U.S. Report on religious freedom in Bahrain

On 17 November 201, the U.S. State Department issued its annual report on religious freedoms in the world. The report confirmed that the Bahraini Constitution does provide for freedom of religion and for the free practice of a religion, as well as freedom of conscience and worship for various religions and sects, including the organization and participation in religious parades and meetings in accordance with the customs in force in the country. However, the report noted that the Bahraini Government has placed certain restrictions on the exercise of these rights.

The report pointed to the lack of any change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Bahraini Government during the reporting period, and that the Government continued to exercise a degree of control and censorship on religious practices, pointing out that a number of international and local NGOs had indicated some forms of discrimination in some aspects.

The report emphasized that the Bahraini Constitution provides for freedom of religion, but there are restrictions imposed on this right. The report stated that “the Constitution does not impose restrictions on the right to choose, change or practice one’s religion of choice, including the study, discussion and promulgation of those beliefs. The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, but there is no law to prevent further discrimination, nor are there certain mechanisms to file complaints in this regard.”

The report pointed out that the Constitution stipulates that Islam is the official religion and Islamic law (Sharia) is the main source for legislation, referring to the civil and criminal legal systems and describing them as complex because they are based on diverse legal sources of the Sunni and al-Jaafari (Shi’a) schools of Islamic jurisprudence. This means that the rights of persons can vary according to the interpretation of Shi’a or Sunni. The report pointed to the adoption by the government of the first personal status law in May 2009, which is only applicable to the Sunni population, while the Jaafari/Shi’a section of the same law has been rejected by a large segment of the Shi’a clerics. The report considered that the institutionalization of the adoption of this law would be a protection for women, because it requires consent for marriage and allows them to include conditions in the marriage contract.

The report confirmed that the Government does not impose any restrictions on religious expression or speech, as the law allows the production and distribution of religious publications, and does not impose or restrict or punish the importation, possession or distribution of religious books, clothing, or symbols, and, further, the law does not impose religious dress codes. In this regard, the report pointed to the equal distribution of the budget allocated to the Shi’a and Sunni mosques. The report indicated that Islamic studies are part of the curriculum in public schools and mandatory for all public school students, but the curriculum does not include the teaching of the al-Jaafari sect, and just based on the Maliki jurisprudence in Sunni Islam.

The report revealed that the official identity documents do not include religion or sect, while the birth certificate records the religion of the child. The report acknowledged that the Government generally respected religious freedom in practice, but criticized the restrictions on this right by the level of control and monitoring of both the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. The report pointed to the practice of members of other religious groups to their religion without government interference. It should be noted that 99% of Bahrain’s population are Muslims, while Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Baha’is constitute 1% of the population.

The U.S. State Department report noted that the Bahraini law imposes on every Muslim religious group to obtain a license from the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs for the exercise of their activities. On the other hand, non-Muslim religious groups must register with the Ministry of Social Development to operate, and they should also get approvals for their activities from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Interior, the Information Authority, depending on the planned activities. The report said that there are 13 non-Muslim religious groups registered with the Ministry of Development, engaged in their work through the Christian churches and Hindu temples.

The report noted that several Christian churches reported in May 2010 that the Ministry of Development instructed them to re-register without good reason. In spite of the illegality of organizing a religious meeting without a permit, the period covered by the report did not reveal denying religious groups of such permits.

The report mentioned that the Government funded and exercised control over official Islamic religious institutions, including the Shi’a and Sunni mosques, as well as religious community centres, and Sunni and Jaafari/Shi’a religious endowments and Islamic courts. Although the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs is concerned with the approval of the organization of religious events, but the Government rarely interfere in the activities of religious rites and rituals.

The U.S. report recorded that a number of non-Muslims residents in Bahrain complained of restrictions imposed by the Ministry of Social Development related to foreign funding, which caused tremendous operational difficulties for some churches. Additionally, they complained that the Ministry of Social Development in many cases did not respond to their requests for permission to interact with the organizations they belong to outside Bahrain.

As for the positive developments regarding respect for religious freedom, the report noted the organization of the Ministry of Justice for a series of conferences and seminars on dialogue among religions, where they invite clerics and scholars, Muslims and non-Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.

Regarding status of societal respect for religious freedom, the report pointed to the historical rising tensions and political divisions in Bahrain, in addition to the continuing riots in certain areas.

With regard to the policy of the U.S., the report mentioned that the U.S. administration had discussed religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights, and that the U.S. officials continue to hold regular meetings with representatives of human rights NGOs to discuss issues related to religious freedom and human rights.

The freedom of expression and religious practice in Bahrain do exist and maintained to a large extent. Bahrain Human Rights Monitor commends the national efforts to ensure freedom of belief and religious freedom, and calls on the officials to make a greater effort aimed at removing the few restrictions on religious freedom, in line with the approach of openness and peaceful coexistence between religions. This will eventually enhance the culture of religious tolerance and acceptance of others, which Bahrain has known for centuries.