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Reports on Religious Freedom: United Arab Emirates


The Constitution provides for freedom of religion in accordance with established customs, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however there were some restrictions. The Government controls virtually all Sunni mosques, prohibits proselytizing, and restricts the freedom of assembly and association, thereby limiting the ability of religious groups without dedicated religious buildings to worship and conduct business. The Federal Constitution declares that Islam is the official religion of all seven of the constituent emirates of the federal union. The Government permits de facto recognition of a small number of Christian denominations through the issuance of land use permits for the construction and operation of churches.

The status of respect for religious freedom improved somewhat during the period covered by this report. Two new churches opened with a capacity of at least 1,000 people. The fifth Indian Orthodox Church in the country also opened, and permission was granted to build another Coptic Orthodox Church.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

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. Religious Demography

The country's total land area is 32,300 square miles, and its population is approximately 3,8 million. More than 80 percent of the population are noncitizens. Virtually all of the country's citizens are Muslims; approximately 85 percent are Sunni and the remaining 15 percent are Shi'a. Foreigners are predominantly from South and Southeast Asia, although there are a substantial number from the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Although no official figures are available, local observers estimate that approximately 55 percent of the foreign population is Muslim, 25 percent is Hindu, 10 percent is Christian, 5 percent is Buddhist, and 5 percent (most of whom reside in Dubai and Abu Dhabi) belongs to other religions, including Parsi, Baha'i, and Sikh. There are foreign missionaries operating in the country. The Government does not permit foreign missionaries to proselytize Muslims; however, they have performed humanitarian missionary work since before the country's independence in 1971. In 1960 Christian missionaries opened a maternity hospital in Abu Dhabi Emirate; the hospital continued to operate at the end of the period covered by this report. Missionaries also operate a maternity hospital in Fujeirah Emirate. An International Bible Society representative in Al-Ain distributes Bibles and other religious material to Christian religious groups.

Section II: Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion in accordance with established customs, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, there were some restrictions. The Government controls virtually all Sunni mosques, prohibits proselytizing, and restricts the freedom of assembly and association, thereby greatly limiting the ability of religious groups without dedicated religious buildings to worship and conduct business. The Constitution declares that Islam is the official religion of all seven of the constituent emirates of the federal union. The Government permits de facto recognition of a small number of Christian denominations through the issuance of land use permits for the construction and operation of churches. Religious groups without dedicated buildings of worship often use the facilities of other religious groups or worship in private homes, generally without government interference.

The Government funds or subsidizes virtually all Sunni mosques and employs all Sunni imams; approximately 5 percent of Sunni mosques are entirely private, and several large mosques have large private endowments. The Government distributes guidance on religious sermons to mosques and imams, whether Sunni or Shi'a, and monitors all sermons for political content.

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. Shi'a imams are government-appointed only in Dubai Emirate. Shi'a Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shi'a family law cases through a special Shi'a council rather than the Shari'a courts.

The Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Awqaf operates as the central federal regulatory authority for Muslim imams and mosques. There is no such authority for the recognition and regulation of non-Muslim religions, and no licensing or registration requirements. The Government permits de facto the practices of officially unrecognized religious groups through the issuance of land use permits to build and operate religious buildings.

Non-Muslim groups can own their own houses of worship--wherein they can practice their religion freely by requesting a land grant and permission to build a compound from the local ruler (the title for the land remains with the ruler). Groups that do not have their own buildings must use the facilities of other religious organizations or worship in private homes. The police or other security forces do not interfere with gatherings held in private homes.

There are approximately 23 Christian churches in the country built on land donated by the ruling families of the Emirates in which they are located. There are also two Sikh temples and one Hindu temple in the country. Three emirates are home to parochial primary and secondary schools. Abu Dhabi and Dubai Emirates have donated land for Christian cemeteries, and Abu Dhabi has donated land for a Baha'i cemetery. There are two operating cremation facilities and associated cemeteries for the Hindu community, one in Dubai and one in Sharjah.

Non-Muslim religious groups do not receive funds from the Government; however, those with land grants are not charged rental payments and some of the religious buildings constructed on land grants were donated by the local ruling families. In addition, Sharjah Emirate waives payment of utilities for religious buildings. Non-Muslim groups raise money from among their congregants and receive financial support from abroad. Religious groups also advertise certain religious functions in the press, such as memorial services, choral concerts, and fundraising events.

The Government supports in practice a moderate interpretation of Islam.

There is no formalized method for granting religious groups official status. Rather, the ruling families may grant access to land to religious groups with permission to build religious buildings. Since not all religious groups have land-use grants with religious buildings built thereon, several unrelated religious groups are required to share common facilities. Even so, because the official interpretation of Islam considers Christianity to be one of the three monotheistic religions, facilities for Christian congregations are far greater in number and size than those for other non-Muslim communities, despite the fact that Christians represent less than a quarter of non-Muslim foreigners.

As the state religion, Islam is favored over other religions and conversion to Islam is viewed favorably. A list of Muslim converts is published annually. Prisoners who convert to Islam often receive a reduction in their sentences. Anecdotal evidence suggests that private sources often provide converts to Islam with monetary payments and job offers.

The Government follows a policy of tolerance toward non-Muslim religions and, in practice, interferes very little in their religious activities. Differences in the treatment of Muslim and non-Muslim groups are due primarily to differences in citizenship status.

During the period covered by this report, the rulers of the various emirates pardoned prisoners on religious and national holidays without regard to the prisoners' religious affiliations. Those pardoned generally are serving sentences from 3 to 5 years for financial crimes, immigration violations, and other minor offenses; pardons reportedly were not extended to prisoners convicted of murder, rape, and kidnapping.

The principal religious advisor to Abu Dhabi Emirate's ruler regularly represents the country at ecumenical conferences and events in other countries.

The following religious holidays are considered national holidays: Waqfa, Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic New Year, the Prophet's Birthday, Ascension Day, and Eid Al-Fitr. There are no reports that these holidays negatively impact other religious groups because of their religious affiliation; however, all residents and visitors are required by law during Ramadan to respect and abide by some of the behavior restrictions imposed on Muslims, and are forbidden to eat, drink, or smoke publicly during fasting hours.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Federal Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Awqaf distributes weekly guidance to both Sunni imams and Shi'a sheikhs regarding religious sermons and ensures that clergy not deviate frequently or significantly from approved topics in their sermons. All Sunni imams are employees of the Federal Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Awqaf or of individual emirate departments. Except in Dubai, where the Department of Islamic Affairs and Endowments controls the appointment of preachers and the conduct of their work in all mosques, the Government does not appoint sheikhs for Shi'a mosques.

In 1999 land was designated in Ras Al-Khaimah Emirate for the construction of a new Catholic church, but the church has not yet received permission to open, even though construction was completed in 2000.

There are no Buddhist temples; however, Buddhists, along with Hindus and Sikhs in cities without temples, conduct religious ceremonies in private homes without interference. There are two Sikh temples and one Hindu temple in the country. 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.

The Government prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing or distributing religious literature under penalty of criminal prosecution and imprisonment for engaging in behavior offensive to Islam. While there is no law against missionary activities, the Government reportedly has threatened to revoke the residence permits of persons suspected of missionary activities.

In 2002, Dubai Police Criminal Investigation Department (CID) arrested a Filipino evangelical Christian pastor, Fernando Alconga, for distributing Christian/Biblical literature to an Egyptian Muslim in a parking lot. Alconga was detained for 36 days for "preaching other than the Islamic religion" and then released on bail. His movements in the country were not restricted, and he reportedly continued to preach to church congregations throughout the country after his release. A panel of Islamic scholars found Alconga's materials to be "acceptable for private use, but not for distributing to non-Christians and a court convicted him of "abusing Islam." Alconga was given a suspended 1-year sentence and deported to the Philippines in July.

Immigration authorities routinely ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation; however, the Government reportedly 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 late 2001, Abu Dhabi inquired about religious affiliation in its first municipality-wide census. The federal Ministry of Planning does not publish this data.

During the period covered by this report, customs authorities questioned the entry of large quantities of religious materials (such as Bibles and hymnals) that they deemed in excess of the normal requirements of existing congregations, although in most instances the items were permitted entry. Customs authorities reportedly are less likely to question the importation of Christian religious items than that of non-Muslim, non-Christian religious items, although in virtually all instances importation of the material in question eventually has been permitted.

There is a dual system of Shari'a (Islamic) courts for criminal and family law matters and secular courts for civil law matters. Non-Muslims are tried for criminal offenses in Shari'a courts. Not all crimes are punishable by Shari'a penalties. In cases punishable by Shari'a penalty, non-Muslims may receive civil penalties at the discretion of the judge, which generally occurs. Shari'a penalties imposed on non-Muslims also may be overturned or modified by a higher court.

Family law for Muslims is governed by Shari'a and the local Shari'a courts. Dubai has a special Shi'a council to act on matters pertaining to Shi'a family law. Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women "of the book," that is, Christian or Jewish women; however, Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men unless the men convert to Islam. Because Islam does not consider the marriage between a non-Muslim man and a Muslim woman valid, both are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds of fornication. Shari'a, according to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, also is applied in cases of divorce. Women are granted custody of female children until they reach the age of maturity and are granted temporary custody of male children until they reach the age of 12. If the mother is deemed unfit, custody reverts to the next able female relative on the mother's side. Shari'a permits polygyny.

Islamic studies are mandatory in public schools (schools supported by the Federal Government for primarily citizen children) and in private schools for Muslim children. Religious instruction in non-Muslim religions is not permitted in public schools; however, religious groups may conduct religious instruction for their members on their religious compounds, and there are parochial schools operating in the country. According to Article 84 of the Executive System of Private Education, private schools found teaching subjects that contravene Islam, defame any religion, or contravene the nation's ethics and beliefs, may face penalties, including closure.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

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.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

In June, the Government initiated a public religious education campaign to promote a better understanding of Islam, including a 1-year training course for 166 imams.

During the period covered by this report, the Coptic Orthodox Church received permission to build a church in Abu Dhabi. Two new churches also opened--a 1,000-plus capacity Coptic Orthodox church and service facility in Dubai, and a 1,000-plus capacity Catholic Church and hall in Fujeirah emirate. In 2002, the Al-Ain municipal government authorized a land grant to the Anglican Church. The Fujeirah government authorized land grants for the construction of an Indian Orthodox church and a Catholic Church. In May, the Indian Orthodox church opened in a public ceremony. In 2001, ground was broken in Jebel Ali for the construction of several churches on a parcel of land donated by the Government to four Protestant and one Catholic congregation. In 2001, Dubai Emirate's second Catholic church opened in Jebel Ali. In 2001, the Crown Prince of Dubai authorized the construction of a Syrian Orthodox church on donated land and in 2001, the Patriarch consecrated the church.

The UAE Red Crescent transferred funds from President Zayed to the Palestinian Authority Minister of Public Works for the repair of the Church of the Nativity and the Omar Mosque, both of which were damaged during the 3-week standoff between Israelis and Palestinians in April.

Also in 2002, the Council of Evangelical Churches hosted a 3-day public conference in Abu Dhabi, which featured an internationally renowned Christian speaker, seminars, and workshops, with events for adults and children. The Catholic Bishop to the Arabian Peninsula delivered a speech on religious tolerance to Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up and paid an official visit to Supreme Council member and Ruler of Ajman Emirate Shaykh Humaid bin Rashid Al-Nuaimi. The Coptic Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Near East also delivered a lecture on religious tolerance at the Zayed Center.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

While citizens regard the country as a Muslim nation that should respect Muslim religious sensibilities on matters such as public consumption of alcohol, proper dress, and proper public comportment, society also emphasizes respect for privacy and Islamic traditions of tolerance, particularly with respect to forms of Christianity. Modest casual attire for men and women generally is permitted in most emirates and facilities frequented by foreigners. Many hotels, stores, and other businesses patronized by both citizens and foreigners are permitted to sell alcohol and pork to non-Muslims, and to acknowledge non-Muslim holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali (although such displays generally 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 the best way to balance foreign influence is by supporting and strengthening indigenous cultural traditions.

There were no anti-Semitic or religiously intolerant articles or statements in the English- and Arabic-language electronic and print media. On a daily basis, all media did carry articles or statements criticizing the policies and actions of the Israeli Government.

The Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up sponsored a conference on "semitism" in the summer of 2002 during which remarks attributed to Center employees and speakers denied the Holocaust. The Center has allowed anti-Semitic language on its Web site and published books such as "The Zionist Movement and its Animosity to Jews" and "Al Buraq Wall, Not Wailing Wall."

Section IV. 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.

Embassy officials in Abu Dhabi and Consulate General officials in Dubai have discussed religious tolerance and freedom with government officials on a number of occasions, and have encouraged the Government to increase religious freedom by permitting the opening or expansion of religious facilities for the large expatriate population. Embassy officials have expressed concern to the Government about statements and publications expressing religious intolerance on the web site of Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up. Embassy and consulate officials also help to protect religious freedom by monitoring its status through informal inquiries and meetings with Government officials and representatives of Muslim, Christian, and other faiths. For example, during the period covered by this report, U.S. Embassy and Consulate officials closely monitored the criminal proceedings in the case of the evangelical Christian pastor arrested for proselytizing. The Consul General urged Government officials to dispose of the case in a manner acceptable to all parties involved.

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