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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 freedom.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period. In the past, the Government did not tolerate political dissent 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 an area of 231 square miles, and its population is approximately 710,000. 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 an estimated 38 percent of the total population. Approximately 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

Legal/Policy Framework

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 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 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 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, the capital, 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 that the Baha'i Faith is an offshoot of Islam. According to its official interpretation of Islam, the Government regards the core beliefs of Baha'is to be blasphemous and consequently illegal, and therefore the Ministry refuses to recognize the religion, but it allows the community to gather and worship freely. The Baha'i community has not sought official recognition in many years.

It is likely that unregistered Christian congregations 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, 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 number of Shi'a Shari'a judges is slightly higher than the number of Sunni Shari'a judges.

The country observes the Muslim feasts of Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, the Birth of the Prophet Muhammed, 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, and the Government does not restrict the religious elements of these events. The Ministry of Information provides full media coverage of Ashura events.

Leaders representing most religions and religious denominations visit the country and frequently meet with the Government and civic leaders. In January, a foreign evangelical Christian, Dr. Roger Houtsma, held a series of workshops on religion. World Council of Churches official Rt. Reverend Dr. Zacharias Mar Theophilus, of the Mar Thoma Church, led Holy Week services in March. The Catholic Vicar Apostolic of Arabia visited in April.

In March, members of the Sacred Heart Church were granted permission to visit Christian prison inmates and distribute religious materials to them. In April, the Islamic Awareness Center opened with the goal of promoting understanding of Islam and building bridges with other faiths. The Islamic Enlightenment Society organized a conference in May aimed at diffusing tension between Muslim sects.

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 reporting period. 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 reporting period.

Towns that were developed and expanded in the past 10 years, such as Hamad Town and Issa Town, have mixed Sunni and Shi'a populations. In these new areas, there are a greater number of Sunni than Shi'a mosques. In June, King Hamad approved the construction of a large Shi'a mosque on a site in Hamad Town that had been the subject of a dispute between the two branches of Islam.

The Government 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, in the past few years the Ministry of Information prohibited the sale of 14 books written by Sunni authors who converted to the Shi'ism. 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.

In March, residents of Muharraq submitted a petition to the Ministry of Information requesting that the government-run TV station make live broadcasts of Friday sermons from Shi'a mosques, and not just from Sunni mosques. According to the petitioners, a similar request sent to the Ministry in 2004 did not receive a response.

In 2004, the Ministry of Information banned Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ"; according to the Ministry, this decision was based on Islamic Shari'a prohibitions regarding 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. 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 September 2004, the Interior Ministry established a community police program to train 500 Shi'a men and women.

In 2002, the Government licensed for the first time a public school in Juffair whose Islamic Studies curriculum is designed to provide primary and secondary students with a foundation in the Ja'afari Shi'a school of Islam. The school began limited operations in 2002, and the Prime Minister officiated at the official opening in early 2005. The Shi'a Al Islamiya bloc in the Council of Representatives (COR) proposed early in 2005 that the country's public schools teach the four main Sunni schools of thought and the Ja'afari school. The proposal was rejected by the Services Committee and by the COR.

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. The National Evangelical Church allows this church to use its facilities for early morning services. However, the facility can only accommodate at any one time half of the church's congregation.

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 2004, 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 reporting period.

In 2003, the Ministry of Interior lifted its ban on policewomen wearing headscarves (hijab). Also in 2003, by Royal Decree, the King allowed women to drive while fully veiled. In July 2004, the Ministry of Defense lifted its ban on growing beards, a common practice among many Muslims. All military personnel who had been released for growing beards were reinstated. In August 2004, the Cabinet reviewed a proposal to permit men to grow long beards and women to wear face-covering veils (niqab) while working for government departments.

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, in the absence of a direct male heir, a Sunni woman 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 may legally marry a non-Muslim man only if he first 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

During the period of internal strife in the 1980's and 1990's, the Government held in detention hundreds of Shi'a, including religious leaders, for offenses involving "national security." There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners during the reporting period.

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.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the reporting period.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Although there are 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 inequalities, 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, which leads some small groups to worship in their homes.

In 2002, 70 graves at the St. Christopher's Church cemetery were desecrated. The Government paid to restore the graveyard. No reports on 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 (Ja'afari 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 2004, 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 Ja'afari Awqaf sought police assistance to investigate the crime.

There were no acts of physical violence or harassment of Jews or vandalism of Jewish community institutions, such as schools, synagogues, or cemeteries. The Government has not enacted any laws protecting the right of Jews to religious freedom; however, it has not interfered with their freedom to practice. The Government makes no effort specifically to promote anti-bias and tolerance education. Some anti-Semitic political commentary and editorial cartoons appeared, usually linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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.

With U.S. Government funding, Arab Civitas is helping the Ministry of Education develop a civic education program for public schools that includes lessons on human rights and tolerance. In 2003 and 2004, the Embassy worked with the Ministry of Education to create and implement a new English language curriculum that stresses respect for persons of different religious backgrounds.

In March, an Embassy official met with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs Undersecretary to discuss future efforts to promote religious harmony.

In June, a prominent religious scholar from the country participated in a U.S. Government-sponsored program in the United States on promoting interfaith dialogue.

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