In many parts of the Middle East and North Africa region, individuals face stiff obstacles to exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. Despite these challenges, many courageous men and women are peacefully working for greater religious freedom and interfaith understanding. The following profiles two organizations making a difference today.
Al-Amana Center – Oman
The Sultanate of Oman is home to adherents of many different faiths and in 2010, the Omani Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) launched the “Oman’s Message of Islam” exhibition with the goal of highlighting the Sultanate’s peaceful coexistence, inter-cultural harmony, respect for human values, and rejection of hatred. The MERA also annually publishes Al-Tafahum (Understanding), a periodical to encourage dialogue and promote respect between Islam and other faiths within Oman. As a way to actively promote discussion and understanding, the MERA works with local groups that have similar goals, like the Al-Amana Center.
The Al-Amana Center (the Center), situated in Oman’s capital of Muscat, began over 125 years ago as a mission of the Reformed Church in America to establish schools and hospitals for Muslims in the Sultanate. Today the Center’s focus is promoting interfaith dialogue, understanding, and peace between different faiths, facilitating dialogue between different faith groups in Oman, and providing a safe space for participants of all faiths to share their thoughts and experiences. Staff at the Center have deep experience in peace building and reconciliation, supporting religious actors in the peace building sphere, and teaching through interreligious dialogue. Staff also travel to bring their interreligious mission and message to organizations in other parts of the world and provide support to likeminded partners, such as the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers.
The Center conducts a handful of standing programs to nourish relationships with citizens and residents in Oman and between religious actors, students, and peacebuilders from around the globe. These programs included intercultural immersion programs, creation of safe space for dialogue, and live online programs of Q&A’s between the Center’s Christian staff and local Muslim partners.
The Al-Amana Center is a safe space, in a region marred by religious intolerance and restrictions, for people from diverse religious backgrounds to come together to ask questions and seek solutions from a place of mutual respect. A recently arrived staff member neatly captured the Center’s spirit when she said, “I choose to pursue and build connections rather than to create a distance or be led by prejudice or fear.”
INSAF Center for Defending Freedoms & Minorities – Yemen
The conflict that broke out in 2014 when the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels drove the internationally recognized Yemeni government from the national capital of Sana’a has taken an enormous toll on the Yemeni people, including members of religious and ethnic minority groups and their advocates. Eman Abdullah Homaid, the Chairperson of the INSAF Center for Defending Freedoms & Minorities (the INSAF Center), lamented in a March 2020 article that “Yemen is turning more and more every day into a place of intolerance.”
That dawning reality propelled Homaid to co-found the INSAF Center in 2019 to defend and promote the human rights of members of minority groups in Yemen. The organization documents human rights violations, advocates for victims, conducts research on minority populations, and raises awareness through events. In 2019, it published a detailed report, “Minorities in Yemen: Reality & Challenges,” on the history and current status of five minority groups. Most recently, the organization has been outspoken in advocating for the Houthis to release several Baha’is detained because of their religion.
About the Author: Cassandra Harris and Sean Comber serve as Foreign Affairs Officers in the Office of International Religious Freedom.