Summary paragraph: The government continued to question, detain, and arrest clerics, community members, and opposition politicians associated with the Shia community. On May 21, Sheikh Isa Qassim, identified by the media as the leading Shia cleric in the country (who had been confined under de facto house arrest), and two of his employees received a one-year suspended sentence in absentia for money laundering and collecting funds without a government license. Since June 2016, the police have restricted access to Qassim’s home village following a sit-in around his house by his supporters who protested the revocation of his citizenship. On May 23, security forces conducted an operation to remove the protestors who had been blocking roads surrounding Qassim’s residence, located in the predominately Shia neighborhood of Diraz. The operation resulted in 286 arrests, five deaths, and 31 injured police officers. On December 4, the government permitted Qassim to leave his home for the first time since June 2016, in order to receive medical treatment for several days at a private hospital. On April 3, the Court of Cassation overturned the Appeals Court’s nine-year prison sentence given to Ali Salman, secretary general of the Shia-aligned opposition political society Wifaq, and restored his four-year sentence. On November 12, the Bahrain News Agency reported new criminal charges were being filed against Salman and two other individuals for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011. In February the Court of Cassation upheld a September 2016 appeals court denial of Wifaq’s appeal and upheld the lower court’s order to shut down Wifaq and liquidate its assets. International human rights organizations published reports stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and mistreatment by prison guards because of their religious affiliation. Shia community representatives complained about what they said was discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Government officials continued to state some Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism and engaged in treasonous behavior. The government permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen throughout the country. According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with their religious observances and encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
On May 21, the High Criminal Court sentenced Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, who had been confined under a de facto house arrest, to a one-year suspended sentence in absentia on charges of money laundering and collecting funds without a government license. Two of Qassim’s employees, Hussain Al Qassab and Mirza Al Durazi, also received suspended sentences for the same crimes. The court fined the three individuals BD 100,000 ($265,000) each and reportedly confiscated more than BD 3 million ($7.96 million) from Qassim’s bank account and reported the funds would be delivered to local charities. In October Qassab withdrew his appeal of the suspended sentence and fine. Qassim’s supporters reported his office had collected the money and spent the funds in accordance with Shia customs and obligations, known as khums, and said the government had targeted Qassim due to his prominent status in the Shia community. On December 4, the government permitted Qassim to leave his home for the first time since June 2016, in order to receive medical treatment for several days at a private hospital.
Supporters of Qassim continued a sit-in demonstration until May 23 around his house in the village of Diraz which began after the government revoked Qassim’s citizenship in June 2016. In response, the government established checkpoints to control access to Diraz. Local residents complained of long lines and difficulties accessing their community. Authorities prevented nonresidents, including Shia clerics, from entering to attend or lead prayers at mosques in Diraz.
On May 23, the MOI conducted a security operation targeting alleged members of a terrorist cell involved in the sit-in around Qassim’s residence. The MOI stated its actions were to “apprehend terrorists operating in the area and clear illegal roadblocks and obstructions.” Protesters and human rights groups, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), stated police opened fire with shotgun pellets and teargas on peaceful demonstrators. Police stated protesters attacked them with iron rods, axes, knives, rocks, firebombs, and grenades. According to local press, police arrested 286 persons, reportedly including fugitives who had escaped from Jaw Prison in January. The media reported five civilians were killed and 31 police officers injured in clashes with protesters during the operation. While police stated use of force was justified, opposition groups and activists said the killings were politically motivated and were evidence of excessive use of force. Local and international human rights groups criticized the government’s actions. BCHR expressed concern over the “total impunity” of security forces, while Amnesty International called for an independent investigation into police use of “excessive force” against the protesters.
On November 8, the MOI authorities entered and searched the Islamic Awareness Society headquarters in Diraz, which the government had closed in 2016. The authorities said they were responding to a suspicious package near the building. The society was registered as a charity with the MOLSD, but it was reportedly headed by Qassim, and its members were largely Shia clerics and religious workers such as teachers and chanters. Shia activists said the government had likely used the report of a suspicious package as an excuse to raid the society’s headquarters.
In October residents of Diraz reported the MOI prohibited guest speakers from entering the village to teach at prayer halls during Ashura celebrations. International NGOs reported the police had summoned more than 70 individuals, including 30 clerics, prior to and during the Ashura celebrations. Police held many individuals overnight; some were detained and released soon after.
Courts sentenced several Shia clerics to prison terms for participating in the demonstrations in support of Qassim. In October a court sentenced Hamza Al Deiri, scholar and former Member of Parliament (MP) of Wifaq, to one year in prison for taking part in the sit-in outside of Qassim’s residence. Authorities released seven other Shia clerics in August after they completed a one-year prison term following a demonstration in support of Qassim. Between August 3-9, authorities released an additional six Shia clerics – Sheikh Mounir Al-Maatouk, Sayed Yassine Al-Mosawi, Sheikh Imad Al-Shagla, Sheikh Aziz Al-Khadran, Sheikh Ali Naji, and Sayed Ali Ahmad – one year after their arrest over the Diraz protest that began in June 2016.
On April 3, the Court of Cassation overturned the Appeals Court’s nine-year prison sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary general of the Shia opposition political society Wifaq, restored his four-year sentence, and cleared him of the charge of calling for regime change. On November 12, the Bahrain News Agency reported authorities filed new criminal charges against Salman and two other individuals, Hasan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al Aswad, for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011. Salman’s two codefendants were abroad and would be tried in absentia. Salman appeared in the High Criminal Court on November 29 and December 28; however, no verdict had been announced in this case at year’s end.
Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year’s end. They had been associated with the political opposition and given sentences ranging from 15-years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred. Human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.
Authorities arrested Shia scholar Sheikh Abdul Zahra Al Karbabadi along with his wife and sister on April 28. No update on their cases was available at year’s end.
Former Wifaq MP Hasan Isa remained in prison while his trial on charges of helping to finance a terrorist bomb attack continued. Authorities had arrested Isa in August 2015, following a July 2015 bombing in Sitra that killed two police officers. Isa denied involvement in the bombing, saying he had not given money to terrorists, but had distributed funds to poor families in his role as a religious leader of his neighborhood. The Court of Appeals postponed Isa’s case until November 7, but no further information was reported publicly.
The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance for the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics. On April 11, the High Criminal Court of Appeal upheld a six-month jail sentence for a Shia religious chanter, Mahdi Sahwan, who had participated in what the government called “an illegal gathering” outside of Qassim’s residence. On April 12, authorities summoned four Shia clerics for questioning after the clerics commemorated the death of an Iraqi clergyman who was executed by the Iraqi government in the 1980s. On May 25, the government arrested Shia cleric Isa Al Moamen for a sermon he delivered in August 2016. He was released after serving a three-month prison sentence. On June 28, authorities charged Sheikh Hasanain Al-Mhanna with “inciting hatred against the regime and inciting contempt against a sect” based on the background of a sermon he delivered. No additional details were reported on his case.
Authorities generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports authorities sometimes denied prisoners access to religious services and prayer time. The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees. International NGOs reported Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill treatment by prison guards because of their religion, which at times led to coerced confessions. Some Shia prisoners at Jaw Prison and at the pretrial Dry Dock facility reported they were not allowed to practice their faith freely. Government officials stated the MOI, which supervised detention facilities, only prohibited practices when they violated prison safety rules, such as waving religious banners or organizing large-scale gatherings for religious ceremonies. In November the National Institute for Human Rights, (NIHR), a quasi-official government human rights organization, stated inmates had the right to perform their religious rites as long as it did not impact the security of the prison or detention center. Inmates at Jaw Prison staged several hunger strikes throughout the year to protest detention conditions that included lack of religious freedom.
The NIHR reported 15 cases of complaints by Muslim inmates and five Christian inmates at Jaw Prison saying prison guards prevented them from performing prayers in a designated prayer area for all faiths.
On April 12, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 13 Shia leaders sentenced to life in prison in 2011, started a hunger strike which lasted 24 days to protest what he said was degrading treatment and poor conditions in Jaw Prison. On September 9, the press reported inmates at Jaw Prison staged a hunger strike to protest prison conditions and lack of religious freedom, in particular the right to pray. Shia activists reported inmates from at least four cellblocks joined the strike and the prison administration isolated the group and cut off outside communication. Most prisoners reportedly ended the hunger strike on September 24, after prison officials agreed to improve conditions and allow Shia inmates greater ability to worship.
At year’s end, no additional information was reported by the local press on implementation of the amendment allowing inmates to attend burials and receive condolences outside of prison. In response to the parliament proposal to provide religious lectures and sermons for prisoners, the government reported the law already permitted inmates to receive special programs for seminars and educational lectures. The government also stated inmates possess the right to maintain their own library containing a variety of religious books and publications.
The government during the year reported 452 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni community centers, while the number of licensed Shia places of worship remained at 608 mosques and 618 ma’atams (Shia prayer houses, sometimes called husseiniyas in other countries). In 2016, the government reported there were 440 licensed Sunni mosques and 80 Sunni community centers, while the number of licensed Shia places of worship had been 609 mosques and 618 ma’atams. It reported it granted nine permits during the year to build Sunni mosques and 17 permits to build Shia mosques and ma’atams. According to local press reports, the predominantly Shia neighborhoods in the Northern Governorate have 344 Shia mosques, more than half of the country’s total, and 211 ma’atams, nearly one-third of the country’s registered ma’atams. Observers reported that, in new housing developments, there continued to be a disproportionately large number of Sunni mosques, which they said showed continued government favoritism toward Sunni Muslims. The government stated that determining whether the mosque was Sunni or Shia in new housing developments depended on the needs and demographics of the new residents.
The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it had created for individuals engaged in religious discourse. Preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities. The MOJIA reported reviewing sermons submitted to the government on a weekly basis by preachers. The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes. The MOJIA also continued to announce how much money an adult should give on a voluntary basis to the poor on religious feast days. According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and had them sign pledges to avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.
The government continued to permit Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen throughout the country, with the largest procession organized by a Shia community-led organization, the Manama Public Processions Commission. Local press estimated the largest procession attracted 150,000-200,000 attendees in downtown Manama. As in previous years, the MOI provided security for the processions, but again removed some Ashura flags, banners, and decorations from streets and private property in Shia villages but not at the large procession in Manama, according to Shia leaders. The government stated MOI personnel had removed the banners because they violated zoning restrictions or because they contained political messages.
The government continued to permit both registered and unregistered non-Muslim communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols. The MOI continued to provide security for large events held by religious communities, including non-Muslim ones. Security forces stated they continued to monitor religious gatherings and funerals to maintain peace and security.
Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications that were perceived to criticize Islam. According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with religious observances and encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions.
In 2009, the government adopted a codified family law for Sunnis; however, following criticism from Shia religious leaders, the legislature did not pass a corresponding Shia personal status law at that time. Prior to passing the codified family law in July, the king appointed a sharia committee comprised of Sunni and Shia religious scholars to review the draft law for compliance with sharia provisions for both the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.
In 2016, the king announced he would permit a Coptic Orthodox church to be built in Manama; there were no updates available at year’s end.
The government again reported no significant reconstruction work had been done on the three remaining Shia mosques from the 30 it had damaged or destroyed in 2011. The government pledged to do the reconstruction in compliance with the recommendations of an independent fact-finding commission established by the king in 2011. The government reported that one mosque in Salmabad was reconstructed by local residents without a permit on an “illegal” site, despite the government’s offer for an alternative site in the same neighborhood. According to the government, the second remaining mosque, in Hawrat Sanad, was under evaluation because nine other Shia mosques already existed within close proximity. The government also stated the third mosque, in Madinat Zayed, was under review pending determination of the need for a new mosque in the area. Some Shia stated they remained dissatisfied with three of the 27 reconstructed mosques because they had been rebuilt in different locations. Shia leaders stated the mosque grounds should have been preserved as they were. The government reported many of the mosques were previously built using primitive materials, without licenses, or in areas not in compliance with zoning regulations.
In June the local press reported officials from the Jaafari Waqf Directorate and local municipal authorities blamed each other for the lack of attention to maintaining, remodeling, or cleaning existing Shia mosques and ma’atams in the Northern Governorate.
NGOs reported the government showed disparate treatment of Shia versus Sunni individuals and stated this different treatment fueled perceptions among the Shia community of a justice system stacked against them. For example, several times during the year the government reported it had investigated a number of officials from the mostly-Sunni police and military services for breaking the law or violating official procedures, but the government did not name any of the individuals, including those who had been convicted of crimes, were in jail, or had been removed from their positions. On the other hand, the Public Prosecution Office, the MOI, and the state-run Bahrain News Agency sometimes published names and pictures of Shia who were convicted of crimes, although not explicitly stating their religious affiliation, and at times published their names before the persons were indicted.
The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from large Sunni mosques, but not sermons from Shia mosques.
According to the law, Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence are eligible to apply for citizenship. Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to say the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni applicants over Shia applicants. They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing while excluding Shia citizens from those forces. According to Shia community activists, this continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country’s citizens.
According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to provide Sunni citizens preference for government positions, including as teachers, and especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and military. They reported Sunnis received preference for employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses. They continued to report few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. According to Shia leaders, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes continued to favor Sunni candidates. They said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities. The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally; however, many parents with the financial means preferred to send their children to private schools. The government repeated its statements affirming a policy of nondiscrimination in employment, promotions, and the provision of social and educational services. The MOLSD reported it organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods. The MOLSD, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the civil sector, said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year. Shia community activists said that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination, so they did not utilize them. The king continued to appoint Shia citizens to senior leadership positions, including cabinet positions and seats on the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament appointed by the king.
Human rights activists reported discrimination against Shia in education continued. Activists said interview panels for university scholarships continued to ask about students’ political views and family background. The government said their scholarships remained competitive, but some applicants not selected said their being passed over was due to discrimination. Rights activists said many top scoring Shia applicants continued to receive scholarship offers in less lucrative or less prestigious fields. The government reported that the flagship Crown Prince Scholarship Program continued to have representation from members of both Shia and Sunni groups, but it did not provide statistics of such a breakdown. There were continued reports of the MOE refusing to recognize the foreign degrees of some students. Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.
The 40-member Shura Council included 18 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while 20 of its members were Sunni. Five of the 23 cabinet members, including one of the five deputy prime ministers, were Shia.
In February the Court of Cassation rejected the appeal of Wifaq to halt the group’s dissolution and liquidation of its assets, upholding a September 2016 appeals court denial of Wifaq’s appeal and a lower court’s order to shut down the organization.
Throughout the year government officials made statements accusing Shia individuals or segments of the Shia community of specific crimes, alleging they were supporters of terrorism, linking individuals with what they said were Iranian-backed militants’ efforts to subvert the government, or threatening community members and institutions with future legal action.
NGOs reported the government closely monitored the collection of funds by religious organizations, including charity donations. The NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.
In September under the king’s patronage, an interfaith NGO, This is Bahrain, launched the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration in Los Angeles in cosponsorship with the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Bahrain Declaration calls on all “people of faith” to “disown practices such as the sowing of terror, the encouragement of extremism and radicalization, suicide bombing, promotion of sexual slavery, and the abuse of women and children.” Local and international press reported that Arab diplomats, other foreign representatives, and 300 interfaith leaders from around the world attended the event.
News editorials and statements from government and religious leaders emphasized the importance of religious tolerance. For example, in October the king wrote an editorial in international media that was reprinted in local press, highlighting what he said was the country’s tradition of churches, synagogues, a Sikh temple, and a 200-year old Hindu temple being built in close proximity to mosques. He wrote, “religious freedom should not be viewed as a problem but rather a very real solution to many of our world’s biggest challenges and especially terrorism, which knows no religion and threatens all peace-loving people.” Local press featured photos of the crown prince visiting the Diwali festivities of several prominent Hindu families.