Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states freedom of conscience and choice of religion or no religion are inviolable, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the state shall assist in maintaining tolerance and respect among believers of different denominations, as well as between believers and nonbelievers. It states the practice of any religion shall be unrestricted and religious beliefs, institutions, and communities shall not be used for political ends. It restricts freedom of religion to the extent that its practice would be detrimental to national security, public order, health, and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. It states no one shall be exempt from obligations established by the constitution or the law on grounds of religious or other convictions. The constitution also stipulates the separation of religious institutions from the state and prohibits the formation of political parties along religious lines as well as organizations that incite religious animosity. The law does not allow any privilege based on religious identity.
The constitution names Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s traditional religion. The law establishes the BOC as a legal entity, exempting it from the court registration that is mandatory for all other religious groups wishing to acquire legal recognition.
The penal code prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for persons attacking individuals or groups based on their religious affiliation. Instigators and leaders of an attack may receive prison sentences of up to six years. Those who obstruct the ability of individuals to profess their faith, carry out their rituals and services, or compel another to participate in religious rituals and services may receive prison sentences of up to one year. Violating a person’s or group’s freedom to acquire or practice a religious belief is subject to a fine of between 100 and 300 levs ($59 to $180). If a legal entity commits the infraction, the fine can range from 500 to 5,000 levs ($290 to $2,900).
To receive national legal recognition, the law requires religious groups other than the BOC to register with the Sofia City Court. Applications must include: the group’s name and official address; a description of the group’s religious beliefs and service practices, organizational structure and bodies, management procedures, bodies, and mandates; a list of official representatives and the processes for their election; procedures for convening meetings and making decisions; and information on finances and property and processes for termination and liquidation of a group. The Directorate for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers provides expert opinions on registration matters upon request of the court. Applicants may appeal negative registration decisions to the Sofia Appellate Court and, subsequently, the Supreme Cassation Court. The law does not require the formal registration of local branches of registered groups, only that branches notify local authorities of the national registration of their group. The law prohibits registration of different groups with the same name in the same location. There are 180 registered religious groups in addition to the BOC.
The law requires the government to provide funding for all registered religious groups, although there is no legal requirement on how to allocate the funds among the groups. Registered groups have the right to perform religious services; own assets such as houses of worship and cemeteries; provide medical, social, and educational services; receive property tax exemptions; and participate in commercial ventures.
Unregistered religious groups may engage in religious practice, but they lack privileges granted to registered groups, such as access to government funding and the right to own property, establish financial accounts in their names, operate schools and hospitals, receive property tax exemptions, and sell religious merchandise.
The law restricts the wearing of face-covering garments in public places, imposing a fine of 200 levs ($120) for a first offense and 1,500 levs ($880) for repeat offenders.
The law allows registered groups to publish, import, and distribute religious media; unregistered groups may not do so. The law does not restrict proselytizing by registered or unregistered groups. Some municipal ordinances, however, restrict the activities of unregistered groups to include proselytizing and require local permits for distribution of religious literature in public places.
By law, public schools at all levels may, but are not required to, teach the historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of religion and introduce students to the moral values of different religious groups as part of the core curriculum. A school may teach any registered religion in a special course as part of the elective curriculum upon request of at least eight students, subject to the availability of books and teachers. The Ministry of Education and Science approves and provides books for these special religion courses. If a public school is unable to pay for a religion teacher, it may accept financial sponsorship from a private donor or a teacher from a registered denomination. The law also allows registered religious groups to operate schools and universities, provided they meet government standards for secular education.
The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent government body charged with preventing and protecting against discrimination, including religious discrimination, and ensuring equal opportunity. It functions as a civil litigation court adjudicating discrimination complaints and does not charge for its services; its decisions may be appealed to administrative courts. If the commission accepts a case, it assigns it to a panel and then reviews it in open session. If it makes a finding of discrimination, the commission may impose a fine of 250-2,000 levs ($150-$1,200). The commission may double fines for repeat violations. Regional courts may also try civil cases involving religious discrimination.
The law establishes an independent ombudsman to serve as an advocate for citizens who believe public or municipal administrations or public service providers have violated their rights and freedoms, including those pertaining to religion, through their actions or inaction. The ombudsman may request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals for terminating existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request the Constitutional Court to abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.
The penal code provides up to three years’ imprisonment for forming “a political organization on religious grounds” or using a church or religion to spread propaganda against the authority of the state or its activities. It prohibits the propagation or incitement of religious or other discrimination, violence, or hatred “by speech, press or other media, by electronic information systems or in another manner,” as well as religiously motivated assault or property damage. Either offense is punishable by imprisonment for one to four years and a fine of 5,000-10,000 levs ($2,900-$5,900), as well as “public censure.” Desecration of religious symbols or sites, including places of worship or graves, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 3,000-10,000 levs ($1,800-$5,900).
The law allows foreign members of religious denominations to obtain long-term residency permits.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On December 21, the National Assembly passed amendments to a 2002 religious denomination law that provide for increased government funding for the two largest religious groups, the BOC and the Muslim community, and require all religious groups to report to the government all places of worship they use. The original version of the amendments, presented in the National Assembly in May and approved at first reading in October, imposed restrictions on foreign funding and foreign clergy activities. They also prohibited preaching in a language other than Bulgarian, required denominations to prove they had at least 300 (subsequently increased to 3,000) members to obtain registration, and limited religious groups’ ability to open religious schools and conduct religious education. All major religious groups in the country opposed the proposed amendments, stating they would restrict religious freedom under the guise of protecting national security and combating terrorism. The religious groups also criticized the amendments as discriminatory toward smaller groups, stating they would violate the constitutional separation between religion and state and impose unprecedented government control on religious life. In November and December, following protests by all major religious groups, the political parties in the National Assembly negotiated with their representatives and agreed on a revised version of the amendments, removing the discriminatory provisions by year’s end.
On March 30, the Plovdiv Appellate Court sentenced Ahmed Mussa to one year in prison for spreading Salafi Islam, which the prosecution characterized as an antidemocratic ideology, and for membership in an illegal radical organization. The court levied fines on 11 other Muslims ranging between 1,500 and 2,000 levs ($880-$1,200). The court found one individual not guilty. In 2016 the Supreme Cassation Court had vacated the guilty verdict against Mussa and rescinded the fines against the 12 other Muslims, ordering the Plovdiv Appellate Court to retry the case. By year’s end, Mussa continued to appeal the verdict in the Supreme Cassation Court.
A trial that began in 2016 of 14 Romani Muslims, including Ahmed Mussa, on charges of supporting ISIS, assisting foreign fighters, and propagating antidemocratic ideology and incitement to war continued at year’s end in the Pazardjik District Court. Mussa remained free on bail, and the court released the other defendants on their own recognizance.
In April the High Muslim Council (HMC), representing Muslims in the country and led by Grand Mufti Mustafa Alish Hadji, issued a declaration protesting an interview in the online site Trafficnews. In the interview, the prosecutor of the two cases involving Ahmed Mussa and others described Muslims as “an easy to manipulate … monolithic mass” and a threat to the country’s security. The HMC accused the prosecutor of hate speech and called on authorities to take action against her. The prosecutor said she had not given such an interview. The prosecution service’s inspectorate concluded there had been no misconduct, and the Commission for Protection against Discrimination declined to open a case, citing lack of sufficient evidence.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community remained unregistered despite the June 2017 European Commission on Human Rights ruling that the government had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by denying its registration application. In September the Ahmadis filed a new registration application with the Sofia City Court; the application was pending at year’s end.
In April the Shumen Regional Court issued a four-month suspended sentence and a public censure to brothers Rosen and Atanas Yordanov, also known as Yuzeir and Ali Yuzeirov, for using “OTOMAN” as an acronym for a political party named “Unity for Tolerance, Responsibility, Moral, and Alternative Progress.” The court found that the party’s constituent assembly on the day of Christian observance of Good Friday, its wearing of fez hats, using a crescent on the new party’s flag, and performing a namaz prayer during a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument of a Bulgarian war hero who fought in the Balkan War against the Ottomans constituted preaching religious hatred.
On December 21, the Smolyan Regional Court began hearing the case against Efrem Mollov, charged with propagating discrimination and religious hatred in his book, Is There Future for Great Bulgaria or Why Pomak History Remains Hidden. According to the indictment, the book distorted history by glorifying Pomaks at the expense of all other Bulgarians. Mollov did not appear in court, but his attorney pled guilty on his behalf and requested a fast-track trial, meaning the court has to sentence him below the minimum penalty (up to four years’ imprisonment or probation and a fine of 5,000-10,000 levs ($2,900-$5,900)). The court, however, postponed the case because a fast-track trial requires the defendant’s presence.
Former Grand Mufti Nedim Gendjev continued to challenge the legitimacy of Hadji as grand mufti. At year’s end, an appeal against Hadji’s election at a regular Muslim conference in 2016 remained pending in court.
The national budget allocated a total of five million levs ($2.93 million) for the construction and maintenance of religious facilities and related expenses, including 3.8 million levs ($2.23 million) for the BOC; 400,000 levs ($234,000) for the Muslim community; and 60,000 levs ($35,100) each for the Catholic Church, AAOC, and the Jewish community. The budget distributed 100,000 levs ($58,600) among seven other registered denominations that had applied for funds to the Directorate for Religious Affairs. The directorate stated its goal was to make sure denominations that had not received funds previously received funding if they applied. The government’s budget also allocated 300,000 levs ($176,000) for the maintenance of religious facilities of national importance, 55,000 levs ($32,200) for the publication of religious books and research, and 15,000 levs ($8,800) to the National Council of Religious Communities. The budget kept 150,000 levs ($87,900) in reserve. Throughout the year, as was customary, the government allocated more than two million levs ($1.17 million) in targeted funding for restoration or construction of BOC facilities.
Minority religious groups reported dozens of municipalities, including the regional cities of Kyustendil, Pleven, Shumen, and Sliven, had ordinances prohibiting door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature. Many municipalities, including the regional cities of Razgrad, Varna, and Vratsa, restricted the activities of unregistered religious groups.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported many municipalities continued to have ordinances restricting their religious activities, including ones preventing them from expressing their religious convictions in public and carrying out what the ordinances termed “religious agitation on city streets” by distributing free printed materials, and from visiting individuals at their homes, which was often characterized as “religious propaganda.” They noted many of those municipalities did not enforce these ordinances, especially after the religious group started filing lawsuits. They continued to cite instances in which police or local government officials fined, threatened, warned, or issued citations to individual Jehovah’s Witnesses for violating these ordinances. On May 26, a police patrol approached two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were proselytizing in a Sofia neighborhood and told them engaging individuals in their homes was illegal, threatening to “take more serious measures” if they continued. Jehovah’s Witness representatives stated, however, that such instances had decreased significantly since 2017.
There were continued instances of municipalities imposing fines on individual Jehovah’s Witnesses even though the city ordinances did not include restrictions on religious activities. Courts generally annulled these fines when Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed them. For example, on January 11, Varna municipal officials issued citations for unauthorized commercial activity to Jehovah’s Witnesses distributing religious literature, but the administrative court in Varna subsequently repealed them.
In February and July, the Supreme Administrative Court confirmed the lower courts’ decisions and ruled the Stara Zagora and Kyustendil municipalities’ ordinances restricting proselytizing had violated the country’s constitution, declaring the ordinances null and void. Shumen Municipality’s appeal of a court ruling declaring provisions in its ordinance restricting proselytizing unconstitutional was pending at year’s end.
In March, the government secured funding and started a procedure for the restoration of the Makbul Ibrahim Pasa Mosque in Razgrad, a national cultural monument managed by the Ministry of Culture. According to media publications, the government acted because of continued pleas by the regional mufti and requests for reciprocal maintenance of historic religious buildings by Turkey.
In May the Office of the Grand Mufti issued a protest declaration against the decision of the municipal council in Stara Zagora to replace more than 800 place names of Turkish and Arabic origin with Bulgarian names, stating that the “level of racism and intolerance regarding everything Muslim is critical. It is an extremely dangerous process that could provoke a new line of division in society.”
Catholic community leaders continued to object to the Sofia municipality’s refusal to recognize the religious status of two monasteries there, treating them instead as residential buildings and imposing taxes that otherwise would be waived. At year’s end, appeals were pending at the Sofia Administrative Court.
The Office of the Grand Mufti again reported there had been no progress by year’s end regarding its claim, lodged with the Sofia City Court, for succession to the properties of pre-1940s Muslim religious communities seized by the communist government. Pending court review of who was the rightful successor to the confiscated properties, the government continued to suspend all restitution claims by the Office of the Grand Mufti.
According to the Catholic Church, authorities had returned approximately 50 percent of the properties for which it was seeking restitution since the restitution law entered into force in 1992; however, the government again did not restitute any additional properties during the year.
The United Evangelical Churches (UEC) – a group representing nine individual Protestant churches and three unions of Pentecostal, Baptist, and Congregational Churches – cited cases of small town mayors who pressured the chitalishta (local government-supported educational and cultural community centers) to refuse to rent their premises to Protestants for their religious activities because they were “sects.” In April the mayor of the village of Erden told representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that she prohibited them from preaching in the village because it was populated only by Orthodox Christians. She reportedly threatened them with “more serious” measures if they persisted. The UEC, however, reported satisfactory cooperation with local authorities in large cities such as Sofia and Plovdiv.
In April the Stara Zagora Administrative Court ordered the prison administration to pay 1,000 levs ($590) in damages to a Muslim prisoner in Stara Zagora Prison because of its failure to provide pork-free meals.
The government continued to permit religious headdresses in official photographs for national identity documents as long as both ears and one centimeter (0.4 inches) of hair were visible.
In October Jewish organizations Shalom and B’nai B’rith protested the Ministry of Defense’s initiative to award a medal to Dyanko Markov, a former member of the anti-Semitic organization Union of Bulgarian National Legions that supported the deportation of Jews during World War II. In May Shalom described an exhibition on the role of King Boris III and the government of Bogdan Filov in the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust as a “provocation” and “distortion of history” because it attempted to “prove” the pro-Nazi government rescued the Bulgarian Jews. Speaking to a television reporter at the opening of the exhibition, then Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov blamed the rescued Jews for subsequently executing their rescuers after becoming part of the communist government. In April Shalom protested a statement by prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who joked during a media briefing that the World Jewish Congress was watching and would step in if prosecutors did not strictly apply the procedures prescribed by law.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and the Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO) parties, both members of the United Patriots coalition, did not actively continue their previous campaign against the religious group, which the Witnesses said was likely due to the absence of elections during the year. At year’s end, two members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to appeal the Burgas District Court decisions before the Supreme Cassation Court, which dismissed their claims against IMRO regional leader Georgi Drakaliev over his alleged instigation and participation in a 2011 attack on the Jehovah’s Witnesses kingdom hall in Burgas.
In May President Rumen Radev hosted a traditional presidential iftar attended by religious leaders representing the six religions on the National Council, politicians, academics, diplomats, and refugees. At the iftar, Radev told the participants the event symbolized the “abiding tolerance of the Bulgarian people” and demonstrated the “will of the state to work for greater understanding and mutual respect.” In April Minister of Foreign Affairs Ekaterina Zaharieva hosted a Passover dinner for local and regional members of the Jewish community, religious leaders, and diplomats from member countries of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
On November 29, the country became the 32nd full member of the IHRA. Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev served as the national coordinator for combating anti-Semitism.
A Holocaust education program continued to train 20-25 history teachers annually, based on a 2016 memorandum between the Ministry of Education and Israel’s Yad Vashem. On September 12-14, Shalom hosted a workshop for 50 history teachers from Bulgaria and Macedonia on the Holocaust in the Balkans and the fight against anti-Semitism and hate speech.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported at least 13 instances of physical assault and harassment of missionaries, compared with 22 in 2017. More than half of the incidents occurred in Ruse in the northeastern part of the country. Other incidents took place in Burgas, Plovdiv, and Sofia. Church representatives said police sometimes refused to accept incident reports from victims. On September 19, Church representatives in Ruse reported a group of four young persons threatened two missionaries with a knife and tried to hit them with a motorcycle helmet.
The regional prosecutor’s office refused to press charges and terminated its investigation of two teenage girls who in June 2017 attacked Deputy Grand Mufti Biralli Mumun Biralli’s wife and two daughters. After the attack, the HMC stated the attack was a consequence of negative anti-Muslim rhetoric by media and politicians, including in the national assembly.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that a man assaulted their members in the street in Nova Zagora on three occasions in June and July. A police officer registered a complaint of the incidents and stated police would “visit the perpetrator.”
In May the Shumen District Court confirmed the three-year suspended prison sentence and the 15,129 lev ($8,900) fine imposed by a lower court on Nikolay N. for a 2016 assault on a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The court did not accept the victim’s request that the crime be considered religiously motivated, instead basing its ruling on the prosecution’s charges of hooliganism and xenophobia.
In February the Bulgarian National Union held a rally with more than 500 participants in downtown Sofia in honor of Hristo Lukov, leader of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi organization Union of Bulgarian National Legions in the 1940s. The Sofia municipality, the government, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions denounced the rally. Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova banned the march on the grounds it would disturb public order, but the Sofia Administrative Court revoked the ban and instructed the mayor to offer alternatives. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the event in declarations issued both before and after the event, calling it a “shameful act” and a “demonstration of xenophobia, discrimination, and hatred.” On February 14, the Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria party condemned the march before a session of the National Assembly. A few days before the rally, a conference titled “Sofia Says No to Hate Speech and Extremism” gathered government representatives, NGOs, academics, students, and diplomats to discuss what participants said was rising nationalism and increasing intolerance and anti-Semitism, to make a clear statement against extremism, and to explore possible avenues for engaging the public in promoting tolerance.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites and as comments in online media articles. Anti-Semitic graffiti such as swastikas and offensive inscriptions appeared regularly in public places. Shalom indicated that during the year, there were no violent acts of anti-Semitism but stated anti-Semitic attitudes increased, in part due to the presence of “far-right and ultranationalist” political parties in the government. Souvenirs with Nazi insignias continued to be widely available in tourist areas around the country. In May local authorities in Sliven removed a book on Hitler from a national festival of children’s books following a protest from the local Shalom branch. Booksellers promoted the book, entitled The Man behind the Monster, during the festival.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported negative characterizations in media continued to decline, but some local online media outlets continued to misrepresent regularly their activities and beliefs. On May 18, online media site Struma described the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “a very dangerous sect…ensnaring people in order to make them commit suicide as a sacrifice to God.” On April 2, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the 2016 decision of the Commission for Protection against Discrimination that levied a 2,000 lev ($1,200) fine on SKAT TV and a 1,200 lev ($700) fine on two of its journalists for spreading false information and making comments that it ruled constituted discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish community leaders, and the Office of the Grand Mufti, incidents of vandalism continued, such as painted swastikas, graffiti, and broken windows, in their respective places of worship. For example, in July local individuals, subsequently arrested by police, desecrated 55 Muslim and 14 Christian graves in the village of Gradnitsa. In May following the article in the Struma site, vandals broke the windows of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ rented place of worship in Petrich, and the property owner subsequently decided to discontinue the rental lease agreement. In January unidentified individuals wrote “Enemies of King Boris III” on a monument to the Jews who perished in July 1944 when the labor camp in which they had been held was set on fire.
In February Taner Veli, the regional Mufti of Plovdiv, hosted the fourth annual Tolerance Coffee event, commemorating a 2014 attack on the local Cumaya Mosque. Representatives of the Christian and Jewish communities, local government officials, foreign diplomats, and representatives of civil society attended the event.
The National Council of Religious Communities, whose members include representatives of Bulgarian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities, continued its efforts to promote religious tolerance. It served as a platform for the largest denominations to organize joint events and defend a common position on religious issues such as certain legislative proposals, anti-Semitic actions, and other acts of defacement.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution does not explicitly address religious freedom, but the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplementary constitutional document, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and the fundamental rights of all regardless of their faith or religion. It states every individual has the right to change religion or faith; to abstain from religious belief; and to freely practice religion, alone or in community, in private or public, “through worship, teaching, practice, observance.” The charter defines religious societies, recognizing their freedom to profess their faith publicly or privately and to govern their own affairs, independent of the state. It stipulates conscientious objectors may not be compelled to perform military service and that conditions for religious instruction at state schools shall be set by law. The charter states religious freedom may be limited by law in the event of threats to “public safety and order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.”
The law states the MOC Department of Churches is responsible for religious affairs. While religious groups are not required by law to register with the government and are free to perform religious activities without registering, they have the option to register with the MOC. The law establishes a two-tiered system of registration for religious groups. The MOC reviews applications for first- and second-tier registration with input from other government bodies, such as the Office for Protection of Private Data and outside experts on religious affairs. The law does not establish a deadline for the MOC to decide on a registration application. Applicants denied registration can appeal to the MOC to reconsider its decision and, if again denied, to the courts.
To qualify for the first (lower) tier, a religious group must present the signatures of at least 300 adult members permanently residing in the country, a founding document listing the basic tenets of the faith, and a clearly defined structure of fiduciary responsibilities. First-tier registration confers limited tax benefits, including exemptions from a tax on the interest earned on current account deposits and taxes on donations and members’ contributions, and establishes annual reporting requirements on activities, balance sheets, and use of funds.
For second-tier registration, a group must have been registered with the Department of Churches for 10 years, have published annual reports throughout the time of its registration, and have membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the population, or approximately 10,700 persons. The group must provide this number of signatures as proof. Second-tier registration entitles religious groups to government subsidies. In addition, only clergy of registered second-tier religious groups may perform officially recognized marriage ceremonies and serve as chaplains in the military and at prisons. Prisoners who belong to unregistered religious groups or groups with first-tier status may receive visits from their own clergy, outside of the prison chaplaincy system.
Religious groups registered prior to 2002 have automatic second-tier status without having to fulfill the requirements for second-tier registration.
There are 40 state-registered religious groups; 18 groups are first tier and 22 are second tier.
Unregistered religious groups are free to assemble and worship but may not legally own property. Unregistered groups may form civic associations to manage their property.
The law authorizes the government to return to 17 religious groups (including the Roman Catholic Church, FJC, the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, and the Hussite Church) land and other property confiscated during the communist era and still in the government’s possession, the total value of which is estimated to be approximately 75 billion koruna ($3.42 billion). It also sets aside 59 billion koruna ($2.69 billion) for financial compensation for property that cannot be returned, to be paid to these 17 groups over a period of 30 years, ending in 2043, according to a fixed timetable. Using a mechanism prescribed by law based on an agreement among the religious groups concerned, the government allocates slightly more than 79 percent of the financial compensation to the Catholic Church. Religious groups had a one-year window, which ended in 2013, to make restitution claims for confiscated land and other property, which the government is processing. If the government rejects a property claim, the claimant may appeal the decision in the courts. The law also contains provisions for phasing out direct state subsidies to second-tier religious groups over a 17-year period, ending in 2029.
The law permits second-tier registered religious groups to apply through the MOC to teach religion in state schools; 11 of the 22 second-tier groups have applied and received permission. The teachers are supplied by the religious groups and paid by the state. If a state school does not have enough funds to pay for its religious education teachers, teachers are paid by parishes or dioceses. Although the law makes religious instruction in public schools optional, school directors must provide instruction in the beliefs of one of the 11 approved religious groups if seven or more students register for the optional class at the beginning of the school year, in which case the school provides the religious instruction only to the students who registered.
The government does not regulate instruction in private schools.
The penal code outlaws denial of Nazi, communist, or other genocide, providing for prison sentences of six months to three years for public denial, questioning, approval of, or attempts to justify the genocide committed by the Nazis. The law also prohibits the incitement of hatred based on religion and provides for penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment.
Foreign religious workers from European Economic Area countries or Switzerland must obtain long-term residence and work permits to remain in the country for more than 90 days. There is no special visa category for religious workers; foreign missionaries and clergy are required to meet the conditions for a standard work permit.
The law designates January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In June the MOC registered two religious groups – the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X and Theravada Buddhism – both of which had applied in 2016. Registration applications by the Community of Baptist Congregations, which applied in January, and Ecclesia Risorum, which applied in March, remained pending at year’s end.
In March the Municipal Court in Prague, ruling on an appeal by the Cannabis Church, overturned the MOC’s December 2016 decision to halt that group’s registration application. The court ordered the MOC to reopen the registration procedure. The MOC asked the Cannabis Church to supplement the registration application with additional information. The Cannabis Church’s application remained pending at year’s end. An appeal filed in 2017 with the Municipal Court in Prague by the Lions of the Round Table – Order of the Lands of the Czech Crown, whose registration application the MOC rejected in 2016, remained pending at year’s end. In January the Municipal Court confirmed with the PGJ its wish to continue its legal appeal against the MOC, which twice rejected the group’s application in 2017. PGJ’s lawsuit against the government’s Office for Personal Data Protection, alleging an interrogative and abusive investigation of the PGJ’s registration application in 2017, remained pending at year’s end.
According to local news media, on October 11, the High Court in Olomouc upheld the January conviction in absentia by the Regional Court in Zlin of PGJ leader Jaroslav Dobes and PGJ member Barbora Plaskova on one count of rape and sentenced them to prison terms of five and five and a half years, respectively, and ordered them to pay the victim 60,000 koruna ($2,700). The high court voided convictions by the Zlin Regional Court of Dobes and Plaskova on seven other counts of rape and remanded the cases back to the Zlin court for retrial. In January the Zlin Regional Court had sentenced Dobes and Plaskova to seven and a half years in prison each after convicting them in absentia on eight counts of rape involving six women. Defense lawyers had appealed the verdict to the High Court in Olomouc. On December 21, according to PGJ representatives, the Zlin Regional Court dismissed the remaining seven charges of rape against Dobes and Plaskova and halted all criminal proceedings. Dobes and Plaskova reportedly remained in immigration detention in the Philippines.
The government provided 17 second-tier religious groups with approximately 3.3 billion koruna ($150.4 million), 1.2 billion koruna ($54.69 million) as a subsidy and 2.1 billion koruna ($95.71 million) as compensation for communal property in private and state hands that would not be returned. Five of the 22 second-tier groups declined all state funding. While accepting the state subsidy, the Baptist Union opted not to accept the compensation for unreturned property. The MOC provided 2.8 million koruna ($128,000) in grants for religiously oriented cultural activities in response to applications from a variety of religious groups.
Throughout the year, the Communist Party (a supporter of the coalition government but not an official coalition member and holding no ministries) supported legislation (which it introduced in 2017) to tax the remaining portion of financial compensation for property that could not be returned, estimated at approximately 46 billion koruna ($2.1 billion). The draft legislation, which some parliamentarians said they opposed, was scheduled to be voted on in 2019.
The government reported that, between January and September 2017, the most recent period for which data were available, it settled 446 claims with religious groups for agricultural property and 192 claims for nonagricultural property. (An earlier government report had incorrectly cited a higher number of settled claims for agricultural and nonagricultural property in the first three months of 2017.) At the end of this period, 66 agricultural and 89 nonagricultural property claims had not been adjudicated, and 1,318 lawsuits filed by religious groups in the courts to appeal government restitution decisions were pending.
In August the Supreme Court upheld the 2017 ruling by the South Moravian Regional Court in Brno that overturned a decision by the Brno Municipal Court earlier that year holding that the Brno Jewish Community (BJC) had legal title to a property in possession of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The Supreme Court and the South Moravian Regional Court both held the property belonged to the ministry. The BJC had filed its claim in 2013 based on church restitution legislation, and the ministry had rejected the claim in 2014.
The city of Prostejov continued to oppose the restoration of a former Jewish cemetery by the Kolel Damesek Eliezer Foundation, a U.S. charity, and the FJC. The cemetery, which along with its remaining tombstones the MOC designated as a cultural monument, was destroyed by the Nazis and later converted into a park. Vladimir Spidla, who was an adviser to former Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, continued to mediate the dispute.
In July a district court in Prague convicted former SPD Party Secretary Jaroslav Stanik of hate speech after he stated publicly in November 2017 that Jews, Roma, and homosexuals should be shot right after birth. The court issued a criminal order allowing for a suspended sentence up to one year or a fine if the defendant did not appeal it. Stanik appealed the criminal order. The Prague 1 District Court indefinitely postponed an appeals hearing scheduled for September for reasons of Stanik’s health.
In October President Zeman bestowed the Medal for Merits to the director of a state nursing school in Prague for “fighting intolerant ideology,” widely seen as a reference to Islam, after she barred a Somali student from wearing a hijab at school.
During municipal and senate elections in October, the SPD Party and its leader Tomio Okamura ran on an anti-Islam platform, posting notices on billboards reading “No to Islam, No to Terrorists.” The party did not win any senate seats and attained 155 out of 61,892 seats in municipal assemblies.
In February the government granted asylum to eight Chinese Christians and rejected asylum applications of 70 others. The Chinese Christian applicants had all applied in 2016 on the grounds of religious persecution in China. Fourteen other applicants withdrew their applications before the government announced its decisions. The 70 applicants whom the government rejected remained in the country at year’s end while they appealed their cases.
In April then-Deputy Chairman (later Chairman) of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera again sponsored and participated in an annual march and concert against anti-Semitism. The march opened the government-funded 15th annual Culture against Anti-Semitism Festival. Festival-goers signed a petition against anti-Semitism initiated by Senator Daniela Filipiova. Approximately 600 people attended the event.
The government funded religiously oriented cultural activities, including the Night of Churches held in several cities, the annual National Pilgrimage of St. Wenceslaus, KRISTFEST (a festival of seminars, workshops, and musical performances on religious themes), the Concert in Memory of Holocaust Victims, the annual Hussite Festival (commemorating the religious teaching of reformation leader Jan Hus), and the Romani Pilgrimage, organized by the Catholic Diocese of Olomouc.
The MOI said it continued to cooperate with the Jewish community on protection of Jewish sites in Prague and across the country, but did not provide details.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to NGO In IUSTITIA, there were reports of 17 religiously motivated hate crimes during the year, 13 against Muslims and four against Jews, compared with 34 such cases in 2017. In IUSTITIA did not provide details of the incidents.
In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the MOI reported 27 criminal offenses with anti-Semitic motives, compared with 28 cases in 2016. The MOI reported three crimes with anti-Muslim motives in 2017, compared with seven in 2016. The MOI did not provide details of the incidents.
In March press reported police had arrested a 70-year-old man who in 2017 caused two trains to derail near Mlada Boleslav, approximately 40 miles north of Prague, and left Arabic messages at the scene in what authorities described as an attempt to provoke a reaction against Muslims. According to state attorney Marek Bodlak, the man left leaflets “containing linguistically garbled threatening texts to evoke that they were written by a jihadist.” Bodlak told newspaper Lidove noviny, “The accused is a native Czech citizen, motivated by the effort to raise concerns among the population about the Muslim migration wave and the commission of terrorist attacks.” The man’s trial was pending at year’s end.
According to a July survey of more than 800 persons by the Median polling agency, 35 percent said they did not mind interacting with Muslims in public places, but 80 percent did not want them as neighbors or want a mosque in their neighborhood, and 81 percent said they would be bothered if their child had a relationship with a Muslim. Citizens with less education and over the age of 45 were more likely to cite fear of Muslims. Respondents with greater interactions with Muslims reported more positive attitudes towards them.
In March the Municipal Theatre in Zlin received an anonymous anti-Semitic letter after it presented a play based on local developments following the efforts to restore the former Jewish cemetery in the nearby city of Prostejov. The letter stated, “The Jews are unwanted immigrants who have the obligation to immediately disappear abroad or in gas.” Police were investigating the case at year’s end.
The MOI reported 18 private “white power” music concerts took place in the country, where participants expressed anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views. The MOI estimated approximately 50 to 100 persons attended a typical “white power” concert.
According to press reports, at a soccer match on November 4 between the Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague clubs, fans of the former shouted anti-Semitic taunts at Slavia, including “Jude Slavia,” alluding to the club’s supposed Jewish links. An interior ministry spokesperson said the chant was not motivated by “hatred towards a group of people for their alleged or actual race, ethnic group…” and that the football association should address the issue. Pavel Stingl, a documentary filmmaker, organized an exhibition, titled “Football: A Century of Fouls,” examining the sport’s relationship with fascism when the country was under Nazi occupation and highlighting the involvement of Jews in soccer’s development in the country. Stingl said he was motivated by the failure of government and soccer officials to address the problem of anti-Semitism among fans and because Sparta fans had posted anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi messages on social media.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric on the internet increased, according to the MOI. Discussions on social networks or in the comments sections under news articles featured anti-Muslim hate speech. For example, a discussion under an online series of articles on the Muslim community in the country published by mainstream newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes included anti-Islamic posts, including one stating that “Islam is a cancer on democracy.” In contrast to the previous year, there were no reports of demonstrations protesting against Islam or the acceptance of refugees from Muslim countries.
In May the state prosecutor’s office in Ceske Budejovice halted the prosecution of Martin Konvicka, leader of the Block Against Islamization Party (BPI), whom it had charged in 2016 with incitement of hatred and suppression of rights and freedoms. The prosecutor’s office dropped the charges due to a failure to secure evidence in a timely fashion from the online social network in which it alleged Konvicka posted statements calling for the creation of concentration camps for Muslims and their physical annihilation. The BPI held no seats in parliament.
In January the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of a regional court in Jihlava that sentenced well-known anti-Semitic blogger Adam Bartos to a conditional sentence of one year in prison with two years of probation (meaning he would serve the prison sentence if found guilty of another crime during the two-year probation period) for incitement to hatred and defamation in March 2017. The verdict concerned a note Bartos wrote in 2015 supporting an 1899 Jewish blood libel trial. In June the Prague 1 District Court convicted Bartos of incitement to hatred and Holocaust denial on the internet, in public speeches, and books and sentenced him to a conditional sentence of two years in prison. Bartos appealed the verdict. In November the Municipal Court in Prague upheld the decision. Bartos appealed to the Supreme Court, where the case remained pending at year’s end.
In May the Czech Bar Association fined bar member Klara Samkova 25,000 koruna ($1,100) for publicly cursing the Turkish ambassador in June 2016. Samkova compared Islam to Nazism in a statement read in front of the Turkish embassy.
The government-funded Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims, established by the FJC, again contributed 4.5 million koruna ($205,000) to 13 institutions providing health and social care to approximately 500 Holocaust survivors.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution (also known as the basic law) prohibits discrimination based on religious opinion and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed and to practice one’s religion. The constitution also prohibits an official state church. It stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religious convictions nor be compelled to participate in religious acts. The constitution states religious instruction shall be part of the curriculum in public schools and that parents have the right to decide whether their children shall receive religious instruction. It recognizes the right to establish private denominational schools. The constitution guarantees the freedom to form religious societies and states groups may organize themselves for private religious purposes without constraint. It allows registered religious groups with Public Law Corporation (PLC) status to receive public subsidies from the states and provide religious services in the military, at hospitals, and in prisons.
The federal criminal code prohibits calling for violence or arbitrary measures against religious groups or their members or inciting hatred against them. Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison. It also prohibits “assaulting the human dignity of religious groups or their members by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming them,” specifying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although prison sentences are rare. The prohibition and the penalties apply equally to online speech. The federal criminal code prohibits disturbing religious services or acts of worship, with violators subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred, specifying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law permits the federal government to characterize “nontraditional” religious groups as “sects,” “youth religions,” and “youth sects,” and allows the government to provide “accurate information” or warnings about them to the public. The law does not permit the government to use terms such as “destructive,” “pseudo-religious,” or “manipulative” when referring to these groups. Several court decisions have ruled the government must remain neutral towards a religion and may provide a warning to the public only if an “offer” by a religious group would endanger the basic rights of an individual or place the individual in a state of physical or financial dependence.
Religious groups wishing to qualify as nonprofit associations with tax-exempt status must register. State-level authorities review registration submissions and routinely grant tax-exempt status; if challenged, their decisions are subject to judicial review. Religious groups applying for tax-exempt status must provide evidence through their statutes, history, and activities that they are a religious group.
A special partnership exists between the states and religious groups with PLC status, as outlined in the constitution. Any religious group may request PLC status, which, if granted, entitles the group to levy tithes on members (averaging 9 percent of income tax) that each state collects on its behalf, separately from income taxes, but through the state’s tax collection process. PLCs pay fees to the government for the tithing service, but not all groups with PLC status utilize the service. PLC status also allows for tax exemptions (larger than those given to groups with nonprofit status), representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations, and the right to special labor regulations, for example, requiring employees in hospitals, kindergartens, or NGOs run by a religious group to be members of that group. State governments subsidize institutions with PLC status providing public services, such as religious schools and hospitals. Due to historic “state-church contracts” dating back to before the Weimar republic, all state governments except for Bremen and Hamburg subsidize the Catholic Church and the EKD with different yearly amounts.
According to the constitution, the decision to grant PLC status is made at the state level. Individual states base PLC status decisions on a number of varying qualifications, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals. An estimated 180 religious groups have PLC status, including Catholics, the EKD, Baha’is, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mennonites, Methodists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists. Ahmadi Muslim groups have PLC status in the states of Hesse and Hamburg; no other Muslim communities have PLC status. The COS does not have PLC or nonprofit status in any state.
According to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, general headscarf bans for teachers at public schools are a violation of religious freedom, but implementation is left to the states, which may determine if special circumstances apply. Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), and Saarland render decisions on a case-by-case basis. Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Bremen do not prohibit headscarves for teachers. Hesse permits teachers to wear headscarves as long as doing so does not impair “school peace” or threaten perceptions of state neutrality. A law in Berlin bans visible signs of religious affiliation for police, lawyers, judges, law enforcement staff, and primary and secondary public school teachers. The Berlin law permits teachers at some categories of institutions, such as vocational schools, to wear headscarves. Other states have laws that restrict religious attire in certain circumstances.
In April the Bavarian Parliament amended its legislation to prohibit judges, prosecutors, and judicial trainees from wearing religious symbols in court.
Citing safety reasons and the need for traffic law enforcement, federal law prohibits the concealment of faces while driving. Infractions are punishable by a 60 euro ($69) fine.
Some federal and state laws affect religious practices. Federal animal protection laws prohibit the killing of animals without anesthesia, including as part of halal and kosher slaughter practices. However, there are exceptions. Pursuant to a Federal Administrative Court decision, trained personnel may kill animals without anesthesia in a registered slaughterhouse under observation of the local veterinary inspection office if the meat is for consumption only by members of religious communities whose beliefs require slaughtering animals without anesthesia.
According to federal law, religious groups may appoint individuals with special training to carry out circumcision of males under the age of six months. After six months, the law states circumcisions must be performed in a “medically professional manner” and without unnecessary pain.
All states offer religious instruction and ethics courses in public schools. Religious communities with PLC status (or without such status that have concluded a special agreement with the state that grants them this right) appoint religion teachers and work with the states to set the curriculum for religious education in line with the constitution; the states pay the teachers’ salaries. Most public schools offer the option of Protestant and Catholic religious instruction in cooperation with those Churches, as well as instruction in Judaism if enough students (usually 12, although regulations vary state to state) express an interest. The states of Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein also offer some religious instruction in Islam, with the teachers provided by the religious community or by the government, depending on the state. In Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein, the state provides this instruction; in the other federal states, Muslim communities or associations do. In Hamburg and Bremen, nondenominational religious instruction for all students is offered by the Protestant Church and the state, respectively.
In Bavaria, teachers provide Islamic instruction to approximately 15,000 students in 219 primary schools and 118 middle and secondary schools under a pilot program expiring in 2019. In the fall, NRW began providing Islamic religious instruction in 20 occupational (vocational) schools.
Students who do not wish to participate in religious instruction may opt out; in some states those who opt out may substitute ethics courses. State authorities generally permit religious groups to establish private schools as long as they meet basic curriculum requirements. Schooling is constitutionally mandated, and homeschooling, including for religious reasons, is prohibited in all the states.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In January the federal government created the new position of commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism. The new commissioner, Felix Klein, started work in May. The appointment followed federal parliament enactment of a resolution entitled “Resolutely Combating Anti-Semitism” on January 18. The resolution called for creation of an anti-Semitism commissioner and expressed appreciation for the government’s 2017 decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA’s) working definition of anti-Semitism. It also called for deportation of foreigners that incite anti-Semitic hatred, “determined” countering of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, continued punishment for persons who denied or trivialized the Holocaust, and further financing – including with Muslim organizations and mosques – for projects to combat anti-Semitism, as well as continued financial support for Jewish communities and memorials of the Holocaust. A 2017 report on anti-Semitism in the country by independent experts had also called for the appointment of a federal commissioner on anti-Semitism, as well as improved documentation and punishment of anti-Semitic crimes and better advisory services for those affected by anti-Semitism.
In October Klein announced that he planned to implement a nationwide system of recording anti-Semitic incidents below the threshold of criminal offenses. During a visit to Israel, he announced cooperation with the Israeli government in encouraging third party states to apply the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and to develop codes of conduct for governments’ interactions with social media companies to combat online anti-Semitism. On December 20, Klein announced the 2019 launch of a nationwide online platform for reporting anti-Semitic incidents. The platform will be run by the Research and Information Center for Anti-Semitism (RIAS), a nonprofit organization that receives some federal and state funding. The Ministry of Interior also announced it would establish a separate anti-Semitism department and add experts on Jewish life to the religious department. Klein repeatedly encouraged the federal states to establish their own anti-Semitism commissioners.
Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse, Bavaria, Saarland, Saxony-Anhalt and NRW established anti-Semitism commissioners. The responsibilities and functions of the position varied by state, but generally included developing contacts with the Jewish community, collecting statistics on anti-Semitic incidents, and designing education and prevention programs. In November the federal and state level anti-Semitism commissioners met for the first time to discuss best practices and identify areas of cooperation.
In November Baden-Wuerttemberg opened an anti-discrimination office. The state government said it would serve as a point of contact for those experiencing any form of discrimination, including religious discrimination.
In March NRW Minister-President Armin Laschet advocated granting PLC status to Muslim organizations. In January the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat requested PLC status in NRW, and the application was pending at year’s end.
In November Rhineland-Palatinate announced it was planning to sign a state agreement with the Muslim Alevite community. According to the state chancellery, the agreement would outline conditions for Alevi holidays and religious instruction in schools. At year’s end, four Rhineland-Palatinate elementary schools offered Alevi religious instruction. The government was scheduled to sign the agreement in March 2019.
In August the state of Rhineland-Palatinate announced it would stop negotiations to establish a “religion treaty” with the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) and three other Islamic organizations, Schura Rheinland-Palatinate, Ahmadiyya, and the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers. Such an agreement would have been a precondition for introducing state-wide Islamic religious education in public schools, but the state followed two expert opinion reports that had questioned DITIB’s independence from the Turkish government and the organizations’ “constitutional adequacy” as official partners for the state. State authorities also classified DITIB and Schura as “suspicious.”
In December media reported the Hesse State criminal police office started an investigation of a possible neo-Nazi network in Frankfurt’s police force after a group of police officers allegedly sent a threatening letter to a German lawyer of Turkish origin. In August investigators said they had found police officials used a work computer to look up the lawyer’s personal information without an official reason, and also found a group of five police officers had been sharing neo-Nazi images and content. Authorities suspended the five officers from duty, and the case remained under investigation at year’s end.
According to reports from the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (OPC) – the domestic intelligence service – and state OPCs and COS members, the federal and state OPCs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, NRW, and Thuringia continued to monitor the activities of the COS, reportedly by evaluating Scientology publications and members’ public activities to determine whether they violated the constitution. In September following the opening of new representational COS offices in Stuttgart, a Baden-Wuerttemberg state OPC spokesperson said state and national COS membership had decreased by one third since 1997, and suggested that the OPC’s monitoring of the COS deterred membership. COS leadership disputed the state OPC’s statement that membership had declined. At least four major political parties (the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Federal Democratic Party (FDP)) continued to exclude Scientologists from party membership.
Federal and state OPCs continued to monitor a number of Muslim groups, including Salafist movements, ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, Turkish Hezbollah (TH), Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jama’at, Millatu Ibrahim, the Islamic Center Hamburg (IZH), the Muslim Brotherhood, and Milli Gorus. The website of NRW’s OPC stated the Muslim Brotherhood “rejects democracy.”
Groups under OPC observation continued to say their status as meriting OPC scrutiny implied they were extremist and constrained their ability to apply for publicly funded projects.
In January the Hamburg Regional Court acquitted 12 alleged members of the banned Salafist group Millatu Ibrahim. The Hamburg state attorney’s office charged that the men had, among other offenses, stormed a mosque in Luebeck, Schleswig-Holstein in 2013 and threatened to kill those who did not adhere to Millatu Ibrahim’s convictions. The state attorney’s office stated it was convinced of the defendants’ guilt but that it had failed to prove the allegations.
In July Hamburg began to record hate crimes in a more detailed manner. Hamburg Justice Senator (the city-state’s minister of justice) Till Stefen told the newspaper Welt in June the statistics would improve sentencing and make sociopolitical developments more visible. Stefen added, “We need new sources to make anti-Semitic crimes visible.” Hamburg State Attorney General Jorg Frohlich stated that collecting the new statistics would require significant additional work but that “every progress is worthwhile” when combating hate crime.
In September Bavaria established a hotline for reporting anti-Semitic incidents, according to the state’s anti-Semitism commissioner. Bavarian authorities said the hotline would begin operations in spring 2019.
In May federal statistical data on the number of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hate crimes became available for the first time. Police had added the categories to their criminal statistics in 2017. Anti-Semitism was already a category of hate crime in federal crime statistics.
In February Baden-Wuerttemberg announced the state would start organizing training for Muslim chaplains at correctional facilities, rather than rely on outside organizations to conduct the training. In the same month media reported the state OPC had barred three of 16 imams who were graduates of a third-party training course from serving as prison chaplains because of what the OPC said were the imam’s contacts with radical Islamist organizations.
In May Bavarian Minister-President Markus Soeder announced a decree requiring public offices to display a cross in a visible place at the entrance area of the building where they were located. According to Soeder, the decree was intended to highlight Bavaria’s cultural and historical roots.
In March the Federal Constitutional Court dismissed the suit of a woman who wanted to drive wearing a niqab. The court stated the woman had not sufficiently demonstrated how the law prohibiting driving with a face covering restricted her religious freedom.
In March the Koblenz police district completed a disciplinary review of a male Muslim police officer who in 2017 refused to shake the hand of a female colleague, citing religious reasons. Police officials disciplined the officer, and ordered him to pledge his allegiance to the constitution in writing and pay a fine of 1,000 euros ($1,100). They also instructed the officer, on penalty of dismissal, not to refuse to shake the hands of women in the future when acting in an official capacity.
In May the Berlin Labor Court ruled against a teacher in Berlin who had sued the school system in 2017 for transferring her from a primary school to a school for older children because state law barred women who wore a headscarf from teaching younger children. The court decided the state administration had the right to transfer its teachers to any other post of the same salary level.
In November the State Labor Court of Berlin and Brandenburg awarded approximately 5,000 euros ($5,700) to a job applicant in compensation for discrimination on the grounds of religion. The job applicant, trained in information technology, said the school where she applied to work as a teacher had rejected her because she wore a headscarf. In May the local labor court had ruled that, because teachers served as a model for young students, the school was justified in limiting her religious freedom and asking her to teach without a headscarf. The state court, however, saw no indication that a teacher wearing a headscarf would have threatened “school peace,” and quoted the Federal Constitutional Court’s 2015 decision that such a threat was a necessary condition for prohibiting teachers from wearing headscarves.
In April the NRW integration ministry announced it would examine legal requirements for a headscarf ban for girls younger than 14, the age of so-called “religious majority.” The state integration minister stated in an interview that wearing a headscarf was a personal decision, but children lacked the self determination to decide and should not be pressured. Critics of the proposed ban, including some teachers, asked how the ban would be enforced. The federal integration commissioner and the chairwoman of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency spoke against the ban while federal FDP Party Chair Christian Lindner and CDU Party Vice Chair and federal Minister of Agriculture Julia Kloeckner supported it. By year’s end, the NRW state government had not decided on the proposed ban and said it expected to continue debating the issue through the end of 2019.
In April a Muslim woman wearing a niqab left a reception by Heiner Bernhard (SPD Party), the mayor of Weinheim in Baden-Wuerttemberg, after she refused a request by a town employee to show her face. The mayor stated he wished “to greet all citizens of his town face to face,” and that he considered it a “citizen’s duty” to show one’s face in a democratic state. Shortly before the incident, the municipality had refused to process a pending passport application for the woman’s child because, according to Mayor Bernhard, the mother declined to show her face for identification purposes, as required by law, while applying for the passport on behalf of her child. Bernhard told the newspaper Welt, “For identity verification, we had to see the woman’s face. She could have gone to a separate room in our town hall.”
In September the city of Pforzheim announced it had reversed a regulation requiring Muslim women wishing to wear a headscarf in their driver’s license photograph to present evidence of their faith through a certificate from their mosque or religious community. Earlier in the year, a Muslim woman’s tweet about the requirement had generated strong criticism of it on social media. The new policy required certificates of faith only in cases where there was reasonable doubt about the religious motivation of those seeking to wear a headscarf in the photograph.
In February the AfD put forward a motion requesting the government to introduce legislation in parliament to prohibit full-face veils in public. Citing the individual rights of Muslim women, the AfD motion stated that wearing a full-face veil was “an expression of the oppression of women” and of conscious distancing from “Western liberal society.” At year’s end parliament was still debating the motion in committee.
In March the Bavarian Administrative Court rejected the complaint of a judicial trainee in Augsburg who in 2014 had sued to contest a Bavarian Ministry of Justice rule denying judicial trainees the right to wear a headscarf in court. A lower court had previously sided with the plaintiff in 2016.
In July a majority of the citizens of Kaufbeuren, Bavaria voted in a referendum against leasing (for a symbolic fee) municipal real estate to the local DITIB organization on which to build a mosque.
In March the Higher Administrative Court in Muenster, NRW ruled that an event venue owner could not rent his venue for a Muslim circumcision celebration scheduled for Good Friday. The ruling reaffirmed a December 2015 ruling by the Administrative Court in Cologne. The circumcision itself had taken place several weeks before the scheduled celebration and the court ruled that the jubilant nature of the event contradicted the quiet nature of the Christian Good Friday observance, which several federal states, including NRW, legally enforced.
In February the Gelsenkirchen Administrative Court in NRW banned outdoor amplification of the call to prayer via speakers by a local mosque. Following legal action by nearby residents in 2015, the Muslim community had to stop amplifying the prayer call outside of the mosque’s premises pending a court decision. The court justified its decision in this specific case with the lack of citizen involvement and dialogue in the city’s first decision to grant the permit for the call to prayer but did not prohibit the call to prayer altogether. In March the city announced it would appeal the decision prohibiting the amplification. The city’s lawyer compared the call to prayer with the ringing of church bells and said the court had not respected the religious freedom of the Muslim community.
In October the Federal Labor Court ruled on new guidelines for the rights of religious communities as employers, ruling on a case in which the EKD-owned charity organization Diakonie denied employment to a social worker because she was not a member of a religious community. Although the job description required applicants to belong to a Christian church, the court ruled that Diakonie could not deny her employment solely on that basis. The court’s decision stated religious communities could no longer require applicants to belong to a religious community as a condition of employment unless religious communities could demonstrate that membership was required to perform the job.
In March the European Court of Human Rights unanimously held that the country’s courts’ decisions in 2013 to take Twelve Tribes Church children living in Bavaria into state care because of reports that Church members punished their children by caning had not violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In March Foreign Minister Heiko Maas condemned rising anti-Semitism at schools after Muslim immigrant children bullied a Jewish girl at a Berlin elementary school. The bullying reportedly included death threats.
In May the NRW Ministry of Schools and Education distributed resources on countering anti-Semitic bullying in schools to all schools and education authorities in the state. The action followed reports indicating that bullying of Jewish students rose in 2017. Politicians from the CDU/CSU called for action, including that schools pay more attention to communicating religious tolerance.
In December Hamburg’s parliament passed a resolution to strengthen preventive work against anti-Semitism. The parliament allocated an additional 300,000 euros ($344,000) for school programs to combat anti-Semitism, including educational visits to former concentration camps, adult education, and anti-discrimination counseling. The parliament said it would cooperate with Hamburg’s Jewish community and organizations to support their efforts to combat anti-Semitism, and that its efforts would target right-wing extremist groups.
In May the education ministry of Brandenburg, and the education ministries of Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate in June, signed declarations of intent with Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel to collaborate on Holocaust education in the states’ schools. In November Hamburg’s education ministry introduced educational materials on Jewish life from Yad Vashem as part of a broader effort to combat anti-Semitism in schools. Yad Vashem said it had concluded such agreements with 15 of 16 states in the country.
In June the Baden-Wuerttemberg state government announced plans to reorganize Islamic religious education in public schools. Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann said that, because of the absence of a single Islamic partner organization, he proposed establishing a Sunni Muslim educational foundation that would serve as a mediator between the state and various Islamic associations. The state government did not reach a decision on a new model for Islamic religious education and announced it would continue the existing system for an additional school year.
The Alevi Muslim community continued to offer separate religious lessons in schools in eight states for approximately 1,400 students.
In June Berlin Humboldt University, a public university, created an institute for Islamic theology and said it would begin training imams and religion teachers in 2019. The state of Berlin pledged to provide 13.8 million euros ($15.83 million) in funding for the institute through 2022. Humboldt University created the institute in cooperation with three Muslim associations – the Central Council of Muslims, Islamic Federation, and Islamic Association of Shia Communities – and the associations were to have a voice in selecting the institute’s professors. Critics, including student organizations and the Berlin CDU, said they disapproved of the extent of the associations’ control over the institute’s board, or of what they described as the associations’ conservative orientation.
During campaigning for the October Bavarian state elections, the Bavarian AfD distributed posters calling for “Islam-free schools,” which the party explained as a call to end “Islamic education and headscarves in schools.”
The COS continued to report governmental discrimination. “Sect filters,” which were signed statements by potential employees to confirm they had no contact with the COS, remained in use in the public and private sectors. According to the COS, in September a Munich school refused to hire a teacher due to his membership in the COS. The COS said the government also discriminated against firms owned or operated by its members. According to the COS, Hamburg city officials asked one COS member to sign a “sect filter” when he attempted to purchase land from the city for his company.
In April the Berlin Administrative Court dismissed a suit that the mosque association Neukoellner Begegnungsstaette (NBS) had brought against the Berlin OPC in 2017. NBS had sought to have the Berlin OPC remove the association’s name from its annual report and to stop stating NBS had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The court ruled that the Berlin OPC’s statements that NBS had had contacts with the Islamic Community in Germany and that the latter group organized followers of the Muslim Brotherhood were valid.
In May the NRW state chancery spokesperson told media the state government stopped cooperation with DITIB due to the Turkish government’s influence over the group.
In July the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (also known as the Jewish Claims Conference) and the government announced an increase of 75 million euros ($86 million) of government funding for social welfare services for Holocaust survivors, raising the yearly contribution from 405 million euros ($464.45 million) in 2018 to 480 million euros ($550.46 million) in 2019. According to the commission, the increased funds would finance additional home care, food support, medicine, and transportation services for Holocaust survivors.
The government continued to subsidize some Jewish groups. Based on an agreement between the federal government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the federal government increased its yearly support from 10 to 13 million euros ($11.47 to $14.91 million) to help maintain Jewish cultural heritage, restore the Jewish community, and support integration and social work. In addition, the federal government provided financial support to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, the Rabbi Seminar at the University of Potsdam, and the Leo Baeck Institute, an international research group on the history and culture of German Jewry.
State governments continued to provide funds to Jewish communities and organizations in various amounts, for such purposes as the renovation and construction of synagogues. The federal government continued to cover 50 percent of maintenance costs for Jewish cemeteries. State and local police units continued to provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
In September the NRW government announced a ten-year plan totaling 44 million euros ($50.46 million), beginning in 2018 and ending in 2028, for the modernization and new construction of Jewish facilities and institutions. The state said funding would begin at three million euros ($3.44 million) and be increased by 200,000 euros ($229,000) annually until reaching the maximum funding level of five million euros ($5.73 million) in 2028. Separately, NRW again provided three million euros ($3.44 million) to support and upgrade security in Jewish buildings.
On November 8, the city of Dessau-Rosslau in Saxony-Anhalt presented the Jewish community with a piece of land to build a new synagogue in the center of town. The community received 195,000 euros ($224,000) from the city and 300,000 euros ($344,000) from the state’s lottery commission for the construction of the building, as well as 700,000 euros ($803,000) from the federal government. The Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Hasselof, welcomed the new synagogue, stating it would increase the visibility of Jewish life in the city.
According to the Humanistic Union, an independent civil liberties organization, total state contributions during the year to the Catholic Church and the EKD amounted to approximately 538 million euros ($616.97 million). The union said it calculated its estimate based on the federal states’ budgets.
In June the NRW state government’s Center for Political Education organized six one-day information programs in six cities entitled Diverse Islam versus Violence-Prone Salafism: Opportunities for Intervention and Prevention. The stated goals were to help teachers and educators distinguish between Islam as a religion and what the organizers described as violent Islamist extremists, and to engage with youths vulnerable to religiously based extremism. Presenters were Muslim and non-Muslim academics, members of NGOs, and state government employees. Muslim religious leaders did not participate in the programs.
In July the NRW Ministry for Children, Family, Refugees, and Integration awarded 160,000 euros ($183,000) to the Central Council of Muslims in support of its Hands-on Diversity: Students against anti-Semitism project.
In January the Federal Constitutional Court reversed the 2016 acquittal by the Wuppertal Regional Court of seven members of a self-declared “Sharia Police” on charges of violating the prohibition on wearing uniforms as expressions of a common political opinion. Dressed in yellow vests marked “Sharia Police,” the men patrolled Wuppertal in September 2014 to counter “non-Muslim behavior.” The Constitutional Court remanded the case back to the lower court and stated the latter had failed to consider whether the uniforms caused intimidation or were otherwise threatening to the public. At year’s end the lower court had not scheduled a new trial date.
On July 9, the Berlin-based Jewish Forum for Democracy and anti-Semitism, in conjunction with several other Jewish organizations in the country, published a “declaration of principles on the fight against anti-Semitism.” While applauding several “well-intentioned” federal- and state-level public statements and initiatives over the previous months, the declaration called on the government to back up policies with concrete action. It cited the need to take victims seriously, distinguish anti-Semitism as a specific form of discrimination, and apply the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism. The signatories called upon the newly appointed federal and state commissioners on anti-Semitism to develop more effective preventative measures to combat it and to learn from the experiences of victims to develop more effective preventive measures. They also called on federal and state government agencies and publicly funded institutions to explicitly distance themselves from all form of anti-Semitism, including campaigns such as BDS.
Frankfurt Deputy Mayor and City Treasurer Uwe Becker targeted the BDS movement against Israel on numerous occasions and called for a ban of BDS in Germany. In April Becker said “Frankfurt will, in the future, only work with banks which do not maintain business relations with the anti-Semitic BDS movement.” In June he added that artists who supported the BDS movement were not welcome in Frankfurt and festivals or organizations in Frankfurt supporting BDS or providing a platform to its supporters risked losing city funding.
In September the NRW State Parliament condemned the BDS movement and its calls to boycott Israeli products and companies, as well as Israeli scientists and artists in NRW. The parliament also requested that all NRW government organizations deny BDS requests to use city, municipality, and county spaces.
In December Jewish community leaders in Duesseldorf said they believe NRW could still do more to combat anti-Semitism, and they found state-level responses to the BDS movement to be insufficient and weak.
On January 1, the government implemented procedures for registering complaints and violations of the law barring hate speech enacted in late 2017. The procedures stipulated operators of social networks with more than two million users in the country, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, must delete or block “obviously illegal content” within 24 hours after notification or, in more complex cases, within seven days. Operators must name a representative in the country able to react to complaints within 48 hours. Operators failing to comply systematically with the requirements were subject to fines of up to 50 million euros ($57.34 million). By year’s end the government had not penalized any companies under the law. Anti-Semitism Commissioner of Baden-Wuerttemberg Michael Blume reported the new law had had little effect on the spread of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech, as groups simply chose to use other, less public social media forms such as WhatsApp groups and video game chat rooms not covered by the law.
In March federal Interior Minister Seehofer stated the phrase “Islam is part of Germany,” which former President Christian Wulff and other politicians had popularized, was wrong. “No. Islam is not part of Germany,” he said. Seehofer added that Muslims in the country “are, of course, part of Germany,” but that he did not consider Islam to be a part of the country’s culture. The minister’s statements led to a public debate on the role of Islam and Muslims in the country. Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that, while the country was shaped by its Judeo-Christian heritage, “Now there are four million Muslims living in Germany” who “can live their religion here, too.” Several Muslim associations criticized the minister’s statements. Gokay Sofuoglu, chair of the advocacy group Turkish Community in Germany, said, “At a time when there are more and more attacks on mosques and Muslims, it is not a good start if the minister of the interior begins with such a statement.” He also stated that “it is not his [Seehofer’s] job to decide who belongs to Germany and who does not.” Addressing Seehofer’s remarks, Islamic Council Chair Burhan Kesici said, “He does not have the decency to withhold his opinion.…It would be better to recognize reality and see Muslims as part of society. Only then could prejudices be reduced.” Ayman Mazyek, Chair of the Central Council of Muslims, commented, “Against the backdrop of the mosque fires and the increased Islamophobic attacks, I would have expected the new interior minister to stand behind German Muslims.”
In September Hans Peter Stauch, an AfD state parliament member in Baden-Wuerttemberg, posted a video on Facebook entitled “The Power of the Rothschilds.” The video included statements that the Rothschilds, a Jewish banking family, were responsible for World War II and the Holocaust. Baden-Wuerttemberg’s state commissioner for anti-Semitism and the heads of the state-level Green, SPD, and FDP parties criticized Stauch, saying that he was spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Stauch responded that he had only posted the video without commentary and said he was exercising his freedom of speech.
In January AfD Bundestag (federal parliament) member Beatrix von Storch tweeted that Cologne police were appeasing “barbaric, gang-raping, Muslim hordes” when the police tweeted a New Year’s Day greeting in Arabic. Twitter briefly suspended von Storch’s account. Thomas Held, spokesman for the Cologne police, confirmed to media that the Cologne police initiated a criminal report against von Storch for suspicion of inciting hatred, stating that this was “a completely normal procedure” which they were “legally obliged” to start upon the suspicion of a criminal offense. Additionally, approximately 100 private individuals reported von Storch’s tweet to police. Twitter also deleted a tweet by AfD Parliamentary Caucus Chief Alice Weidel, defending her colleague by using the phrase “imported, marauding, grabbing, beating, knife stabbing migrant mobs.”
In May Weidel argued in a parliamentary debate that the uncontrolled immigration of Muslims endangered the wealth of the country, stating, “Burquas, headscarf girls, subsidized knife men, and other good-for-nothings will not secure our wealth, the economic growth, and most of all our welfare state.” Representatives of all other parties present in parliament reacted with interjections and booing. Parliament President Wolfgang Schaeuble called her to order for “discriminating against all women who wear a headscarf.”
In July a group of AfD party members from Weidel’s Bodensee electoral district in Baden-Wuerttemberg visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial in Brandenburg State as part of a trip to Berlin sponsored by the federal press office. According to the memorial site’s staff, some participants continuously interrupted the guided tour with inappropriate comments, including speech that trivialized Nazi crimes and questioned the existence of gas chambers. The federal press office stated one participant made anti-Semitic statements. Neuruppin public prosecutor Wilfried Lehman was investigating the case, and stated in November that his office hoped to complete the investigation by year’s end, and he already had sufficient evidence for one case of Holocaust denial.
On April 26, the Bundestag condemned the increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks in the country, and emphasized its support for Israel’s right to exist. “It is intolerable when Jewish life in Germany is not possible without fear,” said SPD party leader Andrea Nahles. Volker Kauder (who at the time was CDU/CSU parliamentary caucus leader), said “Everyone has a place in this society,” but that there was no place for anti-Semitism.
In May the Rostock District Court upheld a lower court’s 2016 finding that AfD state Member of Parliament (MP) Holger Arppe was guilty of hate speech against Muslims for comments he wrote on the right-wing website Politically Incorrect in 2010, while using a pseudonym. The court increased Arppe’s fine from 6,300 to 9,000 euros (from $7,200 to $10,300).
On February 8, the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court found the creator of the banned Altermedia neo-Nazi website guilty of leadership in a criminal association and inciting racial hatred and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison. Three women, charged with supporting the website and incitement, were convicted and received suspended sentences ranging from eight months to two years. The court declared the platform a criminal organization. It had published content that denied the Holocaust and targeted Jews, immigrants, and foreigners; the federal interior minister closed it in 2016.
According to the Central Council of Muslims (ZMD), political parties continued to distance themselves from Islamic associations because they were concerned foreign nations and organizations could influence Muslims with money and by sending radical imams to mosques in the country.
As part of the coalition agreement between the ruling CDU/CSU and SPD parties, the government agreed to continue the German Islam Conference dialogue between representatives of the government and Muslims in the country, which began in 2006. The conference’s aim was to improve the religious and social participation of the Muslim population in the country, give greater recognition to Muslims’ contributions to society, and, in the absence of a central organization representing all Muslims in the country, further develop partnerships between the government and Islamic organizations. In November the government held its fourth German Islam Conference, a two-day conference with 240 participants. Conference attendees included representatives of Muslim associations, communities, scholars, and activists. Interior Minister Seehofer called on Muslim communities to cut their ties with sources of foreign funding and influence, develop their own training systems for the country’s imams, and increase their cooperation with the country’s government. Federal Integration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz, reiterating concerns about the foreign financing of the country’s mosques, said, “Those who want to be part of Germany as a Muslim organization cannot remain part of Ankara.”
In January Sawsan Chebli, a Berlin state legislator of Palestinian heritage, proposed the government require that “everybody living in this country” visit Nazi concentration camp memorials at least once. She added that newly arrived immigrants should visit the memorials as part of programs to integrate them into society, in order to sensitize them to Nazi crimes against Jews and combat anti-Semitism. The country’s Central Council of Jews and the World Jewish Congress endorsed the proposal. Council President Josef Schuster told Deutschlandfunk Radio that migrants who had fled or been expelled from their home countries could develop empathy by visiting such memorials. The proposal generated debate and was not adopted. Critics said such visits should be voluntary and preceded by prior education about the Holocaust. Gunter Morsch, Director of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation and head of the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, said, “It seems to me an illusion to believe that such a visit can help to counter a strongly entrenched prejudice.”
In March NRW Minister-President Laschet hosted an iftar at the state chancery, the first NRW minister-president to do so.
The government created the position of federal commissioner for worldwide religious freedom within the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and in April it appointed MP Markus Gruebel as the first commissioner. Gruebel stated the government wanted to send a clear signal on the importance it places on religious freedom and the strengthening of common values.
The country is a member of the IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents, including assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Most anti-Christian incidents involved actions by Muslim migrants against migrant converts. According to Ministry of Interior federal crime statistics, there were 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes committed during the year – including 69 incidents involving violence – a 20 percent increase over the 1,504 anti-Semitic crimes, of which 37 were violent, reported in 2017. The interior ministry attributed 93 percent of the incidents in 2017 to the far right but stated its methodology was not exact.
The federal OPC’s annual report stated the number of violent right-wing anti-Semitic incidents decreased from 31 in 2016 to 28 in 2017. It noted membership in neo-Nazi groups remained steady at approximately 6,000 persons.
NGO RIAS, to which victims can report anti-Semitic incidents independently of filing charges with police, reported 527 anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin in the first six months of the year, including 18 involving violence or attempted violence, compared with 514 incidents over the same period a year earlier. RIAS used different categories than official police statistics and counted anti-Semitic incidents that did not rise to the level of a criminal offense, such as “hurtful behavior.”
According to the anti-Semitism commissioner in Bavaria, incidents of anti-Semitism were increasing in the state. He said perpetrators were from both the extreme left and right, as well as the Muslim community.
In 2017, the first year in which authorities maintained a tally of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian incidents, the Ministry of Interior registered 1,075 incidents against Muslims and Muslim institutions, such as mosques or community centers, including 56 attacks involving bodily harm. Other recorded infractions included online hate speech against Muslims, hate mail, and aggressive behavior in the street. The ministry also recorded approximately 90 demonstrations against the “Islamization of Germany.”
The Ministry of Interior counted 129 incidents against Christians in 2017, including 34 cases involving violence. It classified a majority of these incidents as motivated by religious ideology. In at least 14 cases, the victims were refugees. Media reported that refugees who had converted from Islam to Christianity experienced aggression from Muslim refugees, especially if they were housed in the same refugee shelter.
In February an unknown perpetrator fired shots with an air gun from a high-rise building towards a mosque in Halle and injured a Syrian man. Federal Immigration Commissioner Aydan Oezoguz (SPD) visited the site to talk to members of the Muslim community. In June one or more unidentified individuals fired shots from an air gun near the same mosque that hit a man of Syrian origin. Police investigated, but by year’s end had not identified a suspect in either incident.
On June 3, according to RIAS, three men accosted four teenagers listening to an Israeli song on a cell phone at a subway station in Berlin. The men asked the cell phone owner if he was Jewish. When he said yes, they told him they were from Gaza City, that Jews had been killing children for 70 years, and that if he showed up again they would slit his throat, calling him a [expletive] Jew. The men then tried to push the cell phone owner onto the subway tracks and injured one of the other youths with broken glass. The attackers fled when police appeared. There were no arrests.
In September the president of the Jewish amateur sports club Makkabi Germany, Alon Meyer, said club members increasingly faced anti-Semitic abuse from other competitors during sporting events, ranging from insults to physical violence and knife attacks. According to Meyer, insults included “filthy Jew” and “Jews into the gas.” He added, “It’s not stopping at insulting, it will be fisticuffs, it will be knife attacks.” Meyer attributed the attacks mostly to an increase in migrants and refugees with a Muslim-Arab background.
In February the regional court in Traunstein, Bavaria sentenced an Afghan man to life in prison. The court found the man guilty of stabbing a woman to death in 2017, in part because she had converted from Islam to Christianity. According to the court, the attacker killed the victim, who was also from Afghanistan, in front of her young sons.
On August 31, the Dresden District Court convicted a man charged with bombing a mosque in 2016 of attempted murder, arson, and causing a bomb explosion and sentenced him to nine years and eight months in prison.
In June police reported three men with extreme far-right views attacked a Jewish man from Dortmund, attempting to punch him in the head and insulting him. The victim said he encountered the attackers for a second time that same day, and they again insulted and threatened him and made the Nazi salute. The Dortmund police intelligence service published a call for witness accounts and launched an investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end. Three days earlier, the victim said one of the three men had pushed him and directed anti-Semitic insults at him. At that time, police had verified the identities of alleged perpetrator and victim and were investigating the former for possible charges, including incitement to violence.
In July in Bonn, a 20-year old citizen of Palestinian descent assaulted a visiting Israeli professor from Johns Hopkins University. The attacker, upon seeing the professor, shouted “No Jews in Germany!” and then knocked the yarmulke off his head. When police arrived, the attacker fled the scene. The police mistakenly believed the victim to be the attacker and used force to detain him. Police later apprehended the alleged perpetrator and charged him with incitement of hate and causing bodily harm. They later released him. The Cologne police opened an internal investigation of the Bonn police actions in the incident, and the police officers involved were assigned to desk jobs pending the investigation’s results.
In April a group of three men reportedly insulted two men wearing yarmulkes across a street in Berlin. In court, the victims stated their attackers had shouted insults at them in Arabic. A video then showed one of the perpetrators, a Syrian refugee, crossing the street towards one victim, hitting him with a belt, and screaming the Arabic word for Jew. The victim was an Arab-Israeli who had received the yarmulke as a gift. In June the local court in Berlin-Tiergarten sentenced the attacker to four weeks in jail. Since the man had been in pretrial detention for two months, authorities set him free immediately, as they considered the sentence served. The man sought monetary compensation for the excess time he had served in prison, but authorities denied his claim. While his lawyer initially announced in July he would appeal the decision not to compensate him, the lawyer withdrew the appeal in October.
On August 26, the AfD and the group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) organized a peaceful rally in Chemnitz after the killing of a citizen, reportedly by two refugees from Syria and Iraq. Later that day, approximately 800 persons marched in another demonstration in downtown Chemnitz and reportedly shouted anti-immigrant slogans, attempted to attack persons who appeared to be migrants, and clashed with police. On August 27, a group of 12 individuals who yelled “Get out of Germany, you Jewish pig” attacked the Jewish owner of the Schalom restaurant in Chemnitz, throwing rocks and bottles at the restaurant and injuring the owner, before running away. At year’s end Chemnitz police were still investigating the case. Saxony Minister-President Michael Kretschmer strongly condemned the attack, which occurred after social unrest in the city. The same day, according to press reports, approximately 6,000 right-wing demonstrators and 1,500 counterdemonstrators marched in Chemnitz. Newscasts showed demonstrators shouting anti-immigrant slogans and making the Nazi salute. Two police and 18 demonstrators were injured. Because ethnicity and religion are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize the demonstrations as being solely based on religious identity.
In May a 67-year-old man allegedly hit a woman wearing a headscarf in the face at a bus stop in Berlin. The man had asked the woman about the headscarf, and she had told him she was a Muslim and liked to wear it. Police identified a suspect and opened an investigation.
In August the Berlin-Tiergarten local court convicted a 68-year-old woman of committing deliberate bodily harm and insult for hitting a Muslim woman in the face and trying to rip off her headscarf in an incident in January. The victim and her daughter managed to detain the perpetrator until police arrived. The court fined the perpetrator 2,400 euros ($2,800).
In separate incidents during one week in March, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at a mosque in Berlin, at a Turkish club in Meschede, and at a Turkish greengrocer in Itzehoe. The newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that, between mid-January and mid-March, individuals carried out 26 attacks on mosques, of which 18 belonged to DITIB. According to the same newspaper, after an attack with Molotov cocktails on a building belonging to the Muslim group Milli Gorus in Laufen-am-Neckar in March, what appeared to be anti-Turkish Kurds said in an online video the attacks were in retaliation for Turkish army raids against the northern Syrian city of Afrin. In a joint statement, DITIB, the Central Council of Muslims, and the Islamic Council expressed the Muslim community’s perception that politicians and the public were not taking their concerns about their safety and that of their mosques seriously. At year’s end authorities continued to investigate these incidents and had made no arrests.
A Berlin-based Jewish-Israeli restaurant owner who appeared in a 2017 video that received widespread online attention showing him as the target of verbal anti-Semitic aggression received death threats and hate mail, and individuals threw firecrackers at his restaurant. According to a media report in September, hate mail he received filled 31 pages. Police investigated but could not identify any of those sending death threats. In July the man who had initiated the original diatribe against the restaurant owner in 2017 received a seven months’ suspended prison sentence.
The Duesseldorf Jewish Community said attendance at two Jewish schools it sponsored in the city had spiked up due to increased anti-Semitism in schools around Duesseldorf. According to the group, the schools, which the NRW government funded, had been established to enable Jewish students to strengthen their Jewish identity. Most students, however, were enrolling because they sought a safe haven from increased bullying due to their Jewish faith. According to NRW Ministry of Education officials, much anti-Semitism in schools came from students’ parents and media, and anti-Semitism among Muslim children was particularly difficult to change.
The Catholic Church and the EKD continued to oppose the COS publicly. “Sect commissioners” or “departments on sects and worldview matters” of the EKD and the Catholic Church investigated “sects and cults” and publicized what they considered to be the dangers of these groups. On its website, the EKD Center for Questions of World Views warned the public about what it said were the dangers posed by multiple religious groups, including the COS, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Bhagwan-Osho, Transcendental Meditation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Universal Life, and continued to produce literature criticizing these groups.
A study on discrimination against migrants in the labor market by the Scientific Center Berlin for Social Research released in June reported that Muslims experienced discrimination when looking for a job. According to the study, which included more than 6,000 fictitious job applications, Muslim job applicants were 7 percent less likely to receive a positive answer than Christian applicants with the same qualifications.
In April the Center to Combat Antidiscrimination and Counselling on Racism and Anti-Semitism (SABRA) held an all-day conference on Anti-Semitism and Refugees. The Duesseldorf Jewish Community established SABRA in 2017 as a new service to combat anti-Semitism. SABRA is part of a network of state government-supported organizations throughout NRW that provide services to immigrants to help them integrate into society. Conference participants stated that, although anti-Semitism had always been present in the country, the influx of a large number of mostly Muslim refugees exacerbated anti-Semitism. The program focused on supporting individuals who were victims of anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination by providing counseling and legal services and helping to resolve cases of discrimination; sponsoring prevention programs in schools; and monitoring incidents of anti-Semitism throughout the state. SABRA also provided support for victims of anti-Semitic incidents that did not meet the threshold for filing criminal charges.
In November Abraham Lehrer, Vice President of the Central Council of Jews, told media that he expected anti-Semitism among Arab or Muslim immigrants to increase and called for combating anti-Semitism through education. Lehrer said, “Many of these people were influenced by regimes in which anti-Semitism is part of the rationale of the state and the Jewish state is denied the right to existence.” As a remedy, Lehrer proposed integration courses tailored to immigrants’ country of origin, with intensive teaching of such values as democracy and the treatment of women in society.
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 1,233 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Germany responded to the online survey. Twenty-nine percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 41 percent reported being harassed over the same period. Thirty-seven percent said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief. Eighty-nine percent said anti-Semitism had increased during the previous five years.
According to a survey of more than 2,000 German-speaking residents released in September by the Social Science Institute of the Protestant Church, 54 percent did not agree with the statement that “Islam fits into German society,” and 31 percent agreed. While 69 percent agreed that Muslims were part of everyday life in the country, only 27 percent said they were well or very well informed about Islam. A third of respondents approved of Islamic religious instruction in schools.
PEGIDA continued to organize weekly demonstrations in Dresden. Journalists said PEGIDA supporters pushed and threatened them when they were reporting on the demonstrations. On September 3, police detained a PEGIDA demonstrator who had allegedly attacked a journalist, according to Deutschlandfunk online. On September 24, several PEGIDA demonstrators attacked two journalists, hitting one reporter in the face and kicking the other, while other PEGIDA supporters stood nearby and cheered, according to the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Some members of the crowd then reportedly helped the perpetrators escape. Amid calls to curb immigration, PEGIDA supporters regularly expressed anti-Muslim sentiments during the rallies, including by carrying posters expressing opposition to women who wear religious head coverings.
The number of participants at PEGIDA marches remained constant at approximately 1,500-2,000 protesters per rally, according to several media reports. An exception was the October 21 rally in Dresden, when 4,500 supporters marked the group’s fourth anniversary. On the same day in Dresden, approximately 10,000 persons marched in support of tolerance and against PEGIDA. Among the participants in the counterdemonstration were Saxony Minister-President Kretschmer, Dresden Mayor Dirk Hilbert, and several state ministers. The October 21 demonstrations were largely peaceful, but police reported five incidents of assault. Early in the year AfD parliamentarians gave multiple speeches at PEGIDA rallies. In January the magazine Der Spiegel cited AfD Bundestag member Siegbert Droese as stating that in Saxony there was close cooperation between his party and PEGIDA.
In what organizers said was a sign of solidarity with Jews in Germany, hundreds of persons wearing yarmulkes demonstrated against anti-Semitism in several cities around the country, including in Berlin, Cologne, Erfurt, Magdeburg, and Potsdam, in April and May. During the Berlin demonstration, where there were approximately 2,500 participants, authorities reported incidents in which counterprotesters spit on demonstrators, called them terrorists, and violently removed an Israeli banner.
Between May and August Realitaet Islam (Reality Islam), a group that said it aimed to strengthen the Islamic identity of Muslims in the country, campaigned in Frankfurt and other cities in Hesse against a headscarf ban. The group said it targeted young Muslims and had collected more than 140,000 signatures from throughout the country. The Hesse state OPC stated to media on August 29 that, while the campaign itself was not illegal, the group rejected the country’s liberal democratic order and was striving for a theocracy, and a “high Islamic radicalization potential” for the group “could not be excluded.”
On January 17, approximately 300 persons demonstrated against the construction of a mosque by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Erfurt. The AfD leadership in Thuringia supported the demonstration, and state AfD Chairperson Bjoern Hoecke said the mosque’s construction was “part of a long-standing land grab project.” Mosque opponents subsequently organized a series of smaller demonstrations against the construction. For example, in June David Koeckert, who press reported was a former member of the National Democratic Party, widely described as a neo-Nazi group, organized an event at an Erfurt market where protestors staged a fake execution, shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and pretending to cut a woman’s throat using imitation blood. Left Party state MP Steffen Dittes called the act disgusting. According to police, authorities filed charges against the organizers for insult and damage to property.
In September demonstrators against the construction of the mosque wore masks depicting what they considered to be stereotypical Middle Eastern faces and “Arab” garb. Numbering fewer than 20 participants, the demonstrators also marched in front of Green Party state MP Astrid Rothe-Beinlich’s home. Rothe-Beinlich criticized local authorities for authorizing a demonstration directly in front of her house, which she described as a personal threat. Authorities permitted the masks’ use, stating there was no violation of the ban on face coverings during demonstrations, because protestors could be identified with their identification documents. Critics stated there was no exception to the ban on face coverings during demonstrations.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Erfurt moved forward with the construction and celebrated the laying of the foundation stone on November 13. The ceremony was accompanied by loud protests from approximately 60 opponents of the mosque, as well as a counterdemonstration by persons calling for religious freedom and tolerance.
Construction of a mosque in Sulzbach, Saarland was ongoing at year’s end. The citizen’s group Sulzbach wehrt sich (Sulzback Fights Back) continued to protest the construction of the mosque. In April the group organized a protest as well as a concert with the band Kategorie C/Hungrige Wolfe that the OPC said it was monitoring for its connection to right wing extremists. The city tried to prevent the concert in a municipal building, stating the group had misled it in registering the event without the band’s name. The Saarland Higher Administrative Court ruled in April the city had to allow the concert to take place since it could not show sufficient cause for cancelling it. Approximately 200 representatives of political parties, trade unions, and churches protested against the concert.
In June Ruhrtriennale, a cultural festival receiving state financial support in NRW, invited the Scottish band Young Fathers to play a concert. The private company Kultur Ruhr GmbH organizing the festival said it cancelled the appearance when it learned the band supported the BDS movement. The organizers stated they later reversed their decision and reinvited the band so they could publicly explain their views, but the band declined. State Minister of Culture and Science Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen criticized the organizer’s reinvitation of the band in a press statement, and the minister-president cancelled his attendance. Jewish organizations criticized the scheduling of a panel discussion at the festival about the BDS debate because it took place on the Sabbath and featured Jewish artists who supported BDS. A Jewish activist, Malca Goldstein-Wolf, organized a demonstration headlined “No support for BDS with taxpayers’ money.” The demonstration took place in Bochum on August 18, and there were approximately 250 participants.
In August the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called for a boycott of the Berlin Pop-Kultur Festival, and several artists from the United Kingdom and the United States cancelled their appearances. The Israeli embassy had supported the festival with 1,200 euros ($1,400) and appeared on the festival’s website as a “partner.” During the festival, the BDS movement put up posters in Berlin that mimicked the festival’s logo, stating “pop culture – sponsored by apartheid.” BDS activists also disrupted the festival’s opening event.
According to a study the Technical University of Berlin issued in July, anti-Semitic online hate speech reached record levels on social media, blogs, websites’ comment sections, and thematically unrelated websites and online forums. The researchers stated that, since online communication was becoming more important, acceptance of anti-Semitism could increase. The study, which distinguished between anti-Semitism and political criticism of Israel, evaluated 30,000 German language online statements made between 2014 and 2018 on Twitter, Facebook, and the comment sections of mainstream media outlets. The study also evaluated 20,000 emails sent to the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany. According to the report authors, between 2007 and 2017, anti-Semitic content in the texts had tripled “in some instances.” The study identified an increased use of comparisons of Israel to Nazis; fantasies of violence targeting Jews, e.g., references to asphyxiating Jews in pig excrement and to hunting and killings Jews; and dehumanizing or demonizing characterizations of Jews, such as “pest,” “cancer,” or “filth.” Almost half of the texts used centuries-old anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as portraying Jews as strangers, usurers, exploiters, vindictive intriguers, blood cult practitioners, robbers, and murderers. According to the authors, anti-Semitism related to Israel was encountered in a third of all texts.
In April the German Music Federation awarded rappers Farid Bang and Kollegah, whose songs include anti-Semitic lyrics, the country’s Echo music award based on high record sales. Civil society groups, artists, politicians, and Jewish groups criticized the award. Several musicians who were past recipients of the Echo, returned their awards in protest, and singer Peter Maffay and Foreign Minister Maas both said awarding the prize on Holocaust Remembrance Day was “shameful.” After the award ceremony, 11 persons reported the rappers to police for “incitement of hatred.” In June the Duesseldorf public prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute them. The Duesseldorf prosecutor stated that, while their songs contained anti-Semitic and misogynist lyrics, the lyrics were characteristic of their genre and a form of protected artistic freedom. Following the controversy, the federation revoked the Echo prize given to Farid Bang and Kollegah, and the organizers announced they would discontinue the award.
In April a satirical play based on Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf was performed in Constance, Baden-Wuerttemberg. The play’s organizers promised free entry to spectators who wore the swastika, and those who paid for a ticket had to wear a Star of David “as a sign of solidarity with the victims of Nazi barbarism.” Several legal complaints were filed against the theater. Although the law prohibits the public display of Nazi symbols and several legal complaints were reportedly filed against the theater, local prosecutors allowed the theater to present the play and allow free entry for those wearing swastikas, citing free speech laws that permit artistic performances. The region’s German-Israeli Society called for a boycott of the play.
On April 20, approximately 1,300 neo-Nazis gathered in the town of Ostritz in Saxony to commemorate Hitler’s birthday. Thorsten Heise, chairman of the National Democratic Party of Germany, organized the event. On the same date, also in Ostritz, opponents held a peace festival, a counterrally of approximately the same size. Police were present in force, and both events were largely peaceful. According to press reports, one person was slightly injured during scuffles between the opposing groups, and police detained one man for making the Nazi salute. The same organizers organized a neo-Nazi Shield and Sword (SS) rock festival in Ostritz on November 1-4. In another peace festival, approximately 3,000 opponents protested again. Police stopped another right-wing rock concert in Ostritz on December 1, after neighbors reported hearing the participants yell the Nazi slogan, “Sieg Heil.” Authorities were investigating the incident at year’s end.
On September 21, an estimated 100 neo-Nazis rallied in Dortmund, NRW, chanting anti-Semitic slogans, such as, “He who loves Germany is anti-Semitic,” and carrying symbols such as the “Reich” flag.
At a Unification Day demonstration on October 3 in Berlin with approximately 2,000 participants, media reported a few participants performed the Nazi salute, and several dozen displayed neo-Nazi tattoos, inscriptions on their clothes, or posters. Several counterdemonstrations with a similar total number of participants took place in Berlin at the same time. All the demonstrations were peaceful.
In May authorities arrested 89-year-old Ursula Haverbeck after she failed to appear to serve her prison sentence for Holocaust denial. In 2017, the Regional Court Verden sentenced Haverbeck to two years’ imprisonment after convicting her on eight counts of incitement of hate. In February the Celle Higher Regional Court rejected her appeal. In August the Federal Constitutional Court refused to accept her complaint that Holocaust denial was covered by the protected constitutional right of freedom of expression and not a punishable offense. At year’s end, Haverbeck was serving her sentence and publishing messages from prison on her website, Freedom for Ursula.
In May unknown perpetrators spray-painted a swastika on a house in the town of Kirchhain in Hesse and covered commemorative cobblestones for Nazi victims (Stolpersteine) with black paint.
According to state authorities and local media, religious establishments in Ulm in Baden-Wuerttemberg experienced increased vandalism over the course of the year. In September unknown individuals painted swastikas and other pro-Nazi symbols or writing on the door and pews of the Protestant cathedral in Ulm. State authorities said they had found similar anti-Semitic graffiti in Ulm and the surrounding area in the preceding months, including at a local synagogue and a Turkish mosque.
In September unknown persons targeted the Al-Nour Mosque in Hamburg, just before its opening, with anti-Muslim graffiti. The mosque was converted from a former Protestant church. According to a mosque official, the mosque had held open days for city residents in an effort to engage with non-Muslims and be as transparent as possible with the project.
In February the Duesseldorf Memorial and Education Center, a museum, research center, and archive of the Holocaust, started a research project aimed at identifying the number of victims in NRW of the November 1938 Pogromnacht (Kristallnacht) pogrom, as well as how the victims had died. The center published a report of its findings on the 80th anniversary of the pogrom, on November 9. The report detailed the cases of the approximately 127 persons from NRW who lost their lives as a result of the pogroms.
According to local officials, legal proceedings against a bus driver in Emden, Lower Saxony for refusing a pregnant woman wearing a full-face veil onto his bus on three occasions, were continuing at year’s
In May Hamburg’s Jewish Community ordained five rabbis, its first ordination since World War II. Hamburg Mayor and Minister-President Peter Tschentscher (SPD) attended the ceremony.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worshipping, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community.
The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious groups. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.
In an administrative reorganization following parliamentary elections in April, the government transferred most responsibilities for religious affairs from the MHC to the PMO.
In the system valid through the end of the year, religious organizations could acquire incorporated church status through an application submitted to the office responsible for religious affairs in the PMO and, if found eligible, by a subsequent two-thirds vote of parliament. The religious group was then by law entered onto a list of incorporated churches. The PMO ha 60 days following the initial application to assess whether the group fulfills all the administrative criteria, which included a variety of documentation and qualification requirements. To qualify for incorporated church status, a religious group must have existed as a religious organization in the country for 20 years, in which case it must have had a membership of 0.1 percent of the total population (approximately 10,000 persons) or been registered as a religious organization and have existed for at least 100 years internationally, in which case its foreign affiliation must have been certified by at least two other churches of “similar doctrine” recognized in foreign countries. Its activities must not have conflicted with the constitution or other laws or violate the rights and freedoms of other communities. A group must also have proven its primary purpose was to conduct religious activity; have a formal statement of faith and rites, bylaws and internal rules, and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies; and officially declared its activities were not in violation of the laws or the freedom of others. The PMO was obligated to consult with a qualified lawyer, historian of religions, scholar of religions, or sociologist with an academic degree prior to issuing its decision. Applicants could appeal the PMO’s decision to the Budapest Public Administration and Labor Court and, ultimately, to the Curia, the country’s highest judicial authority.
Following a favorable PMO decision on the applicant’s eligibility, the PMO submitted the application to parliament’s Judiciary Committee, which had 60 days to invite the applicant to a public hearing and to submit an assessment to parliament on the group’s compliance with additional criteria. These criteria included an assessment that the group poses no threat to national security (provided by parliament’s National Security Committee), that it did not violate the right to physical and mental health or the protection of life and human dignity, and that the group was suitable for long-term cooperation with the state in promoting community goals based on its founding documents, number of members, network of institutions providing public services, and access by larger societal groups to such services.
Approval of a request for incorporated church status required a two-thirds majority vote by parliament, to take place within 60 days of a motion by parliament’s Judiciary Committee. If a religious group received such parliamentary approval, the state was required to grant specific licenses to the group to support its participation in tasks to achieve community goals. If parliament rejected the application, a detailed explanation was required, and the applicant could challenge parliament’s decision in the Constitutional Court within 15 days. The law did not prescribe any consequences if parliament did not act within the 60-day period, nor was there opportunity for appealing parliamentary inaction.
A 2011 law on religion automatically deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had had incorporated church status. Those organizations must reapply if they wish to regain incorporated church status. Their applications are also subject to the approval of a two-thirds majority of parliament.
The 2011 law listed 27 incorporated churches, including the Catholic Church, a variety of Protestant denominations, a range of Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army, three Jewish groups, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole registered Hindu organization. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups, bringing the total number on the registered list of incorporated churches to 32.
Incorporated churches have certain privileges not available to religious organizations, such as greater access to state funding and exemption from state oversight of their financial operations connected to religious activities. Incorporated churches and their associated institutions (classified as “internal religious legal entities”) that provide public services, such as healthcare, education, or other social services, are automatically eligible for full state subsidies (a subsidy based on the number of persons receiving services coupled with a supplementary subsidy) for all their public service activities. Religious organizations may take over or establish public service institutions and receive a per capita state subsidy to cover the wages of the staff employed by these institutions. They may also apply for additional funding from an additional budgetary allocation.
The law authorized the Budapest Metropolitan Court to register a group as a religious organization if it had at least 10 founding individual members whose primary objective was to conduct religious activities that do not violate the constitution, other laws, or the rights and freedom of other communities. The organization’s membership could consist only of individuals; no “legal persons” such as corporations or other associations could be members. The court was required to approve applications meeting all of these criteria. Applicants had to submit the name and address of the organization, names and addresses of founding members, identifying information on the group’s legal representative and the term of his or her appointment, the founding documents of the group, and a statement that the primary objective of the organization was to conduct religious activities. If the court rejected an organization’s application, the decision was subject to appeal to the Budapest Metropolitan Court of Appeals.
By law taxpayers may allocate 1 percent of their personal income taxes to an NGO, including one affiliated with a religious organization or incorporated church, and could allocate an additional 1 percent to an incorporated church (but not to any other religious organization or NGO). The government matched the 1 percent funds that only incorporated churches were eligible to receive.
Both incorporated churches and NGOs affiliated with religious organizations were free to use taxpayer donations as they wished. Only officials of incorporated churches were exempt from personal income tax under certain conditions. Both religious organizations and incorporated churches were prohibited from purchasing agricultural land. Incorporated churches, but not religious organizations, could acquire new agricultural land as a gift or an inheritance. Agricultural land (as opposed to other land holdings) owned by a religious group deregistered in 2011 could be retained by the religious organization that is the deregistered group’s legal successor.
If incorporated churches or religious organizations cease to exist (e.g., by dissolving themselves) and have no legal successor, their assets become state property that must be used to finance public services. This may also occur if, upon the initiative of the government, the Constitutional Court issues an opinion that the activity of the incorporated church violates the constitution, and parliament confirms the decision by a two-thirds majority vote. The Constitutional Court also issues opinions upon the request of the Budapest Metropolitan Court on whether a religious organization is in violation of the constitution.
Every registered (but not unregistered) religious community may use the word “church” in its official name regardless of whether it is officially recognized by parliament as an “incorporated church.” Officials from both incorporated churches and registered religious organizations not recognized by parliament (but not unregistered religious groups) are not obligated to disclose information shared with them in the course of their faith-related service, such as during rites of confession. Unregistered religious groups, since they lack legal status, may not purchase property in their name. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) reports that unregistered religious organizations enjoy protection for faith-related services.
On December 12, parliament enacted an amendment to the 2011 religion law, scheduled to enter into force on April 15, 2019, that will extend the existing two-tier system of “incorporated churches” and “religious organizations” into a four-tier system of registered religious entities, consisting of “incorporated churches,” “registered churches,” “listed churches,” and “religious associations.” The categories will be applicable to any religious group, not just Christian organizations. All four categories under the new law will have “legal personality,” giving them legal rights such as the right to own property. The amendment will eliminate the restriction that taxpayers may donate 1 percent of their tax liability only to incorporated churches and allows donations to all religious entities with legal personality. The amendment will also allow the government to negotiate individual agreements with all four categories of religious entities to fund their social service activities. The duration of these agreements will depend on the type of church status, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations to unlimited duration for incorporated churches. With the exception of religious associations, religious groups falling under one of these categories will be required to publish these agreements and publicly account for social service spending.
Under the new system, all currently incorporated churches will retain their status in the new system, and incorporation of new churches will still require a two-thirds approval by parliament. The Budapest-Capital Regional Court will rule on registration applications for the other three tiers. Religious association status will require a church to have at least 10 members. Listed church status will require that the church receive tax donations from 1,000 individuals on average over three years and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally. Registered church status will require that the church receive tax donations from 4,000 individuals on average over five years and have operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally. Churches that agree they will not seek government or EU funding for their religious activities will be able to qualify as listed or registered churches without receiving individual donations. A religious entity will not be allowed to apply for any of the three categories if it is a criminal defendant, has been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, is under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or is considered a national security threat.
Religious entities that do not register will still be able to function and conduct worship, and the amendment specifies constitutional protections for freedom of religion apply to them as well as to those with legal personality.
By law, no state office may determine or supervise a registered religious community’s faith-based activities. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Their names, symbols, and rites are protected by copyright law, while buildings and cemeteries are protected by criminal law. Unregistered groups, according to HCLU, enjoy copyright and at least some other protections, but the law is unclear about the extent of those other protections.
The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsman). The ombudsman investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy. These measures do not have the force of law.
Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.
Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Catholic Church, Reformed Church, Lutheran Church, and Jewish congregations receive automatic authorization to provide chaplain services to the military. Other incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission.
Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. All incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission to offer pastoral services in prisons. Rejection of access requests may be appealed to the National Prison Service, the prosecutor’s office, or the ombudsman. Detainees have the right to participate in communal religious services three times a week and to contact without supervision representatives of incorporated churches or religious organizations having permission to access the facility. Detainees in special security regimes may only receive individual spiritual care and are excluded from community spiritual programs. In the case of pretrial detainees, during the course of the criminal investigation, a public prosecutor or judge may restrict personal interaction with a religious representative but not participation in communal religious services.
Incorporated churches receive automatic authorization to provide pastoral services in hospitals, while religious organizations must seek permission.
One-hour-per-week faith-and-ethics or ethics-only education is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Students and their parents choose between the faith-and-ethics class provided by an incorporated church of their choice or a generic ethics course taught by public school teachers. Religious groups are entitled to provide their own teachers, prepare their own textbooks, and determine curricula for their faith-and-ethics classes. Private schools are not required to introduce faith-and-ethics or ethics classes. Unincorporated religious organizations are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools, but they may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools if requested by students or parents.
Incorporated churches and religious organizations have the right to open their own schools. For incorporated churches and religious organizations operating their own schools, the state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee wages, but only incorporated churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. According to the law, religious organizations may apply to the MHC for a supplementary operational subsidy covering approximately 30 percent of their total costs for schools, and the MHC decides on a case-by-case basis whether to grant it.
The law also affords incorporated churches and religious organizations the right to assume operation of public schools through a formal agreement with the PMO. In these cases, the government continues to fund the schools. Religious communities, school teachers, the affected parents, or the operator of the school may initiate such transfers, but only if the designated religious community is able to collect the signatures of more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The government inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to government standards.
The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law includes a prohibition of “calling for violence” – in addition to inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion. Abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Physical assault motivated by the victim’s actual or suspected religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is similarly punished with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the arrow cross in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by detention for a period ranging from five to 90 days.
The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious communities or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
As in previous years, parliament failed to vote on any of the 14 applications by religious groups which the MHC had previously found eligible for incorporated church status, despite the 60-day legal deadline for action after a ministerial referral and a December 2017 Constitutional Court ruling that parliament’s failure to act within the 60-day legal deadline for action violated the constitution. The explanatory notes to the December 12 amendment to the religion law, which the government is expected to use as a guide in implementing the amendment, state that those religious groups will be given preferential consideration for (the lesser) listed or registered church status.
In a case involving the MET’s home for the elderly, the Constitutional Court ruled October 5 that parliament had violated the constitution by failing to act on MET’s 2014 pending application for incorporated church status. The Constitutional Court ruled parliament should fulfill its legislative duty and vote on the application by the end of the year; parliament did not comply, although the new amendment provided a procedure for the MET and other churches to regain a lesser status. MET representatives said its shelters for homeless, elderly, and refugees, hospital, schools, and other social services should be eligible for the same support the state gave to similar activities conducted by incorporated churches. The government rejected this argument. The Constitutional Court did not rule on the issue of funding of MET’s home or other social services, but only that parliament should vote on the group’s application for incorporated status. The Constitutional Court issued a similar ruling on December 20, 2017, ordering parliament to vote on MET’s application, but parliament failed to act by that ruling’s March 31 deadline.
In May the Supreme Court overturned the February decision of the Buda Central District Court of Budapest that the National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) 2017 raid of the COS headquarters and seizure of its materials was unlawful. The Supreme Court ruled the seizure did not violate the principle of proportionality and did not obstruct the free practice of religion. The NBI raid followed the initiation of an investigation of the COS by the government’s Data Protection Authority (DPA) and a DPA complaint against the COS alleging criminal abuse of personal data. The government recognized the COS as a religious organization. The government’s investigation of the COS was continuing at year’s end, but the government did not provide any information on the status of the case.
The COS’s appeal of the denial of a certificate of occupancy for its headquarters and eviction order issued by Budapest’s 13th District remained pending at year’s end. According to the COS, courts blocked the eviction order until the Supreme Court could decide the appeal.
The government continued its public campaign of billboards and posters against a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen businessman. Some of the placards stated the businessman wanted to settle migrants from the Middle East and Africa in the country. In May PM Orban demanded “respect” from Jewish leaders and blamed the same businessman and his NGO for growing European anti-Semitism.
In April online news service Index.hu and daily newspaper Nepszava reported that in the previous eight years the government had transferred 34 buildings to churches in a nontransparent manner. The report stated the buildings were not properties seized under the Communist regime and had not previously belonged to the religious groups to which they were given.
Prominent national and international Jewish groups expressed concern about the September 7 announcement that in 2019 the government would open the House of Fates, a Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest focusing on the efforts of non-Jewish Hungarians to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The government had put the museum on hold in 2014 due to intense opposition from national and international groups. These organizations criticized the project as an attempt to obscure the involvement of the country and WWII Regent Miklos Horthy in the Holocaust. According to a September 21 statement by Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem, the House of Fates museum’s plans ignored the country’s anti-Jewish laws during that era and gave the false impression that, “except for a tiny, criminal and fanatic minority, the citizens of Hungary were essentially blameless.” On September 27, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder expressed disappointment that the House of Fates museum concept “ignored the role played by Hungarian society and its authorities in the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry.”
There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric by government officials and politicians, including at the highest levels. For example, a January interview in the German newspaper Bild quoted PM Orban as saying most migrants should not be considered refugees but “Muslim invaders.” In a March 15 speech, PM Orban said, “We must fight against an opponent which is different…they are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.” Media outlets such as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Times of Israel, and The Guardian reported these comments as referring to Jews.
In November private television broadcaster Hir TV made public a recording it said it had obtained of opposition Jobbik party MP Istvan Szavay talking to a fellow party member at Jobbik’s electoral congress about “knocking out” a woman he presumed to be Jewish at a downtown club in August. Szavay said the woman recognized him and said, “I feel Nazi stench here.” Szavay said he called her a “filthy Jew,” punched her in the face , and “slightly twisted her schnozzle.” On December 3, Szavay announced he would give up his parliamentary seat.
Jewish groups expressed concerns about praise by government officials, including PM Orban, for the country’s WWII-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies as well as about public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism. On September 2, the Fidesz (governing party)-administered village of Kenderes held a Horthy Memorial Day. Fidesz MP Sandor Kovacs stated at the event it was thanks to Regent Horthy and others that the country managed to survive after World War I. The Director of the government-funded Veritas Research Institute, Sandor Szakaly, said anti-Jewish laws signed by Horthy did not deprive Jews of their rights but only limited them, and that, despite these limitations, the lives of Jews in the country were safe until the Nazi occupation in 1944. He added that Horthy did not need rehabilitation because he was never convicted of any crime.
On July 16, state television broadcaster MTVA appointed Beatrix Siklosi to run its cultural channel M5. When Siklosi previously was nominated as chief editor of religious programming for national public television in 2014, media reported she had made racist and anti-Semitic comments on social media. The Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and Jewish communities published a letter stating Siklosi was unacceptable to them. Siklosi resigned from the religious programming position due to the protests but remained in charge of nationalities programming. TEV sent a letter asking the MTVA leadership and Media Council to reconsider her appointment.
In March Fidesz Party members of the local municipality and progovernment media criticized the opening of a Hungarian Islamic Community (HIC) cultural center and prayer house in 2017. In addition, media reported that, prior to the April parliamentary elections, Fidesz Party call centers told voters opposition Jobbik Party leader Gabor Vona “prays to Allah,” referring to an undated video where he spoke to Turkish students and referred to God as “Allah.”
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) cited the government’s anti-migration and anti-Muslim rhetoric as the biggest challenges Muslims had to face in the country. It also said Muslims faced indirect administrative barriers when trying to obtain building permits for mosques, open or expand Muslim cemeteries, or buy or rent land or homes. HIC and OMH leaders said lack of sufficient cemetery space for Muslims was one of the most pressing problems for the Muslim community.
On July 19, PM Orban visited Israel and met with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. After their meeting, Orban stated Jews could feel safe in Hungary and that his government had zero tolerance for anti-Semitic statements.
According to a major survey of Jews in the country, issued in December by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), 74 percent of Jews found anti-Semitism to be a problem in political life. Eighty-three percent said the government was ineffective in combating anti-Semitism, and 55 percent assessed the government’s efforts to respond to the security needs of Jewish communities were inadequate.
The government provided 118.1 billion forints ($421.53 million) to incorporated churches during the year, of which 96.7 percent went to what the government and media called the country’s four “historical” religious groups: the Catholic Church, which received 94.2 billion forints ($336.22 million); Hungarian Reformed Church, 13.7 billion forints ($48.9 million); Lutheran Church, 3 billion forints ($10.71 million); and the Jewish community, consisting of Mazsihisz, 2.6 billion forints ($9.28 million), the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, 304.4 million forints ($1.09 million), and the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community, 227 million forints ($810,000 million). According to the government, more than 94 percent of citizens who reported a religious affiliation were affiliated with the four historical religious groups.
These four religious groups and the other incorporated churches that received the balance of the government’s contribution used the funds for a range of activities, including maintenance of buildings, support for religious instruction and culture, support for community programs and investments, and employee wages. Government support for incorporated churches also included funding to a dozen churches for renovating their buildings. The government allocated additional funding from other budget accounts for churches providing public educational and social services and for registered religious organizations, but data on the extent of this support were unavailable.
According to press reports, on October 3, the government distributed 2.76 billion forints ($9.85 million) from the annual budget for religious community programs. On December 23, the government awarded an additional 21 billion forints ($74.95 million) to some incorporated churches and religious organizations.
Some incorporated churches continued to express concern that, if they spoke out on issues of public importance, the government would withdraw some of its financial support, which in many cases constituted two-thirds or more of the churches’ total funding.
According to tax authorities tracking the 1 percent tax allocations designated to incorporated churches, 988,000 citizens donated their 1 percent personal income tax to one of the incorporated churches during the year. Similarly to previous years, the church bodies receiving the most donations were the Catholic, with 526,339 persons contributing 2.5 billion forints ($8.92 million); Reformed, 209,109 persons contributing 996.8 million forints ($3.56 million); and Lutheran, 60,036 persons contributing 308 million forints ($1.1 million). The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 46,198 persons contributing 250 million forints ($892,000). Effective January 1, tax declarations did not have to be submitted by individuals on a yearly basis but remained valid until the taxpayer changed them.
According to the PMO, of elementary and secondary schools, 15 percent were operated by incorporated churches (compared with 14.3 percent in 2016-17) and 0.1 percent by religious organizations in the 2017-18 school year. Of preschools (ages 3-7), 7.5 percent were operated by incorporated churches (7.2 percent in the previous year) and 0.1 percent by religious organizations. There were 214,243 students studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by registered religious communities (incorporated churches and religious organizations), compared with 207,600 in the previous school year. Approximately half of these students were in schools operated by the Catholic Church.
According to the PMO, religious entities provided government-funded social services to 116,440 persons and child protection services to 10,506 persons during the year (27.2 percent by the Catholic, 24.2 percent by the Reformed, and 21.3 percent by the Hungarian Pentecostal Church).
The government made statements in defense of a Christian Europe and operated a dedicated state secretariat within the PMO to assist persecuted Christian communities throughout the world, including with financial assistance. In his annual state of the nation speech in February, PM Orban stated the West “opened the way for the decline of Christian culture and…Islamic expansion,” while his government “prevented the Islamic world from flooding us from the South.” On November 13, Deputy PM Zsolt Semjen said it was striking that Europe’s Christian civilization was in danger again, not from the Ottoman Empire, but from the threat of Islamization.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Budapest on October 8-9 and, with PM Orban, attended the opening ceremony of the renovated tomb of Gul Baba. Baba was a Muslim dervish and member of the Bektashi order, who died in Budapest in 1541 and whose burial place became a pilgrimage site for Muslims. The government cofinanced the renovation with the government of Turkey.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The government did not publish statistics on religiously motivated crimes or other incidents. According to its annual report, TEV registered 32 anti-Semitic hate crimes, compared with 37 in the previous year. These were 19 cases of hate speech (24 in 2017), 10 of vandalism (13 in 2017), three of assault (one in 2017), and none of threats (none in 2017). Muslim organizations did not collect statistical data and said many members did not bother to report incidents because they did not believe doing so would lead to any effective action by authorities. Muslim leaders stated they believed anti-Muslim incidents remained at approximately the same level as in 2017.
On April 5, according to TEV, a man struck a Canadian rabbi without warning and knocked off his kippah at a store in a Budapest shopping mall. On June 13, TEV reported a Budapest bus driver said he “wished gas to the Jews” when someone asked him for directions to a synagogue. In April a Facebook user shared a photograph of a Budapest bus stop defaced with the text, “death on … Jews.”
The November 29 edition of weekly business magazine Figyelo stated Mazsihisz could not account for funds the government had allocated to the organization for a new museum. The issue’s cover showed Andras Heisler, Mazsihisz President and World Jewish Congress Vice President, surrounded by money. Its lead article stated that, while Heisler criticized other proposed museums (such as the House of Fates) for not disclosing details of their planned exhibits, he had so far failed to publish the concept of his own government-funded project, the House of Coexistence.
In a published statement, Mazsihisz condemned the Figyelo article and cover as an incitement against a religious leader unprecedented since the country’s transition to democracy in 1990, adding that they “revived centuries-old stereotypes against our community.” According to Israeli press reports, the Israeli PM’s diplomatic adviser raised concerns over the issue with the Hungarian Ambassador to Israel and called on the Hungarian government to condemn the magazine’s anti-Semitism. The American Jewish Committee called the Figyelo piece an “anti-Semitic attack.” Figyelo rejected the criticism and, in response to a statement supporting Heisler by the Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, stated, “This form of diplomatic pressure … constitutes a violation of the freedom of the press and of Hungarian sovereignty.” World Jewish Congress President Lauder said the cover “is one of the oldest and vilest caricatures of the Jewish people and it places not just the magazine, but all of Hungary in a very bad light.”
In January the Association of Christian Intellectuals organized a Mass to be held in a downtown Budapest Catholic church to commemorate former Regent Horthy’s 150th birthday on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day – five months before his actual birthday on June 18. Fidesz MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sandor Lezsak, former PM Peter Boross, and Veritas Institute Director Szakaly were scheduled to attend and speak at the Mass. The Catholic Church canceled the event following intense domestic and international criticism. Mazsihisz President Heisler publicly opposed the Mass and stated in an open letter addressed to Lezsak that his official participation “tramples on the memory of all the Hungarian victims.” In 2017, Heisler raised concerns about Horthy for what he said was his responsibility for the deaths of 600,000 Jews and tens of thousands of soldiers and the era of anti-Semitism associated with his name. The Miklos Horthy Association then organized a small service in honor of Horthy on February 11 in the Homecoming Reformed Church, where Horthy’s bust is also placed.
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary reported that early in the year an older woman used her walking stick to strike a middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf. The two women engaged in an altercation, but neither pressed charges. The organization reported several incidents in which individuals verbally insulted members of their community, mostly women and girls wearing headscarves on streets or in schools by shouting “Allahu akbar” at them or telling them to “go back to Africa.” The organization also said that on several occasions unknown persons sprayed litter bins and mobile toilets in the neighborhood of the ongoing renovations of its headquarters with the texts, “Allah,” “Muhammad,” and “migrant.”
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 590 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Hungary responded to the online survey. Twenty-seven percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 23 percent reported being harassed over the same period. Eight percent of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 71 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
According to a survey published in June by the country’s leading Jewish news outlet, Szombat, two-thirds of Jews believed anti-Semitism in the country was a serious problem, and 48 percent of respondents reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the preceding year.
In a poll of residents of the country by UK-based market research company Ipsos MORI published in June, 51 percent agreed a Muslim could never be a “true Hungarian” and 59 percent said immigrants could not be regarded as Hungarians, even if they were legal residents or had lived most of their lives in the country. A poll of residents by think tank Political Capital found almost half said Muslims were stealthily trying to enforce their culture, and 45 percent believed Muslim leaders had a secret plan to capture Europe and transform it into an Arab continent. According to a Pew Research Center poll of residents published in October, 21 and 57 percent, respectively, said they would accept a Muslim or a Jew as a member of their family.
A 2017 survey the Median Public Opinion and Market Research Institute conducted for TEV, found approximately 37 percent of the population (33 percent in 2016) held anti-Semitic views.
In June online news site 888.hu published an article about what it called the negative influence of the six million Muslims in France. The same article announced a new column, “the White Man,” with a stated aim of drawing attention to the threats Islam posed to Western society and civilization. Ahead of the April parliamentary elections, media widely described as government-friendly (online sites origo.hu, pestisracok.hu, and ripost.hu) ran stories calling opposition party Jobbik prime ministerial candidate Gabor Vona a closet Muslim.
During a soccer match between the country’s Ferencvaros club and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv in July, former Ferencvaros player and club coach Istvan Toth was honored by the club, Mazsihisz, and the World Jewish Congress. In 1944, Toth saved hundreds of Jews as a member of the Hungarian anti-fascist resistance. Nazi collaborators executed him in 1945.
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 to hold services in public places such as parks or public squares with the agreement of the local government. The law accords the same rights and privileges to the eight traditional religious groups, which it treats as already registered.
Unregistered groups do not possess legal status and may not own property, conduct financial transactions, or receive tax-free donations. They may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, or military units, and generally may not hold worship services in public places without special permission. The law stipulates fines 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 and monasteries. The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association of a single faith or denomination, or of more than one religious group with the same or similar name. For example, the law prevents any association other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name. Other Orthodox groups, such as Old Believers, are registered as separate religious associations.
In April the Constitutional Court ruled that the law requiring religious groups to reregister every year if they had been registered in the country for fewer than 10 years was unconstitutional.
According to the law, all traditional and registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the MOJ by March 1 regarding their activities and goals. They must also provide other data, including congregation size, number of clergy, number of weddings 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 required religion and ethics classes in public schools in first through third grade. The school must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold religion classes in any of the eight traditional groups; if such approval is not obtained or if they prefer not to enroll in religion classes, students take courses on general ethics. The Center for Educational Content at the Ministry of Education must review the content of the classes to verify they do not violate freedom of conscience. Starting in fourth grade, religious subjects are incorporated into elective ethics and social science classes. If there is demand, schools are permitted to teach classes on the history of religion. Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.” Other nontraditional religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools. Religion courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved government-certified instructors (usually at the lower grades), to nondenominational Christian teachings or overviews of major world religions by certified teachers who are proposed by a religious group, and approved by the Ministry of Education (usually at higher grades).
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. Religious workers from EU or Schengen countries do not require visas.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The MOJ approved the applications of three religious groups that applied to register for the first time: evangelical Christian Church Kingdom of God, spiritual center Rebirth, and evangelical Christian Church Grace of Christ.
Pursuant to the Constitutional Court’s ruling, effective in April, religious groups registered in the country for fewer than 10 years no longer had to register every year. In December parliament amended the law on religious organizations to bring it into compliance with the Constitutional Court’s ruling.
The government again did not take any steps to restitute property in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which called for measures to provide assistance, redress, and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution. There continued to be differing views among the government and Jewish community groups about the number of properties that remained to be restituted. Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told media in May restitution of Jewish property remained on the agenda and would be addressed in the next parliament, elected in October.
According to a report on the country issued in 2018 by the NGO National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), the government had made significant progress in recognizing Jewish issues and commemorating the Holocaust, adding that problems remained with regard to property restitution and vandalism of Jewish sites.
Authorities continued to monitor Muslim activities according to the annual report of the security police. In November Islamic Cultural Centre in Latvia (ICCL) leader Janis Hamza Lucins stated privately he had had no negative interaction with the security police during the year and was unaware of any actual or threatened violence against the Muslim community by government actors or private individuals during the same period. In October Muslim community leader Zufars Zainullins said privately he did not view government monitoring of Muslims to be discriminatory or a violation of their rights.
The new prayer center of the ICCL remained unopened. ICCL leader Lucins stated the ICCL was not currently focused on opening the new prayer center and had no timeline for opening the facility. Lucins and Muslim community leader Zainullins said the ICCL’s unopened status did not involve anti-Muslim animus on the part of the government.
President Raimonds Vejonis and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis, and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, attended or spoke at Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre Memorial. In July at a commemoration of the burning in 1941 of the Great Choral Synagogue together with those inside, Murniece said, “Thousands of lives were wiped out … it was hell on earth,” adding that local henchmen were also involved in the mass executions that took place in the country during WWII. In his speech at the same event, President Vejonis said Jews were an integral part of the country and that “intolerance to those who are different find[s] a fertile soil in society and public space. Those who remember the horrible events of the past are today’s hope.”
On the July 4 Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, officials unveiled a memorial in Riga dedicated to Hungarian Jewish women who were deported to labor and concentration camps in Latvia during the 1944 Nazi occupation, where they perished or were killed.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On March 16, the annual march commemorating Latvians who fought in the grenadier divisions of the Waffen SS against the Soviet Red Army in WWII took place in Riga. Approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 SS veterans and five members of parliament from the All for Latvia Party, participated. Numbers were similar to recent years. Protesters against the march 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. According to the NCSEJ’s report on the country, the march featured Nazi propaganda. Police reported they detained two persons protesting the march, one on a charge of public drunkenness, the other for displaying a poster picturing concentration camp prisoners before a Nazi firing squad, shouting and acting aggressively, and resisting police orders. Police released them on the same day after they paid a fine.
In March a researcher for U.S.-based NGO Freedom House said far-right participation in the march had fallen year on year and that “Such movements tend to become the butt of online jokes rather than a meaningful force on the Latvian political scene.” Minister of Interior Rihards Kozlovskis stated confrontations between parties holding opposing opinions at the rally had decreased over the years, and that the 2018 march passed without incident. As in previous years, the march drew strong condemnations from various groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Latvian Anti-Nazi Committee, and politicians from political party the Latvian Russian Union.
On November 30, approximately 500 persons lit thousands of candles at the Freedom Monument in Riga in memory of the approximately 30,000 Jews killed in the Rumbula Forest by the Nazis in 1941. Organizer Lila Tomsone initiated the annual commemoration in 2016.
In December the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. In Latvia 200 respondents completed the survey; however, because the agency encountered difficulties in reaching respondents through online methods, which it attributed to the country’s small and elderly Jewish population, it conducted the survey through face-to-face interviews. The agency concluded the different recruitment and data collection methods affected the data quality and cited its findings for the country in an appendix rather than with the main survey results. According to these findings, 3 percent of respondents said they had experienced anti-Semitic harassment over the previous 12 months, and 8 percent said a family member or close friend had experienced verbal insults or harassment because of being Jewish over the same period. Three percent had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief. Twelve percent of respondents considered anti-Semitism to be a problem in the country; 77 percent considered the level of anti-Semitism had stayed the same over the previous five years.
Riga Jewish Community Executive Director Gita Umanovska said that anti-Semitic hate speech on the internet was mostly in the form of posts on social media and comments on news articles, although none were reported to police. For example, one online commenter wrote, “Hitler was too humane.” Another wrote, “It is a damned nation that causes riots… and destroys nations from within that God himself cursed when he made them walk 40 years through the desert. They don’t deserve anything!” Another poster wrote: “in the Jewish Torah it says that other people are goy … [Jews] can kill them and humiliate them, and even destroy entire nations. It is not surprising that Adolf (half-Jewish) started to beat his own, so that they do not go too far.”
According to Muslim community leader Zainullins, anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet also consisted mostly of posts on social media and comments on news articles. For example, one site carried the message, “You [Muslims] have no place in Europe with your savage beliefs”. Another message read, “Muslims have their own territory, Christians have their own … Maybe you do not have to offer your territory to a potential enemy so that no [expletive] could happen!” Several comments suggested the pilgrimage to Mecca would be a perfect opportunity for a bombing, such as: “All of them could go straight to their hotly-loved Allah in one big crowd. There are so many Muslims in one place. Really no one has thought of it.”
In September the Riga City Vidzeme District Court ordered the government to pay 2,000 euros ($2,300) in damages to Leonards Inkins for prosecuting him on charges of anti-Semitism because of an article Inkins wrote in 2012 defending a broadcast by Radio Naba. On that broadcast, a person said he had witnessed “Jews with guns” in charge. In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld lower court verdicts acquitting Inkins of anti-Semitism.
During a visit to the country in September, Pope Francis prayed along with members of the Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian faiths at the Lutheran cathedral in Riga. Pope Francis praised the people’s solidarity in the face of ethnic and religious differences. He laid flowers at the Freedom Monument honoring soldiers killed in the War of Independence before celebrating a Mass for 40,000 persons at the Basilica of Aglona, a Catholic pilgrimage site. During the Mass in Aglona, the pope called for “the spirit of universal fraternity.”
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there is no state religion and provides for the right of individuals to choose freely any religion or belief, to profess their religion and perform religious practices, individually or with others, in private or in public, and to practice and teach their beliefs. It states no one may compel another person (or be compelled) to choose or profess any religion or belief. The constitution allows limits on the freedom to profess and spread religious beliefs when necessary to protect health, safety, public order, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. It restricts freedom of expression if it incites religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. It stipulates religious belief may not serve as justification for failing to comply with laws.
Under the constitution, the government may temporarily restrict freedom of expression of religious belief during a period of martial law or a state of emergency, although it has never invoked this right.
The constitution acknowledges the freedom of parents or guardians to oversee the religious and moral education of their children without interference and stipulates public education shall be secular, although schools may provide religious instruction at the request of parents. The constitution grants recognition to “traditional” religious groups and provides for recognition of other religious groups if they have support in society and their teachings and practices do not conflict with law or public morals. It states the status of religious groups shall be established by agreement or law, and recognized religious groups shall be free to carry out their activities as long as they are not in conflict with the constitution or laws.
The law defines religious groups as (1) religious communities, (2) religious associations, which comprise at least two religious communities under common leadership, and (3) religious centers, which are higher governing bodies of religious associations.
The law recognizes as “traditional” those religious groups able to trace back their presence in the country at least 300 years. The law lists nine “traditional” religious groups: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Old Believer, Jewish, Sunni Muslim, and Karaite Jewish. Traditional religious groups may perform marriages that are state-recognized, establish joint private/public schools, provide religious instruction in public schools, and receive annual government subsidies. Their highest-ranking leaders are eligible to apply for diplomatic passports, and they may provide chaplains for the military, social care institutions, hospitals, and prisons. The state provides social security and healthcare insurance contributions for clergy, religious workers, and members of monastic orders of the traditional religious groups. Traditional religious groups are also not required to pay social and health insurance taxes for clergy and most other religious workers and members of monastic orders.
Other religious groups and associations may apply to the MOJ for state recognition if they have been officially registered in the country for at least 25 years. Parliament votes whether to grant this status upon recommendation from the MOJ. The Evangelical Baptist Union of Lithuania, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Pentecostal Evangelical Belief Christian Union, and the New Apostolic Church of Lithuania are the only state-recognized nontraditional religious groups.
Recognition entitles nontraditional religious groups to perform marriages and provide religious instruction in public schools. Unlike traditional groups, however, they are not eligible for annual subsidies from the state budget. The law provides recognized nontraditional religious groups with legal entity status, but they do not qualify for certain social security and healthcare contributions by the state.
The MOJ handles official registration of religious communities, associations, and centers. Groups wishing to register must submit an application and supporting documentation to the MOJ, including their bylaws describing their religious teachings and governance, minutes of the founding meeting, and a list of the founders, at least 15 of whom must be citizens. Upon approval of its application, a religious community, association, or center may register as a legal entity with the State Enterprise Center of Registers. Registration is voluntary for religious communities, associations, and centers affiliated with traditional religious groups and mandatory for nontraditional communities wishing to receive legal status.
Registration of traditional religious communities, associations, and centers is free of charge, while nontraditional communities pay a fee of 32 euros ($37). Traditional communities also have a simpler registration procedure, needing to submit only an application, decisions of their governing body on the appointment of their leader, and their headquarters address. The MOJ may refuse to register a religious group if full data are not included in the application; the activities of the group violate human rights or public order; or a group with the same name has already registered. According to the Center of Registers, there are 1,115 traditional and 194 nontraditional religious communities, associations, and centers officially registered in the register of legal entities.
For nontraditional religious groups, official registration is a prerequisite for opening a bank account, owning property, and acting in a legal or official capacity as a community. The law allows all registered religious groups to own property for use as prayer houses, homes, and other functions, and permits construction of facilities necessary for religious activities. All registered groups are eligible for public funds from municipalities for cultural and social projects.
In December 2017, parliament amended the law to exempt all clergy from registered groups from compulsory military service. Previously, only clergy (and theological students) from traditional religious groups were exempt from military service. In the event of a conflict, clergy would be called to serve as chaplains in the military.
Unregistered communities have no legal status, but the constitution allows them to conduct worship services and seek new members.
The Interministerial Commission to Coordinate Activities of Governmental Institutions that Deal with Issues of Religious, Esoteric, and Spiritual Groups coordinates investigations of religious groups if there is a concern a group’s actions may be inconsistent with what the commission perceives to be “principles that stress respect for human freedom of expression and freedom of religion.”
The Journalist Ethics Inspectorate, an independent, government-sponsored organization whose head is appointed by parliament, investigates complaints involving the violation of regulatory laws governing the provision of information to the public, including print media and the internet. These laws include prohibition of the publication of material that fuels religious hatred. The inspectorate may levy administrative fines on newspapers or refer cases to the Office of the General Prosecutor.
The Soviet Union nationalized all religious buildings, some of which it redistributed, while others continued to serve religious communities. For properties belonging to the national government, registered groups could apply to the appropriate ministry for the restitution of, or compensation for, religious property they owned before June 19, 1948. For former religious properties belonging to municipalities, registered groups applied for restitution or compensation to the appropriate municipality. Religious communities could also register a claim for property not officially registered under their name but which they used during the Soviet period. If the ministry or municipality determines the claim is legitimate, it drafts a resolution officially returning the property to its original owner. The deadline for registered religious groups to submit a claim for religious property restitution was 1997. The government continues to review cases filed by the 1997 deadline but is not accepting any new claims. Religious groups may appeal the decisions of the ministry or municipality in court. Unregistered religious groups could not apply for restitution.
A compensation fund for Jewish-owned communal property nationalized under totalitarian regimes is designed to support Jewish educational, religious, scientific, cultural, and healthcare projects with public benefits. Pursuant to the law, the government is committed to disbursing 37 million euros ($42.43 million) over the course of the decade ending March 1, 2023. Funds go to the Good Will Foundation, a public institution governed by national and international Jewish leaders.
The country has no law for the restitution of heirless private property.
The government allocates funds to traditional religious communities for refurbishing houses of prayer, restoring old cemeteries, and preserving cultural heritage sites. Each traditional religion group receives 3,075 euros ($3,500) every year as a base fund plus a variable component that depends on the number of believers of each community.
The constitution and other law permits and funds religious instruction in public schools for traditional and other state-recognized religious groups. Most religious instructors are regular state-employed teachers, but some are priests, seminarians, or monks. Parents must choose either religious instruction or secular ethics classes for their children, but may not opt out of both offerings. Schools decide which of the traditional religious groups will be represented in their curricula on the basis of requests from parents of children up to age 14, after which students present the requests themselves.
There are 30 private schools established by religious communities, 26 Catholic and four Jewish; students of different religious groups may attend these schools. All accredited private schools (religious and nonreligious) receive funding from municipalities and the Ministry of Education and Science through a voucher system based on the number of pupils. Each private school receives 1,099 euros ($1,300) per student. Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, national minority schools, which include schools established by the Jewish community, receive 20 percent more – 1,318.80 euros ($1,500) – per student than other private schools. The per-student stipend covers only the program costs of school operation. Private school operators generally bear responsibility for covering capital outlays; however, per an agreement the government signed with the Holy See, the Ministry of Education and Science funds both the capital and operating costs of private Catholic schools.
The criminal code prohibits incitement of hatred and discrimination based on religion and stipulates fines or up to two years in prison for violations. The code penalizes interference with religious ceremonies of recognized religious groups with community service, fines, or detention for up to 90 days. The law does not address interference with or incitement of hatred against unrecognized religious groups.
The Office of the Equal Opportunities (OEO) ombudsperson investigates complaints of discrimination, including those based on religion, directed against state institutions, educational institutions, employers, and product and service sellers and producers. Parliament appoints the ombudsperson for a period of five years. The office conducts independent investigations, publishes surveys and independent reports on discrimination, and provides conclusions and recommendations on any discrimination-related issues. The office also makes proposals to state and municipal institutions and government agencies concerning the improvement of legal acts and priorities of the implementation of equal rights policy. The OEO ombudsperson does not levy monetary penalties.
The parliamentary ombudsperson often works with the OEO ombudsperson but is a separate entity. The parliamentary ombudsperson examines the conduct of state authorities in serving the population. The law governing the parliamentary ombudsperson specifically includes religious discrimination within its purview. The OEO and parliamentary ombudsperson may investigate complaints, recommend changes in the law or draft legislation to parliamentary committees and ministries, and recommend cases to the prosecutor general’s office for pretrial investigation.
The criminal code prohibits public display of Soviet and Nazi symbols or national anthems. Violators are subject to fines of 144-289 euros ($170-$330).
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On May 25, the MOJ submitted to parliament an application from the Romuva for state-recognized religious association status. Minister of Justice Eimutis Misiunas supported the proposal, stating the Romuva’s commitment to reviving national culture was important for the country’s national identity and that Romuva was the country’s fastest growing religious community. The parliamentary committee on human rights was reviewing the proposal at year’s end. An application for religious association status by the United Methodist Church of Lithuania, which the MOJ submitted to parliament, with a favorable recommendation, in 2001 remained pending. According to the MOJ, it was incumbent on the United Methodist Church to advocate for its application in parliament, but the group had not done so.
In April Minister of Economy Virginijus Sinkevicius introduced in parliament an amendment that would ban the sale of material that “distorts historical facts” about the nation, which was met by criticism from many quarters. Parliament’s legal department concluded it failed to ensure human rights. The LJC said it “raise[d] well-founded concerns and recall[ed] the dark times of government censorship… and ha[d] given rise to anger, with foundation, in the international Jewish community.” Lithuanian and international media also reacted negatively, with some viewing the proposed amendment as a response to the publication in 2016 of a controversial book by Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite and a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center citing participation by Lithuanians in the Holocaust. The proposal never reached a final vote in parliament, and Sinkevicius withdrew it in May.
In October media reported that the Ministry of Finance had proposed allocating 28.3 million euros ($32.45 million) for the reconstruction of the Vilnius Sports Palace, which the Soviets built on the Snipiskes cemetery, Vilnius’s oldest Jewish cemetery, in 1971. The plans were to convert the buildings into a conference center, with design work scheduled to begin in 2019, construction in 2020, and an opening by 2021. In November the government approved the budget allocation. On August 29, the Vilnius Jewish Community, one of 33 regional branches of the LJC, and other local Jewish groups issued a statement protesting the Sports Palace renovation, as well as other renovation projects of Soviet buildings located on the site of former Jewish cemeteries in Kaunas and Siauliai. The proposed renovations at the latter two sites remained pending. The national LJC supported the Vilnius Sports Palace project. The government stated it would undertake the project in accordance with the August 26, 2009 agreement between the LJC, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the Lithuanian Department of Cultural Heritage, and would protect the area of the cemetery at the Sports Palace and its buffer zone, as well as other related areas. The LJC and Vilnius municipality said that, in recognition of the sensitivity of the issue, they had installed vehicle barriers and 10 information plaques around the Sports Palace, noting it had once been a Jewish cemetery and that all of the human remains had been removed. Initially, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said he backed a proposal to convert part of the new complex into a Jewish museum or cultural center; the government was still considering other proposals aimed at commemorating the legacy of the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery at year’s end.
The government again disbursed 3.62 million euros ($4.15 million) to the Good Will Foundation, in accordance with its agreement with that institution.
The government provided 1.2 million euros ($1.38 million) to traditional religious groups to reconstruct religious buildings and to support other religious community activities. Of this total, it granted one million euros ($1.15 million) to the Roman Catholic Church (some of which was to assist with preparations for the visit of Pope Francis in September) and 61,100 euros ($70,100) to the Russian Orthodox community. The remaining 139,000 euros ($159,000) was divided among the Old Believer, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Sunni Muslim, Karaite and other Jewish, and Greek Catholic communities.
On March 15, parliament removed Vigilijus Sadauskas from the government-appointed position of ombudsman for academic ethics and procedures amid allegations of anti-Semitism. Sadauskas, affiliated with Gedimino Technical University, had offered a reward to students who submitted a research thesis about Jewish crimes in the 20th century.
The OEO ombudsperson received five complaints of discrimination based on religion. Two concerned public schools holding graduation ceremonies at Catholic churches. Another concerned the content of the mission statement of a kindergarten operated by a religious community. A fourth involved the establishment of the position of police chaplain, a move that the petitioner stated favored Christianity. The OEO ombudsperson found these four complaints fell outside of the jurisdiction of the OEO office. The fifth complaint was from a prisoner who charged authorities did not allow him to participate in Christmas Mass. The ombudsperson ruled the incident did not constitute religious discrimination.
The government and civil society organizations continued to work together to promote Holocaust education and tolerance in schools. In July the Ministry of Culture sponsored a summer camp in Cekiskes to teach high school students about Jewish history and the preservation of Jewish culture. The program included tours, lectures, concerts, exhibitions, and conferences in Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, Kedainiai and other cities. On August 24, Prime Minister Skvernelis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a ceremony at the Paneriai Memorial, which is located less than 11 miles from central Vilnius and marks the site where the Gestapo, the SS security service, and the Vilnius Special Squad executed approximately 70,000 Jews between July 1941 and 1944. Prime Minister Skvernelis referred to the Holocaust as the “worst episode” in the country’s history and said the government was responsible for ensuring that this chapter not be hidden from the world. In September the nongovernmental organization Lithuanian Human Rights Center, in cooperation with local municipalities, installed eight new memorials known as “stumbling stones” to commemorate Holocaust victims in Alytus, Ukmerge, Plunge, and Kuliai.
On September 19, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius called on authorities to remove a memorial plaque located on the side of the library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in central Vilnius honoring Jonas Noreika, a Lithuanian military officer known as Generolas Vetra (General Storm). Faina Kukliansky, head of the LJC, also called for the removal of the plaque. The appeals came after The New York Times published an article in early September citing a descendant of Vetra, who said Vetra had been complicit in the killing of Jews during the Holocaust. By year’s end, the library had not removed the plaque.
Government officials continued to participate in ceremonies to commemorate the Holocaust. On January 26, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius delivered a speech on International Holocaust Remembrance Day; he referred to the role of Lithuanian collaborators during the Holocaust as a “scar” on Lithuania’s history. On May 4, Prime Minister Skvernelis, Speaker of Parliament Viktoras Pranckietis, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new museum in Seduva commemorating the country’s extinct Jewish shtetl communities. Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius, the President’s Advisor on Foreign Policy, the Israeli ambassador, and the LJC participated in the annual March of the Living on May 23, to memorialize the killing of 70,000 Jews in Ponary, on the outskirts of Vilnius, during the Nazi occupation.
On September 21, government and nongovernmental bodies organized events to mark the country’s 75th Holocaust Memorial Day. Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius, Vice Chancellor Deividas Matulionis, Mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Simasius, MPs, Catholic Archbishop of Vilnius Gintaras Grusas, the LJC, and foreign dignitaries attended the unveiling of a memorial stone in Vilnius to honor the country’s Righteous Among the Nations – individuals recognized by Israel as risking their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. In opening remarks, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius said, “Jews were killed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. We can never forget this. But when there are tragic events and trials, there are also people to whom truth and justice is more important than their own lives.” On September 22, President Dalia Grybauskaite stated, “In a country brutalized by both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, many people stood up to rescue Jews because they saw humanity as the ultimate good.”
On September 23, the anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto, Speaker of Parliament Pranckietis, Minister of Culture Lijana Ruokyte-Jonsson, Mayor of Vilnius Simasius, the LJC, and Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) organizations from Israel and Poland attended a 75th Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at the Paneriai Memorial. In his remarks, Speaker Pranckietis said, “Today we [Lithuanians] suffer repentance for the grievance caused to the Jewish nation.”
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Authorities did not maintain statistics on religiously motivated incidents.
On February 16, nationalists held a march in Vilnius to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of the country’s independence. The march attracted approximately 300 participants, compared with 150 in the previous year; some of the participants held torches and carried national flags. The march included a banner with a picture of, and a quote by WWII-era anti-Semite Kazys Skirpa. Nationalists also organized a march in Vilnius on March 11, the country’s Independence Day, involving approximately 1,000 persons, compared with 500 in the previous year. According to local observers, some of the participants displayed fascist or neo-Nazi symbols such as a skull and crossbones flag, and carried a banner with the images of Lithuanian partisans who many believe were Nazi collaborators, such as Skirpa and Jonas Noreika.
A Lithuanian writer who cowrote a controversial 2016 book on Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust told an Israeli newspaper she had received threats to her safety, which she attributed in part to her book.
Anonymous anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments on the internet were common, for example on Lithuanian media portal Delfi. Examples of anti-Semitism in this forum included statements that Jews who collaborated with the KGB should be condemned by the LJC or statements justifying the Holocaust because “Jews collaborated with the Soviet Union and killed Lithuanian partisans.” Most anti-Muslim examples included equating Muslims with terrorists. Main media portals generally removed such comments promptly after becoming aware of them.
On September 23, more than 50 people gathered for a ceremony at the site marking the former Vilnius ghetto to place stones made of lava and ash into a metal structure in the shape of the Star of David. During the ceremony Mayor Simasius said, “Our duty is to mark this day, to remember and say deep in our heart, ‘never again.’”
Also on September 23, Pope Francis visited the country and prayed at the site of the former Vilnius ghetto. At a Mass in Kaunas, he warned against any rebirth of “pernicious” anti-Semitism and honored Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion. It states freedom of religion includes the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest that religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing rites, or teaching. It states freedom to express religion may be limited only by law when necessary to defend state security, public order, health, morals, or the rights of others. The constitution states “churches and other religious organizations shall have equal rights.” It stipulates the relationship between the state and churches and other religious organizations shall be based on the principle of respect for autonomy and mutual independence. The constitution specifies that relations with the Roman Catholic Church shall be determined by an international concordat concluded with the Holy See and by statute, and relations with other churches and religious organizations by statutes adopted pursuant to agreements between representatives of these groups and the Council of Ministers.
According to the constitution, freedom of religion also includes the right to own places of worship and to provide religious services. The constitution stipulates parents have the right to ensure their children receive a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions and their own religious and philosophical beliefs. It states religious organizations may teach their faith in schools if doing so does not infringe on the religious freedom of others. The constitution acknowledges the right of national and ethnic minorities to establish institutions designed to protect religious identity. The constitution prohibits parties and other organizations whose programs are based on Nazism or communism.
The criminal code outlaws public speech that offends religious sentiment. The law prescribes a fine, typically 5,000 zloty ($1,300), or up to two years in prison for violations.
Specific legislation governs the relationship of 15 religious groups with the state, outlining the structure of that relationship and procedures for communal property restitution. The 15 religious groups are the Roman Catholic Church, Polish Orthodox Church, Evangelical-Augsburg (Lutheran) Church, Evangelical Reformed Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Polish National Catholic Church, Pentecostal Church, the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, Mariavite Church, Old Catholic Mariavite Church, Old Eastern Orthodox Church, Muslim Religious Union, and Karaim Religious Union. Marriages performed by officials from 11 of these groups do not require further registration at a civil registry office; however, the Mariavite Church, Muslim Religious Union, Karaim Religious Union, and Old Eastern Orthodox Church do not have that right. An additional 166 registered religious groups and five aggregate religious organizations (the Polish Ecumenical Council, Polish Buddhist Union, Biblical Society, Evangelical Alliance, and Council of Protestant Churches) do not have a statutorily defined relationship with the state.
The law provides equal protection to all registered religious groups. In accordance with the law, the government and the Roman Catholic Church participate in the Joint Government-Episcopate Committee, cochaired by the minister of interior and administration and a bishop, currently the Archbishop of Gdansk, which meets regularly to discuss Catholic Church-state relations. The government also participates in a joint government-Polish Ecumenical Council committee, cochaired by a Ministry of Interior and Administration (MIA) undersecretary and the head of the Polish Ecumenical Council (an association composed of seven denominations and two religious associations, all of them non-Roman Catholic Christian), which meets to discuss issues related to minority Christian churches operating in the country.
Religious groups not the subject of specific legislation may register with the MIA, but registration is not obligatory. To register, the law requires a group to submit a notarized application with the personal information of at least 100 citizen members; details about the group’s activities in the country; background on its doctrine and practices; a charter and physical address; identifying information about its leaders; a description of the role of the clergy, if applicable; and information on funding sources and methods of new member recruitment. If the ministry rejects the registration application, religious groups may appeal to an administrative court. By law, the permissible grounds for refusal of an application are failure to meet formal requirements or inclusion in the application of provisions that may violate public safety and order, health, public morality, parental authority or freedom, and rights of other persons. Unregistered groups may worship, proselytize, publish or import religious literature freely, and bring in foreign missionaries, but they have no legal recognition and are unable to undertake certain functions such as owning property or holding bank accounts in their name. The 186 registered and statutorily recognized religious groups receive other privileges not available to unregistered groups, such as selective tax benefits – they are exempt from import tariffs, property taxes and income tax on their educational, scientific, cultural, and legal activities, and their official representatives are also exempt from income and property taxes – and the right to acquire property and teach religion in schools.
Four commissions oversee communal religious property restitution claims submitted by their respective statutory filing deadlines, one each for the Jewish community, Lutheran Church, and Orthodox Church, and one for all other denominations. The commissions function in accordance with legislation providing for the restitution to religious communities of property they owned and that was nationalized during or after World War II (WWII). A separate commission overseeing claims by the Roman Catholic Church completed its work in 2011. The MIA and the respective religious community each appoint representatives to the commissions. The law states decisions by the commission ruling on communal property claims may not be appealed, but the Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2013 that parties could appeal commission decisions in administrative courts. There have been no reports of parties filing such appeals. The law does not address communal properties the government sold or turned over to new private owners after WWII.
There is no comprehensive national law governing private property restitution. Members of religious groups, like other private claimants, may pursue restitution through the courts.
The law authorizes Warsaw city authorities to expeditiously resolve long-standing restitution cases affecting Warsaw properties now being used for public purposes. Warsaw city officials must post a notification of specific public properties for a six-month period during which original owners of the property must submit their claims. At the end of the six-month period, Warsaw city authorities may make a final determination on the disposition of the property, either declaring that the property shall remain public and not be subject to any future claims, or returning the property or monetary compensation to the original owner.
In accordance with the law, all public and private schools teach voluntary religion classes. Schools must provide instruction in any of the registered faiths if there are at least seven students requesting it. Each registered religious group determines the content of classes in its faith and provides the teachers, who receive salaries from the state. Students may also request to take an optional ethics class instead of a religion class; the ethics class is optional even if students decline to take a religion class.
Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom, and the law prohibits discrimination or persecution on the basis of religion or belief.
The constitution recognizes the right to conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds but states such objectors may be required to perform alternative service as specified by law.
The human rights ombudsman is responsible for safeguarding human and civil freedoms and rights, including the freedom of religion and conscience, specified in the constitution and other legal acts. The ombudsman is independent from the government, and appointed by parliament.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On July 31, the MIA approved the registration of the Church of the Living God, originally applied for in 2016. According to the MIA, the average length of time to process a registration application is approximately two years.
On February 6, the president signed into law amendments to the IPN law, which stated anyone who publicly assigned the “Polish state or nation” responsibility or joint responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich during WWII could be fined or imprisoned for up to three years. After signing the law, the president referred it to the Constitutional Court over concerns it violated free speech protections. On June 26, following significant international criticism of the law, parliament voted to remove the provisions criminalizing attribution of Nazi crimes to the Polish state or nation, and the president signed the legislation the same day. The civil penalties in the law remained unchanged, as did the provisions criminalizing denial of purported Ukrainian WWII-era collaboration and war crimes. Under the civil provisions, the Institute of National Remembrance and NGOs established to defend the country’s historical record may file suit to defend the country’s reputation and demand a retraction and payment of compensation to the state or a charity.
On February 17, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated in response to a journalist’s question that the IPN law would not affect the ability to say, “…there were Polish perpetrators [during WWII], as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as well as Ukrainian perpetrators – not only German perpetrators.”
On June 27, Prime Minister Morawiecki and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a joint declaration supporting free and open historical expression and research on the Holocaust and condemning all forms of anti-Semitism, and called for a return to civil and respectful public dialogue. On July 5, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Yad Vashem Institute criticized the IPN law and the prime ministers’ joint declaration, stating the penalties remaining in the amended law could harm researchers, impede research, and interfere with the historical memory of the Holocaust.
In July parliamentarians from the PiS Party voted down a motion in the Sejm (parliament) National and Ethnic Minority Committee to request the prime minister to review a June 2017 written appeal by several Muslim organizations to the speaker of the lower house of parliament to protect the Muslim minority in the country. The authors of the appeal stated political debates reinforced anti-Muslim messages in media and could lead to an escalation of xenophobic behavior against Muslims.
According to MIA statistics, the religious community property commissions resolved 87 communal property claims during the year, out of approximately 3,240 pending claims by religious groups. At year’s end, the commissions had partially or entirely resolved a total of 2,810 of 5,554 claims by the Jewish community, 989 of 1,200 claims by the Lutheran community, 268 of 472 claims by the Orthodox Church, and 87 of 170 claims by all other denominations.
Critics continued to point out the laws on religious communal property restitution do not address the issue of disputed communal properties now privately owned, and the government left several controversial and complicated cases unresolved. These included a number of cases in which buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries destroyed during or after WWII. The Jewish community continued to report the pace of Jewish communal property restitution was slow, involved considerable legal expense, and often ended without any recovery of property or other compensation for claimants.
Warsaw city authorities continued implementing the 2015 law critics stated might extinguish potential claims by private individuals, including Jews and members of other religious minorities, on public properties seized in WWII or the communist era. On September 17, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz stated that since the law entered into force in September 2016, the city had discontinued 48 dormant claims filed before 1950 and refused 58 restitution claims against public properties. These included schools, preschools, a park, a police command unit site, a hospital, and city-owned apartment houses. There was no information available as to the identity of those claiming prior ownership or whether any belonged to religious minorities.
The World Jewish Restitution Organization sent a formal request to the Mayor of Warsaw asking the city to give claimants sufficient time to complete succession proceedings (proving legal inheritance or succession in Polish courts) to avoid the discontinuance of their property claims. The mayor responded the city was obligated to administer the public property restitution law as it was passed by the national parliament and upheld by the Constitutional Court.
A special government commission led by Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki continued to investigate accusations of irregularities in restitution of private property in Warsaw. On June 30, the commission reported it had reviewed 593 prior restitution cases and issued 74 decisions during its first 12 months of operations in 2016-17. The commission chair estimated the commission’s actions returned 700 million zloty ($186.52 million) in property value to the city of Warsaw. Several NGOs and lawyers representing claimants, including lawyers representing Holocaust survivors or their heirs, stated the commission had had a negative effect on private property restitution cases, as administrative and court decisions had slowed down in response to the commission’s decisions.
On February 12, the head of the committee of the Council of Ministers responsible for coordinating legislation announced the justice ministry’s October 2017 comprehensive private property restitution draft legislation needed further revisions and analysis, and that there were questions about its potential costs and compliance with national and international law. The proposed law would block any physical return of former properties, whether the properties were currently privately or publicly owned, provide compensation of 20-25 percent of the property’s value at the time of taking in cash or government bonds, and set a one-year claims filing period. The draft legislation continued to draw intense media coverage and public scrutiny. NGOs and advocacy groups expressed concern the legislation would exclude foreign potential claimants, many of whom were Holocaust survivors or their heirs. For example, according to media reports in February, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the World Jewish Congress sent government officials letters criticizing the bill, stating it would end return of properties in kind, provide unjustly low compensations for lost properties, and place unjust restrictions on the persons eligible for compensation. The government had not announced any updates on the status of the draft law by year’s end.
On November 11, the government led a march through Warsaw in celebration of 100 years of the country’s regained independence. The march occurred together with the annual Independence Day March organized by a coalition of groups, such as National Radical Camp (ONR) and All Polish Youth, widely deemed extremist and nationalist in their ideologies. While there were no reports of anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim posters or chants and no reports of violence, a small number of participants displayed Celtic crosses, a far-right nationalist symbol, and messages such as “Poland, White and Catholic.”
On July 27, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected the final appeal of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, to which the MIA denied registration in 2013.
On January 29, the director of state-run television station TVP-2, Marcin Wolski, stated on air that Nazi concentration camps were “not German or Polish camps, but Jewish camps,” arguing that Jews operated the crematoria at Auschwitz. During the same program, political commentator and author Rafal Ziemkiewicz stated, “Jews were part of their own destruction” during the Holocaust. On February 7, Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro asked the Warsaw prosecutor’s office to conduct a preliminary review to determine whether Wolski and Ziemkiewicz’s comments violated the law preventing public offense on the grounds of national, ethnic, racial, or religious identity. At year’s end, the government had not disclosed any information about the status of the review.
On February 8, PiS Party Parliamentary Caucus Deputy Chair Jacek Zalek said during a televised interview that Germans, not Poles, killed Jews in the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom in which at least 300 Jews perished when a barn in which they were locked was set afire. Historians have found that Jews in Jedwabne were killed by their Polish neighbors while under Nazi occupation.
On February 22, PiS Party Senator Waldemar Bonkowski posted anti-Semitic material on his Facebook page, including a video edited from Nazi propaganda movies. The party suspended Bonkowski’s party membership that same day. Bonkowski’s membership remained suspended at year’s end.
In March opposition parliamentarian Kornel Morawiecki from the Freedom and Solidarity Party said in an interview that Jews moved into WWII-era ghettos voluntarily because “they were told it would be an enclave for them where they would not have to deal with those nasty Poles.”
In June the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council rejected complaints by news portal Okopress and the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland regarding February 24 comments made on state-run television station TVP Info by Roman Catholic priest Henryk Zielinski. Zielinski stated, “For us, the truth means the consistency of what we say with the facts. For the Jew…if [he] is a religious Jew, the truth means what God wants. If he is not religious, the truth is subjective or the truth will be what serves the interests of Israel.” The council said Zielinski’s comments could not be considered as offensive or inciting hatred, and that the discussion on the program covered important philosophical and theological topics necessary to facilitating dialogue and agreement on disputed issues.
In July the Ministry of Culture awarded Ryszard Makowski the Gloria Arts Medal for Merit to Culture, one of the country’s highest distinctions for artistic contribution to the nation’s culture and heritage. In March Makowski, who previously made anti-Semitic jokes on a public television show in 2016, wrote an opinion article in which he criticized the Polish government for inadvertently funding anti-Polish narratives through its support for museums such as the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, and accused Jews of creating their own anti-Semitism.
Crucifixes continued to be displayed in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as in many other public buildings, including public school classrooms.
There were no publicly available updates on the status of the investigation the government ordered in 2017 about a 1999 video showing naked persons laughing and playing tag in a concentration camp gas chamber at the former Nazi Stutthof concentration camp.
In January Prime Minister Morawiecki and other political and religious leaders joined Holocaust survivors to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The prime minister stated that “crushing… force [had] exterminated the Jewish people and a part of the Polish nation,” and that there was no justification for “criminal ideologies,” including anti-Semitism.
On February 10, in comments on the revised IPN law, PiS Party Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski condemned anti-Semitism as a “disease of the mind and soul.”
On January 13, MIA Minister Joachim Brudzinski condemned xenophobic and aggressive behavior against people because of their skin color, religion, or beliefs following an incident that day in which two men insulted two Syrian citizens in Wroclaw. Police detained two suspects, who were charged with public insult on the basis of national origin. There was no further information available on the case.
On April 21, law enforcement officials in the town of Dzierzoniow disrupted plans by groups whom media and law enforcement described as neofascists to organize a concert celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Approximately 300 police officers and Internal Security Agency officers conducted a series of raids in the area, resulting in the questioning of approximately a dozen persons and the detention of the two men suspected of organizing the concert.
On January 15, President Andrzej Duda and his wife hosted an interfaith holiday gathering with representatives of various religious groups and national minorities. The president said, “Many generations of Poles, irrespective of their language and religion, have jointly fought for a free and independent Poland,” and added that the country provided “security, peace, and the possibility for all Poles to live a normal life.”
On February 27, President Duda and his wife visited the Krakow Jewish community preschool and nursery, and met with Krakow Jewish Community Chair Tadeusz Jakubowicz and Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich. During the meeting, the president said Poles and Jews had 1,000 years of shared history and praised the contribution of many Jews to the country’s independence.
On March 6, the lower house of parliament adopted a resolution condemning anti-Semitism to mark the 50th anniversary of the March 1968 purges in which the communist government exiled thousands of Jews from the country. The resolution condemned all manifestations of anti-Semitism and the 1968 communist government.
In March parliament passed, and the president signed, legislation designating March 24 as a national holiday commemorating Poles who saved Jews during WWII.
On April 12, President Duda marched together with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the International March of the Living, an annual educational program that brought individuals from around the world to Poland to study the history of the Holocaust.
On June 14, Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo attended the 78th anniversary of the first deportation of Poles to Auschwitz at a ceremony at the site of the Nazi death camp.
On October 14, the government organized an official commemoration on the 75th anniversary of the uprising at the Sobibor Nazi extermination camp, with the participation of the Presidential Chancellery (Minister Wojciech Kolarski, who read the letter from the president), Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski, former prisoners, and representatives from the prisoners’ countries of origin, including Russia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, France, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria.
The government continued to fund exchanges with national participants and Israeli Jews as part of a long-term cultural exchange agreement with the government of Israel to foster dialogue on restitution, the Holocaust, and interfaith issues.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The national prosecutor’s office reported that during 2017, the most recent period for which data were available, prosecutors investigated 506 religiously motivated incidents, compared with 582 in the previous year. The report cited 328 investigations into anti-Muslim incidents (363 in 2016), and 112 investigations into anti-Semitic incidents (160 in 2016). Prosecutors investigated 66 incidents against Roman Catholics, compared with 59 in 2016. The NGO Never Again Association and religious groups stated government tracking of religiously motivated incidents was not systematic; they said police, prosecutors, and the MIA all kept their own sets of numbers, which did not correspond well with each other.
On February 19, more than 25 Jewish organizations issued a joint statement expressing concern over what they termed a growing wave of intolerance, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism in the country, which they said arose in reaction to criticism of the IPN law. The statement said “It is unacceptable for Poland’s leaders to merely state that anti-Semitism is wrong without recognizing publicly that it is a dangerous, growing problem in our country today.” Signatories stated they saw authorities’ “inaction as tacit consent for hatred directed toward the Jewish community…” They cited an increase in the number of threats and insults directed at Jews and stated they did not feel safe. In April a Holocaust survivor of the Lvov ghetto told participants at a rally in Gdansk of her concern regarding the lack of reaction by the government to increasing anti-Semitism.
On April 14, approximately 100 supporters of ONR marched through Gdansk to mark the 84th anniversary of the group’s founding. During the march, some participants shouted “Death to the enemies of the country” and “One Catholic Poland.” On April 19, Gdansk mayor Pawel Adamowicz announced he had submitted a motion to the prosecutor general and justice minister to revoke ONR’s legal status.
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 422 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish citizens of Poland responded to the online survey. Thirty-two percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, harassed, or insulted in the previous 12 months, and 32 percent reported being harassed over the same period. Thirty-five percent of respondents felt they had been discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 83 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
In February local and international news media, human rights organizations, and Jewish community representatives reported an increase in anti-Semitic speech. Many commentators, including media, NGOs such as the Open Republic Association and Never Again Association, and Jewish groups, linked this reported increase to negative international reactions by the international community to the amendments to the IPN law.
Also in February, well-known author and political commentator Rafal Ziemkiewicz used a historically offensive, Polish-language anti-Semitic epithet on Twitter following negative international reactions to the amended IPN law.
On February 2, the Israeli embassy in Warsaw posted a statement on its website decrying the increase in anti-Semitic comments in public media and on the embassy’s social media accounts.
In January private broadcaster TVN aired a report showing what it said was hidden camera footage of neo-Nazis celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday in Nazi uniforms in the southwestern part of the country. Prime Minister Morawiecki wrote on Twitter that “promoting fascism tramples on the memory of our ancestors.”
On November 11, former Roman Catholic priest Jacek Miedlar – who was barred from public speaking by his former religious order for statements he made about Jews, Muslims, and others and is widely described as an ultranationalist extremist – organized an Independence Day march in Wroclaw with fellow extremist Piotr Rybak. Some of the approximately 9,000 participants in the march reportedly engaged in nationalist chants such as “Poland for Poles, Poles for Poland.” Rybak criticized Wroclaw mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz for trying to ban the march over what the mayor said were public safety concerns. Rybak referred to the mayor, who is not Jewish, as the “outgoing Jew with a yarmulke” and stated, “we will not allow the Hebrew language” to dictate actions in the country, which “must be Catholic and Christian.”
Groups such as National Rebirth of Poland and Blood and Honor continued to espouse anti-Semitic views, but authorities did not link any of them to specific incidents of violence or vandalism. During the year, the Blood and Honor website’s RedWatch list described opposition parliamentarian Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz as a “Jewish-leftist hyena” who combats racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, and members of the Razem political party as profit-maximizing leftists sponsored by a prominent Jewish financier.
On January 17, a local court in Oswiecim sentenced two men to 18-months and 14-months imprisonment for insulting a memorial site at the Auschwitz former Nazi concentration camp. The incident took place in March 2017, when 12 persons from Poland, Belarus, and Germany killed a sheep and chained themselves together naked to the main gate of the camp, in what the demonstrators stated was an anti-war protest.
On September 13, the Warsaw local court fined one person 500 zloty ($130) for disrupting a Catholic Mass during the reading of a letter by the Polish episcopate calling for a total ban on abortion in 2016.
On February 4, unknown persons wrote obscenities on the doors of a Roman Catholic church in the town of Brzeszcze. Police had not identified any suspect by year’s end.
On May 14, two men broke into a Roman Catholic church in Nysa and destroyed a wooden religious figure. Police arrested the men. Their case was pending at year’s end.
In August unknown persons vandalized more than 30 tombstones at a Jewish cemetery in the town of Myslowice. Police opened an investigation, but there was no further information on the case at year’s end.
In July unknown individuals vandalized six tombstones at the Jewish cemetery in the town of Dabrowa Bialostocka. Police had not identified any suspects at year’s end.
On November 25, unknown individuals destroyed 22 figures of Catholic saints placed outside the Catholic church in the town of Zarzecze as part of the community’s celebration of the country’s independence. Interior Minister Joachim Brudzinski wrote on Twitter that the destruction of the figures was not only a blow to the local Catholic community but also to any decent person, and said police would do everything to catch the perpetrators.
On September 19, a man later described by police as mentally ill threw a rock through a synagogue window in Gdansk during Yom Kippur services. Police reported the man had previously been arrested for vandalizing a Roman Catholic church. The mayor of Gdansk and community and religious group leaders attended a ceremony to install a replacement window on the following day.
On July 19, the Bialystok district prosecutor’s office discontinued the case involving the alleged desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Siemiatycze during construction work in December 2017, in which workers excavated and removed soil containing human remains from a private commercial lot located within the original boundaries of the cemetery. The prosecutor concluded there was no desecration, as the construction work was legal, the human remains were hard to see, and the construction workers did not intend to desecrate the cemetery.
Authorities did not provide any publicly available updates on the status of an investigation they announced in 2017 into the possible desecration of a Jewish cemetery in the village of Maszewo.
On January 17, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the 21st annual Day of Judaism, which featured events throughout the country, including meetings, lectures at schools, film screenings, and exhibitions. The principal events took place in Warsaw and included prayers at the graves of the Jewish victims of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, a seminar at the Polin Museum, and a religious service at Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral. Archbishop of Warsaw Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz and Chief Rabbi of Poland Schudrich participated in the events.
On January 26, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the 18th annual Day of Islam with the stated purpose of promoting peace among religious groups. The Church hosted an event titled “Christians and Muslims – Caring for Our Common Home” in Warsaw, which included discussions, readings from the Bible and the Quran, and prayers. Chair of the Polish Episcopate Committee for Dialogue with Non-Christian Religions Bishop Henryk Ciereszko and President of the Muslim Religious Union Mufti Tomasz Miskiewicz attended the event. The Church also organized a prayer service in Krakow.
The Polish Council of Christians and Jews continued to organize annual conferences and ceremonies, including the Day of Judaism in the Roman Catholic Church on January 17, and “Close Encounters of Christians and Jews” on February 27, to encourage tolerance and understanding.
A Special Committee for Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Polish Ecumenical Council met during the year to promote better understanding among different Christian religions. In January the committee helped organized the annual Week of Prayers for Christian Unity.
The Polish Ecumenical Council hosted events facilitating interfaith dialogue. These included a New Year’s holiday reception that brought together representatives of various churches and public figures active in ecumenical movements. On April 20-22, the council’s youth section organized a national congress for Christian leaders, in which youth from the Lutheran, Reformed, Old Catholic Mariavite, and Orthodox Churches learned about different faiths and discussed challenges working with youth in their respective churches.
On September 21-23, the Roman Catholic Church in Gniezno hosted the ecumenical congress “Europe of free people, inspiring power of Christianity,” which brought together representatives of various Christian churches in Europe, to discuss challenges facing modern Europe and the role of Christianity in addressing them.
Human Library projects, funded by European Economic Area grants and coordinated by NGOs Diversja Association and Lambda Warsaw, continued in several cities and towns around the country, including Warsaw, Gdansk, Kudowa-Zdroj, Olesnica, and Wroclaw. The project involved a diverse group of volunteers, including representatives of Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups, who told their stories to individuals who could “borrow” them like books. The stated intent of the project was to foster greater tolerance, including religious tolerance.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits restricting freedom of thought, opinion, conscience, or religious beliefs, as well as forcing individuals to espouse a religious belief contrary to their convictions. It stipulates all religions are independent from the state and have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes” under terms defined by the law. The law specifies the state’s recognition of the “important role of the Romanian Orthodox Church” as well as the role of “other churches and denominations as recognized by the national history” of the country.
The constitution states religious denominations shall be autonomous and enjoy state support, including the facilitation of religious assistance in the army, hospitals, penitentiaries, retirement homes, and orphanages. The law forbids public authorities or private legal entities from asking individuals to specify their religion, with the exception of the census.
The provisions of the law devoted to religion stipulate a three-tier system of religious classification with “religious denominations” at the highest level, followed by “religious associations,” and “religious groups” at the most basic level. Organizations in the top two tiers are legal entities, while religious groups are not. Civil associations established under separate provisions of the law governing associations and foundations may also engage in religious activities and have the status of legal entities.
By law, there are 18 religious organizations recognized as “religious denominations,” all of which were in existence at the time the specific law on religion was enacted in 2006. They include the ROC, Orthodox Serb Bishopric of Timisoara, Roman Catholic Church, Greek Catholic Church, Old Rite Russian Christian (Orthodox) Church, Reformed (Protestant) Church, Christian Evangelical Church, Romanian Evangelical Church, Evangelical Augustan Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Unitarian Church, Baptist Church, Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Federation of Jewish Communities, Muslim Denomination (Islam), and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For additional organizations to obtain recognition as religious denominations, the law specifies they must demonstrate 12 years of continuous activity since the law’s passage, which could not occur before 2018. A religious association is then eligible to apply for the status of religious denomination if it has a membership of at least 0.1 percent of the population (approximately 21,500 persons).
The law defines a religious association as an organization of at least 300 citizens who share and practice the same faith and that has attained legal status through registration with the Registry of Religious Associations in the office of the clerk of the court where the main branch of the association is located. To register, religious associations must submit to the government their members’ personal data (e.g., names, addresses, personal identification numbers, and signatures), which the law says the government may not share with other public institutions or use in any other way. To operate as religious associations, organizations also require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations, which is under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister.
The law defines a religious group as a group of individuals sharing the same beliefs. Religious groups do not have to register to practice their religion and do not need approval from the national secretariat to operate.
Civil associations engaged in religious activities function like secular associations and foundations; however, they do not receive the same benefits as religious denominations or religious associations. Civil associations may not qualify under the numerical/administrative criteria (300 members) for recognition as religious associations or may choose not to apply for such recognition. These associations do not require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations to operate. Their registration falls under the provisions of law governing the establishment of foundations, associations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which require a minimum membership of three individuals. Such civil associations are not required to submit their members’ personal data.
Religious denominations are eligible for state financial and other support. They have the right to teach religion classes in public schools, receive government funds to build places of worship, partially pay clergy salaries with state funds, broadcast religious programming on radio and television, and apply for broadcasting licenses for their own stations. Under the law, the amount of state funding a denomination receives is determined by the number of adherents reported in the most recent census, as well as by “the religious denomination’s actual needs.”
Religious associations do not receive government funding, but both they and religious denominations receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes. Religious groups do not receive either government funding or tax exemptions.
Both religious denominations and religious associations may own or rent property, publish or import religious literature, proselytize, establish and operate schools or hospitals, own cemeteries, and receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes. Religious groups have no legal status to engage in such activities; however, they may practice their religious beliefs, including in public.
Civil associations engaged in religious activities may engage in religious worship. While they do not receive the same tax exemptions or other benefits granted to religious denominations and religious associations, they may receive the tax advantages and other benefits accruing to civil associations and foundations.
Legal provisions allow local authorities to fund places of worship and theological schools belonging to religious denominations, including providing funding for staff salaries and building maintenance, renovation, and conservation or construction of places of worship. No similar provisions exist for religious associations or other associations engaged in religious activities; however, these associations may receive funding through legal provisions for civil associations and foundations.
The law entitles all types of religious organizations to bury their deceased members in cemeteries belonging to other religious organizations – with the exception of Jewish and Muslim cemeteries – in localities where they do not have cemeteries of their own and where there is no public cemetery. Public cemeteries must have separate sections for each religious denomination if requested by the denominations operating in the locality.
The law allows clergy from recognized religious denominations to minister to military personnel. This includes the possibility of clergy functioning within the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, Intelligence Service, Foreign Intelligence Service, Protection and Guard Service, Special Telecommunications Service, and General Directorate for Penitentiaries. Under various other arrangements, clergy of recognized religious denominations, and in some cases religious associations, may enter hospitals, orphanages, and retirement homes to undertake religious activities. Religious denominations and religious associations may undertake activities in penitentiaries, subject to approval by the director of the detention facility.
The law provides for the restitution of religious properties confiscated between 1940 and 1989, during World War II (WWII) and the ensuing communist regime, as long as the properties are in the possession of the state.
Under the law, if a confiscated property is used “in the public interest,” such as for a school, hospital, or museum, and is returned to its previous owner, the current occupants are allowed to stay in it for 10 years after the restitution decision and pay a capped rent. The law does not address the general return of properties currently used as places of worship by another religious group. Although the provisions of the law on restitution state a separate law would be adopted to address such cases, as of year’s end there was no such law.
A separate statute on the reinstatement of the Greek Catholic Church regulates the restitution of properties to the Greek Catholic Church from the ROC. Restitution decisions are made by a joint commission representing the two Churches and based on “the will of the believers from the communities that possess these properties.” The Greek Catholic Church may pursue court action if attempts to obtain restitution of its properties through dialogue are unsuccessful.
The law establishes a points system of compensation in cases where in-kind restitution is not possible. Religious groups may use the points only to bid on other properties in auctions organized by the National Commission for Real Estate Compensation (NCREC). The NCREC also validates compensation decisions of other local or central authorities, including those of the Special Restitution Commission (SRC), which decides on restitution claims filed by religious denominations and national minorities. The law establishes a 240-day deadline by which claimants must submit additional evidence in their cases at the specific request of the entity in charge of resolving their restitution claim. If a claimant does not meet the deadline, the administrative authority may reject the case. The authority may extend the deadline by an additional 120 days if the claimants prove they made a concerted effort to obtain the evidence, usually in the possession of other state authorities, but were unable to do so.
The law nullifies acts of forced “donations” of Jewish property during WWII and the communist era and lowers the burden of proof for the previous owners or their heirs to obtain restitution. The law designates the present-day Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania as the legitimate inheritor of forfeited communal Jewish property and accords priority to private claims by Holocaust survivors. The law does not address heirless or unclaimed property left by Holocaust victims.
By law, religious education in schools is optional. Each of the 18 legally recognized religious denominations is entitled to offer religion classes, based on its own religious teachings, in schools. A denomination may offer classes regardless of the number of students adhering to the denomination in a school. The law allows for exceptions where the right of students to attend religion classes cannot be implemented “for objective reasons,” without specifying what these reasons may be.
Under the law, parents of students under 18 years of age are required to request their children’s participation in religion classes, while students 18 and older may themselves ask to attend religion classes. Although a student normally takes a school course based on the religious teachings of the denomination to which the student belongs, it is also possible for a student to take a religion course offered by his or her denomination outside the school system and bring a certificate from the denomination to receive academic credit.
Religion teachers are government employees, but each religious denomination approves the appointment and retention of the teachers of its religion classes.
The law forbids religious proselytizing in schools. If teachers proselytize, the school management decides the punishment based on the conclusions of an internal committee.
The law states the religion of a child who has turned 14 may not be changed without the child’s consent, and from age 16 an individual has the right to choose her/his religion.
The law bans discrimination on religious grounds in all areas of public life. It also bans religious defamation and stirring conflict on religious grounds, as well as public offenses against religious symbols. Penalties may include fines varying from 1,000 to 100,000 lei ($250 to $24,600), depending on whether the victim is an individual or a community.
A law that went into effect in July counters anti-Semitism and criminalizes the promotion of anti-Semitic ideas and the establishment of anti-Semitic organizations. Under this law, anti-Semitism is defined as a perception about Jews expressed in the form of anti-Jewish hatred, as well as speech and physical acts motivated by hatred against Jews that target Jews, non-Jews or their belongings, Jewish community institutions, or Jewish places of worship. Penalties for publicly promoting anti-Semitic ideas and doctrines or manufacturing and disseminating anti-Semitic symbols range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights. Penalties for establishing anti-Semitic organizations range from three to 10 years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights.
A law passed in 2015 prohibits the establishment of fascist, Legionnaire, racist, or xenophobic organizations, which it defines in part as groups that promote violence, religiously motivated hatred, or extremist nationalism, the latter term undefined. Reference to anti-Semitism in the 2015 law was removed following the implementation of an anti-Semitism law in July. Penalties for establishing such organizations range from three to 10 years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights. Criminal liability is waived if the person involved in establishing such an organization informs authorities before the organization begins its activity; penalties are halved if the individual helps authorities with the criminal investigation. Legislation also makes manufacturing, selling, distributing, owning with intent to distribute, and using racist, fascist, xenophobic, and Legionnaire symbols illegal. Penalties range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment.
Publicly denying the Holocaust, or contesting, approving, justifying, or minimizing it in an “obvious manner” as determined by a judge, is punishable by six months’ to three years’ imprisonment or by a fine, depending on circumstances, of up to 200,000 lei ($49,200). Publicly promoting the cult of persons convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes may incur fines and prison terms ranging from three months to three years and from six months to five years if done online. The same penalties apply to publicly promoting anti-Semitic, fascist, Legionnaire, racist, or xenophobic ideas, worldviews, or doctrines.
The law allows religious workers from legally recognized religious organizations to enter and remain in the country under an extended-stay visa. Visa applicants must receive approval by the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs and submit evidence they represent religious organizations legally established in the country. The secretariat may extend such visas for up to five years.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
By year’s end, the government had approved two applications for religious association status during the year, both of which were Christian – the “Philadelphia” Roma’s Union of Pentecostal Assemblies and God’s Union of Pentecostal Churches. As of October, 35 entities with diverse religious affiliations were registered as religious associations, up from 33 in 2017.
Baha’i leaders continued to seek options for the burial of deceased persons in accordance with their religious burial practices, including requesting the State Secretariat for Religious Denominations to help them establish a cemetery. Baha’is continued to be registered as a religious association and not as a denomination.
Religious groups continued to state they viewed the 300-person membership requirement and the need to submit their members’ personal data for registration as a religious association as discriminatory because other types of associations required only three members and did not have to submit the personal data of their members. They also continued to criticize the three-tier classification system for religious organizations.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in several areas of the country, some members continued to encounter opposition to their activities and threats from public authorities and ROC priests. They said the mayor of Mogosesti village in Iasi County threatened representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in August with violence. Following a complaint filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the county prefect and the State Secretariat for Religious Denominations instructed the mayor to respect the law on religious freedom. ROC priests from the village of Valea Calugareasca in Prahova County and Calugareni in Giurgiu County threatened to use physical violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives in March and October, respectively. Following complaints submitted by the religious denomination, police fined the priests.
On November 23, the Bucharest Court of Appeal ruled as no longer valid a request filed in 2016 by Catalin Berenghi, a former candidate for mayor of Bucharest, to annul a 2015 decision to transfer land in Bucharest to the Muslim community for a mosque. According to the court, the decision to transfer the land was no longer relevant because the Grand Mufti’s Office had notified the government it had renounced its right to use the land.
The National Authority for Property Restitution (NAPR), the government agency responsible for overseeing the restitution process, reported the SRC had approved 17 requests for the restitution of “immovable properties” (land or buildings) to religious denominations, approved compensation in 35 cases, and rejected 609 other claims during the year. All of the claims were submissions before the 2006 deadline. In 94 cases, the filers withdrew their claims. According to data provided by NAPR and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of cases NAPR reviewed decreased from 1,227 in 2017 to 1,212.
According to NAPR, religious denominations appealed 53 decisions the SRC submitted to the courts during the year. The Roman Catholic Church made 12 appeals; the ROC made nine; the Greek Catholics made 13; the Evangelical Augustinian Church made two; and the Jewish community made 12. Information concerning court decisions on these cases was unavailable. In April 2015 NAPR rejected a claim submitted by Caritatea Foundation, the NGO the Federation of Jewish Communities and the WJRO established to oversee Jewish communal property claims. The claim concerned a building and a land plot in the city of Piatra Neamt owned by the Jewish community that the city government forced the community to donate in 1953. NAPR stated that Caritatea was not able to submit a copy of the donation agreement within the 120-day deadline. Caritatea representatives said the foundation encountered significant delays in obtaining the document from the National Archives. NAPR, however, did not take into consideration the delay caused by the National Archives’ response, stating the 120-day deadline to submit new documents had already passed. Caritatea Foundation appealed NAPR’s decision in court. In December 2015, the Bacau Court of Appeal invalidated NAPR’s original decision and ruled the SRC should issue a new favorable decision. NAPR challenged the court ruling, arguing that the Caritatea Foundation had not filed the requested document within the 120-day deadline.
During the year, NAPR reviewed 490 claims submitted by the Greek Catholic Church but did not restore any property to the Church or grant it compensation in any cases. Church officials reported that NAPR rejected most of their claims because the properties now belonged to the ROC and were subject to a different law, making restitution possible through a joint commission representing the two Churches and based on “the will of the believers from the communities that possess these properties.” During the communist regime, all places of worship and parish houses were transferred to the ROC and most other properties (land and buildings) to the state.
The Greek Catholic Church continued to report court delays on restitution lawsuits. Representatives of the Church stated there were no court decisions on Greek Catholic restitution cases during the year.
Restitution of a property in Bixad, previously restored to the Greek Catholic Church by the government and confirmed by earlier court decisions, continued to be delayed while courts considered the case anew, following a 2016 decision by the Alba Tribunal, a county-level court, allowing the Satu Mare County Council to revive its claim for ownership of the property. At year’s end, the case was still pending.
Two cases filed in 2016 by the Greek Catholic Church with the European Court of Human Rights for restitution of churches in Bistrita and Breb remained pending. In each case, the Church’s complaint concerned court decisions awarding Greek Catholic property to the ROC based on census data showing Greek Catholics as a minority.
Although the government did not issue regulations for implementing new property restitution legislation passed in 2016 that prioritizes cases involving Holocaust survivors, NAPR approved priority status for 160 such applications it had received. Since the legislation passed, NAPR awarded compensation to Holocaust survivors in 28 cases, rejected the claims in two cases, and requested additional documents for 90 cases.
The SRC had approved 10 pending claims from previous years by the Jewish community as of October – nine through compensation and one through restitution in kind – and rejected 16 others. In 54 other cases, claimants withdrew their requests. Religious groups said it was difficult to obtain required documentation from the National Archives demonstrating proof of ownership in time to meet the 120-day deadline to submit the appeal. Caritatea Foundation stated the SRC continued to avoid assuming responsibility for restitution, preferring to pass decisions on to the courts. The foundation also continued to state the claims procedure was overly bureaucratic and unreasonable, in particular because the SRC often requested the submission of numerous additional documents, which sometimes were found only in government-managed archives, giving Jewish claimants little time to meet the final extended 120-day deadline for document submission. Caritatea stated that access to government-managed archives holding the required documents for the restitution process was difficult.
According to Caritatea Foundation, the NCREC issued final approval on two decisions during the year, and 64 decisions issued before 2013 were pending final approval. According to NAPR, a high workload and insufficient staff and resources were the reasons for the delays
The Reformed, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, and Evangelical Lutheran Churches said the government continued to reject their restitution claims on the grounds the entities registered as the former property owners were not the contemporary churches. Church leaders said the communist regime had dismantled the former church entities while confiscating their property, meaning the former property owners no longer existed as such but the contemporary churches, as the successors to the dismantled churches, were in effect the same entities whose property the communist regime had seized. Twelve claims submitted by the Roman Catholic Church were resolved as of year’s end. The government granted compensation or restitution in kind in five cases and denied seven claims. The government reviewed five claims submitted by the Reformed Church and denied two others. During the year, the government reviewed three pending claims of the Unitarian Church. In one case, the Unitarian Church received compensation; in another case, it received restitution in kind. The government rejected the third claim.
On July 4, the court rejected the Roman Catholic Church’s appeal of the SRC’s 2015 rejection of its claim for restitution of the Batthyaneum Library and an astronomical institute in Alba Iulia in a preliminary ruling.
The percentage of schoolchildren opting to take religion classes remained at almost 90 percent and, according to media, NGOs, and parents’ associations, continued to be the result of manipulation and pressure by the ROC as well as the failure of school directors to offer parents alternatives to religion classes. A ministerial order issued in February established that initial requests to take religion classes were valid for the entire study cycle or until students or their legal representatives submitted an alternate request. A previous ministerial order mandated annual submission of requests to take religion classes.
Minority religious groups, including the Christian Evangelical Church, continued to report authorities allowed only the ROC to play an active role in the annual opening ceremonies at schools and other community events throughout the country and usually did not invite other religious groups to attend such ceremonies. According to the Christian Evangelical Church, this happened also in cities where their followers had a significant presence such as Sibiu, Suceava, Iasi, and Piatra-Neamt.
Greek Catholic officials and believers stated that during the celebration events dedicated to the country’s centennial celebrations, some local governments had marginalized the Greek Catholic Church and attempted to minimize its role in the country’s history. In several online petitions, Greek Catholic believers stated that the ROC and government authorities tried to revise the history of the Greek Catholic Church. In September a group of Greek Catholic believers protested against the dedication of Iuliu Hossu’s bust by a ROC official during an event organized by the local government of Milas Village and the Bistrita Nasaud County Council, and Greek Catholics requested that the inscription on the bust mention Iuliu Hossu’s affiliation with the Greek Catholic Church. Iuliu Hossu was a Greek-Catholic bishop who had a major role in the unification of Romania and Transylvania in 1918. Protesters also criticized the decision by the mayor of Cosbuc Village and the Bistrita Nasaud County Council to commemorate Greek Catholic writer George Cosbuc without inviting Greek Catholic priests to attend the event and to have ROC priests dedicate the writer’s bust.
Religious groups reported military chaplains continued to be ROC priests with the exception of one Roman Catholic priest and one pastor from the Evangelical Alliance.
The government-established Wiesel Institute reported prosecution of anti-Semitic speech and Holocaust denial continued to be infrequent. According to statistics released by the government for the entire year, the national-level Prosecutor General’s Office compiled a list of 42 unresolved cases. Many of the cases included anti-Semitic elements. Of those cases, the office sent one case to trial. Following a complaint by the Wiesel Institute, in 2014 the Bucharest Sector 2 Prosecutor’s Office started the prosecution of the self-declared leader of the Legionary Movement for the public use of fascist, racist, and xenophobic symbols. He had previously gone to the Wiesel Institute dressed in a uniform of the Legionary Movement, a Romanian fascist interwar organization, and performed the fascist salute while standing in the institute’s courtyard. According to the Wiesel Institute, the file was still pending before the Prosecutor’s Office at year’s end.
According to the Wiesel Institute, the delay in the prosecution of cases continued due to lengthy investigations. In February NGO Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism (MCA) received a notification from the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Targu Jiu Court stating the 2014 case based on a complaint from the MCA concerning a lampshade posted for sale online and advertised as being made of “Jewish skin” had been closed in May 2017. According to forensic investigators, the lampshade was not made of human skin. The MCA stated in November that it was unacceptable that there were no consequences for the person who posted the advertisement even if the lamp was not made of human skin.
The Wiesel Institute reported local authorities continued to name streets, organizations, schools, and libraries after persons convicted of Nazi-era war crimes or crimes against humanity and to allow the erection of statues and busts depicting persons convicted of war crimes. By year’s end, the local government in Cluj-Napoca had not changed the name of a street named in 2017 for Radu Gyr, a commander of the Legionnaire movement and apologist for anti-Semitism, who was convicted of war crimes for “contributing to the political aims of Hitlerism and Fascism.” The Wiesel Institute had asked city authorities to rename the street. In April 2017, the Wiesel Institute notified the Ministry of Interior about streets, schools, and busts depicting or named after persons convicted for war crimes and requested the ministry to have county prefects take the necessary measures to stop the public worship of war criminals. At the time, the Ministry of Interior stated they had requested each prefect to analyze each case and take the necessary measures in accordance with the law banning the public worship of war criminals.
In March Romfilatelia, a public company under the national post office, issued a commemorative stamp depicting Patriarch Miron Cristea, who led the ROC between 1925 and 1939 and was prime minister from 1938 to 1939. As prime minister, Cristea was responsible for revising the citizenship law and stripping approximately 225,000 Jews of their citizenship. Many of these persons subsequently died during the Holocaust. The Wiesel Institute publicly asked Romfilatelia to withdraw the stamp, but the company did not respond to the request.
Several government officials made comments that were widely viewed by Jewish organizations as “trivializing” the Holocaust. Agriculture Minister Petre Daea stated in July on Antena 3 news channel that the incineration of pigs in response to a swine flu outbreak was similar to what happened at Auschwitz. In a press statement, the Wiesel Institute said Daea’s statement “was a trivializing comparison between the slaughter of pigs and the extermination of Jews during WW2.” The minister did not retract his comment, stating in a press release, “I respect all the members of the Jewish community and I want to point out that I just wanted to present the very difficult situation that swine breeders are facing because of the African swine fever.”
On September 2, an advisor to Prime Minister Darius Valcov posted a video clip on his Facebook page depicting the German Democrat Forum, an organization of ethnic Germans in the country, as a National Socialist organization and compared the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis, to Adolf Hitler. The ethnic German and Jewish communities, the Wiesel Institute, several NGOs, and opposition political figures condemned Valcov’s behavior, and some called for his resignation. The president of the Jewish community issued a press statement that stated, “We cannot accept a comparison between Mr. President Klaus Werner Iohannis and one of the greatest criminals in history. Mister Iohannis is the opposite of a person with Nazi, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic beliefs.”
The government continued to implement the recommendations of the 2004 International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Commission) Report and to cooperate with the USHMM in promoting Holocaust education. The Wiesel Institute continued to organize training sessions for history teachers, carry out educational activities for students, and inform the public about the Holocaust.
The government continued to state its commitment to cooperate with the USHMM to promote Holocaust education; however, observers said the general history curricula continued not to provide a mandatory class on the country’s Holocaust history. The high school course “History of the Jews – The Holocaust” remained optional.
The government also facilitated USHMM access to the country’s national archives. Archival institutions such as the Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives continued implementing cooperation agreements with the USHMM and provided the museum copies of historical records.
On December 6, the Bucharest Tribunal rescinded the Bucharest City Council’s decision to transfer a building to the Wiesel Institute for the future Museum of Jewish History and the Holocaust. An individual challenged the council’s decision, stating that the council had not met procedural criteria and the intended museum lacked merit. In September the Wiesel Institute had launched a public tender for the design of the new Jewish history museum’s permanent exhibition. In 2017 the Wiesel Institute took possession of a building in central Bucharest transferred to it by the Bucharest General Council to build the museum.
Pursuant to its pledge to implement the recommendations of the Wiesel Commission report, the government again commemorated the annual National Holocaust Remembrance Day on October 9, marking the day when Romanian authorities began deporting the country’s Jews to Transnistria, with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest. In his remarks, the president referred to anti-Semitism and Holocaust-era legislation, stating, “Such policies are today unconceivable for a society strongly attached to democratic principles and rule of law. Discrimination against a minority who does not hold the same beliefs, values, religion, or origin as the majority is an approach that reminds us of the dark years of dictatorships….Many European democracies are facing extremism, populism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia and for this reason, our country will act against these toxic scourges.”
The Wiesel Institute continued to organize training courses on the history of the Holocaust for teachers, police officers, and other professionals. In September the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a project called “The Romanian National Expert Network on Genocide Prevention and Multidisciplinary Research on Mass Graves,” aimed at bringing together prosecutors, criminal investigators, police officers, forensic experts, historians, and other professionals to promote research of mass graves and genocide prevention. In July the president promulgated the law on countering anti-Semitism, criminalizing the promotion of anti-Semitic ideas and the establishment of anti-Semitic organizations. ActiveWatch NGO asked the president not to promulgate the law, arguing that it does not focus on prevention, duplicates current legislation that prosecutors have never adequately enforced, and does not respect the proportionality between the restriction on free speech and the need to counter anti-Semitism. Jewish organizations said they favored the new law. Self-defined far-right groups criticized the law and argued there was no antisemitism in the country.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to non-Orthodox religious groups, ROC priests continued not to allow them to bury their dead in ROC or public cemeteries or otherwise continued to restrict such burials by requiring the burials take place in isolated sections of a cemetery or follow Orthodox rituals during the funeral services. The Seventh-day Adventist Church reported two such cases in villages in Moldova and Oltenia historical regions where the ROC priests did not allow them to bury the deceased in the local cemetery, forcing them to find another cemetery. The Christian Evangelical Church said such cases continued; however, they said local contacts would not provide the details because they feared ROC reprimands. Non-Orthodox religious groups continued to report difficulties in obtaining land to establish cemeteries.
According to Greek Catholic leaders, the ROC, in conjunction with local authorities, continued to deny the Greek Catholic Church access to the ROC cemetery in Sapanta, which had previously belonged to the Greek Catholic Church.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church reported the Body of Expert and Licensed Accountants of Romania continued to schedule exams on Saturdays without providing the option for Seventh-day Adventist students to take the exams on another day.
A study released by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in October, based on a survey carried out among middle school and high school teachers, found that 32.4 percent of the teachers did not want persons belonging to a different religion as neighbors. Twenty-two percent of the respondents rated Marshall Ion Antonescu’s efforts to help his country as “good to very good.” Antonescu was the country’s leader during most of the Second World War and the primary individual responsible for implementing the Holocaust in the country.
On November 5, in the village of Tataraseni, Botosani County, 25 students from the Tataraseni public school participated together with three teachers at a wreath-laying ceremony on the bust of Antonescu located on private property. The Elie Wiesel Institute filed a complaint before the country school inspectorate; at year’s end, the Institute had not received a response from the government.
According to UNHCR, local media outlets depicted largely Muslim refugees as a threat because of their religion. Conspiracy theories and antagonistic speech against Muslims appeared frequently on social networks.
Material promoting anti-Semitic views and glorifying Legionnaires also appeared in media, including on the internet. In February the Justitiarul.ro news website published an article claiming that Zionist Jews had a secret plan to colonize the country.
On August 3, an individual painted anti-Semitic and other offensive messages on the childhood home of Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in Sighetu Marmatiei, including, “The Nazi kike rests in hell together with Hitler.” The local office of the national police and the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Court of Sighetul Marmației started an investigation of the incident for the destruction of property and anti-Semitic acts. By year’s end, authorities identified one suspect and ordered his psychiatric evaluation. Police did not release the name of the suspect, but according to press reports, the individual, Iustin Creanga, was schizophrenic.
At year’s end, the case involving the destruction in 2017 of 10 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Bucharest was still pending before the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Sector 4 Bucharest Court. According to the MCA, in April 2017, vandals destroyed the tombstones. Police identified three juveniles allegedly responsible for the crime. Although the vandalism took place on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the police investigation found the perpetrators had acted without a specific motive. Jewish organizations did not publicly comment on the case.
At year’s end, an investigation regarding anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial messages painted on the external wall of a synagogue in Cluj-Napoca remained pending before the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Court of Cluj-Napoca. In June 2017, the Jewish community in Cluj-Napoca notified police about the messages painted on a wall of the Memorial Temple of Deported Jews synagogue.
According to a Pew survey, 29 percent of respondents were willing to accept Muslims as family members, while 39 percent would accept Jews as family members. Seventy-four percent of respondents said it was very important or somewhat important to be a Christian to be truly part of the country’s national identity.
Verbal attacks during the year holding a foreign Jewish philanthropist responsible for domestic problems had anti-Semitic connotations. Politicians and the media ascribed negative actions to him, such as controlling an “invisible army” and paying for activities of opposition parties.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and affiliation, as well as the right to change religious faith or to refrain from religious affiliation. The constitution states the country is not bound to any particular faith and religious groups shall manage their affairs independently from the state, including in providing religious education and establishing clerical institutions. The constitution guarantees the right to practice one’s faith privately or publicly, either alone or in association with others. It states the exercise of religious rights may be restricted only by measures “necessary in a democratic society for the protection of public order, health, and morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The law prohibits establishing, supporting, and promoting groups dedicated to the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms as well as “demonstrating sympathy” with such groups. These crimes are punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law requires religious groups to register with the Department of Church Affairs in the Ministry of Culture in order to employ spiritual leaders to perform officially recognized functions. Clergy from unregistered religious groups do not officially have the right to perform weddings or to minister to their members in prisons or government hospitals. Unregistered groups may not establish religious schools or receive government funding.
A 2017 legislative amendment increased the minimum number of adherents from 20,000 to 50,000 for organizations seeking official registration as religious groups. The 50,000 individuals must be adults, either citizens or permanent residents, and must submit to the Ministry of Culture an “honest declaration” attesting to their membership, knowledge of the articles of faith and basic tenets of the religion, personal identity numbers and home addresses, and support for the group’s registration. All groups registered before these requirements came into effect were grandfathered as officially recognized religions; no new religious groups have attained recognition since the amendment passed. According to the law, only groups registered as churches may call themselves churches, but there is no other legal distinction between registered churches and other registered religious groups.
Registration confers the legal status necessary to perform economic functions such as opening a bank account or renting property and civil functions such as presiding at burial ceremonies. The 18 registered churches and religious groups are: the Apostolic Church, Baha’i Community, The Brotherhood Unity of Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Brotherhood Church, Czechoslovak Hussite Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, Evangelical Methodist Church, Greek Catholic Church, Christian Congregations (Krestanske zbory), Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church, Reformed Christian Church, Roman Catholic Church, Old Catholic Church, and Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities. Registered groups and churches receive annual state subsidies. All but the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, Greek Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Reformed Christian Church, and Roman Catholic Church have fewer than 50,000 members, but they registered before this requirement came into effect.
The Department of Church Affairs of the Ministry of Culture oversees relations between religious groups and the state and manages the distribution of state subsidies to religious groups and associations. The ministry may not legally intervene in the internal affairs of religious groups or direct their activities.
A group without the 50,000 adult adherents required to obtain status as an official religious group may seek registration as a civic association, which provides the legal status necessary to carry out activities such as maintaining a bank account or entering into a contract. In doing so, however, the group may not call itself a church or identify itself officially as a religious group, since the law governing registration of citizen associations specifically excludes religious groups from obtaining this status. To register a civic association, three citizens are required to provide their names and addresses and the name, goals, organizational structure, executive bodies, and budgetary rules of the group.
A concordat with the Holy See provides the legal framework for relations between the government and the domestic Catholic Church and the Holy See. Two corollaries cover the operation of Catholic religious schools, the teaching of Catholic religious education as a subject, and Catholic priests serving as military chaplains. A single agreement between the government and 11 of the 17 other registered religious groups provides similar status to those 11 groups. The unanimous approval of the existing parties to the agreement is required for other religious groups to obtain similar benefits.
The law does not allow burial earlier than 48 hours following death, even for religious groups whose traditions mandate an earlier burial.
All public elementary school students must take a religion or ethics class, depending on personal or parental preferences. Schools have some leeway in drafting their own curricula for religion classes, but these must be consistent with the National Educational Program (an official Ministry of Education document). Representatives of registered religious communities are involved in the preparation of the National Program. Although the content of the religion classes in most schools is Catholicism, if there is a sufficient number of students, parents may ask a school to open a separate class focusing on the teachings of one of the other registered religious groups. Alternatively, parents may request that teachings of different faiths be included in the curriculum of the Catholic religion classes. Private and religious schools define their own content for religion courses. In both public and private schools, religion class curricula do not mention unregistered groups or some of the smaller registered groups, and unregistered groups may not teach their faiths at schools. Teachers from a registered religious group normally teach about the tenets of their own faith, although they may teach about other faiths as well. The government pays the salaries of religion teachers in public schools.
The law criminalizes issuance, possession, and dissemination of extremist materials, including those defending, supporting, or instigating hatred, violence, or unlawful discrimination against a group of persons on the basis of their religion. Such criminal activity is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment.
The law requires public broadcasters to allocate airtime for registered religious groups but not for unregistered groups.
The law prohibits the defamation of a person’s or group’s belief as a criminal offense punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law prohibits Holocaust denial, including questioning, endorsing, or excusing the Holocaust. Violators face sentences of up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits denial of crimes committed by the prior fascist and communist regimes.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
As of year’s end, the Supreme Court continued to evaluate a motion submitted in 2017 by the prosecutor general to dissolve the LSNS, which experts generally considered a far-right extremist party. The motion said the LSNS was in violation of the constitution and other laws prohibiting support for groups and movements aimed at the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms and defamation of race, nation, or religious belief.
There continued to be no resolution to the registration application of the Christian Fellowship. By year’s end, the Ministry of Culture had not concluded its consideration of additional expert opinions regarding whether it should reverse its 2007 rejection of the original application, which was based on expert opinion saying the group promoted hatred toward other religious groups.
Some members of registered Christian churches said stringent registration requirements limited religious freedom by preventing dissent within churches. Dissenting members stymied in attempts to reform official theological positions might normally split off to form their own church, but the difficulty in registering a new religious group prevented such an action.
The government allocated approximately 42.5 million euros ($48.7 million) in annual state subsidies to the 18 registered religious groups. The basis for each allocation was the number of clergy each group had, and a large portion of each group’s subsidy continued to be used for payment of the group’s clergy and operating costs as stipulated by law. The Expert Commission on Financing of Religious Groups and Societies, an advisory body within the Ministry of Culture, continued discussions with representatives of registered religious groups about changes in the model to be used for their future funding and reportedly considered a model allocating funding on the basis of the number of adherents, rather than on the number of clergy. Some members of religious groups said their groups’ reliance on direct government funding limited their independence and religious freedom, and they said religious groups self-censored potential criticism of the government on sensitive topics to avoid jeopardizing their finances.
Muslim community leaders stated prisons and detention facilities continued to prevent their spiritual representatives from gaining access to their adherents. Muslim leaders had no legal basis to appeal to the government and request access because Islam is not an officially recognized religion.
Members of the Muslim community also continued to report the lack of official registration made obtaining the necessary construction permits for prayer rooms and religious sites more difficult, although there was no law prohibiting unregistered groups from obtaining such permits. Representatives of the community said local officials feared opposition from the wider public, which may view unregistered groups as “sects,” and would seek technical grounds, such as zoning regulations, to reject their applications. There were no reported cases of revoked construction permits for unregistered religious communities.
The Ministry of Culture’s cultural grant program continued to allocate funding for the upkeep of religious monuments and cultural heritage sites owned by religious groups. In 2017, the ministry allocated 3.2 million euros ($3.67 million) for these purposes.
The three highest constitutional officials – President Andrej Kiska, Speaker of Parliament Andrej Danko, and Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini – agreed during an August meeting with political, social, and academic institutions and religious communities that the state would adopt a “zero-tolerance approach toward extremism” and would crack down on the spread of hatred and insults over the internet. UZZNO representatives welcomed the meeting of the top constitutional officials and said they were satisfied with concrete proposals raised in the meeting to fight anti-Semitism.
Many political parties, including the largest party represented in parliament, Direction – Social Democracy (Smer), continued to express anti-Muslim views in their public statements. In January then Prime Minister Fico stated that he rejected the creation of Muslim communities in the country. On another occasion, Fico said that tourists came to Slovakia because they did not have to “fear explosions” and would not be “bothered” by Muslims, given the small Muslim population.
In a February public debate, Richard Sulik, the leader of Freedom and Solidarity, the second-largest political party in parliament and the largest opposition party, said he perceived Islam as a threat to Slovak society. He stated Islam was an “incompatible ideology” for the European way of life.
During a parliamentary debate on legislation dealing with abortion, LSNS Member of Parliament (MP) Stanislav Mizik likened Muslims to barbarians and stated legislative changes would be necessary to prevent the country from becoming a “caliphate” in the future.
UZZNO representatives said the number of anti-Semitic comments and hate speech on the internet and social media increased following March statements by then Prime Minister Fico in which he indirectly accused a Jewish American philanthropist of staging a “coup” and destabilizing his government. Fico suggested the philanthropist aided in the organization of large-scale antigovernment protests held across the country in reaction to the February killing of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, calling NGO protest organizers the philanthropist’s “children.”
Representatives of the LSNS party continued to make anti-Semitic statements and faced criminal prosecution for past statements. Party members and supporters frequently glorified the Nazi-allied World War II-era fascist Slovak state and its leaders and downplayed the role of that regime in wartime atrocities.
In July the Special Prosecutor’s Office indicted LSNS leader and MP Marian Kotleba for his charitable donation of 1,488 euros ($1,700) to three families at a 2017 event marking the founding of the Nazi-allied wartime Slovak state. Experts stated the amount was a symbolic representation of a 14-word white supremacist phrase and the numeric representation of a salute to Hitler.
Also in July the Specialized Criminal Court acquitted LSNS MP Stanislav Mizik of extremism charges in a case concerning a January 2017 Facebook post which criticized President Kiska for giving state awards to people of Jewish origin and to defenders of “gypsies and Muslims.” The judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove it was actually Mizik who wrote the post and dismissed the charges. The case remained pending as the Special Prosecutor’s Office appealed the verdict.
In August the LSNS party sponsored the release of a film called Rejected Testimonies, which historians said was revisionist, and planned to premiere the film on August 8 in the city of Poprad. The premiere was canceled due to opposition by the Poprad city council, because the film was suspected of breaking laws on defamation of race and religious belief, or on support of groups and movements aimed at the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms. Experts considered the choice of date and place a reference to Nazi symbolism. The documentary focuses on the positive memories of people who lived under the World War II-era Slovak state without mentioning the victims of that regime, particularly the 70,000 Slovak Jews deported by the regime and murdered in Nazi death camps.
In February LSNS MP Milan Mazurek verbally attacked an expert witness during Mazurek’s trial on extremism charges, saying the witness was “not impartial, since he is a Jew.” In April the Specialized Criminal Court found Mazurek guilty and fined him 5,000 euros ($5,700). Speaking to supporters after the verdict, LSNS leader Marian Kotleba stated the current “regime” was “completely equal to the Nazi regime in the thirties” for silencing critics through legal proceedings.
As of October criminal proceedings for Holocaust denial remained pending against Marian Magat, who ran as an LSNS candidate in the 2016 parliamentary elections and was described by the press as a far-right radical.
In November parliament passed an amendment proposed by Speaker of Parliament Danko (Slovak National Party) to codify a new definition of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which had been developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Danko stated the new definitions closed loopholes and would facilitate prosecution of hate crimes and hate speech.
During an official state visit to Israel in July, Danko stated it was “high time to start fighting against intolerance and Holocaust denial in Slovakia.” Danko also said he would fight politically to show that the LSNS was a “bunch of crazies” who have “no business being in parliament.”
In commenting on LSNS-proposed legislation, the Episcopal Conference of Slovakia, which represents the Roman and Greek Catholic Churches, said it was regrettable there had been no progress in implementing stricter prolife legislation and said the fact a party without a “consistent approach to protecting human dignity” [LSNS] was putting forward such legislation was a reason for all religious politicians to “examine their conscience.”
In September Prime Minister Pellegrini and Culture Minister Lubica Lassakova commemorated Slovak Holocaust and Ethnic Violence Remembrance Day by opening a new exhibition wing at the Holocaust Museum in Sered, which was subsidized through a one million euro ($1.15 million) government grant. Pellegrini said on the occasion the state had the responsibility to “create a place where the young generation could come to see the horrors people had to endure between 1941 and 1945.” The prime minister warned against historical revisionism and downplaying the wartime suffering of persecuted groups. Government representatives, including the deputy prime minister, also participated at wreath-laying ceremonies organized by the Jewish community in Sered and Bratislava.
In April the prime minister and the minister of culture met with representatives of the Roman Catholic, Augsburg Lutheran, Greek Catholic, and Reformed Christian Churches, as well as UZZNO, to discuss mutual efforts to combat social exclusion and possible changes to the state financial subsidy to religious groups. Religious leaders publicly stated they were worried about increasing extremism and anti-Semitism in Slovak society.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In August the Islamic Foundation in Slovakia reported an incident in which a young man verbally assaulted and pushed an Iraqi woman wearing a headscarf while walking her children to preschool in Bratislava. The man reportedly asked the victim whether she was an Arab and demanded to know what she was doing in the country. The victim did not report the incident to the police, and there was no official investigation. NGOs and unregistered religious groups reported they continued to have difficulties altering negative public attitudes toward smaller, unregistered religious organizations because of the social stigma associated with not having the same legal benefits accorded to registered religions. Representatives of unregistered religious groups said the public tended to view their activities with mistrust and perceive them as fringe “cults” because of their lack of official government recognition as religious communities.
NGOs reported continued online hate speech toward Muslims and refugees, which they attributed mostly to the social controversy surrounding the 2015 European migration crisis and inflammatory public statements by local politicians portraying Muslim refugees as an existential threat to Slovak society and culture. Muslim community leaders said they continued to keep their activities and prayer rooms low profile to avoid inflaming public opinion.
As of August the police reported three cases of defamation of race, nation, or religious belief and two cases of incitement of national, racial, and ethnic hatred. In the same period in 2017, there were three cases in each of the two categories.
A survey conducted by the Sociological Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, published in February, showed that more than 54 percent of Slovaks would not want to have a Muslim neighbor, up from 20 percent in the same survey 10 years prior. Similarly, approximately 23 percent of respondents indicated objections to having a Jewish neighbor, up from 11 percent in 2008. The same survey also found that people’s trust toward churches and religious groups had declined from 65 percent in 1999 to 34 percent in 2017.
In September UZZNO filed a criminal complaint after media reported that the village of Zlate Klasy (in the western part of the country) organized its annual village fair at the local Jewish cemetery, with an inflatable bouncy castle, draft beer dispensaries, and picnic tables interspersed among tombstones and memorials to Holocaust victims. UZZNO stated the organization of a festivity at the burial ground demonstrated a complete disregard for Jewish religious traditions and elementary principles of decent behavior and said it constituted a criminal offense according to the law, which prohibits desecrating or vandalizing a place of “eternal rest.”
Some Christian groups and other organizations characterized in media as far right continued to issue statements praising the World War II-era fascist government responsible for the deportation of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps, and they continued to organize gatherings where participants displayed symbols of the World War II fascist state. While there were no media reports of direct Holocaust denial by these groups, organizers often included photographs showing World War II symbols in online posts promoting their events. On April 18, the Slovak People’s Party, described by media as a neofascist party, used such symbols during a protest march commemorating the anniversary of the execution of the president of the Nazi-allied wartime Slovak state, Jozef Tiso.
The Ecumenical Council of Churches continued to be the only government-recognized association for interreligious dialogue. In February the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a local NGO, organized a series of public debates and school lectures to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance. The events hosted Catholic and Lutheran clergy, an imam, and a rabbi and aimed to debunk popular myths about the represented religions and demonstrate how religious diversity contributes to society.