation” of one lari (22 cents) for “moral damage.”

During the year, the government through SARI allocated 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC and 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) to approved non-Georgian Orthodox religious communities to provide partial compensation for damage caused during the totalitarian Soviet regime. The 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) was distributed as follows: 2.20 million lari ($673,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 600,000 lari ($183,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 300,000 lari ($91,700) to the Jewish community. SARI said the remaining one million lari ($306,000) would be distributed among the religious communities “later.” This was a decrease from the 2019 amounts: 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC; 2.75 million lari ($841,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 550,000 lari ($168,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 800,000 lari ($245,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Jewish community. SARI’s position was that the payments were of “partial and of symbolic character,” and that the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of religious groups in determining compensation. NGOs and religious groups continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from the legislation designating the five groups eligible to receive compensation, and they questioned the criteria the government used to select which groups received compensation.

The MOIA Department of Human Rights conducted eight training sessions during the year – five total in Tbilisi and Batumi and three online. At these events, it trained 139 MOIA employees on aspects of religious discrimination and hate crimes. Fifteen employees completed the ministry’s remote learning course on hate crimes investigation.

In October, the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions produced its annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country. The report identified areas needing improvement and made specific recommendations in the following categories: legislative regulation of freedom of religion; crimes motivated by intolerance; state policy on freedom of religion; property issues; border crossing by religious groups; the import of religious literature; police conduct in areas with ethnic and religious minorities; education; reflecting diversity; confronting hate speech and anti-Western propaganda; and the role of the media. During the October conference to discuss the report’s recommendations, many NGO and religious leaders said they were disappointed that the council’s recommendations were similar or identical to those it had made in past years, with no improvement or progress on the issues identified.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to government-imposed COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity, crimes committed against religious groups declined compared with 2019. The MOIA investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared to 44 cases in 2019. These included three cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites (compared with 10 in 2019), four cases of persecution (compared with 10 in 2019), and five cases of damage or destruction of property (compared with eight in 2019).

The Public Defender’s Office reported it received seven complaints of discrimination or hate crimes based on religion during the year, compared with 19 in 2019. Two of the complaints involved violence; the office did not give further details on these cases. The office stated that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved, partly because of a lack of urgency and resources from the government.

The PGO reported it prosecuted three individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance. Two of these individuals were convicted of domestic violence committed due to religious intolerance, and the third case remained pending at year’s end. The PGO reported that in one case, a man slapped his wife during an argument on March 8 because she refused to visit her son’s gravesite due to her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. On April 23, the Samtredia District Court found the man guilty of domestic violence committed in the presence of a minor and due to religious intolerance, and sentenced him to an 18-month conditional prison sentence. On June 19, on appeal, the Kutaisi Appellate Court increased the man’s conditional prison sentence to two years. On March 1, a man threatened to shoot two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were proselytizing in his apartment building if they did not stop their religious activity and leave the building. The PGO charged the man with persecuting an individual for engaging in religious activity with the aggravated circumstance of threat of violence, and the case was pending trial at the Tbilisi City Court at year’s end.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were fewer attacks against members compared to prior years because the group, in response to COVID-19 restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach, including door-to-door evangelism. At year’s end, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight religiously motivated incidents to the government, compared with 20 in 2019. Of the reported incidents, one involved physical violence, four involved vandalism or other damage against Kingdom Halls, and three involved interference with religious services or damage of other property or literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses said police sent one of the cases to the PGO for prosecution. Police were still investigating the seven others at year’s end. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared with prior years in classifying crimes as being motivated by religious intolerance, especially in cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses.

As of year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on a 2019 case in which an individual verbally insulted, then physically attacked, a Jehovah’s Witness who had just left a religious service at a Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi. The victim required medical treatment for injuries to his eye and lip, and officials charged the attacker with “purposeful, less grave damage to health.”

Authorities reported no arrests or other progress in open investigations of incidents from past years against Jehovah’s Witnesses or their property.

Representatives of the Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center and minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values.

Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance from local communities to their establishment of places of worship and religious schools.

The Media Development Foundation documented 30 instances during the year of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 such incidents in 2019.

In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili told the news website Georgia and the World, “As soon as this terrible epidemic [of COVID-19] has spread to all continents, all countries should have started intensified praying, but unfortunately, the reverse has happened. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church closed their churches, prohibited praying; although their prayers have no merit anyway, as in the 11th century they swerved from Orthodoxy and embarked on the road of sacrilege.”

There were instances, particularly in Western Georgia, of anti-Islamic rhetoric that took the form of anti-Turkish rhetoric and opposition to perceived “foreign influence.” On February 16, Alliance of Patriots party member Giorgi Kasradze criticized the perceived foreign influence of Turkish Muslims on the country, saying on TV Obiektivi, “They [Turkish Muslims] have tried many times to stage various provocations in this region, including building an Azizie Mosque in the center of Batumi, but 15,000 [Georgian] Muslims, altogether 70,000 people, of whom 15,000 were Muslims, resisted construction of a mosque by Turkish money.”

In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told the news outlet Sakinpormi, “In Zugdidi [City] the main source of coronavirus is the sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you noticed how they are concealing this information? Can you imagine the fuss if this disease were spread from the Church congregation? That is the problem – 90 percent of Georgian television networks are belligerent enemies of the Georgian nation, Orthodoxy, and the Georgian state! A national boycott to this offspring of Satan.”

On December 20, Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Gamrekeli delivered a sermon that included a story about the fourth-century saint Ambrose of Milan. In the story, Saint Ambrose argued against punishing those responsible for a pogrom against the Jewish community on the grounds that Jews had not been held fully responsible for killing Christ, desecrating the Holy Land, or blasphemy. In the sermon, Gamrekeli referred to modern-day Jews as individuals who, under the guise of free speech, defamed the Church, and said, “This is not defined by ethnicity – this is a battle of the lineage of infidels against the Church.” On December 28, the Tolerance Institute issued a statement saying, “Despite the fact that the Bishop refers to the story of Ambrose of Mediolanum, in this context he repeats the narratives of the ‘generation/lineage of infidels’ and ‘fighters against the Church’ in reference to the Jewish people. We consider that citing this particular example and calling Jewish people these derogatory terms (even though attributing them to the life of the saint) reinforces anti-Semitic sentiments and stereotypes today.” In response to the Tolerance Institute’s statement, the Georgian ambassador to Israel defended the Metropolitan’s statement, saying his words had been misinterpreted, as the story was simply the retelling of a historical parable, and the Metropolitan said in the sermon the lessons from the parable should not apply to one ethnicity. The GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with officials from the government, including SARI, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights and gender equality, and the President’s adviser on national minorities, to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups. They also continued to meet with the Public Defender’s Office and officials in its Tolerance Center to discuss discrimination against religious groups and stress the importance of interfaith dialogue.

Embassy staff continued to meet with NGOs involved with religious freedom issues, including the Center for Development and Democracy, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, the Tolerance Institute, and the 21st Century Union, to discuss interfaith relations, the integration of religious minorities into society, and the promotion of religious freedom for all.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials visited the Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, and Adjara regions on several occasions to meet with local religious leaders, including from the Sunni and Shia Muslim and Armenian Apostolic Orthodox communities. In these meetings, embassy officials advocated interfaith understanding, dialogue, and the peaceful coexistence of all religions. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior GOC members on multiple occasions. In her meetings, she stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.

In November, the Secretary of State met with Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi and discussed promoting and protecting religious freedom.

The embassy conducted a virtual program for a multiethnic group of young professionals under an exchange program focusing on inclusion, diversity, and equality. The program highlighted, among other things, the importance of freedom of religion. The embassy supported a number of religious freedom projects, including a discussion on human dignity and the GOC that brought together clergy and staff of the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate and public figures, nongovernmental human rights organizations, and scholars studying theology and religion with the goal of increasing awareness of human rights within the Church community. Another project aimed to encourage religious leaders of all faiths to promote democracy and foster civic engagement in their communities. The embassy’s English language programs in Marneuli, Akhalkalaki, and Ninotsminda targeted 25 socially disadvantaged students from religious minority groups.

The embassy continued to support the Tolerance Center and the Council of Religions programs that brought together leaders from different faith communities to monitor and advocate for religious freedom and raise public awareness about discrimination faced by religious and ethnic minorities. The embassy supported the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center’s “Improving Human Rights Conditions for Marginalized Groups through Strategic Litigation” project to protect the rights of minority religious groups through strategic litigation, field work, advocacy, and awareness-raising with regard to problems such as discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds in relations with state and private persons, unequal treatment in the recognition of property and construction rights, and hate crimes.

In September, the embassy announced a cultural preservation award to restore the Jvari Monastery, a Georgian Orthodox monastery near Mtskheta (the former capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Iberia) and one of the country’s most iconic cultural sites.

The embassy regularly used social media to highlight meetings with government officials, religious groups, and civil society and events promoting religious tolerance.

Germany

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the practice of one’s religion. The country’s 16 states exercise considerable autonomy on registration of religious groups and other matters. Unrecognized religious groups are ineligible for tax benefits. Federal and some state offices of the domestic intelligence service continued to monitor the activities of certain Muslim groups and mosques. Authorities also monitored the Church of Scientology (COS), which reported continued government discrimination against its members. Certain states continued to ban or restrict the use of religious clothing or symbols, including headscarves, for some state employees. Senior government leaders continued to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and acts. In September, Chancellor Angela Merkel described anti-Semitism as an attack on the dignity of individuals that “must be fought decisively” – ideally with education, but with the full strength of the criminal law system when necessary. Government officials responded to revelations of right-wing, anti-Semitic chat groups within police and the military by demanding investigations and dismissing those involved. Two additional state governments appointed anti-Semitism commissioners for the first time, bringing the total number of states with such commissioners to 15 (out of 16), in addition to the federal Jewish life and anti-Semitism commissioner. In October, the government announced it would increase social welfare funding for Holocaust survivors by 30.5 million euros ($37.4 million) in 2021 and provide an additional 564 million euros ($692 million) over the next two years to help Holocaust survivors cope with the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a Sukkot celebration for students at the Hohe Weide Synagogue in Hamburg on October 4, a man wearing a military-style uniform struck a Jewish student in the head with a shovel, leaving the victim with a serious head injury. Police arrested the attacker, and a criminal trial was pending. Authorities including Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht, and Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher condemned the attack. There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents. These included assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Federal crime statistics for 2019 cited 2,032 anti-Semitic crimes during the year, an increase of 13 percent from 2018. Seventy-two of those crimes involved violence. Federal crime statistics attributed 93.4 percent of anti-Semitic crimes in 2019 to the far right. In November, Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein stated anti-Semitism was emerging as a common theme among groups of widely differing political backgrounds that were gathering to protest pandemic lockdown measures. From mid-March to mid-June, the Research Center for Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS), which is partially government-funded, registered anti-Semitic incidents at 123 separate demonstrations against restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The head of the Central Council of Jews said to the media in May that right-wing protesters were using anxieties stirred up by the pandemic to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on the internet. Demonstrations also occurred expressing anti-Muslim sentiment.

The U.S. embassy and five consulates general assessed the government’s responses to incidents of religious intolerance; expressed concerns about anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts; and advocated for more law enforcement and other resources to prevent violent attacks on religious communities. A senior embassy official met with the federal commissioner for global freedom of religion at the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in September. Consuls General met with state-level government representatives and anti-Semitism commissioners. The embassy and consulates general maintained a dialogue with a broad spectrum of religious communities and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on their concerns about religious freedom and on ways to promote tolerance and communication among religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 80.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Unofficial estimates based on the census and figures provided by religious groups indicate approximately 27 percent of the population is Catholic and 25 percent belongs to the EKD – a confederation of Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and United (Prussian Union) Protestant regional churches. Other Protestant denominations, including the New Apostolic Church, Baptist communities, and nondenominational Christians, account for approximately 2 percent of the population. Orthodox Christians represent 1.9 percent of the population.

According to the most recent government estimates, approximately 5.7 percent of the population is Muslim, of which 75 percent is Sunni, 13 percent Alevi, and 7 percent Shia; the remainder includes Alawites (70,000), Ahmadis (35,000), and Sufis (10,000). Intelligence officials estimate there are approximately 12,150 Salafi Muslims in the country. Estimates of the Jewish population vary widely; the Central Council of Jews estimates it at 94,771, while other estimates place the number at approximately 190,000 when including Jews who do not belong to a specific Jewish community. According to the secular NGO Religious Studies Media and Information Service (REMID), Buddhists (270,000); Jehovah’s Witnesses (167,000); Hindus (100,000); Yezidis (100,000); members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) (40,000); Sikhs (10,000-15,000); and members of the COS (3,400) together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. All of REMID’s estimates are based on members who have registered with a religious group. According to the nonprofit Research Group Worldviews Germany, approximately 39 percent of the population either has no religious affiliation or belongs to religious groups not counted in government statistics.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious opinion and provides for freedom of faith and conscience, freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, and freedom to practice one’s religion. It also prohibits an official state church. It stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religious convictions nor be compelled to participate in religious acts. The constitution states religious instruction shall be part of the curriculum in public schools, and parents have the right to decide whether their children receive religious instruction. It recognizes the right to establish private denominational schools. The constitution guarantees the freedom to form religious societies and permits groups to organize themselves for private religious purposes without constraint. It allows registered religious groups with Public Law Corporation (PLC) status to receive public subsidies from the states and to provide religious services in the military, hospitals, and prisons.

The General Act on Equal Treatment has been in force since August 2006. The purpose of the act is to prevent or stop discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation.

The federal criminal code prohibits calling for violence, inciting hatred, or taking arbitrary measures against religious groups or their members. Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison. It also prohibits “assaulting the human dignity of religious groups or their members by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming them,” specifying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although prison sentences are rare. The prohibition and penalties apply equally to online speech. The federal criminal code prohibits disturbing religious services or acts of worship, with violators subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred, specifying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.

By law, social media companies with more than two million registered users in the country must implement procedures to review complaints and remove or block access to illegal speech within seven days of receiving a complaint and within 24 hours for cases considered “manifestly unlawful.” Noncompliance may result in fines of up to 50 million euros ($61.3 million). Unlawful content includes actions illegal under existing criminal code, such as defamation of religions and denial of historic atrocities.

The law permits the federal government to characterize “nontraditional” religious groups – such as the COS – as “sects,” “youth religions,” and “youth sects” and allows the government to provide “accurate information” or warnings about them to the public. The law does not permit the government to use terms such as “destructive,” “pseudo-religious,” or “manipulative” when referring to these groups. Several court decisions have ruled that the government must remain neutral toward a religion and may provide a warning to the public only if an “offer” by a religious group would endanger the basic rights of an individual or place the individual in a state of physical or financial dependence.

Religious groups wishing to qualify as nonprofit associations with tax-exempt status must register. State-level authorities review registration submissions and routinely grant tax-exempt status; if challenged, their decisions are subject to judicial review. Those applying for tax-exempt status must provide evidence they are a religious group through their statutes, history, and activities.

A special partnership exists between the states and religious groups with PLC status, as outlined in the constitution. Any religious group may request PLC status, which, if granted, entitles the group to levy tithes (8 percent of income tax in Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, 9 percent in the other states) on members, who must register their religious affiliation with federal tax authorities. Each state collects the tithes on behalf of the religious community through the state’s tax collection process, separately from and in addition to income taxes. PLCs pay fees to the government for the tithing service, but not all groups with PLC status utilize the service. PLC status also allows for benefits, including tax exemptions (larger than those given to groups with nonprofit status), representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations, and the right to special labor regulations. State governments subsidize institutions with PLC status that provide public services, such as religious schools and hospitals. In addition, due to historic “state-church contracts” dating back to pre-1919 Germany, all state governments except for Bremen and Hamburg subsidize the Catholic Church and the EKD with different yearly amounts.

According to the constitution, the decision to grant PLC status is made at the state level. Individual states base PLC status decisions on a number of varying qualifications, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals. An estimated 180 religious groups have PLC status, including Catholics, the EKD, Baha’is, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mennonites, Methodists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists. Ahmadi Muslim groups have PLC status in the states of Hesse and Hamburg; no other Muslim communities have PLC status. The COS does not have PLC or nonprofit status in any state.

Federal animal protection laws prohibit the killing of animals without anesthesia, including as part of halal and kosher slaughter practices. Pursuant to a Federal Administrative Court decision, however, trained personnel may kill animals without anesthesia in a registered slaughterhouse under observation of the local veterinary inspection office if the meat is for consumption only by members of religious communities whose beliefs require slaughtering animals without anesthesia.

According to a 2015 ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, general headscarf bans for teachers at public schools are a violation of religious freedom, but implementation is left to the states, which may determine if special circumstances apply. The states of Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), and Saarland render decisions on a case-by-case basis. Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen, and Lower Saxony do not prohibit headscarves for teachers. Hesse permits teachers to wear headscarves as long as doing so does not impair “school peace” or threaten perceptions of state neutrality. Berlin’s Neutrality Law bans visible signs of religious affiliation for police, lawyers, judges, and law enforcement staff but, as of 2020, not for primary and secondary school teachers. In Lower Saxony, judges and prosecutors may not wear religious symbols or clothing in the courtroom. Other states have laws that restrict religious attire in certain circumstances.

Citing safety reasons and the need for traffic law enforcement, federal law prohibits the concealment of faces while driving, including by a niqab. Infractions are punishable by a 60-euro ($74) fine.

According to federal law, religious groups may appoint individuals with special training to carry out circumcision of males under the age of six months. After six months, the law states circumcisions must be performed in a “medically professional manner” and without unnecessary pain.

All states offer religious instruction and ethics courses in public schools. Religious communities with PLC status (or those without such status that have concluded a special agreement with the state granting them this right) appoint religion teachers and work with the states to ensure the curriculum is in line with the constitution; the states pay the teachers’ salaries. Most public schools offer the option of Protestant and Catholic religious instruction in cooperation with those Churches, as well as instruction in Judaism if enough students (usually 12, although regulations vary by state) express an interest. Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein also offer some religious instruction in Islam. In most federal states, Muslim communities or associations provide this instruction, while in Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein, the state does. In Hamburg and Bremen, nondenominational religious instruction is offered for all students by the Protestant Church and the state, respectively.

Students who do not wish to participate in religious instruction may opt out; in some states, those who opt out may substitute ethics courses. State authorities generally permit religious groups to establish private schools as long as they meet basic curriculum requirements. Schooling is constitutionally mandated, and homeschooling, including for religious reasons, is prohibited in all states.

The government provides annual payments to Holocaust victims and their descendants, and regularly expands the scope of these programs to broaden the eligibility requirements.

Government Practices

In January and again in July, the Baden-Wuerttemberg Free Democratic Party (FDP) requested an examination of whether Jehovah’s Witnesses fulfilled the conditions for PLC status in that state. In both instances, the state education ministry affirmed there was no reason to revoke the status. In August, the FDP’s speaker for religious affairs once again urged the ministry to review the group’s eligibility for PLC status due to its prohibition of blood transfusions for children. Jehovah’s Witnesses have held PLC status in all states since 2017.

In March, the federal government established a cabinet committee to combat right-wing extremism and racism. The committee drew up a catalog of 89 concrete measures, many of which aim at combating anti-Semitism. The federal government stated it would provide more than one billion euros ($1.23 billion) for the projects between 2021 and 2024.

In June, Federal Family Minister Franziska Giffey launched a network to provide government resources and foster connections between educational institutions and research centers working to combat anti-Semitism. The federal government stated it would support a new anti-Semitism competence center with two million euros ($2.5 million) over the next four years.

In July, more than 60 scientists, academics, writers, and artists wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel warning of an “inflationary, factually unjustified, and legally unfounded use of the term anti-Semitism.” They expressed concern about the suppression of “legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy” and castigated Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein for distracting attention from “real anti-Semitic sentiments.”

In September, speaking at the 70th anniversary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Chancellor Merkel spoke of her “grave concern” over the increasingly open expression of anti-Semitism in the country. She described anti-Semitism as an attack on the dignity of individuals that “must be fought decisively” – ideally with education, but with the full strength of the criminal law system when necessary.

In September, the NRW interior ministry suspended 29 police officers for participating in a right-wing extremist chat group, and some faced criminal investigation. The group shared extremist propaganda, including photographs of Adolf Hitler. The interior ministry also ordered an inspection of the affected police station, and it created a new position to specifically monitor right-wing extremism across the NRW police force.

In April, the NRW commissioner for anti-Semitism published the first NRW anti-Semitism report, which indicated 310 anti-Semitic crimes were registered in NRW in 2019, of which 291 were motivated by right-wing ideologies. The crimes ranged from verbal abuse to physical injury; all cases resulted in criminal investigations. In June, the NRW commissioner announced she was establishing an office to monitor and independently investigate anti-Semitic crimes that would allow victims to report anonymously in part in an effort to increase the reporting of cases.

During the year, Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg established state-level anti-Semitism commissioner positions, leaving Bremen as the only state without one. The responsibilities and functions of the position vary by state but generally include developing contacts with the Jewish community, collecting statistics on anti-Semitic incidents, and designing education and prevention programs. In 2018, Federal Anti-Semitism Commissioner Klein urged all states to establish anti-Semitism commissioners because the distribution of powers in the country’s federal system provided the states with greater authority to combat anti-Semitism.

In February, the Frankfurt general prosecutor’s office established a commissioner for combating anti-Semitism. In addition to evaluating anti-Jewish aspects of crimes, the person will serve as point of contact for domestic and foreign authorities.

In January, Hesse inaugurated a new office for reporting anti-Semitic incidents as part of a 2019 state initiative to establish a more comprehensive approach to countering online hate speech and harassment.

In February, the Bremen Senate extended its cooperation with the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial to police officers trained at the College of Public Administration. Among other activities, Yad Vashem teaches a course to police trainees on the history of the Jewish community in Bremen. The course brings trainees to main historical Jewish community sites as well as to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Yad Vashem also led trips to the Warsaw ghetto and to Israel; 18 trainees joined the trip to Israel.

More than 1,000 artists signed an open letter against the 2019 Bundestag decision to designate the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic, calling it a restriction of the right to boycott, a violation of democratic principles, and encouragement of a “climate of censorship.” They joined concerns by the heads of some German cultural institutions who argued the resolution might hinder their work. Numerous Bundestag members rejected the accusations, stating the resolution by no means banned dialogue or criticism. They also said that no tax funds should be used for BDS initiatives. State Minister for Culture Monika Gruetters said, “It is part of the Federal Republic of Germany’s raison d’etre to protect Israel’s right to exist. It follows that the federal government does not actively support organizations or projects that question Israel’s right to exist, even within the framework of cultural funding.”

In July, rap musician Farid Bang collaborated with Duesseldorf Mayor Thomas Geisel on a video promoting COVID-19 distancing measures. The state commissioner for anti-Semitism in NRW criticized the choice due to what he described as Bang’s frequently misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and violent lyrics, saying “This would be a wrong sign for Jewish life in this country.” The story received national publicity, and the video was taken down after one week.

In July, the Federal Constitutional Court confirmed a six-month prison sentence for Sascha Krolzig, federal chairman of the far-right party Die Rechte (The Right). Krolzig published an article calling a prominent member of the Jewish community an “insolent Jewish functionary” and praising the “exemplary and reliable men of the Waffen-SS.” Krolzig was convicted for sedition in February, based on inciting hatred against Jews and the use of National Socialist vocabulary.

In July, the Moenchengladbach public prosecutor’s office brought sedition charges against a man suspected of distributing the anti-Semitic manifesto of the 2019 Halle synagogue attacker online. The case was pending as of December.

In August, Lower Saxony’s Jewish community expressed concern after police officer Michael F. from Hanover, who was responsible for designing the security plans for Lower Saxony’s Jewish synagogues and community centers, drew parallels between restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 and National Socialism during his speech at a demonstration against the restrictions. The officer was suspended from duty in August. “Anyone responsible for the safety evaluations of Jewish facilities in the police force must be above reproach, not indulging in some abstruse, conspiracy-theoretical nonsense,” said Franz Rainer Enste, the state’s anti-Semitism commissioner.

In February, NRW Minister-President Armin Laschet visited Israel and expressed assurances that Germany would take decisive action against anti-Semitism, racism, and extreme right-wing violence. He said, “I am ashamed that 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz we are experiencing this again in Germany.” Upon his return, Laschet received the Israel Jacobson Prize from the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany in recognition of his contribution to liberal Judaism and the strengthening of Jewish life in NRW.

In May, Bavarian Justice Minister Georg Eisenreich and Anti-Semitism Commissioner Ludwig Spaenle presented anti-Semitism guidelines for legal workers to help better identify anti-Semitic incidents.

According to reports from the federal Office for Protection of the Constitution (OPC – domestic intelligence agency) and Scientology members, the federal and state OPCs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, NRW, and Saxony-Anhalt continued to monitor the activities of the COS, reportedly by evaluating Scientology publications and members’ public activities to determine whether they violated the constitution. At least four major political parties – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), Social Democratic Party (SPD), and FDP – continued to exclude Scientologists from party membership. “Sect filters,” signed statements by potential employees to confirm they had no contact with the COS, remained in use in the public and private sectors. The COS said the government also discriminated against firms owned or operated by its members.

At the September session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the President of the European Office of the Church of Scientology for Public Affairs and Human Rights requested Germany stop using “sect filters” and called on the president of the Human Rights Council to launch an investigation into the religious freedom violations that, he said, the country’s executive powers continue to perpetrate against Scientologists.

Following the country’s April 30 ban on all Hizballah activities, police raided mosques in Berlin, Bremen, and NRW. Police had previously placed the mosques under surveillance due to what they stated were their pro-Hizballah sympathies and links with extremist groups. In May, police searched the official rooms of the al-Mustafa community in Woltmershausen in Lower Saxony as well as the private residences of community leaders, alleging a close association of al-Mustafa with Hizballah.

Federal and state OPCs continued to monitor numerous Muslim groups, including the terrorist groups ISIS, Hizballah, and Hamas as well as groups such as Turkish Hizballah, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jama’at, Millatu Ibrahim, the Islamic Center Hamburg, the Muslim Brotherhood, Milli Gorus, and various Salafist movements. Hamburg opposition parties and civil society actors continued to advocate an end to Hamburg’s formal relationship with the “Islamic Center,” which they described as an important Iranian regime asset.

In May, the OPC in Saxony reported it was monitoring two mosques that it said were dominated by Salafists.

Groups under OPC observation continued to say that OPC scrutiny implied they were extremist and that this constrained their ability to apply for publicly funded projects.

Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in July, and consistent with its commitment to prioritize the fight against anti-Semitism, it organized an online conference November 18 on combating anti-Semitism and hate speech, and two weeks later, the council unanimously approved a declaration mainstreaming the fight against anti-Semitism across all policy areas. The council also published the largest survey ever conducted among European Jews on their perceptions and experiences of anti-Semitism.

In August, the federal labor court awarded a Muslim computer scientist approximately 5,200 euros ($6,400) in compensation for religious discrimination. In 2017, the plaintiff had insisted on wearing her headscarf in class as part of an interview for a position in the public school service and was subsequently denied a job. The rejected applicant said this was religious discrimination and sued for compensation under the General Equality Act. The Berlin Labor Court dismissed the claim, but the Berlin-Brandenburg Regional Labor Court upheld it, referring to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court in 2015 that stated that rejection of female applicants wearing headscarves must be justified by a concrete threat to the peace of the school. Berlin appealed but lost at the Federal Labor Court, which saw the Berlin position as “a disproportionate interference with freedom of religion.” The court called upon Berlin to amend its neutrality law that forbids civil servants from wearing religious clothing and symbols.

In February, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that a Muslim law clerk could be prohibited from wearing a headscarf during court proceedings. In its ruling, the court said the judiciary’s obligation to observe complete neutrality outweighed the clerk’s freedom of religion rights. The clerk sued Hesse state in 2017 for not permitting her to follow court proceedings from the bench, lead courtroom sessions, or take evidence from witnesses while she was wearing a headscarf.

In May, the Lower Saxony state parliament amended the law to prohibit judges and prosecutors from wearing religious symbols or clothing in the courtroom. State Justice Minister Barbara Havliza said that it was necessary in view of the increasing diversity in society and important for the perceived neutrality of the judiciary.

In April, the Rhineland-Palatinate state government forbade students in primary and secondary schools from full-face veiling at school (i.e., wearing a niqab or burqa). In July, Baden-Wuerttemberg did the same. For both states, the ban on full covering did not apply in higher education. Teachers in both states had already been forbidden from full-face veiling at school.

In February, an administrative court in Hamburg overturned a school’s ban on niqabs, ruling that state law does not allow educational authorities to impose such a ban. The court said the 16-year-old who challenged the ban had the right to “unconditional protection” of her freedom of belief. The Hamburg state minister of education said he would seek to change the law, because “only if students and teachers have a free and open face can school and lessons function.”

In September, the Higher Administrative Court in Muenster overturned a 2018 decision by an administrative court which banned a local mosque’s outdoor amplification of the call to prayer in the town Oer-Erkenschwick. Local residents said this was a noise disturbance. In its ruling, the Muenster court compared the call to prayer with the sound of church bells. During the COVID-19 lockdown, some mosques in NRW received temporary permission to conduct calls to prayer via loudspeaker.

In June, the Lower Saxony Higher Administrative Court ruled a Muslim teacher denied employment for wearing a headscarf could assert a claim for compensation through the General Equal Treatment Act.

In February, a district court ordered a fitness studio in Oststeinbek to compensate a Muslim client 1,000 euros ($1,200). The studio had prohibited the woman from exercising with a headscarf, citing insurance reasons. The woman brought legal action based on the General Equal Treatment Act.

In September, the Karlsruhe Labor Court ruled the Protestant Regional Church in Baden discriminated against an atheist applicant who had unsuccessfully applied for a secretarial position in 2019. The court ordered the Church to pay compensation of 5,000 euros ($6,100) for illegally asking the applicant about her religious beliefs.

According to a May survey of state-level education ministries, more than 900 schools in the country offered Islamic religious instruction. Almost 60,000 students took part in Islamic religious instruction in the school year 2019-20, an increase of 4,000 from the previous year. Since 2017-18, approximately 35 schools have added Islamic religious instruction.

In October, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (also known as the Jewish Claims Conference) and the government announced an increase of 30.5 million euros ($37.4 million) in government funding for social welfare services for Holocaust survivors, raising the yearly contribution from 524 million euros ($642.9 million) in 2020 to 554.5 million euros ($680.4 million) in 2021. The government also agreed to provide an additional 564 million euros ($692 million) over the next two years to help financially struggling Holocaust survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government continued to subsidize some Jewish groups. Based on an agreement between the federal government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the federal government contributed 13 million euros ($15.9 million) to help maintain Jewish cultural heritage and support integration and social work. In addition, the federal government provided financial support to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, the Rabbi Seminar at the University of Potsdam, and the Leo Baeck Institute, an international group researching the history and culture of German Jewry.

State governments continued to provide funds to Jewish communities and organizations in various amounts for such purposes as the renovation and construction of synagogues. The federal government continued to cover 50 percent of maintenance costs for Jewish cemeteries. State and local police units continued to provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

According to the Humanistic Union, an independent civil liberties organization, total state government contributions during the year to the Catholic Church and the EKD totaled approximately 570 million euros ($699.4 million). The union said it calculated its estimate based on budgets of the 16 states. The Humanistic Union advocates the abolition of state church privileges such as faith-based religious education as a regular school subject, collection of church taxes, and other financial aid.

In July, the Federal Supreme Court rejected the appeals of seven men who had been fined by a lower court in 2019 for wearing yellow vests marked “Sharia Police” and patrolling the streets of Wuppertal in 2014 looking for “non-Muslim” behavior. They had been charged with wearing uniforms as expressions of a common political opinion. A regional court acquitted them in 2016, but the Federal Constitutional Court reversed the acquittal in 2018.

The government continued the German Islam Conference dialogue with Muslims in the country. The dialogue’s aim was to improve the religious and social participation of the Muslim population, give greater recognition to Muslims’ contributions to society, and – in the absence of a central organization representing all Muslims in the country – further develop partnerships between the government and Muslim organizations. The conference held a video discussion on imam training with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on November 10. Participants discussed initiatives to promote imam training, including imam employment in congregations, religious instruction in public schools, and pastoral care in public institutions, especially prison and military chaplaincies. The Interior Minister discussed the Independent Expert Group on Anti-Muslim Hostility, established in September, which focuses on distinguishing between criticism of religion and hostility toward Muslims.

In May, the Bundestag unanimously approved a bill authorizing rabbis to serve as military chaplains, performing pastoral services for the approximately 300 Jewish soldiers in the Bundeswehr (federal army). The Bundesrat, the chamber representing the federal states, also approved the bill in July. The selection of up to 10 rabbis was scheduled to begin in autumn. The country’s Conference of Orthodox Rabbis welcomed the action as “an important signal, especially in times…when there is again fertile ground for anti-Semitism, hate from the far right, and conspiracy theorists.” The federal government also said it was developing plans to authorize Muslim chaplains for the approximately 3,000 Muslims serving in the Bundeswehr, but the Central Council of Muslims Chair Aiman Mazyek said in a July interview that the government had not yet taken any concrete steps. In December, the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg appointed police rabbis for the first time in its history, one for the Jewish Religious Community of Wuerttemberg, and one for the Baden region. Their tasks included raising awareness of Jewish issues among police officers.

The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and held the organization’s chairmanship during 2020.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During a Sukkot celebration for students at the Hohe Weide Synagogue in Hamburg on October 4, an individual wearing a military-style uniform struck a Jewish student in the head with a shovel, leaving the victim with a serious head injury. Police arrested the attacker, a 29-year-old male with Kazakh roots residing in Berlin. Authorities, including Foreign Minister Maas, Minister of Justice Lambrecht, and Hamburg Mayor Tschentscher, condemned the attack. The case was awaiting court prosecution at year’s end.

On December 21, the gunman who attacked the Halle synagogue and killed two individuals on Yom Kippur 2019 was sentenced to life imprisonment with subsequent preventative detention. The court found the attacker “severely guilty” of two counts of murder; 51 counts of attempted murder for his attack on the synagogue; several counts of attempted murder for his attack on a kebab shop, bystanders, and police officers; incitement; Holocaust denial; grievous bodily harm; and negligent physical injury. The verdict cited the attacker’s lack of remorse and expressed desire to reoffend as support for issuing the maximum sentence.

There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents, including assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. According to Ministry of Interior federal crime statistics, there were 2,032 anti-Semitic crimes committed during 2019 (the most recent statistics available), including 72 incidents involving violence. This represented a 13 percent increase from the 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes reported in 2018, of which 69 were violent.

The federal OPC’s annual report stated the number of violent right-wing anti-Semitic incidents increased from 48 in 2018 to 56 in 2019. In May, Interior Minister Seehofer stated, “Right-wing extremism, racism, and anti-Semitism…continue to represent the greatest threat to security in Germany. We have every reason to proceed with the greatest vigilance here.” According to the report, membership in right-wing extremist parties such as the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party increased from approximately 5,500 persons in 2018 to 13,330 in 2019. The report noted, however, this rise was entirely due to the reclassification of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany Party’s youth organization as well as its far-right faction formerly known as “The Wing” as extremist.

In May, the Ministry of Interior presented its annual report on politically motivated crime, which stated there were 41,177 such crimes in 2019, a 14.2 percent increase from 2018. Police registered 8,585 crimes motivated by racism or xenophobia, which encompasses religion, a 5.8 percent increase.

RIAS, to which victims may report anti-Semitic incidents independent of filing charges with police, reported 1,253 incidents in the states of Berlin, Brandenburg, Bavaria, and Schleswig-Holstein in 2019. RIAS reported 410 anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin in the first six months of 2020, comparable to the 404 incidents over the same period in 2019, despite the stringent COVID-related restrictions on public life. This included 26 incidents involving violence or threatened violence (down from 33), 58 examples of anti-Semitic propaganda, and 301 examples of malicious behavior, such as giving the Nazi salute. RIAS used categories different from official police statistics and included anti-Semitic incidents that did not rise to the level of a criminal offense. According to RIAS, the largest motivating factor for anti-Semitic attacks was right-wing political ideology.

From mid-March to mid-June, RIAS registered anti-Semitic incidents at 123 separate demonstrations against restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Incidents included positive references to Nazis, including comments by protest organizer Attila Hildmann that Adolf Hitler was “a blessing” in comparison to Angela Merkel and the use of anti-Semitic conspiracy myths, including the assertion that Jews were responsible for unleashing the virus.

Lower Saxony’s government recorded 172 anti-Semitic crimes in 2019, up from 127 in 2018. The Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania government counted 34 such crimes for the first half of 2020, up from 18 during the same time period in 2019. Alexander Rasumny of RIAS attributed the increase to two factors: first, he said, every attack potentially triggers another attack, and second, the culture of political and social debate had become more “brutalized” in Germany than in other countries.

In 2019 (most recent data available), the Ministry of Interior registered 950 incidents targeting Muslims and Muslim institutions, such as mosques or community centers. This was an increase from the 910 incidents in 2018. The ministry classified 90.1 percent of these incidents as right-wing extremism. Other recorded incidents included online hate speech against Muslims, hate mail, and aggressive behavior in the street.

A Hildesheim resident was arrested on June 5, suspected of planning attacks against Muslims and mosques, according to prosecutors. Police found weapons at his apartment and “data files with radical right-wing contents.” The suspect had said in an online chat that he wanted to carry out an attack similar to the 2019 mosque attacks in New Zealand and “kill Muslims.” The Celle prosecutor general’s office brought charges against the 21-year-old defendant on suspicion of incitement and of preparing a serious act of violence endangering the state. His trial began in December and was continuing at year’s end.

The Ministry of Interior counted 128 anti-Christian incidents in 2019, including 16 cases involving violence. The ministry classified 30 percent of these incidents as motivated by right-wing ideology and 21 percent as motivated by left-wing ideology.

In March, the NRW Department of the Interior released information showing the number of politically motivated attacks on Jews, Muslims, and Christians rose significantly in 2019. Offenses against Jews quintupled since 2018, from seven to 35, attacks against Muslims almost tripled from 15 to 42, and offenses against Christians more than doubled from four to nine. A total of 42 suspects were identified, the vast majority of whom were German citizens and had right-wing backgrounds.

In January, a boy found a homemade explosive device near the access area of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorial site in Thuringia. Due to the proximity to the memorial, the State Security Service was also involved in the investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end.

On July 9 in downtown Munich, four individuals followed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Aharon Brodman and shouted insults at him. Brodman called police, who were unable to locate the perpetrators. The offenders reportedly insulted the rabbi in English and spoke among themselves in Arabic. Bavaria’s Anti-Semitism Commissioner Spaenle expressed concern that several eyewitnesses had not intervened on the rabbi’s behalf.

In July, as yet unidentified suspects left severed pig heads in front of the Islamic Cultural Center in Greifswald on two separate occasions. As of December, police were investigating.

According to media reports, women who wore the hijab continued to face employment discrimination.

In October, a Brandenburg road construction company rejected an applicant because he was a practicing Muslim. The managing director sent the applicant a rejection notice in which he wrote, “Islam is not compatible with the constitution.” He confirmed this with the local public media, adding “I cannot employ practicing Muslims because there would be unrest.” Brandenburg police told the applicant that he could report an offense like this, because denying employment on the basis of an applicant’s religion contravenes the General Equal Treatment Act.

On January 4, the Leipziger Volkszeitung reported that local construction companies had declined orders for the construction of a mosque in Erfurt because they feared their involvement would precipitate attacks on their vehicles by opponents of the mosque. One businessman said he had lost orders in the past after his involvement in the construction of a mosque was made public.

There were several reported incidents of arson in churches. In three separate incidents in February, March, and May, unknown individuals set fire to church bulletins, a Bible, and an altar at a church in Krefeld. Unknown individuals damaged a window in a church in Neuenkirchen while attempting to start a fire in August. In September, unknown persons broke a window and unsuccessfully attempted to set a church on fire in Wolgast. Police began investigations of all the cases, which were pending as of December.

In July, unknown perpetrators desecrated a memorial site for the survivors of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. No suspects could be identified, and investigations by local authorities were ongoing as of December.

In February, unknown persons vandalized a mosque in Emmendingen, Baden-Wuerttemberg with swastikas and rightwing slogans. Local police said they believed the incident was related to a series of similar acts of vandalism in February.

In April, a restroom in a Jewish-owned restaurant in Frankfurt was vandalized with anti-Semitic and Nazi images. As of December, state police were investigating.

In August, an Israeli-owned bar in Berlin was attacked by arsonists, according to police. A RIAS representative said the bar had been a target of anti-Semitic attacks in the past. In the incident, graffiti including a Star of David and numbers linked to the slogan of the Hitler Youth organization were found in the bar. As of December, police were investigating the incident.

In January, police arrested two individuals in the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery in the town of Geilenkirchen. The police stated the pair knocked over more than 40 gravestones in the cemetery and defaced some of the graves with blue paint.

In June, unknown individuals vandalized Alevi Muslim graves in Ludwigsburg, Baden-Wuerttemberg. As of December, local police were investigating.

In October, a piece of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah was removed from its case at the Tiferet Israel synagogue’s doorpost in Berlin, defaced with swastikas, and replaced. Foreign Minister Maas tweeted, “It simply hurt to see something so disgusting” and called for the crime to be solved quickly and those responsible punished. As of December, state police were investigating.

In April, unknown individuals damaged the door and windows of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) mosque in Cologne. The same night, vandals smashed the windows of a DITIB administrative building in Cologne. Local politicians condemned the act. Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker said she rejected all kinds of violence against religious facilities. As of December, police were investigating.

In August, an accomplice in a 2019 incident in which a bloody pig’s head, plastic bags filled with blood, right-wing extremist slogans, and swastikas were found in front of the Arrahman Mosque in Moenchengladbach, was sentenced to eight months’ probation. As of December, the main suspect’s trial was still pending.

The Catholic Church and the EKD continued to oppose the COS publicly. “Sect commissioners” or “departments on sects and worldview matters” of the EKD and the Catholic Church continued to investigate “sects and cults” and publicize what they considered to be the dangers of these groups. On its website, the EKD Center for Questions of World Views continued to warn the public about what it said were the dangers posed by multiple religious groups, including the COS, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Bhagwan-Osho, Transcendental Meditation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Universal Life, and continued to produce literature criticizing the groups.

In May, the University of Duisburg-Essen, Bielefeld University, and the Mercator Foundation published a joint study on the attitudes of young people in NRW towards Islam. The study concluded that, although the majority of young people supported diversity, rejected discrimination, and had knowledge about Islam, stereotypes and prejudice remained widespread.

The far-right group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA) continued to organize weekly demonstrations in Dresden, although media reports indicated significantly fewer demonstrators than in previous years. Approximately 300 to 400 supporters continued to join PEGIDA rallies, even after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The demonstrations were approved by authorities contingent upon participants adhering to mask and social distancing requirements. Amid calls to curb immigration, PEGIDA supporters regularly expressed anti-Muslim sentiments during the rallies, including by carrying posters expressing opposition to women who wear religious head coverings.

On December 14, the Dresden District Court fined PEGIDA’s founder and organizer, Lutz Bachmann, 4,200 euros ($5,200) for incitement and slander. Bachmann had denounced Muslims as “murderer Muslims” and “rapist Muslims.”

After the Dresden City Council’s October, 2019 declaration of a Nazi emergency, mainstream parties as well as grassroots organizations worked together to counteract right-wing extremism. The Dresden chapters of the CDU, the SPD, and the Greens formally formed a cross-party alliance against the extreme right in February.

In April and May, some protesters at demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions in Stuttgart and Berlin wore yellow Stars of David to indicate their opposition to mandatory vaccines, equating the anti-COVID lockdown to Nazi-era persecution of Jews. Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews, said to the media on May 11 that right-wing protesters were using anxieties stirred up by the pandemic to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and other far-right preaching on the internet. Federal Anti-Semitism Commissioner Klein said anti-Semitic sentiments were regularly part of protests against the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. In June and July, respectively, Munich and Wiesbaden banned the Star of David symbol at COVID-19 protests. Ahead of a November protest in Frankfurt, the city banned the display of the Star of David alongside slogans such as “unvaccinated,” “vaccination sets you free,” “Dr. Mengele,” or “Zion.”

On August 1, a rally supported by neo-Nazi groups drew more than 20,000 protesters in Berlin to demand an end to coronavirus restrictions. The rally was called a “Day of Freedom” by its organizers, the Stuttgart-based Querdenken 711 (“Thinking Outside the Box”) group. According to RIAS observers, some participants displayed anti-Semitic slogans, while others compared the government’s anti-COVID restrictions to Nazi regulations. Police charged the rally organizer for failure to comply with social distancing rules.

An estimated 23 churches continued to use bells bearing Nazi symbols and inscriptions. In January, a Protestant church in Thuringia replaced a bell with Nazi symbols after the Association of Protestant Churches in Central Germany (EKM) agreed to replace all such bells. The EKM also offered financial support to local churches to cover the cost of new bells.

In February, seven students at a police academy in Baden-Wuerttemberg were expelled for exchanging chat-group messages that included anti-Semitic and Nazi content.

From late 2018 through 2020, more than 85 threatening letters with right-wing extremist content, sometimes including anti-Semitic content, were sent to politicians, journalists, and other prominent figures. Many of the most visible targets were Muslim women. Among the recipients were the heads of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. Personal, nonpublic data gained from police computers appeared in some letters. In September, a Frankfurt police officer was arrested in connection with the case. Investigations continued as of year’s end.

In February, one week after a man killed nine persons with migrant backgrounds at two shisha bars (hookah lounges) in Hanau, a mosque in Hanau received an anonymous threatening letter that made direct reference to the attack. As of December, police were investigating.

In February, mosques in Essen, Unna, Bielefeld, and Hagen received bomb threats by email and were evacuated. No bombs were detected. A DITIB representative said the anonymous bomb threats were signed by the right-wing Kampfgruppe 18 group and were politically motivated.

In February, the Pew Research Center published its 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, 72 percent of German respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it in the middle of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. embassy and the five consulates general continued to engage closely with authorities at all levels of government regarding responses to incidents of religious intolerance, although due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online and remote engagements often substituted for face-to-face meetings and special events related to religious freedom issues. Embassy and consulate officials met regularly with a wide variety of federal and state parliamentarians to discuss religious freedom issues.

Embassy and consulate representatives met with members and leaders of numerous local and national religious and civil society groups about their concerns related to tolerance and freedom of religion. Topics of discussion with Jewish groups included concerns about what they characterized as the growing acceptability of anti-Semitism throughout the country and concern that right-wing groups have exacerbated anti-Semitism. Embassy and consulate representatives also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with the Catholic, Evangelical, and other Protestant churches; the Central Council of Muslims; the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers; the Central Council of Jews in Germany; the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany; the World Uyghur Congress; Alevi Muslims; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and human rights NGOs.

On January 27, the Leipzig Consul General participated in a Holocaust commemoration event hosted by the local Jewish community and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Erfurt, Thuringia. He discussed the consulate’s efforts to educate local youth on the Holocaust, for example by planning to bring a Simon Wiesenthal Center exhibition on Jewish history to Leipzig.

The embassy and consulates worked closely with Jewish communities, especially in eastern Germany, to provide small grants in support of programs promoting religious tolerance to leading NGOs countering violent extremism related to religion and anti-Semitism.

In August, the consulate in Leipzig supported the 20th Yiddish Summer Weimar in Thuringia, one of the world’s leading summer programs for the study and presentation of traditional and contemporary Yiddish culture. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the concerts and workshops took place outdoors in public spaces in Weimar, Erfurt, and Eisenach, attracting a broader audience than usual.

In February, consulate officers in Duesseldorf met with the chief administrator of the Jewish Community in Cologne. The discussion focused on the experience of the Jewish community across the country and public outreach planning for the 2021 festival “1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany.”

On December 4 and 5, the embassy organized a virtual teacher academy on “Jewish-American Life and Culture” that engaged German and American experts with 70 teachers from across the country. The program offered tools and content for the classroom to elevate coursework that combats anti-Semitism beyond a simple recounting of history. The conference reached an indirect audience of hundreds of teachers and approximately 10,000 to 14,000 of their students nationwide.

The embassy and consulates actively promoted religious freedom and tolerance through their social media channels, utilizing Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to highlight the engagement of senior embassy officials on the issue. For example, on the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Halle synagogue, the embassy published a statement on its social media accounts that said “we remember the victims of this senseless tragedy, and stand firm in our resolve to confront, condemn, and stop anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism.” The postings reached large audiences.

Greece

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship, with some restrictions. It recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” On October 7, an appeals court in Athens ruled the Golden Dawn political party, commonly characterized as neo-Nazi, was a criminal organization, finding seven of its 18 party leaders guilty of directing a criminal organization. The court found Golden Dawn members responsible for a series of physical attacks and verbal harassment since 2012 against perceived outsiders, including Muslim asylum seekers and Jews. On February 29, the government issued new curricula to conform to a 2019 Council of State ruling that the school curricula failed to “develop a religious conscience in students” as required by the constitution. Changes and adaptations included the removal of topics not relevant to the Greek Orthodox faith and the introduction of new material. Legislation approved on January 20 removed the requirement that middle and high schools list each student’s religion and nationality, following 2019 rulings by the Data Protection Authority and the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court. On June 25, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found the government had violated the European Union Convention on Human Rights because a registry office noted on the birth certificate that the child’s name came from a civil act, not a christening, which violated the right not to disclose religious beliefs. On June 18, the ECtHR determined the government owed a Muslim widow 51,000 euros ($62,600) for applying “sharia against her late husband’s wish.” During the year, the government authorized the construction of several places of worship, including a mosque, a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall, and an Egyptian Coptic Church temple. It also issued 14 new house of prayer or worship permits for several Christian denominations and five permits for Islamic houses of prayer. On November 2, the first government-funded mosque opened in Athens. On June 25, authorities closed an unlicensed mosque operating in Piraeus. A civil court also approved the registration of a Protestant group as a religious legal entity. In April, media reported that the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church wrote to the Prime Minister, stating his opposition to the government’s announced plans to allow all houses of worship to open their doors for individual prayers in small numbers but not allow services due to COVID-19. The Orthodox Church, as well as other religious groups, followed all government restrictions throughout the year. On January 27, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attended memorial events marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and became the first Greek premier to visit the former concentration camp. According to Jewish leaders, the government continued to help the Jewish community of Thessaloniki in its efforts to recover its original archives, found by Soviet troops in a castle in Lower Silesia, Germany, following Germany’s defeat and subsequently transferred to Moscow.

On social and other media, individuals continued to directly and indirectly link Jews to conspiracy theories about Jewish global power. In January, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) issued a statement protesting a sketch showing the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in a political cartoon arguing against lifting protection of primary residencies from foreclosures after April 30. KIS called the cartoon unacceptable because it trivialized a symbol of horror. The newspaper called the Jewish community’s reaction “justifiable,” stating it had not intended to trivialize or deny the Holocaust. Incidents of vandalism of religious properties continued during the year, with anti-Semitic graffiti spray-painted on the historic synagogues in Trikala and in Larisa, in the central part of the country, at the Jewish cemeteries in metropolitan Athens, Rhodes, and Thessaloniki, as well as at the Holocaust monuments in Thessaloniki, Larisa, and in Drama. Police arrested a suspect for the acts of vandalism of Jewish sites in Larisa and another one for the vandalism that took place in Drama. Vandals damaged an old mosque in Trikala and, on dozens of occasions, Greek Orthodox churches in Thessaloniki, Lesvos, Crete, Samos, Xanthi, and Rodopi.

The U.S. Ambassador, visiting government officials, and other embassy and consulate general representatives met with officials of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, including the Minister and the Secretary General for Religious Affairs, and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and governors. They continued to discuss the ability of minority religious communities to establish houses of worship and government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and Muslim immigrants. In meetings with government officials and religious leaders, including the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, U.S. government officials expressed concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and attacks on Orthodox churches. On September 29, the U.S. Secretary of State, Ambassador, Consul General in Thessaloniki, and other embassy officials visited the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. On July 9, the Ambassador discussed with leaders the implementation of the new Holocaust Memorial Museum in Thessaloniki. On October 7, the Ambassador met with KIS president David Saltiel to discuss legislation required to build the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the stalled return of the archives from Russia of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to research polls, 81 to 90 percent of the population identifies as Greek Orthodox, 4 to 15 percent atheist, and 2 percent Muslim.

Approximately 140,000 Muslims live in Thrace, according to government sources using 2011 data; they are largely descendants of the officially recognized Muslim minority according to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. According to a Pew Research Center study released in November 2017, an additional 520,000 Muslims – mostly asylum seekers, refugees, and other migrants from Southeastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa – reside throughout the country, clustered in communities by their countries of origin or in reception facilities. Government sources estimate half reside in Athens.

Members of other religious communities that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Old Calendarist Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, members of polytheistic Hellenic religions, Scientologists, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sikhs, Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Independent and media sources estimate Ethiopian Orthodox number 2,500, and Assyrians less than 1,000. According to the Armenian Orthodox Archbishop, interviewed in 2018, approximately 100,000 Armenian Orthodox live in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” It states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship under the protection of the law, with some restrictions. The constitution prohibits “proselytizing,” defined by law as “any direct or indirect attempt to intrude on the religious beliefs of a person of a different religious persuasion with the aim of undermining those beliefs through inducement, fraudulent means, or taking advantage of the other person’s inexperience, trust, need, low intellect, or naivete.” The constitution prohibits worship that “disturbs public order or offends moral principles.” It allows prosecutors to seize publications that “offend Christianity” or other “known religions.” The law provides penalties of up to two years in prison for individuals who maliciously attempt to prevent or who intentionally disrupt a religious gathering for worship or a religious service, and for individuals engaging in “insulting action” inside a church or place of worship. A 2019 amendment to the penal code abolishes articles criminalizing malicious blasphemy and religious insults. The constitution enumerates the goals of public education, including “the development of religious conscience among citizens.” Greek Orthodox priests and government-appointed muftis and imams in Thrace receive their salaries from the government.

The constitution states ministers of all known religions are subject to the same state supervision and obligations to the state as clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church. It states individuals are not exempt from their obligations to the state or from compliance with the law because of their religious convictions.

The Greek Orthodox Church, Jewish community, and Muslim minority of Thrace have long-held status as official religious public law legal entities. The Catholic Church, Anglican Church, two evangelical Christian groups, and the Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian Apostolic, and Assyrian Orthodox Churches acquired the status of religious legal entities under a 2014 law. The same law also allows groups seeking recognition to become “religious legal entities” under civil law.

The recognition process requires filing a request with the civil courts, providing documents proving the group has “open rituals and no secret doctrines,” supplying a list of 300 signatory members who do not adhere to other religious groups, demonstrating there is a leader who is legally in the country and is otherwise qualified, and showing their practices do not pose a threat to public order. Once a civil court recognizes a group, it sends a notification to the Secretariat General for Religions. Under the law, all religious officials of known religions and official religious legal entities, including the Greek Orthodox Church, the muftiates of Thrace, and the Jewish communities, must register in the electronic database maintained by the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.

The law also provides a second method for groups to obtain government recognition: any religious group that has obtained at least one valid permit to operate a place of prayer or worship is considered a “known religion” and thereby acquires legal protection, including a tax exemption for property used for religious purposes. The terms houses or places of prayer or worship are used interchangeably; it is at the discretion of a religious group to determine its term of preference. Membership requirements for house of prayer permits differ from the requirements for religious legal entities. Local urban planning departments in charge of monitoring and enforcing public health and safety regulations certify that facilities designated to operate as places of worship fulfill the necessary standards. Once a house of worship receives planning approvals, a religious group must submit a description of its basic principles and rituals and a biography of the religious minister or leader to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs for final approval. The application for a house of prayer or worship permit requires at least five signatory members of the group. The leaders of a religious group applying for a house of prayer permit must be Greek citizens, EU nationals, or legal residents of the country, and must possess other professional qualifications, including relevant education and experience. A separate permit is required for each physical location.

A religious group possessing status as a religious legal entity may transfer property and administer houses of prayer or worship, private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities. Some religious groups have opted to retain their status as civil society nonprofit associations acquired through court recognition prior to the 2014 law. Under this status, religious groups may operate houses of prayer and benefit from real estate property tax exemptions, but they may face administrative and fiscal difficulties in transferring property and in operating private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities.

All recognized religious groups are subject to taxation on property used for nonreligious purposes. Property used solely for religious purposes is exempt from taxation, as well as from municipal fees, for groups classified as religious legal entities or “known religions.”

The law allows religious communities without status as legal entities to appear before administrative and civil courts as plaintiffs or defendants.

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne accords the recognized Muslim minority of Thrace the right to maintain mosques and social and charitable organizations (awqaaf). A 1991 law authorizes the government, in consultation with a committee of Muslim leaders, to appoint three muftis in Thrace to 10-year terms of office, which may be extended. The law also allows a regional official to appoint temporary acting muftis until this committee convenes. The law mandates official muftis in Thrace must request notarized consent from all parties wishing to adjudicate a family matter based on sharia. Absent notarized consent from all parties, family matters fall under the jurisdiction of civil courts. The law also provides for the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs to assume all operating expenses for the muftiates in Thrace, under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance Directorate General for Fiscal Monitoring.

The law establishes an individual’s right to choose his or her burial or cremation location and mandates that death certificates detail this information. In the presence of a notary, individuals may designate the location and method of funeral service under conditions that adhere to public order, hygiene, or moral ethics, as well as designate a person responsible for carrying out funeral preferences.

The law allows halal and kosher slaughtering of animals in slaughterhouses but not in private residences or public areas.

Home schooling of children is not permitted. The law requires all children to attend 11 years of compulsory education in state or private schools, including two years of preschool education, in accordance with the official school curriculum. Religious instruction, mainly Greek Orthodox teachings, is included in the curricula for primary and secondary schools. Primary schools cover grades one to six, while secondary school includes three years of middle school and three years of high school. Students may be exempted from religious instruction with a parent’s or guardian’s submission of a document citing religious consciousness grounds, according to new regulations issued by decree during the year. Exempted students may attend classes with different subject matters during that time. Under legislation passed during the year, secondary schools no longer list their students’ religion and nationality on transcripts.

The law provides for optional Islamic religious instruction in public schools in Thrace for the recognized Muslim minority and optional Catholic religious instruction in public schools on the islands of Tinos and Syros. The law also includes provisions to make it easier for schools to hire and retain religious instructors for those optional courses.

By law, any educational facility with fewer than nine students must temporarily suspend operations, with students referred to neighboring schools.

The law allows Muslim students in primary and secondary schools throughout the country to be absent for two days each for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

According to the law, parents may send their children to private religious schools. Private Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish schools operate in the country. As per the Lausanne Treaty, the government operates bilingual secular schools in Thrace. Bilingual schools operate in Greek and Turkish, and their number may vary according to the number of registered students, with a minimum of nine per school. There are two Islamic religious schools in Thrace for grades 7-12. In addition, Muslim students in Thrace wishing to study the Quran may attend after-hours religious classes in mosques.

The law establishes an annual 0.5 percent quota for admission of students from the recognized Muslim minority in Thrace to universities, technical institutes, and civil service positions. Similarly, 2 percent of students entering the national fire brigade school and academy are required to be from the Muslim minority in Thrace.

The law provides for alternative forms of mandatory service for religious conscientious objectors in lieu of the nine-month mandatory minimum military service for men. Conscientious objectors must serve 15 months of alternative service in state hospitals or municipal and public services. Amendments in 2019 to a law on conscientious objection provide for greater civilian leadership in assessing conscientious objection petitions; abolishes the Defense Minister’s ability to suspend the provisions for conscientious objectors during wartime; requires the state to cover expenses for transportation of conscientious objectors; provides an additional five-day parental leave per child for conscientious objectors who are fathers; protects the return of conscientious objectors to their previous employment after civilian service; reduces by two years (from 35 to 33 years) the age after which a conscientious objector may buy off the greatest part of civilian service; and reduces from 40 to 20 days the required time before conscientious objectors are eligible to buy off the remaining time of the service.

According to what is commonly referred to as the “anti-racist” law, individuals or legal entities convicted of incitement to violence, discrimination, or hatred based on religion, among other factors, may be sentenced to prison terms of between three months and three years and fined 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($6,100-$24,500). Violators convicted of other crimes motivated by religion may be sentenced to an additional six months to three years, with fines doubled. The law criminalizes approval, trivialization, or malicious denial of the Holocaust and “crimes of Nazism” if that behavior leads to incitement of violence or hatred or has a threatening or abusive nature toward groups of individuals.

The law requires all civil servants, including cabinet and parliament members, to take an oath before entering office; individuals are free to take a religious or secular oath in accordance with their beliefs.

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

Government Practices

The criminal trial of 69 Golden Dawn members and supporters, including 18 former members of parliament, ended on September 4. On October 7, an appeals court in Athens ruled that Golden Dawn, commonly characterized as neo-Nazi, is a criminal organization and found seven of its 18 party leaders guilty of directing and participating in a criminal organization. On October 14, the court sentenced the seven to 13.5 years each in prison. An additional six defendants, whom the court found guilty of membership in a criminal organization, received prison sentences from five to seven years; the tribunal in total handed down more than 500 years of incarceration to 57 defendants convicted of murder, assault, weapons possession, and either running or participating in a criminal organization. The court found that Golden Dawn members committed a series of physical attacks on and verbal harassment of individuals they perceived to be outsiders, including Muslims and Jews, continuing when the party entered parliament in 2012. According to media, prominent Golden Dawn member Christos Pappas refused to surrender to authorities and remained at large at year’s end. Another party leader, Yannis Lagos, remained out of prison at year’s end because as a member of the European Parliament he was immune from prosecution. At year’s end, Greece’s parliament continued to examine this immunity rule.

On November 2, the first government-funded mosque opened in Athens. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and throughout the spring and autumn lockdowns, government regulations allowed up to nine persons to take part in the early morning prayer. An official opening of the mosque with government participation was postponed, pending the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

On February 29, the government’s Institute for Educational Policy issued new curricula for religious education in primary and secondary schools to comply with a 2019 ruling by the Council of State, which ruled the curricula did not “develop a religious conscience in students” in accordance with constitutional requirements. According to the ruling, the class offered to Greek Orthodox students was more of a sociology of religion class, not fulfilling the constitutional requirement for developing a religious conscience in students. Non-Orthodox students could request and be granted a waiver from taking the class.

On August 8, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs issued new regulations clarifying that students could be exempted from religious instruction by citing “religious consciousness” grounds instead of being forced to state “they were not Christian Orthodox believers.” On January 20, the parliament passed legislation stating that secondary-level students’ transcripts should not list their religion or nationality to comply with a 2019 ruling by the Data Protection Authority.

In accordance with the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the government continued to operate bilingual secular schools in Thrace, a total of 115 primary schools in 2019-20, compared with 128 in 2018-19, as well as two secondary schools, although government operation of bilingual secondary schools – grades 7 to 12 – is not required under the treaty. Turkish-speaking representatives of the Muslim minority said the number of bilingual middle schools – grades 7 to 9 – was insufficient to meet their needs, while stating the government ignored their request to privately establish an additional minority secondary school. The same representatives noted a decreasing trend in the number of primary minority schools – grades 1 to 6 – which the government attributed to the decreasing number of students, particularly in rural areas

The Christian Charismatic Church applied to a civil court for recognition as a religious legal entity; the Church’s application was approved and it was subsequently registered. Applications from an Old Calendarist group and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo in Athens, submitted in 2019, remained pending at year’s end.

Groups lacking religious-entity status and without a house of prayer permit, including Scientologists and ISKCON, which had not applied for a house of worship permit, continued to function as registered, nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by members of these groups, who had the option of civil wedding.

During the year, the government approved 14 permits for houses of prayer, including for two Protestant churches (Baptist and Apostolic Christian), six private mosques in Athens, and six Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls – two of them in Karditsa, one in Larisa, one in Imathia, one in Naousa, and one in Lamia. On July 20, the government authorized the construction of a mosque, with a capacity of 214 individuals, in Thrace, in the district of Zoumbouli in Xanthi. During the year, the government approved the construction of a new Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Mesolongi, in the central part of the country; a building for the Baptist Church of Athens; and a building for the Egyptian Coptic Church. On February 6, the government reissued a permit for a Kingdom Hall in Thessaloniki, which authorities revoked in 2019 on the grounds the facility did not meet fire protection requirements.

On June 25, law enforcement authorities closed an unlicensed private mosque operating in Piraeus. Officials said the association managing the facility never requested a license, unlike approximately 10 other private, licensed Muslim houses of prayer in wider Athens and in the region of Viotia.

On April 3, authorities revoked a house of prayer permit granted to a Protestant group at the latter’s request. The group cited the lower number of followers as the reason for its decision.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report some doctors in public hospitals did not understand or respect their refusal to receive blood transfusions. They said in one case, medical doctors defied the objection of a pregnant woman and gave her a blood transfusion against her will. In another case, a local public hospital refused to accept a patient for a surgical operation when he stated he could not receive a blood transfusion. He was transferred to a central hospital in Thessaloniki where he successfully underwent the surgery without a transfusion.

Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to object to the government’s practice of appointing muftis, pressing instead for direct election of muftis by the Muslim minority. The government continued to state that government appointment was appropriate because the constitution does not permit the election of judges, and the muftis retained judicial powers on family and inheritance matters as long as all parties sign a notarized consent stating they wish to follow sharia instead of the civil courts. During the year, all three muftiates in Thrace continued to be led by government-appointed acting muftis.

On February 26, an appeals court upheld a 2017 ruling sentencing Mufti Ahmet Mete, an unofficial mufti not recognized by the government, to four months in prison for usurping government authority by attending a religious ceremony and ordering the official mufti to leave so he could lead it. The court reduced the sentence, already suspended, from seven months to four months, ruling Mete would only serve the sentence if he committed a crime during the period of suspension. The same court acquitted a follower of the unofficial mufti, an imam convicted and sentenced to seven months in prison in the same case of the unofficial mufti.

Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to object to the government appointment of members entrusted to oversee endowments, real estate, and charitable funds of the Islamic Community Trust or awqaaf, stating the Muslim minority in Thrace should elect these members.

As a result of government-ordered closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic and in the absence of an official mosque in Athens for the most part of the year, central and local government authorities did not provide space for Muslims during Ramadan. COVID-19 restrictions applied to public gatherings, including religious ones, during the spring and winter lockdowns, which were in effect through the end of the year.

In April, media reported that the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church wrote to the Prime Minister, stating his opposition to the government’s announced plans to allow all houses of worship to open their doors for individual prayers in small numbers but not allow services due to COVID-19. The Orthodox Church, as well as other religious groups, followed all government restrictions throughout the year.

Muslim leaders continued to criticize the lack of Islamic cemeteries outside Thrace, stating this obliged Muslims to transport their dead to Thrace for Islamic burials. They also continued to state that municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years due to a shortage of space contravened Islamic law. At least three sites – on Lesvos Island, in Schisto, and near the land border with Turkey in Evros – served unofficially as burial grounds for Muslim migrants and asylum seekers.

The government continued to fund Holocaust education training for teachers but temporarily suspended government-funded educational trips, including to the Auschwitz concentration camp, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 26-27 and November 2-3, a group of 35 schoolteachers from Greece and North Macedonia digitally participated in the fourth of a series of seminars on “the Holocaust as a starting point: comparing and sharing.” The seminar involved lectures on the Holocaust in Europe, the deportation of Jews in the Bulgarian-occupied territories, the Nazi vision of the world, and the aftermath of the Holocaust, as well as workshops on education and methodology. Coorganizers of the seminar included the Memorial de la Shoah, the General Secretariat for Religious Affairs of the Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, and the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of North Macedonia.

On January 27, Prime Minister Mitsotakis attended memorial events marking the 75th anniversary since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. He became the first Greek premier to visit the site, stating he did so to honor the memory of all Greek Jews who perished there.

On January 9, during a visit by the Prime Minister to Washington, the Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) signed an agreement allowing researchers to examine records of Nazi atrocities in Greece between 1940 and 1945. The Ministry of Culture also cooperated with the USHMM on a joint effort to retrieve personal items belonging to Jewish refugees from the 1946 Athina shipwreck off Astypalea Island for inclusion in the USHMM’s permanent exhibition.

On June 22, the main opposition party SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) produced a television advertisement entitled “How much does Moses cost?” The advertisement criticized government funding to mass media outlets during the pandemic, calling it “manna from heaven,” inspired by the biblical story of Moses. KIS issued a statement asking, “How was it possible for a party determined to fight against anti-Semitism to reproduce anti-Semitic stereotypes, linking Moses with money falling down from the sky?” KIS also expressed disappointment that, despite many other protests, including by the Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers, SYRIZA did not withdraw its televised message. KIS said SYRIZA’s “only reaction was to characterize the spot as ‘satiric.’”

According to Jewish leaders, the government continued to help the Jewish community of Thessaloniki in its efforts to recover its original archives, found by Soviet troops in a castle in Lower Silesia, Germany, following Germany’s defeat, and subsequently transferred to Moscow.

The government continued to provide direct support to the Greek Orthodox Church, including funding the salaries of clergy, estimated at 200 million euros ($245.4 million) annually, the religious and vocational training of clergy, and religious instruction in schools. The government provided the support in accordance with a series of legal agreements with past governments and as compensation for religious property expropriated by the state, according to Greek Orthodox and government officials. The government also provided direct support to the three muftiates in Thrace, including salaries for the three official muftis and for teachers contracted to teach the optional class on Islam in local public schools. The government paid the salaries of the imam of the new Athens public mosque and the salaries of Catholic teachers at the state schools of Tinos and Syros islands.

On June 25, the ECtHR found that the government violated the EU Convention on Human Rights because a registry office noted on a birth certificate that the child’s name came from a civil act, not a christening, which violated the right not to disclose religious beliefs.

On June 18, the ECtHR determined the amount of compensation the government owed to a Muslim widow to whom the courts had applied sharia against her late husband’s wish. The court ordered 51,000 euros ($62,600) in damages for the applicant. The ruling stemmed from a case filed in 2017 regarding a widow’s right to inherit her husband’s estate. According to media, prior to his death in 2008, her husband drew up a will with a notary, in accordance with civil law, leaving his estate to his wife. The husband left his sisters out of the will, which they contested, stating that because their late brother was Muslim, his inheritance should be adjudicated in an Islamic court and that under Islamic law, they would have received three-fourths of the estate. A lower court agreed with the widow, but on appeal, the Supreme Court ruled the will was invalid based on 100-year-old treaties between Greece and Turkey. Her lawyer said the woman’s husband had decided how he wanted his inheritance to be passed on, and his client was discriminated against on religious grounds. Although the ECtHR ruled in favor of the widow in 2018, it left the decision on compensation until later.

On January 20, Prime Minister Mitsotakis met with the Metropolitan of Orthodox Armenians of Greece, Kegham Khatcherian. According to Orthodox Armenian community representatives in Greece, Mitsotakis was the first Prime Minister to officially receive a prelate of the Armenian community in 125 years.

Some religious groups and human rights organizations continued to call the discrepancy between the length of mandatory alternative service for conscientious objectors (15 months) and the length of mandatory minimum military service (nine months) a discriminatory policy.

Government officials publicly denounced the vandalism of Jewish sites, including of the Holocaust memorials in Thessaloniki, Larisa, and Drama, the synagogues in Trikala and Larisa, and the Jewish cemetery in the greater Athens area. On December 4, the Foreign Ministry denounced the desecration of the Holocaust Memorial in Larisa, calling it an “abhorrent act” that is “counter to Greek culture and the values of the Greek society.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Statistics by the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) for 2019, the most recent year available, showed 51 cases in which immigrants or refugees were targeted for their religion, among other grounds, compared with 74 cases in 2018. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as solely or primarily based on religious identity. During the year, RVRN, a network of nongovernmental organizations, recorded two incidents in which the targets were sacred or symbolic for the Jewish community, compared with nine in 2019. Both involved the desecration of Holocaust memorials, one in the city of Thessaloniki and the other in the city of Trikala. A third incident involved the desecration of an Islamic cemetery in Alexandroupoli, in the northeastern part of the country. Police arrested two suspects separately for the vandalism in Larissa and in Drama.

In its 2019 report, RVRN included information communicated to the network by police regarding incidents reported to law enforcement authorities that potentially involved religious motives. Based on this information, police received 36 reports of violence based on religion, compared with 28 in 2018, but did not provide details on specific cases.

According to a European Union Agency for Human Rights report released in September, there were 10 reported cases of anti-Semitism in 2019, the same number as in 2018. According to agency, cases included anti-Semitic hate speech, vandalism of Jewish sites, and trivialization of the Holocaust, with the government starting prosecution of nine of the 10 cases.

On social and other media, individuals continued to directly and indirectly link Jews to conspiracy theories about Jewish global power. On April 11, during an interview with a Russian journalist, Gavriel, a nonrecognized monk residing on Mount Athos, said Jews and Masons would try to control the world’s population through a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus and a microchip implanted into humans. On May 11, the Racist Crimes Watch filed a complaint with the police’s antiracism department regarding these statements, citing anti-Semitism and spreading of “fake news.” No arrests were made by year’s end.

On November 10, the daily newspaper Makeleio, whose publisher, Stefanos Chios, was convicted in October of anti-Semitic defamation, warned its readers that Pfizer’s Greek Jewish CEO, Albert Bourla, would “stick the needle” into them and stated the pharmaceutical company’s prospective COVID-19 vaccine was “poison.” The front-page article included a photograph of Bourla, a veterinarian, next to Nazi war criminal and physician Josef Mengele. KIS leadership condemned the newspaper, expressing “outrage and repulsion” over the article for perpetuating “hatred and bigotry against the Jews,” and called on authorities to intervene. The Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs condemned the newspaper, characterizing the article as the “most vile anti-Semitism reminiscent of the Middle Ages.” In November, Racist Crimes Watch filed a complaint with police against the newspaper.

On January 29, KIS reiterated concern about political cartoons and images using Jewish sacred symbols and Holocaust comparisons. KIS issued a statement protesting a January 27 sketch in the Newspaper of the Editors showing the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in a political cartoon that argued against lifting protection of primary residencies from foreclosures after April 30. KIS called the cartoon unacceptable because it trivialized a symbol of horror. The newspaper called the Jewish Community’s reaction “justifiable,” stating it had not intended to trivialize or deny the Holocaust.

The Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs reported a reduction in the number of violent incidents against religious sites in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, compared with those of the previous year. In 2019 there were 524 incidents, compared with 590 in 2018. The majority of incidents targeted Christian sites (514); five were against Jewish and five against Islamic sites.

On October 16, unidentified individuals spray-painted the Holocaust monument in Thessaloniki with the phrase “with Jews you lose,” an act which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly denounced. The Hellenic Solution Party also issued a condemnatory statement. According to an October 19 statement by KIS, the vandalism was preceded days earlier by the destruction of four tombs in the Jewish cemetery of Rhodes and a spray-painted slogan on the wall of the Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki, reading “Death to Israel.”

Media reported that on October 5, unidentified persons spray-painted anti-Semitic slogans, including “Juden Raus” (“Jews out”), on the exterior walls of the Athens Jewish cemetery in Nikaia. KIS denounced the incident and said the municipality of Athens acted promptly to erase the slogans and clean the walls. Government spokesperson Stelios Petsas issued a statement denouncing the act, noting law enforcement authorities would do everything possible to identify and arrest those accountable. Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Minister of Education and Religious Affairs Niki Kerameus made similar remarks. By year’s end, the government had not arrested any suspects.

On August 13, a memorial to fallen Greek Air Force personnel in Athens was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti reading “Satanic Jews Out!” interspersed with Christian symbols. Yaakov Hagoel, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, said, “Unfortunately, the bigotry and incitement against the Jewish people has also reached the memorial sites of the Greek Air Force, falsely pointing the finger and blaming the Jews.”

On December 3, unidentified individuals defaced the synagogue and the Holocaust memorial in Larisa with the sign of cross spray-painted in graffiti with the words “Jesus Christ Wins.” The act was denounced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary General for Religious Affairs, and the local Metropolitan. On December 5, police identified and arrested a suspect on charges of property damage and breaking the anti-racist law.

On December 30, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the desecration of a Holocaust memorial and a memorial plaque at a tobacco warehouse in the northern city of Drama, stating they were “heinous acts that are an affront to the memory of the victims of Nazi brutality and to Greek culture.” The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki also condemned the incident, stating it “brutally insulted the memory of the 1,200 [Greek] Jews who were exterminated in the Treblinka camp, as well as the very few survivors who returned to their homeland after the end of World War II.” The city of Drama promptly repaired the damage.

On July 13, media reported that unknown perpetrators threw stones at the entrance of a 16th-century mosque no longer used for worship, in Trikala, shattering the windows of the entrance door.

On dozens of occasions, unidentified vandals defaced Christian Orthodox churches and chapels around the country, including in Thessaloniki, Lesvos, Crete, Samos, Xanthi, and Rodopi. In all cases, the perpetrators avoided arrest. On February 3, in Crete, unknown individuals damaged the icons of a small chapel, spreading and rubbing human waste and writing slogans on the walls such as “Eat [expletive], Zeus’s treat.”

Social media users criticized the government for not banning the Islamic call to prayer while other COVID-19 restrictions were in place. Government officials and media reports attributed this reaction to the ignorance of social media users about Islam and their misinterpretation of the call to prayer with the actual prayer, leading them to state that the government allowed mosques to operate at the expense of other houses of prayer.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes toward 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, 83 percent of Greek respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, visiting officials, and embassy and consulate general representatives discussed religious freedom issues with officials and representatives of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Deputy Minister Konstantinos Vlassis and Civil Governor for Mount Athos Athanasios Martinos. They discussed the ability of minority religious communities to exercise their rights to religious freedom, government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and Muslim immigrants, progress regarding the opening of the first public mosque in Athens, the enforcement of counter-proselytism legislation by law enforcement, and government initiatives promoting interreligious dialogue.

In meetings with government officials and religious leaders, including the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, U.S. officials expressed concerns regarding anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and attacks on Orthodox churches. U.S officials also denounced vandalism of religious sites, including the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in the greater Athens area.

The Ambassador worked with the Prime Minister’s Office and, respectively, with the Ministers of Defense and Culture for two projects with the USHMM; the first involved an agreement allowing USHMM-affiliated researchers to examine records of Nazi atrocities in Greece between 1940 and 1945, and the second involved the retrieval of personal items belonging to Jewish refugees from the 1946 Athina shipwreck off Astypalea Island for inclusion in the museum’s permanent exhibition.

On September 29, the Secretary of State visited the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, accompanied by the Ambassador and Consul General. During his visit, the Secretary tweeted, “In recognition of Yom Kippur, I am honored to pay my respects at the Thessaloniki Jewish Museum, which commemorates the city’s once-vibrant Jewish community. The U.S. remains committed to fighting anti-Semitism and promoting religious tolerance and freedom.” On July 9, the Ambassador discussed developments needed to start construction of the Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki with David Saltiel, KIS president, and Yiannis Boutaris, president of the board of directors of the planned Holocaust Memorial Museum & Educational Center of Greece on Human Rights. On October 7, the Ambassador and the president of KIS met to discuss progress regarding required legislation for the construction of the Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki, delayed due to technical reasons, and the stalled return from Russia of the archives of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

Embassy officials, including the Ambassador and the Consul General in Thessaloniki, also visited the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens and met with religious leaders, including the Archbishop and other representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as members of the Catholic, Muslim, Baha’i, and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities to promote interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and diversity. Through these meetings, the embassy monitored the ability of minority religious groups to freely practice their religion and the extent of societal discrimination against both indigenous religious minorities and newly arrived minority religious group migrants.

On July 27-28, the Consul General in Thessaloniki visited four monasteries on the monastic peninsula of Mount Athos and expressed U.S. government support for religious freedom. The Consul General met with the Metropolitans of Larisa and Tyrnavos, Xanthi, and Alexandroupoli, with the Mufti of Xanthi, as well as with academics and theologians, to discuss the status of religious freedom in the northern part of the country and concerns of religious communities. On October 19-21, a senior embassy official and the Consul General in Thessaloniki met with various metropolitans in a trip through Thrace, as well as with official muftis and representatives from the local Muslim minority, reinforcing U.S. government support for religious freedom.

Hungary

Executive Summary

The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities. On December 15, parliament amended the constitution, adding language stating that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from our country’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.” The amendment became effective on December 23. There are four tiers of religious groups, all of which may receive state funding and income-tax allocations from members. The Budapest-Capital Regional Court registered seven religious groups and rejected one, while four applications remained pending. The Constitutional Court rejected a challenge to the religion law, which some religious and civil society groups considered discriminatory. The Muslim community said authorities continued to refuse to issue permits for cemeteries. Jewish organizations condemned the appointment of a new director of a state-run radio station whom they said had a long record of making anti-Semitic statements; the government’s inclusion of anti-Semitic writers and removal of a Nobel laureate Holocaust survivor from a mandatory school reading list; and the bestowal of a high state award to a historian widely viewed as anti-Semitic. They also continued to criticize the proposed House of Fates Holocaust museum as an attempt to obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust. Senior government officials continued to make statements in defense of what they called a “Christian Europe.”

The Action and Protection Foundation, which monitored anti-Semitism, reported 16 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of the year, one of discrimination, 11 of hate speech, and four of vandalism. Muslim leaders said that while physical assaults were rare, verbal insults were frequent, and there were cases of anti-Muslim discrimination. Members of radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups again commemorated the attempted “breakout” by German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army. They laid wreaths to honor Nazis and their collaborators, and some wore historical uniforms and insignias. The commemoration received favorable coverage from some government-aligned media. A European Union (EU)-funded survey of residents in the country found 41 percent did not sympathize with Muslims and 15 percent did not sympathize with Jews; 49 percent agreed that Jews had substantial influence on world developments and the economy, and 34 percent believed the Holocaust received too much attention. Ten and nine percent, respectively, thought Jews and Muslims were frequent targets of hate speech.

The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy officials and visiting U.S. Department of State representatives held meetings with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and other government agencies, as well as with local Jewish groups and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, to discuss restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, historical commemoration of the Holocaust, and the House of Fates Museum concept. In other meetings with the government and with religious leaders, embassy representatives advocated religious freedom and tolerance and discussed provisions of the religion law, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In January, the embassy highlighted on its website and on social media the anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the attendance by the Charge d’Affaires at three commemoration events hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Center and Jewish groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, which included an optional question on religious affiliation, of the 73 percent of the population that responded, 51 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 16 percent as Hungarian Reformed Church (Calvinist), 3 percent as Lutheran, 2 percent as Greek Catholic, and less than 1 percent as Jewish; 23 percent reported no religious affiliation, and 2 percent said they were atheists. Other religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Greek Orthodox, the Faith Congregation (a Pentecostal group), the Church of Scientology (COS), Russian and other Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, Muslims, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness. The Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) has approximately 8,500 members, according to a 2013 news report, and the Hungarian Pentecostal Church approximately 9,300 members, according to the 2011 census. The World Jewish Congress estimates the Jewish population to be between 35,000 and 120,000 persons. Local Jewish organizations estimate approximately 100,000 citizens with Jewish heritage live in the country, primarily in Budapest. Other religious groups are distributed throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worship, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination, as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community. On December 15, parliament approved a constitutional amendment, which became effective on December 23, stating that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from our country’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.”

The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious communities. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.

A 2018 parliamentary amendment to the 2011 religion law entered into force in 2019. The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of the country’s Constitutional Court and the European Court on Human Rights. The law establishes a four-tier system of, in descending order, “established (or incorporated) churches,” “registered churches” (also called “registered II”), “listed churches” (also called “registered I”), and “religious associations.” The term “church” in the law refers to any religious community, not just Christian ones, and religious groups in any category may use “church” in their official names. All previously incorporated religious groups retained their status in the first tier of the new system as established churches. To become an established church requires approval by parliament; the Budapest-Capital Regional Court has jurisdiction to rule on applications for registration within the other three categories. Religious groups in all four tiers have “legal personality,” which grants them legal rights, such as the right to own property.

Religious entities that do not apply for legal status in one of the four categories are still able to function and conduct worship. The law states constitutional protection of freedom of religion also applies to unregistered groups.

To qualify for established church status, a religious group must first have registered status and then conclude a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the state for the purpose of accomplishing community goals. The government submits the comprehensive agreement to parliament, which must approve it by a two-thirds majority vote. A registered church becomes an established church from the day parliament approves the comprehensive agreement. Established churches are eligible to benefit from significant state subsidies for the performance of public service activities.

To qualify for registered church status, a religious group must have received tax allocations from an average of 4,000 persons per year in the five-year period prior to the application. This status also requires that the group either have operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally, or have operated as a listed church for at least 15 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally.

To qualify for listed church status, a religious group must receive tax allocations from an average of 1,000 persons per year in the three-year period prior to the application for status and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally.

To qualify for religious association status, a religious group must have at least 10 members.

The law allows the government to negotiate individual cooperation agreements with all four tiers of religious groups for the performance of public service activities and support of faith-based activities. The agreements’ duration depends on the status of the religious community, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations to 10 and 15 years for listed and registered churches, respectively, and unlimited duration for established churches. These agreements may be prolonged.

Religious groups that agree not to seek state or EU funding (including personal income tax allocations) for their religious activities may qualify as registered or listed churches without fulfilling the requirement regarding the number of personal income tax allocations. The applicant religious community must perform primarily religious activities and may not be a criminal defendant or have been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or considered a national security threat. The court decides whether to grant status as a registered or listed church based on an examination of the criteria above. In reviewing these applications, the court may consult church law, church history, or ecclesiastical or academic experts, and may also seek the opinion of the national security services.

Religious groups that agree not to seek government or EU funding but accept financial support at a later stage must report it to the court within 15 days of the disbursement of the aid. To avoid losing its status or a reclassification to the lower association tier, the religious group has eight days to declare to the court that it has returned the funds, requested cancellation of its religious registration status, or complied with the individual tax allocation requirement to become a registered or listed organization. The religious group or prosecutor’s office may appeal the court’s decision on the status of the group to the Budapest-Capital Court of Appeal.

The law stipulates the minister responsible for church issues, based on information received from the court, shall manage an electronic database of religious groups with legal status, accessible to the public free of charge. The database is publicly accessible at the government’s central webpage, kormany.hu.

The law allows taxpayers to allocate 1 percent of their income taxes to any religious community in any of the four categories, starting with the 2020 tax year. Religious groups may use these funds as they wish. Only established and registered churches (the two highest tiers) are eligible to receive a state subsidy supplementing the 1 percent tax allocations.

According to the law, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court may dissolve a religious community with legal status – with the exception of established churches – if its activities conflict with the constitution or law or if the court rules its registration should have been denied. Parliament may dissolve an incorporated church if the Constitutional Court finds it is operating in violation of the constitution. If a religious community is dissolved without a legal successor, its assets, after satisfying creditors, become the property of the state and shall be used for public interest activities.

Thirty-two churches have established (previously known as “incorporated”) status. These include the Roman Catholic Church; a range of Protestant denominations; a range of Orthodox Christian groups; other Christian denominations, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Salvation Army; three Jewish groups (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, Hungarian Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community); and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole Hindu group registered as a church. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups.

By law, the state may neither operate nor establish any body for controlling or monitoring religious groups. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Copyright law protects their names, symbols, and rites, while criminal law protects buildings and cemeteries.

The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsperson). The ombudsperson investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy. These measures do not have the force of law.

Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.

According to the law, established, registered, and listed churches may perform pastoral services in prisons and hospitals. Other laws indicate religious associations may also have the right to provide services at these facilities.

Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran Churches, and Jewish congregations (which the government generally calls “historical churches”) may provide chaplain services to the military without seeking permission. Other religious groups must seek permission to offer such services.

Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. Historical churches may provide pastoral services in prisons without special permission, but other religious groups may do so only within official visiting hours as outlined in individual agreements and with permission from the penitentiary. Similarly, historical churches receive automatic access to patients in hospitals to provide pastoral services, while other groups may do so only under certain conditions, such as providing services only during visiting hours.

One hour per week of education in faith and ethics or general ethics is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Parents and students choose between the faith and ethics class offered by an established church of their choosing or a secular ethics course taught by public school teachers. Other religious groups are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools but may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools at the request of parents or students. Private schools are not required to offer faith and ethics or general ethics classes.

All religious groups registered in one of the four categories have the right to open their own schools. The state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee salaries at all such schools. Only established churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. Other religious groups may apply for a supplementary operational subsidy, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) may sign an individualized contract with them to cover these costs.

The law also affords all religious groups with legal status the right to assume operation of public schools if more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school sign a petition to do so and the MHC approves the change. In these cases, the state may continue to fund the schools. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The state inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to legal standards.

The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law prohibits “calling for violence” – or inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion or abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation.

Assault motivated by the victim’s actual or presumed religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is also punishable with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the symbol of the Arrow Cross – a fascist, anti-Semitic party that allied with Nazi Germany – in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by five to 90 days’ detention.

The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious groups or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.

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

Government Practices

Religious groups with pending applications for incorporated (changed to “established”) church status prior to the entry into force of a 2019 amendment to the religion law had the possibility to apply under a simplified registration process until January 6. According to the PMO, there were 16 such groups with pending applications, of which 11 reapplied under the simplified process. Of these 11 groups, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court rejected the application of the Church of the Nazarene and registered six groups as listed churches: the Hungarian Baha’i Community, Sim Shalom Progressive Jewish Association, Bet Orim Reform Jewish Community Association, Shalom Church of Biblical Congregations, Church of Evangelical Friendship, and the Hungarian Drukpa Kagyu Buddhist Community. Four other applications remained pending at year’s end. The court also registered the Hungarian Daoist Church as a listed church in a regular procedure based on the number of its members.

Some religious groups stated that while the new registration process constituted progress, it did not restore their full status from before the adoption of the 2011 religion law and the new framework for church recognition by the state. Court decisions regarding the registration process for registered churches, listed churches, and religious associations were available at the central website of the courts, birosag.hu. According to the PMO, no religious groups qualified under registered church status; in order to become a registered church, a group must comply with the requirement of receiving income tax allocations from an average of at least 4,000 persons per year in the previous five years, a period which could only begin in 2019 (the year the current law came into force) or later. The number of established churches remained unchanged.

The tax authority expanded the list of religious groups (including all four tiers) eligible to receive a 1 percent personal income tax allocation from members and stated that those wishing to become eligible in 2021 should request a technical tax identification number by December 31.

The HCLU, an NGO representing some religious groups deregistered in 2011, reported that their clients did not apply for registration because they believed the amended version of the law was still discriminatory. In May, the Constitutional Court rejected HCLU’s petition, filed in 2019, challenging the amended law. The HCLU argued the amended law did not guarantee equal treatment of churches by the state and was therefore unconstitutional. According to the Constitutional Court, state cooperation to achieve community goals and state support for religious activity, although related to the exercise of the freedom of religion, was not a fundamental right under the constitution, and constitutional protection of religious communities was equal, regardless of the legal evaluation of the religious community, the number of its members, or its participation in community activities. The HCLU, which already had a legal case ongoing regarding the previous law at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), argued there that the amended law did not remedy the violations of the prior law. The ECHR case continued at year’s end.

The MHC halved operational state subsidies for the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood’s (MET) educational institutions. MET’s leader Pastor Gabor Ivanyi said the MHC also informed him it would not extend its educational agreement for the next academic year, which endangered the sustainability of MET’s schools, attended by approximately 2,200 mostly Roma children. MHC attributed the funding cuts to budgetary restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and what it said was the lack of concrete results achieved by these schools. In December 2019, Ivanyi published an open letter in which he rejected Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s statements that his was a Christian government.

The COS reported that appeals procedures against the Data Protection Authority’s (DPA) seizure of its documents in Budapest and Nyiregyhaza remained pending at various stages at different courts. The DPA investigated the COS for alleged criminal abuse of personal data and fined it and its central organization a total of 40 million forints ($135,000) in 2017. The Church also reported state authorities revoked a Russian-Ukrainian missionary couple’s residence permit in 2019 and expelled a Kazakh missionary from the country in January. The COS appealed both decisions, in which the authorities justified the expulsion of missionaries they deemed a “real, direct, and serious threat to national security.”

The COS stated that the certificate of occupancy for its headquarters in Budapest remained pending at the Csongrad County Government Office, while a court order allowed the COS to continue using the building.

The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) said the problem of insufficient cemetery space for Muslims remained unresolved. OMH also reported the government had not completed its restoration of the state-owned Yakovali Hasan Mosque in Pecs, ongoing since 2018, which prevented the local Muslim community from using the mosque as a place of worship.

In September, MET said the state-owned utility company attempted to disconnect MET’s institutions from the gas network due to nonpayment, endangering the operation of its nursery, college, homeless shelter, and hospital. Pastor Ivanyi stated MET would be able to pay its outstanding bills if the state would compensate it for damages sustained in 2016-2019 stemming from the group’s loss of church status.

According to the PMO, during the 2019-2020 school year, churches or church-run higher educational institutions operated 17.1 percent of elementary and secondary schools (compared with 16.7 percent in 2018-19), and religious associations operated 0.2 percent. Churches or church-run higher educational institutions operated 10 percent of preschools (with students aged three to seven), compared with 9.7 percent run by incorporated churches in the previous year, and religious associations operated 0.2 percent. There were 222,944 students – 49.3 percent of whom were in Catholic schools – studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by churches and religious organizations, compared with 217,204 in the previous year.

At a school opening ceremony on August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen stated that church-run schools were instrumental in preserving a Christian identity through raising “professionals whose skills are in harmony with faith.” Semjen cited Eurostat figures showing that Hungary’s GDP-to-church-support ratio was the highest in the EU, adding that the number of church-run schools in the country had doubled since 2010. The PMO State Secretary in charge of church issues, Miklos Soltesz, stated on September 4 that the government had allocated 106 billion forints ($357.2 million) to three main churches for kindergarten development projects, with the Catholic Church receiving 67 billion forints ($225.8 million), the Reformed Church 30 billion forints ($101.1 million), and the Evangelical Church 9 billion forints ($30.3 million).

A cartoon by Gabor Papai published by the daily independent Nepszava on April 28 showed the chief medical officer who oversaw the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response looking at Jesus on the cross and saying, “his underlying conditions caused” his death. According to media commenters, the cartoon was intended to criticize the government’s response to the pandemic and, in the critics’ view, the chief medical officer’s attempt to minimize the number of deaths in the country attributable to COVID-19. The cartoon sparked outcry from the Christian Democratic People’s Party and State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians Tristan Azbej, who accused Papai of blasphemy and sued the outlet. Government-aligned media launched what was characterized as a campaign of intimidation against Papai; for example, Szent Korona (Holy Crown) Radio station asked its followers to share his home address, because “there are many who would pay him a visit.”

According to OMH, Muslims serving prison sentences regularly received meals with pork meat or pork fat, despite complaints.

On January 6, state-run Kossuth Radio announced the appointment of Beatrix Siklosi as its new director. Citing what they described as Siklosi’s long record of making and sharing anti-Semitic and racist statements – including posting racist jokes and linking to the anti-Semitic website kuruc.info on social media as well as hosting Holocaust denier David Irving on one of her previous shows – 21 Jewish organizations published a joint open letter on January 27 to the public media organization MTVA’s Chief Executive Officer, Daniel Papp, asking him to terminate Siklosi’s appointment. Papp rejected the accusations of anti-Semitism against Siklosi as unfounded. Chief Rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) Slomo Koves stated that Siklosi’s appointment was “unacceptable,” and Mazsihisz referred to its statement from 2014 condemning Siklosi’s appointment to another position, adding that it maintained its concerns regarding her.

On August 20, the government awarded the Hungarian Order of Merit to historian Erno Raffay, whom media and other historians have criticized for disseminating anti-Semitic views. At a public forum in 2015, Raffay complained about the number of Jews in the country before the Holocaust, stating, they “pushed us out from our positions in science, schools, academy, university, banking, estates, and professions.” European Commission Coordinator on Combatting Anti-Semitism Katharina von Schnurbein criticized Raffay in a tweet on August 25 for openly spreading “anti-Semitic speech and conspiracy myths.”

Jewish groups Mazsihisz and EMIH expressed concern about the government’s decision to include writers widely viewed as anti-Semitic, including member of the Arrow Cross Party Jozsef Nyiro and convicted war criminal Albert Wass, while removing Nobel laureate for literature and Hungarian Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz as mandatory reading material in the new national curriculum, which became effective on September 1 in elementary and secondary public schools.

Several Jewish leaders criticized Laszlo Biro, a Jobbik Party member and the opposition parties’ unsuccessful joint candidate in the October 11 by-election in Borsod County, for anti-Semitic and racist statements. Biro’s previous social media comments included referring to Budapest as “Judapest” and complaining about the number of foreign Jews staying at hotels in his district. EMIH Chief Rabbi Koves said that it was worrying that “the parties that support him [Biro] indirectly legitimize anti-Semitism.” Earlier in August, referring to Biro’s comments, Mazsihisz president Andras Heisler said his organization condemned “acts of incitement against any ethnic, religious, or sexual minority.”

During a local council meeting on June 25, Imre Lazlo, mayor of a Budapest district and member of the opposition Democratic Coalition Party, said that “The work [Hitler] had accomplished” prior to becoming Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938 “practically brought advancement for Germany, in a spectacular way, after the global recession. What happened afterwards does not really fit into this picture.” On June 26, Laszlo issued a statement to apologize for his remarks, highlighting his Jewish roots and that many of his family members were killed in Nazi death camps.

The opening of the House of Fates, a proposed new Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest, remained pending. The museum concept, which leading Jewish groups and Holocaust scholars criticized as an attempt to obscure the role of the World War II-era Hungarian state and its leader, Miklos Horthy, in the Holocaust, continued to generate criticism. Horthy allied the country with Nazi Germany and deported more than 400,000 Jews to Nazi death camps. Chief Rabbi Koves of EMIH, which owned the museum, stated in November that he was working with design firms and historians and predicted the potential opening on or before the 80th anniversary of the 1944 deportation of Hungarian Jews in 2024.

At year’s end, the government had not shared its final research assessment into heirless and unclaimed property, nor had it yet agreed to requests by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) for further discussions on a roadmap to begin negotiations. In April 2019, the WJRO presented the government with its assessment of the government’s second set of research on heirless property.

When speaking about a proposal from a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen investor on how the EU should finance the COVID-19 recovery fund, Prime Minister Orban said in an interview in April that “they really love interest,” which some observers described as a veiled anti-Semitic message. In April, some government-aligned media said that the same investor was “probably” betting against the nation’s currency and responsible for its weakening in the spring.

In a November opinion piece published by progovernment media outlet Origo.hu, Ministerial Commissioner and director of the Petofi Literary Museum Szilard Demeter called the same American financier the “liberal Fuhrer” and wrote that Europe was his “gas chamber,” with “poisonous gas” flowing from the capsule of a “multicultural open society.” Referring to the debate over the EU’s proposed mechanism that conditioned payments from the EU budget on respect for the rule of law, Demeter described Poles and Hungarians as “the new Jews” targeted by “liber-Aryans” who are told they “have a big nose (sic)…stink…and are full of lice.” Mazsihisz, EMIH, the American Jewish Committee Central Europe office, and the International Auschwitz Committee, among others, condemned Demeter’s comments, and all major opposition parties called for his resignation. On November 29, Demeter stated he would retract his article and delete his Facebook page “independently of what I think.” He added, “Those criticizing me are correct in saying that to call someone a Nazi is to relativize, and that making parallels with Nazis can inadvertently cause harm to the memory of the victims.” As of December, government officials continued to defend Demeter’s continued tenure as a ministerial commissioner, stating that he had retracted the piece and apologized.

Government officials continued to make statements in defense of a “Christian Europe.” In an essay published on the occasion of the start of the fall parliamentary session, Prime Minister Orban wrote in the daily Magyar Nemzet on September 21 that while Central European countries were choosing a migration-free future, the majority population in large Western European cities and 20 percent of the European population would be Muslim by 2050. On August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Semjen stated the government had built or refurbished approximately 3,000 churches in the Carpathian basin since 2010, and he pledged that “none of those churches will be turned into mosques or shopping malls.”

In January, Prime Minister Orban and his wife attended the International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Orban posted a photo on Facebook of a guard’s tower with the barbed wire fence in the background and a quote from the Old Testament, “Tell it to your children,” and media published a photo of Orban lighting a candle at the Hungarian memorial to the victims of the Birkenau camp. In a speech at the European Jewish Organization Symposium commemorating the same anniversary, Justice Minister Judit Varga stated that the country had “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism,” adding, “Manifestations of anti-Semitism are met with a determined response by the state leadership,” and that Hungary was “the most secure country for Jews in Europe.”

At year’s end, the government had provided 216.4 billion forints ($729.2 million) to established churches (compared with 64.8 billion forints – $218.4 million – during 2019), of which 96 percent – 209 billion ($704.3 million) – went to the four historical churches. The Roman Catholic Church received 161.7 billion forints ($554.9 million), the Reformed Church 37.7 billion forints ($127 million), the Evangelical Church 6.8 billion forints ($22.9 million), Mazsihisz two billion forints ($6.7 million), EMIH 534 million forints ($1.8 million), and the Jewish Orthodox community 281 million forints ($947,000). The religious groups that received the bulk of the government’s financial support used the funds for such activities as building maintenance; public educational and social services; religious instruction and cultural activities; community programs and investments; employee wages, and faith-based activities for citizens living abroad. The government provided an additional 211.3 million forints ($712,000) to other religious groups.

Jewish groups inaugurated synagogues that had been renovated with state funding. In September, the Lakitelek People’s College, established by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sandor Lezsak, transferred the ownership of a wellness resort called “Hungarikum Liget,” consisting among other things of a hotel, winery, a riding house, and a footgolf course, to the Szeged-Csanad Catholic archdiocese. The government provided 30 billion forints ($101.1 million) in state support for the project, according to press reports.

In November, the Hungarian Reformed Church elected former Minister of Human Capacities Zoltan Balog as Bishop of the Dunamellek Diocese.

According to statistics the tax authority published on September 9, 114 churches and religious groups received 1 percent personal income tax allocations. In 2019, only the 32 established – or in the previous terminology “incorporated” – churches were eligible for this tax allocation. As in previous years, the churches receiving the most allocations were the Catholic Church, with 708,237 persons contributing 3.9 billion forints ($13.1 million); Hungarian Reformed Church, with 292,768 persons contributing 1.6 billion forints ($5.4 million); and Lutheran Church, with 80,237 persons contributing 478 million forints ($1.6 million). The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 71,470 persons contributing 448 million forints ($1.5 million). Both reform Jewish groups (Sim Shalom and Bet Orim) became eligible to receive 1 percent personal income tax allocations, in addition to the other three established Jewish groups of Mazsihisz, EMIH, and Orthodox. Among the Jewish groups, Mazsihisz received the largest allocation.

In March, the Lutheran Church signed a cooperation agreement with the government to carry out social and educational activities. In July, the Faith Church (a Christian church that belongs to the Pentecostal movement) concluded a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the government. Building on a previous agreement from 2006, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen and church leader Reverend Sandor Nemeth stated at the signing ceremony that the agreement provided legal and financial guarantees for the operation of the church’s institutions.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The NGO Action and Protection Foundation, which monitors anti-Semitism, reported 16 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of the year, including one case of discrimination, 11 of hate speech, and four of vandalism. Muslim organizations did not collect statistical data; however, OMH reported that while physical assaults were rare, verbal insults were frequent, in particular against persons wearing headscarves or who had darker skin and spoke a foreign language. According to OMH, the majority of the population regarded Muslims with suspicion.

An estimated 500 to 600 members of what were widely described as radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups from Hungary and other European countries gathered on February 8 for the “Day of Honor” in Budapest that commemorated the attempted “breakout” of German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of the city by the Soviet Red Army. Dressed in black and carrying flags of their respective far-right movements, they laid wreaths to honor Nazis and their collaborators. While police initially banned the event, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court subsequently overturned the ban. Separated by a line of police, some 300 to 500 counterdemonstrators chanted and drummed during the event. According to media, “There were no major conflicts – while there were smaller hassles.” The commemoration was followed by a march along the route of the attempted siege-breakers in which some participants wore historical uniforms and insignias. The commemoration received favorable coverage in some government-aligned media. No government officials condemned the event and no charges were brought against the participants.

On March 1, approximately 1,000 people took part in a march in Budapest, organized by the far-right party Mi Hazank and the Betyarsereg and 64 Counties extremist groups, honoring the centennial of World War II-era Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy’s coming to power.

According to OMH, a job interviewer, commenting on a Muslim interviewee whose mother tongue was Hungarian, said he wanted a “Hungarian person,” but instead an “Ali” showed up. The Muslim applicant did not receive a job offer and did not take legal action.

According to an EU-funded survey of Hungarian residents, Combating Anti-Semitism in Central Europe, conducted in December 2019 in local partnership with the Republikon research institute, 10 percent of respondents believed Jews were frequent victims of hate speech, followed by Muslims (9 percent); 41 percent said they did “not sympathize” with Muslims, while 15 percent did not sympathize with Jews. Regarding attitudes and types of hate speech towards Jews, 45 percent of respondents had encountered anti-Semitic stereotypes, 41 percent insults, 35 percent grotesque depictions of Jews, and 27 percent had not encountered any type of hate speech. Forty-nine percent agreed with the statement that Jews had substantial influence on world developments and the economy, while 38 percent agreed that, for Jews in the country, Israel was more important than Hungary; 34 percent believed the Holocaust received too much attention in public debates.

An analysis by online research group SentiOne of Hungarian comments on social media between January 1 and April 15 found the second highest share of negative comments (24 percent) were directed against Jews, and 43 percent of those who commented on Jews blamed them for the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February, the Pew Research Center published a survey on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 70 percent of Hungarian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among their lowest priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.

In March, Mazsihisz reported that vandals severely damaged gravestones in the Jewish cemetery of Kiskunfelegyhaza, southeast of Budapest. Repair costs were estimated at between 300,000 and 2.5 million forints ($1,000-$8,400). Mazsihisz filed a criminal complaint with the police.

Mazsihisz reported that on November 1, vandals smashed three headstones and left human feces on another at a Jewish graveyard in Kecel, south of Budapest.

In June, there were two vandalism cases, one of which concerned a swastika drawn on a poster of a Jewish high school in Budapest, and the other a swastika painted on a public wall in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary.

In October, NGOs reported authorities closed the investigation, without filing charges, into an October 2019 attack in Budapest on the Aurora NGO center – run by a Jewish youth organization – by approximately 50 members from Legio Hungaria, a group widely described as neo-Nazi.

On February 2, the general assembly of Mazsihisz adopted a proposal to include Sim Shalom and Bet Orim, the country’s two reform Jewish groups, as associate members.

The Christian-Jewish Council, an informal platform for discussion for Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist Churches and Jewish groups, held events such as joint prayers on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the council organized fewer events than in previous years.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings and discussions with the government, including officials from the PMO in charge of church and Jewish issues, the Ambassador and embassy representatives advocated restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, historical commemoration of the Holocaust, and religious freedom, and discussed provisions of the religion law.

The Ambassador and embassy officials also discussed heirless property restitution with the WJRO.

Embassy and Department of State officials, including the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, held discussions with representatives of the Jewish community on anti-Semitism; challenges in promoting tolerance and historical truth in education; the community’s relationship with the government; the House of Fates museum concept; restitution issues; activities of the Budapest-based Holocaust Memorial Center; and Holocaust commemoration. The embassy issued a statement in August that said, “Neo-Nazi or other hate groups should not be tolerated in any society,” which also referenced Legio Hungaria’s October 2019 vandalizing of the Aurora NGO center. In November, the embassy issued a statement condemning an opinion piece that equated debate over EU policy to the Holocaust, noting that there should be no tolerance for Holocaust relativization or minimization.

In January, in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto as well as Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Charge d’Affaires participated in three commemoration events hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Center and Jewish groups. On each occasion, the Charge emphasized the importance of religious freedom with a diverse group of religious leaders, and the embassy amplified that message for a broader audience through its website and social media accounts. Embassy officials also visited the Holocaust Memorial Center to remember those who lost their lives and demonstrate the United States’ commitment to “never again,” and posted about the visit on social media. The embassy maintained regular contact with leaders of various religious communities, including the four historical groups, as well as Baptists, Muslims, the COS, and religious groups that lost incorporated church status in 2011, such as MET, Bet Orim, and Sim Shalom, to understand their concerns, encourage religious freedom and tolerance, and discuss the effects of the religion law, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

On October 13, the Ambassador gave remarks at an event commemorating Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty – who was imprisoned for opposing both fascism and communism in the country and took refuge in the embassy for 15 years – in which he emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom for all.

The Ambassador and embassy officials participated in events organized by various Jewish organizations, such as visits to newly inaugurated synagogues in Budapest, to highlight support for the Jewish community and to promote religious tolerance. At all these events, embassy representatives reiterated U.S. support for religious freedom and discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community.

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

Italy

Executive Summary

The constitution protects freedom of religion and the right of religious communities to establish their own institutions. It specifies the state and the Roman Catholic Church are independent, with their relations governed by treaties, including a concordat granting the Church a number of specific privileges and benefits, and financial support. Twelve other religious groups have accords granting many of the same benefits in exchange for a degree of government monitoring. Religious groups must register to request an accord. Unregistered religious groups operate freely but are not eligible for the same benefits as groups with accords, although they may apply separately for benefits. The Muslim community, which does not have an accord, continued to experience difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. From March 8 to May 18, the government banned public gatherings, including all religious services in all places of worship, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Italian Catholic Bishops Conference objected to these COVID-19 measures, and the government allowed the Catholic Church to resume services outdoors starting on May 10 and other religious groups on May 18. On February 10, a Rome court convicted and sentenced 24 persons to up to three years and 10 months in prison for racial and ethnic hate speech, defamation, and threats against Jews, migrants, and some public figures. Politicians from several political parties again made statements critical of Islam. On January 20, League Party leader Matteo Salvini said the large numbers of immigrants from Muslim majority countries had increased anti-Semitism in the country. On June 6, Jewish Member of Parliament Emanuele Fiano reported he had received an envelope in the mail containing an image of Adolf Hitler and subtitled “In the Oven.” The President of the Senate appointed 25 members to an extraordinary committee to fight intolerance, anti-Semitism, and hate crimes, as proposed by Senator for Life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre and approved by parliament in 2019. In July, the European Court for Human Rights ruled as admissible an appeal by the president of a Bangladeshi cultural association in Milan, who was sentenced to prison and fined in 2019 for hiring a construction company to convert a storage site into a place of worship without prior local government approval. The case marked the first time a court imposed criminal rather than administrative penalties for this type of violation. The Court of Cassation (the country’s highest court of appeal) suspended the prison sentence and fine associated with this case following the appeal.

There were reports of anti-Semitic incidents, including harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and vandalism. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Anti-Semitism Observatory of the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center Foundation (CDEC) recorded 224 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 251 in 2019 and 181 in 2018. Of the incidents, 117 involved hate speech on social media or the internet. The press reported examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters, including depictions of swastikas on walls, anti-Semitic stereotypes, and praise of neo-Nazi groups in cities such as Rome, Pavia, and Forli. The private research center STATISTA reported an estimated 15.6 percent of Italians believed the Holocaust never happened. While there was no official government data from institutions or public agencies on anti-Muslim incidents, local and European NGOs reported several physical attacks and verbal harassment against Muslims, especially involving hate speech. The NGO Vox Diritti reported 67,889 tweets, representing 59 percent of the total mentioning Islam, containing negative messages against Muslims during the year, compared with 22,532, or 74 percent of the total, in 2019.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy and consulates general met with national and local government officials to encourage respect for religious freedom and equal treatment for all faiths during the year. They also discussed efforts to integrate new migrants – many of whom were Muslim, Orthodox, or Hindu – and second-generation Muslims living in the country, and the prospect for an accord between the government and Muslim communities. In October, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and other senior officials met with religious leaders and government officials to advance priority issues, including the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and regional and local rules that impede the establishment of new places of worship. Embassy, consulate, and senior Department of State officials met with religious leaders and civil society representatives to promote interfaith dialogue and awareness, social inclusion, the empowerment of faith groups through social media, and the mobilization of youth leaders among faith groups. In September, embassy officials met with the national coordinator for the fight against anti-Semitism, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), and Rome Jewish community leaders to discuss how to support their efforts to counter anti-Semitism among self-defined far-right groups and civil society. The embassy and consulates general consulted with the country’s Jewish communities and concerned authorities to develop the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report for the country, which was published on July 29. The report highlighted the government’s commitment to the Terezin Declaration and its goals and objectives as well as areas where the government had not followed through with a government commission’s recommendations to identify survivors of targeted persecution in World War II or their heirs who are entitled to unclaimed property. The embassy also worked with the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad to engage on issues surrounding a development that could affect a Jewish cemetery in Mantua. The embassy and consulates continued to use their social media platforms to acknowledge major Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays as well as to amplify initiatives that promote religious freedom and interfaith dialogue at the local level.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 62.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2019 study (the most recent available) conducted by IPSOS, an independent research center, 69 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, and another 12 percent does not participate in religious activities. The IPSOS study indicates non-Catholic Christian groups account for approximately 16 percent of the population and include Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assemblies of God, the Methodist and Waldensian Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the Union of Pentecostal Churches (UCP), and several other smaller Protestant groups, including other evangelical Christian groups. According to the national branch of the Church of Jesus Christ, there are approximately 26,000 adherents in the country. According to national newspaper La Repubblica, most followers are in Lombardy, Sicily, and Lazio Regions. According to government officials, non-Christian religious groups that together account for less than 10 percent of the population include Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, Sikhs, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and Ananda Marga Pracaraka Samgha, an Indian spiritual movement.

The UCEI estimates the Jewish population numbers 28,000. According to the legal counsel of the Italian Federation of Progressive Judaism (FIEP), FIEP has a prayer room in Milan and between 500 and 600 members, including Jews who are registered and unregistered in the local communities. The country’s progressive Jews are organized into four congregations in Rome, Florence, and Milan.

A 2019 report on immigration released by independent research center IDOS estimated 1.73 million Muslims – approximately 3 percent of the population – live in the country. According to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the national agency for statistics, the Muslim population includes native-born citizens, immigrants, and resident foreigners, but most of its growth comes from large numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, the majority of whom live in the north. Moroccan- and Albanian-origin Muslims make up the largest established groups, while Tunisia and Pakistan are increasingly prominent sources of Muslims arriving as seaborne migrants. The MOI reports Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law regardless of religion and are free to profess their beliefs in any form, individually or with others, and to promote them and celebrate rites in public or in private, provided they are not offensive to public morality. According to the constitution, each religious community has the right to establish its own institutions according to its own statutes as long as these do not conflict with the law. The constitution stipulates the state may not impose special limitations or taxes on the establishment or activities of groups because of their religious nature or aims. The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent of each other, and treaties, including a concordat between the government and the Holy See, govern their relations.

Insults against religions or against their followers in public are considered an administrative offense punishable by a fine ranging from 51 to 309 euros ($63-$380). The penal code punishes other public offenses to religion, such as offenses against objects used for religious rites or offenses expressed during religious ceremonies, with a fine of up to 5,000 euros ($6,100) or a prison sentence of up to two years. Those who destroy or violate objects used for religious ceremonies may be punished with up to two years in prison.

The constitution states all religious groups are equally free, and relations between the state and non-Catholic groups, including state support, are governed by agreements (“accords”) between them. Relations between the state and the Catholic Church are governed by a concordat between the government and the Holy See. Representatives of a non-Catholic faith requesting an accord must first submit their request to the Office of the Prime Minister. The government and the group’s representatives then negotiate a draft agreement, which the Council of Ministers must approve. The Prime Minister then signs and submits the agreement to parliament for final approval. Twelve groups have an accord: The Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, Church of Jesus Christ, Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, Italian Apostolic Church, Buddhist Union, Soka Gakkai Buddhists, and Hindus.

The law provides religious groups with tax-exempt status and the right to recognition as legal entities once they have completed the registration process with the MOI. Legal registration is a prerequisite for any group seeking an accord with the government. A religious group may apply for registration by submitting to a prefect, the local representative of the MOI, an official request that includes the group’s statutes; a report on its goals and activities; information on its administrative offices; a three-year budget; certification of its credit status by a bank; and certification of the Italian citizenship or legal residency of its head. To be approved, a group’s statutes must not conflict with the law. Once approved, the group must submit to MOI administrative monitoring, including oversight of its budget and internal organization. The MOI may appoint a commissioner to administer the group if it identifies irregularities in its activities. Religious groups that are not registered may still operate legally as cultural associations and obtain tax-exempt status, legal recognition of marriages, access to hospitals and prisons, and other benefits, but those benefits are more easily obtained if a group has an accord with the government. The Catholic Church is the only legally recognized group exempted from MOI monitoring, in accordance with the concordat between the government and the Holy See.

An accord grants clergy automatic access to state hospitals, prisons, and military barracks; allows for civil registry of religious marriages; facilitates special religious practices regarding funerals; and exempts students from school attendance on religious holidays. Any religious group without an accord may request these benefits from the MOI on a case-by-case basis. An accord also allows a religious group to receive funds collected by the state through a voluntary 0.8 percent of personal income tax set-aside on taxpayer returns. Taxpayers may specify to which eligible religious group they would like to direct these funds.

National law does not restrict religious face coverings, but some local authorities impose restrictions. Regional laws in Liguria, Veneto, and Lombardy prohibit the wearing of burqas and niqabs in public buildings and institutions, including hospitals.

The concordat with the Holy See provides for the Catholic Church to select teachers, paid by the state, to provide instruction in weekly “hour of religion” courses taught in public schools. The courses are optional, and students who do not wish to attend may study other subjects or, in certain cases, leave school early with parental consent. Church-selected instructors are lay or religious, and the instruction includes material determined by the state and relevant to both Catholics and non-Catholic religious groups. Government funding is available for only these Catholic Church-approved teachers. If a student requests a religion class from a non-Catholic religious group, that group must provide the teacher and cover the cost of instruction; it is not required to seek government approval for the content of the class. Some local laws provide scholarship funding for students to attend private, religiously affiliated schools, usually but not always Catholic, that meet government educational standards.

Schools are divided into “state-owned,” “state-equivalent,” and private categories. The “state equivalent” category includes public (municipal, provincial, regional, or owned by another public entity) and some private schools, which may be religiously affiliated. All state-equivalent schools receive government funding if they meet criteria and standards published every year by the Ministry of Education. The funding is released through the regional offices for education. Most private schools are run by religious entities and may not issue certificates or diplomas. Private school students must take final annual exams in “state-owned” or “state-equivalent” schools.

Since 2019, Lombardy regional law has prohibited local authorities from dividing burial plots by religious belief.

According to law, hate speech, including instances motivated by religious hatred, is punishable by up to four years in prison. This law also applies to denial of genocide or crimes against humanity.

All missionaries and other foreign religious workers from countries that are not EU members or signatories of the Schengen Agreement must apply for special religious activity visas before arriving in the country. An applicant must attach an invitation letter from his or her religious group to the application.

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

Government Practices

On March 8, the government temporarily banned public gatherings, including all religious services in all places of worship, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Following an April 26 statement by the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference rejecting the government measures as limiting religious freedom, the government allowed the Catholic Church to resume services outdoors starting May 10. The Catholic bishops highlighted the difference between the government’s responsibility “to adopt health provisions” and the Catholic Church’s “to organize activities of the Christian community in full autonomy, respecting the provisions decided [by the government].” On May 15, the government signed agreements with representatives of Muslim, Jewish, and other religious communities authorizing the resumption of religious services outdoors on May 18.

On February 10, a Rome court convicted 24 persons belonging to an association called Stormfront to up to three years and 10 months in prison for racial and ethnic hate speech, defamation, and threats against Jews, migrants, and some public figures. In 2011, the group had established a forum on the U.S. website of the same name promoting white nationalist and supremacist ideologies and published a list of Jewish communities, schools, shops, and restaurants, including addresses and telephone numbers, appealing to its members “to act as they like” based on that information.

Interviewed by Israeli daily Israel Ya-Yom on January 20, League Party leader Salvini stated that “the presence of large numbers of migrants coming from Muslim countries provokes an increase in anti-Semitism also in Italy.” The Union of the Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII) issued a press statement expressing “concerns regarding Salvini’s statement, which ascribes the causes of social hate against minorities to Muslims and thus lays the ground for hate and Islamophobia. Anti-Semitism is equal to Islamophobia.” The UCOII’s press statement contained a list of types of discrimination that many Muslims faced, including difficulties in opening new places of worship.

On June 6, Member of Parliament Emanuele Fiano, a member of the Jewish community, announced in a Facebook post that he had received an envelope containing an image of Adolf Hitler and subtitled “In the Oven.”

On February 6, the President of the Senate appointed 25 members to an extraordinary committee to fight intolerance, anti-Semitism, and hate crimes, as proposed by Senator for Life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre and approved by parliament in 2019.

According to the FIEP’s legal counsel, because relations between the government and the country’s Jews are governed by an accord between the state and UCEI, the UCEI defined the terms of Jewish identity and practice in the country. According to the counsel, the growth of progressive Judaism in the country continued to encounter resistance from the largely orthodox UCEI. For example, the UCEI continued not to recognize progressive Jewish rabbis, who were therefore ineligible for Italian visas and residence permits, could not perform marriages having civil validity, and whose congregations were ineligible for government financial benefits.

On December 30, parliament passed the budget law for 2021 that amended a 1955 law on compensation to Holocaust survivors, Jewish victims of persecution, and their heirs to facilitate access to a 500 euro ($610) per month government benefit. The amendment simplified procedures to obtain the benefit, easing the requirement of proving that discrimination occurred. The budget law also allotted 6.5 million euros ($7.98 million) to modify a shopping center project in Mantua, including changes solicited by Jewish rabbis to prevent desecration of a Jewish cemetery there. The Jewish community had lobbied for both provisions in the budget.

According to leaders of the Rome Islamic Cultural Center, the government again did not make significant progress on an accord despite ongoing dialogue with Muslim religious communities. The MOI continued to recognize as a legal religious entity only the Cultural Islamic Center of Italy, which administers the Great Mosque of Rome. The government recognized other Muslim groups only as nonprofit organizations.

Regional governments and Muslim religious authorities continued to recognize five mosques, one each in Colle Val d’Elsa (in Tuscany), Milan, and Rome, and two in the Emilia-Romagna Region, in Ravenna and Forli, respectively. In addition, local governments continued to recognize many sites as Muslim places of worship, although these were not considered full-fledged mosques by Muslim authorities because they lacked minarets or other key architectural features.

According to weekly magazine Panorama, there were also an estimated 800 to 1,200 unofficial, informal places of worship for Muslims in 2019 (the most recent figure), known colloquially as “garage” mosques. According to the press, authorities allowed most to operate, but they did not officially recognize them as places of worship.

According to media reports, Muslim leaders stated they had difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. Local officials, who were entitled to introduce rules on planning applicable to places of worship, continued to cite lack of zoning plans allowing for the establishment of places of worship on specific sites as a reason for denying construction permits.

On October 14, the Association of Muslims of Bergamo, Lombardy Region, announced a judge had ruled that the regional government’s acquisition in 2018 of a former chapel that the association intended to turn into a mosque was discriminatory and the chapel should be returned to the Muslim community. The Muslim community bought the chapel at auction in 2018 from the main public hospital in Bergamo, which was owned by regional authorities. After the purchase, the governor, a member of the League Party, required the association to sell it back under a law allowing public authorities to buy assets deemed to be of cultural significance.

On July 1, the Lombardy Regional Administrative Court ruled that the municipality of San Giuliano Milanese excessively limited the constitutional principle of religious freedom after it denied in 2019 the use of two separate venues by a Muslim community and an evangelical Christian church. Following the ruling, the Muslim and evangelical Christian communities were able to use their sites as places of worship.

On July 15, the lawyer of Abu Hanif Patwery, president of the Bangladesh Cultural and Welfare Association, announced the European Court for Human Rights had ruled as admissible Patwery’s appeal against a 2019 conviction for violating Milan city regulations. Patwery was convicted because his group contracted a company to convert a storage site into a place of worship without prior local government approval. His lawyer argued that the conviction violated freedom of religion because the Lombardy region, including Milan, had adopted laws that de facto prevented Muslims from building new mosques. The Court of Cassation had sentenced him in 2019 to six months in prison and the payment of a 9,000-euro ($11,000) fine, the first time that a court imposed criminal rather than administrative penalties for this type of violation. Both the sentence and the fine were suspended following the appeal.

On September 14, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, ruled that the 2019 order by the municipality of Monfalcone blocking the conversion of a former supermarket into a mosque was legitimate. The municipality had concluded that the building was inappropriate for religious services due to structural reasons. A local Muslim association had purchased the facility in 2017 and requested authorization to reconvert it into a mosque in 2019.

On November 26, the city of Pisa decided not to appeal a July 1 ruling by the Tuscany regional administrative court which annulled city council plans in 2019 to prevent the Pisa Islamic Association from building a mosque on land it had purchased. Pisa city officials had stated at the time that the lot was not large enough for the planned building, while a local imam said the city council had always been hostile to the mosque’s construction. On September 24, the local office for the preservation of cultural and environmental assets approved the mosque’s construction, rejecting an appeal by Mayor Michele Conti. Construction had not begun by year’s end.

According to media, on August 3, the MOI expelled an Egyptian imam in San Dona di Piave, near Venice, for expressing extremist views in his sermons. In a statement, the MOI said the imam “was a follower of an Islamic religious orientation based on orthodox Salafism” and also had ties to extremist elements.

In January, the MOI announced that for reasons of state security it had deported a Moroccan imam back to his home country because of what it said was his support for ISIS and its leadership.

On February 7, the Milan City Council published a zoning plan authorizing two Buddhist temples, seven evangelical Christian churches, three Orthodox churches, four Islamic places of worship (a designation determined by Islamic authorities in the country), and seven Catholic churches. Only places of worship authorized in the zoning plan have legal status; the new places of worship would be in addition to 25 existing places of Islamic and approximately 100 evangelical Christian churches in Milan.

On September 20, the Forza Nuova (New Force) association, commonly characterized as far-right, staged a rally against the establishment of a temporary facility to host Muslim worshippers in an area used as parking lot in Milan. Both the League Party and New Force opposed the decision to establish the temporary facility to celebrate Eid al-Adha.

Local governments continued to rent out public land at discounted rates to non-Muslim religious groups, usually Catholic, for constructing places of worship. Government funding also helped preserve and maintain historic places of worship, which were almost all Catholic.

On June 3, a member of the municipal council of Fiumicino, Senator William De Vecchis, publicly opposed a local Bangladeshi Muslim association’s proposal to establish an Islamic cemetery with up to 16,000 burial places because it did not take in account other local citizens’ wishes and he did not want his municipality to bury Muslims from other municipalities.

In June, Catholic bishops challenged proposed legislation that would include sexual orientation, gender identity, as well as gender-based hate crimes and hate speech under an existing law that makes discrimination, violence, or incitement to violence based on someone’s race or religion a crime punishable by up to four years in prison. The bishops stated the proposed legislation could criminalize the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality. The president of the Conference of Italian Bishops, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, said the bill would limit “personal freedom, educational choices, the way of thinking and being, the exercise of criticism and dissent,” adding that “there are already adequate safeguards with which to prevent and repress any violent or persecutory behavior” towards sexual minorities. The bill was approved by the Chamber of Deputies in November and was awaiting Senate action at year’s end.

In September, some leaders of the Italian Evangelical Alliance expressed their longstanding concerns regarding the 2012 opinion of the Council of State on the implementation of the 1929 law on religious freedom requested by the government. In particular, the alliance objected to the council’s recommendation to recognize only the ministers of religious groups meeting two criteria: reliability and morality, and having a community of at least 500 followers. The alliance representatives said they considered this requirement discriminatory against minority religions whose communities had a limited number of members.

Politicians from several parties, including the League Party, Brothers of Italy, and Casa Pound, a political association widely considered to be far-right, again made statements critical of Islam.

In a January interview with Israeli daily Israel Hayon regarding anti-Semitism in Europe, League Party leader Salvini said “the massive presence of migrants coming from Muslim countries is spreading anti-Semitism in Italy as well.” In July, in response to Turkey’s plans to reconvert the Hagia Sophia Museum, which was a church until 1453 and a mosque from 1453 until 1935, back to a mosque, Salvini said in a tweet “the arrogance of certain types of Islam is incompatible with the values of democracy, freedom, and tolerance of the West.”

Authorities investigated instances of hate speech against Silvia Romano, an Italian aid worker kidnapped by Islamic militants in Kenya in 2018 and released in May. Romano converted to Islam during her captivity. On May 13, League Party MP Alessandro Pagano referred to her as “a new terrorist, because al-Shabaab [is a terrorist organization].” Chamber of Deputies Vice President Mara Carfagna immediately censured his comment, stating that “it is unacceptable to characterize Silvia Romano as a terrorist [in this assembly].”

On April 17, the Court of Cassation ruled against the city of Milan for prohibiting the Union of Atheists, Agnostics, and Rationalists from circulating materials on the grounds that it would have offended all religions. The court stated that “10 million Italians have a good life without God.” The court reiterated the need to respect not only all faiths but also the right not to embrace any faith and the freedom of conscience, to include the right to promote atheism.

On September 12, the Casa Pound and New Force groups organized a rally in Milan during which Veneto Fronte Skinhead leader Stefano Odorico spoke about the “Islamic danger,” concluding that “there will be one day in which we will off the invaders of our country.”

On January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Sergio Mattarella hosted a ceremony to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and stressed the need to remain vigilant against “the virus of discrimination, hate, abuse of power, and racism.”

On January 27, Mayor Virginia Raggi organized a commemoration in Rome to honor two Holocaust survivors and stated that “preserving the memory helps build a better future and avoid the mistakes of the past.”

The city of Rome continued to foster collaboration among the Jewish community, Waldensian Evangelical Church, the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, and the Italian Buddhist Union to promote better understanding and awareness of different faiths, primarily among students. Cultural events and presentations in public schools to increase awareness of religious diversity were significantly reduced compared with previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the year, the CDEC recorded 224 incidents of anti-Semitism, compared with 251 in 2019. Reports of anti-Semitic incidents published on CDEC’s website included discrimination, verbal harassment (particularly at soccer matches and other sporting events), online hate speech, and derogatory graffiti. Internet and social media hate speech and bullying were the most common forms of anti-Semitic incidents according to CDEC, which continued to operate an anti-Semitism hotline for victims of, and witnesses to, anti-Semitic incidents.

The national police’s Observatory on Security against Acts of Discrimination (OSCAD) reported 448 discriminatory crimes in 2019 (the latest available data), of which 92 were based on religious affiliation and 216 on ethnicity, compared with 360 in 2018. OSCAD defined discriminatory crimes as crimes motivated by ideological, cultural, religious, and ethnic prejudices. For example, on April 16, middle school students assaulted a classmate belonging to a Jewish family in the gym, yelling “when we will grow up we will reopen the Auschwitz [camp] and put all [expletive] Jews in the ovens.”

In its periodic review of social media posts, independent NGO Vox Diritti reported 8 percent of all monitored tweets (104,347) contained anti-Semitic messages during the year, compared with 7 percent of all tweets monitored in 2019 (15,196). Many anti-Semitic tweets came from accounts based in Rome, Milan, and Turin. The NGO said spikes in tweet traffic correlated with the national celebration of the Liberation from the Fascist regime and the birthday of Holocaust survivor and Senator for Life Liliana Segre. On September 9, the president of UCEI, Noemi Di Segni, said anti-Semitism was on the rise, especially online. On November 24, an unknown Facebook user published a cartoon denying the Holocaust. A study sponsored by National Coordinator on Anti-Semitism Milena Salterini and conducted by the Catholic University of Milan identified 104,347 tweets posted during the year from Italy-based accounts containing anti-Semitic comments. Approximately 900 of those tweets released between March and May included insults and conspiracy theories alleging “Jewish financial interests” exploited the COVID-19 pandemic for financial gain.

According to a Pew Research Center study, the most recent of its kind and published in October 2019, 55 percent of Italians had negative opinions of Muslims and 15 percent had negative opinions of Jews. Negative opinions of Muslims were prevalent among the least educated (57 percent) and elderly (66 percent).

A Vox Diritti study of intolerance on social media showed that 59 percent of all monitored tweets regarding Islam over a six-month period in 2020 were negative, compared with 74 percent of those monitored over a three-month period in 2019. According to political observers, the decrease in anti-Muslim messaging was in part due to a change in the country’s leadership. Most anti-Muslim tweets originated in Northern regions. There was an observed spike in negative tweets after Silvia Romano, an Italian national who had been kidnapped in Kenya, returned home and told press she had converted to Islam while she was held captive.

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, 61 percent of Italian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.

The private research center STATISTA reported that an estimated 15.6 percent of the population believed the Holocaust never happened. In its Italy 2020 Report, the private Eurispes Institute of Political, Economic, and Social Studies reported nearly 16 percent of respondents believed the Holocaust was a myth, while 16 percent of respondents said the number of Holocaust victims had been “exaggerated.” Of those sampled, 47.5 percent considered recent acts of anti-Semitism in the country to be a “dangerous resurgence of the phenomenon,” while 37.2 percent viewed the recent acts as “bravado carried out for provocation” or as a “joke.”

As in previous years, the press reported examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters, including depictions on walls of swastikas, anti-Semitic stereotypes, and praise for neo-Nazi groups. These appeared in Rome, Milan, Pisa, and other cities, especially after International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27. On September 15, authorities discovered graffiti depicting a Star of David with the text “equal to virus.” On February 10, authorities found graffiti depicting a Star of David with the text “Jude” (“Jew” in German) on a door of a private residence in Turin.

On February 7, individuals painted swastikas on the door of a house where Jewish concentration camp survivor Arianna Szoreny had lived in San Daniele del Friuli. As a gesture of solidarity, local residents overpainted the swastikas with hearts and held a small demonstration on February 8 to protest the anti-Semitic graffiti. On January 30, four members of the municipal council of the same town received a letter that read “after 75 years … a Jew is always a Jew,” a reference to municipal celebrations of the anniversary of the Allied forces’ defeat of Nazi Germany, according to media reports. Media reported authorities were investigating the graffiti and the letters. Later, regional president Massimiliano Fedriga condemned the graffiti and letter.

On August 4, Daniele Belotti, a member of the Chamber of Deputies affiliated with the League Party, wrote to the Bergamo bishop Francesco Beschi to express opposition to a Catholic bishop’s recommendation that local priests support Eid al-Adha celebrations. Belotti said the Catholic Church should defend Christian identity and “contain” Islamic practices, including the slaughter of animals.

The FIEP reached limited agreements with some local Jewish communities to permit religious practices, such as circumcision.

On January 16, as anti-Semitic speech increased, the Catholic Church marked its 31st annual Day of Jewish-Christian Religious Dialogue with a discussion between Rome’s chief rabbi and a Catholic priest, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Representatives from the embassy and consulates general met with representatives of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, the MOI, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the national coordinator for the fight against anti-Semitism, and local government officials in Rome, Naples, Milan, Florence, and Venice to discuss the establishment of new places of worship requested by religious groups, relations between the government and Muslim religious communities, the prospect for an accord between the government and Muslim communities, and anti-Semitic incidents. During these meetings, embassy and government officials also discussed the integration of asylum seekers and migrants, many of whom were Muslim, Orthodox (including Romanian, Russian, and Bulgarian Orthodox), or Hindu.

The embassy and consulates general and visiting Department of State officials met with the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities to stress the importance of interfaith dialogue and to share U.S. best practices regarding education, integration of second-generation Muslims, and social media networking.

In October, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and other senior officials visited Rome and met with a wide range of religious leaders and government officials, including at the Rome Cultural Islamic Center, the Italian Evangelical Alliance, and at the Prime Minister’s Office, to advance priority issues including the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and regional and local rules that impede the establishment of new places of worship.

Embassy and consulate general officials continued to meet with representatives of civil society groups, including Catholic-affiliated Caritas and Sant’Egidio, as well as with Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish leaders in cities throughout the country. U.S. officials urged the social inclusion of immigrants, many of whom were Muslim, as well as dialogue among various religious groups, and monitored groups’ ability to practice their religion freely.

Embassy officials met with the government coordinator on anti-Semitism, the president of UCEI, and Rome’s Jewish community leaders and civil society representatives to discuss how to support their efforts to counter anti-Semitism. The embassy and consulates general consulted with Jewish communities and concerned authorities to develop the Department of State’s JUST Act report for the country, which was published on July 29. The report highlighted the government’s commitment to the Terezin Declaration and its goals and objectives and areas where the government had not followed through with a government commission’s recommendations to identify survivors of targeted persecution in World War II or their heirs who are entitled to unclaimed property. The report engendered appreciation and positive feedback from the country’s Jewish communities for spotlighting the issue. The embassy also worked with the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad to engage on issues surrounding a development that could affect a Jewish cemetery in Mantua.

The embassy and consulates continued to use their social media platforms to acknowledge major Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays as well as amplify initiatives that promote religious freedom and interfaith dialogue at the local level. They also retweeted Department of State statements and tweets on the International Religious Freedom Act and related topics.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

Latvia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public funding continued to support Holocaust education in schools.

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

Lithuania

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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