International Religious Freedom Report for 2017
On May 29, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on international religious freedom. It provided a detailed overview of religious freedom and noted violations and abuses committed by governments, individuals and extremist groups. "Religious freedom was vital to America’s beginning. Defending it is critical to our future," Secretary of State Pompeo said at the release. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called out Saudi Arabia for not recognizing the rights of non-Muslims to practice their religion. Excerpts from his remarks, Secretary Pompeo's statement, as well as the executive summaries of Middle East and North Africa country reports are below.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
It is my great privilege to join you this morning and to release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report. This report is a testament to the United States’ historic role in preserving and advocating for religious freedom around the world.
Religious freedom is in the American bloodstream. It’s what brought the pilgrims here from England. Our founders understood it as our first freedom. That is why they articulated it so clearly in the First Amendment. As James Madison wrote years before he was president or secretary of state, quote, “conscience is the most sacred of all property,” end of quote.
Religious freedom was vital to America’s beginning. Defending it is critical to our future.
Religious freedom is not only ours. It is a right belonging to every individual on the globe. President Trump stands with those who yearn for religious liberty. Our Vice President stands with them, and so do I.
Advancing liberty and religious freedom advances America’s interests. Where fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, press, and peaceful assembly are under attack, we find conflict, instability, and terrorism. On the other hand, governments and societies that champion these freedoms are more secure, stable, and peaceful.
So for all of these reasons, protecting and promoting global respect for religious freedom is a priority of the Trump administration. As our National Security Strategy so clearly states: “Our Founders understood religious freedom not as the state’s creation, but as the gift of God to every person and a fundamental right for a flourishing society.” We’re committed to promoting religious freedom around the world, both now and in the future.
And Ambassador Brownback and I will talk about that today. We have underscored that commitment with his appointment. It’s great to have a friend and a fellow Kansan up here with me today. International religious freedom deserves to be a front-burner issue, and Ambassador Brownback and I, with him leading the way, will ensure that it continues to be so.
The ambassador and our team in our Office of International Religious Freedom have been working tirelessly throughout the federal government and with our colleagues here at the department and in embassies overseas with NGOs, foreign partners to defend religious freedom in the farthest corners of the globe.
This report demonstrates the hard work of American diplomats to protect American and universal values. I’m proud of my team in completing this report. The release of the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report is critical to our mission to defend religious liberty. It brings to light the state of religious freedom all over the world. It documents, across 200 countries and territories, reports of violations and abuses committed by governments, terrorist groups, and individuals so that we may work together to solve them.
I have a number of examples here. For the sake of time, I’m going to pass through them. But know that we are working in countries around the world to ensure that religious freedom remains the case, and where it is not, that it becomes so.
Governor – or excuse me, Ambassador Brownback will provide to you more details. But we are very ignited to announce that later this year we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, a law that reinforces America’s commitment to religious freedom and to helping the persecuted. It is also the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN, which proclaimed the importance of human rights, including the right for religious freedom.
The world has made important strides, but we still have a lot of work to do. In that regard, I am pleased to announce that the United States will host the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department of State on July 25th and 26th of this year.
I look forward to hosting my counterparts from likeminded governments, as well as representatives of international organizations, religious communities, and civil society to reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial, we expect, will break new ground. It will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.
The ministerial will also be my first to host as a Secretary of State, and that’s very intentional. Religious freedom is indeed a universal human right that I will fight for, one that our team at the department will continue to fight for, and one that I know President Trump will continue to fight for. The United States will not stand by as spectators. We will get in the ring and stand in solidarity with every individual who seeks to enjoy their most fundamental of human rights.
―May 29, 2018, at a press conference
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback
"Our goal is to protect the freedom of conscience for all people. That means protecting a Muslim, Buddhist, Falun Gong practitioner, or Christian in China and their ability to pray and live out their life. That means protecting a blogger in the Middle East, who doesn’t believe that his government might – what his government might believe. Our desire is to protect both – to protect everyone’s right to freely practice what they believe."
"Saudi Arabia does not recognize the right of non-Muslims to practice their religion in public and imprisons, lashes, and fines individuals for apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting the state’s interpretation of Islam."
"QUESTION: Thank you so much for your time. How do you view the religious freedom situation in the Middle East, other than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Yemen?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, Iran has been a Country of Particular Concern for some period of time since the report started. You have great difficulty in many countries in the Middle East in the area of religious freedom. That’s all noted in the report. You’ve – I noted the situation in Saudi Arabia. Iran – we hear and see horrific reports coming out of Iran on the lack of religious freedom and the persecution of people that aren’t in the majority faith stream and practicing as the government directs, and we see a radical export of that philosophy as well out of Iran and trouble in many other countries in the Middle East."
"QUESTION: Mr. Brownback, you mentioned that you will be pushing religious freedom more aggressively going forward. And as you know, Saudi Arabia is a Country of Particular Concern. The previous secretary of state issued a waiver for that designation as a national security concern. I was wondering if you will recommend that Secretary Pompeo going forward not waive sanctions against Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern over religious freedom.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’m not going to say here today what my recommendations will or won’t be on Saudi Arabia. I’m pleased with what I am hearing said by the crown prince about a trajectory going forward for Saudi Arabia. We want to work to see that these are implemented. I note what’s taking place today in Saudi Arabia, but I’m hopeful that we can work to see more religious freedom taking place in Saudi Arabia.
For years, we’ve reported on the state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Today, I think we have some actual opportunities for that state to change and for it to get much better. Now we’ll see how the – we have to see the actions. As I mentioned, this is a report, but action needs to follow. And I’m – but I’m hopeful you’re going to start seeing change coming out of that country and that you are starting to see change come out of Saudi Arabia."
"QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this, sir. I wanted to ask about religious minorities in Iraq. Although with the defeat of ISIS, let’s say the Yezidis and the sabaya are breathing a little better and practicing a little more, but how do you keep track of their situation considering that there are a lot of conflicting militias and the government and so on still restricting their access to doing their own rituals and so on?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, as you know, that’s been declared a genocide by the United States, and fortunately, ISIS has been mostly if not all removed from that region, and ISIS prior to this administration coming in had 30 percent of the terrain in Iraq and now it’s virtually out, which has been an enormously helpful thing for the religious minority communities, particularly in that Nineveh plains region. And now some of the rebuilding has started. The administration has focused aid into that religious minority region to get it rebuilt. Some people are starting to move back, but not enough, and security needs to increase and the aid funds need to go into those areas to help rebuild that region.
So I’m happy we’ve got started and it’s focused, that ISIS has been mostly removed if not all removed from that region, but we’ve got a ways to go before the religious minority community is going to be back in any substantial, stable way into that Nineveh plains region. There’s some going back now, but we’ve – we need to get – we need to make it a much more stable environment for them to be willing to move back and not see themselves as being scared or risking their lives just to move home."
―May 29, 2018 in a special briefing
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. Police investigated and arrested Ahmadi Muslims for conducting unauthorized religious activities, such as holding prayers, printing religious books, and collecting donations. In April then-chief of staff to the country’s president called on citizens “to protect the country from the Shia and Ahmadi sects.” The minister of religious affairs stated in February that Ahmadis were “damaging the very basis of Islam” and in July, according to Human Rights Watch, said that Ahmadis were manipulated by a “foreign hand” aimed at destabilizing the government. An Algerian Islamic council declared that Ahmadi beliefs are outside of Islam. Authorities closed a church in Oran, according to Protestant church leaders. The president commuted the sentence of a Christian convert arrested in 2016 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, but he remained in prison as of year’s end. Some Christian groups continued to report facing a range of administrative difficulties in the absence of a written government response to their requests for recognition as associations. The government continued to regulate the importation of religious materials. The government delayed granting authorization to Christian organizations to import religious texts. Senior government officials issued statements opposing calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam. They also continued to criticize the spread of what they characterized as “foreign” religious influences such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, and Ahmadi Islam. Christians reported continuing delays in obtaining visas for foreign religious workers.
Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. Media outlets reported in August that as many as 600 imams have lodged complaints in recent years after suffering violent attacks. The government attributed the attacks to extremists who opposed the imams’ moderate teachings and said others were related to interpersonal disputes. An Arabic-language newspaper published anti-Semitic items that promoted stereotypes about Jews.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials to promote religious tolerance and discussed the difficulties Christian and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups, as well as with other members of the public, focused on pluralism and religious moderation. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance.
Click here for Algeria's full report.
The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation. It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites. The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.” The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” In July the government passed a unified “family law” codifying personal status to include inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce for both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. On May 21, Sheikh Isa Qassim, identified by media as the leading Shia cleric in the country, received a one-year suspended sentence in absentia (Qassim was living under de facto house arrest) for money laundering and collecting funds without a government license. On May 23, security forces conducted an operation to remove pro-Qassim protestors who had blocked roads surrounding Qassim’s residence since June 2016, which resulted in five deaths, 286 arrests, and 31 injured police officers. Police continued to restrict entry into Qassim’s predominantly Shia neighborhood of Diraz through year’s end. On December 4, the government permitted Qassim to leave his home, for the first time since June 2016, to receive medical treatment for several days at a private hospital. On April 3, the country’s highest appeals court, the Court of Cassation, overturned the Appeals Court’s nine-year prison sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary general of the Shia-aligned opposition political society Wifaq, and restored his original four-year sentence. On November 12, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJIA) filed new espionage charges against Salman for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011. In February the Court of Cassation rejected Wifaq’s appeal to halt the groups’ dissolution and liquidation of its assets and upheld a September 2016 appeals court denial of Wifaq’s appeal. International human rights organizations again published reports stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill treatment by prison guards because of their religious affiliation. Shia community representatives said there was ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Public officials continued to state some Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism. The government permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen throughout the country with minimal interference from the government. In September the king launched the Bahrain Declaration to call on all persons of faith to “disown practices such as the encouragement of extremism and radicalization, suicide bombing, promotion of sexual slavery, and the abuse of women and children.” According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with religious observances and it encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions.
According to local press reports, during the year some militant groups used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and firearms to attack police and claimed responsibility using Shia religious terminology to justify their attacks. Four police officers were killed in these assaults. In response, the government launched investigations into the attacks, prosecuted members of Shia groups, and blamed Iran for materially supporting these militant groups. Representatives of the Shia community reported the higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia were exacerbated by continued discrimination against Shia in the private as well as the public sectors and added to tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities. Both anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared on social media, including allegations prominent Shia leaders supported terrorism or engaged in what was termed “treasonous behavior,” and others using derogatory terminology to describe Sunnis. According to non-Muslim religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. government officials, and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to urge them to end discrimination against Shia in employment and education; to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities; and to allow prisoners to practice their religions. In August the Secretary of State called on the government to “stop discriminating against the Shia communities.” U.S. officials also continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms, which would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Embassy officers met regularly with religious leaders of all faiths and representatives of NGOs to discuss religious freedom.
Click here for Bahrain's full report.
The constitution describes freedom of belief as “absolute” and specifies Islam as the state religion. It also enshrines the principles of sharia as the primary source of legislation, which local lawyers stated creates potential legal ambiguities with regard to the freedom of belief guaranteed in the constitution. The constitution only provides adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism the right to practice their religion freely and to build houses of worship. The government continued not to recognize and restrict Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Bahais. According to multiple sources, authorities continued to detain and physically mistreat former Muslims. Irrespective of religion, authorities also did not apply equal protection to all citizens and sometimes closed churches, in violation of the law, according to multiple sources. Courts charged citizens, including Muslim clerics, with “denigration of religions.” Christians reported discrimination by authorities, especially in rural areas. The government completed rebuilding 78 churches and other church-owned properties which had been destroyed or damaged in mob violence in 2013 and repaired Saints Peter and Paul Church in Cairo after a December 2016 suicide bombing that killed 29 people. It also issued an unprecedented civil marriage license to a Bahai couple with no religious affiliation designated on their national identity card. The government continued its efforts to preserve the nation’s Jewish heritage, including starting work to renovate and protect a historic synagogue in Alexandria. There were incidents of official anti-Semitism and public anti-Semitic statements by Al-Azhar, the country’s primary institution for spreading Islam and defending Islamic doctrine. According to religious leaders, educators, and families, the Ministry of Education made progress in removing language from school textbooks that it said could engender hate toward non-Muslims or promote the view that Islam was superior to other religions. The government-supported Islamic institutions Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta, the country’s fatwa issuing authority, continued to debate reforms to Islamic jurisprudence which mandates the death penalty for apostasy from Islam.
Societal violence connected with religion, including terrorist attacks, continued. An attack against a Sufi mosque in Rawda village in northern Sinai by armed gunmen carrying the ISIS flag killed 311 persons, 27 of whom were children, followed warnings not to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, according to press reports, and ISIS’s published threats against Sufis in December 2016. ISIS claimed responsibility for multiple attacks, including suicide bombings at two churches during Palm Sunday services that killed 45 people, the killing of 28 passengers on a bus carrying Christian pilgrims to a desert monastery, and numerous killings of Christians in northern Sinai and elsewhere. Muslims opposed to church construction or renovation, even when legally authorized, continued to commit violence against churches and Christian-owned properties in various locales. Victims of sectarian violence continued to be pressured to drop charges in the spirit of “reconciliation” – a practice which human rights groups and Christians said regularly failed to hold the perpetrators accountable or provide justice to victims and their families. Muslims who openly left Islam were subjected to violence, threats, and abuse. Christians continued to face societal discrimination in their daily lives. Reports of incitement to violence against Jews and other anti-Semitic remarks, as well as defamatory speech against other minority religious groups, continued during the year.
U.S. representatives at multiple levels, including the Ambassador and Charge d’Affaires, visiting delegations from Washington, and embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf (Islamic Endowments), and Interior, embassy officers and visiting U.S. officials emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of cases, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Bahais and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom violations resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents. In December the embassy hosted a digital video conference with the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Central Asia for a discussion about religious freedom in the country. The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media throughout the year. Embassy and consulate general officers regularly engaged with human rights advocates, religious leaders, and community members on questions of religious freedom, for example, on the rights of all citizens to choose their religion, build houses of worship, and practice their religious rituals, as well as the government’s responsibility to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian attacks. President Trump condemned the lethal attacks on the Rawda mosque in north Sinai and on the Mar Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Helwan, south of Cairo, and phoned President al-Sisi on both occasions, offering condolences and reiterating, “The United States will continue to stand with Egypt in the face of terrorism.”
Click here for Egypt's full report.
The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Bahai Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for freedom from religious coercion and requires the government to maintain the sanctity of religious sites. There were continued reports that Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Shia militias killed ISIS detainees and their collaborators, who were presumably all Sunni. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without timely access to due process. Community leaders continued to state forced conversion was the de facto outcome of the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, even children born as a result of rape, be listed as Muslim. Christian converts reported being forced to choose to register their child as a Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented, affecting their eligibility for government benefits. Some Yezidis, Christian leaders, and NGOs reported occurrences of harassment and abuses by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga and Asayish (internal security) forces, including Asayish-imposed requirements for security permits, which impeded the movement of Yezidis between Dohuk Province and the Sinjar area. Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous checkpoints operated by Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) units, impeding their movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians and Yezidis in PMF-controlled towns reported harassment of Christian women by PMF members. They also said the central government in Baghdad was facilitating demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia to move into traditionally Christian areas. Media and government officials continued to state Peshmerga and the PMF prevented displaced Sunni Arabs, Yezidis, Turkmen, and others from returning to their homes in some areas liberated from ISIS. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances but they faced harassment and restrictions from local authorities in some regions, particularly outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR).
During the year the government fought numerous battles to regain control of the significant terrain previously lost to ISIS. On December 9, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that, after more than three years of combat, all territories were liberated from ISIS control. More than 3,000 Yezidis captured by ISIS were still missing as of December. ISIS continued its campaign of violence against members of all faiths, in particular non-Sunnis. In areas that remained under its control, ISIS committed individual and mass killings, engaging in rape, kidnapping, random detentions and mass abductions, torture, abduction and forced conversion of non-Muslim male children, and the enslavement and sex trafficking of women and girls from minority religious communities. ISIS also continued to engage in harassment, intimidation, robbery, and the destruction of personal property and religious sites. In areas no longer under direct ISIS control, it launched suicide bombings and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks against all segments of society, including Shia Muslims, whom ISIS considered heretics. On May 30, a coordinated bomb attack on an ice cream parlor in Karrada, a predominantly Shia neighborhood of Baghdad, resulted in the deaths of more than 22 individuals and injuries to more than 30. ISIS struck again hours later, detonating a bomb outside of a government pension office also in Karrada, killing 14 and wounding 34. ISIS attacked religious pilgrims and pilgrimage sites, including a September 14 bombing in Nasariyah that killed at least 80 persons. From January 1 to June 30, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported 5,706 civilian casualties resulting from ISIS attacks, including 2,429 persons killed and 3,277 wounded.
According to media and human rights organizations, security conditions in many parts of the country, although improved somewhat from 2016, were still accompanied by societal violence, mainly committed by sectarian armed groups. Armed groups continued to target Sunnis for execution-style killings and the destruction of homes and businesses. Non-Muslim minorities reported threats, pressure, and harassment from some groups attempting to force them to observe Islamic customs. In November Christian men in the Ninewa Plain brawled with Shabaks who had sexually harassed a group of Christian female students wearing skirts and dresses. In many regions except for the IKR, minority groups of any religious adherence said they continued to experience violence and harassment from the majority group in the region. Christian and Yezidi internally displaced persons (IDPs) cited security issues as the primary concern, with the lack of central command and control of some PMF units being a primary concern in Sinjar and areas in the Ninewa Plain. Some Yezidi and Christian communities formed their own militias to protect their communities, stating they must have a role in their own security. In July unidentified gunmen fired upon and killed two Yezidis in their Baghdad alcohol shops. On December 24, the city of Mosul hosted its first Christmas service since the ISIS campaign destroyed large parts of the area years ago. Saint Paul’s Chaldean Catholic Church, the only functioning church in the city, held Mass with ISF protection. In December the St. Gorgis Chaldean Catholic Church, previously destroyed and defiled by ISIS, was rededicated in the Ninewa Plain town of Teleskof.
The U.S. government continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, speeches, coordination groups, and targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions, to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. On August 15, the Secretary of State declared that without qualification ISIS was responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. In August the embassy inaugurated the Minority Working Group, which met monthly to review interagency engagement on the Department of State’s goals for safeguarding religious minorities. Another embassy coordination group, the Stabilization and Humanitarian Affairs Working Group, addressed interagency stabilization and reconciliation efforts throughout the country, including areas with religious and ethnic minority populations. The U.S. government continued to develop, finance, and manage projects to support all religious communities, with special emphasis on IDPs. Authorities announced UNESCO had started the first stage of the restoration of the ancient city of Nimrud. Additionally, an agreement was reached on the reconstruction of the ancient monasteries of Mar Behnam and Mar Mattai. On October 25, the Vice President announced the U.S. government would expand its funding for religious minorities beyond its contributions to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He said under this new expansion the U.S. government would provide direct support for new programs addressing the country’s persecuted and displaced religious minority communities. The Ambassador, other embassy officials, and consulates general officials issued public statements condemning ISIS abuses of religious freedom. Embassy and consulates general officials maintained an active dialogue with Shia, Sunni, and religious minority communities, emphasizing tolerance, inclusion, and mutual understanding.
Click here for Iraq's full report.
Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza
A report on the West Bank and Gaza, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA), is appended at the end of this report. This section includes Israel, the Golan Heights, and issues primarily related to Israeli residents of Jerusalem. Issues primarily related to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are covered in the “West Bank and Gaza” section. On December 6, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties.
The Basic Law describes the country as a Jewish state and protects the freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation. Some Members of the Knesset (MKs) and government officials called for reversing the policy of banning non-Muslim prayer and the government’s ban on MKs at the Temple Mount (the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples) and the Haram al-Sharif (containing the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque), but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly repeated his support for both bans. The prime minister, however, allowed MKs, including two Jewish MKs, to enter the compound for one day in August, and one Jewish MK entered on October 25. One Muslim MK visited without permission from Prime Minister Netanyahu on July 27. The government permitted persons of all faiths to pray at the main Western Wall plaza in separate gender sections, but continued to enforce a prohibition on mixed gender Jewish prayer services. On June 25, the government suspended a January 2016 compromise agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish movements regarding “egalitarian prayer,” i.e., Reform and Conservative Jewish services, south of the main Western Wall plaza. The government implemented policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. For example, the only in-country marriages the government recognized for Jews were those performed by the Chief Rabbinate, which refused to wed persons who did not qualify as Jewish under the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria. Three Muslim citizens shot and killed two Israeli police officers, both of whom were Druze, near the entrance to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on July 14. The attackers escaped to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, where other Israeli police officers shot and killed them. On June 25, following ultra-Orthodox parties’ objections to elements of a January 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform movements, the cabinet voted to “freeze” the agreement. Media reported on September 19 that Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed support for greater religious pluralism for Jews in Israel, but stated that he “won’t solve” the disparity between laws based on halacha (Jewish law) and public practice by the non-Orthodox majority. The government maintained its policy not to accept new applications for official recognition from religious groups, while stating that members of nonrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion. Government resources available for religious or heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools remained significantly fewer than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools.
Caretakers at a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa discovered several smashed gravestones on April 23. The Jerusalem District prosecutor indicted an ultra-Orthodox man on September 4 for painting graffiti and death threats against Reform Jewish leaders on a reform synagogue in Ra’anana in November 2016. Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other Israelis, including concerns related to service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), housing, public transportation, and participation in the workforce. The media reported attacks and threats by ultra-Orthodox assailants against soldiers and those encouraging ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the military, including throwing stones at Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on August 8, posting signs threatening IDF Human Resources Branch Director Major General Moti Almoz in May and June, and burning effigies of IDF soldiers on May 13. According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity. Jehovah’s Witnesses described violent attacks, such as a July 20 assault by a woman against a Jehovah’s Witness member in Tel Aviv, hitting her face and legs. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in September vandals shattered stained-glass windows and committed other acts of vandalism in St. Stephen’s Church at the Beit Jimal Monastery near Beit Shemesh for the third time in four years.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers spoke with government officials and Knesset leaders about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and not escalating tensions through provocative actions or statements. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, the Ambassador and embassy officers stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups. Visiting high-level U.S. officials, including the President, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the Special Representative for International Negotiations, and the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officers participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.
Click here for Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza's full report.
The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion. The constitution and the law accord primacy to sharia, which includes a prohibition against Muslims from converting to another religion, although conversions of Muslims continued to occur. According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts, while six Christian groups have religious courts to address such matters for their members. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require preachers to refrain from political commentary. During the year, the authorities began disseminating themes and recommended texts for sermons for all imams. Converts to Christianity from Islam reported security officials continued to interrogate them about their religious beliefs and practices. Members of unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages and the religious affiliation of their children. The Ministry of Education rolled back revisions to the school curriculum, which sought to underscore the constitution’s commitment to respect pluralism and the opinions of others while instilling “true Islamic values” in students, after widespread complaints from teachers’ unions, parents’ groups, and Muslim organizations. Critics stated that the curriculum distanced students from Islamic values and promoted the normalization of relations with Israel.
Interfaith religious leaders reported an increase in online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media. The harshest criticisms targeted converts from Islam to other religions. Following a terrorist attack in January at a nightclub in Istanbul in which Jordanians were killed, social media commentators implied the victims should not be honored as martyrs because they visited an establishment some considered immoral. Authorities arrested online commentators who criticized the victims, and media outlets underscored the risk of prosecution for condemning the victims. Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism, as well as physical and verbal abuse, and some continued to worship in secret as a result of the social stigma they faced as converts. The government did not prosecute converts from Islam for apostasy, but some reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.
The U.S. Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels to support the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths freely and to promote interfaith tolerance in the educational curriculum. The Ambassador met with Muslim scholars and Christian community leaders to encourage interfaith dialogue. The embassy supported exchange programs promoting religious tolerance. The Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in Near East and South and Central Asia visited Amman and met with several religious communities to discuss their concerns, as well as with government officials to encourage support for the rights of all religious communities.
Click here for Jordan's full report.
The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state but states freedom of belief is “absolute.” It declares the state will protect the freedom to practice one’s religion, provided such practice does not conflict with established customs, public policy, or morals. Defamation of the Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), publication or broadcast of material the government deems offensive to religious groups, and practices the government deems inconsistent with Islamic law are prohibited by law. The government continued to provide added security to all recognized non-Sunni religious groups, especially the Shia community during Ashura and other religious commemorations. All religious communities were required to observe religious events indoors. In several cases, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (MAIA) took direct action, such as fines and suspensions, against Sunni imams for giving sermons perceived as politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, or violating the national unity law. Additionally, the courts continued to rule in favor of citizens who advocated for freer public discussion and criticism of religion. In June the government took steps to block religious figures on the terrorist list issued by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain, who were engaged in a diplomatic conflict with Qatar, from entering the country. As reported in media interviews, most of the clerics were put on the list for allegedly promoting radicalization, sedition, and being part of terrorist organizations. It is unclear how many of these clerics planned to travel to Kuwait. In September the government prohibited three visiting Shia clerics from Saudi Arabia and Iraq from delivering sermons for Ashura when current and former members of parliament tweeted that the clerics were on record as previously having insulted the Prophet’s wives and companions. Based on these tweets, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) took action and ordered the clerics to leave the country. Minority religious groups, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Bahais, reported they could worship in private spaces without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing. One new Shia mosque, one new church facility, and one new accredited religious school opened during the year; however, minority religious groups reported an overall lack of facilities for worship, difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities, and lack of accredited religious schools. Christians, Bahai, and Bohras said they practiced a discreet form of self-censorship in order to avoid conflict with authorities. In many cases, church leaders, clerics, and prominent members of minority groups reported they resolved conflicts internally within their community rather than take legal action in the courts where decisions would be made according to sharia. Some Shia leaders continued to report discrimination in training of clergy and employment in the public sector. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths or unregistered churches were not able to get married locally.
Muslims faced societal pressure against conversion from Islam but were not barred from doing so. It remained illegal, however, for individuals of other faiths to convert Muslims within the country. Observers stated that hotels, stores, and businesses continued to acknowledge non-Islamic holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. News media continued to print information about the celebrations of religious holidays, including such material as the religious significance of Christmas.
In December the U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers hosted a lunch for representatives of minority religious groups to discuss religious freedom and the challenges religious minorities faced in the country. Senior embassy officials also attended religious events throughout the year, including the observation of Ashura, Christmas Mass, Baha'u'llah’s 200th anniversary, and the second anniversary of the Imam Al Sadeq Mosque bombing to promote religious tolerance. The embassy-organized events that promoted interfaith dialogue, created a platform for religious organizations to increase civic engagement, and supported exchange programs for government officials and others who work with government agencies to engage youth in embracing religious tolerance and countering radicalization.
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The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order. The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a situation reaffirmed by the Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated equal representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament. Parliament approved a new proportional electoral law in June. The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion, but there were no cases of imprisonment under the laws. In November police arrested Ahmad Sbeity, a poet in the southern part of the country, for a Facebook post that reportedly insulted the Virgin Mary. His case was continuing at year’s end. For the second year in a row, there was no judicial action on the 2015 lawsuit filed by Member of Parliament Ziad Aswad of the Free Patriotic Movement against “You Stink” activist Assad Thebian for “defamation and contempt of religion” for comments he had made about Christianity. Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Bahais and nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records in order to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. At least 30 cases of civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration.
Muslim and Christian community leaders reported the continued operation of places of worship in relative peace and security and said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. Following a July 1 interfaith conference, Christian and Muslim leaders called for establishing the country as an official international center of dialogue among religions “to serve the…Christian-Muslim relations of the world.” The Shia organization Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise authority over parts of the country, limiting access to the areas under its control. The Jewish Community Council again reported acts of vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Beirut.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance and mutual respect among religious communities, and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and members of civil society to engage in dialogue on religious tolerance and the role of confessional dynamics in the country's society and politics. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups. These included projects to counter violent extremism related to religion, interfaith summer exchange programs, and a social media campaign to counter extremist religious messaging.
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The interim constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation. It accords non-Muslims the freedom to practice their religion and bans discrimination based on religion. The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) remained in office, but it did not control the entire country. RADA Special Deterrence Forces (RADA SDF), a GNA-aligned police unit based in Tripoli, was involved in several arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Individuals arrested by RADA SDF at a Tripoli comic book convention in November, who were later released, reported physical abuse as well as religious lectures while in custody. A religious scholar told an international NGO that the RADA SDF deliberately destroyed a 700-year-old Sufi shrine during clashes in the area of the shrine, although the RADA SDF denied the allegations. In October authorities uncovered a mass grave in Sirte containing the bodies of 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS and shown in a video released in February 2015. Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including the cities of Benghazi, Tripoli, and Derna, where there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards. On October 30, the press reported that among the 36 bodies found bound and shot outside Benghazi was 71-year-old Sufi Sheikh Muftah al-Bakoosh el-Werfalli, who was allegedly executed because he was Sufi. No group claimed responsibility for the massacre. On October 20, unidentified assailants destroyed the Sidi Abu Gharara Mosque in Tripoli. On November 28, assailants identified by Human Rights Watch as “extremist militias” burned down the Zawiyat Sheikha Radiya, a historic Sufi mosque also located in Tripoli. The attacks on the Sufi mosques remained unpunished at year’s end.
Multiple sources continued to report a restrictive social environment, including efforts designed to prevent women from traveling alone outside the country. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said this was due to conservative interpretations of sharia and reported male relatives often accompanied women to the airport and provided them with written permission to enable the women to leave the country. There were reports the military governor in the east increased restrictions on the movement of women without male guardians. In Tripoli some militias reportedly imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement, and punished men for behavior they deemed to be “un-Islamic.”
The U.S. embassy to Libya continued to operate from Tunis; the Libya External Office was co-located with the U.S. embassy in Tunis. The U.S. government continued to raise issues of religious freedom in conversations with the GNA and other Libyan interlocutors and in international forums.
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The constitution declares the country to be a Muslim state with full sovereignty and that Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says that the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.” The constitution states the king is the protector of Islam. It prohibits political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments from infringing upon Islam. The criminal code prohibits undermining the faith or enticing a Muslim to convert to another religion. According to human rights organizations and local Christian leaders, the government detained and questioned some Christian citizens about their beliefs and contacts with other Christians. Christian and Shia Muslim citizens stated fears of government harassment led to their decision to hold religious meetings in members’ homes. Foreign clergy said they discouraged the country’s Christian citizens from attending their churches out of fear they could be criminally charged with proselytism. Some Christian citizens reported authorities pressured Christian converts to renounce their faith. On at least two occasions during the year, the government expelled foreign individuals accused of proselytism as “a threat to public order,” rather than prosecuting them under provisions of the law that prohibit “undermining the faith.” Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported government rejection of their registration requests. In May Spanish media reported the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs used the term “virus” when referring to Christians and Shia Muslims in the country. Some religious minority groups, such as the Bahai community, practiced their religion without formal registration. In October media reported that authorities prevented the Bahai community from publicly celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of the faith’s founder. The authorities introduced new religious textbooks during the school year following a review they said was aimed at removing extremist or intolerant references. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by the broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.
Some Christian, Bahai, and Shia Muslims reported societal, familial, and cultural pressure on account of their faith. Passersby reportedly attacked at least one individual during Ramadan for eating in public during fasting hours.
The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officers, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.
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The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice religious rites as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” According to the law, it is a criminal offense to “defame” any faith. Proselytizing in public is illegal. Hassan Al-Basham, who had been sentenced to three years imprisonment in 2016 for blasphemy and disturbing religious values, arising out of his comments on social media, remained in prison at year's end. The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams. Non-Muslim groups reported they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations. The MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts.
The Protestant-run interfaith group Al-Amana Center and the MERA continued to host programs to introduce Protestant seminary students to Islam. In September Muscat’s College of Sharia Studies invited a delegation of European students of religion to study Islam and tour the country. Social media condemned a Sunni cleric who described southern Oman as a “Sunni land” in a July video.
In January the Ambassador met with the minister of endowments and religious affairs to discuss government protection of religious minorities. At various times throughout the year, embassy officers met with government officials to discuss the expansion of the country’s public campaign to counter violent extremism related to religion, and to encourage the government to continue to support religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In April the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia visited the country and subsequently authored an article about religious tolerance to be published in Al-Tafahum (Understanding), a government-run magazine on religious topics.
Click here for Oman's full report.
The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” Religious groups must register with the government to acquire property, raise funds, or hold bank accounts. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the only registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal but generally may practice their faith privately. In the wake of the severing of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and continuing security concerns for Qatari citizens in Saudi Arabia, the government discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in the Hajj or Umra. The law provides for prison sentences for blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism and criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of any religion other than Islam with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued occasionally to provide thematic guidance for Friday sermons and reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons. The eight registered Christian denominations worshipped freely at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex. The government allowed unregistered churches to worship there as well, but only under the patronage of one of the eight recognized denominations. The government said it was open to considering the creation of dedicated worship spaces for Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists. The government reviewed, censored, or banned print and social media religious material it considered objectionable.
Media based in the country periodically published anti-Semitic material. In June the government-funded Al-Jazeera English website posted and then deleted a Twitter message featuring an anti-Semitic cartoon claiming a Jewish plot to deny climate change. In June privately owned Al-Raya newspaper published a cartoon showing a witch with a Star of David wand causing inter-Arab disputes. In July Al-Raya also printed a cartoon depicting an octopus with the Star of David on its forehead trying to devour the Aqsa Mosque. In December, after the announcement that the United States would relocate its embassy, Al-Watan newspaper published a cartoon caricature of an orthodox Jew standing in front of the Arabic word for “Jerusalem.” In December cartoons published in a local media outlet used anti-Semitic imagery in its criticism of a Bahraini nongovernmental delegation to Israel as an act of betrayal of Arab nationalism.
In July embassy officials met with the MEIA to discuss ways to deepen bilateral exchanges on religious topics and to discuss the rights of minority groups. Embassy officials discussed faith, registration restrictions, promotion of religious tolerance, and anti-Semitism issues with quasi-governmental organizations such as the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), academics focused on interfaith dialogue, and religious minority communities including Christians and Hindus.
Click here for Qatar's full report.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The government published a new counterterrorism law in November that replaced the 2014 counterterrorism law and criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts deemed contrary to sharia, including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In July authorities executed four Shia individuals convicted on terrorism-related charges in connection with the 2011-12 Eastern Province violence and protests. Also in July the Supreme Court upheld death sentences on at least 15 individuals from the Eastern Province, presumed to be largely Shia, some of whom may have been minors at the time they committed offenses. At year’s end, at least 33 individuals, presumed to be largely Shia, were on death row for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012. Some human rights organizations stated the convictions and executions were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of the security-related crimes they committed and in accordance with the law. In April a court sentenced Ahmad al-Shammari to death after he was convicted on charges related to apostasy for allegedly renouncing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad on social media. Beginning in September authorities detained dozens of persons, including prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, according to multiple media reports. Human rights groups said the detentions resulted from an investigation into the individuals’ purported connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-inspired groups. Some human rights groups said authorities also arrested Shia clerics and activists who advocated for equal treatment of Shia Muslims. The government convicted and imprisoned individuals on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. The government sometimes harassed, detained, arrested, and occasionally deported some foreign residents who participated in private non-Islamic religious activities, citing prohibitions on gender mixing, noise disturbances, and immigration violations. Observers noted a pattern of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims with respect to access to public services and equitable representation in government, educational and public sector employment opportunities, and judicial matters. The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, understood by some outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior in order to enforce laws and regulations protecting “public morals.” Some observers noted a decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina. During the year the government undertook activities it stated were aimed at promoting “moderate” Islam as well as curbing radical ideology and intellectual extremism. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated during an investment conference in Riyadh in October that “we are returning to a centrist version of Islam, to a moderate version of Islam that is open to the world, to all faiths, and to all traditions and peoples,” according to press reports. In May authorities inaugurated the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (GCCEI)—known as “Etidal” (moderation) – which aims to promote moderation and “expose, combat and refute extremist ideology.” In April the government launched the Saudi Ideological Warfare Center (IWC) to confront the “roots of extremism and promote an accurate understanding of Islam.”
A pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued regarding access to private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of religious groups.
Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs. In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other relevant ministries and agencies, senior embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. Embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained and imprisoned individuals and discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
Click here for Saudi Arabia's full report.
The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees, including by imprisonment or death. There were continued media reports the government and its Shia Muslim militia allies killed, arrested, and physically abused members of opposition groups which were predominantly Sunni Muslim. According to multiple observers, the government continued to employ tactics aimed at bolstering the most extreme elements of the Sunni Islamist opposition in order to shape the conflict with various resistance groups so it would be seen as one in which a religiously moderate government was facing a religiously extremist opposition. As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment, including a chemical weapons attack in April resulting in mostly Sunni causalities. The government reportedly damaged and destroyed places of worship, including 63 churches and numerous mosques. According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its control by continuing to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran to travel to Syria and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces. The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayers, and limit the activities of religious groups, and said the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.” According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists.
The UN Human Rights Council and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled. Two explosions in March near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, a well-known Shia pilgrimage site, killed 44 civilians and injured 120, the majority of whom were Iraqi Shia pilgrims. HTS claimed responsibility for the attack. Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of Syrian territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilians through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings of men, women, and children on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God. In addition, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), ISIS’s continued executions of those perceived to violate its strict religious rules applied to women accused of adultery and men accused of sodomy. Moreover, ISIS continued to hold thousands of enslaved Yezidi women and girls kidnapped in Iraq and trafficked to Syria because of their religious beliefs to be sold or distributed to ISIS members as “spoils of war.” While many Yezidi women were liberated when Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing. ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for what ISIS said were religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress. ISIS required Christians to convert, flee, pay a special tax, or face execution. It destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious heritage sites, and used its own police force, court system, and revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam. HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against religious minorities. HTS also continued to indoctrinate children with its interpretation of Salafi-jihadist ideology including through schools and youth training camps.
There were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and HTS targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric. Alawites reportedly faced attacks because other minority groups believed government policy favored Alawites; sectarian conflict was one of the driving factors of the insurgency, according to observers. Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence including kidnappings at the hands of violent extremist groups. Neighborhoods, towns, and villages once religiously diverse were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups, as displaced members of religious groups relocated, seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists. There were more than 6.1 million internally displaced Syrians and more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees.
The U.S. President and the Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in Syria leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely. On August 15, the Secretary of State stated ISIS was responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims, as well as for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities. Although the U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Security for the Levant, the Representative for Syria, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.
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The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam but also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.” It prohibits the use of mosques and other houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives, and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. Laws require that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles and prohibit them from encouraging violence, hatred, intolerance, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that police used arrests, house searches, and travel restrictions to target Salafists and others, some of whom, according to the NGOs, were profiled as terrorists due to the perception they were radicalized based on their appearance or religious beliefs. In May a court in Tozeur sentenced two journalists – a brother and sister – to six months in prison for “insulting a public servant” after they criticized security forces for regularly raiding their home, allegedly on suspicion their sibling was affiliated with extremist religious groups. In June during Ramadan, police arrested five individuals in Bizerte, who were subsequently sentenced to one month in prison for public indecency for eating or smoking in public during the daytime. Several protests in Tunis against what the protestors described as the violation of personal freedoms followed these arrests. A court in Tunis ordered a one-month suspension of the Hizb Ettahrir political party (Liberation Party) in June, concurring with the government’s determination the party had violated the law by inciting hatred and advocating the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. In September community leaders reported police detained a Bahai student without a criminal record and interrogated him at the Monastir police station for three hours before releasing him without charge; the majority of the questions related to his religious beliefs, practices, and connections in the Bahai community. In spite of continued appeals from the Bahai community, the government has not recognized the Bahai Faith or granted its association legal status. The government, however, allowed the Bahai to worship within their own homes and hold a public celebration, including ritual singing, in honor of the founder of the Bahai Faith. The government continued to allow the Jewish and Christian communities to worship within authorized houses of worship. In September the government cancelled a 1973 provision of law preventing the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men. In October the government approved an application for the creation of the Tunisian Council of Secularism, an openly atheist association that has a stated mission to fight for individual rights and liberties, social justice, and peace.
Christian converts from Islam said threats of violence from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith. Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.
The Ambassador and embassy officers met with government officials, including at the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA); the Presidency of the Government; and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights (MRCB), to encourage continued tolerance of religious minorities. Officials also discussed the government’s efforts to control activities in mosques, threats to converts from Islam to other faiths, and the status of the Bahai Faith in the country. Embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Bahai communities. In May the Ambassador and other embassy officers participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, where they discussed religious pluralism and the safety of the Jewish community with Jewish leaders and civil society. Embassy officials attended an October seminar organized by the MRA in conjunction with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss the importance of religious tolerance and coexistence to the country’s democracy and efforts to counter violent extremism. On October 28, the Ambassador attended the public celebration of the 200tht anniversary of the birth of the Bahai Faith’s messenger, the Baha’u’llah.
Click here for Tunisia's full report.
United Arab Emirates
The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law. The law prohibits blasphemy, proselytizing by non-Muslims, and conversion from Islam. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination, but also criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions. There were cases of individuals accused of blasphemy during the year; in July a Dubai court convicted a Lebanese businessman of blasphemy, fining, imprisoning, and sentencing him to deportation. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting extremism. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide strict guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques and instructions to Shia mosques across all emirates except Dubai, where mosques are overseen by Dubai’s Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths said they could worship in private without government interference but faced restrictions on practicing their religion in public. Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered extremist. The Abu Dhabi Department of Justice signed an agreement with Christian leadership to allow churches to handle non-Islamic marriages and divorces. Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families; during the year, construction was underway on multiple houses of worship. Noncitizen religious groups said capacity was still insufficient, however, to meet demand. Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited the ability to engage in certain charitable activities. The minister of state for tolerance organized a meeting with regional Christian leaders at the site of an early Christian monastery. In an October cabinet reshuffle, Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced that the position of minister of state for tolerance was being elevated to minister of tolerance.
According to non-Muslim religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam. Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however. Anti-Semitic materials continued to be available for purchase at book fairs. There were continued instances of anti-Semitic remarks on social media sites.
In meetings with senior government counterparts, the Ambassador, embassy and consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. officials reviewed ways to promote respect among faith groups and freedom for minority groups to practice their religions in the country as well as government initiatives to foster religious tolerance and counter extremist interpretations of Islam. Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups present in the country. The embassy and consulate general hosted interfaith events to encourage and support religious freedom and tolerance, engaging with various religious communities as concrete demonstrations of the importance of interfaith dialogue.
Click here for the UAE's full report.
The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law,” but does not mention freedom of religion. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. Conflict broke out in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement and continued through year’s end. The Houthis were allied with elements loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh from the2014 coup until Saleh broke the alliance on December 2; Houthi rebels killed him on December 4. The Hadi-led government remained in exile and did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory. Air strikes on places of worship, religious institutions, and religious gatherings, which some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media attributed to progovernment forces, caused casualties and property damage, including a February airstrike killing six individuals participating in a funeral service.
Houthi rebels continued to control Sana’a and much of the north and west of the country. On March 17, Houthi rebels launched two rockets at a mosque inside a military camp in Marib Province, killing 22 persons. In April media reported a pro-Hadi-led government NGO organized protests in Taiz, Marib, and Aden Provinces in opposition to the targeting of mosques by Houthi forces. According to NGO reports, in April authorities in Sana’a issued arrest orders for at least 30 Bahais on charges related to their religion, including propagation of the Bahai Faith. The Houthi-controlled National Security Bureau (NSB) detained multiple Bahais in areas under its control. In late October Houthi security forces raided a Bahai gathering in Sana’a, arresting Akram Ayyash, the brother of one of those detained in April, Walid Ayyash. At year’s end, the whereabouts of Walid Ayyash and seven other Bahais detained in April were unknown. Terrorist attacks by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS continued. In September unidentified militants released Indian Catholic priest Tom Uzhunnalil, kidnapped during an attack on a nursing home in Aden in March 2016.
According to press reports, an unknown gunman killed a law student in Aden in May because of his membership in a cultural club established by secularists. Local armed forces blocked the funeral procession to prevent the student’s burial in the city cemetery. Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print. Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.
The Ambassador, not resident in the country, met with officials of the Hadi-led government in Riyadh and discussed the hurdles minority religious communities faced, including scrutiny by Houthis, displacement from homes and businesses, and targeting by violent extremist groups.
Click here for Yemen's full report.
"The Islamists" is a book and website on the origins, evolution, and positions of Islamist movements in the Middle East. The movements are redefining the order and borders in the world’s most volatile region. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals. Read more