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Reports on Religious Freedom: United Arab Emirates


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 limits the number of officially recognized religions, controls virtually all Sunni mosques, grants only a small number of Christian denominations recognition, prohibits proselytizing, and restricts the ability of nonrecognized religions to conduct business as organized groups.

There was no change in the status of religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

Both government policy and the generally amicable relationship among religions in society contribute 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 have equal legal standing.

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. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

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. The Government controls virtually all Sunni mosques. 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. The Government does not appoint the imams in the country's Shi'a mosques. The Government prohibits proselytizing by non-Muslims.

The Government does not recognize all non-Muslim religions. In those emirates that officially recognize and thereby grant a legal identity to non-Muslim religious groups, only a limited number of Christian groups are granted this recognition. While recognizing the difference between Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity, the authorities make no legal distinction between Christian groups, particularly Protestants. Several often unrelated Christian congregations are required to share common facilities because of official limitations on the number of Christian denominations that are recognized officially. Non-Muslim and non-Christian religions have no legal identity in any of the emirates. Partly as a result of emirate policies regarding recognition of non-Muslim denominations, 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 are a small minority of non-Muslim foreigners.

Religious Demography

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. Naturalization of new citizens is limited to Sunni Muslims. Approximately 80 percent of the population are foreigners, predominantly South and Southeast Asian. A substantial number of foreign professionals are citizens of countries in 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 are a mixture of other faiths, including Ismailis, Parsis, Baha'is, and Sikhs (most of whom reside in the Dubai and Abu Dhabi).

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Virtually all Sunni mosques are government funded or subsidized; about 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. The Government does not appoint sheikhs for Shi'a mosques. The Federal Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs distributes weekly guidance to both Sunni 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 Awqaf and Religious Affairs or individual emirate ministries. In 1993 the Emirate of Dubai placed private mosques under the control of its Department of Islamic Affairs and Endowments. This change gave the Government control over the appointment of preachers and the conduct of their work.

Major cities have Christian churches, some built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they are located. In Sharjah a new Catholic church was opened in 1997 and a new Armenian Orthodox church in 1998, both with public ceremonies. The Government of Dubai Emirate donated a parcel of land in Jebel Ali in 1998 for the construction of a facility to be shared by four Protestant congregations and a Catholic congregation. Also in 1998, land was designated in Jebel Ali for the construction of a second Christian cemetery, and Abu Dhabi Emirate donated land for the expansion of existing Christian burial facilities. In 1999 land was designated in Ras Al-Khaymah Emirate for the construction of a new Catholic church.

Dubai 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. In 1998 Abu Dhabi Emirate donated land for the establishment of the country's first Baha'i cemetery. 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, and neither accepts Hindus who have died in other parts of the country for cremation or burial. The remains of Hindus who die outside Dubai and Sharjah in all cases must be repatriated to their home country at considerable expense.

Non-Muslims in the country are free to practice their religion but may not proselytize publicly or distribute religious literature. 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.

The Government permits foreign clergy to minister to foreign populations, and non-Muslim religious groups are permitted to engage in private charitable activities and to send their children to private schools. Apart from donated land for the construction of churches and other religious facilities, including cemeteries, non-Muslim groups are not supported financially or subsidized by the Government. However, they are permitted to raise money from among their congregants and to receive financial support from abroad. Christian churches are permitted to openly advertise certain church functions, such as memorial services, in the press.

The conversion of Muslims to other religions is regarded with extreme antipathy. While there is no law against missionary activities, authorities have threatened to revoke the residence permits of persons suspected of such activities, and customs authorities have questioned the entry of large quantities of religious materials (Bibles, hymnals, etc.) that they deemed in excess of the normal requirements of existing congregations, although in most instances the questions have been resolved and the items have been admitted.

There have been reports that customs authorities 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.

Although emirate immigration authorities routinely ask foreigners to declare their religious affiliation, 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 November 1999, the Government sponsored the country's first ecumenical meeting, officially designated a seminar on "Islam and the West," in Abu Dhabi, in honor of the visit to the country of the United Kingdom's Prince Charles. The half-day seminar included statements by Islamic and Christian clerics and a brief discussion. In addition, the principal advisor to the ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi on relations with Christian denominations 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 the citizen and foreign populations. One of the center's goals is to expose foreigners to aspects of the indigenous culture, including Islam.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion 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 II. Societal Attitudes

While citizens regard the United Arab Emirates as a Muslim country 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. Casual attire for men and women is tolerated in areas and facilities frequented by foreigners, while hotels, stores, and other businesses patronized by both citizens and foreigners are permitted to sell alcohol and pork to non-Muslims, and to acknowledge, in modest displays, non-Muslim holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali (although such displays 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 can 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 undesirable occupations.

Section III. 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 U.S. 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 envisioned, the Dubai municipality has instructed that the number of churches to be built on the site increase from 3 to 7. Financing of the construction projects is reportedly nearing completion, with construction expected to begin in fall 2000. The Ambassador and other embassy personnel also 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