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Reports on Religious Freedom: Oman


There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the government during the reporting period.

There were no significant reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

The U.S. government continued to raise concerns regarding the government's alleged failure to grant requests by religious groups for meeting spaces. The U.S. embassy maintained relationships with local religious leaders and communities and encouraged interfaith initiatives.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 119,498 square miles and a population of 3.4 million including at least one million foreigners. The government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation, but almost all citizens are either Ibadhi or Sunni Muslims. Shi'a Muslims form a small but well-integrated minority of less than 5 percent of the population, concentrated in the capital area and along the northern coast. Ibadhism, a form of Islam distinct from Shi'ism and the "orthodox" schools of Sunnism, historically has been the country's dominant religious group, and the sultan is a member of the Ibadhi community.

The majority of non-Muslims are foreign workers from South Asia, although there are small communities of naturalized ethnic Indians (Hindus and Christians).

Non-Muslim religious communities, made up primarily of foreign workers, constitute less than 5 percent of the population and include various groups of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha'is, and Christians. Christian communities are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah and include Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and various Protestant congregations. These groups tend to organize along linguistic and ethnic lines. More than 50 different Christian groups, fellowships, and assemblies are active in the Muscat metropolitan area. There are also two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple in Muscat, as well as additional temples located on worksites where the local religious community is large enough to support them.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The basic law declares that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a is the basis of legislation, but provides for the freedom to practice religious rites as long as doing so does not disrupt public order. It also prohibits discrimination based on religion.

Citizens who convert from Islam to another religion may face problems under the Personal Status and Family Legal Code, which specifically prohibits a father who commits apostasy from Islam from retaining paternal rights over his children; however, this law was not enforced.

Non-Muslim communities are allowed to practice their beliefs without interference only on land specifically donated by the sultan for the purpose of collective worship. In 2006 the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) issued a circular to non-Muslim religious leaders and diplomatic missions reaffirming an individual's right to practice his or her own religious activities according to his or her values, customs, and traditions. The circular also states that gatherings of a religious nature are not allowed in private homes or in any location other than government-approved houses of worship; however, the government did not actively enforce the prohibition.

Citizens have the right to sue the government for violations of the right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; however, this right has never been exercised in court.

Article 209 of the penal code prescribes a prison sentence and fine for anyone who publicly blasphemes God or His prophets, commits an affront to religious groups by spoken or written word, or breaches the peace of a lawful religious gathering; however, there were no reports of any prosecutions under this statute during the reporting period. The law does not specifically prohibit proselytizing, and apostasy is not a criminal offense.

Laws governing family and personal status are adjudicated by the country's civil courts. Article 282 of the Personal Status and Family Legal Code exempts non-Muslims from its provisions, allowing them to follow their own religious rules pertaining to family or personal status. Shi'a Muslims may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shi'a jurisprudence outside of the courts but retain the right to transfer their case to a civil court if they cannot find a resolution.

The government funds the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but not Shi'a, or non-Muslim religious leaders.

The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Eid al-Adha, Islamic New Year (Hijra), the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet's Ascension, and Eid al-Fitr.

The 2006 MERA circular, which formalized existing but previously unwritten government policy, also requires groups to obtain approval from MERA before issuing religious publications outside their membership; this regulation does not differ from the requirement for government approval of any publication in the country. Religious groups are requested to notify MERA prior to importing religious materials and to submit a copy for the MERA files; however, the ministry does not review all imported religious material for approval.

Women are permitted to wear the hijab (Islamic head scarf) in official photographs but not the niqab (face veil).

Government regulations regarding constructing places of worship are consistently applied across all religions; the construction and/or leasing of buildings by religious groups must be approved and/or built on land donated by the government. In addition, mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 mile) apart.

All religious organizations must be registered by MERA. The ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman, the Catholic Diocese of Oman, the al Amana Center (interdenominational Christian), the Hindu Mahajan Temple, and the Anwar al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as the official sponsors for non-Muslim religious communities. Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of these sponsor organizations, which are responsible for recording the group's doctrinal adherence, the names of its leaders, the number of active members, and for submitting this information to the ministry.

Members of non-Muslim communities were free to maintain links with fellow adherents abroad and undertake foreign travel for religious purposes. The government permitted clergy from abroad to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious organizations, which must apply to MERA for approval at least one week in advance of the visiting clergy's entry.

Officials at MERA stated there was no limit on the number of groups that can be registered. New religious groups unaffiliated with one of the recognized communities must gain ministerial approval before being registered. While the government has not published the rules, regulations, or criteria for approval, the ministry generally considered the group's size, theology, belief system, and availability of other worship opportunities before granting approval. The ministry employs similar criteria before granting approval for new Muslim groups to form.

Leaders of all religious groups must be registered with MERA. The formal licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from leading prayers in mosques. Lay members of non-Muslim communities may lead worship if they are specified as leaders in their group's registration application. The ministry also prohibits foreigners on tourist visas from preaching, teaching, or leading worship.

Islamic studies are required for Muslim students in public school grades K-12. Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement, and many private schools provide alternative religious studies.

Although the government records religion on birth certificates, it is not printed on other official identity documents.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Non-Muslim religious leaders reported that the government did not grant sufficient clergy registration requests.

The government agreed in principle to permit Buddhists to hold religious meetings if they could find a private corporate sponsor. Buddhists began the application process in 2009 but did not complete all the steps necessary to secure a separate religious meeting space during the reporting period.

During the reporting period, additional religious groups submitted registration requests but did not receive a response from MERA.

The 2006 MERA-issued circular states that gatherings of a religious nature are not allowed in private homes or any other location except government-approved houses of worship. In theory, this restriction continued to limit the ability of some adherents who resided far from officially sanctioned locations or who lacked reliable transportation to practice their religion collectively or engage in communal religious rites; however, MERA enforced the prohibition on group worship in unsanctioned locations only when it received complaints. Generally churches and temples voluntarily abided by the 2006 circular, providing space on their compounds for worship; however, the lack of space in the locations sanctioned by the government for collective worship continued to limit the number of groups that could practice their religions.

The government permitted private groups to promote and engage in interfaith dialogue, as long as the discussions did not constitute proselytism of Muslims.

In contrast with the previous reporting period, there were no reports that the government mandated specific dates for Eid prayers.

MERA monitored sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics. The government required all imams to preach sermons within the parameters of standardized texts distributed monthly by the ministry.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

The government took several steps to promote tolerance and interfaith understanding, most notably through its relationship with Cambridge University. The sultan established an endowed professorship: His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professorship of Abrahamic Faiths and a one-month interfaith training and residency program for Omani imams at Cambridge. MERA and Cambridge also collaborated in preparing to cosponsor a Web site and establish a summer school program focused on promoting interfaith dialogue. The government also hosted a delegation from the American Jewish Council that included meetings with high level officials in MERA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

The government, through MERA, continued to publish Al Tasamoh (Tolerance), a periodical devoted to broadening dialogue within Islam and promoting respectful discussion of differences with other faiths and cultures.

The government also sponsored fora for examining differing interpretations of Islam, Christian views, and philosophical approaches that are not tied to a specific religion. Government-sponsored interfaith dialogues took place on a regular basis. During the reporting period, MERA hosted several Christian and Muslim scholars and lecturers of various schools of thought to discuss interfaith relations and tolerance in Islamic traditions.

During the reporting period, the Institute for Shari'a Sciences' Grand Mosque series hosted internationally renowned philosopher John Caputo, who spoke on "Post-secularism and Post-materialism in the Post-modern World." The Institute also accepted two J. William Fulbright Scholars to conduct research on Islam.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The private media published occasional anti-Semitic editorial cartoons depicting stereotypical and negative images of Jews, along with Jewish symbols. These expressions occurred primarily in the privately-owned daily newspaper Al-Watan. A senior columnist at the privately-owned sister papers The Times of Oman/Al-Shabiba on two occasions attacked Israeli actions and policies with anti-Semitic language.

A local interfaith group, focusing on improving Muslim-Christian understanding, regularly sponsored exchange programs for leaders of both faiths, hosted scholars-in-residence, and worked closely with MERA on many of their projects.

Both state-owned and private papers expanded coverage of religious issues, positively addressing interfaith dialogue and encouraging tolerance among sects of Islam and between Islam and other faiths.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. embassy continued to raise its concern with MERA about space limitations created by the 2006 circular prohibiting group worship in private homes and encouraged the government to grant the requests of any religious group that requested approval for a meeting location. The embassy also worked closely with MERA to promote interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue and met regularly with representatives of both Muslim and non-Muslim groups to discuss religious freedom concerns.

A local interfaith group, focusing on improving Muslim-Christian understanding, regularly sponsored exchange programs for leaders of both faiths, hosted scholars-in-residence, and worked closely with MERA on many of their projects.

The ambassador established relationships with leaders of religious communities in the country. Senior embassy staff maintained good working relationships with religious government entities, leaders of religious organizations, and interfaith groups.

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