The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), part of the Ministry of Religious and Civil Society Affairs (MRCSA), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities imposed restrictions and heightened scrutiny on so-called “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison members of religious groups, criminalize speech “inciting religious discord,” raid believers’ homes to stop the practice of religious activities by those lacking formal registration with the government, question congregation members about their choice of faith, prosecute individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and label “nontraditional” religious groups as “destructive sects” in the media. In June, the president signed a strategy document outlining the government’s religion policy for the 2017-20 period, affirming the country’s secular orientation, and stating the government would focus on the prevention of “destructive” religious teachings and tighten control over religious activity. During the year, the MRCSA and police closely monitored all religious activities and proceeded with legal and administrative actions against individuals and groups for actions considered illegal under the law. Such actions included unauthorized gatherings, distribution of unapproved religious materials, involvement of minors in religious services, attendance at unsanctioned religious services, religious school outfits deemed inappropriate in a secular society by the government, and the alleged failures of religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks. According to the Karaganda Region Department of Internal Affairs, on October 30, authorities detained six members of the banned Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement in Karaganda for the alleged recruitment of members. According to Forum 18 – a Norwegian human rights organization that promotes religious freedom – during the year, authorities brought administrative charges against 279 individuals, religious communities, charities, and companies for attending worship meetings, offering or importing religious literature and pictures, sharing or teaching faith, posting religious material online, praying in an unapproved manner in mosques, bringing a child to a religious meeting, maintaining inadequate security measures at places of worship, or failing to pay earlier fines. Of these, 259 received punishments that included fines, jail terms, bans on religious activity, deportations, and seizure of religious literature. During the year, the government convicted 23 individuals for practicing their religion. Of these, 20 were Sunni Muslims, two Jehovah’s Witnesses, and one Baptist. Authorities incarcerated 20 of these persons, and the remaining three received restricted freedom sentences, under which they lived at home under restrictions. The government fined and/or detained others for several days. In January, authorities arrested two members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Teymur Akhmedov and Asaf Guliyev, in Astana and charged them with incitement of religious discord through conversations with university students. Authorities sentenced Akhmedov to five years’ imprisonment and Guliyev to five years’ probation after he agreed to testify against Akhmedov. The only Muslim groups able to register were those affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAMK). The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unable to reregister despite numerous attempts; a 2011 law resulted in the group’s deregistration. The government launched at least 22 administrative cases against Muslims for praying in mosques in a manner not in accordance with the state-backed Muslim Board’s rules. The MRCSA monitored the internet and blocked 1,500 websites having what authorities deemed as illegal and harmful extremist content. In April and May, several national TV broadcasts ran thematic programs on “destructive sects,” among them “destructive” Islamic movements, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists.
Negative media coverage and societal discrimination remained concerns for the so-called “nontraditional” religious groups.
The Ambassador and other senior U.S. officials engaged in private and public dialogue with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MRCSA and CRA. This dialogue included raising concerns over the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of both the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature. U.S. diplomatic officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates. In addition, embassy officials participated in roundtable discussions and speaker series dealing with religious freedom. They underscored the importance freedom of religion plays in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged the reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they were part of registered religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.5 million (July 2017 estimate). The national census reports approximately 70 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom adhere to the Sunni Hanafi school. Other Islamic groups include Shafi’i Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi Muslims.
The CRA estimates 26 percent of the population is Christian, the majority of whom are Russian Orthodox, but which also includes Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Christian Scientists.
Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jews, Buddhists, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Bahais, members of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), and Scientologists.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief, as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation. These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population.
The MRCSA is in charge of religious issues for the government, facilitating government and civil society engagement, as well as overseeing religious issues. It implements its responsibilities for religious issues via the CRA.
According to law, the MRCSA is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religious freedom. It also considers issues of potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism. The MRCSA drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship. All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination. The MRCSA cooperates with law enforcement to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious issues, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.
Under the constitution, everyone has the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs. These rights, however, are in practice limited to “traditional” or registered religious groups. The counterterrorism law requires religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks; the government may take action against religious organizations for failure to do so. The law states the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents, unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.
The law prohibits coercion to force a person’s conversion to any religion or to force a person’s participation in a religious group’s activities or in religious rites.
The criminal and administrative codes include additional penalties for unauthorized religious activity, which includes the arrangement of and participation in activities of unregistered religious groups, participation in religious activities outside permitted areas, unlicensed distribution of religious materials or training of clergy, sale of religious literature without government approval or in places not approved by the government, and discussion of religion for the purpose of proselytization without the required missionary registration.
The criminal code prohibits the “incitement of interreligious discord,” which includes “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their relation to religion [and other] origin.” It also criminalizes the creation and leadership of social institutions that proclaim religious intolerance or exclusivity, which is punishable with imprisonment from three to seven years.
The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an “extremist organization,” ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization. The law defines “extremism” as the organization and/or commission of acts in pursuit of violent change of the constitutional system; violation of the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the country; undermining national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord that are accompanied by calls to violence; or the use of any religious practice that causes a security or health risk. An extremist organization is a “legal entity, association of individuals and (or) legal entities engaged in extremism, and recognized by the court as extremist.” The law provides streamlined court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist,” reducing the time necessary for a court to render and act on a decision to 72 hours. After a legal finding of a violation, the law authorizes officials to revoke immediately the organization’s registration, thus ending its legal existence, and to seize its property. Prosecutors have the right to inspect annually all groups registered with state bodies.
The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 226,900 tenge ($680). A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.
A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.” In order to register at the local level, religious groups must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), listing the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members. Communities may only be active within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register, unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level. Regional registration requires at least two local organizations, each located within a different oblast (province), and each local group must have at least 250 members. National registration requires at least 5,000 total members and at least 300 members in each of the country’s 14 oblasts and the cities of Astana and Almaty. Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy.
The law allows the government to deny registration to religious groups based on an insufficient number of adherents or inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CRA. According to the administrative code, individuals participating in, leading, or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 113,450 tenge ($340) and 453,800 tenge ($1,400).
The administrative code mandates a 453,800 tenge ($1,400) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CRA; systemically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws. Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 113,450 tenge ($340). Police may impose these fines without first going to court. The fines may be appealed to a court.
If an organization, its leaders, or its members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning and/or a fine of 226,900 tenge ($680). Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 340,350 tenge ($1,000) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.
According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or fails to rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 453,800 tenge ($1,400), the entity is subject to a fine of 1,134,500 tenge ($3,400), and its activities are banned.
The law prohibits coercive religious activities that harm the health or morality of citizens, residents, force them to end marriages, or family relations, violate human rights and freedoms, or force citizens to evade performance of duties specified in the constitution and legislation. The law prohibits methods of proselytizing that take advantage of a potential convert’s dependence on charity. The law also prohibits blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities.
The law states in cases when a prisoner seeks the help of an imam, pastor, or other clergy to perform a religious rite, he or she may invite a clergy member of a formally registered religious group to a detention facility, as long as this access complies with the internal regulations of the prison. The law bans construction of places of worship within prison territory. Pursuant to the law, religious organizations may participate in monitoring prisons, including creating and implementing programs to improve the correctional system and developing and publicly discussing draft laws and regulations as they relate to the prison system. Religious groups may identify, provide, distribute, and monitor the use of humanitarian, social, legal, and charitable assistance to prisoners. They may provide other forms of assistance to penitentiary system bodies, as long as they do not contradict the law. According to the law, prisoners may possess religious literature, but only if approved after a religious expert analysis conducted by the CRA.
The law defines “religious tourism” as a “type of tourism where people travel for performance of religious rites in a country (place) of temporary residence” and requires the MRCSA to regulate it and oversee the process by which individuals participate in the Hajj.
The law prohibits religious ceremonies in government buildings, including those belonging to the military or law enforcement.
The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content is allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CRA. The law limits to one copy per publication an exemption from expert review for importing religious materials for personal use.
The law states the government shall not interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children consistent with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights.
The law requires organizations to “take steps to prevent involvement or participation of anyone under the age of 18 in the activities of a religious association,” if one of the parents or other legal guardians have objections. The law bans religious activities, including proselytizing, in children’s holiday, sport, creative or other leisure organizations, camps, or sanatoria. The extent to which organizations must prevent underage persons’ involvement in religious activity is not specifically outlined and has not been further defined by authorities.
The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools, colleges, or universities. Homeschooling for religious reasons is also prohibited. The law allows for after-school and other supplemental religious instruction as long as it is provided by a registered religious group. A decree mandates that schoolchildren wear school uniforms that comply with the secular nature of education and prohibits inclusion of any elements that could indicate religious affiliation, such as head coverings.
The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.
The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations, as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.” The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 12.7 million tenge ($38,300) or up to six years’ imprisonment.
In order to perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa. These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months. To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country. The letter of invitation must be approved by the CRA. Applicants must obtain consent from the CRA each time they apply. The CRA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CRA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals. The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CRA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Foreigners may not register religious groups.
Local and foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the local executive body of an oblast or the cities of Astana and Almaty and provide information on their religious affiliation, intended territory of missionary work, and time period for conducting that work. Missionaries must submit all literature and other materials intended to support their missionary work together with their registration application. Use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal. A missionary must produce registration documents and a power of attorney from the sponsoring religious organization in order to work on its behalf. The local executive body of an oblast or the cities of Astana and Almaty may refuse registration to missionaries whose work “constitutes a threat to the constitutional order, social order, the rights, and freedoms of individuals, or the health and morals of the population.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: The government continued punitive actions against members of “nontraditional” faiths, including Muslims who practiced a version of Islam different from the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, and Protestant groups. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison members of religious groups, criminalize speech “inciting religious discord,” raid believers’ private homes to stop unregistered religious activities, question congregation members about their choice of faith, punish individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and label “nontraditional” religious groups as “destructive sects” in the media. In June the president signed a strategy document outlining government religion policy for the 2017-20 period, affirming the country’s secular orientation, and stating the government would focus on the prevention of “destructive” religious teachings and tighten control over religious activity.
According to Forum 18, authorities brought administrative charges against 279 individuals, religious communities, charities, and companies during the year for attending worship meetings, offering or importing religious literature and pictures, sharing or teaching faith, posting religious material online, praying in mosques, bringing a child to a religious meeting, maintaining inadequate security measures at places of worship or failing to pay earlier fines. Of these, authorities sanctioned 259 individuals with punishments including fines, jail terms, bans on religious activity, deportations, and religious literature seizures. During the year, authorities convicted 23 individuals for practicing their religion: 20 Sunni Muslims, two Jehovah’s Witnesses, and one Baptist. Of these, courts sentenced 20 to prison terms and three to house arrest.
On January 18, authorities arrested two members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Teymur Akhmedov and Asaf Guliyev, in Astana and charged them with incitement of religious discord. The men met with a group of young men who presented themselves as university students and participated in discussions about their faith. The conversations were recorded and later used as evidence against the defendants. Guliyev reached a plea bargain, admitted his involvement, and testified against Akhmedov. On February 24, the court sentenced Guliyev to five years’ probation for his cooperation in the case. The 60-year-old Akhmedov, however, refused to admit to wrongdoing. On May 2, a court found him guilty of “incitement of religious discord and propaganda of one faith’s superiority over the others” and sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment. The court also banned him from any form of religious preaching. On June 20, the Astana city court rejected his appeal.
According to local and international observers such as the NGO Association for Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK) and Forum 18, the authorities intensified punitive actions against any Muslims who professed forms of Islam different from the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Forum 18 reported that courts convicted 20 Sunni Muslims of such offenses during the first nine months of the year and sentenced 19 to prison terms and one to probation.
Authorities of the Kyrgyz Republic detained Nariman Seitzhanov, a graduate of the Medina Islamic University in Saudi Arabia in December 2016 and deported him to Kazakhstan, where police opened a criminal investigation on charges of incitement of religious discord. According to investigators, Seitzhanov accompanied Kazakh pilgrims to Mecca in October 2016. His preaching and discussions about Islam were recorded and posted on social media, and authorities used the recordings as evidence against him. On June 9, a court in Kokshetau sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment.
According to the Karaganda Region Department of Internal Affairs, on October 30, authorities detained six members of the banned Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement in Karaganda for alleged recruitment of members. Authorities directed three of them to sign a written pledge agreeing to halt recruitment activities and instructed them not to leave the area. Authorities placed the remaining three in a pretrial detention facility.
On May 11, an Almaty district court found Muslim preacher Denis Korzhavin guilty of incitement of religious discord. Korzhavin, an ethnic Russian who converted to Islam, studied in Saudi Arabia. Upon his return to the country in 2011, authorities alleged he engaged in the active dissemination of Salafism. Despite a court ban in 2014 of certain religious books, he posted a Russian translation of the banned “The Three Fundamentals” on social media. Korzhavin reached a plea bargain and the court sentenced him to five years’ probation.
In April police arrested Shukhrat Kibirov in Almaty and charged him with incitement of religious discord. According to his attorney, several social media posts with Arabic language religious songs allegedly posted from Kibirov’s phone served as grounds for the criminal case. Government religious experts who analyzed the songs said they contained elements of incitement of religious discord. A number of media sources, including Radio Azattyk, Vlast, and Today.kz reported on Kibirov’s case. On November 27, a court in Almaty sentenced him to six years and eight months in prison for incitement of religious discord and terrorist propaganda.
On June 28, the president signed a strategy document outlining government religion policy for the 2017-20 period. The document affirmed the country’s secular orientation, and stated the government would focus on the prevention of “destructive” religious teachings and tighten government control over religious activity. At an August 28 press briefing, Minister of Religious Affairs and Civil Society Nurlan Yermekbayev stated that the new strategy would strengthen control over “religious propaganda” and expand government oversight of the activities of religious organizations. Government representatives stated the new strategy was driven by security concerns over “religious extremism.” The government stated implementation of the new strategy would involve amendments to existing legislation on religion. The proposed amendments would establish new controls on religious teaching, religious literature, religious speech, and worship. Civil society representatives and religious experts, however, stated they feared the government’s efforts to more closely police religious activity would further infringe on religious freedom, including through prohibition of religious symbols and attire and a further crackdown on religious literature.
The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law. Baptists reported several police raids on adherents’ residences and churches during the year. Community representatives reported 55 police incidents involving Baptists during the year, most of which resulted in administrative fines. In January police raided an Almaty pastor’s house and allegedly made threats to hold him criminally liable for holding religious services without proper documentation, since his religious community is not registered.
On January 23, police raided a local Baptist community leader’s house in Urdzha in the eastern part of the country, videotaped all participants who attended the service, detained several individuals (mainly elderly women), and took them to the police station with the alleged intent to intimidate them. Community members reported police subsequently fined and released the women.
Police charged two members of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians – Baptists Mikhail Milkin and Alexander Ventsel – with illegal dissemination of religious literature in a shopping center in the town of Stepnyak in the Akmola Region. On June 27, the court convicted them of illegal dissemination of religious literature outside of specifically designated places of worship and imposed administrative fines of 108,000 tenge ($330) on each of them.
In March a court in Uralsk imposed an administrative fine of 108,000 tenge ($330) on Serkali Kumargaliev of the unregistered Council of Baptist Churches for illegally distributing religious booklets in front of West Kazakhstan State University. The booklets also contained the address where followers of the religious group gathered for prayer services. Some of the students to whom Kumargaliev distributed the booklets allegedly reported him to authorities, who then took action.
In January authorities searched the office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Astana and confiscated approximately 15 books. On October 3, the specialized interdistrict administrative court of Astana initiated a case against Dmitry Bukin, leader of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Astana, for possessing nonapproved literature. Following “expert analysis” by CRA officials of the seized literature, authorities also charged him with incitement of religious discord and superiority of one faith over another. On October 17, the judge dismissed the case.
On April 25, authorities in Yesil detained several members of the Evangelical Baptist Christian Church for singing songs and illegally distributing religious literature at the local cemetery. Police warned the individuals they were violating the law and allegedly made two of them – Victor Leven and Andrei Block – write statements explaining their actions. Authorities also seized copies of the religious books for “expert analysis.” On July 25, a court in Yesil imposed an administrative fine of 108,000 tenge ($330) on Block for the illegal distribution of religious literature.
On March 4, authorities fined four Muslims in Zhanaozen in the western part of the country for breaking the rules regarding religious services in mosques issued by the SAMK, considered mandatory for all worshipers. Galym Nurpeisov, the attorney for the four men, said that they were punished for saying the word “Amen” aloud, which is banned under the SAMK rules. The court convicted the four men of disrupting religious services and imposed administrative fines of 108,000 tenge ($330) on each.
Courts continued to fine individuals convicted of illegal missionary activity. According to AROK, local law enforcement continued to interpret and label any religious discussions that took place outside of a registered religious building as “illegal missionary activity,” including invitations to religious services and discussions, especially by “nontraditional” groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians. During the year, there were 608 missionaries officially registered in the country – 290 Catholic, 105 Russian Orthodox, 42 Mormon, 40 Muslim, 35 New Apostolic Church, 34 Pentecostal Church, 25 Presbyterian Church, 14 Baptist, 7 Seventh Day Adventist, 5 Jehovah’s Witness, 4 Society of Krishna Consciousness, 3 Jewish, 2 Buddhist, and 2 Lutheran – including 491 foreigners and 117 citizens.
In February police detained two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Karlygash Zholomanova and Fariza Iskakova, in Satpayev for talking about their faith to another woman. The women were charged and subsequently found guilty of conducting religious activity without registration as missionaries. On February 27 and March 9, in two separate hearings, the local court imposed fines of 226,900 tenge ($680) on each.
A court fined a Jehovah’s Witness approximately 198,000 tenge ($600) for illegal missionary activity in the Mangistau Region. The woman was not officially registered as a missionary and was walking through the neighborhood, proselytizing door-to-door.
In June a court in Shakhtinsk fined the leader of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses community for failure to prevent the involvement of children in religious services without parental permission. The court imposed an administrative fine of approximately 108,000 tenge ($330).
Jehovah’s Witnesses held a large convention in Almaty June 23-25, which drew nearly 4,500 participants from a number of countries. Although the convention was able to proceed, there were some reports of police delaying some attendees en route to the convention on the first two days.
On October 3, the Astana specialized interdistrict administrative court began a hearing on Oleg Bondarenko, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor charged with failure to prevent the involvement of a minor in the group’s religious activities over a parent’s objection. According to Radio Azattyk, Aizhan Abzhanova submitted a complaint to the local authorities that her husband took their son Medet to the Seventh-day Adventist church without her permission – she said the father tried to convert the child to Christianity. The husband stated that he attended the church only twice and did so out of curiosity. Bondarenko explained to the court that he did not know the Abzhanovs and thus could not take any actions with regard to their family or child. He further stated that the church services were open to anyone, including those who attended simply out of curiosity once or twice. On October 18, the administrative court in Astana dismissed the case against Bondarenko.
The government launched at least 22 administrative cases against Muslims for praying in mosques in a manner not in accordance with the state-backed Muslim Board’s rules. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered, after authorities denied the group reregistration in 2016, when CRA experts concluded the community’s teaching was not Islamic and needed to remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials. Community members reported that, due to lack of registration, they had to cease all official religious activity but pledged to continue efforts to obtain reregistration.
The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization. The government allowed the church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members may read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings, but did not allow the church to engage in religious activity.
Government-controlled media continued to depict “nontraditional” religions as disruptive to society. In April and May, several national TV broadcasts ran thematic programs on “destructive sects,” among them Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists. In an April 30 “Portrait of the Week” program hosted by Artur Platonov on private broadcaster KTK, a segment from then-acting CRA chairman Bakhytzhan Kulekeyev discussed an alleged “26 complaints against Jehovah’s Witnesses” received by the CRA from ordinary concerned citizens. In an April 30 “Analytics” news show on 1st Channel “Eurasia,” the program addressed multiple complaints the CRA allegedly received from citizens about Jehovah’s Witnesses. A May 12 talk show on “Eurasia” devoted 40 minutes to “destructive sects,” concentrating mainly on “destructive Islamic movements” and Scientology. Another May 12 talk show on “Khabar” included a similar 40-minute program concentrating on Jehovah’s Witnesses, in which Yulia Denisenko, the head of the government-affiliated Association of Centers for Religious Studies, made a number of accusations against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
According to reports, the government continued to recognize as legitimate and legal only those mosques registered with the SAMK. The MRCSA and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs noted this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK. By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval over any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK.
According to the CRA, there were 3,692 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country during the year, compared to 3,636 in 2016. The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,591formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over construction of new mosques, appointment of imams, and administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The SAMK was responsible for authorizing travel agencies to provide Hajj travel services to citizens. According to the SAMK, Saudi Arabian authorities allocated a quota of 2,500 spots for the Hajj, and 2,450 pilgrims made the Hajj. The MRCSA worked closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrasahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, Masters, or PhD programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels. Overall, sources reported that the MRCSA supported 11 schools for Sunni Hanafi imams, one school for Roman Catholic clergy, and one school for Russian Orthodox clergy.
The Ministry of Education continued enforcement of its ban on headscarves in schools. On September 9, the Atyrau regional department of education reported a significant increase in the number of schoolgirls wearing hijabs to school compared to the previous year. Media also reported a number of incidents in other regions and school districts in which school administrators and local authorities sent girls home because they refused to take off their headscarves. Several parents who supported their daughters wearing headscarves stated local authorities pressured them to remove the headscarves or risk large fines and possible termination of parental rights.
MRCSA Minister Yermekbayev stated the ministry trained and guided teams of religious experts and clergymen to work with individuals they said were vulnerable to radical religious teachings. According to Yermekbayev, the government facilitated the “conversion” of approximately 300 individuals back to more “traditional” forms of faith.
MRCSA officials continued to monitor the internet, collecting information on internet sites with “destructive” content, applying expedited procedures for the evaluation of such materials by religious experts, and obtaining court authorizations for immediate closures of internet sites it deemed unacceptable. During the first seven months of the year, the MRCSA examined 3,000 websites and blocked 1,500 for containing what it concluded was illegal and harmful information. The MRCSA also worked with the Ministry of Information and Communication to identify which individuals posted the content in question.
The MRCSA and other authorities regularly inspected religious facilities to review compliance with security requirements as mandated by the counterterrorism law. Several religious groups said they considered this harassment. On January 24, the Almaty interdistrict specialized court ruled the Christian Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses violated the requirements of the counterterrorism law on securing its premises and imposed an administrative fine of 453,800 tenge ($1,400). On June 5, local authorities executed a follow-up inspection and found the center still failed to comply with security requirements. On June 29, the court issued more severe penalties, imposing an administrative fine of 680,700 tenge ($2,100) and a three-month suspension of the center’s activities.
In September local authorities in Astana conducted a surprise inspection of the grounds of Grace Presbyterian Church, and found violations related to the antiterrorism law. On October 18, an Astana court imposed an administrative fine of 429,000 tenge ($1,300) on the church for failure to abide by the technical requirements of the antiterrorism law: lack of approval for its antiterrorist plan; lack of training for staff; and failure to maintain surveillance camera records as required by the law.
An AROK representative said the government continued to seek to control religious expression and proselytizing in what the organization said were efforts to counter Islamic radicalism.
In June the minister of internal affairs issued an order adding a position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism. According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the new staff would work with prisoners to prevent their radicalization.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the Association of Centers for Religious Studies in Astana, a growing number of individuals made complaints on its hotline against Jehovah’s Witnesses, especially after the Russian government banned the group in the spring. Complainants reportedly requested the country also adopt such a ban.
Several media outlets published articles about a female Jehovah’s Witness who refused a blood transfusion for her four-year-old daughter because of her faith. The girl, who suffered from liver cancer, died on July 16. The articles quoted an official of the National Maternity and Children’s Center who blamed the mother for the girl’s death and accused Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives of pressuring doctors to replace blood transfusions with less effective alternatives.
NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress indicated “nontraditional” beliefs.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the MFA, the MRCSA, and the CRA, and advocated the importance of respecting religious freedom, underscoring that bilateral cooperation on economic and security issues was a complement to, not a substitute for, meaningful progress on religious freedom. In a regular and recurring dialogue with the ministry and CRA, U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the religion law and criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom. They also raised concerns about the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups.
U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to respect individuals’ rights to peaceful expression of religious belief and practice. They expressed concern about vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms, enabling authorities, particularly at the local level, to apply them in an arbitrary manner. They also stated that any amendments to the law on religions must not constrain the ability of believers to practice their faith. They underscored the importance freedom of religion plays in countering violent extremism and expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom. The Ambassador and other U.S. officials met with the MRSCA to reiterate the importance of enabling all citizens to worship freely, regardless of registration status.
U.S. diplomatic officials visited houses of worship in several regions of the country and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities, their leaders, and religious freedom advocates. In addition, embassy officials participated in roundtable discussions and speaker series dealing with religious freedom. They underscored the importance freedom of religion plays in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they are part of registered religious groups.
The constitution and other laws and policies prohibit religious discrimination and protect religious freedom, including the freedom to practice any religion or belief through worship, teaching, or observance and to debate religious questions. The constitution provides for special qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law. Human rights and Muslim religious organizations stated that certain Muslim communities, especially ethnic Somalis, again were the target of government-directed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention. A December 2016 report by a Mombasa-based human rights organization documented 81 extrajudicial killings and disappearances of Muslims from the coastal region over a five-year period. The government denied directing such actions. Ethnic Somali and other Muslim communities reported difficulties in obtaining government-mandated identification documents, citing heightened requirements for Muslim communities. On October 17, authorities in the coastal city of Malindi in Kilifi County charged Christian televangelist Paul Makenzi and his wife with radicalizing children. A 2016 appeal by the Methodist Church regarding female students wearing hijabs as part of their school uniforms remained pending as of the end of the year. In September the attorney general supported the right to wear the hijab in school in arguments before the Supreme Court.
The Somalia-based terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab) carried out attacks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu Counties and said it had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith. In July al-Shabaab targeted Christians in an attack in the town of Jima in Lamu County, killing nine. According to the Morning Star News, on May 31, suspected al-Shabaab terrorists invaded the town of Fafi in Garissa County and killed a Christian schoolteacher while she taught class, and abducted and killed a Christian and a Muslim teacher who tried to defend him.
Muslim minority groups, particularly those of Somali descent, reportedly continued to be harassed by non-Muslims. There were reports of religiously motivated threats of societal violence and intolerance, such as Muslim communities threatening individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity. According to religious leaders, some Muslim youths responded to alleged abuses by non-Muslim members of the police who came from other regions by vandalizing properties of local Christians.
U.S. embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, especially underscoring the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance and countering violent extremism. Embassy representatives regularly discussed issues of religious freedom, including the importance of tolerance and inclusion, with local and national civic and religious leaders. The embassy urged religious leaders to engage in interfaith efforts to promote religious freedom and respect religious diversity. The embassy supported interfaith efforts to defuse political and ethnic tensions, especially with regard to controversy about the composition of the national elections institution, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), and in the wake of contentious presidential elections in August and October. The embassy also encouraged religious and civic leaders to work together across sectarian lines to advance tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 47.6 million (July 2017 estimate), of which approximately 83 percent is Christian and 11 percent Muslim. Groups constituting less than 2 percent of the population include Hindus, Sikhs, and Bahais. Much of the remaining 4-5 percent of the population adheres to various traditional religious beliefs. Non-evangelical Protestants account for 48 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 23 percent, and other Christian denominations, including evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals, 12 percent. Most of the Muslim population lives in the northeast and coastal regions, where religion and ethnicity (Somali and Mijikenda ethnic groups) are often linked. There are approximately 243,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the Dadaab refugee camps, most of whom are ethnic Somali Muslims. There are approximately 182,000 refugees in the Kakuma refugee camp, including Somalis, South Sudanese, and Ethiopians, who practice a variety of religions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there shall be no state religion and prohibits religious discrimination. It provides for freedom of religion and belief individually or in communities, including the freedom to manifest any religion through worship, practice, teaching, or observance. The constitution also states individuals shall not be compelled to act or engage in any act contrary to their belief or religion. These rights shall not be limited except by law, and then only to the extent that the limitation is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society.”
The constitution requires parliament to enact legislation recognizing a system of personal and family law adhered to by persons professing a particular religion. It specifically provides for qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law, including questions relating to personal status, marriage, divorce, or inheritance in cases in which “all the parties profess the Muslim religion.” The country’s secular High Court has jurisdiction over civil or criminal proceedings, including those in the qadi courts, and accepts appeals of any qadi court decision.
According to the law, new religious groups, institutions or places of worship, and faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Registrar of Societies, which reports to the Attorney General’s Office. Indigenous and traditional religious groups are not required to register, and many do not. In order to register, applicants must have valid national identification documents and pay a fee. Registered religious institutions and places of worship may apply for tax-exempt status, including exemption from paying duty on imported goods. The law also requires that organizations dedicated to advocacy, public benefit, or the promotion of charity or research register with the NGO Coordination Board.
All public schools have religious education classes taught by government-funded teachers. The national curriculum mandates religious classes, and students may not opt out. Some public schools offer religious education options, usually Christian or Islamic studies, but they are not required to offer both.
A 2014 law creating fees for multiple steps in the marriage process applies to all marriages, religious or secular. For example, all officiants are required to purchase an annual license, and all public marriage venues must be registered.
The Ministry of Information, Communications, and Technology must approve regional radio and television broadcast licenses, including for religious organizations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: There were reports by human rights groups that government agents, including members of counterterrorism entities, committed extrajudicial killings and disappearances of Muslims. On October 17, authorities in Malindi charged Christian televangelist Paul Makenzi and his wife with radicalizing children. An appeal by the Methodist Church regarding female students wearing hijabs as part of their school uniforms remained pending at year’s end. Muslim groups said the government linked the entire Muslim community with the terrorist group al-Shabaab and discouraged, through intimidation, Muslim community members from reporting police misconduct. Muslim community leaders also stated they faced difficulties obtaining official identification documents, which they needed for voting and access to government and financial services. Since religion and ethnicity are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Human rights groups and prominent Muslim leaders stated the government targeted Muslims for extrajudicial killing, torture and forced interrogation, arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, and denial of freedom of assembly and worship. A December 2016 report by the Mombasa-based NGO HAKI Africa entitled What do we tell the families? implicated police and counterterrorism entities in the extrajudicial killings or disappearances of 81 Muslims – primarily youth – in the coastal region over a five-year period in an antiterror campaign. The report detailed 31 extrajudicial killings, 22 deaths resulting from police use of excessive force, four deaths in police custody, and 24 enforced disappearances of individuals last seen in police custody. Imams in mosques or Islamic schools where youth had previously been arrested for alleged links with al-Shabaab reported they and their colleagues were frequently targeted for questioning, arbitrary arrests, and, in some cases, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. In October Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published a report on rights violations by security forces following the August 8 general election.
According to international reports, on November 2, Islamic preacher Khalid Mohamed Ali was acquitted of four terrorism charges by the Mombasa Principal Magistrate after the prosecution failed to prove its case against him. Authorities charged Ali as a member of al-Shabaab in 2015 after arresting him reportedly in possession of bomb making materials and a military hand grenade.
On October 17, authorities in the coastal city of Malindi in Kilifi County charged Christian televangelist Paul Makenzi and his wife with radicalizing children by teaching them to reject medical care, enticing them to drop out of school, and teaching them formal education is evil. According to multiple press reports, police raided Makenzi’s church and rescued children who had abandoned their homes and schools to follow Makenzi’s ministry. The prosecution was pending at year’s end.
On October 31, a court in Nairobi held the first hearing on the May 2016 suspension by the attorney general of the registration of the Atheists in Kenya Society (AIK). The suspension followed complaints by some religious leaders over AIK’s registration. They argued AIK’s beliefs were not consistent with the constitution, stating the constitution “recognizes Kenya as a country that believes in God.” A court ruling was expected in January 2018.
Muslim leaders engaged in discussions with the National Environment Management Authority about how to balance compliance with noise pollution regulations and the religious requirement for the morning call to prayer.
Religious leaders reported the government sought to circumvent a legal prohibition on taxing religious organizations by applying certain regulations to both religious and secular institutions, such as requiring licensing fees for marriage officiants and venues for large social meetings. Religious leaders stated the fee regulations were unevenly enforced, although not in a discriminatory manner.
An appeal by the Methodist Church was pending at year’s end regarding a September 2016 ruling by the Court of Appeal that Muslim female students be allowed to wear a hijab as part of their school uniforms. The ruling overturned a 2015 High Court verdict that declared hijabs were discriminatory because they created disparity among students. In arguments before the Supreme Court in September, the attorney general supported the right to wear the hijab in schools. Religious leaders reported public schools complied with the Court of Appeals’ ruling, while some private schools – particularly religious ones – continued to insist students remove the hijab. Schools applied the ruling to members of the Akorino religious group, which combines Christian and African styles of worship and requires adherents to cover their heads with turbans for men (referred to as headgear) and veils for women.
Muslim leaders continued to state that police often linked the whole Muslim community to al-Shabaab. The Independent Policing Oversight Authority, a civilian government body that investigates police misconduct, reported it received numerous complaints from predominantly Muslim communities, particularly in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, of intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and extortion by police. Some complainants stated police accused them of being members of al-Shabaab.
Muslim leaders reported Muslim citizens continued to face difficulties acquiring national identification from the National Registration Bureau and passports from the Immigration Department. Identification cards are required by law and are a prerequisite for voting and access to certain government and financial services. Failure to register is a crime. Muslim communities – including ethnic Somali communities, coastal Muslim communities, the Nubian community in Nairobi, and the Galjeel community around the Tana River – reported they were often subjected to more requirements than other groups in order to register. These requirements included presentation of birth certificates and citizenship documents of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers. They stated they were also required to make special appearances at specified police stations and endure long waiting periods. The government stated the additional scrutiny was necessary to deter illegal immigration and to fight terrorism, and that such scrutiny was not intended to discriminate against certain ethnic or religious groups. In July the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims complained publicly that the extended passport application process for Muslims prevented more than 100 individuals from obtaining travel documents in time to attend the Hajj.
The revised Religious Societies Rules had not been finalized at year’s end. In January 2016 the government withdrew proposed Religious Societies Rules in response to religious leaders’ objections after a meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and religious leaders. Religious leaders reported the attorney general proposed the rules to make leaders of religious organizations more accountable for financial dealings and radical or violent teachings. The government agreed religious leaders and the public would be consulted and allowed to provide input on a new draft. In the interim, new religious organizations were not able to register with the Registrar of Societies. According to the Alliance of Registered Churches & Ministries Founders, more than 4,400 religious group applications were pending as of year’s end.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were multiple reports of terrorist attacks in the northeast by al-Shabaab that targeted non-Muslims. According to media reports and religious advocacy organizations, in Lamu County on July 5 and 8, al-Shabaab terrorists targeted Christians in two separate attacks, killing three police officers and nine civilians, respectively.
According to Morning Star News, on May 31, suspected al-Shabaab terrorists invaded the town of Fafi in Garissa County and killed a Christian schoolteacher while she taught class, and abducted and killed a Christian and a Muslim teacher who tried to defend him.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported on July 7, al-Shabaab terrorists beheaded nine men in Jima and Pandanguo villages. Survivors reported non-Muslim men were targeted. Al-Shabaab remained the focus of government antiterror and police efforts throughout the northeast and coastal region
There were continued reports of threats of violence towards individuals based on religious attire and expressions of intolerance towards members of other faiths. Since religion and ethnicity are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being based exclusively on religious identity.
According to NGO sources, some Muslim community leaders and their families were threatened with violence or death, especially some individuals who had converted from Islam to Christianity, particularly those of Somali ethnic origin.
Interreligious NGOs and political leaders said tensions remained high between Muslim and Christian communities because of terrorist attacks in recent years. Non-Muslims reportedly harassed or treated persons of Somali origin, who were predominantly Muslim, with suspicion. Police officers often did not serve in their home regions, and therefore officers in some Muslim majority areas were largely non-Muslim. Religious leaders suggested, anecdotally, that some Muslim youths responded to reported police abuses by largely non-Muslim police forces by vandalizing properties of local Christians.
Religious leaders representing interfaith groups, including Anglican, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu communities, engaged with political parties and the IEBC leading up to the August and October presidential elections and in their aftermath. Representatives of a number of religious organizations participated in weekly Dialogue Reference Group meetings to promote community understanding and communication between the two major political parties. The group released press statements before the August 8 election and the October 26 repeat presidential election, calling on police to adhere to the rule of law and identifying specific actions the parties and the IEBC should take to ensure a peaceful and fair process. The polarized election process also revealed interfaith community rifts as divergent views emerged about how best to ensure greater inclusivity in government in order to prevent further crises.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, including senior police officials and local governments in the coastal region, especially emphasizing the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance and countering religiously based violent extremism.
The Ambassador and embassy staff met frequently with religious leaders and groups, including the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya, Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, Interfaith Council of Kenya, Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, Hindu Council of Kenya, National Muslim Leaders Forum, Alliance of Registered Churches & Ministries Founders, and National Council of Churches of Kenya. Topics of discussion included the importance of religious groups in countering religiously based extremism, seeking guidance from religious leaders on human rights issues, and working together to resolve the country’s electoral issues.
The Ambassador supported interfaith efforts to defuse political and ethnic tensions, including efforts to resolve disputes related to the preparations, conduct, and outcome of the national elections. Along with the Ambassador and other embassy officials, senior religious figures played a prominent role in efforts to arrange a national political dialogue following the presidential elections.
In August the Ambassador met with coastal interreligious leaders to discuss challenges of religious tolerance and cooperation in the country. He met periodically throughout the year with Muslim leaders in Nairobi. The Ambassador hosted iftars during Ramadan with Muslim, Christian, and Hindu leaders in Nairobi, and a senior embassy official hosted an all-women’s iftar that included representatives of all faiths. The embassy also assisted efforts to promote intra-Muslim dialogue on freedom and tolerance.
Embassy officials met individually with religious and civic leaders to urge them to continue to work across sectarian lines to reaffirm the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity. During the year’s election cycle, embassy officials regularly held meetings with religious leaders to encourage positive engagement by religious communities in political and reconciliation processes. The embassy encouraged faith communities and other societal figures to see religious diversity as a national strength rather than a source of strife and division.
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 allow religious groups to register as legal entities, creating obstacles for them in conducting their affairs. The parliament considered a draft law that would allow religious groups to register as legal entities so they would be able to conduct business and legal matters with the state and private entities. Parliament approved the law at a first reading on November 29 and expected to hold a final reading in early 2018. Religious groups said municipal authorities often did not provide them with equal rights and benefits, especially with regard to religious property and burial sites. The Pristina Municipality, citing the lack of a construction permit, continued to halt Serbian Orthodox monks from cleaning and making light repairs at the unfinished Church of Christ the Savior after vandals set fire to it in 2016. The Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) said former Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sport Kujtim Shala did not fulfill a pledge to issue a permit for the reconstruction of a chapel in the Holy Archangels Monastery in Prizren. His successor, Kujtim Gashi, pledged to address the issue according to the law. Decan/Decani Mayor Rasim Selmanaj refused to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision awarding 24 disputed hectares (59 acres) around the Visoki Decani Monastery to the SOC; the judicial system did not hold him to account. The Kosovo Islamic Community (BIK) reported social and employment discrimination against devout Muslims, particularly in the public sector. The government worked with the BIK to combat violent extremism and condemned vandalism of religious places.
Protesters attacked participants in several events hosting Serbian Orthodox pilgrims. In one incident, protesters threw stones and red paint at a bus carrying pilgrims to the SOC church in Gjakove/Djakovica, damaging one window, and spray-painted “murderer” on the church’s outer wall. On several occasions, unidentified vandals damaged SOC religious properties, despite government protection. An ethnic Serb damaged a mosque in Partesh/Partes Municipality; the SOC condemned the incident. Religious organizations met regularly to discuss property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues.
The Ambassador and U.S. embassy representatives met frequently with government officials to urge religious tolerance, passage of legislation to allow religious institutions to obtain legal status, and full implementation of the law protecting religious sites and to discuss efforts to resolve religious property disputes. The embassy advocated regularly and at all government levels for full implementation of judicial decisions in favor of minority religious communities. The embassy discouraged public officials, educational institutions, and other entities from engaging in discriminatory hiring practices against pious Muslims or other religious groups. Embassy officials regularly discussed religious tolerance with leaders of all major religious communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (July 2017 estimate). Census data from 2011 identifies 95.6 percent of the population as Muslim, 2.2 percent as Roman Catholic, and 1.4 percent as Serbian Orthodox. According to the SOC, a boycott of the census by ethnic Serbs resulted in a significant undercounting of SOC members. The SOC estimates there are 120,000 Serbian Orthodox believers in Kosovo, or 6.3 percent. Other religious communities, including the Tarikats and Protestants, also contest the census data. Protestant leaders and those without a religious affiliation state some members of their communities were classified incorrectly as Muslims by census takers. According to the census regulation, census takers did not inquire if citizens are Protestant. The Protestant community estimates 20,000 followers throughout the country, or 1.1 percent of the population. Census categories for “other,” “none,” or “no response” each constitute less than 1 percent.
The majority of the Muslim population belongs to the Hanafi Sunni school, although a number follow Sufi or Shia traditions and are part of the Tarikat school or the Bektashi order. Tarikat leaders state that Bektashis are one of nine Tarikat orders, but the Bektashis self-identify as a separate Islamic order.
Most SOC members reside in the six majority ethnic Serb municipalities in the south of the country or in four northern 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 and concentrated in Pristina and Gjakove/Djakovica. There are small numbers of Jews in Prizren and Pristina.
Religion and ethnicity are often linked. The majority of ethnic Albanians are Muslim, while some are Catholic and Protestant; almost all ethnic Serbs belong to the SOC. The majority of ethnic Ashkalis, Bosniaks, Egyptians, Goranis, Roma, and Turks are also Muslim, while most ethnic Montenegrins and some Roma belong to the SOC. Almost all ethnic Croats belong to the Catholic Church.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion for all residents, including the right to change, express, or not express religious belief; to practice or abstain from practicing religion; and to 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 charity institutions. It guarantees equal rights for all religious communities, stipulates the country is secular and neutral with regard to religion, declares the state shall ensure the protection and preservation of the country’s religious heritage, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution stipulates the law may limit freedom of expression to prevent provocation of violence and hostility on grounds of race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion. It allows courts to ban organizations or activities that encourage racial, national, ethnic, or religious hatred.
The constitution stipulates communities traditionally present in the country, including religious communities, shall have specific rights, including maintaining, developing, and preserving their religion; using their own language; establishing and managing their own private schools with financial assistance from the state; and having access to public media. Additional rights 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 the national assembly to ethnic minority communities. It also stipulates that the adoption, amendment, or repeal of all laws pertaining to religious freedom and cultural heritage require approval by a majority of the deputies representing minority communities, as well as by a majority of all the deputies.
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 does not provide a legal mechanism or specific guidance for religious groups to obtain legal status through registration or other means. The law does not require groups to register; however, without legal status, religious groups may not own property, open bank accounts, employ staff, access the courts, or perform other administrative tasks in their own name.
The law stipulates there is no official religion, but it lists five “traditional” religious communities: the BIK, SOC, Catholic Church, Hebrew (Jewish) community, and evangelical (Protestant) Church. The law provides extra protections and benefits to these five groups, such as reduced taxes and relief from water tariffs. According to the law, religious buildings belonging to these five communities, but not their administrative offices, are eligible for waivers of water utility fees. Religious institutions must apply with the public water provider to obtain the waiver.
The law provides safeguards for religious and cultural Special Protection Zones (SPZs), based on religious and cultural significance, by restricting nearby activities that could damage the surrounding historical, cultural, or natural environment. According to the law, the Implementation and Monitoring Council (IMC) arbitrates 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 that stems from the Comprehensive Plan for Kosovo and the SPZ law. It became operational in 2010. Its mandate includes safeguarding SOC heritage as included in the law on Velika Hoca/Hoce e Madhe village and the law on Prizren’s historic center. The IMC includes the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning (MESP) (as cochair); the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport (MCYS); the SOC; the Special Representative of the European Union (as cochair); and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Municipalities hold titles to all public cemeteries, including those for religious communities, and by law must maintain them.
According to the law, “public education institutions shall refrain from teaching religion or other activities that propagate a specific religion.”
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government took steps to counter radicalization and violent extremism related to religion. In February the Special Prosecution Office (SPRK) filed an indictment at the Basic Court of Pristina against Shefqet Krasniqi, the former head imam of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, for inciting terrorism. Parliament considered a government-recommended bill that would allow religious groups to register and acquire legal status so they would be able to conduct business. Parliament approved the law at a first reading on November 29; it expected to hold a second reading in early 2018. Some school officials applied a mandatory administrative instruction prohibiting students from wearing religious garb on school property. According to some religious communities, the government continued to respond to societal violence and vandalism against several religious minority communities. Religious minorities, particularly Protestants, however, said municipalities failed to act on requests to build churches and cemeteries and to assist them with zoning issues. Several long-standing disputes over ownership of religious property remained unresolved. The police unit for the Protection of Religious and Cultural Heritage continued to provide countrywide security to religious and cultural sites; however, theft and vandalism continued at some SOC sites. The government continued to provide some funding to Islamic education in BIK madrassahs; it did not fund religious education for any other religious group. Most ethnic Serbs attending Serbian-language public schools elected to enroll in Serbian Orthodox religious classes. The Serbian government funded salaries of all teachers in Serbian-language schools, including religious instructors, and the Kosovo government supplemented the salaries of some teachers and staff in these schools. The BIK reported incidents of employment discrimination against devout Muslims, especially in the education sector, citing the March dismissal of a public school teacher in Prizren who refused to remove her headscarf at work. Muslim community leaders reported discriminatory practices in government hiring; stating applicants for civil service jobs were sometimes rejected based on religious belief. The government continued its Interfaith Kosovo program, and officials and representatives from all of the principal religious communities attended the consecration of the Catholic St. Theresa Cathedral in Pristina.
On February 27, the SPRK filed an indictment at the Basic Court of Pristina against Shefqet Krasniqi, the former head imam of the Grand Mosque in Pristina. The SPRK charged Krasniqi with inciting terrorism and propagating national, racial, and religious intolerance. According to the statement issued by the SPRK, Krasniqi used his sermons and social media to urge individuals to travel to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq and to commit acts of terror. Krasniqi was originally arrested in 2014 and was dismissed from the Grand Mosque in 2015. Despite his dismissal from the Grand Mosque, Krasniqi continued to preach his messages on television, radio, and social media.
In December the Pristina Basic Court heard testimony in the trial of four imams, two charged with committing terrorist acts and two charged with “inciting national, racial, religious, or ethnic hatred.” Media observers expected a ruling in 2018.
Religious leaders continued to advocate adoption of a draft law that would provide a legal mechanism through which religious groups could gain legal status. This would allow them to conduct business and legal matters with the state and private entities. The Bektashi community also requested such a law state it is a community constituting part of the historical heritage and cultural and social life of the country. Although representatives of many religious groups said they had found alternative methods to conduct some of their business affairs, most reported difficulties in registering property and vehicles, opening bank accounts, and paying taxes on employee salaries. Some religious communities opened bank accounts that were not in their communities’ names, and the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church received a tax accounting number from the government in order to pay taxes as if it were a business. Some communities said it was difficult to undertake basic financial tasks and they were taxed as for-profit businesses.
Some school officials continued to apply a mandatory administrative instruction previously issued by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology that prohibits primary and secondary students from wearing religious garb on school property. According to the BIK and other Muslim community leaders, public schools occasionally sent home students who insisted on wearing headscarves while attending classes. Members of the BIK reported some public schools forced girls to remove headscarves in order to study in these schools. The Ombudsperson Institution did not receive any reports of a school barring students wearing religious garb, such as headscarves, from attending classes.
In December the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) paid back rent to the SOC for the ACA’s long-standing use of an SOC-owned building and parking lot in Pristina. This ended a six-year stalemate in which the ACA had refused to implement a prime ministerial decision mandating payment.
Religious groups again said government authorities did not take steps to ensure municipalities treated religious organizations equally on property issues, in particular with regard to churches and cemeteries. Although the law specifies that municipalities hold title to cemeteries and are responsible for their upkeep, in practice, some municipalities allowed religious groups to take de facto possession of public cemeteries.
Protestants said most municipalities had not granted land for cemeteries nor addressed most of their requests to build churches on land the community owned. The Gllogovc/Glogovac Municipality granted land to the Protestant community for a cemetery and a church, and the community was working with the municipality to implement the decision.
Pristina’s city council created the country’s first dedicated cemetery for members of the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church (KPEC) on April 24. The vote affirmed the council’s initial February 15 decision permitting the cemetery, which the MESP had sought to block on procedural grounds. The municipal assembly’s agreement includes the provision of trees and fencing on six hectares (15 acres) of public land adjacent to the city’s Jewish cemetery. Prior to this decision, the city’s several thousand KPEC members were buried in the municipal cemetery. Although a public entity, the BIK unofficially controlled the municipal cemetery. The BIK did not allow Christian crosses on graves, charged a fee to non-Muslims for burial services, and in some cases blocked Christian funeral rites. Pristina’s Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities continued to use separate public cemeteries.
Existing Jewish cemeteries were reportedly in disrepair. Members of the Jewish community said they lacked the resources to maintain their cemeteries and local authorities did not maintain these public sites as required by law. The Serbian Orthodox cemetery in Pristina was reportedly also in disrepair and not maintained by municipal authorities. The SOC cited member displacement from the area as a reason for its inability to care adequately for the cemetery. In both cases, the Municipality of Pristina denied these cemeteries were in disrepair.
Although the Municipal Assembly of Pristina agreed in November 2016 to issue a building permit to the Messiah Evangelical Church for a house of worship on land the church had purchased, the MESP had not issued a final permit by year’s end. Municipal authorities had denied a permit to the church for more than a decade.
By the end of the year, the government still had not created the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities, which was supposed to decide on the reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovica/Mitrovice North. BIK leadership continued to advocate for the reconstruction of the mosque, which Serb forces destroyed in 1999.
On July 25, the Pristina Municipal Assembly reaffirmed the validity of a 2012 permit for the construction of a “grand mosque” in the city. The decision overturned a 2015 stay on the permit following citizen complaints that the plans did not match the Dardania neighborhood’s existing aesthetic as required by local regulations. In the July meeting, the assembly described the 2015 decision as an invalid reading of local statute. The mosque would be the largest in the Balkans, according to plans.
In 2016 the Pristina Municipality approved a request by the Beit Israel nongovernmental organization (NGO) to provide assistance in constructing a synagogue. By October 20, however, the municipality had not provided the assistance, and Beit Israel criticized it for not following through on its approval.
A 2016 MCYS permit denial for the reconstruction of St. Nicholas Church in the Holy Archangels Monastery in Prizren remained in place, although MCYS Minister Kujtim Gashi pledged to address the issue according to the law. The monastery’s only church was destroyed in 1999, and the St. Nicholas Church was destroyed at the end of the 16th century. According to some IMC members, former MCYS Minister Kujtim Shala’s refusal to issue the permit for reconstruction prompted the SOC to stop participating in the IMC. Although the IMC’s charter calls for meetings every two months concerning safeguarding religious and cultural sites, the group did not formally meet during the year. Due to the lack of a permit, municipal inspectors ordered the SOC to halt construction on several occasions in 2016. The SOC stated the institute’s denial of the permit came after a legal deadline, after which the municipality should have allowed the construction to proceed automatically. Notwithstanding the application, the SOC had full discretion to manage its property based on Annex V of the Ahtisaari Plan for Kosovo, which covers religious and cultural heritage issues.
The Pristina Municipality, citing the lack of a construction permit, continued to prevent Serbian Orthodox monks from cleaning and making light repairs at the unfinished St. Saviors Church after vandals set fire to it in 2016. Pristina officials continued to question SOC ownership of the property and to claim a construction permit was necessary to undertake any work inside the church, including painting over graffiti.
Decan/Decani municipal officials continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision confirming the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that more than 24 hectares (59 acres) of land should be returned to the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery. The ruling legally ended the SOC’s dispute with a defunct state-owned enterprise from the Yugoslav era and the municipality of Decan/Decani. The Constitutional Court’s decision rejected the 2015 finding of the Supreme Court’s Appellate Panel that had sought to return jurisdiction of the case to the Basic Court in Decan/Decani. The Mayor of Decan/Decani, Rasim Selmanaj, continued throughout the year to refer to the decision as unacceptable. The judicial system did not hold him or other municipal officials to account for failing to implement the Constitutional Court decision. The Kosovo Cadastral Agency agreed to hear an appeal of the case, which legal experts said was illegal since the Constitutional Court had already issued a ruling. Italian Kosovo Force troops continued to provide fixed security at the monastery.
On June 30, the Kosovo Privatization Agency’s Board of Directors removed two properties belonging to Visoki Decani Monastery from its list of former state-owned enterprises slated for privatization. The decision was in keeping with the Constitutional Court’s ruling confirming the monastery’s ownership of the property.
In November the Appeals Court of Pristina upheld a lower court decision to dismiss the University of Pristina’s 2012 request to annul a 1991 land donation by the Serbian government to the SOC, which would have enabled demolition of Christ the Savior Church on the university’s campus. The court ruled only on procedure, not on the merits of the complaint. The university filed another lawsuit soon after the Appeals Court ruling.
An appeal by the Municipality of Pristina of the Basic Court’s 2015 ruling that the Catholic Church owned property adjacent to the Mother Teresa Cathedral remained pending at year’s end.
The SOC expressed concern that the MCYS did not consult with it on a draft law on cultural heritage that it said could annul the SOC’s legally guaranteed autonomy and preclude it from independently deciding upon the restoration and renovation of its buildings. At year’s end, the MCYS had not finished drafting the law. In August the MCYS had issued an administrative instruction that the SOC believed could compromise property rights protected in Annex V of the Ahtisaari Plan.
During the year, the MCYS completed development of the new cultural heritage strategy for 2017-27. The SOC said the strategy strengthened the statutory basis for cooperation between the government and the SOC.
The police unit for specialized protection of cultural and religious heritage sites continued to provide countrywide security to religious and cultural sites, providing 24-hour security at 24 sites around the country. Despite this protection, theft and vandalism continued at SOC sites, primarily outside the SPZ, where police did not provide special protection. The Ministry of Culture said it requested increased support from local governments on protection of religious heritage sites. According to the SOC and the Protestant community, however, local governments sometimes failed to implement laws or court verdicts protecting the rights of religious groups.
The central government continued to provide some funding to Islamic education in BIK madrassahs in Pristina, Prizren, and Gjilan/Gnjilane. Some members of other religious groups and secular representatives said they were concerned because the government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group.
The government worked with the BIK and civil society groups to combat violent extremism. As part of the government’s strategy, the BIK held sessions in its madrassahs and Islamic studies facilities that urged students not to fall prey to extremism.
Ethnic Serbs, Gorani, Croatians, and some Roma attended Serbian-language public schools that followed a curriculum designed by the Serbian government, based on municipal education laws and in coordination with the education ministry. Restrictions on religious education did not apply to these public schools. Most ethnic Serbs elected to enroll in Serbian Orthodox religious classes instead of civic education. The Serbian government funded the salaries of all teachers in Serbian-language schools, including religious instructors. The Kosovo government supplemented the salaries of some teachers and staff in Serbian-language schools.
The media reported pressure from the Turkish government to close schools associated with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, but the government refused to do so. Citing a lack of evidence, the government refused an October request by the Turkish government to extradite a Gulenist follower on charges related to the attempted 2016 coup in Turkey.
The Water Regulatory Agency continued to waive water utility fees for religious buildings belonging to the five “traditional” religious communities, in accordance with the law. As in past years, the agency failed to grant a waiver to the Protestant community, with no explanation.
The BIK reported incidents of employment discrimination against devout Muslims, particularly in the education sector.
On July 29, nationalist party Vetevendosje (VV) mayoral candidate Fisnik Korenica posted on Facebook that Israel would soon be “vanished from the earth” in response to incidents in Jerusalem. After receiving domestic and international criticism, including from President Hashim Thaci, Prime Ministerial Advisor Halil Matoshi, and VV President Visar Ymeri, he deleted the post and apologized.
Despite a decision by the president announced in November 2016 to prohibit the sale and distribution of anti-Semitic books, by the end of the year the government had taken no administrative action to implement the decision.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs cancelled the 2017 International Interfaith Conference in favor of a larger event in 2018 to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the country’s independence. The most recent Interfaith Conference was in 2016.
On September 5, high-level government officials and representatives from the principal religious communities attended the consecration of St. Theresa Catholic Cathedral in Pristina. President Thaci called the cathedral a symbol of religious tolerance.
In an example of government engagement with religious groups, in January the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) donated bedding for the Serbian Orthodox Church to distribute to local families in need. The KSF promised such support, regardless of the beneficiaries’ religion and ethnicity, would continue. In March the NGO Beit Israel, in partnership with the KSF and Public Enterprise Hortikultura, cleaned the graves at the Jewish cemetery in Pristina.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were instances of religious-based violence, interference with religious pilgrimages, hate speech, and vandalism. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
On January 6 (Orthodox Christmas Eve), approximately a dozen VV activists protested the visit of 50 displaced ethnic Serb pilgrims to the Serbian Orthodox church in Gjakove/Djakovica, alleging war criminals were among the group. Protesters threw stones and red paint at the visitors’ bus, damaging one window, and spray-painted “murderer” on the church’s outer wall. Police dispersed protesters and arrested seven for disobeying police orders and vandalism. The police later released all seven. The pilgrims took part in services and safely departed. Gjakove/Djakovica Mayor Mimoza Kusari-Lila issued a public statement calling for freedom of movement, the right to protest publicly, and for justice for victims of war crimes rather than violence. Minister of Communities and Returns Dalibor Jevtic likewise condemned the violence. VV representatives said the pilgrimage was a provocation and called for justice for the families of war victims.
In June at least 100 Muslims gathered near the site of the proposed mosque in Mitrovica/Mitrovice to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, including Mitrovica/Mitrovice South Mayor Agim Bahtiri. Some ethnic Serb representatives stated they saw the event as incitement by ethnic Albanians, while the BIK described it as nonpolitical. On August 4, approximately 20 mostly ethnic Albanian individuals gathered again at the mosque site for Friday prayers. Police denied a permit request prior to the gathering, citing the potential for clashes between ethnic Serb and ethnic Albanians. The gathering proceeded without a permit. Police monitored the gathering and reported no incidents. A similar gathering took place on August 18.
The media reported representatives of Shia communities in the country gathered on March 18 to separate the Shia Tarikats from the BIK. The latter objected to including the Tarikats as a sixth religious entity in the draft law on religious freedom, stating the BIK was the country’s only Islamic community representative. The Tarikats community said it would act based on its law, statute, and tradition of peaceful and authentic interpretation of Islam.
The SOC criticized the media for contributing to a climate of intolerance. The BIK said the media generally portrayed Muslims in a negative light.
The national police reported 44 incidents targeting religious sites of incidents involving property damage, theft, and graffiti during the year. These targeted the Islamic community (21), Serbian Orthodox Church (20), and Roman Catholic Church (3) sites.
On January 18, 15-20 members of “Demokracia Studentore” (Students’ Democracy, a group affiliated with VV), displayed pictures of alleged war crimes committed by the Serbian military next to the unfinished Christ the Savior Serbian Orthodox Church in Pristina. Police prevented them from hanging the photographs on the church’s wall. The protesters said the church would function as “a museum of war crimes committed by Serbian criminals.”
On February 14, a group of 20 ethnic Albanians chanted anti-Serb slogans and sprayed anti-Serb graffiti in an ethnic Serb area of Gjilan/Gnjilane, including on the Serbian Orthodox church and a Serbian-language school’s outer walls. Graffiti included “Kill Serbs,” a swastika, and “UCK – Kosovo Liberation Army,” which is associated with ethnic Albanian nationalism.
On April 11, Students’ Democracy denounced “clandestine works” it alleged were conducted at Christ the Savior Church on the University of Pristina grounds. The group said a “politicized Serb group with the support of some priests” was “inciting hatred against Albanians through the religious building of the Orthodox church.” The group threatened to protest unless the responsible institutions acted to prevent access to and construction in the church. A Pristina municipality spokesperson said the municipality had banned all construction activities because of inadequate documentation.
On April 15, police arrested an ethnic Serb for attacking a mosque in Llabjan village, Novo Brdo Municipality. Ethnic Serb leaders condemned the attack.
On August 1, mosque opponents sprayed graffiti attacking President Hashim Thaci, Mayor Shpend Ahmeti, and the Grand Mufti Naim Ternava on Pristina University’s compound. Slogans included “there will be no Turkish mosque in Dardania,” and “death to (Grand Mufti) Naim Ternava and Hashim the Turk.” On August 2, additional graffiti appeared on two other mosques in Pristina, both restored through Turkish funding. The BIK condemned the graffiti as hate speech and called on students to avoid violence or expressions of intolerance. Police arrested one suspect and investigated others.
Leaders of different religious groups reported generally good relations with one another and participated in numerous interfaith discussions on property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues. The OSCE continued to coordinate some activities among religious groups, including meetings with municipal mayors, to discuss issues such as access to graveyards and permits to build religious buildings.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives met frequently with government officials, including the president, prime minister, and speaker and other members of parliament to urge passage of legislation that would allow religious institutions to function without impediments and to support full implementation of the law on SPZs. Embassy officials urged increased dialogue between ethnic Albanian members of the government and civil society with SOC members. The embassy urged government officials to resolve the land dispute involving St. Nicolas Chapel in the Holy Archangels Monastery in Prizren and the government’s lack of rent payments owed to the SOC for the ACA’s use of the property in Pristina. The embassy advocated at all levels for the implementation of the 2016 Constitutional Court decision in favor of Visoki Decani Monastery, urging the government and the judiciary to hold local officials to account. The embassy discussed the property issues of other religious groups with government officials on numerous occasions and urged officials to settle the issues based on law.
Embassy officials regularly discussed religious tolerance with leaders of all major religious groups. The embassy hosted an interreligious iftar in Prizren, discussing the importance of countering violent extremism, resolving SOC property disputes, providing cemetery space for all communities, and raising the importance of religious freedom in the country, including the draft law on religious freedom. Embassy officials met with BIK imams to discuss efforts to promote tolerance and counter violent extremism and discussed draft laws on religious freedom and cultural heritage with religious leaders. Embassy officials met with religious leaders on multiple occasions to discuss their human rights and legal concerns. The embassy often posted messages on social media in support of religious freedom. Responding to violence by VV activists against Serbian Orthodox pilgrims in January, the Ambassador tweeted that violence had no place in protests.
A visiting State Department official met in March with leaders of KPEC, BIK, SOC, the Union of Kosovo Tarikats, and the bishop of the Kosovo Catholic Church, as well as with members of the Bektashi and Jewish communities, to discuss the challenges they faced and their concerns regarding religious freedom. The official also met with members of parliament regarding the draft religious freedom law and with the mayor of Gjakove/Djakovica and deputy mayor of Pristina on treatment of religious groups, including cemetery space and building permits for houses of worship. The official also met with Islamic studies faculty members and NGOs to discuss religious freedom in education and in the country.
On October 12, the Ambassador visited the newly consecrated St. Theresa Cathedral in Pristina. In his remarks, the Ambassador reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to protecting religious freedom in the country.
The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state but states freedom of belief is “absolute.” It declares the state will protect the freedom to practice one’s religion, provided such practice does not conflict with established customs, public policy, or morals. Defamation of the Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), publication or broadcast of material the government deems offensive to religious groups, and practices the government deems inconsistent with Islamic law are prohibited by law. The government continued to provide added security to all recognized non-Sunni religious groups, especially the Shia community during Ashura and other religious commemorations. All religious communities were required to observe religious events indoors. In several cases, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (MAIA) took direct action, such as fines and suspensions, against Sunni imams for giving sermons perceived as politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, or violating the national unity law. Additionally, the courts continued to rule in favor of citizens who advocated for freer public discussion and criticism of religion. In June the government took steps to block religious figures on the terrorist list issued by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain, who were engaged in a diplomatic conflict with Qatar, from entering the country. As reported in media interviews, most of the clerics were put on the list for allegedly promoting radicalization, sedition, and being part of terrorist organizations. It is unclear how many of these clerics planned to travel to Kuwait. In September the government prohibited three visiting Shia clerics from Saudi Arabia and Iraq from delivering sermons for Ashura when current and former members of parliament tweeted that the clerics were on record as previously having insulted the Prophet’s wives and companions. Based on these tweets, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) took action and ordered the clerics to leave the country. Minority religious groups, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Bahais, reported they could worship in private spaces without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing. One new Shia mosque, one new church facility, and one new accredited religious school opened during the year; however, minority religious groups reported an overall lack of facilities for worship, difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities, and lack of accredited religious schools. Christians, Bahai, and Bohras said they practiced a discreet form of self-censorship in order to avoid conflict with authorities. In many cases, church leaders, clerics, and prominent members of minority groups reported they resolved conflicts internally within their community rather than take legal action in the courts where decisions would be made according to sharia. Some Shia leaders continued to report discrimination in training of clergy and employment in the public sector. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths or unregistered churches were not able to get married locally.
Muslims faced societal pressure against conversion from Islam but were not barred from doing so. It remained illegal, however, for individuals of other faiths to convert Muslims within the country. Observers stated that hotels, stores, and businesses continued to acknowledge non-Islamic holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. News media continued to print information about the celebrations of religious holidays, including such material as the religious significance of Christmas.
In December the U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers hosted a lunch for representatives of minority religious groups to discuss religious freedom and the challenges religious minorities faced in the country. Senior embassy officials also attended religious events throughout the year, including the observation of Ashura, Christmas Mass, Baha’u’llah’s 200th anniversary, and the second anniversary of the Imam Al Sadeq Mosque bombing to promote religious tolerance. The embassy-organized events that promoted interfaith dialogue, created a platform for religious organizations to increase civic engagement, and supported exchange programs for government officials and others who work with government agencies to engage youth in embracing religious tolerance and countering radicalization.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 2.9 million (July 2017 estimate). The Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), a local government agency, reports there are 1.3 million citizens and 3.1 million noncitizens. The national census does not distinguish between Shia and Sunni Muslims. The PACI reported estimates indicate approximately 70 percent of citizens adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, while the remaining 30 percent is comprised of Shia Muslims (including Ahmadis and Ismailis, which the government counts as Shia). Community leaders have indicated there are 267 Christian citizens and a handful of Bahai citizens.
In June the PACI released statistics indicating that 63 percent of expatriates are Muslim, 27 percent Christian, and 10 percent from non-Abrahamic faiths. Sources in various expatriate communities further reported that approximately 5 percent of the expatriate Muslims are Shia, while Buddhists and Hindus account for half of the non-Abrahamic faith population. Informal estimates by members of different faiths indicate that there are approximately 25,000 Bohras, 10,000 Sikhs, and 400 Bahais.
While some areas have high concentrations of either Sunnis or Shia, there is relatively uniform distribution of the two groups throughout most of the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state and the freedom of belief to be “absolute.” It guarantees the state will protect the freedom to practice all religions, provided such practice is “in accordance with established customs, and does not conflict with public policy or morals.”
The constitution declares sharia to be a main source of legislation and all individuals are equal before the law regardless of religion. It declares the emir shall be Muslim (the emir and ruling family are Sunni) and the state shall safeguard the heritage of Islam. The Higher Advisory Committee on Completion of the Application of Islamic Sharia Provisions in the Emiri Diwan (office of the emir) makes recommendations to the emir on ways to bring laws into better conformity with sharia. The committee is an eight-member advisory body to the Emiri Diwan, led by the president of the committee. The Council of Ministers appoints members, who serve three-year terms. Traditionally, five of the members are religious scholars (jurisprudence and sharia experts) and two specialize in economics and law. The committee functions in an advisory role and has no authority to implement or enforce its recommendations.
The law states apostates lose certain legal rights, including the right to inherit property from Muslim relatives or spouses, but it does not specify any criminal penalty. The marriage of a Muslim man is annulled if he converts from Islam. A Muslim woman may have her marriage annulled if her Muslim husband converts to another religion.
The law prohibits the defamation of the Abrahamic religions, denigration of Islamic and Judeo-Christian religious figures, and prescribes a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for each offense.
A national unity law prohibits “stirring sectarian strife,” promoting the supremacy of one religious group, instigating acts of violence based on the supremacy of one group, or promoting hatred or contempt of any group. Acts of violence are punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 Kuwaiti dinars (KD) ($33,200 to $332,000). Repeated crimes carry double penalties. If a group or an organization violates the law, the fine may be as much as 200,000 KD ($665,000).
The law allows citizens to file criminal charges against anyone they believe has defamed any one of the three Abrahamic religions or harmed public morals.
The law criminalizes publishing and broadcasting content, including on social media, which the government deems offensive to religious “sects” or groups, providing for fines ranging from 10,000 to 200,000 KD ($33,200 to $665,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment. Noncitizens convicted under this law are also subject to deportation.
There is no promulgated process outlining what religious groups need to submit to register with the government. In practice, groups navigate the process themselves without much stated guidance provided by government offices. Although all religious groups must apply in writing for a license from their municipality to establish an official place of worship and to gain the full benefits from being a registered religion with the central government, it is not transparent what criteria must be met for a registration application to be approved. To obtain an official license, groups must first register with the MAIA. If the registration application is granted, further approvals are required by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MOSAL) and the MOI. Once these three ministries approve the registration application, the municipality must give final approval/license, which requires the community leaders to obtain written permission from all the immediate neighbors occupying the properties around the proposed place of worship. In practice, applicants often do not know about the status of their registration, or if they are rejected at any point. There is no recourse to appeal the decision as it is considered a “sovereign act” that cannot be challenged in court.
There are seven officially registered and licensed Christian churches: the National Evangelical (Protestant), Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic (Melkite), Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican. There are no officially recognized synagogues.
A religious group with a license to establish a place of worship may hire its own staff, sponsor visitors to the country, open bank accounts, and import texts needed for its congregation. Nonregistered religious groups do not have access to any of these facilities (although some registered religious groups agree to assist nonregistered groups in these matters). Additionally, nonregistered groups may not purchase property or sponsor workers and must rely on volunteers from their community for resources. They may, however, practice their religion in homes, hotel facilities, rented villas, and other private or commercial spaces as long as they do not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing.
The law prohibits practices the government deems to be inconsistent with Islamic law, including anything the government deems to be sorcery or black magic, which under the penal code constitutes “fraud and deception” and carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.
The law prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing.
The law prohibits eating, drinking, and smoking in public between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, including for non-Muslims, with a prescribed maximum penalty of up to 100 KD ($330) and/or one month’s imprisonment.
It is illegal to possess or import pork products and alcohol. Importing alcohol carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment; consuming alcohol may result in a fine of up to a 1,000 KD ($3,300).
The law requires Islamic religious instruction in public schools for all Muslim students and in private schools with one or more Muslim students enrolled, regardless of whether the student is a citizen or not. Non-Muslim students are not required to attend these classes, and there is no penalty for not doing so. The law prohibits organized religious education in public high schools for faiths other than Islam. All Islamic education courses use the Sunni interpretation of Islam.
The law prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims but allows male citizens of any religion to transmit citizenship to their descendants. The law forbids marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, but Muslim men may marry women of other Abrahamic faiths. The law requires that children of such marriages be raised in their father’s faith, and the father’s religion governs the settlement of marital disputes. The determining factor for the couple’s religious status in a court case is whether the marriage certificate is Sunni or Shia. A Shia notary must authenticate a Shia marriage certificate. Christian couples who are part of a registered church may marry and divorce as per their religious customs, and local authorities and courts recognize their religious documents. Members of nonregistered religions may have their foreign wedding certificates recognized, but may not get married in Kuwait.
If a religious group wishes to purchase land, a citizen must be the primary buyer, and the citizen must submit a request for approval to the local municipal council, which may allocate land at its discretion. Citizens may also rent or donate land to religious groups.
According to the constitution, sharia governs inheritance. Religious courts administer personal status law. Courts may follow Shia jurisprudence in matters of personal status and family law for Shia at the first instance and appellate levels. If the case proceeds beyond the appellate level to the Court of Cassation, the case is adjudicated via Sunni personal status law. An independent Shia waqf (trust) administers Shia religious endowments. Based on the religious community of the man, cases are assigned either to Sunni or Shia judges. In the case of a man married to a non-Muslim woman, the husband’s religious practice is followed. If a couple is from one of the registered churches, the settlement offered by the church may be taken into consideration; however, if the dispute is not settled Sunni sharia is applied. For members of other nonregistered religions Sunni sharia is applied in the courts in matters of personal status and family law.
An individual’s religion is not included on passports or national identity documents, with the exception of birth and marriage certificates, on which it is mandatory. On birth certificates issued to Muslims, there is no distinction between Sunni and Shia. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths are not able to list their religion on their birth certificate and a dash (-) is denoted in place of their religion. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths may not be married within the country and issued marriage certificates since local courts and authorities do not accept their religion.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government pursued several cases against Salafist cleric Othman Al-Khamees for allegedly insulting Shia doctrine during a television interview and in social media messages dating back to 2015. In January an appeals court overturned a criminal court ruling that had fined Al-Khamees 20,000 KD ($66,400). The Court of Cassation further upheld the acquittal in April. In the same month, the criminal court also acquitted Al-Khamees in another case in which he was accused of insulting Shia doctrine.
In March an appeals court upheld a lower court’s April 2016 acquittal of Sara al-Drees after she was sued by several private citizens for social media postings questioning the tenets of Islamic practice.
According to press reports, in November the court of misdemeanors convicted journalist and secular activist Abdul Aziz Abdullah al-Qenaei in a blasphemy case for “contempt of Islam” and “slander of sharia” and sentenced him to six-months imprisonment with labor and immediate effect. Al-Qenaei’s sentence was suspended pending the appeal process in the higher courts.
The MOI and the MAIA continued to caution imams to ensure their sermons were consistent with the general law on political speech and to avoid discussion of political issues in their sermons or at any other time while in the country. As per MAIA policy, the government continued to appoint all new Sunni imams and to monitor and provide the text of weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques. Sunni imams were able to add to the content of the sermon but needed to ensure their content adhered to the laws on political speech and avoided stoking sectarianism. The government vetted every Sunni imam to ensure compliance with the government’s view of moderate and tolerant religious preaching and sermons. The government also funded Sunni religious institutions, including mosques. In contrast, Shia clerics were usually not officially monitored and had the freedom to write their own sermons as long as they did not violate existing laws or instigate sectarianism. The Shia community also had the freedom to pick its own clerics without government oversight but generally did not receive funding from the state for religious institutions and mosques. Some Shia mosques, however, requested government assistance and received funds to pay for salaries and maintenance of their facilities.
In June the government took steps to block religious figures on a terrorist list, issued by four Arab states (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) involved in a diplomatic dispute with Qatar, from entering the country. Most of the religious figures that faced travel bans were Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Qatar. Sources in religious groups indicated in August that the MOI and the MAIA were devising a new mechanism to issue entry visas for religious leaders and clerics.
In September news outlets reported three visiting Shia clerics, one from Saudi Arabia and two from Iraq, were invited to speak at Ashura events but were prohibited from delivering sermons and ordered to leave the country by the MOI. The two Iraqi clerics were sponsored by local Shia mosques while the Saudi cleric did not need sponsorship to enter the country. Upon their arrival, current and former members of parliament tweeted that the clerics were on record for previously insulting the Prophet’s wives and companions. As the news circulated in social media, it came to the attention of the MOI, which took action.
The MAIA interviewed several imams whom sources said were considered to have made provocative statements harmful to national unity. Some imams were fined and received temporary suspensions while others were cleared of misconduct. In February the court of appeals overturned the Criminal Court’s September 2016 acquittal of Shia cleric Hussain al-Matooq on charges that he had spoken disparagingly about the government in one of his Friday sermons in 2015, and fined him 20,000 KD ($66,400).
Religious groups were required to obtain licenses from their respective municipalities for commemorations, and the municipal government retained the right to withdraw the license of any husseiniyas (a Shia hall for religious commemorations) not complying with the municipality’s rules.
Citing security concerns, the government kept in place the ban on outdoor religious observances, instituted following the bombing of the Imam al Sadeq Mosque in 2015, which killed 27 persons. All Ashura activities for the Shia community were required to be conducted inside closed structures rather than at outside locations. The government did not permit public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein or public marches in commemoration of Ashura. The government continued to station security forces outside some Sunni Mosques and all Shia and Christian religious venues during times of worship throughout the year as a deterrent to possible further attacks. The government also continued to provide security to Shia neighborhoods during Muharram and Ashura.
Authorities continued to prohibit churches from displaying exterior signs, such as a cross or the congregation’s name.
Some Shia leaders said discrimination continued to prevent Shia from obtaining training for clerical positions as well as leadership positions in public sector organizations, including the police force and the military/security apparatus.
The government continued to prevent the establishment of Shia religious training institutions. Shia who wanted religious training had to seek training and education abroad. The College of Islamic Law at Kuwait University, the country’s only institution to train imams, provided some Shia jurisprudence courses but did not permit Shia professors on its faculty.
The government continued to permit registered Christian churches to import religious materials for use by their congregations under the condition that none of the content insulted Islam. Congregations who needed material in languages other than Arabic or English reported no problems importing their materials on their own. Members of other religious groups also stated they did not face any major issues importing religious materials for their congregations as long as they were doing so privately and did not try to sell the materials in public stores; no public shops could legally import, display, or sell non-Islamic religious literature.
The MOI provided security and protection for licensed places of worship, the MOSAL issued visas for clergy and other staff, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the municipality of Kuwait handled building permits and land issues. The government said it received no applications for construction of new churches from religious groups during the year. The Armenian Orthodox church successfully bought a new property and started operating from the new church during the year. The Greek Orthodox Church successfully negotiated the purchase of 38 percent ownership of its property, but church leadership still feared expulsion from the property. They highlighted that if the current owner died, the inheritors stood to make more money by redeveloping the property than by continuing to rent it to the church.
Some religious groups without a licensed place of worship stated they could conduct worship services without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing. The government continued to allow such groups to operate in rented villas, private homes, or the facilities of registered churches. Citing security concerns, authorities stated they would take action against unlicensed mosques. The government tasked the MAIA, the MOI, the municipality of Kuwait, and other agencies with finding solutions to end the use of illegal mosques. During the year, the government raided makeshift mosques in remote areas and shut them down for operating without proper licenses.
Shia Muslims reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities, caused by the government’s delay in approving repairs to existing mosques or constructing new ones. They said the government had granted licenses and approved the construction of fewer than 10 new Shia mosques since 2001. According to the government, there were 51 Shia mosques, with one new Shia mosque having opened during the year. There were also 20-30 husseiniyas registered with MOI and thousands of smaller Shia gatherings that took place in private homes. Similar to Shia mosques, the MAIA did not monitor the husseiniyas and the private gatherings.
The Ministry of Education continued to ban the use as instructional material of any fiction or nonfiction books and textbooks referring to the Holocaust or Israel. The ministry permitted public schools to teach and celebrate only Islamic holidays. The government did not interfere with informal religious instruction inside private homes and on church compounds.
The National Evangelical Church (NEC) requested accreditation for its school, which would enable students to receive religious education while fulfilling Kuwaiti requirements, and allow school graduates to move on to higher education. The NEC had not received a response to their request from the authorities by year’s end. The Bohra community opened an accredited school for its community. Other groups conducted religious studies in their places of worship, but have either not requested accreditation or did not receive a response to their request.
Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays; no legislation to limit public expression was initiated during the year.
While Shia community members expressed gratitude for the added security provided by authorities for their events, they stated that an effort by law enforcement to capture fugitive members of the Abdali Cell, a group that the government had charged with spying for Iran and Lebanese Hizballah to carry out aggression against the country, put undue hardship on the Shia community. These included random security checks and intrusions into their homes by law enforcement authorities. In August authorities arrested 12 of the 14 members of the cell who had fled; two remained at large. Shia sources stated the authorities’ actions were construed by the Shia community as placing blame on the entire community for the acts of a few criminals.
Even though the Shia make up an estimated 30 percent of the population, they remained underrepresented in all segments of government: six of 50 members in parliament, one of 16 cabinet members, one of six Amiri Diwan advisors, and disproportionately lower numbers of senior officers in the military and police force. Shia community leaders repeatedly complained about a glass ceiling in promotions and difficulties in getting jobs, as well as the lack of new places to worship, which they said created an oppressive environment for their community.
According to Shia leaders, the lack of Shia imams continued to limit their ability to staff Shia courts, causing a backlog of personal status and family cases. To address the backlog and shortage of staff, an ad hoc council created by the government under the regular marital issues court to apply Shia jurisprudence continued to function. The establishment of a Shia Court of Cassation, approved in 2003, remained delayed, according to Shia leaders, because appropriate training for Shia to staff it was unavailable.
Although the law does not prohibit apostasy, the government continued its policy of not issuing new official documents for recording a change in religion. When asked if there were any cases of conversion, religious leaders from some non-Muslim religious groups said they had not heard of any case of a Muslim desiring to change religion, while others said they would not convert a Muslim in Kuwait. All leaders, regardless of faith, stated they were free to practice their religion and that their sole mission was to take care of their existing community. A few leaders refused to speak about conversion.
The government continued to impose quotas on the number of clergy and staff of licensed religious groups entering the country but the government granted additional slots upon request. The government continued to require foreign leaders of unregistered religious groups to enter the country as nonreligious workers. They then had to minister to their congregations outside the regular hours of their nonreligious employment.
Members of non-Abrahamic faiths stated that they remained free to practice their religion in private, but faced harassment and potential prosecution if they practiced their faith in public. Expatriates of non-Abrahamic religions could not have public places of worship nor marry in Kuwait, and they remained subject to sharia if family matters were taken to court. Most members of these communities indicated they were able to practice their faith within their communities, but practiced a discreet form of self-censorship that allowed them to avoid conflict with authorities. In many cases, members of these religious groups stated they resolved conflict internally within their community rather than take legal action in the courts where they would be subject to sharia.
In an attempt to keep a low profile, minority religious communities stated they did not request permission for public celebrations from authorities (which would be rejected if applied for) and refrained from discussing issues such as proselytizing (which is part of their religious doctrine but considered illegal by the law). They said they were selective in the religious materials they imported and even more selective of the persons who were given access to them. They said they did not allow these materials to be circulated outside their congregations. Many of these groups did not advertise religious events or gatherings publicly to avoid unwanted attention to their organizations both from the public and government authorities. Representatives of registered churches stated the government was generally tolerant and respectful of their faith.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There continued to be societal pressure against conversion from Islam, according to minority religious leaders and citizens. Some foreign residents as well as citizens who converted to Christianity reported their families harassed them for their conversion.
Observers reported hotels, stores, and other businesses continued to acknowledge non-Muslim holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. For example, during the Christmas season, Christmas trees and lights appeared in stores, malls, and homes, and Christmas music played in public places, including songs with Christian lyrics. The news media continued to print information about religious holiday celebrations, including material on the religious significance of Christmas.
The NEC also continued to allow 85 other (unregistered) congregations to use its facilities.
An Anti-Defamation League global survey of anti-Semitism sentiment ranked Kuwait among the top 10 most anti-Semitic countries, with 82 percent of respondents endorsing negative stereotypes concerning Jews.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with leaders and representatives of minority religious groups and with NGOs involved with religious issues to discuss the challenges religious minorities faced and their interaction with the government, such as difficulties obtaining places of worship.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers hosted an event for leaders of various registered churches and provided a venue for discussion of religious tolerance. The Ambassador spoke with each leader to find out how his or her congregation was affected by government policy, and how the situation compared to previous years. Additionally, the embassy directly heard the needs of the various groups, which continued to include more space for worship, lack of transparency to register new churches, and permission to get religious school accreditation. In general, attendees of registered churches praised the government and people of the country as being tolerant and respectful of their faith
Embassy officials worked closely with minority religious groups and supported religious events that raised awareness of religious tolerance and diversity. Officials attended the observation of Ashura, Christmas Mass, the 200th anniversary of Baha’u’llah’s birth, and the second anniversary of the Imam Al-Sadeq Mosque bombing to highlight the importance of religious tolerance.
The embassy worked throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance through a series of visitors’ programs. One program explored government and nongovernment efforts to promote the culture of tolerance, and the role of interfaith dialogue in promoting tolerance and peace. A second highlighted work of a local NGO in promoting freedom of religion and the role of religious organizations in advancing civil rights. A third program discussed U.S. government and international initiatives to promote civic engagement to protect human rights and international religious freedom.
The embassy sponsored speakers who also took part in a Ministry of the Interior’s regional conference on protecting children from social media threats, which included embassy-sponsored talks on religious tolerance. Newspaper interviews and social media coverage of embassy-sponsored speakers focused on the importance of interfaith dialogue in countering radicalization and extremism.
Embassy officers participated in an interview with Kuwait Radio that discussed religious freedom in the United States, religious tolerance, and the integration of the Muslim community in the larger U.S. society.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred. It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered “extremist” and, similar to the past year, arrested hundreds of individuals they accused of participating in “extremist” incidents. Authorities pursued a criminal case against one of the police officers accused of attacking participants in a 2015 Jehovah’s Witnesses gathering. A parliamentary committee approved draft amendments to the 2009 religion law that would impose additional restrictions on religious freedom, such as an expansive ban on proselytizing and an increased number of members required to register as a religious organization. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties in registering as official religious groups, and there were cases of government interference with Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings. Some unregistered minority religious groups said they were able to hold religious services without government interference. A Bishkek city court overturned the four-year prison term of a journalist convicted of “inciting interreligious strife” for authoring a book that examined the pre-Islamic traditions of the Kyrgyz people, and instead released him with a two-year suspended sentence. The State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA) announced a policy to divide public cemeteries by religion. This came in response to reports that non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries, including one case in 2016 in which villagers and imams twice exhumed the body of a deceased Protestant woman without any intervention by local authorities. Although a district court convicted four of the suspects involved in the exhumations and gave them suspended sentences, authorities failed to prosecute others.
The Kara-Su District Court sentenced 10 individuals convicted of the 2015 murder and attempted murder of Ahmadi Muslims in Osh Oblast. A Bishkek court sentenced a second suspect in the attempted killing of the director of a religious center in 2015 to 18 years’ imprisonment. Unknown individuals vandalized a Christian church in Tokmak. The government granted the Islamic University a state license, making it the first Islamic educational institute in the country to receive licensing.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials to discuss approaches to countering violent extremism, restrictions on minority religious groups, and proposed revisions to the religion law. The embassy regularly met with religious leaders, including the deputy to the grand mufti, and with representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups. Embassy outreach programs, especially for local youth, emphasized religious tolerance and dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (July 2017 estimate). According to government estimates, approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. The government estimates Shia make up less than 1 percent of the Muslim population. According to an international organization, there is also a small Ahmadiyya Muslim Community not reflected in government figures and estimated at 1,000 individuals. According to government estimates, approximately 7 percent of the population is Christian, including an estimated 3 percent Russian Orthodox. Jews, Buddhists, Bahais, and unaffiliated groups together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population.
According to the National Statistics Committee, ethnic Kyrgyz make up approximately 73 percent of the population, while ethnic Uzbeks make up an estimated 15 percent. Ethnic Uzbeks are most numerous in the south, constituting approximately half the population of the southern city of Osh, for example. Both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks are primarily Muslim, making Islam the main religion in both urban and rural areas. Ethnic Russians are primarily adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church or one of several Protestant denominations. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church and other non-Muslim religious groups live mainly in major cities.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, the right to practice or not practice a religion, individually or jointly with other persons, and the right to refuse to express one’s religious views. It bans actions inciting religious hatred.
The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state. It prohibits the establishment of religiously based political parties and the pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The constitution prohibits the establishment of any religion as a state or mandatory religion.
The law states all religions and religious groups are equal. It prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another (proselytism)” and “illegal missionary activity,” defined as missionary activity of groups not registered with the SCRA. The law also prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups, unless a parent grants written consent.
The law requires all religious groups, and religiously affiliated schools, to register with the SCRA, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion. The law prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of the organizing meeting, and a list of founding members. Each congregation of a religious group must register separately and must have at least 200 resident founding citizens. Foreign religious organizations are required to renew their registrations with the SCRA annually.
The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. The SCRA may also deny or postpone the certification of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of the group are not religious in character. Denied applicants may reapply at any time or may appeal to the courts. The law prohibits unregistered religious groups from actions such as renting space and holding religious services. Violations may result in an administrative fine of 500 soms ($7).
After the SCRA has approved a group’s registration as a religious entity, the group must register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to obtain status as a legal entity so it may own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities. The organization must submit an application to the MOJ that includes a group charter with an administrative structure and a list of board and founding members. If a religious group engages in a commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes. By law, religious groups are designated as nonprofit organizations exempt from taxes on their religious activities.
The law gives the SCRA authority to ban a religious group as long as the SCRA delivers written notice to the group stating the group does not comply with the law. The group may appeal the decision in the courts.
The constitution prohibits religious groups from “involvement in organizational activities aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.” A conviction for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of three to eight years, while a conviction for creating an organization aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a term of five to 10 years. Conviction for murder committed on the grounds of religious hatred is punishable by life imprisonment.
The law mandates separate prison facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism, and it strips the citizenship of any Kyrgyz national convicted of those offenses. The law defines “extremist activity” as including the violent overthrow of the constitutional order; undermining the security of the country; violence or inciting violence on racial, national, or religious grounds; propagating the symbols or paraphernalia of an extremist organization; carrying out mass riots or vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity; and hate speech or hostility toward any social group.
According to the law, only individuals representing registered religious organizations may conduct missionary activity. If a foreign missionary represents an organization approved by the SCRA, the individual foreign missionary must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Visas are valid for up to one year, and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country. All religious foreign entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must reregister annually. Representatives of religious groups acting inconsistently with the law may be fined or deported. Violations of the law may result in fines in the amount of 1,000 soms ($14), and deportation in the case of foreign missionaries.
The law provides for the right of religious groups to produce, import, export, and distribute religious literature and materials in accordance with established procedures, which could include examination by state experts. The law does not require government examination of religious materials (such as literature and other printed or audio or video materials), and it does not define the criteria for religious experts. The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations or in visits to individual households, schools, and other institutions. The law specifies fines based on the nature of the violations.
The law allows public secular schools an option to offer religion courses that discuss the history and character of religions, as long as the subject of such teaching is not religious doctrine and does not promote any particular religion. Private religious schools need to register with SCRA to operate as such.
According to the law, religion is grounds for conscientious objection to and exemption from military service. Conscientious objectors must pay a fee of 18,000 soms ($260) to opt out of military service. Draft-eligible males must pay the fee before turning 27 years of age. Failure to pay by the age limit requires the person to perform 240 hours of community service or pay a fine of up to 20,000 soms ($290). Draft-eligible men who evade military service and do not fall under an exemption are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years. There is no option to perform alternative service; community service is imposed only in cases of a conscientious objector failing to pay the 18,000 soms ($260) fee.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered “extremist” and arrested hundreds of individuals they accused of participating in “extremist” incidents. Authorities pursued a criminal case against one of the police officers accused of attacking participants at a 2015 Jehovah’s Witnesses gathering. A parliamentary committee approved draft amendments to the 2009 religion law that would impose additional restrictions on religious freedom, such as an expansive ban on proselytizing and an increased number of members required to register as a religious organization. Minority religious groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, continued to face difficulties in registering, and there were cases of government interference in Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings. Some unregistered groups said they continued to be able to hold religious services without government interference. The SCRA announced a policy to divide public cemeteries by religion. This came in response to reports that non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries, including one case in 2016 in which villagers and imams twice exhumed the body of a deceased Protestant woman without any intervention by local authorities. In September a Bishkek city court overturned the four-year prison term of journalist Zulpukar Sapanov and instead released him with a two-year suspended sentence. Several weeks earlier Sapanov had been convicted on charges of inciting interreligious conflict for authoring a book that examined the pre-Islamic beliefs of the Kyrgyz people. Twice during the year, President Almazbek Atambaev expressed concern about foreign cultures, including from the Middle East, influencing the practice of Islam in the country.
The government continued to maintain bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be “extremist,” including al-Qaida, the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, Kurdish Peoples’ Congress, Organization for the Release of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), Union of Islamic Jihad, Islamic Party of Turkistan, Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah, At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, and the Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to A.A. Tihomirov aka Said Buryatsky. On June 15, a Bishkek district court ruled Yakyn Incar, a splinter group of Tablighi Jamaat, to be an extremist organization.
The media reported that on October 20, Authorities arrested the leader of Yakyn Incar for possessing extremist materials. A district court ordered his detention for two months, and a criminal case was pending at year’s end.
Law enforcement authorities stated they had recorded 597 “extremist” incidents for the year. They opened criminal cases in 229 instances. Extremist incidents included membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, possession of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization. In comparison, the authorities recorded 441 extremist incidents in 2016, for which they opened 180 criminal cases. According to September 8 press reports, the vice-chairman of the Kyrgyz State Penitentiary Service stated at a public forum there were more than 185 individuals convicted of extremism and terrorism housed in separate prisons in order to prevent the spread of extremist religious ideology among the prison population. There were no reports of citizens being stripped of citizenship for terrorism or extremism. According to NGOs, in the course of conducting counterterrorism measures against extremists, authorities arrested dozens of citizens for possession of vaguely defined “extremist” materials. In addition, ethnic Uzbeks claimed to have been arrested and imprisoned on extremism-related charges, usually tied to possession of banned literature or support of banned organizations, based on false testimony or planted evidence.
The government did not enforce the provision of the law that prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups.
On June 1, the Prosecutor General’s Office requested the Osh regional prosecutor to consider filing criminal charges concerning the 2015 police assault on Jehovah’s Witnesses at a gathering in Osh. In July 2016, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case against one of the police officers accused of participating in the attack, after the Osh city prosecutor declined to initiate criminal proceedings against the officer.
On May 30, the Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of two Jehovah’s Witnesses, a mother and daughter, on charges of defrauding local residents while engaged in religious activities. A new trial had been scheduled for April 2016, after the Supreme Court granted an appeal filed by the Osh city prosecutor contesting the acquittal of the defendants, but lawyers for the women successfully argued the three-year statute of limitations had passed. The Osh city prosecutor then appealed the April 2016 ruling. According to the NGO Forum 18, in 2014 the original trial court, in acquitting the two women, stated they had been targeted by the Osh Department of Internal Affairs and Osh City Prosecutor’s office solely because of their religion.
On January 22, authorities raided a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting in Kemin. After the meeting officials summoned three elders to court and charged them with administrative violations. On May 19, a court dismissed the case against the elders, but a representative from the SCRA reportedly told local Jehovah’s Witnesses that they would monitor all Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings in the country. On January 24, in Osh, SCRA officials accompanied by local police entered a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting and charged one of the elders with engaging in religious activity without local registration.
On May 29, the Parliamentary Committee on Social Issues, Education, Science, Culture, and Health approved draft amendments to the 2009 religion law. The amendments, which remain pending in parliament, included an expansive ban on proselytizing (particularly door-to-door proselytism), stricter censorship of religious literature, an increased number of members required to register as a religious organization (from 200 to 500 members), and a requirement to notify the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad. If adopted, the amendments would also grant the SCRA additional oversight and enforcement powers over religious organizations. According to Forum 18, the only religious community that submitted comments on the bill was the Spiritual Administration of Muslims, known as the “muftiate,” which supported the proposed restrictions; one committee member acknowledged that other religious communities were likely afraid to comment publicly on the bill. In meetings with government officials, Jehovah’s Witnesses noted concerns with the draft amendments to the religion law, stating that elements of the law would have a negative impact on their ability to share their faith with others, register local congregations, and import religious literature.
On January 27, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee regarding the SCRA’s refusal to register communities in Osh, Naryn, Jalal-abad and Batken. In February 2016, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to overturn the SCRA’s continuing refusal to register these communities. Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the refusal to register them was in contravention to a 2014 Supreme Court Constitutional Chamber decision declaring unconstitutional the section of the religion law regarding registration requirements. Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders reported authorities continued to deny registration to groups if they did not have 200 resident founding citizens in each region. Church leaders asserted the SCRA’s policy continued to create difficulties for them because without the required minimum number of members, groups could not register, and without registration, they could not meet and recruit members to fulfill the minimum registration requirement. The lawyer representing the Church stated the SCRA had refused the application, “by arguing that although Article 10(2) of the Religion Law had been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Chamber, Parliament had not yet amended the Law.”
Although the government continued not to list the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as a banned organization, a representative of the group confirmed it still had not obtained registration. The community initially registered in 2002, but the SCRA has declined to approve its reregistration since 2012.
Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete. Some unregistered groups continued to report they were able to hold regular religious services without government interference, especially foreign religious organizations that had been registered in the past and had an annual application for reregistration pending. According to Forum 18, Protestant pastors stated there were many new churches in the country that would like to register, but did not have the 200 founders required for registration, or were afraid to give the names of their members to the police. The SCRA reported it registered one Jehovah’s Witnesses, four Catholic, and four Protestant organizations during the year.
According to Forum 18, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. On March 13, the SCRA announced a policy to divide the country’s cemeteries into separate sectors by religion. On January 12 and February 27, the Ala-Buka district court sentenced four persons involved in the October 2016 exhumations of a Protestant woman from two public cemeteries, while imams, local officials, police officers, and National Security Committee officers reportedly looked on but did not interfere. The defendants received three-year suspended sentences. The authorities reportedly did not charge the imams who had incited the exhumations, the officials who had not prevented the exhumations, or members of the mobs that carried out the exhumations. Regional officials reportedly stated they then buried the woman in a third, undisclosed location.
On September 28-29, President Atambaev hosted an international conference on “Islam in a Modern Secular State.” At the conference, international religious experts and academics discussed ways of countering religious radicalization to violence and effective government practices in the religious sphere. At the end of the event, participants adopted the “Bishkek Declaration,” which expressed a desire to “find a balance between observance of human rights and freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religion, and ensuring security.”
On November 29-30, the SCRA held a forum on interfaith dialogue that included Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Bahai participants, as well as civil society representatives. Topics discussed included “Islam and tolerance,” “the role of tolerance in a multifaith society,” and “questions in multifaith relations.”
The government did not provide religious materials to prisoners charged with affiliation with banned religious groups, according to NGOs, but the government continued to allow them to practice their religion and conduct prayers in prison.
The SCRA reported that, while the law did not mandate expert review of religious literature, its practice was to examine imported religious materials submitted for review by religious organizations. There continued to be no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating the experts performing the examination of religious literature that groups wished to distribute within their places of worship. According to religious studies academics, the SCRA continued to choose its own employees or religious scholars with whom the agency contracted to serve as the experts. Attorneys for religious groups continued to say the experts chosen by the SCRA were biased in favor of prosecutors and were not formal experts under the criminal procedure code. Under current law the SCRA is allowed, but not required, to review religious materials. According to the SCRA, its practice is to examine imported religious materials provided by religious organizations.
On September 19, an attorney for the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated he would file a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee contesting a February 6 Supreme Court ruling which upheld a lower court decision to bar the importation of the November 2015 issue of the Jehovah’s Witnesses publication Awake!. In March 2016, the Bishkek Interdistrict Court rejected a suit filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses after the SCRA denied permission to import the publication. The lower court stated it was not competent to overrule the evaluation conducted by the SCRA.
On September 29, a Bishkek city court overturned the four-year prison term of journalist Zulpukar Sapanov and instead released him with a two-year suspended sentence. On September 12, a Bishkek district court convicted Sapanov of “inciting interreligious conflict” and sentenced him to four years’ imprisonment for statements in his book Kydyr Sanjyyrasi (Kydr’s Namesake), which examined the pre-Islamic beliefs of the Kyrgyz people and questioned the role of clerics in imposing Islam. Local newspapers published excerpts of his book, which prompted religious leaders to call on the government to investigate Sapanov. The ombudsman, who called the original verdict “a return to the Inquisition,” requested the court to reconsider its decision and attended the appellate trial.
On July 21, at the opening of a center for nomadic civilization near Lake Issyk-Kul, President Atambaev called for the separation of foreign culture from religion. With respect to the increasing number of Kyrgyz women wearing hijabs, the president noted traditionally Kyrgyz women never had the custom of covering their faces, as practiced in other Islamic countries. On August 29, during a visit to Yntymak, President Atambaev urged his audience not to confuse Islam and foreign culture, including the wearing of long beards.
According to representatives of religious groups, refusal either to serve or to pay a fee to opt out of military service continued to subject a conscientious objector to hardship, because military service continued to be a prerequisite for employment in the government and with many private employers.
The muftiate, the highest Islamic administrative body in the country, continued to oversee all Islamic entities, including institutes, madrassahs, and mosques. Although an independent entity per the constitution, NGOs stated the government continued to exert influence over the office, including the mufti selection process.
The SCRA and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture held a teacher-training course in August as part of an expanded 56-school pilot program to teach a secular course on the “History of Religious Culture” for ninth grade students in secondary schools in six regions across the country. In June 2016, the SCRA, the muftiate, and the ministry established a working group to implement a concept plan for religious education reform in line with state educational standards.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to an NGO, on May 19, the Kara-Su District Court sentenced 10 men to between 14 years and life imprisonment for their roles in the September 2015 attempted killing of an Ahmadi Muslim and the December 2015 killing of another Ahmadi Muslim in Kashgar Kyshtak village, Osh Oblast. The men stated they acted on the instructions of a radical former resident of Kashgar Kyshtak who had left the country but called via social media for the killing of Ahmadis.
On June 22, a Bishkek court sentenced Yryskul Beishenaliyev to 18 years’ imprisonment for attempted murder in connection with the November 2015 attempted killing of Kadyr Malikov, a theologian and Director of the Religion, Law, and Politics Analytical Center, a Bishkek think tank and research center. Turkey extradited Beishenaliyev on March 3. In June 2016, a Bishkek court sentenced Beishenaliyev’s suspected accomplice, Tilek Uulu, to life in prison for attempted murder, a sentence that later was reduced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
According to an August 2 report from the NGO World Watch Monitor, unknown persons vandalized a church in the northern city of Tokmak. Sources said “local Islamic radicals” broke into the church building, damaged furniture, and wrote in Russian, “We will kill you,” “Don’t teach our children,” and “Allah” across walls and a window of the church. There were no arrests in connection with the incident. According to civil society activists, incidents of harassment of minority religious groups typically occurred in small towns and villages with majority Kyrgyz populations.
In July the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture licensed the Hazreti Umar Islamic University as a degree-granting institution, making it the first Islamic educational institute in the country to receive state licensing. The university, an affiliate of the muftiate, remained responsible for overseeing the work of all Islamic schools, including madrassahs and secondary schools. The licensing allowed the university to grant state diplomas, expanding occupational and educational opportunities for its graduates.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met regularly with government officials, including the SCRA chief and deputy, the grand mufti, and the deputy to the grand mufti. They met to discuss proposed revisions to the religion law, registration of independent religious groups, efforts to promote religious tolerance through exchange visits, and programs to improve the qualifications of religious teachers and the quality of education at religious institutions.
Embassy officers also continued to engage with representatives of the muftiate, leaders of minority religions, NGOs, and civil society representatives to discuss the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities.
The embassy sponsored a group of prominent religious leaders on a U.S. government program to exchange views on the role of religion in U.S. and Kyrgyz societies. In September the embassy hosted a visiting Muslim cleric from the United States to participate in an international conference sponsored by the Kyrgyz president on the role of Islam in a secular society state. The embassy continued its sponsorship of English language classes and vocational training at local madrassas to enable students in remote areas to obtain better access to information on religious tolerance.
The constitution provides citizens with “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion.” The government officially recognizes four religious umbrella groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith – and generally requires other religious groups to affiliate with one of these four groups to operate legally. A decree issued in 2016 with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice extends registration requirements to Buddhist groups, which had previously enjoyed a de facto exemption, and defines the government’s role as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. The government finalized the implementation instructions with all concerned ministries early in the year and continued to disseminate them to all provinces and in Vientiane. Under the decree, any religious groups must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) as associated with one of the four religious groups already recognized by the government. According to religious leaders, freedom of religion tended to decline in the rural areas. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said government restrictions on registered or unregistered minority religious groups, particularly Protestant groups, remained disproportionately limiting in certain remote regions. Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians. For example, a district level official in Houaphan Province expelled 26 Hmong Christians from their village and advised they could return to their village only if they renounced Christianity. There were reports of authorities detaining new converts to Christianity, as well as detention or withholding of necessary documentation from Christians to force them to renounce their faith. Christian groups also reported longstanding problems registering and constructing churches in some areas. Reportedly, Christians who congregated in homes and other unregistered facilities for religious purposes were in some cases subjected to harassment by authorities.
According to government and religious group sources, tension continued in the countryside between animists and growing Christian communities. Animists in some cases again reportedly interfered with Christian burials, and the conversion of young persons to Christianity or the refusal of Protestants to participate in local non-Christian religious ceremonies sometimes continued to result in friction.
U.S. embassy officials regularly raised specific religious freedom cases with the government to continue an open dialogue and encourage resolution of conflicts, including concerning implementation of the 2016 prime ministerial decree. The embassy maintained regular contact with officials in the MOHA and the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), which is a mass organization of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and is responsible for some administration of religious organizations. Embassy officials were also in regular contact with religious leaders and laypersons from a wide variety of denominations and faiths to understand better the problems they face in practicing their religions.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.1 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2015 national census, 64.7 percent of the population is Buddhist, 1.7 percent Christian, 31.4 percent has no religion, and the remaining 2.1 percent identify as other or having a nonlisted religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of the ethnic or “lowland” Lao, who constitute 53.2 percent of the overall population. According to the LFNC and MOHA, the remainder of the population comprises at least 48 ethnic minority groups, most of which practice animism and ancestor worship. Animism is predominant among Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, and the Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice, particularly in rural areas. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Bahais, Mahayana Buddhists, and followers of Confucianism in total constitute less than 3 percent of the population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for the right and freedom to believe or not believe in any religion and states citizens are equal before the law regardless of their beliefs or ethnic group. The government officially recognizes four religious umbrella groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith. It generally requires other religious groups to affiliate with one of these four groups in order to operate legally. The constitution also states the government respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and followers of other religions, and “mobilizes and encourages Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in activities that are beneficial to the country and people.” It prohibits all acts that create division between religious groups and classes of persons.
A 2016 decree with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice extends registration requirements to Buddhist groups, which had previously enjoyed a de facto exemption, and defines the government’s role as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. The decree also sets forth regulations for religious practice; the government implemented and sent instructions on the decree in the capital and to all provinces during the year. The decree reiterates the constitution’s priority that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and by instructing believers to be good citizens. The decree’s stated purpose is to set the principles, regulations, and laws concerning the governance and protection of religious activities for clergy, teachers of religion, believers, and religious groups in order to preserve and promote national culture, increase solidarity among members of religious groups, and “preserve and develop the nation.”
The 2016 decree states nearly all aspects of religious practice – such as congregating, holding religious services, building houses of worship, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed – require permission from a local MOHA branch office, regardless of whether a group is recognized or registered nationally. Some cases require approval from the central-level MOHA. The decree empowers MOHA to order the cessation of any religious activities or beliefs not in agreement with policies, traditional customs, laws, or regulations within its jurisdiction. It may stop any religious activity threatening national stability, peace, and social order, causing serious damage to the environment, or affecting national solidarity or unity between tribes and religions, including threats to the lives, properties, health, or reputations of others. The decree also requires MOHA to collect information and statistics on religious operations, cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations regarding religious activities, and report religious activities to the government.
The 2016 decree prohibits individuals, organizations with a legal personality, and social establishments from causing division among ethnic groups and religions.
The 2016 decree requires any religious groups operating in the country to register with MOHA. The decree and implementing regulations do not mention the government’s official recognition of four umbrella religious groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith – under which all religious groups have historically been advised to operate. Neither the decree nor implementing regulations mention that government-recognized Christian denominations are limited to the Catholic Church, the Laos Evangelical Church (LEC), and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, or the government instruction that all other Christian denominations wishing to be recognized register as part of the LEC, instead of receiving separate recognition.
The same decree stipulates that religious groups must present information on elected or appointed officeholders in committees of responsibility to national, provincial, and district and village level MOHA offices for review, consideration, and certification. MOHA and the related lower-level offices also have authority to issue certificates for religious groups.
Religious groups operating in multiple provinces must obtain national MOHA approval; groups operating in multiple districts are required to obtain provincial level approval; and groups operating in multiple villages are required to obtain district level approval. If a religious group wishes to operate beyond its local congregation, approvals at the corresponding level are required. A religious occurring outside a religious group’s property requires village authority approval. Activities in another village require approval from district authorities, from provincial authorities for activities in another district, and from national authorities for activities in another province. Religious groups must submit annual plans of all activities other than routine events in advance for local authorities to review, investigate, and approve.
All houses of worship must register under the law and applicable regulations. Any maintenance, restoration, and construction activities at religious facilities must receive MOHA approval from all levels. Local authorities may provide opinions regarding building, care, and maintenance of religious facilities, present their findings to their respective provincial governors and city mayors for consideration, and subsequently ask the minister of home affairs to investigate, consider, and approve activities conducted in religious facilities.
Individuals entering the clergy for more than three months require approval from district and village authorities, agreement from the receiving religious establishment, and agreement from a guardian or spouse, if applicable. For a period less than three months, the village authority, as well as a guardian or spouse, if applicable, must approve. The shorter period stipulations are particularly relevant to Buddhists, as every Buddhist male is expected to enter the monkhood at least once in his life, often for fewer than three months.
The Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) and MOHA must approve the travel of clergy and religious teachers traveling abroad for specialist studies. Generally, any students going abroad for study require approval from the MOES. Religious organizations conducting religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level in Laos.
The LFNC may educate and meet with religious leaders, clergy, teachers, and members to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, aim to reduce ethnic and religious tensions, and “contribute to the development of the nation.” LFNC officials may listen to opinions and concerns of religious communities in order to work with police or other authorities to investigate and resolve problems.
The government controls written materials for mass consumption, including for religious use. The 2016 decree regulates the importation and printing of religious materials and production of books, documents, icons, and symbols of various religions. MOHA may require the relevant religious group to certify the imported materials are truly representative of their religion, to address issues of authenticity, and to ensure imported materials comport with values and practices in the country. The law prohibits the import or export of unapproved printed or electronic religious materials.
The 2016 decree states the government may continue to sponsor Buddhist facilities, incorporate Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in state functions, and promote Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity and as the predominant religion of the country.
The 2016 decree requires Buddhist clergy to have identification cards, and clergy of other religions are required to have certificates to prove they have received legitimate religious training.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with a reservation that Article 18 on freedom of religion shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any activities to directly or indirectly coerce or compel an individual to believe or not to believe in a religion or to change his or her religion or belief, and that all acts that create division and discrimination among ethnic groups and religious groups are incompatible with the article.
Summary paragraph: There were reports authorities subjected some religious minority members to attempted forced renunciations, imprisonment, arrest, detention, and fines. Leaders of the recognized minority religions said they were aware of fewer of these types of incidents among villagers who had converted to Christianity than in previous years; in most cases, those arrested were fined and/or released. Persons arrested or detained received little protection under the law and could be held for lengthy periods without trial and then released, according to reports. In some cases local officials reportedly threatened Protestants with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply with certain orders. For example, a district-level official in Houaphan Province expelled 26 recently converted Hmong Christians from their village and advised they could return to their village only if they renounced Christianity. Some local officials withheld required documentation, such as titles to land usage rights, from Christians to force them to renounce their faith, or denied issuance of travel documents. NGOs stated the relatively decentralized nature of the government structure contributed to abuses by local officials, some of whom reportedly were unaware of laws and policies protecting religious freedom or unwilling to implement them. Religious groups stated that most, if not all, instances of abuse occurred in remote villages. Local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal, while Protestant groups reported they sometimes could not obtain permission to build new churches. As many as three-fourths of the LEC congregations throughout the country did not have permanent church structures and conducted worship services in homes.
In February officials detained five Christian pastors in Attapeu Province for traveling beyond their village limits to proselytize without prior authorization and for crossing the Vietnamese border, and returning, without valid travel documents, religious leaders in Vientiane reported. Authorities released the pastors after a few weeks, after the group paid a “fine” totaling 57.4 million kip ($6,900).
In October in Phonxay District of Luang Prabang Province, officials detained for less than one day four Christians at the district public security office for their beliefs, according to religious leaders in Vientiane. Officials elsewhere in Luang Prabang Province tried to pressure a recovered drug addict in remote, ethnically Khmu, Huyano Village to renounce Christianity or face drug charges. Officials detained him for three weeks until he paid a fine of 3.5 million kip ($420). Elders in the same village tried to pressure three other Christians to renounce their religion, while four others reportedly renounced under pressure in the past year. By year’s end provincial and central government officials had failed to act on local Christian leaders’ requests for assistance; local officials continued to enforce the will of village elders.
In December religious leaders reported a number of incidents that occurred during the Christmas season involving detentions of Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside of their normal locales. In some incidents, government officials reprimanded Christians for holding small gatherings in private homes to celebrate Christmas without receiving prior authorization. In Vientiane Province, local police arrested six Christians for traveling without permission for religious purposes. Although central authorities requested provincial officials release the six detainees after payment of a small court fee, those authorities had not released the detainees by year’s end. Provincial authorities required each detainee to pay six million kip ($730) in fines to provincial authorities as a condition of release. Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to the issue of lack of prior travel permission; most other cases were resolved within hours of occurrence.
In February religious leaders in Vientiane reported that in Houy Poong and Hinpan villages in Luang Prabang Province, local officials told ethnic Khmu and Hmong families to abandon their Christian practices or be evicted from the village. When the families refused to do so, officials initially told them to move to another province, but other officials then stopped the families at the provincial border. They ordered the families to return to their village, but subsequently officials prevented them from accessing their farmland to plant crops. In each case, officials confiscated titles to land usage rights to attempt to force their renunciations, but allowed them to keep their household registration documents so they could move elsewhere. Eventually, most of the affected families chose to resettle in other villages in the province, and one family renounced Christianity. In a separate incident near Luang Prabang, authorities arrested a village’s first convert to Christianity, pushing him to renounce his new religion. After Christian leaders in Vientiane intervened with the government, authorities released the individual.
In February in Son District, Houaphan Province, a district-level official expelled 26 Hmong Christians from their village and advised they could return only if they renounced Christianity, according to religious leaders in Vientiane. The official also confiscated the individuals’ land usage rights documents. The local level LFNC provided the group with temporary shelter in the district capital for several months, but at year’s end, the Christians remained unable to return to their village. Provincial officials, including provincial assembly members, reportedly tried to persuade village elders to allow these Christians to return.
According to religious groups, in April 2016 in Khamkeut District, Bolikhamxay Province, village leaders forced 10 Christian families to leave for allegedly creating conflict and disrupting village harmony by dividing the village into followers of more than one religion. During the year local officials in the village to which the Christian families had fled allowed them to purchase land rights to set up homes, farm, and send their children to local schools; however, household registration papers for new properties had not been issued by local authorities by the end of the year.
Government officials said the country was open to all religions, although authorities continued to provide official recognition to only four groups. The LEC continued to serve as an umbrella group for all registered Christian denominations other than Catholics or Seventh-day Adventists, as religious leaders reported applications for new Christian groups were too difficult to have recognized. Several unregistered Christian denominations attempted to register independently from the LEC due to differences in doctrinal beliefs; their applications were still pending at year’s end.
Although the law prohibits members of religious groups not registered with MOHA or the LFNC from practicing their faith, several reportedly did so quietly without interference. Christian groups seeking official recognition separate from the LEC continued to be targets of restrictions, and authorities in several provinces insisted independent congregations join the LEC. In many areas, however, local authorities allowed unauthorized churches to conduct services unhindered.
Religious leaders continued to indicate Christians appeared to be the fastest growing religious community, and Christians reported facing the most difficulties with local authorities and the general population. Their growth was most evident in rural areas, which led to frequent reports of conflicts with local communities and local authorities.
According to religious groups, both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, the former and current prime ministerial decrees, and social harmony as reasons for restricting and monitoring religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian organizations among minority ethnic groups.
According to Muslim community leaders, Muslims were able to practice openly at the two active mosques in Vientiane, the only mosques in the country. According to the Muslim Association, its leaders met regularly with LFNC and MOHA officials and maintained an effective working relationship with the government. The government permitted individuals from Thailand to conduct Tabligh teachings.
While animists generally reported little governmental interference, the government actively discouraged animist practices that it deemed outdated, dangerous, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives beneath homes.
Representatives of Bahai communities in Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang reported that local authorities generally did not interfere with or restrict their activities. In October Bahais held a public event at the LFNC’s training offices, which was attended by high-ranking officials from various ministries and included representatives of nearly all recognized religious communities.
Religious leaders said authorities enforced a ban on proselytizing in public, although this did not generally impede individuals from speaking about their beliefs to others in private settings or among friends. Authorities enforced rules requiring that programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship receive prior approval from local or higher officials.
Authorities sought to control the importation of religious materials from outside the country. MOHA officials said they were concerned that imported religious materials and texts might include content that differed from domestic practices, and enforced such controls “to avoid misunderstandings.”
Provincial, district, and local officials, as well as the MOHA Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, LFNC representatives, and local Protestant leaders and community leaders did not meet again following 2016 negotiations concerning confiscations of churches in prior years, including one property in Vientiane Capital and fewer than eight properties in Savannakhet Province. The pending cases were unresolved at year’s end.
Due to difficulties obtaining building permits from local authorities, as many as three-fourths of the LEC congregations throughout the country did not have permanent church structures and conducted worship services in homes. The LFNC Religious Affairs Department continued to urge that house churches be replaced with designated church structures whenever possible; local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal. Religious group representatives said the building permit process began at the local level and then required district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFNC and MOHA permission. They said local officials used the process to block construction of new churches.
Many religious leaders said they experienced lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction, and generally received no response to requests. According to the LFNC, many of the delays involved legal matters concerning construction, or in some cases, a cluster of Christian families in a village wished to build two or three churches in their village, which would result in more churches than local authorities thought the number of Christians would justify. The LFNC said this led to conflict with other religions in the village that often had an equal number of temples, and therefore local authorities did not permit the construction of additional churches. The LFNC cited counter examples in which a Catholic church, a Protestant church, and several Buddhist temples existed in harmony.
According to MOES, there was no Buddhist curriculum taught as religion in any public schools. The government, however, promoted the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture. Mandatory cultural sessions included lessons taught in Buddhist temples and, to advance to the next grade level, educational authorities required all students to pray in Buddhist temples. Christian students reported discomfort with the requirement. MOES said it allowed parents to remove their children from the classes if they were dissatisfied with the program. In several provinces, however, lessons in Buddhism were still mandatory to pass to the next grade level, reportedly sometimes as a form of punishment of Christian students. This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school. A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups existed throughout the country and accepted students from any religious denomination.
Religious groups stated they were aware of no openly non-Buddhist or nonanimist government officials in higher-level posts at provincial or national levels.
In cases that came to officials’ attention, the government strictly enforced a prohibition on proselytizing by foreigners, which reportedly continued to be widespread although conducted mainly in small private settings. Christian leaders from foreign countries reported local congregations often requested they not preach from the pulpit to avoid the perception that foreigners were proselytizing citizens. In May security officials briefly detained a tour guide in Luang Prabang when foreign members of his tour group distributed religious materials to some villagers. The tourists left the country before authorities could question them.
With advance permission and no open proselytizing, government authorities permitted Lao and expatriate Christians to organize a public, open-air religious music event for the first time. The Vientiane International Gospel Music Festival took place October 27-29 at the night market of That Luang Lake Specific Economic Zone, with performances by local and foreign artists and bands.
Religious groups said provincial government officials asked religious leaders not to report grievances to foreigners in exchange for greater religious freedom. According to religious groups, the central government continued efforts to keep individuals who had been arrested, banished, punished, marginalized, or had otherwise been the victim of abuses due to their religious beliefs out of sight of international observers.
In dealing with local conflicts regarding religious problems, officials at MOHA reported they first waited for the provinces to resolve the issue before getting involved. Government officials from MOHA and LFNC officials again acknowledged some local officials were on occasion incorrectly applying regulations or in fact creating their own regulations contrary to national law.
The LFNC and MOHA stated they continued to visit occasionally areas where abuses of religious freedom had reportedly taken place to instruct local officials on government policy and law. LFNC and MOHA officials said they frequently traveled to the provinces to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations. They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain officials’ obligations under the constitution and the right to believe or not to believe in religion. During these sessions, central authorities provided training to provincial LFNC and MOHA officials on the 2016 decree and other laws governing religion and held seminars that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Bahai Faith, and Islam from religious leaders. With support from an international NGO, MOHA and/or the LFNC held workshops and seminars in Vientiane Capital and Xaysomboun Province in January; Vientiane Province in February and August; and in Xiengkhuang, Phongsaly, and Savannakhet Provinces in September, October, and November, respectively. They also held a seminar in December in Ngoi District, Luang Prabang Province, where several problems has arisen early in the year. The national government funded a workshop in mid-2017 in Houaphanh Province.
Observers said the government approved implementation guidelines for the 2016 decree much more quickly than it did for other new decrees. The officially recognized religious groups supported the government’s dissemination efforts by printing and distributing the decree and its implementation guidelines.
In collaboration with the LFNC, an international NGO continued to conduct training for provincial and district officials and local religious leaders throughout the year. The training was designed to help the officials and religious leaders understand the law and each other better, and to address religious leaders’ continuing concerns about the eviction of religious minority families and the subsequent confiscation of their property in various villages.
Officials continued to state there were cases where Buddhist or animist prisoners have converted to Christianity in prison in the hope their new religious group may press for their release or a reduced sentence on religious grounds.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Christian sources reported occasional interreligious tensions among some minority ethnic groups, particularly in response to the growth of Christian congregations or disagreements over access to village resources.
The refusal by members of non-Buddhist groups, particularly Protestants, to participate in Buddhist or animist ceremonies continued to be a source of tension in rural areas. In some cases, villagers threatened Christians with expulsion from the village if they did not renounce their faith. Christian group leaders, however, encouraged their members to work out a compromise allowing them to support local Buddhist or animist ceremonies without participating in them. Members of some Christian groups said they could not make such compromises, which they said would violate their religious beliefs.
Christians said conflicts with animists regarding burial practices remained an issue throughout the year, and Christian leaders cited cases that occurred in Khammouan, Savannakhet and Xayaburi provinces. Some animists continue to be concerned about the Christian practice of burying their dead within the village boundary or nearby confines, believing that the deceased’s spirit would bring disharmony to the village and conflict with the village spirits because the body was not cremated.
Officials and press reported cases in remote villages in which animist family members reported their Christian convert children or grandchildren damaged or destroyed animist relics. Elder animists said they opposed their younger family members adopting nonanimist beliefs and threatened them via various means, including government intervention. According to both religious leaders in Vientiane and central government officials, some of these conflicts may not involve religion specifically, but rather other family or village disputes. Local officials or village elders possibly addressed these problems at face value in terms of religious differences instead of determining underlying problems. It was sometimes difficult for those in Vientiane to differentiate whether the problems reported were religious in nature.
Some religious leaders partly agreed with the government’s ‘social harmony’ rationale for monitoring and oversight of religious activities. They said misunderstandings continued to occur, which they said was due to low education levels in remote parts of the country and some local animists’ not having prior exposure to nonanimists.
Several private preschools and English-language schools received support from religious groups abroad of various denominations. Many boys received instruction in religion and other subjects in Buddhist temples, which continued to play a traditional schooling role in smaller communities where formal education was limited or unavailable. Two Buddhist colleges and two Buddhist secondary schools provided religious training for children and adults. Christian denominations, particularly the LEC and Seventh-day Adventists, conducted religious education for children and youth. Bahai groups conducted religious training for children and adult members. The Catholic Church operated a seminary in Khammouane Province for students with high school degrees to study philosophy and theology for two to 10 years. The Muslim community offered limited educational training.
Some members of ethnic groups associated with the United States during the Vietnam War era said they felt abandoned by the United States and had rejected Christianity, which they viewed as an American religion. This sentiment reportedly led to problems in remote areas where these ethnic communities placed additional pressure on Christians, including by their own families and neighbors.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials regularly advocated with a range of government officials for religious freedom and the reform of relevant laws and decrees to ensure they were consistent with international human rights standards. In frequent exchanges with MOHA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the LFNC Religious Affairs Department, embassy officials discussed the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of arrest, abuse, or harassment; and cumbersome registration procedures; and trends in abuses of religious freedom. Embassy officials also engaged the government on its management of religious practices in the provinces, including forced or threatened detentions, removal from villages, evictions, and other problems, especially for recent converts. Embassy officials regularly followed up on developments with religious leaders and government officials.
In May the embassy sponsored participation of an official from the Religious Affairs Department of the LFNC in a three-week program in the United States on Religious Freedom, Diversity and Tolerance.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with religious leaders and advocacy groups to address religious equality concerns. A senior Department of State official met with religious leaders in Xieng Khouang Province to understand the constraints they faced at the provincial level. Embassy officials regularly consulted registered and unregistered religious groups regarding reports of arrests of religious followers, cumbersome registration procedures, and abuses of freedom to worship, including during visits to Luang Prabang Province.
The constitution provides every person the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and specifies the separation of church and state. By law eight “traditional” religious groups receive rights and privileges that other groups do not. Religious groups registered for fewer than 10 years must reregister every year. Thirty religious groups reregistered during the year, and six groups registered for the first time. Several high-ranking politicians spoke against anti-Semitism throughout the year and also participated in various Holocaust memorial ceremonies.
On March 16, approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 SS veterans and three members of parliament from the All for Latvia Party, participated in an annual march commemorating Latvians who fought in the Waffen SS against the Soviet Union in World War II. Police arrested five persons protesting the march. Organizers said the march remembered those who fought for independence and was not a glorification of Nazism. Various groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, again condemned the march. Jewish and Muslim community members reported instances of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet.
The U.S. embassy engaged with government officials, including representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, and Department of Religious Affairs, on the importance of restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community, religious tolerance, and Holocaust education. It also engaged with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Latvian Center for Human Rights, and representatives of various religious groups, such as the Old Believers, Jewish community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims, on the role they could play in promoting religious tolerance. The embassy funded two projects designed to address Holocaust issues.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the largest denominations are Lutheran (37 percent), Roman Catholic (18 percent), and Latvian Orthodox Christian (19 percent), the latter of which are predominantly native Russian speakers; 24 percent are 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 reported there are 4,873 persons who identify as Jewish, and the Council of Jewish Communities believes there are between 6,000 and 8,000 persons with Jewish heritage. The Islamic community reports approximately 1,000 Muslims, while the MOJ Annual Report of Religious Organizations and their Activities lists 295 Muslim community members. 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 (Mormons).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and “the church shall be separate from the state.” It allows restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs in order 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 one 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 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, conduct financial transactions, or receive tax-free donations. They may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units, and generally may not hold worship services in public places without special permission. The law stipulates fines if an unregistered group carries out any of these activities.
The law stipulates that, in order to register as a congregation, a religious group must have at least 20 members aged 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 statutes stipulating their aims and tasks; 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 – totaling 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 or 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. For example, the law prevents any association other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name. Independent Orthodox groups, such as Old Believers, are registered as separate religious associations.
The law requires religious groups registered for fewer than 10 years to reregister every year. Reregistration requires an MOJ evaluation of the group’s activities in the previous year and submission of the same documentation as first-time registrants.
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 additionally provide other data, including congregation size, number of clergy, number of weddings and 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 to up to 10 years of imprisonment. Committing a crime for religious reasons may also be considered an aggravating factor at trial.
The government funds religion and ethics classes in public schools. The school must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold religion classes; if such approval is not obtained, 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. First through third-grade public school students must take either a class on religious beliefs of one of the eight traditional groups or an ethics class; 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).
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 can 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.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Thirty religious groups, all of those that applied, reregistered during the year, and the MOJ approved the applications of six other religious groups that applied to register for the first time.
President Raimonds Vejonis and other senior government officials, including the prime minister’s legal advisor, the president’s legal advisors, representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and members of parliament, met with Jewish groups to discuss property restitution. Despite the talks, the government did not take any additional steps to restitute property in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which called for measures to provide for assistance, redress, and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution. There were differing views about the number of properties that remained to be restituted.
The new prayer center of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Latvia (ICCL) again failed to open. In 2016, the Riga City Construction Board said the center failed to meet fire and other safety requirements because of an increase in the number of persons who would use the building. The leader of the ICCL, Janis Hamza Lucins, stated the delays were unwarranted but addressing them was not a priority, and the ICCL did not act to satisfy the construction board by year’s end.
Authorities continued to monitor ICCL activities, according to the annual report of the Security Police. ICCL leader Lucins again said he did not view government monitoring of his group to be discrimination or a violation of ICCL members’ rights.
President Vejonis and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis, and Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis, attended or spoke at Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre Memorial.
On October 15, the Bauska County Municipality and the Council of Jewish Communities unveiled the Memorial Synagogue Garden at the site of the destroyed Bauska synagogue, burned down by the Nazis in 1941. The Jewish community reported that, after 15 years of appealing without success to former city authorities to establish the memorial, the current municipality administration fully supported and expedited the project.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On March 16, an annual march took place commemorating Latvians who fought in the grenadier divisions of the Waffen SS against the Soviet Red Army in World War II. Approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 SS veterans and three members of parliament from the All for Latvia Party, participated. Protesters also attended. The organizers, the Daugava Hawks group, characterized the annual march as a commemoration of national identity and remembrance of those who fought for independence, rather than as a glorification of Nazism. Police arrested five persons protesting against the march. As in previous years, the march drew strong condemnations from various groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center. German Member of Parliament Volker Beck supported the protesters of the march in a speech at the Latvian Embassy in Berlin, stating that Holocaust victims and survivors were “repeatedly injured through this annual commemoration.”
Riga Jewish community Executive Director Gita Umanovska stated there were instances of anti-Semitic hate speech on the internet, mostly in the form of posts on social media and comments on news articles, although none were reported to police. She stated anti-Semitic hate speech centered on the assertion that Jews were taking something that did not belong to them. For example, one website posted, “Are there any Jews in Latvia? What are they doing here, and what do they want? Let them go home.” Another site, referencing Jewish restitution claims, posted, “They don’t deserve anything! No one is to blame for the fact that they missed the application deadline. All they’re doing now is thinking of their personal business. The Jews who owned something are not the same Russian Jews or [are] Jews who themselves were involved in all the repressions….”
ICCL leader Lucins also reported incidents of hate speech on the internet, mostly posts on social media and comments on news articles, which he stated were due to anti-Islamic sentiment. According to Lucins, anti-Islamic hate speech focused on the theme that Islam was incompatible with the country’s society. For example, one site carried the message, “How long are they [Muslims] going to continue with this? I’m sick and tired of all this information, how good Islam is etc.!!!! Latvia DOES NOT NEED Islam, nor do we want any Muslims here!!!” Another message read, “Personally I would not like to have my children go to the same school with her children… MY STRONG BELIEF IS THAT LATVIA DOES NOT NEED ISLAM, and whoever practices it should move to ISLAMIC COUNTRIES.” In a third instance, a poster wrote, “Islam is a cult of death, pedophilia, and totalitarianism. Muhammad slept with a 9-year-old girl, chopped off heads, and was constantly at war, and demanded total obedience, and slavery is the norm in Islam.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged in regular discussions with government officials, primarily at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education, and with members of parliament, on the importance of restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community, religious tolerance, and Holocaust education.
Additionally, embassy staff met with leaders of the Jewish community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, Old Believers, and NGOs, including the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Safe House, to discuss their concerns with religious tolerance and acceptance in the country.
The embassy funded the visit of five history teachers who participated in the Rumbula’s Echo project, the first film documenting the killing of 25,000 Latvian Jews, to the United States for a teacher training program on Holocaust education. In January to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the embassy funded the traveling exhibition “NOT the Last Butterfly,” a project to make a representation of a butterfly for each of the 1.5 million children killed during the Holocaust. Embassy officials went to schools to show a film about the project and help children make and paint butterflies while they learned about the deceased children’s stories. Embassy officials also spoke with high school students about the country’s own Holocaust history.
The embassy funded publication of the second edition of the book “I Survived Rumbuli,” a first-person account of the Rumbula Forest massacre, in which Nazi SS troops and Latvian auxiliaries killed approximately 25,000 Jews over two nonconsecutive days in 1941.
The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order. The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a situation reaffirmed by the Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated equal representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament. Parliament approved a new proportional electoral law in June. The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion, but there were no cases of imprisonment under the laws. In November police arrested Ahmad Sbeity, a poet in the southern part of the country, for a Facebook post that reportedly insulted the Virgin Mary. His case was continuing at year’s end. For the second year in a row, there was no judicial action on the 2015 lawsuit filed by Member of Parliament Ziad Aswad of the Free Patriotic Movement against “You Stink” activist Assad Thebian for “defamation and contempt of religion” for comments he had made about Christianity. Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Bahais and nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records in order to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. At least 30 cases of civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration.
Muslim and Christian community leaders reported the continued operation of places of worship in relative peace and security and said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. Following a July 1 interfaith conference, Christian and Muslim leaders called for establishing the country as an official international center of dialogue among religions “to serve the…Christian-Muslim relations of the world.” The Shia organization Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise authority over parts of the country, limiting access to the areas under its control. The Jewish Community Council again reported acts of vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Beirut.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance and mutual respect among religious communities, and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and members of civil society to engage in dialogue on religious tolerance and the role of confessional dynamics in the country’s society and politics. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups. These included projects to counter violent extremism related to religion, interfaith summer exchange programs, and a social media campaign to counter extremist religious messaging.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 6.2 million (July 2017 estimate). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations estimate the total population includes approximately 4.5 million citizens and an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, as well as a Palestinian refugee population present in the country for nearly 70 years. Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 57.7 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (28.7 percent Sunni, 28.4 percent Shia, and smaller percentages of Alawites and Ismailis).
Statistics Lebanon estimates that 36.2 percent of the population is Christian. Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group, followed by Greek Orthodox. Other Christian groups include Greek Catholics (Melkites), Armenian Orthodox (Gregorians), Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox (Jacobites), Syriac Catholics, Assyrians (Nestorians), Chaldeans, Copts, Protestants (including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists), Latins (Roman Catholics), and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
According to Statistics Lebanon, 5.2 percent of the population is Druze and is concentrated in the rural, mountainous areas east and south of Beirut. There are also small numbers of Jews, Bahais, Buddhists, and Hindus.
The government estimates there are approximately 1.5 million refugees from Syria, who are largely Sunni, but include Shia and Christians as well. There are between 250,000 and 300,000 Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank still living in the country as UN-registered refugees, and they are largely Sunni. A census of Palestinians, conducted jointly by the Lebanese and Palestinian statistics authorities, under the auspices of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, counted 174,535 Palestinian refugees in the country.
The Jewish Community Council, which represents the Lebanese Jewish community, estimates that approximately 100 Jews remain in the country.
Refugees and foreign migrants also include largely Sunni Kurds; Sunni and Shia Muslims and Chaldeans from Iraq; and Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan. According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, an NGO that advocates for Syriac Christians in the country, approximately 10,000 Iraqi Christians of all denominations and 3,000 to 4,000 Coptic Christians reside in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and declares the state will respect all religious groups and denominations, as well as the personal status and religious interests of persons of every religious group. The constitution guarantees free exercise of religious rites provided they do not disturb the public order, and declares the equality of rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination or preference.
By law, an individual is free to convert to a different religion if a local senior official of the religious group the person wishes to join approves the change. The newly joined religious group issues a document confirming the convert’s new religion, and allowing the convert to register her or his new religion with the Ministry of Interior’s Personal Status Directorate. The new religion is included thereafter on government-issued civil registration documents, along with mention of the original religion.
Citizens have the right to remove the customary notation of their religion from government-issued civil registration documents or change how it is listed. Changing the documents does not require approval of religious officials (although the religious act of conversion does require such permission).
The penal code stipulates a maximum prison term of one year for anyone convicted of “blaspheming God publicly.” It does not provide a definition of what this entails.
The penal code also criminalizes defamation and contempt for religion, and stipulates a maximum prison term of three years.
By law, religious groups may apply to the government for official recognition. To do so, it must submit a statement of its doctrine and moral principles to the cabinet, which evaluates whether the group’s principles are in accord with the government’s perception of popular values and the constitution. Alternatively, an unrecognized religious group may apply for recognition by applying to a recognized religious group. In doing so, the unrecognized group does not gain recognition as a separate group, but becomes an affiliate of the group through which it applies. This process has the same requirements as applying for recognition directly with the government.
There are 18 officially recognized religious groups. These include four Muslim groups (Shia, Sunni, Alawites and Ismaili), 12 Christian groups (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and 10 smaller groups), Druze, and Jews. Groups the government does not recognize include Bahais, Buddhists, Hindus, and several Protestant groups.
Official recognition of a religious group allows baptisms and marriages performed by the group to receive government sanction. Official recognition also conveys other benefits, such as tax-exempt status and the right to apply the religious group’s codes to personal status matters. By law, the government permits recognized religious groups to administer their own rules on family and personal status issues including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Shia, Sunni, recognized Christian, and Druze groups have state-appointed, government-subsidized clerical courts to administer family and personal status law.
Religious groups perform all marriages and divorces; there are no formalized procedures for civil marriage or divorce. The government recognizes civil marriage ceremonies performed outside the country irrespective of the religious affiliation of each partner in the marriage.
Nonrecognized religious groups may own property and may assemble for worship and perform their religious rites freely. They may not perform legally recognized marriage or divorce proceedings and they have no standing to determine inheritance issues. Members of these groups do not qualify for certain government positions, including ministerial, parliamentary, secretary-general, and director general positions.
The government requires Protestant churches to register with the Evangelical Synod, a self-governing advisory group overseeing religious matters for Protestant congregations, and representing those churches to the government.
The law allows censorship of religious publications under a number of conditions, including if the government deems the material incites sectarian discord or threatens national security.
According to the constitution, recognized religious communities may have their own schools, provided they follow the general rules issued for public schools, which stipulate schools must not incite sectarian discord or threaten national security. Approximately 70 percent of students attend private schools, which despite many having ties to confessional groups, are often open to children of other religions as well. The Ministry of Education does not require or encourage religious education in public schools.
The constitution states “sectarian groups” shall be represented in a “just and equitable balance” in the cabinet and high-level civil service positions, which includes the ministry ranks of secretary-general and director general. It also states these posts shall be distributed proportionately among the recognized religious groups. This distribution of positions among religious groups is based on the unwritten 1943 National Pact, which used religious affiliation data from the 1932 census (the last conducted in the country), and also applies to the civil service, the judiciary, military and security institutions, and public agencies at both the national and local levels of government. Parliament is elected on the basis of “equality between Christians and Muslims.” Druze and Alawites are included in this allocation with the Muslim communities.
The constitution also states there is no legitimacy for any authorities that contradict the “pact of communal existence,” thereby giving force of law to the unwritten 1943 National Pact, although that agreement is neither an official component of the constitution nor a formally binding agreement. According to the pact, the president shall be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament shall be a Shia Muslim, and the prime minister shall be a Sunni Muslim.
The Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war in 1989, also mandates equal Muslim and Christian representation in parliament, but makes changes to the powers of the Maronite Christian presidency, including subjecting the designations of the prime minister and other cabinet ministers to consultations with parliament. In addition, the agreement endorses the constitutional provision of appointing most senior government officials according to religious affiliation, including senior positions within the military and other security forces. The Taef Agreement mandates a cabinet with seats allocated equally between Muslims (to include Druze and Alawites) and Christians. The Taef Agreement’s stipulations on equality of representation between members of different confessions do not apply to citizens who do not list a religious affiliation on their national registration, and thus may not hold a seat designated for a specific confession.
On June 14, parliament approved a new electoral law replacing the country’s winner-take-all system for parliamentary elections with a proportional vote. The law does not affect the Christian-Muslim proportionality of parliament.
By law, the synod of each Christian group elects its patriarchs; the Sunni and Shia electoral bodies elect their respective senior clerics; and the Druze community elects its sheikh al-aql. The government council of ministers must endorse the nomination of Sunni and Shia muftis, as well as the Druze sheikh al-aql, and pay their salaries. The government also appoints and pays the salaries of Muslim and Druze clerical judges. By law, the government does not endorse Christian patriarchs and does not pay the salaries of Christian clergy and officials of Christian groups.
The government issues religious workers a one-month visa; in order to stay longer, a worker must complete a residency application during the month. Religious workers also must sign a “commitment of responsibility” form before receiving a visa, which subjects the worker to legal prosecution and immediate deportation for any activity involving religious or other criticism directed against the state or any other country, except Israel. If the government finds an individual engaging in religious activity while on a tourist visa, the government may determine a violation of the visa category has occurred and deport the individual.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion, but there were no cases of imprisonment under the laws. On November 28, police arrested Ahmad Sbeity, a poet in the southern part of the country, for a Facebook post that reportedly insulted the Virgin Mary. His case was in progress at year’s end. For the second year in a row, there was no judicial action on the lawsuit filed in 2015 by Member of Parliament Ziad Aswad of the Free Patriotic Movement against “You Stink” activist Assad Thebian for “defamation and contempt of religion” for comments he made about Christianity.
Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Bahais and members of nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records in order to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. For instance, many Bahais said they chose to list themselves as Shia in order to effectively manage civil matters officially administered by Shia institutions.
The government’s refusal to approve a request from the Jewish community to change its official name to the Jewish Community Council from the Israeli Communal Council remained in place.
Minority non-Maronite Christian groups continued to state the government made little progress toward the Taef Agreement’s goal of eliminating political sectarianism in favor of “expertise and competence.” Members of these groups, which include Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, and Chaldeans, among others, stated their lack of representation in the cabinet, and the fact the government allotted them only one of the 64 Christian seats in parliament, constituted government discrimination. The Syriac League continued to call for more representation for minority Christians in parliament and high-level civil service positions.
Some Maronite Christian politicians, including members of the Free Patriotic Movement party, said Maronites remained marginalized despite filling their quota of designated government seats. They called for a new electoral law with the aim of having predominantly Christian areas voting for Christian-allotted seats. Parliament addressed these concerns with the passage of the new electoral law in June.
During the year, there was no movement on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that awaited registration with the Ministry of Interior since 2013. The cases remained unresolved, with no evidence of forthcoming action.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
The Shia organization Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise authority over territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia, where it provided a number of basic services, such as health care, education, food aid, infrastructure repair, and internal security. There continued to be reports of Hizballah controlling access to the neighborhoods and localities under its control.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Leaders of Sunni, Shia, and Christian groups continued to condemn extremism and violence perpetrated in the name of religion following terrorist attacks by both ISIS and Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS, formerly al-Nusra Front) in countries in the region. For example, Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian, the country’s Sunni grand mufti, publicly condemned April 9 bomb attacks against two Coptic Orthodox Christian churches in Egypt. In his condemnation, the grand mufti offered his condolences to the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and said the attacks were an attempt to “ignite confessional strife between Muslims and Christians.”
Religious leaders stated that relationships among individual members of different religious groups remained amicable. At a July 1 conference at Notre Dame University Louaize in Zouk Mosbeh, Christian and Muslim leaders, along with government representatives, agreed the country should be held up as an example of peaceful coexistence, noting, “The deepening of democracy in Lebanon sends a message of hope to the Arabs, and to the world.” The participants, headed by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros Rai, issued a joint statement calling for establishing the country as an official international center of dialogue among religions, cultures, and civilizations “to serve the Arab world and Christian-Muslim relations of the world.” President Michel Aoun later reiterated this statement in his September 21 remarks to the UN General Assembly.
Christian and Muslim religious leaders from the major denominations continued to participate in interfaith dialogues throughout the year and to call for unity against extremism. On November 14, Patriarch Rai became the first Lebanese Christian Patriarch to visit Saudi Arabia where, according to an official Saudi press statement, the patriarch and King Salman “stressed the importance of the role of various religions and cultures in promoting tolerance, and renouncing violent extremism and terrorism.” In his July 25 Eid al-Fitr remarks, the Sunni grand mufti urged all citizens of the country to focus on “boosting national unity, the national state, and coexistence.”
While the country’s small remaining Jewish community stated it generally enjoyed a respectful relationship with the greater population, the Jewish Community Council reported continued acts of vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Beirut during the year. The council’s 2011 lawsuit against individuals who constructed buildings in the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli was continuing, pending additional court-ordered analysis of the site, and had not been resolved by year’s end. Additionally, the Jewish community faced difficulty importing material for religious rites, such as wine and Torahs, as customs agents were reportedly wary of allowing imports containing the Hebrew script.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to engage government officials on the need to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious groups.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with individual politicians representing different religious groups to discuss the views of their constituents and to promote religious tolerance. The Ambassador met with the leadership of the Sunni, Shia, Druze, and many Christian communities to promote interfaith dialogue and to urge them to take steps to counter violent extremism. Embassy officers met with civil society representatives to convey similar messages. The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to work with local religious and community leaders to support their efforts to reduce sectarian tensions spilling over from the violence in Syria.
Other embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious faiths. The embassy supported an interreligious academy, which trained youth on tolerance, religious freedom, and counteracting religious extremism. The embassy continued to support the Alwan project, which aimed to build students’ knowledge and understanding of religious diversity and improve their critical thinking skills through activities on religious pluralism. The embassy again selected five students to participate in an annual summer exchange program in the United States focused on religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue. The embassy also sponsored a workshop and other programs on countering violent extremism related to religion for local government officials and civil society actors. The embassy funded a project that disseminated moderate messages of peace and tolerance through social media, mainly on Facebook, to counter extremist online messaging. The project included the formation of an advisory board of Sunni and Shia religious leaders along with academics to design the framework of the tolerance messages.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief and to manifest and propagate one’s religion. The government provided extensive support for schools operated by religious groups, including paying and certifying all teachers.
At a Christian Council of Lesotho (CCL) event in May, all major political parties signed a pledge to honor the constitution and laws of the country, observe the electoral code of conduct, honor governance institutions, uphold peace and harmony during campaigns, and accept the June 3 general election outcome.
The U.S. government continued to discuss religious freedom with the government and maintained regular contact with religious leaders.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.0 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the CCL, which is an umbrella organization of five Christian churches, approximately 90 percent of the population is Christian. Other sources estimate the Christian population to be 95 percent or higher. Protestants, including Anglicans, evangelical Christians, Methodists, members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Pentecostals, represent 45 percent of the population, and Roman Catholics represent 45 percent. The remaining 10 percent is Muslim, Hindu and Bahai, belongs to indigenous or other religious groups, or is atheist. Many Christians practice traditional indigenous rituals in conjunction with Christianity. There is a small number of Jews, most of whom are not citizens. Muslims live primarily in the northern area of the country. There is no significant correlation between religious affiliation and ethnicity.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief, and to manifest and propagate one’s religion. These rights may be limited by laws in the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or protecting the rights of other persons, provided the limitations are the minimum necessary.
The government has no established requirements for recognition of religious groups. By law, any group, religious or otherwise, may register as a legal entity with the government, regardless of its purpose, as long as it has a constitution and a leadership committee. Most religious groups register, but there is no penalty for those that do not. Registration gives a group legal standing, formalizes its structure under the law, and provides exemption from income tax. In the absence of registration, religious organizations may operate freely and tend to business as they see fit, but without any of the legal standing or protections of registered organizations.
The education ministry pays and certifies all teachers at government-funded schools, including religious schools, and requires a standard curriculum for both secular and religious schools. The government does not officially mandate religious education in schools, and the constitution exempts students at any educational institution from requirements to receive instruction or attend any ceremony or observance associated with a religion that is not their own. The minister of education must approve all curricula, including for religious education classes.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Churches owned and operated approximately 80 percent of all primary and secondary schools. The Roman Catholic Church, Lesotho Evangelical Church, Anglican Church, and, to a lesser extent, Methodist Church were the primary operators of religious schools, which were publicly funded. In practice, in any school offering religious education – including all religious schools and some secular schools – the subject was mandatory. Children continued to be permitted to attend schools run by a religious group other than their own, and some families chose this option. Others went to public schools or secular private schools.
The government continued to invite the CCL regularly to open government ceremonies and meetings.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The CCL initiated a dialogue that culminated in May, with all major political parties signing a pledge to honor the constitution and laws of the country, observe the electoral code of conduct, honor governance institutions, uphold peace and harmony during campaigns, and accept the June 3 general election outcome.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. embassy discussed religious freedom with the government, typically in the context of broader discussions about human rights. The embassy also maintained regular contact with religious leaders, including with representatives of the CCL, to engage on a number of human rights topics.