There were some reports of abuses and restrictions of religious freedom, including reports of imprisonment and detention. However, the government generally followed a policy of religious tolerance, and adherents of most major religions in the country worshipped without government interference.
As the state religion, the government favored Islam over other religious groups, and conversion to Islam was viewed positively.
There were reports of arrests based upon religious beliefs or practices. In November a citizen in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah accused his maid of endangering the lives of his two sons by practicing “sorcery” in his home. She was arrested and tried in criminal court; the court had not issued a verdict by year’s end.
The government funded or subsidized almost 95 percent of the approximately 5,000 Sunni mosques and employed all Sunni imams. The government considered 5 percent of Sunni mosques private, and several mosques had large private endowments.
Awqaf oversaw most issues related to Islamic affairs. It distributed weekly guidance to most Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of religious sermons. It also ensured that junior clergy did not deviate frequently or significantly from approved sermons. In a modest change from 2011, Awqaf stated it would encourage “improvisation of speeches,” but under the constraint that the speech was not to exceed 30 minutes. To that end, Awqaf established a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf Friday sermon script closely, mid-level imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities, and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons. Most imams were non-citizens, and a significant number were Egyptian or Syrian. The advisor to the president on judicial and religious affairs and the chairman of Awqaf and its director general regularly represented the country at Islamic, ecumenical, and Christian conferences and events abroad. They also met regularly with religious leaders in the country.
Non-Muslim groups, as well as Shia and other Muslim minority groups, reportedly provided copies of sermons and meeting agendas to local religious authorities upon government request.
The government encouraged citizens to avoid tendencies and ideologies that it considered to be extremist. Religious authorities coordinated public awareness campaigns about the dangers of violent extremism, with advertisements and television commercials. An International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), known as Hedayah (“Guidance” in Arabic), was launched in December 2012 in Abu Dhabi during the ministerial meetings of the Global Counterterrorism Forum.
Immigration authorities routinely asked foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on residence applications. There were reports that some Shia residents declared themselves as Sunni or Christian in their residence applications because they feared how immigration authorities might perceive their faith. In addition, there were reports that Jewish residents, fearing discrimination, declared themselves members of another faith, such as Buddhism. Ministry of Interior officials asserted the government collected information on religious affiliation only for demographic statistical analysis. However, there were reports that religious affiliation affected the issuance or renewal of visas or residence permits. The employers of several Shia university students, professors, and professionals (some of Iranian heritage) reportedly told them the authorities had not granted or extended their residence permits. Consequently, they had to leave the country. There were reports that authorities cancelled the residency permits of some business owners who were Shia.
There was no formal method of granting official status to religious groups other than granting them the use of land for constructing a building, and no national standard for approving land grants. Non-Muslim groups and some Muslim minority groups could own houses of worship by requesting a land grant and permission from the local ruler to build a compound (the title for the land remained with the ruler). Those with land grants did not pay rent on the property. The emirate of Sharjah also waived utility payments for religious buildings. Rulers of the individual emirates exercised autonomy in choosing whether to grant access to land and permission to build houses of worship within their emirate. A few religious leaders stated the government was more likely to grant access to land to groups representing monotheistic religions. Some religious groups allegedly refrained from requesting land because of political sensitivities.
Although the government approved some permits for new buildings, existing churches could not accommodate all worshippers. This resulted in overcrowding at some churches, and, on occasion, forced congregations to meet in private clubs and meetinghouses, private residences, hotels, open courtyards, and other non-religious rental facilities. A small number of requests for new buildings were pending at year’s end, some for several years.
The ruling families donated land to Muslim minority groups, including the Ismaili Center in Dubai, which serves as a regional Ismaili house of worship for the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and for the Dawoodi Bohra mosques in Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman.
There were over 35 Christian churches in the country built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they are located. During the year, there was an increase in the number of land grants for the construction of non-Muslim religious facilities, including churches, which was expected to decrease overcrowding. Construction began on the first Armenian church in May. Abu Dhabi officials approved two new Catholic churches. In April the ruler of Ras Al Khaimah granted land for a compound housing 10 churches. In some cases, zoning policies required compounds located at some distance from the residential areas in which members of these groups lived, potentially limiting attendance.
There were no synagogues for the small foreign resident Jewish population; however, Jews observed holidays in private residences without interference.
There were two Hindu temples in Dubai. On January 18 the Gurunanak Darbar Sikh Temple opened for worship in the Jebel Ali area of Dubai. There were no Buddhist temples, but the Sri Lankan embassy held monthly religious services open to the public. Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs conducted religious ceremonies in private homes without interference.
The government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad. Due to government restrictions, some Muslim and non-Muslim groups had difficulty spending the funds they had raised. Religious groups openly advertised religious functions in the press, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, choral concerts, and fundraising events.
Non-Muslim religious leaders reported that customs authorities rarely questioned the entry of religious materials such as Bibles and hymnals into the country unless the materials were printed in Arabic or related to paganism or sorcery. The government reported that Dubai Customs inspectors at Cargo Village confiscated Wiccan literature, talismans, and similar items 121 times during the first half of 2012, compared to a total of 92 confiscations in 2011.
The country’s two Internet service providers, Etisalat and Du, occasionally blocked Web sites containing religious information. These sites included information on the Bahai Faith, Judaism, atheism, negative critiques of Islam, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.
Christian primary and secondary schools, in which students were generally free to study Christianity and perform religious rituals, were located in four emirates. The emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai donated land for Christian cemeteries, and Abu Dhabi donated land for a Bahai cemetery.
There were three operating cremation facilities, one each in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, and Dubai, and associated cemeteries for the large Hindu community. The Al Ain multi-faith facility opened in January 2012. An Indian cemetery was under construction in Sharjah. The crematoriums currently in use met present demand. The government required residents and non-residents to obtain official permission for the use of cremation facilities in every instance, but this did not appear to create hardship. The government allowed people from all religions except Islam to use the cremation facilities.