US Report on Religious Freedom: Middle East and North Africa
On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on international religious freedom. It provides a detailed overview of religious freedom in approximately 200 countries around the world. It also notes violations and abuses committed by governments, individuals and extremist groups.“No one should have to live in fear, worship in secret, or face discrimination because of his or her beliefs,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the report’s release. The secretary condemned ISIS’ treatment of minorities but also criticized the practices of key U.S. partners in the region, including Saudi Arabia. Excerpts from his remarks, as well as the executive summaries of Middle East and North Africa country reports are below.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Remarks
“The release of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report details the status of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories, and provides insights as to significant and growing challenges. Today I want to call out a few of the more egregious and troubling examples.
As we make progress in defeating ISIS and denying them their caliphate, their terrorist members have and continue to target multiple religions and ethnic groups for rape, kidnapping, enslavement, and even death.
To remove any ambiguity from previous statements or reports by the State Department, the crime of genocide requires three elements: specific acts with specific intent to destroy in whole or in part specific people, members of national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. Specific act, specific intent, specific people.
Application of the law to the facts at hand leads to the conclusion ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled.
ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.
More recently, ISIS has claimed responsibility for attacks on Christian pilgrims and churches in Egypt.
The protection of these groups – and others subject to violent extremism – is a human rights priority for the Trump administration.
We will continue working with our regional partners to protect religious minority communities from terrorist attacks and to preserve their cultural heritage.
As the 2016 report indicates, many governments around the world use discriminatory laws to deny their citizens freedom of religion or belief.” ...
“We remain concerned about the state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. The government does not recognize the right of non-Muslims to practice their religion in public and applied criminal penalties, including prison sentences, lashings, and fines, for apostasy, atheism, blasphemy, and insulting the state’s interpretation of Islam. Of particular concern are attacks targeting Shia Muslims, and the continued pattern of social prejudice and discrimination against them. We urge Saudi Arabia to embrace greater degrees of religious freedom for all of its citizens.
In Turkey, authorities continued to limit the human rights of members of some religious minority groups, and some communities continue to experience protracted property disputes. Non-Sunni Muslims, such as Alevi Muslims, do not receive the same governmental protections as those enjoyed by recognized non-Muslim minorities and have faced discrimination and violence. Additionally, the United States continues to advocate for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey.
And in Bahrain, the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. Members of the Shia community there continue to report ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Bahrain must stop discriminating against the Shia communities.”
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and, after an amendment enacted in February, for freedom of 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 arrested Ahmadi Muslims for conducting unauthorized religious activities, such as holding prayers and printing religious books. A court sentenced a Christian convert accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad to three years in prison. In April an appeals court ordered the release of a journalist sentenced in 2015 to three years in prison for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The government continued to regulate the importation of religious materials. Two Christian organizations said the government delayed four months in authorizing their requests to import Bibles, but viewed the waiting period as an improvement in the delays experienced in past years. Senior government officials issued statements opposing calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam. They also criticized the spread of “extremist” Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, Ahmadi Islam, and the Bahai Faith. Christians reported continuing delays in obtaining visas for foreign religious workers.
Jund al-Khilafa, a terrorist group affiliated with ISIS, took credit for the October 28 killing of a police officer in Constantine. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, another terrorist group, took credit for a March 18 attack on a gas plant in Krechba.
There were reports of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Practitioners of religions other than Sunni Islam, including Christians and Jews, reported they had experienced threats and intolerance and often kept a low profile as a result. In January youth in Biskra distributed leaflets describing Shia Islam as “invading” the country. A private television channel aired interviews with a professor, an imam, and a scholar of Islam about what they described as the dangers of the Ahmadi faith. There were reports of employment discrimination against non-Muslims and one incident of attempted vandalism against a church.
The U.S. Ambassador encouraged the government to promote religious tolerance. Embassy officers in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both majority and minority religious groups, as well as with members of the public, focused on pluralism and religious moderation. The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor met with several officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to stress the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of worship. The embassy sponsored the visit of a Muslim writer and scholar from the United States to engage youth in discussions of religious freedom and tolerance.
Read Algeria’s full country profile here.
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 May parliament passed new legislation prohibiting clerics from being members of political societies or participating in political activities while serving at a religious institution. While some commentators stated the legislation was designed to ensure the separation of religion from state affairs, some Shia activists stated it was meant to target their political organizations. There were scores of attacks on police during the year, some of which were accompanied by social media messages using Shia religious terminology to justify attacks on the authorities, including one attack in which a policeman was killed. The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. It convicted a Shia cleric on charges of giving an unauthorized sermon, and revoked the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, whom the media characterized as the country’s leading Shia cleric, on the grounds he had allegedly sought to form an organization supporting foreign religious leaders. After Qassim’s supporters staged a sit-in demonstration around his home, police sealed off access to the neighborhood where Qassim lived, detained over 70 individuals in connection with the sit-in, and judges sentenced two Shia clerics to prison terms for participating in the sit-in. The police continued to restrict entry and exit into the predominately Shia neighborhood though the end of the year. In December an appeals court agreed with an earlier appeals court and resentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the Shia opposition political society Wifaq, to nine years after he continued to appeal his 2014 conviction and four-year sentence on charges of inciting hatred and promoting disobedience to the law. As of year’s end, Salman had not refiled a final appeal to the Court of Cassation, but planned to do so in 2017. In June the authorities obtained a court order to shut down the Shia Wifaq, accusing it of creating “an environment for terrorism, extremism, and violence.” International human rights organizations published reports stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill-treatment by prison guards because of their religious affiliation. Shia community representatives complained about what they said was ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Public officials continued to allege some Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism. The government permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen. Registered non-Muslim communities reported the government seldom interfered with their religious observances.
Although there were reports of conversion by some Muslims to other religions, those who did remained unwilling to speak publicly about their conversion. Representatives of the Shia community reported the continued 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 that prominent Shia leaders supported terrorism or engaged in what was termed “treasonous behavior.” Representatives of non-Muslim religious groups reported there continued to be general acceptance of their presence and activities, although there were reports some employers denied migrant workers the opportunity to observe their religious beliefs.
The Secretary of State, the U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. government officials, and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to urge them to implement fully the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations on the reconstruction of places of worship; to end discrimination against Shia in government employment and education; to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities; and to allow prisoners to practice their religions. In this connection, U.S. officials urged the government to observe the religious freedom provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). 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 freedom of worship.
Read Bahrain’s full country report here.
The constitution describes freedom of belief as “absolute” but only provides adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism the right to practice their religion freely and to build houses of worship. The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the primary source of legislation. The government continued not to recognize several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and the Bahai Faith, and restricted their activities. Rights advocates said the government was sometimes slow in responding to sectarian violence, especially outside of major cities. Government officials regularly encouraged participation in “customary reconciliation” sessions to address incidents of sectarian violence, which human rights groups and Christians said constituted an encroachment on the judicial system and on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and regularly led to outcomes unfavorable to minority parties. Courts charged citizens with “denigration of religion.” Some of these cases resulted in convictions and jail sentences. In September the government enacted a new law facilitating approval of church construction and licensure of churches, replacing one mandating presidential approval for the construction of any new church. Some government entities continued to use anti-Shia rhetoric, and the government regularly failed to condemn anti-Semitic commentary. Christians reported discrimination by authorities at local levels, especially in rural areas. After a string of violent sectarian incidents in Minya, the government replaced the governor and chief of security there as part of a larger reshuffle. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continued to call on Muslim scholars to renew religious discourse and challenge the ideology of extremists. In response, government and religious institutions at times defended the rights of Shia, continued to reform school curricula, and openly discussed alternatives to consensus Islamic jurisprudence. According to several churches’ representatives, the government had nearly completed rebuilding the 78 churches and other religious sites that were damaged or destroyed in mob violence in 2013, following the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Religious minorities continued to face significant threats of terrorist attacks and sectarian violence. On December 11, a suicide bomb attack later claimed by ISIS killed 29 people during Sunday services at part of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex in Cairo. Three armed men killed a Coptic Orthodox priest in North Sinai in June, and assailants armed with bats and knives attacked the families of two Coptic Orthodox priests in Minya in July, killing one family member and injuring three. In May a crowd stripped an elderly Christian woman at a village in Minya, paraded her through the streets, and set fire to her house. According to International Christian Concern, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), Christians were targeted for kidnapping. Media reported that two men burned down a church in Ismailia village. Individuals accused of denigration of religion often faced social intolerance. Societal resistance, including acts of violence, to the building and rebuilding of churches continued. Anti-Semitic speech continued. Reports of defamatory speech against other minority religious groups were fewer than in the previous year.
Senior U.S. representatives met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. During a visit in September, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Middle East and South and Central Asia called for equal rights for all Egyptian citizens. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior, he 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, and the rights of Shia to perform their religious rituals publicly. Embassy 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.
Read Egypt’s full country report here.
The constitution declares Islam to be 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 Sabaean-Mandeans. The law, however, 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. International human rights groups said the government failed to investigate and prosecute ethnosectarian crimes, including those carried out by armed groups in areas liberated from ISIS. International and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretense for detaining Sunnis and others without access to timely due process. Sunni Arabs reported some government officials used sectarian profiling in arrests and detentions and used religion as a determining factor in employment decisions. In response to concerns about controversial convictions based on information provided by secret informants, a new law allowed reinvestigation and retrial of detainees convicted under the antiterrorism law. Some Yezidi and Christian leaders reported continued harassment and abuses by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga and Asayish (internal security) forces. Media and government officials reported Peshmerga and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) prevented displaced Sunni Arabs, Yezidi, Turkmen, and others from returning to their homes in some areas liberated from ISIS. Community leaders said that forced conversion was the de facto result of the national identity card law which mandated children with only one Muslim parent be listed as Muslim. The KRG suspended 14 Islamic preachers for what it said was defamation and incitement against religious minorities. Representatives of minority religious communities reported while the government did not generally interfere with religious observances, and even provided security for places of worship, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment and restrictions from authorities in some regions. Members of religious minority communities, civil society organizations, and media continued to report some non-Muslims chose to reside in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and areas under KRG control because they continued to consider these areas to offer greater security, tolerance, and protection for minority rights.
Throughout the year, the government fought numerous battles to regain control of significant terrain lost to ISIS. At the same time, ISIS pursued a campaign of violence against members of all faiths, but against non-Sunnis in particular. In areas under its control, ISIS continued to commit individual and mass killings, and to engage 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 not under ISIS control, it continued suicide bombings and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks against all segments of society. ISIS also targeted religious pilgrims and pilgrimage sites for attack. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) reported ISIS IEDs caused at least 5,403 casualties (1,167 killed and 4,236 wounded), amounting to half of all verified casualties in the first half of the year.
According to media and human rights organizations, the deterioration of security conditions was accompanied by societal violence, mainly committed by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country. 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 to force them to observe Islamic customs. In many regions, minority groups, whatever their religious adherence, said they experienced violence and harassment from the majority group in the region.
The U.S. President in a speech at the UN again called on the country’s political, civic, and religious leaders to take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated extremists, to reject sectarianism, and to promote tolerance between religious groups. The Secretary of State said that in his judgment, ISIS was responsible for genocide against religious groups in the areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Senior officials, including the Deputy Secretary of State, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, and the Deputy Special Envoy, visited the country to urge the government to protect the country’s diverse religious communities. The U.S. Ambassador, embassy officers, and consulates general officials met regularly with government ministries and members of parliament to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. They also held regular discussions with government officials, waqf (religious endowment) leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to address the distribution of humanitarian aid. The Ambassador, embassy officers, and consulates general officials issued public statements condemning ISIS abuses of religious freedom. Embassy and consulate general officials maintained an active dialogue with Shia, Sunni, and religious minority communities, emphasizing tolerance, inclusion, and mutual understanding. Embassy assistance programs supported minority religious communities and ethnosectarian reconciliation.
Read Iraq’s full country report here.
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. 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 public prosecutor ordered the detention of a public school teacher in October for promoting Shia Islam and allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s wife. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Bahai Faith. The government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require preachers to refrain from political commentary. 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 announced revisions to the school curriculum, which it said reflected the constitution’s commitment to respect pluralism and the opinions of others while instilling “true Islamic values” in students. According to media reports, however, teachers unions, parent groups, and Muslim organizations objected to the changes, saying they distanced students from Islamic values and promoted the normalization of relations with Israel.
In September writer Nahed Hattar was killed in front of the Amman courthouse where he went to face charges of inciting sectarian strife and insulting religion for posting an editorial cartoon personifying God on his Facebook page. Following the publication of the cartoon and Hattar’s killing, there reportedly was a spike in online hate speech, especially against the Christian community. In response, King Abdullah urged citizens to respect what he said was the country’s long history of religious tolerance and coexistence. Converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism, as well as physical and verbal abuse, and some of them said they worshipped in secret as a result. Following a car crash in which a Muslim teenager and a Christian teenager were killed, the country’s Grand Mufti issued a fatwa stating Muslims were permitted to pass on their condolences to non-Muslims, and Muslims were permitted to accept condolences from non-Muslims.
The U.S. Ambassador 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.
Read Jordan’s full country report here.
The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state and freedom of belief “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. In the wake of the June 2015 bombing of the Imam Al-Sadeq Mosque, the government continued to order the Shia community to commemorate Ashura and other holidays indoors; it retained other steps it defined as security measures that affected all non-Sunni religious groups. In several cases, the court ruled in favor of citizens who advocated for freer public discussion and criticism of religion. The government questioned several imams, and in some cases banned some of them, for making what it considered provocative statements harmful to national unity. In January the government prevented several foreign imams from entering the country because it accused them of “terrorism and sectarianism.” The government permanently prohibited four imams from speaking in mosques because of comments they had made, which the government disapproved. Unlicensed Christian groups reported they could worship without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors. Minority religious groups reported a lack of facilities for worship and difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities. Some Shia leaders continued to report discrimination against them in training of clergy and employment in the public sector.
Minority religious leaders reported continued societal pressure against conversion from Islam. Observers stated that hotels, stores, and businesses continued to acknowledge non-Muslim holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali, and news media continued to print information about the celebrations of religious holidays, including such material as the religious significance of Christmas. Some members of parliament and religious clerics expressed their disapproval of these celebrations and called for more government action to restrict their public expression.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers met with government officials to encourage them to take steps to curtail the actions of local authorities obstructing construction of new worship facilities for minority religious groups. The Ambassador and embassy officers also met with representatives of minority religious groups to discuss the challenges religious minorities faced. The embassy continued to sponsor young citizens for exchange programs on interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.
Read Kuwait’s full country report here.
The constitution states there shall be absolute freedom of conscience and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided the public order is not disturbed. The constitution 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 the parliament. Maronite Christians stated the current allotment of seats did not reflect the intent of the National Pact and they felt marginalized. At least 30 cases of civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of its halt on their registration. On June 27, eight suicide bombers attacked the predominantly Christian village of Qaa near the Syrian border, killing five and wounding at least 28 others. The Shia militia Hizballah continued to exercise authority over large parts of the country, limiting access to the areas under its control.
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. The Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism against the Jewish cemetery in Beirut throughout the year.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers engaged government officials on the importance of ending sectarian violence and encouraging tolerance and mutual respect among religious communities. The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and members of civil society to engage in dialogue on religious tolerance and dynamics. Embassy public outreach programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious faiths, and embassy officials and programming continued to focus on countering violent extremism in the country.
Read Lebanon’s full country report here.
The interim constitution states that Islam is the state religion and sharia is 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) arrived and took office in Tripoli in March. Other competing self-proclaimed governing authorities and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country. The GNA did not control large areas of the country, including the cities of Benghazi, Derna, and, for most of the year, Sirte, where there were numerous reports of violent groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards. Parallel institutions also continued to report to the elected House of Representatives (HoR) based in Tobruk, which had not endorsed the GNA’s cabinet as of year’s end. The government and its aligned forces carried out an anti-ISIS campaign from May to December that liberated the city of Sirte, previously ISIS’ principal stronghold outside Iraq and Syria. The government reportedly did not investigate crimes against religious minorities or religious sites. During the year, the “Libyan National Army” (LNA), an armed group operating in the east with political support from the HoR but outside the purview of the GNA, intensified its military campaign against violent extremist organizations and its commander publicly declared his intention to rid the country of all “Islamists,” making no distinction between groups that espoused violence as a tactic and those that did not.
ISIS and other terrorist and violent extremist groups engaged in killing, forced conversions, and a slave trade of Christian migrants from neighboring countries. Additionally, ISIS carried out targeted kidnappings and suicide bombings that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of individuals. There were reports ISIS publicly executed individuals after accusing them of affiliating with Salafist groups. ISIS effectively controlled Sirte until December when GNA military operations pushed ISIS out of the city and the GNA announced the city’s liberation. Sirte was the site of ISIS abuses of religious minorities, including forced conversions, killings, and the operation of a slave trade of Christian migrants from neighboring countries. In Tripoli, some militias reportedly imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement, and punished men for behavior they deemed to be “un-Islamic.”
Multiple sources continued to report a restrictive social environment, particularly in the capital, including efforts to prevent women from traveling alone outside the country. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) attributed this to conservative interpretations of sharia and reported women often had male relatives accompany them to the airport and carried written permission from them to enable them to leave the country.
The U.S. government did not maintain a permanent diplomatic presence in the country; the U.S. ambassador to Libya was based 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.
Read Libya’s full country report here.
The constitution declares the country to be a sovereign Muslim state and Islam to be the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly and the free exercise of belief to everyone. The constitution states the king is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of freedom of worship. It prohibits political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments from infringing upon Islam. The criminal code prohibits the use of “enticements” by non-Muslims to try to convert Muslims to another religion. According to human rights organizations and local Christian leaders, the government occasionally detained and questioned Moroccan Christians about their beliefs and contacts with other Christians. The authorities arrested and sentenced several individuals for eating and smoking in public during Ramadan. In May police arrested Shia leader Abdou El Chakrani for alleged financial improprieties. Shia leaders said Chakrani was targeted for his religious beliefs and his attempt to register an association affiliated with known Shia leaders. Some local Christians reported authorities pressured Moroccan Christian converts to renounce their faith. Although the law allows the registration of religious groups, some religious minority groups continued to report government rejection of their registration requests. Some religious minority groups, such as the Bahai community, practiced their religion without formal registration. Fear of government harassment and reported societal, familial, and cultural pressure led some local Christians, Bahais, and Shia to refrain from public worship and instead meet discreetly in members’ homes. 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 continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. The king sponsored an international conference aimed at affirming the importance of protecting non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries. He instructed the minister of education and the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs to modify religious education textbooks to promote moderation and tolerance.
Citizens were reportedly attacked during Ramadan for smoking during fasting hours. A local Christian posted an online video about the presence of Moroccan Christians in the country, which sparked debate. In June the government issued a warning to the private Aswat radio station for a December broadcast that included anti-Semitic rhetoric. In June protestors gathered in front of parliament to demand the repeal of an article of the penal code, which set jail time and fines for breaking the fast in public during Ramadan.
The U.S. Ambassador, embassy and consulate general officers, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance through visits with key government officials. They highlighted the importance of protection of religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue with government officials, including during the visits of the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia.
Read Morocco’s full country report here.
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. The government sentenced Hassan al Basham, a former diplomat, to three years in prison for blasphemy and disturbing religious values related to his comments on social media. 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 caused 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 Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs hosted programs to introduce Protestant seminary students to Islam.
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.
Read Oman’s full country report here.
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 comprise the only registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal but generally may practice their faith privately. 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. 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 continued to monitor print and social media for religious material it considered objectionable.
Media based in the country periodically published anti-Semitic material. In January the privately owned newspaper Al-Sharq published an anti-Semitic editorial, and in June it also published an anti-Semitic poem. Critics in local news and social media accused a local writer and entrepreneur of disrespecting Islam after she appeared without a hijab in an international television broadcast in October.
In February U.S. embassy officials and the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia met with the government to clarify its stance on the registration of non-Abrahamic religions and spoke with members of various religious communities about their opinions of religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials also met with foreign embassies representing countries with large numbers of followers of non-Abrahamic faiths to discuss registration issues. Embassy officials discussed faith issues with quasi-governmental organizations such as the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) and academics focused on interfaith dialogue.
Read Qatar’s full country report here.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the kingdom’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 and the government does not recognize the freedom to practice publicly any non-Muslim religion. 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. Shia clerics and activists who advocated for equal treatment of Shia Muslims were arrested, and the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed after being convicted on a number of charges including inciting terrorism and sedition. 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. A pattern of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur 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 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.” The Riyadh police detained a woman for “violations of general morals” after she posted on social media pictures of herself in public without a hijab or abaya and after she discussed sexual relations with unrelated men. On April 10, the cabinet approved a royal decree stripping the CPVPV of its authority to pursue suspects, arrest or detain them, or ask for their identification. In March at the Riyadh International Book Fair and in December at the Jeddah Book Fair some exhibitors displayed anti-Semitic and misogynistic books.
There were attacks during the year targeting Shia worshipers. On July 4, there were two attacks, one in Medina against the Prophet’s Mosque, a holy site for both Sunnis and Shia, and the other in Qatif. On January 29, suicide attackers killed four and wounded 18 in an attack on Shia al-Ridha Mosque in al-Ahsa province. The government, which provides security at both Sunni and Shia places of worship, condemned and investigated the attacks. No group claimed responsibility.
A pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued regarding 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.
Embassy and consulate officials at all levels 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. During the year, the Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, and queried the legal status of those detained with officials from a variety of government entities. Embassy and consulate officials continued to 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 October 31, 2016, the Secretary of State re-designated 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.
Read Saudi Arabia’s full country report here.
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 certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees, including by imprisonment or death. The government and its Shia militia allies killed, arrested, and physically abused Sunnis and members of targeted religious minority groups as part of its effort to defeat the armed insurrection mounted by opposition groups. In December, for example, according to activists and observers of the conflict, Iranian-allied militias and government soldiers killed dozens of Sunni civilians in Aleppo city as government forces removed Sunni rebels from the city. According to multiple observers of the conflict, the government employed tactics aimed at bolstering the most extreme elements of the Sunni Islamist opposition in order to shape the conflict 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 towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment on the basis of the religious affiliation of residents. The government reportedly targeted places of worship, resulting in damage and destruction of numerous churches and mosques. The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayers, and limit the activities of religious groups. It 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.
Nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN, also known as al-Nusra Front), targeted Shia, Alawites, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with indiscriminate attacks as well as killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests in the areas of the country under their control. Extremist groups, for example, launched multiple suicide bomb attacks in Latakia Province, aiming their attacks at Alawite Muslims, according to the groups themselves. ISIS killed dozens through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings of men, women, and children on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God. In Raqqa and elsewhere in Syria, ISIS continued to hold thousands of enslaved Yezidi women and girls kidnapped in Iraq and trafficked to Syria to be sold or distributed to ISIS members as “spoils of war” because of their religious beliefs. ISIS punished individuals with lashings or imprisonment for lesser religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammed 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. ISIS used its own police force, court system, and revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam. JAN was responsible for similar executions and punishments, though the number of victims appeared much smaller than the number of ISIS victims. JAN continued to implement policies of forced Islamization in minority communities under its control, particularly among the Druze in Idlib. JAN also continued to indoctrinate children with its interpretation of Salafi-jihadist Islam including through schools and youth training camps.
There were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, cultural rivalries, and sectarian rhetoric. Alawites reportedly faced attacks because other minority groups believed government policy favored Alawites; sectarian agitation was one of the driving factors of the insurgency, according to observers. Christians reportedly continued to experience decreasing social tolerance and increasing violence including kidnappings as the influence of extremist groups increased. Neighborhoods, towns, and villages that were once religiously diverse were increasingly segregated by religious group as displaced members of minority religious groups relocated, seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists.
The U.S. President and the Secretary of State urged the government to respect the rights of all citizens regardless of religious beliefs and stressed the need for a political transition in Syria that would respect the freedom of all religious groups. In March the Secretary of State said that in his judgment ISIS was “responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.” The Secretary of State pursued a number of initiatives, including bilateral discussions with Russia and work through the International Syrian Support Group, to find an acceptable formula to end Syria’s war. Although the U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in February 2012, the U.S. Special Envoy for Syria 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.
Read Syria’s full country report here.
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 houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives, and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. The Bahai community’s application to form a legal association was twice denied by the prime ministry, which the group said was due to the word “Bahai” in the association’s name. The prime minister’s office ordered a suspension of the Islamic Hizb al-Tahrir political party (Liberation Party) which was overturned by an administrative court. The office brought a subsequent criminal case against the party, which was being heard in military court. There were reports the government profiled Salafists and others as terrorists based on their appearance then detained and beat them, with one nongovernmental organization (NGO) saying some were tortured. The government continued to allow the Jewish and Christian communities to worship freely.
Christian converts from Islam said threats of violence from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith.
The U.S. Ambassador, embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. government officials met with government officials, including at the Ministry of Religious Affairs; the Presidency of the Government; and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights, to encourage continued tolerance of religious minorities. U.S. officials also discussed the government’s efforts to control activities in mosques as well as threats to converts from Islam to other faiths. Embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. On May 25, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the U.S. Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia 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.
Read Tunisia’s full country report here.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state; it provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship; and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. Religious matters are coordinated and governed by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), whose mandate is to enable the practice of and promote Sunni Islam. The government ascribed responsibility for the July 15 coup attempt to self-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and his movement, which the government considers a terrorist organization. Following the coup attempt, the government detained over 75,000 government officials and suspended 3,600 staff from the Diyanet for allegedly being linked to Gulen and the coup attempt. Some foreign citizens, including several individuals with ties to Christian groups, faced detention, residency-permission problems, or denial of entry to the country under the state of emergency powers following the attempted coup. The government continued to prosecute individuals for “openly disrespecting the religious belief of a group.” The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities, especially those it did not recognize as covered by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. Non-Sunni Muslims did not receive the same protections as recognized non-Muslim minorities. The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect.” It did not recognize Alevi Muslim houses of worship and closed an Alevi-owned television station on allegations it spread terrorist propaganda. Courts convicted seven men of killing three Protestant church members in 2007. Religious minorities reported difficulty operating or opening houses of worship, challenging land and property disputes, and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religious classes. The government restricted minority religious groups from training clergy. Five churches mounted legal challenges to the government expropriation of 6,300 land plots in Diyarbakir in March after they were damaged during security operations against the U.S.-designated terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. The government continued to provide security support for religious minority communities and paid for renovations and restorations of some registered religious properties.
Alevi Muslims faced protests and threats of violence. There were also threats of violence against Jews, Protestants, and Sunni Muslims. Anti-Semitic discourse continued, including a wave of anti-Semitic speech on social media following a Jewish wedding held at the newly renovated Grand Synagogue in Edirne. There were also multiple instances of anti-Alevi and anti-Semitic speech in the press and other media after the July attempted coup. Some progovernment news commentators published stories attempting to associate the coup plotters with the Jewish community and the ecumenical patriarch. Some Protestant, Catholic, and Alevi places of worship were vandalized during the year.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. officials, and officers from the embassy and consulates continued to engage with government officials and a wide range of religious community leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance, and to condemn discriminatory language against any faith. Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials continued to urge the government to lift restrictions on religious groups and raised issues of property restitution and specific cases of religious discrimination. The Secretary of State and Deputy Secretary of State, in meetings with government officials in Washington, continued to call for the reopening of the Halki Greek Orthodox seminary.
Read Turkey’s full country report here.
The 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. The government prosecuted individuals suspected of belonging to or supporting organizations it designated as terrorist, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Human rights organizations stated that some of these individuals were nonviolent and had used social media to criticize government policies. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting extremism. The press reported three cases of non-Muslim residents deported for proselytizing. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques. 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 government established a new Ministry of Tolerance, whose core objectives include supporting religious tolerance and diversity. Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families; during the year, the government granted additional lands to these groups. 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.
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, but encouraged conversion to Islam. Anti-Semitic materials continued to be available for purchase at book fairs. There were continued instances of users posting anti-Semitic remarks on social media sites.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate officers discussed with government officials the government’s efforts to promote moderate Islam and support religious tolerance. Embassy and consulate officials also met with minority religious groups to discuss their local experiences. The embassy and consulate general hosted events to engage with various religious communities and support interfaith contact building and dialogue in order to encourage and support religious openness and tolerance.
Read the UAE’s full country report here.
The constitution declares Islam to be 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 omits mention of freedom of religion. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. Conflict continued between the government and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement allied with elements loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi remained in exile until late November, leaving it unable to exercise effective control for most of the year. Air strikes on places of worship, religious institutions, and religious gatherings, which some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media attributed to pro-government forces, caused casualties, and property damage. Attacks by terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS continued to take place. Militants suspected of being members of a group affiliated with ISIS killed four Catholic nuns during an attack on their convent and nursing home in Aden on March 4. Armed officers from the country’s National Security Bureau (NSB) working with Houthi rebels stormed a Bahai youth workshop in Sana’a and arrested 65 people on August 10 According to media and international human rights organizations, one of the Bahais remained in custody without access to lawyers or family visits at year’s end.
Zaydi and Sunni religious leaders continued to use charges of apostasy to target opponents. Members of the small Jewish community reported continued social harassment, and reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.
The Ambassador, not resident in Yemen, met with officials of the Hadi government to discuss the hurdles minority religious communities faced, including scrutiny by Houthis, displacement from homes and businesses, and targeting by violent extremist groups. Embassy officials met with representatives of religious minorities, including Ismaili Muslims, to discuss how they might alleviate their difficulties.
Read Yemen’s full country report here.
"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