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Reports on Religious Freedom:
Bahrain

(2000)


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The Constitution states that Islam is the official religion and also provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government does not tolerate political dissent, including from religious groups or leaders. The Government subjects both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to governmental control and monitoring. Members of other religions who practice their faith privately do so without interference from the Government.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

Proselytizing by non-Muslims is discouraged, anti-Islamic writings are prohibited, and conversions from Islam to other religions, while not illegal, are not tolerated well by society. Although there are notable exceptions, the Sunni Muslim minority enjoys a favored status.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution states that Islam is the official religion and also provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government does not tolerate political dissent, including from religious groups or leaders. The Government subjects both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to governmental control and monitoring. Members of other religions who practice their faith privately do so without interference from the Government.

Religious Demography

The population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Citizens belong to the Shi'a and Sunni branches of Islam, with Shi'a constituting more than two-thirds of the indigenous population. However, Sunnis predominate because the ruling family is Sunni and is supported by the armed forces, the security service, and powerful Sunni and Shi'a merchant families. Foreigners constitute 35 to 40 percent of the total population. Roughly half of resident foreigners are non-Muslim. Christians and other non-Muslims, including Jews, Hindus, Baha'is, Buddhists, and Sikhs, are free to practice their religion, maintain their own places of worship, and display the symbols of their religion.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government funds, monitors, and closely controls all official religious institutions. These include Shi'a and Sunni mosques, Shi'a Ma'tams (ceremonial centers), Shi'a and Sunni Waqfs (charitable foundations), and the religious courts, which represent both the Ja'afari (Shi'a) and Maliki (Sunni) schools of Islamic jurisprudence. While the Government rarely interferes with what it considers legitimate religious observations, it actively suppresses any activity deemed overtly political in nature. In the past, the Government occasionally has closed mosques and Ma'tams for allowing political demonstrations to take place on or near their premises and has detained religious leaders for delivering political sermons or for allowing such sermons to be delivered in their mosques. The Government also may appropriate or withhold funding in order to reward or punish particular individuals or places of worship. There were no reported closures of Ma'tams or mosques during the period covered by this report.

The High Council for Islamic Affairs is charged with the review and approval of all clerical appointments within both the Sunni and Shi'a communities, and maintains program oversight for all citizens studying religion abroad. Public religious events, most notably the large annual commemorative marches by Shi'a, are permitted but are watched closely by the police. There are no restrictions on the number of citizens permitted to make pilgrimages to Shi'a shrines and holy sites in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. However, stateless residents who do not possess Bahraini passports often have difficulties arranging travel to religious sites abroad. The Government monitors travel to Iran and scrutinizes carefully those who choose to pursue religious study there.

Proselytizing by non-Muslims is discouraged, anti-Islamic writings are prohibited, and conversions from Islam to other religions, while not illegal, are not tolerated well by society. However, Bibles and other Christian publications are displayed and sold openly in local bookstores that also sell Islamic and other religious literature. Some small groups worship in their homes. Notable dignitaries from virtually every religion and denomination visit the country and frequently meet with the Government and civic leaders. Religious tracts of all branches of Islam, cassettes of sermons delivered by Muslim preachers from other countries, and publications of other religions are readily available.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

The political dynamic of Sunni predominance has led to incidents of unrest between the Shi'a community and the Government, including during the period covered by this report.

During the period covered by this report, the Government held in detention hundreds of Shi'a for security-related crimes such as treason. In June 1999, the Government gradually began freeing incarcerated individuals as part of an Amiri decree calling for the release or pardon of more than 350 Shi'a political prisoners, detainees, and exiles. Since then, the Amir has pardoned at least another 350 prisoners in December 1999 and the year 2000. In early July 1999, the Amir pardoned prominent Shi'a cleric Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, who had been in prison since 1996. Since his release, the Government has monitored Al-Jamri's movements closely. It also has denied him the right to issue marital status certificates, a lucrative source of income for many clerics. Several other clerics associated with Al-Jamri remain in jail. On March 22, 2000, Shi'a cleric leader Abdul Wahab Hussain was rearrested only hours after a judge released him following more than 4 years in detention without charge. The authorities neither brought charges against Hussain nor provided an explanation for his rearrest. Hussain remained incarcerated in a Manama jail at the end of the period covered by this report. By the end of the period covered by this report, it is believed that less than 500 persons still remain in detention for political reasons. There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners during the period covered by this report whose imprisonment could be attributed to the practice of their religion.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Although there are notable exceptions, the Sunni Muslim minority enjoys a favored status. Sunnis receive preference for employment in sensitive government positions and in the managerial ranks of the civil service. Shi'a citizens are not allowed to hold significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. However, since April 1999, Shi'a have been allowed to be employed in the enlisted ranks of the Bahrain Defense Force and with the Ministry of the Interior, two bodies in which Shi'a had been denied employment during the past 4 years. In the private sector, Shi'a tend to be employed in lower paid, less skilled jobs.

Educational, social, and municipal services in most Shi'a neighborhoods, particularly in rural villages, are inferior to those found in Sunni urban communities. In an effort to remedy social discrimination, the Government has built numerous subsidized housing complexes, which are open to all citizens on the basis of financial need. In order to ease both the housing shortage and strains on the national budget, in 1997 the Government revised its policy in order to permit lending institutions to finance mortgages on apartment units.

The Government has declared the Shi'a religious celebration of Ashura to be a national holiday, and allows Shi'a to stage public demonstrations during the holiday. In a gesture of conciliation toward the Shi'a community, the Amir donated rice and lamb to some 500 Shi'a community centers for the 2000 Ashura.

Converts from Islam to other religions are not well tolerated by society (see Section I).

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

An official written dialog takes place between U.S. Embassy officials and government contacts on matters of religion. One such example is the memorandum received by the Embassy each year from the Government in response to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Bahrain.


Sources: U.S. State Department - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

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