There were reports of imprisonment and detention. The government, however, generally followed a policy of religious tolerance, and adherents of most major religions 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 October Sharjah Police arrested an Iraqi man who claimed to have magic powers to solve personal problems.
The government funded or subsidized almost 95 percent of the approximately 5,000 Sunni mosques and all Sunni imams were government employees. The government considered 5 percent of Sunni mosques private, and several mosques had large private endowments.
The Awqaf oversaw most issues related to Islamic affairs. It distributed weekly guidance to most Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of the weekly Friday Islamic sermons and published a Friday sermon script every week, and posted the guidance online on the Awqaf’s website. It also ensured that junior clergy did not deviate frequently or significantly from the approved sermons. The Awqaf continued 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. The Awqaf encouraged “improvisation of speeches” under these guidelines with the constraint that the speech was not to exceed 30 minutes. 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 the 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 irregular government request.
The government encouraged citizens to avoid tendencies and ideologies it considered “extremist.” Religious authorities coordinated public awareness campaigns about the dangers of violent extremism with advertisements and television commercials. The government launched an International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism , known as Hedayah (“Guidance” in Arabic), in December 2012 in Abu Dhabi during the ministerial meetings of the Global Counterterrorism Forum. In November the president issued a federal law officially establishing Hedayah as an independent center.
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 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. There were reports, however, that religious affiliation affected the issuance or renewal of visas or residence permits. The reports indicated that the government required some Shia Muslims to leave the country, often by cancelling or declining to renew residency permits or visas. 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 Shia business owners.
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. Several emirates 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 emirates. A few religious leaders stated the government was more likely to grant access to land to groups representing monotheistic religions. Some religious groups reportedly 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.
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. Some denominations lacked physical churches of their own. Larger churches allowed these denominations to meet in existing church space. During the year, there was an increase in the number of land grants for the construction of non-Muslim religious facilities, including churches. Overcrowding remained a problem, however, as new facilities were still under construction. 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. In June the country’s second Catholic church opened in Ras al Khaimah – the first was in Dubai. There were seven Coptic Orthodox churches in the country: two in Dubai, one in Sharjah, one in Fujairah, one in Abu Dhabi, and two in Ras Al Khaimah, including a new cathedral. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) opened a center for worship in Abu Dhabi in February.
There were no synagogues for the small foreign resident Jewish population. The Jewish community, however, observed holidays and ceremonies in private residences or rented hotel space without interference.
Two Hindu temples operated in Dubai. In 2012, a Sikh Temple opened for worship in 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 raised. Religious groups openly advertised religious functions in the press, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, choral concerts, and fundraising events.
Customs authorities routinely reviewed the contents of religious materials imported into the country. 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 country’s two internet service providers, Etisalat and Du, occasionally blocked web sites containing religious information. This 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. In addition to other existing non-Muslim cemeteries, 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 and associated cemeteries for the large Hindu community, one each in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, and Dubai, and the Hindu community reported that these were sufficient to meet present demand. The first crematorium and Indian cemetery for Hindu expatriates in Sharjah was formally opened in February, but was reported not to be fully operational as of November. The government required residents and non-residents to obtain official permission for the use of cremation facilities in every instance, and authorities routinely granted such permission. The government allowed people from all religious groups except Islam to use the cremation facilities.