There were reports of abuses of religious freedom. Beginning in February, the country experienced a sustained period of unrest, including mass protests calling for political reform and some sectarian violence. An emergency State of National Safety Law was implemented by royal decree under constitutional authority from March 15 to June 1. During that period, military and civilian security forces carried out extensive security operations and arrested and detained individuals overwhelmingly from the Shia sect, including activists and clerics whose activities were both political and religious in nature. There were documented cases of arbitrary arrest, excessive use of force, and detainee torture and mistreatment. The government demolished a number of Shia religious sites and structures during the year. According to the BICI report, it investigated 30 sites (28 mosques, one matam, and one shrine) that reportedly were the most damaged, out of a total of 53 damaged Shia religious structures identified by the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society.
The government generally respected the right of citizens and foreign residents to practice their religion; however, the government continued to exert a level of control and to monitor both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The government also censored religious sermons and attempted to disrupt the activities of Shia clerics. During the SNS there were reports of government-initiated destruction of places of worship, desecration of religious structures, prolonged arrests, and detentions of political activists, doctors, and other citizens and residents, almost exclusively from the Shia community, as well as mass layoffs and firings of Shia employees from civil service, parastatal, and private sector positions. During the SNS and to some extent thereafter, the government administered deadly or excessive force as part of crowd control methods. Members of other religious groups that practiced their faith privately did so without government interference and were permitted to maintain places of worship and display religious symbols.
The BICI report documented the government’s demolition of 28 mosques, one matam, and one shrine, which were the most heavily damaged religious structures of 53 reported by the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society. The government demolished these structures after declaring them “unauthorized structures” during the SNS. Reports indicated that ministry of interior personnel cordoned off places of worship and removed worshippers. Municipal workers then demolished the structures with heavy machinery (bulldozers and cranes) and manual tools such as sledgehammers. In some cases, security personnel carried out the demolitions. According to the BICI report, nine mosques were demolished by General Security, with the Bahrain Defense Force serving in a support capacity.
In the spring, the government began to arrest a number of Shia clerics associated with the opposition protest movement, including Secretary General Shaikh Mohammed Al Mahfoodh of the legally registered Amal political society; Abduljalil Al Miqdad, the leader of the unregistered Al-Wafa’a movement; Shaikh Abdul Atheem Al Mohtedi, a former member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs; and Shaikh Mohammed Al Safaf (also known as Mohammed Habib Al Miqdad), a prominent independent Shia cleric. All four of these well-known clerics remained in prison at year’s end.
An incident of censorship of Friday sermons occurred in August when the minister of justice and Islamic affairs sent a letter to senior Shia cleric Shaikh Isa Qassim, accusing him of using language that incited actions against the regime in his sermons.
The BICI report documented numerous reports of the use of religion in interrogations and reports of torture. For example, during the first month of detention, a detainee reported being forced to insult his own religion as part of his mistreatment, which also included beatings, sleep deprivation, and exposure to extreme temperatures.
During the SNS, state-run television (Bahrain TV) frequently broadcast programming that called the Shia community’s loyalty into question. For example, on the program Al Rassed (The Observer), hosts argued that the Shia were targeting the Sunni sect in order to divide society into two groups: loyal and honest (proregime) and agent and traitor (antiregime). The Hewar Maftooh “Open Dialogue” program attempted to highlight alleged personal scandals of Shia opposition journalists, activists, and students. Protesters were accused of treason and affiliation with Iran and the Khomeinist principle of rule by the jurisprudent (Welayat Al-Faqeeh). According to the BICI report, requests made to the Ministry of Interior to allow live broadcasts of Friday sermons from Shia mosques (national television only broadcasts from Sunni mosques) so far have not been granted.
There were reports of intimidation based on Bahraini Shia religious ties to Iran and Iraq during governmental detention of Shia activists. Senior government officials expressed concern about Iran’s influence on the Shia population. The BICI found that the evidence provided to it by the government did not establish a discernible link between specific events during the unrest and Iran.
According to non-Muslim religious leaders, visa policies overseen by the Ministry of Interior and the MOHRSD restricted their faith communities.
Ministry of labor and other sources indicated that more than 2,200 public and private sector Shia workers were dismissed during the period of unrest. BICI data confirm that the government systematically suspended or dismissed Shia from public service positions, including civil service workers and employees of quasi-governmental institutions. Most of the civil service employees affected by the SNS-era dismissals and suspensions were from the Ministries of Education, Health, Interior, and Municipalities. In addition to the public sector employees, the government and unions agreed that 1,520 employees were dismissed or suspended from the public-private (parastatal) sector, including major employers Aluminum Bahrain (ALBA), Bahrain Telecom (BATELCO), and state carrier Gulf Air.
Sunni citizens often received preference for employment in sensitive government positions, in the managerial ranks of the civil service, and in the military. Shia politicians and activists asserted that the government and certain business elites discriminated against Shia citizens in employment and promotions. Senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes often favored Sunni candidates. Educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods were inferior to those in Sunni communities. Shia politicians and activists asserted that the government naturalization and citizenship processes favored Sunni applicants over Shia applicants.
Only a few Shia citizens held significant posts in the defense and internal security forces, although more were in the enlisted ranks. Although the police force reported it did not record or consider religious belief when hiring employees, Shia continued to assert that they were unable to obtain government positions, especially in the security services, because of their religious affiliation. Shia were employed in some branches of the police, such as the traffic police and the fledgling community police.
Shia citizens were underrepresented in the Ministry of Education in both the leadership and the ranks of head teachers who teach Islamic studies and supervise and mentor other teachers. Although there were many Shia Islamic studies teachers, school authorities discouraged them from introducing content about Shia traditions and practices and instructed them to follow the curriculum.
Curriculum specialists in the Islamic Studies Department at the Ministry of Education’s Curriculum Directorate were all Sunni. The curriculum directorate formed a separate committee of Shia teachers and clerics, along with members of the curriculum directorate, to develop the Islamic studies curriculum for the Jaafari Institute, which is the only publicly funded institution in which teachers can legally discuss Shia beliefs and traditions. There were five registered Jaafari hawzas (Shia religious schools) and five registered Sunni religious schools.
The government funded, monitored, and exercised control over official Muslim religious institutions, including Shia and Sunni mosques; religious community centers; Shia and Sunni religious endowments; and the religious courts, which represent both the Shia and Sunni-affiliated schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs reviewed and approved clerical appointments within both the Sunni and Shia communities.
The government did not usually interfere with what it considered legitimate religious observances; however, during periods of unrest, including those of a sectarian nature, security forces occasionally intervened in religious processions and funerals. The government permitted public religious events, most notably the large annual commemorative march by Shia Muslims during the Islamic months of Ramadan and Muharram. During June 5 commemorations of the death of the Imam Hadi, in Shia villages and in predominantly Shia neighborhoods throughout Manama, security forces dispersed crowds, citing safety and security regulations.
The Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs maintained program oversight on all citizens studying religion abroad. The government monitored travel to Iran and scrutinized carefully those who chose to pursue religious study there.