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Bahrain


International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
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The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, there were some limits on this right. The Constitution declares that Islam is the official religion.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. In the past, the Government did not tolerate political dissent, including from religious groups or leaders; however, in February 2001, the Amir pardoned and released all remaining political prisoners and religious leaders. Also in 2001, the Government registered new religious nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including some with legal authority to conduct political activities. In February 2002, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a new Constitution and announced May 2002 municipal council elections and October 2002 National Assembly elections. Candidates associated with religious political societies won 40 of the 50 municipal council seats contested in the May 2002 election. In the October 2002 legislative elections, candidates associated with religious parties won more than half of the Council of Representatives' 40 seats. In both elections, candidates from religious political societies conducted their campaigns without any interference from the Government. One Christian and one Jewish Bahraini were appointed to the Shura council. The Government continues to subject both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to some governmental control and monitoring, and there is some government discrimination against Shi'a Muslims. Members of other religions who practice their faith privately do so without interference from the Government.

Relations among religions in society generally are amicable; however, Shi'a Muslims, who constitute the majority of the population, sometimes resent minority Sunni Muslim rule.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom 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 231 square miles, and its population is approximately 670,000. The citizen population is 98 percent Muslim, and Jews and Christians constitute the remaining 2 percent. Muslim citizens belong to the Shi'a and Sunni branches of Islam, with Shi'a constituting as much as two-thirds of the indigenous population.

Foreigners, mostly from South Asia and other Arab countries, constitute approximately 38 percent of the total population. Roughly half of resident foreigners are non-Muslim, including Christians, Jews, Hindus, Baha'is, Buddhists, and Sikhs.

The American Mission Hospital, which is affiliated with the National Evangelical Church, has operated in the country for more than a century. The church adjacent to the hospital holds weekly services and also serves as a meeting place for other Protestant denominations.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution states that Islam is the official religion and also provides for freedom of religion; however, there were some limits on this right. In the past, the Government did not tolerate political dissent, including from religious groups or leaders; however, in February 2001 the King pardoned and released all remaining political prisoners and religious leaders, including Shi'a clerics. The Government continues to register new religious NGOs, including some with the legal authority to conduct political activities. In February 2002, the King issued a new Constitution and announced May 2002 municipal council elections and October 2002 National Assembly elections. Candidates associated with religious political societies won 40 of the 50 municipal council seats contested in the May 2002 election. In the October 2002 legislative election, candidates associated with religious groups won more than half of the Council of Representatives' 40 seats. In both elections, candidates from religious political societies conducted their campaigns without interference from the Government. One Christian and one Jew were appointed to the Shura council. The Government continues to subject both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to some governmental control and monitoring, and there is some government discrimination against Shi'a Muslims. Members of other religions who practice their faith privately do so without interference from the Government, and are permitted to maintain their own places of worship and display the symbols of their religion.

Every religious group must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to conduct religious activities. Depending on circumstances, a religious group also may need approvals from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Information, and the Ministry of Education (if the religious group wants to run a school). During the period covered by this report, 13 Christian congregations that were registered with the Ministry of Labor were able to operate freely. Those congregations with places of worship generally allow other congregations to use them. Other unregistered Christian congregations likely exist, and there is no attempt by the Government to force them to register. There is a synagogue, four Sikh temples, and several official and unofficial Hindu temples, located in Manama and its suburbs. Holding a religious meeting without a permit is illegal; however, there were no reports of religious groups being denied a permit.

In 2001 the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar India, which is affiliated with the U.S. Episcopal Church, applied for authority to build its own church building; however, the church had still not received permission from all government authorities to begin construction by the end of the period covered by this report. Members were considering other, less satisfactory, options to obtain or construct a building for their congregation.

The High Council for Islamic Affairs is charged with the review and approval of all clerical appointments within both the Sunni and Shi'a communities, and maintains program oversight for all citizens studying religion abroad.

The civil and criminal legal systems consist of a complex mix of courts based on diverse legal sources, including Sunni and Shi'a Shari'a (Islamic law), tribal law, and other civil codes and regulations. Christian and Jewish citizens are allowed to adhere to their own laws of inheritance.

The Shi'a religious celebration of Ashura is a 2-day national holiday in which large public processions take place. The Government does not hinder these processions. During the period covered by this report, the Ministry of Information provided full media coverage of Ashura events.

Notable dignitaries from virtually every religion and denomination visit the country and frequently meet with the Government and civic leaders.

The following religious holidays are considered national holidays: Eid al-Adha, Islamic New Year, Ashoora, Prophet's Birthday, and Eid al-Fitr.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government funds, monitors, and closely controls all official religious institutions. These include Shi'a and Sunni mosques, Shi'a ma'tams (religious community centers), Shi'a and Sunni Waqfs (charitable foundations), and the religious courts, which represent both the Ja'afari (Shi'a) and Maliki (Sunni) schools of Islamic jurisprudence. While the Government rarely interferes with what it considers legitimate religious observations, in the past it actively suppressed any activity deemed overtly political in nature. The Government permits public religious events, most notably the large annual commemorative marches by Shi'a, but police closely monitor such events. At least one unregistered ma'tam was established in February. The Government reportedly has not hindered its activities.

In the past, the Government occasionally closed mosques and ma'tams for allowing political demonstrations to take place on or near their premises or to prevent religious leaders from delivering political speeches during Friday prayer and sermons; however, there were no reported closures of mosques or ma'tams during the period covered by this report. In past years, the Government detained religious leaders for delivering political sermons or for allowing such sermons to be delivered in their mosques. The Government also has appropriated or withheld funding in order to reward or punish particular individuals or places of worship; however, there were no reports of such detentions or funding restrictions during the period covered by this report.

The Government discourages proselytizing by non-Muslims and prohibits anti-Islamic writings. However, Bibles and other Christian publications are displayed and sold openly in local bookstores that also sell Islamic and other religious literature. Religious tracts of all branches of Islam, cassettes of sermons delivered by Muslim preachers from other countries, and publications of other religions readily are available. However, a government-controlled proxy server prohibits user access to Internet sites considered to be antigovernment or anti-Islamic. The software used is unreliable and often inhibits access to non-controversial sites as well.

There are no restrictions on the number of citizens permitted to make pilgrimages to Shi'a shrines and holy sites in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In the past, stateless residents who did not possess Bahraini passports had difficulties arranging travel to religious sites abroad; however, the Government addressed this problem the past 2 years by granting citizenship to thousands of previously stateless residents. During the period covered by this report, 1,000 persons were granted citizenship. The Government monitors travel to Iran and scrutinizes carefully those who choose to pursue religious study there.

Although there are notable exceptions, the Sunni Muslim minority enjoys a favored status. Sunnis receive preference for employment in sensitive government positions and in the managerial ranks of the civil service. Shi'a citizens do not hold significant posts in the defense and internal security forces; however, since 1999, Shi'a have been allowed to be employed in the enlisted ranks of the Bahrain Defense Force and with the Ministry of the Interior, two bodies in which Shi'a had been denied employment during previous years. In October 2002, for the first time the Government licensed a school to provide students with a Shi'a religious curriculum designed to educate the next generation of Shi'a religious scholars.

The political dynamic of Sunni predominance in the past has led to incidents of unrest between the Shi'a community and the Government. There were no reports of significant political or religious unrest during the period covered by this report.

Shari'a governs the personal legal rights of women, although the new Constitution provides for women's political rights. Specific rights vary according to Shi'a or Sunni interpretations of Islamic law, as determined by the individual's faith, or by the courts in which various contracts, including marriage, have been made. While both Shi'a and Sunni women have the right to initiate a divorce, religious courts may refuse the request. Although local religious courts may grant a divorce to Shi'a women in routine cases, occasionally Shi'a women seeking divorce under unusual circumstances must travel abroad to seek a higher ranking opinion than that available in the country. Women of either branch of Islam may own and inherit property and may represent themselves in all public and legal matters. In the absence of a direct male heir, a Shi'a woman may inherit all property. In contrast, a Sunni woman--in the absence of a direct male heir--inherits only a portion as governed by Shari'a; the balance is divided among brothers, uncles, and male cousins of the deceased. A Muslim woman legally may marry a non-Muslim man if the man converts to Islam. In such marriages, the children automatically are considered to be Muslim.

In divorce cases, the courts routinely grant Shi'a and Sunni women custody of daughters under the age of 9 and sons under age 7, although custody usually reverts to the father once the children reach those ages. In all circumstances except mental incapacitation, the father, regardless of custody decisions, retains the right to make certain legal decisions for his children, such as guardianship of any property belonging to the child, until the child reaches legal age. A noncitizen woman automatically loses custody of her children if she divorces their citizen father.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

In previous years, the Government held in detention hundreds of Shi'a, including religious leaders, for offenses involving "national security;" however, by February 2001, the Amir had pardoned and released all political prisoners, detainees, and exiles, including Hassan Sultan and Haji Hassan Jasrallah, two Shi'a clerics associated with prominent cleric Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, as well as Shi'a political activists Haasan Mushaimaa and Abdul Wahab Hussein, who had been in detention for more than 5 years.

Sheikh Issa Qassim, a cleric and the former head of the Shi'a Religious Party, returned to the country after an 8-year exile. The Government permitted large crowds of celebrating Shi'a to greet Qassim upon his return.

The Government charged seven individuals, including lawyers, journalists, and women's activists who criticized decisions of Shari'a court judges, in order to highlight the need for the proposed Personal Status Law. The judges filed a criminal suit against the individuals for slander against Islam. The case was still ongoing at the end of the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners during the period covered by this report whose imprisonment could be attributed solely to the practice of their religion.

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.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Although there are notable exceptions, the Sunni Muslim minority enjoys a favored status. In the private sector, Shi'a tend to be employed in lower paid, less skilled jobs. Educational, social, and municipal services in most Shi'a neighborhoods, particularly in rural villages, are inferior to those found in Sunni urban communities. In an effort to remedy social discrimination, the Government has built numerous subsidized housing complexes, which are open to all citizens on the basis of financial need. In order to ease both the housing shortage and strains on the national budget, in 1997 the Government revised its policy to permit lending institutions to finance mortgages on apartment units.

Converts from Islam to other religions are not well tolerated by society, but some small groups worship in their homes.

In May 2002, 70 graves at the St. Christopher's Church graveyard were desecrated. Crosses were uprooted and broken and headstones were smashed, making identification of some graves impossible. The King offered to restore the graveyard and transform it into a monument to Christian-Muslim relations on the Island. In response to the Church's preference only to restore the graveyard to its original condition, the King provided $80,000 (30,000 BD).

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

An official written dialog takes place between U.S. Embassy officials and government contacts on matters of religion. One such example is the memorandum received by the Embassy each year from the Government in response to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.



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