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Reports on Religious Freedom: Yemen


The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, there were some restrictions. The Constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a is the source of all legislation.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Followers of religions other than Islam are free to worship according to their beliefs; however, the Government forbids conversions to other religions from Islam and prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing.

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 has a total area of approximately 328,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 19 million. Virtually all citizens are Muslims, either of the Zaydi order of Shi'a Islam or the Shafa'i order of Sunni Islam, approximately 30 percent and 70 percent of the total population, respectively. There also are a few thousand Ismaili Muslims, mostly in the north.

Except for a few families living in Aden who trace their origins to India, almost all Christians are temporary foreign residents. There are a few Hindus in Aden who also trace their origins to India. There are several churches and Hindu places of worship in Aden, but no non-Muslim public places of worship exist in the former North Yemen, largely because northern Yemen does not have the same history of a large, resident foreign community as in the south.

Christian missionaries operate in the country. Most are dedicated to the provision of medical services; others are employed in teaching and social services. Invited by the Government, the Sisters of Charity run homes for the poor and persons with disabilities in Sana'a, Taiz, Hodeida, and Aden. The Government has requested that the Vatican open additional Sisters of Charity facilities. The Government issues residence visas to priests so that they may provide for their community's religious needs. There is also a German Christian charitable mission in Hodeida and a Dutch Christian medical mission in Saada. After more than 30 years of running a hospital in Jibla, an American Baptist congregation completed a long-planned turnover of the facility to local management but remains involved in the day-to-day operations. The Anglican Church runs a charitable clinic in Aden. An American nongovernmental organization (NGO), run by the Seventh-day Adventists, operates in four governorates.

Nearly all of the country's once sizable Jewish population has emigrated since 1948. Approximately 500 Jews are scattered in a handful of villages between Sana'a and Saada in the northern part of the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, there were some restrictions. The Constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a is the source of all legislation. Followers of other religions are free to worship according to their beliefs and to wear religiously distinctive ornaments or dress; however, the Government forbids conversions from Islam, requires permission for the construction of new places of worship, and prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing Muslims and holding elected office.

The following religious holidays are considered national holidays: Islamic New Year, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing Muslims. Under Islam as practiced in the country, the conversion of a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death. There were no reports of cases in which the crime was charged or prosecuted by government authorities.

The Government does not allow the building of new non-Muslim public places of worship without permission; however, in 1998 the country established diplomatic relations with the Vatican and agreed to the construction and operation of a "Christian center" in Sana'a. Catholic, Protestant, and Ethiopian Christians hold weekly services in various locations in Sana'a without government interference. Christian church services are held regularly in other cities in private homes or facilities such as schools without harassment, and such facilities appear adequate to accommodate the small numbers involved.

In May 2002, the Papal Nuncio, resident in Kuwait, presented his credentials to the Government and was accredited as a nonresident ambassador. In 2000 President Ali Abdullah Saleh paid an official visit to the Vatican at the time of his state visit to Italy. In 1999 the country's ambassador to Italy was accredited to the Vatican.

Public schools provide instruction in Islam but not in other religions. However, almost all foreigners who are not Muslims attend private schools.

There are no legal restrictions on the approximately 500 Jews who remain in the country, although there are traditional restrictions on places of residence and choice of employment (see Section III). In mid-2000, the Government suspended its policy of allowing Israeli passport holders of Yemeni origin to travel to the country on laissez-passer documents; however, Yemeni, Israeli, and other Jews may travel freely to and within the country on non-Israeli passports.

In an attempt to curb extremism, the Government has attempted to prevent the politicization of mosques, including by monitoring mosques for sermons that incite violence or other political statements that it considers harmful to public security. Private Islamic organizations may maintain ties to pan-Islamic organizations and, in the past, have operated private schools; however, the Government monitors their activities. In 2001, the Government mandated the implementation of a 1992 law to unify educational curriculums and administration of all publicly funded schools; the process of absorbing publicly funded Islamic schools into the national system was ongoing at the end of the period covered by this report.

Non-Muslims may vote; however, they may not hold elected office.

Following unification of the North and South in 1990, owners of property previously expropriated by the Communist government of the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, including religious organizations, were invited to seek restitution of their property; however, implementation of the process, including for religious institutions, has been extremely limited, and very few properties have been returned to previous owners.

Shari'a-based law and social custom discriminate against women. Men are permitted to take as many as four wives, although very few do so. By law the minimum age of marriage is 15. However, the law largely is not enforced, and some girls marry as early as age 12. In 2001, the Women's National Committee proposed an amendment to increase the minimum age for marriage to 18. The Cabinet approved the proposal and the measure was still pending in the Parliament at the end of the period covered by this report. The law stipulates that the wife's "consent" to the marriage is required; "consent" is defined as "silence" for previously unwed women and "pronouncement of consent" for divorced women. The husband and the wife's "guardian" (usually her father) sign the marriage contract; in Aden and some outlying governorates, the wife also signs. The practice of bride-price payments is widespread, despite efforts to limit the size of such payments. During the period covered by this report, the Cabinet issued the "House of Obedience" law, which contained provisions that would have forced women who have left their husbands to return to them. Parliament passed the law; however NGOs, lawyers, journalists, and the Women's National Committee conducted a grassroots effort to lobby against the provisions. Subsequently, the Government removed the provisions.

The law provides that the wife must obey the husband. She must live with him at the place stipulated in the contract, consummate the marriage, and not leave the home without his consent. Husbands may divorce wives without justifying their action in court; however, courts routinely mandate lengthy reconciliation periods prior to granting the husband's petition for divorce. A woman has the legal right to divorce; however, she must provide a justification, such as her husband's nonsupport, impotence, abrogation of the marriage contract (for example; of guarantees regarding her education or employment options), or taking of a second wife without her consent. A woman seeking a divorce also must repay the mahr (a portion of her bride price), which creates an additional hardship.

Women who seek to travel abroad must obtain permission from their husbands, fathers, or male relatives to receive a passport and to travel. They also are expected to be accompanied by male relatives. However, enforcement of this requirement is irregular. Shari'a-based law permits a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but no Muslim woman may marry outside of Islam. Women do not have the right to confer citizenship on their foreign-born spouses; however, they may confer citizenship on children born in the country of foreign-born fathers.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Official government policy does not prohibit or punish the possession of non-Islamic religious literature; however, on occasion, there were unconfirmed reports that police harassed foreigners for possessing such literature. In addition, some members of the security forces occasionally censor the mail of Christian clergy who minister to the foreign community, ostensibly to prevent proselytizing.

There were also unconfirmed reports that on occasion some police, without the authorization or knowledge of their superiors, harassed and detained persons suspected of apostasy in order to compel them to renounce their conversions.

There were no reports of persons detained or imprisoned based solely on their religious beliefs. Police and security forces detained suspected members of radical Islamist groups with clear links to terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report. Since 2001, several hundred "Afghan Arabs" (Islamists who had returned after spending time in Afghanistan) have been detained for questioning. Many such persons were released within days; however, some reportedly continue to be detained beyond the maximum detention 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 Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The country is predominantly Muslim and relations among religious groups generally are amicable. There were no reported incidents of violence or discrimination between the adherents of the two main orders of Islam, Zaydi and Shafa'i. Except for a small politically motivated clerical minority, religiously motivated violence is neither incited nor tolerated by the Islamic clergy.

There are very small numbers of religious minorities and they generally live in harmony with their Muslim neighbors. Apart from a small but undetermined number of Christians and Hindus of South Asian origin in Aden, Jews are the only indigenous religious minority. Their numbers have diminished significantly--from several tens of thousands to approximately 500--due to voluntary emigration over the last 50 years. Although the law makes no distinction, Jews traditionally are restricted to living in one section of a city or village and often are confined to a limited choice of employment, usually farming or handicrafts (primarily silver working). They are respected for their craftsmanship and their silver work is highly prized. Jews may, and do, own land. They may vote; however, as non-Muslims, they may not hold elected office (see Section II). Traditionally the tribal leaders of the regions in which the Jews have resided are responsible for protecting the Jews in their areas. A failure to provide this protection is considered a serious personal dishonor.

Christian clergy who minister to the foreign community are employed in teaching, social services, and health care.

In December 2002, extremists carried out two apparently religiously motivated attacks. On December 28, Ali al-Jarallah killed Yemeni Socialist Party leader Jarallah Omar at a political party conference, and on December 30, 2002, Abed Abdul Razak Kamel killed three hospital workers and injured one at an American Baptist-run hospital in Jibla. Kamel later said the two attacks were coordinated, and that they were targeting "seculars," Christians who proselytized and members of a sect of Islam called the al-Buhrah. Trials for both were ongoing at the end of the period covered by this report.

The media in general, including government-owned press, refer to the Israeli government and its leader as "Zionists." Developments taking place in the Middle East appear to have led to an intensification of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic attacks in the mass media on an almost daily basis.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintains an active dialog on human rights issues with the Government, NGOs, and others, and discusses religious freedom issues in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. Embassy officers, including the Ambassador, meet periodically with representatives of the Jewish and Christian communities.

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