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Reports on Religious Freedom:
United Arab Emirates

(2002)


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The Federal Constitution designates Islam as the official religion, and Islam is also the official religion of all seven of the constituent emirates of the federal union. The Federal Constitution also provides for the freedom to exercise religious worship in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals, and the Government generally respects this right in practice and does not interfere with the private practice of religion; however, it controls virtually all Sunni mosques, prohibits proselytizing, and restricts the freedom of assembly and association, thereby greatly limiting the ability of religious groups without dedicated religious buildings to worship and conduct business. The Government permits de facto recognition of a small number of Christian denominations through the issuance of land use permits to build and operate churches,

The status of respect for religious freedom improved somewhat during the period covered by this report. Permission for land use was given to three Christian churches, and one new church opened.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to a relatively tolerant atmosphere for the practice of a wide variety of faiths, albeit within the context of a predominantly Muslim society in which Islam has a privileged status and not all non-Islamic religions enjoy equal treatment.

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The country's total land area is 32,300 square miles, and its population is approximately 3.1 million. More than 80 percent of the population are noncitizens. Virtually all of the country's citizens are Muslims, with approximately 85 percent followers of Sunni Islam and the remaining 15 percent followers of Shi'a Islam. Foreigners are predominantly from South and Southeast Asia, although there are a substantial number of professionals from the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Although no official figures are available, local observers estimate that approximately 55 percent of the foreign population are Muslim, 25 percent are Hindu, 10 percent are Christian, 5 percent are Buddhist, and 5 percent (most of whom reside in Dubai and Abu Dhabi) are a mixture of other faiths, including Parsi, Baha'i, and Sikh.

Although the Government does not permit foreign missionaries to proselytize, they have performed nontraditional humanitarian missionary work since before the country's independence in 1971. In 1960 Christian missionaries opened a maternity hospital in Abu Dhabi Emirate; the hospital continues to operate. Missionaries also operate a maternity hospital in Fujeirah Emirate. An International Bible Society representative in Al-Ain distributes bibles and other religious material to Christian religious groups here.

There are no available statistics on the number of atheists.

Section II: Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Federal Constitution designates Islam as the official religion, and Islam is also the official religion of all seven of the individual emirates in the federal union. The Federal Constitution also provides for the freedom to exercise religious worship in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, it controls virtually all Sunni mosques, prohibits proselytizing, and restricts the freedom of assembly and association, thereby greatly limiting the ability of religious groups without dedicated religious buildings to worship and conduct business. The Government permits de facto recognition of a small number of Christian denominations through the issuance of land use permits for the construction and operation of churches. The Government funds or subsidizes virtually all Sunni mosques and employs all Sunni imams. The Government also distributes guidance on religious sermons and monitors for political content sermons delivered in all mosques, whether Sunni or Shi'a; however, except in Dubai, it does not appoint the imams in the country's Shi'a mosques.

Virtually all Sunni mosques are government funded or subsidized; approximately 5 percent of Sunni mosques are entirely private, and several large mosques have large private endowments.

The Shi'a minority, which is concentrated in the northern emirates, is free to worship and maintain its own mosques. All Shi'a mosques are considered private and receive no funds from the Government. Shi'a Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shi'a family law cases through a special Shi'a council rather than the Shari'a courts.

The Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Awqaf operates as the central federal regulatory authority for Muslim imams and mosques. There is no such authority for the recognition and regulation of non-Muslim religions, and no licensing or registration requirements.

The Government follows a policy of tolerance towards non-Muslim religions and, in practice, interferes very little in the religious activities of non-Muslims. Apparent differences in the treatment of Muslim and non-Muslim groups often have their origin in the dichotomy between citizens and noncitizens rather than religious difference.

As the state religion, Islam is favored over other religions and conversion to Islam is looked upon favorably. A list of Muslim converts is published annually. Prisoners who convert to Islam often receive a reduction in their sentence. Anecdotal evidence reveals that private sources often provide converts to Islam with monetary payments and job offers.

Muslim religious holidays are granted status as national holidays, namely, Waqfa, Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic New Year, the Prophet's Birthday, Ascension Day, and Eid Al-Fitr. There are no reports that these holidays negatively impact other religious groups because of their religious affiliation. However, all residents and visitors are required by law during Ramadan to respect and abide by some of the behavior restrictions imposed on Muslims, and are forbidden publicly to eat, drink, or smoke during fasting hours.

The principal religious advisor to Abu Dhabi Emirate's Ruler regularly represents the country at ecumenical conferences and events in other countries. In 1999 Dubai Emirate established a center for the promotion of cultural understanding aimed at expanding contact and interchange between citizens and resident foreigners. One of the center's goals is to expose foreigners to aspects of the indigenous culture, including Islam.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Federal Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Awqaf distributes weekly guidance to both Sunni imams and Shi'a sheikhs regarding religious sermons and ensures that clergy do not deviate frequently or significantly from approved topics in their sermons. All Sunni imams are employees of either the Federal Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Awqaf or of individual emirate ministries. Except in Dubai, where the Department of Islamic Affairs and Endowments controls in all mosques the appointment of preachers and the conduct of their work, the Government does not appoint sheikhs for Shi'a mosques.

There does not appear to be a formalized method for granting religious groups official status. Rather, the ruling families may grant access to land and permission to build a church thereon. Since not all religious groups have land-use grants with churches built thereon, several unrelated Christian congregations are required to share common facilities. Even so, because Islam considers Christianity to be one of the three monotheistic religions, facilities for Christian congregations are far greater in number and size than those for non-Christian and non-Muslim groups, despite the fact that Christians represent less than a quarter of non-Muslim foreigners.

Some non-Muslims are permitted to practice their religion freely in religious compounds built on land grants from the local rulers. In such cases, a religious group leader requests from the local ruler a grant of land (title to which remains with the ruler) and permission to build a church thereon. Religious groups without land grants and churches built thereon are limited in their ability to assemble for worship and to conduct business, butare allowed to worship on the compounds of other religious groups if permitted by such religious groups to do so. Discreet, off-compound private and public gatherings are not targeted or disrupted by the police or other security forces.

Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah have approximately 20 Christian church buildings built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they are located. Three emirates are home to Catholic primary and secondary schools, and in 2001 the Catholic Church received permission to establish a secondary school in Fujeirah.

In 1999 land was designated in Ras Al-Khaymah Emirate for the construction of a new Catholic church, but the church has not yet received permission to open, even though construction was completed in 2000. In early 2001, ground was broken in Jebel Ali for the construction of several churches on a parcel of land donated by the Government of Dubai to four Protestant congregations and a Catholic congregation. The Catholic church opened in November 2001. In May 2001, the Crown Prince of Dubai authorized the construction of a Greek Orthodox church on donated land.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai Emirates have donated land for Christian cemeteries, and Abu Dhabi has donated land for a Bah'ai cemetery. The Dubai Government permits one Hindu temple and two Sikh temples to operate. There are no such temples elsewhere in the country. There are no Buddhist temples; however, Buddhists, along with Hindus and Sikhs in cities without temples, conduct religious ceremonies in private homes without interference. There are only two operating cremation facilities and associated cemeteries for the large Hindu community, one in Dubai and one in Sharjah. Official permission must be obtained for their use in every instance, posing a hardship for the large Hindu community.

Non-Muslim religious groups do not receive funds from the Government. However, those with land grants are not charged rental payments, and some of the churches constructed on land grants were donated by the local ruling families. Also, the Sharjah government waives payment of utilities for churches because they are religious buildings. Non-Muslim groups are permitted to raise money from among their congregants and to receive financial support from abroad. Christian churches are permitted to advertise in the press certain church functions, such as memorial services.

The conversion of Muslims to other religions is regarded with extreme antipathy; therefore, the Government prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing or distributing religious literature under penalty of criminal prosecution and imprisonment. In March 2001, Dubai police arrested four visiting noncitizens for violating laws barring non-Muslims from proselytizing because they distributed Christian religious materials, including videos and CD-ROMS, on a public street. One of those arrested was detained for less than a week. Authorities held the passports of those arrested during the investigation. They were able to move freely about Dubai but not permitted to leave the city. The charges against the noncitizens were dropped on April 8, 2001, and they left the country on April 9.

The authorities have threatened to revoke the residence permits of persons suspected of missionary activities. In addition customs authorities have questioned the entry of large quantities of religious materials (such as Bibles and hymnals) that they deemed in excess of the normal requirements of existing congregations, although in most instances the items have been permitted entry. Customs authorities reportedly are less likely to question the importation of Christian religious items than non-Muslim, non-Christian religious items, although in virtually all instances importation of the material in question eventually has been permitted.

Immigration authorities routinely ask foreigners to declare their religious affiliation, however, the Government does not collect or analyze this information, and religious affiliation is not a factor in the issuance or renewal of visas or residence permits. In late 2001, Abu Dhabi inquired about religious affiliation in its first municipality-wide census.

Non-Muslims are tried for criminal offenses in Shari'a courts. However, they may receive civil penalties at the discretion of the judge. Shari'a penalties imposed on non-Muslims also may be overturned or modified by a higher court.

Family law for Muslims is governed by Shari'a and the local Shari'a courts. Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women; however, Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men unless the men convert to Islam. Because Islam does not consider the marriage between a non-Muslim man and a Muslim woman valid, both are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds of fornication. Shari'a, according to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, also is applied in cases of divorce. Women are granted custody of female children until they reach the age of maturity and are granted temporary custody of male children until they reach the age of 12. If the mother is deemed unfit, custody reverts to the next able female relative on the mother's side. Shari'a permits polygyny.

Islamic studies are mandatory in public schools (schools supported by the Federal Government for primarily citizen children) and in private schools for Muslim children. Religious instruction in non-Muslim religions is not permitted in schools. However, religious groups conduct religious instruction for their members on their religious compounds.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion

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

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

Three new permits for access to land and permission to build were extended to Christian churches in major cities during the period covered by this report. In April 2002, the Al-Ain municipality government authorized a land grant to the Anglican Church. In early 2002, the Fujeirah government authorized land grants for the construction of an Indian Orthodox Church and a Catholic Church. A Catholic church, Dubai Emirate's second, opened in Jebel Ali in November 2001. Also during the period covered by the report, the Catholic Church received permission to establish a secondary school in Fujeirah.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

While citizens regard the country as a Muslim nation that should respect Muslim religious sensibilities on matters such as public consumption of alcohol, proper dress, and proper public comportment, society also places a high value on respect for privacy and on Islamic traditions of tolerance, particularly with respect to forms of Christianity. Modest casual attire for men and women generally is permitted in most emirates and facilities frequented by foreigners. Many hotels, stores, and other businesses patronized by both citizens and foreigners are permitted to sell alcohol and pork to non-Muslims, and to acknowledge non-Muslim holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali (although such displays generally are not permitted during the month of Ramadan). Citizens occasionally express concern regarding the influence on society of the cultures of the country's foreign majority. However, in general citizens are familiar with foreign societies and believe that they are able to best limit unwanted foreign influence by supporting and strengthening indigenous cultural traditions. Slightly less tolerant attitudes by citizens toward non-Muslim and non-Christian faiths reflect both traditional Islamic views of these religions and the fact that Hindus and Buddhists in the country are overwhelmingly less educated, less affluent, and work in less desirable occupations.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

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

In early 1998, the Ambassador sent a letter to the Government of Dubai emirate in support of the request of three Protestant congregations for expanded facilities in Dubai, and later raised the issue in official meetings with Dubai emirate leaders. In response to these requests--and with the support of the U.S. and UK Embassies--Dubai emirate donated land for these facilities and granted permission for their construction. While originally three churches were proposed, the Dubai municipality instructed that the number of churches to be built on the site increase from three to seven. In early 2001, ground was broken for the construction of several churches on the site. In early 2001, the U.S. Ambassador sent a letter to the government of the Dubai emirate in support of the request of the Greek Orthodox congregation for the construction of a church in Dubai; the request was quickly approved by the Crown Prince of Dubai. The Ambassador and other embassy personnel have participated regularly in ceremonies marking the opening or expansion of religious facilities, and embassy officers meet on occasion with Muslims, Christians, and representatives of other religious faiths.


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

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