Reports on Religious Freedom: Bahrain
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, in 2001 the King pardoned and released all remaining political prisoners and religious leaders. In 2002, the King issued a new Constitution and held municipal council and National Assembly elections. The Government continues to subject both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to some governmental control and monitoring, and there continues to be government discrimination against Shi'a Muslims. Members of other religions who practice their faith privately do so without interference from the Government.
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, Shi'a Muslims, who constitute the majority of the population, often resent minority Sunni Muslim rule.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 231 square miles, and its population is approximately 670,000. 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.
The American Mission Hospital, which is affiliated with the National Evangelical Church, has operated in the country for more than 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, in 2001 the King pardoned and released all remaining political prisoners and religious leaders, including Shi'a clerics. The Government continues to register new religious nongovernmental organizations, including some with the legal authority to conduct political activities. In 2002, the King issued a new Constitution and held municipal council and National Assembly elections. In the 2002 municipal council elections, candidates associated with religious political societies won 40 of the 50 contested seats. In the 2002 legislative election, candidates associated with religious groups won more than half of the Council of Representatives' 40 seats. In both elections, candidates from religious political societies conducted their campaigns without any interference from the Government. The Government continues to subject both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to some 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 license from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to operate. Depending on circumstances, a religious group also may need approvals from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Information, and the Ministry of Education (if the religious group wants to run a school). Thirteen Christian congregations, which were registered with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, operated freely and allowed other Christian congregations to use their facilities. A synagogue, four Sikh temples, and several official and unofficial Hindu temples are located in Manama and its suburbs. In 2003, the Orthodox community celebrated the consecration of the new and expanded St. Mary's Church, which was built on land donated by other Christian groups that privately practice their faith without government interference.
In the past, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs had repeatedly denied a Baha'i community's request for a license to operate. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs stated the Baha'i faith is an offshoot of Islam. According to Islam, this is illegal and therefore the Ministry refuses officially to recognize the religion, but it allows the community to gather and worship freely. The community has not sought official recognition in many years.
Unregistered Christian congregations likely exist, and there is no attempt by the Government to force them to register. Holding a religious meeting without a permit is illegal; however, there were no reports of religious groups being denied a permit to gather.
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. In 2002, the press reported that a school emphasizing a Shi'a curriculum was established for the first time in the country.
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 country observes the Muslim feasts of Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, the Prophet Mohammed's Birthday, and the Islamic New Year as national holidays. The Shi'a religious celebration of Ashura is a 2-day national holiday. The Shi'a stage large public processions during the holiday. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Government tried to prevent many of these processions and put many participants in jail. The Government no longer hinders these processions. The Ministry of Information provides full media coverage of Ashura events.
Notable dignitaries from virtually every religion and denomination visit the country and frequently meet with the Government and civic leaders. During the week of April 15, Passion Week, 400 persons attended a 3-day convention and a series of lectures given by Catholicos of India of Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church Dr. Baselius Thomas I. On May 5, the supreme head of the Mar Thoma Church, ordained Bishop Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostum, Mar Thoma Metropolitan, visited the country to address the spiritual needs of the local parish.
From September 20 to 22, the country hosted an intra-Islamic ecumenical conference, "The Conference of Approximation between the Islamic Faiths." Its goal was to improve Sunni-Shi'a dialogue and bring the Islamic community closer together.
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 (religious 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, in the past it actively suppressed any activity deemed overtly political. The Government permits public religious events, most notably the large annual commemorative marches by Shi'a, but police closely monitor such events. At least one unregistered ma'tam was established in March 2003. The Government has not hindered its activities.
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 mosques or Ma'tams 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 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.
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 readily are available. However, during the period covered by this report, the Ministry of Information prohibited the sale of 14 books written by Sunni authors who converted to the Shi'a sect of Islam. In addition, 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.
On April 2, the Ministry of Information banned Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" because, according to the Ministry, Islamic Shari'a forbids the depiction of the Prophet Isa (Jesus).
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. In the past, stateless residents who did not possess Bahraini passports had difficulties arranging travel to religious sites abroad. However, the Government addressed this problem by granting citizenship to thousands of 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 often receive preference for employment in sensitive government positions and in the managerial ranks of the civil service. Shi'a citizens do not hold significant posts in the defense and internal security forces, although they are allowed to be employed in the enlisted ranks. In 2002, the Government licensed for the first time a school to provide students with a Shi'a religious curriculum designed to educate the next generation of Shi'a religious scholars.
Since 1950, a registered Christian church with over 4,000 members has sought a parcel of land from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs on which to build its own church and hold religious services. The Ministry has not responded to its formal applications. Currently the National Evangelical Church allows the church to use its facilities for early morning services. However, the facility only accommodates half of the church's congregation at any one time.
Since 1985, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs verbally has denied Shi'a applications and petitions to establish a mosque and ma'tam in Riffa to serve that community's Shi'a population. Riffa constitutes approximately 40 percent of the country's land and is home to the Sunni ruling family. In a letter dated April 27, the Ministry of the Royal Court formally denied the application, citing that land in Riffa cannot be allocated for commercial enterprises since it is reserved for the ruling family.
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 religious unrest during the period covered by this report.
In 2003, the Ministry of Interior lifted its ban on policewoman wearing headscarves (hijab). Also in 2003, by Royal Decree, the King allowed women to drive while fully veiled.
Shari'a governs the personal legal rights of women, although the new Constitution provides for women's political rights. 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 of Islam 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. A Muslim woman legally may marry a non-Muslim man if the man converts to Islam. In such marriages, the children automatically are considered Muslim.
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, when custody usually reverts to the father. 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.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
In the past, the Government held in detention hundreds of Shi'a, including religious leaders, for offenses involving "national security." In 2001, the King pardoned and released all political prisoners, detainees, and exiles, including Hassan Sultan and Haji Hassan Jasrallah, two Shi'a clerics associated with prominent cleric Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, as well as Shi'a political activists Haasan Mushaimaa and Abdul Wahab Hussein, who had been in detention for more than 5 years.
There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners during the period covered by this report.
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.
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 are inferior to those found in Sunni communities. To remedy social discrimination, the Government has built numerous subsidized housing complexes, which are open to all citizens on the basis of financial need.
Converts from Islam to other religions are not well tolerated by society, but some small groups worship in their homes.
In 2002, 70graves at the St. Christopher's Church cemetery were desecrated. During the period covered by this report, the Government paid to restore the graveyard. According to the wishes of the Church, no monument was erected. No reports on the results of the investigations into this incident have been issued.
In 2003, unknown assailants vandalized the Sa'sa'a Mosque. Witnesses reported that four persons broke into the mosque and destroyed the ablution faucets and lights surrounding the mosque. The Director of the government-funded agency responsible for managing government-held Shi'a properties (Jaafari Awqaf) did not seek police assistance or an investigation; however, the mosque caretaker has closed the mosque daily at 4:30 p.m. denying Shi'a parishioners the ability to perform evening prayers.
In April, unknown assailants vandalized the Zainab mosque. The mosque restrooms were rendered inoperable. The assailants destroyed all water faucets, fans, electrical switches, lamps, microphones, clocks, and audiotapes. The Director of the Jaafari Awqaf has sought police assistance to investigate the crime.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
An official written dialogue 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.
During the period covered by this report, the Embassy facilitated a meeting between a member of the Consultative (Shura) Council and representatives of a Christian church seeking land to establish a church. The Consultative Council member arranged for a meeting with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to review the church's request for land. At the end of the period covered by this report, the Ministry had taken no action.
Sources: U.S. State Department - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor