Reports on Religious Freedom: Bahrain
The Constitution states that Islam is the official religion and also provides for freedom of religion; however, there were some limits on this right.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. In the past, the Government did not tolerate political dissent, including from religious groups or leaders; however, by February 14, 2001, the Amir had pardoned and released all remaining political prisoners and religious leaders. The Government continues to subject both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to governmental control and monitoring, and there is some government discrimination against Shi'a Muslims. Members of other religions who practice their faith privately do so without interference from the Government.
Relations among religions in society are generally amicable; however, Shi'a Muslims, who constitute the majority of the population, sometimes resent minority Sunni Muslim rule.
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. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 231 square miles, and its population is approximately 700,000. The citizen population is 98 percent Muslim; Jews and Christians constitute the remaining 2 percent. Muslim citizens belong to the Shi'a and Sunni branches of Islam, with Shi'a constituting as much as two-thirds of the indigenous population.
Foreigners, mostly from South Asia and other Arab countries, constitute approximately 38 percent of the total population. Roughly half of resident foreigners are non-Muslim, including Christians, Jews, Hindus, Baha'is, Buddhists, and Sikhs.
There is no information available regarding the numbers of atheists in the country.
The American Mission Hospital, which is affiliated with the National Evangelical Church, has operated in the country for over a century. The church adjacent to the hospital holds weekly services and also serves as a meeting place for other Protestant denominations.
Section II: Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution states that Islam is the official religion and also provides for freedom of religion; however, there were some limits on this right. In the past, the Government did not tolerate political dissent, including from religious groups or leaders; however, by February 14, 2001, the Amir had pardoned and released all political prisoners and detainees, including Shi'a clerics. The Government continues to subject both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to governmental control and monitoring, and there is some government discrimination against Shi'a Muslims. Members of other religions who practice their faith privately do so without interference from the Government, and are permitted to maintain their own places of worship and display the symbols of their religion.
Every religious group must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Justice and Islamic affairs in order to operate. Holding a religious meeting without a permit is illegal. There were no reports of religious groups being denied a permit.
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.
The civil and criminal legal systems consist of a complex mix of courts, based on diverse legal sources, including Sunni and Shi'a Shari'a (Islamic law), tribal law, and other civil codes and regulations.
The Government has declared the Shi'a religious celebration of Ashura to be a 2-day national holiday and allows Shi'a to stage public demonstrations during the holiday. As a gesture of continued conciliation toward the Shi'a community, the Amir donated rice and lamb to approximately 500 Shi'a community centers for the 2001 Ashura.
Notable dignitaries from virtually every religion and denomination visit the country and frequently meet with the Government and civic leaders.
In 1999 Amir Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa publicly called for religious tolerance, and in November of the same year, he met with Pope John Paul II and established diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
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 (community 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 has, in the past, actively suppressed any activity deemed overtly political in nature. The Government permits public religious events, most notably the large annual commemorative marches by Shi'a, but such events are monitored closely by the police.
In the past, the Government occasionally closed mosques and Ma'tams for allowing political demonstrations to take place on or near their premises or to prevent religious leaders from delivering political speeches during Friday prayer and sermons; however, there were no reported closures of Ma'tams or mosques during the period covered by this report. In past years, the Government detained religious leaders for delivering political sermons or for allowing such sermons to be delivered in their mosques. The Government also has appropriated or withheld funding in order to reward or punish particular individuals or places of worship. However, there were no reports of such detentions or funding restrictions during the period covered by this report.
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, although stateless residents who do not possess Bahraini passports often have difficulties arranging travel to religious sites abroad. However, the Government began to address the problem during the period covered by this report by granting citizenship to over 4,000 previously stateless residents. The Government monitors travel to Iran and scrutinizes carefully those who choose to pursue religious study there.
Although there are notable exceptions, the Sunni Muslim minority enjoys a favored status. Sunnis predominate because the Sunni ruling family is supported by the armed forces, the security service, and powerful Sunni and Shi'a merchant families. 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 previous years.
The political dynamic of Sunni predominance in the past has led to incidents of unrest between the Shi'a community and the Government. There were no reports of significant political or religious unrest during the period covered by this report.
The Government discourages proselytizing by non-Muslims and prohibits anti-Islamic writings. However, Bibles and other Christian publications are displayed and sold openly in local bookstores that also sell Islamic and other religious literature. 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. However, a government-controlled proxy server prohibits user access to internet sites considered to be antigovernment or anti-Islamic. The software used is unreliable and often inhibits access to uncontroversial sites as well.
Shari'a governs the legal rights of women. Specific rights vary according to Shi'a or Sunni interpretations of Islamic law, as determined by the individual's faith, or by the courts in which various contracts, including marriage, have been made. While both Shi'a and Sunni women have the right to initiate a divorce, religious courts may refuse the request. Although local religious courts may grant a divorce to Shi'a women in routine cases, occasionally Shi'a women seeking divorce under unusual circumstances must travel abroad to seek a higher ranking opinion than that available in the country. Women of either branch may own and inherit property and may represent themselves in all public and legal matters. In the absence of a direct male heir, a Shi'a woman may inherit all property. In contrast, a Sunni woman--in the absence of a direct male heir--inherits only a portion as governed by Shari'a; the balance is divided among brothers, uncles, and male cousins of the deceased.
In divorce cases, the courts routinely grant Shi'a and Sunni women custody of daughters under the age of 9 and sons under age 7, although custody usually reverts to the father once the children reach those ages. In all circumstances except mental incapacitation, the father, regardless of custody decisions, retains the right to make certain legal decisions for his children, such as guardianship of any property belonging to the child, until the child reaches legal age. A noncitizen woman automatically loses custody of her children if she divorces their citizen father.
Some women complain that admission polices at the National University are aimed at increasing the number of male students at the expense of qualified female applicants, especially Shi'a women. Nevertheless, women make up the majority of students at the country's universities.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
Until February 14, 2001, the Government had held in detention hundreds of Shi'a, including religious leaders, for offenses involving "national security." In June 1999, the Government gradually began releasing 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. In December 1999 and during 2000, the Amir pardoned at least another 350 prisoners. On February 6, 2001, the Amir pardoned an additional 298 political prisoners and detainees, and pardoned 108 exiles who had requested to return to the country. By February 14, 2001, the Amir had pardoned and released all political prisoners and detainees, including Hassan Sultan and Haji Hassan Jasrallah, two Shi'a clerics associated with prominent cleric Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, as well as Shi'a religious leader Shaikh Abdul Wahab Hussein, who had been in detention for more than 5 years.
On March 8, 2001, Bahraini cleric Shaikh Issa Qassim, the former head of the Shi'a Religious Party, returned to the country after an 8-year exile. The Government permitted large crowds of celebrating Shi'a to greet Qassim upon his return.
In July 1999, the Amir pardoned Al-Jamri, who had been in prison since 1996. After his release, the Government has monitored Al-Jamri's movements. It also denied him the right to issue marital status certificates, a lucrative source of income for many clerics. However, since January 2001, the Government has ceased conducting surveillance of Al-Jamri's residence and permitted him to lead Friday noon prayers.
There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners during the period covered by this report whose imprisonment could be attributed solely to the practice of their religion.
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 Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
Although there are notable exceptions, the Sunni Muslim minority enjoys a favored status. 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 to permit lending institutions to finance mortgages on apartment units.
Converts from Islam to other religions are not well tolerated by society, but some small groups worship in their homes.
After demonstrations in support of Palestinians on October 13, 2000, several youths and men reportedly boarded a bus carrying Catholic parishioners, took Bibles from the parishioners, and threw some of the Bibles out of the bus window.
Section IV. 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