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Bahrain

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia the principal source for legislation.  It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites.  The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.”  The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”  There is no legal prohibition against apostasy.  The penal code punishes any individual who mocks or disdains another religious group.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), media, and opposition outlets said the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics.  NGOs stated prison authorities routinely denied Shia prisoners needed medical treatment more often than Sunni prisoners.  In August, family members and supporters posted on Twitter that inmates at Jaw Prison undertook a hunger strike, in part to protest religious discrimination and lack of access to medical facilities.  During the year, the government prosecuted a woman for blasphemy and defamation of Islam and other religions on social media platforms.  The government investigated 26 individuals for defamation of religions and convicted two of inciting religious hatred and sectarianism, and one of blasphemy.  Fifteen other cases were ongoing at year’s end.  In January, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa created two independent councils under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments (MOJIA) to oversee Sunni and Jaafari (Shia) endowments, with authority over endowment assets, including revenues and places of worship.  In February, exiled Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, residing in Iran, stated the move was “illegitimate” and “hostile” to Jaafari jurisprudence.  On February 24, a high criminal court sentenced two employees of the Jaafari Endowment to seven years imprisonment and a 68,000-dinar ($180,000) fine for embezzlement related to renovating Shia mosques.  The government continued to monitor, regulate, and provide general guidance for the content of religious sermons of both Sunni and Shia religious leaders.  While the government allowed large groups to gather in Manama and in Shia villages to observe Ashura – the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar – activists and opposition outlets, mostly based abroad, criticized the Ministry of Interior (MOI) for taking down Ashura banners in some places and summoning Shia leaders for questioning in connection with sermons they gave during the observance.  NGOs and some Shia clerics and opposition politicians stated that in August, authorities introduced several restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 that effectively repressed Ashura commemorations, including limiting attendance at houses of worship to 30 vaccinated adult individuals, and banning children from attending Ashura rituals.  Some Shia religious leaders and opposition politicians stated these restrictions were stricter than those applied to other public venues, and media commentators negatively compared the MOI’s response ahead of Ashura to more permissive government preparations for Hindu and Christian holidays.  According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to discriminate against Shia citizens and to give Sunni citizens preferential treatment for scholarships and positions in the MOI and military.

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media.  NGOs reported on the adverse economic effect of Sunni-Shia tensions and local political divisions.  Shia human rights and political activists reported persistently higher unemployment rates, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and lower socioeconomic status for that community compared with the Sunni population.  Societal pressure against conversion from Islam continued, and non-Muslim religious community leaders again reported converts were unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.  Media reported that in August, Jews held services in the newly renovated synagogue in Manama for the first time since 1947, and in October, the community held the first Jewish wedding in the country in over 50 years.

U.S. government officials, the Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy representatives met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, and national human rights monitoring institutions to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to advocate for the full and equal participation of all citizens, irrespective of religious or political affiliation, in political and social activities and economic opportunities.  In both public and private settings, U.S. officials advocated for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.  The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as they related to religious practice.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.5 million (midyear 2021).  The NGO World Population Review estimates the population is 1.7 million.  According to the national government, there are approximately 712,000 citizens, constituting less than half of the total population.  According to 2020 national government estimates, Muslims make up approximately 74 percent of the total population.  The Ministry of Information Affairs website states 99.8 percent of citizens are Muslims, while the remainder of citizens are Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Baha’is.  The ministry website states 70.2 percent of the total (citizen and noncitizen) population is Muslim and 29.8 percent adhere to other religions and beliefs, such as Christians (10.2 percent), Jews (0.21 percent), Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Sikhs.  According to Jewish community members, there are between 36-40 Jewish citizens (six families) in the country.

The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations.  Most estimates from NGOs and the Shia community state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 65 percent) of the citizen population.

Most foreign residents are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and other Arab countries.  According to national government 2020 census data, approximately 401,500 foreign residents are Muslim; 387,800 are Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, Sikh, or Christian (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma Syrian from South India).  According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 1.4 million Muslims, 205,000 Christians, and 109,000 Hindus.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion, and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage.  The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.”  The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as they do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed.  All citizens have equal rights by law.  According to the constitution, all persons are equal without discrimination on the basis of gender, origin, language, or faith.  The constitution states that sharia forms the principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code.

The labor law pertaining to the private sector prohibits discrimination against workers on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion, or belief.  The labor law deems dismissal for religion to be arbitrary and illegal but does not provide an automatic right to reinstatement.  The law also prohibits wage discrimination based on religion, among other factors.  The Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) investigates claims of discrimination where there is an existing labor relationship; it can escalate violations to the Public Prosecution Office.  The MOLSD does not have the authority to receive or manage complaints of religion-based discrimination in hiring.  There is no law on discrimination in public sector employment.

The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine” and do not prejudice the “unity of the people” or arouse discord or sectarianism.

The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”  The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”

Islamic religious groups must register with the MOJIA to operate.  Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf (endowment), while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf.  MOJIA endowment boards supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls.  Non-Islamic groups have the status of civil society organizations and as such must register with and receive a license from the MOLSD to operate.  To register, a group must submit an official letter requesting a license to operate; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders and board members, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses.  It must also submit other information, such as the group’s bylaws, candidates who seek election to the organization’s governing board, a physical address, and bank account in a bank registered with the Central Bank of Bahrain.  The group must also request permission to receive funding or transfer funding.  Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or MOI, depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities.  The law prohibits associations from engaging in politics.  The law prohibits activities falling outside an organization’s charter.  The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.

According to the MOLSD’s website, the following non-Islamic churches and spiritual groups were registered with the ministry:  the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral, Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, House of Ten Commandments Synagogue, Shri Krishna Hindu Temple, and the Baha’i Social Society.

The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.

There is no explicit legal prohibition against apostasy.  The penal code punishes any individual who insults another religious sect with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270).  It punishes an individual for desecration of religious books with up to one year in prison and a fine of 100 dinars ($270).  The law also prohibits any person from imitating in public a religious ritual or ceremony with the intention of ridiculing it.

The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, or advocating for a change of government, among other offenses.  The MOI’s Office of the Ombudsman, the Prisoners’ and Detainees’ Rights Commission, and the National Institute for Human Rights address the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.

The law allows prisoners to receive “alternative non-custodial sentences” in lieu of custodial sentences, provided such a sentence would not endanger public security.  The MOI supervises individuals following their release on an alternative sentence, and the trial judge and the public prosecutor determine their eligibility and conditions for an alternative sentence.  Alternative sentences may include community service, home detention, electronic surveillance, no-contact orders, or participation in rehabilitation programs.

The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf, which are appointed by the King with recommendations from the president of the government-run and funded Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA).  The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites.  The government allocates 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) annually to each endowment board.  Zakat (Islamic tithes), income from property rentals, and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations.  The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.

On January 20, the King issued a royal decree restructuring the Sunni and Jaafari Waqf directorates.  According to the decree, the Sunni and Jaafari endowments are overseen by two independent councils that fall under the direct supervision of “a minister in charge of endowments affairs.”  Each council manages its respective endowment, disburses revenues, and has full authority over endowment assets, including places of worship.  The endowments were previously under the direct supervision of the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments.

The SCIA oversees general religious activities taking place within the country as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts.  The council consists of a chair, a deputy chair, and 16 religious scholars – eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges.  The King appoints all council members to a four-year term.  Independent of other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships to low-income students for advanced Islamic studies.  The SCIA reviews all legislation proposed by parliament to ensure that draft laws comply with sharia.  The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers.  The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs.  The council also organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.

The King has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials.  By law, construction of Islamic places of worship requires MOJIA approval.  Non-Islamic groups must obtain MOLSD approval.  Municipal authorities provide final approval for construction.  Citizens may also offer private land to build mosques.  Permission for construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, requires a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area.  The government also determines the need for non-Islamic houses of worship.  The law permits non-Islamic houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside their premises.

The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the education system.  The government funds public schools for grades one through 12; Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim students and are optional for non-Muslims.  Private schools must register with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign-funded and foreign-operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students.  Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the MOE.  Outside of school hours, Muslim students may engage in religious studies sponsored by the MOJIA, as their parents deem fit.

In coordination with the SCIA, a team of MOE-appointed experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence.  According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to the six registered hawzas (Shia seminaries); other hawzas choose to be privately funded.  The government does not permit foreign donors to contribute to privately funded hawzas.  There are no restrictions on religious studies abroad.  The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents in private schools.

Specialized MOE-run religious schools provide more thorough religious instruction – the Jaafari Institute for instruction in Shia Islam and the Religious Institute for instruction in Sunni Islam – for students from elementary through high school.  The remainder of the curriculum is consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools.

Regarding family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia.  The constitution also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, “without breaching the provisions” of sharia.  The personal status law states that either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia, depending on the religious affiliation of the parties, shall govern family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce.  Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case.  The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract.  Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies; however, all marriages must be registered with a civil court.  Civil courts also adjudicate matters such as divorce and child custody for non-Muslims.

The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates.  Applications for birth certificates and national identity documents, however, record a child’s religion (either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other), but not denomination.  Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.

The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries.  It specifies that succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son.  The royal family is Sunni.

The law prohibits any individual from being a member of a political society or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.

By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by religious and other organizations.  Islamic organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA.  Non-Islamic organizations must obtain authorization from the MOLSD.  On August 4, the MOJIA issued an amendment to a royal decree regulating fundraising that requires the Sunni and the Jaafari endowments to submit to the ministry annual reports on funds they collect for religious purposes, including for the construction or renovation of places of worship.  The endowments must also deposit collected funds in a bank accredited by the Central Bank of Bahrain and notify the MOJIA.  The amendment bans the endowments from receiving money from abroad without MOJIA approval.

The law guarantees inmates of correctional facilities the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside prison.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way” the prescriptions of sharia.

Government Practices

Because religion and political affiliation are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to media, on November 21, the Court of Cassation rejected the appeal of a Shia preacher and upheld a one-year suspended prison sentence against him for “insulting religious figures revered by a group of people” (i.e., Sunni Muslims) during a sermon.  Authorities also charged the preacher with organizing an illegal gathering of more than five individuals during the pandemic.

NGOs, media, and opposition outlets reported the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics.  NGOs reported prison authorities routinely denied Shia prisoners needed medical treatment more often than Sunni prisoners.  The MOI confirmed that on April 5, Shia inmate Abbas Hassan Ali Malallah died of a heart attack in Jaw Prison.  Shia Rights Watch stated that according to fellow prisoners, Malallah requested medical treatment on April 4, complaining of chest pains, but authorities denied his request.  The National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), a quasigovernmental organization responsible for investigating human rights complaints, including complaints of abuse in prison, said it found no evidence prison guards deliberately denied Mallalah medical services.

On June 8, Hussain Barakat, who was serving a life sentence in connection with a terrorism case involving the Shia militant group “Zulfiqar Brigades,” an entity associated with armed religious groups, died in prison after being diagnosed with COVID-19.  Human rights activists reiterated their calls to release other prisoners and said prison authorities failed to properly counter the pandemic.

According to local media, on November 15, the Higher Criminal Court of Appeals upheld the prison sentences of 10 Shia individuals to prison terms ranging from three years to life in prison.  They, along with four other men, were convicted of forming a terrorist cell that was affiliated with al-Ashtar Brigades (a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that is also known as the military arm of the al-Wafa Islamic movement) and planting bombs inside Bahrain National Bank ATMs in Naeem and Jid Hafs areas in February.  The four other men escaped after their trials and remained at large at year’s end.

According to the government, on September 16, the MOI arrested four Shia individuals and charged them with attempting to plant a bomb inside a Bahrain National Bank ATM in Muharraq.  The government said the men were suspected members of the February 14 movement, a branch of the al-Wafa Islamic movement.  Opposition sources said authorities arrested 14 individuals.

A human rights activist on Twitter stated that on July 1, Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullah Isa “Mirza” al-Mahroos, who was serving a 15-year sentence in Jaw Prison, undertook a hunger strike to protest mistreatment, lack of proper medical care, and being prevented from seeing his son, who also was incarcerated in Jaw prison.  Authorities sentenced al-Mahroos to 15 years in prison in 2011, along with 13 others identified as leaders of the 2011 antigovernment protests and hundreds of other opposition activists.  His family said he was eligible for an alternative sentence and had chronic medical issues.

Several Shia clerics arrested during the 2011 antigovernment protests remained in prison at year’s end.  They were serving prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred.  Some human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.  According to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), activists commemorated the tenth-year anniversary of the protests amid what HRW described as “continuing heavy repression.”  According to sources, protests on February 13 and 14 included slogans targeting King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and pictures of exiled and jailed opposition figures.

The MOI’s Office of the Ombudsman stated the office resolved 664 grievances from inmates and detainees, constituting 94 percent of the total 691 complaints filed during the year.

In March, the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), part of the Public Prosecutor’s Office responsible for investigating complaints filed against security forces, reported receiving 33 complaints in the first quarter of 2020 and interrogating 13 MOI officers.  On March 15, the SIU referred three security officers to the criminal court for mistreating inmates in 2020, and on April 15, the court found the three officers guilty.  Two of them received prison sentences and one officer received a fine.  The SIU received 68 formal complaints alleging torture, mistreatment, and excessive force by members of the police.  It interrogated 107 MOI officers tied to the complaints and prosecuted 16 in criminal court for police misconduct.  The SIU referred at least 11 MOI officers to the forensic and psychiatric departments; it referred three others to military courts for disciplinary measures.  As of September, military courts took disciplinary action against nine other MOI officers in cases previously referred to them by the SIU.

During the year, according to government announcements, the MOI prosecuted a woman for blasphemy and defamation of Islam and other religions on social media platforms.  The government did not release additional details about the nature of the incident.  The case was ongoing at year’s end.

According to the MOI, during the year, the ministry investigated 26 individuals for defamation of religions, a charge usually stemming from statements made during sermons, and the government prosecuted six of them for inciting religious hatred and sectarianism.  Courts convicted two of the six, but authorities did not announce their sentences.  The other four cases remained ongoing at year’s end.  The government also prosecuted 11 of the 26 individuals for “despising other religions” and convicted one person of blasphemy.

The government continued to attach witchcraft and sorcery charges to some cases involving charges of theft and fraud.  In March, the director-general of the Capital Governorate Police announced authorities arrested a woman for practicing sorcery and stealing money and personal items from clients.  In October, the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Forensic Science arrested two men on a charge of practicing witchcraft and sorcery.  Authorities also accused the men of violating public morals.  The case was referred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and remained pending at year’s end.

On May 23, the MOI Anti-Cyber Crime Directorate arrested a Sunni woman and charged her with inciting sectarian hatred.  According to the government, the woman said Shia Muslims were responsible for the spread of COVID-19.  She appeared before the criminal court on May 27.  At year’s end, there was no further information available on the disposition of her case.

Zuhair Ebrahim Jassim and Hussain Abdulla Khalil Rashid, two prisoners convicted of involvement in targeting security forces and killing one police officer in a police bus explosion in November 2017 and killing another officer in a bomb explosion in Damistan in 2014, remained on death row at year’s end.  In June 2020, the Court of Cassation upheld their appeal of the death sentence.  NGOs said their confessions were obtained through torture and that the trial proceedings were unfair.  A 2020 New York Times report identified the men as members of the Shia community who previously expressed opposition to the government.

According to media, on December 9, the MOI announced it had arrested a male citizen for blasphemy and for inciting immoral activities on social media.  The MOI referred the case to the public prosecutor, and it remained pending at year’s end.

On February 24, a court sentenced two employees of the Jaafari Waqf to seven years imprisonment and a fine of 68,000 dinars ($180,000) for embezzlement related to renovating Shia mosques.  On March 14, a Council of Representatives inquiry committee on the misuse of the Jaafari Endowment’s funds and properties submitted its final report to the committee’s office board.  The inquiry committee, established in September 2020, consisted of six Shia and three Sunni members of parliament.  The report’s findings had not been made public by year’s end.

On January 21, authorities released Shia preacher Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri after he spent one year in prison for a 2019 sermon “defaming a [historical] figure that is revered by a religious group.”  The preacher reportedly spoke against the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Mu’awiya I, who assumed the caliphate after the assassination in 661of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, who is revered by Shia Muslims.

According to the Twitter post of a supporter, on April 9, authorities released prominent Shia cleric Sayed Kamel al-Hashemi from prison under an alternative noncustodial sentence after he served more than two-and-a-half years for contempt of the King and inciting sectarian hatred based on his comments criticizing the government.

On April 2, the government released Shia citizen Abdulnabi al-Sammak from prison under an alternative sentence.  Authorities arrested al-Sammak in 2020 for publicly reciting Ziyarat Ashura, a Shia prayer deemed defamatory of religious figures that Sunnis revere.  They charged al-Sammak with publicly insulting symbols and defaming the Islamic faith.

The government announced that on April 12, King Hamad pardoned 91 prisoners at the start of Ramadan via royal decree.  On May 12, the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the King pardoned 203 prisoners.  On July 18, the eve of Eid al-Adha, he pardoned 32 individuals, including some foreigners.

The NGO Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) stated that on January 1, Shia prisoner Mohamed Abdulnabi Abdulla (also known as Mohamed Abdulnabi Juma al-Khoor) undertook an 11-day hunger strike to protest access to medical facilities.  Authorities sentenced Abdulla to life in prison with revocation of citizenship on charges related to a blast in Karranah village in August 2015 that killed one policeman and injured seven others.  According to ADHRB, his health declined in prison, and from July 2020 until he undertook the hunger strike, he requested medical treatment by a specialist.  On January 11, a prison doctor examined Abdulla and transferred him to Qala’a Hospital to see an orthopedist, who, according to ADHRB, did not order an x-ray.  Abdulla continued to state he was not receiving adequate specialized medical treatment and remained in prison at year’s end.

The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons by sending circulars to mosques, and to summon for questioning clerics who spoke on unapproved topics.  The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse.  According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds that their actions jeopardized national security.  The MOJIA reported reviewing on a weekly basis sermons preachers submitted to the government.  The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques on unannounced visits 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.  According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.

On August 24, supporters posted on Twitter that authorities summoned Shia chanters Mohamed al-Gallaf, Salih Sahwan, Hasan Norooz, Mahdi Sahwan, and Sayed Ahmed al-Alawi for religious songs they chanted during Ashura and clerics Abdelmohsin al-Jamri, Mohamed al-Rayyash, Hani al-Banna and Aziz al-Khadhran for sermons they gave during Ashura.  The men were released shortly afterwards without charges.  Supporters posted on Twitter that on June 12, Hoora authorities summoned Shaikh Majeed al-Meshaal to the police station; they released him the same day without charges.

International and local NGOs reported that police summoned three Shia clerics in August during the days leading up to and following the commemoration of Ashura.  Authorities interrogated the men because of the content of their sermons and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.”  Authorities released two of the men the day after their detention.  The third cleric remained in police custody at year’s end.

Political opposition figures on social media stated police summoned clerics and community leaders during the year for the content of their sermons or for creating or distributing publications deemed anti-Islamic.  The MOI denied these reports, saying police did not summon or arrest anyone during the year for those reasons.

In January, the family of imprisoned Shia cleric Zuhair Jasim Ashoor, also known as Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Abbas, released a statement describing inhumane treatment by prison authorities.  They said Ashoor experienced extended stays in solitary confinement, beatings, sleep deprivation, limited access to water, death threats, as well as authorities confiscating Ashoor’s religious books, including texts he was writing, and prohibiting him from practicing religious rituals.  Authorities had arrested and convicted Ashoor in 2013 on terrorism charges.  Ashoor’s family stated authorities had tortured him in prison for taking part in a protest inside the prison, a charge the government denied.

According to local social media accounts, on April 20, Jaw Prison authorities allowed Shia scholar Abduljalil al-Meqdad, who was serving a life sentence, temporary release to attend his mother’s funeral.  Authorities sentenced al-Meqdad to life in prison after his arrest in March 2011 with other political figures on charges of attempting to overthrow the government.  At least five of his relatives, including his brother Habib al-Meqdad, continued serving prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.

The MOI stated its community policing program enlisted individuals directly from communities to act as informal community police, with the goals of maintaining local peace and security, resolving local issues at the community level, and avoiding escalating conflicts to law enforcement authorities.  The MOI stated these informal community police monitored religious gatherings and funerals to prevent those gatherings from degenerating into protests or acts of violence.

The NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded one incident of harassment, one incident of threat, and nine incidents in which authorities prevented religious practice during Ramadan, although the NGO did not provide details.  ACLED also reported authorities denied iftar meals to inmates in Jaw Prison.

According to ACLED, authorities regulated Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Power) celebrations by an ad hoc decree issued May 2 that restricted the capacity of mosques and limited attendance to men who had received the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

ADHRB reported that police arrested or summoned for questioning several Shia Muslims related to Ashura observances.  These included multiple summons sent to individuals who had raised black flags on the roofs of their homes during the holy day on August 18, as well as interrogations, arrests, and detentions of, and fines levied against, other members of the community throughout the country.  ADHRB stated, “The violation of fundamental freedoms and religious rites [was] not an isolated occurrence… The pandemic has offered an opportunity to authorities to continue such repression under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19.  This has dangerously extended the powers given to state security forces and has seen the systematic denial of religious freedom in the country.”

In August, family members and supporters posted on Twitter that inmates at Jaw Prison went on a hunger strike to protest religious discrimination and a lack of access to medical facilities, among other complaints.  Some detainees said prison officials, citing COVID-19 mitigation efforts, limited time for practicing Ashura rituals.  The NIHR said, however, authorities gave inmates additional time to practice Ashura rituals in common areas.  Officials confirmed that religious rituals were not permitted in prison cells as a matter of general policy, and that religious commemorations were only permitted in designated prison common areas.

Activists and opposition media outlets criticized the MOI for taking down Ashura banners in Ras Rumman, South Sehla, and Hamad Town.

In a study released in October, ACLED stated Ashura commemorations in the country were “rooted at the community level and bear religious, social, and political meaning” and, “What lies at the core of the dispute between the Sunni regime and Shiite citizens is Ashura’s political potential.”  According to the report, in August, authorities introduced several religious practice restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 that effectively repressed Ashura practice and expression, including limiting attendance at houses of worship to 30 vaccinated adult individuals, and banning children from attending Ashura rituals.  ACLED stated these restrictions were enforced by means of “judicial harassment” (35 incidents) and the removal of Ashura banners (31 incidents).  Authorities arrested and summoned preachers, religious singers, and maatam (a Shia prayer house, sometimes called husseiniya in other countries) directors for taking part in Ashura commemorations.  According to the study, officials denied Shia prisoners the right to celebrate Ashura and punished them if they performed rituals, including with discriminatory acts like preventing them from contacting their families.

Dissolved Shia political society Al-Wifaq issued a report on the government’s actions during the first 10 days of the month of Muharram, which culminate in the observance of Ashura, marking the death of Hussein at the battle of Karbala.  In its statement, Al-Wifaq said security forces summoned Shia scholars, preachers, officials of religious centers, and others during this period and tore down Ashura banners and flags throughout the country.  The statement also said the government used the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict religious activities.  According to Al-Wifaq, the government investigated 100 citizens and arrested three for “practicing their religious freedoms,” and there were 45 government actions that disrupted Ashura rituals, including confiscating banners or flags and other “provocative practices.”

The government stated special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation.  On August 22, the NIHR released a statement on its findings from prearranged visits during Ashura to male and female detention centers.  The NIHR stated officials at these facilities said inmates could practice their religious rites “with ease.”  NIHR stated it spoke at random with inmates who said officials provided them with necessary facilities and services to practice their religious rites.  Independent NGOs, however, cited instances where authorities denied prisoners their right to perform religious rituals.

An overseas-based human rights group stated that in at least one case, a judge prohibited an alternative noncustodial sentencing beneficiary from participating in social, cultural, and religious activities, including visiting mosques and maatams, or attending religious commemorations while serving his sentence.

According to an August 24 report by ADHRB, the National Task Force to Combat COVID-19 (COVID-19 taskforce) announced two days before the start of Muharram that it would allow Ashura processions in the vicinity of mosques and maatams, provided participants observed social distancing and other precautionary measures, such as wearing face masks and regularly using disinfectant.  The ADHRB report stated these precautionary health measures “were supposedly in accordance with recommendations by the government’s medical team…. However, the authorities have instead utilized these measures to whitewash restrictions on religious freedoms in the country, alongside concealing the systematic violation of various other human rights.”  ADHRB also reported that King Hamad’s son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, appeared in media joining in the Indian Onam festival, among large crowds, without employing any obvious public health measures.

Other restrictions on maatams and mosques included a ban on children’s attendance and limits on capacity (30 persons), hours of operation, and geographical boundaries for processions.  Additionally, the government prohibited leaders from moving from one maatam to another.  Some Shia religious leaders and opposition politicians stated these restrictions were stricter than those applied to other public buildings, such as shopping malls.  A video that circulated on social media of a large crowd of spectators at a basketball game caused some members of the Shia community to question whether the COVID-19 taskforce was applying more scrutiny to maatams than other establishments.  Media commentators negatively compared the MOI’s response ahead of Ashura to more permissive government preparations for Hindu and Christian holidays.

Media reported that on August 14, a group of 65 maatams issued a joint statement requesting the COVID-19 taskforce review the requirement to limit Ashura processions to certain areas, saying the requirement contributed to overcrowding and ran counter to the goals of the COVID-19 precautionary measures.

After the observance of Ashura, the King thanked the Shia community on August 19 for taking steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus during observances, saying in a statement that he “praised the awareness and national responsibility shown by everyone during Ashura commemoration towards themselves, their surroundings, and society.”

Women’s prayers halls and restrooms remained closed until the end of September, while male prayers rooms opened in April.  Media reported that on September 5, parliamentarian and head of the Services Committee Ahmed al-Ansari said the continued closure of women’s chapels and toilet facilities and the government’s directive that the Quran should not be opened as anti-COVID-19 measures were not justified when restaurants and shops were open, where groups congregated and were more vulnerable to objects being touched by multiple individuals.  On September 23, the MOJIA announced all female prayer halls and toilet facilities in mosques would reopen, with appropriate health measures in place.

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 it perceived as criticizing Islam.  The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses.  The MOJIA also reviewed books that discussed religion.

According to representatives from the Christian and Hindu communities, the government did not interfere with their religious observances and publicly encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions.

The government reported there were 598 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni Islamic centers, the same numbers as in 2020.  Authorities decreased the number of licensed Shia mosques to 763 (from 764 in 2020) and increased the number of maatams to 624 (from 618 in 2020).  During the year, the government granted permits to build three Shia mosques, three maatams, and 23 new Sunni mosques.  Authorities temporarily closed 49 Sunni mosques, five Shia mosques, and nine maatams during the year for violating COVID-19 guidelines.  MOJIA closed three older mosques for renovation.

The MOLSD reported it did not receive new requests from religious groups for land or construction permits.  There was no registered Buddhist temple; however, Buddhist groups reported they met in private facilities.

After the completion of construction, the new Catholic cathedral, Our Lady of Arabia, opened in December in Awali.  The government donated the land for the cathedral, intended to serve as the main church for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which includes Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.  As of year’s end, the municipality of Awali had not granted approval for the construction of three proposed Christian churches, citing unspecified security concerns.  In 2014, the King donated land for the churches.

In December, the government allocated land for a new Christian cemetery in Salmabad, acting on the Christian community’s longstanding request since the country’s second Christian cemetery filled its last burial plot in 2014.

The government permitted both registered and unregistered non-Muslim religious communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols such as crosses outside churches.

According to a December 13 report by the Canadian-American magazine Vice, the government did not fulfill its promise to rebuild 38 Shia mosques destroyed in the 2011 uprising.  An ADHRB official told the magazine, “Every year there are instances where they [Shia worshippers] pray on the land of these destroyed mosques and they end up being summoned and forced to sign pledges they won’t do it anymore.”  Another ADHRB official said, “The mosques that have been rebuilt are mainly rebuilt by the community themselves.  A lot of them are not being maintained properly.”  In response to the article, the government said in an email to Vice, “All 30 unlicensed … structures used for religious purposes referred to in your inquiry have been regularized and rebuilt to the standards of other Muslim places of worship in Bahrain (over 1,456 mosques and 625 maatams), except for three which remain under study.”

In March, the Minister of Justice confirmed that maatams were considered places of worship and therefore exempt from paying utility bills.

In November, some commentators declared that a photograph in a 10th grade family education textbook promoting positive self-image and self-esteem deviated from Islamic values by promoting homosexuality.  The photograph showed a boy looking in the mirror surrounded by hearts.  Assistant Undersecretary for Curricula and Educational Supervision Ahlam al-Amer released a statement defending the photograph as linked to Islamic and educational values.  Members of parliament unanimously voted to start a probe into alleged homosexual content in secondary schools and suspend the family education classes until the “offensive” content was removed.

The independent but government-affiliated King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence (King Hamad Centre) reported it offered student exchanges and educational programs centered on dispelling ignorance, discrimination, and intolerance, including religious intolerance.  During the year, the center’s Cyber Peace Academy developed an online “interfaith dialogue tool” and mobile app, Growing Peace, for young persons to explore scenarios and case studies on themes of violence, discrimination, hate speech, racism, and religious rights.  The King Hamad Centre’s Board of Trustees comprised representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities.

The University of Bahrain continued to offer degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students.

All students, regardless of religion, were eligible to participate in the Crown Prince International Scholarship Program (CPISP); the government did not provide a statistical breakdown of participants by religious affiliation.  CPISP published a list of scholarship recipients’ names, fields of study, and schools on its website.  Some Shia community leaders continued to state the MOE favored Sunni students in granting scholarships rather than distributing them based solely on student merit.

Human rights activists continued to report discrimination against Shia students in university scholarship distribution.

There were reports that the MOE refused to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who studied in China.  Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students, a higher proportion of whom obtained degrees in China.

The government-run television station Bahrain TV broadcast Friday sermons from the country’s official Al-Fateh Mosque and other Sunni mosques, such as Sabeeka bint Ebrahim Mosque and Sabeeka al-Nusf Mosque, but not sermons from Shia mosques or clerics.  Some Shia activists said this was discriminatory, while others said it was better not to be subject to government broadcasting restrictions.  Many Shia mosques disseminated sermons via social media.  A government-affiliated human rights monitoring organization said Shia prisoners could view Shia sermon videos on their mobile phones.

On February 6, Shia cleric and the spiritual leader of the dissolved Al-Wifaq political society, Sheikh Isa Qassim, who was stripped of his citizenship by the government in 2016 and had been living in Iran since 2018, issued a statement rejecting the restructuring of the Waqf directorates by royal decree, a move that subordinated the directorates to independent councils.  He stated the move was “illegitimate” and “hostile” to Jaafari jurisprudence.  Qassim also criticized the fact that the budget allocated to the Jaafari Waqf Directorate was dependent on the government.  He characterized both actions as the government’s “manipulation” of the Jaafari Waqf.  In April, Qassim issued a statement that said a new constitution was the only way to resolve the country’s divisions.  In May, hundreds of supporters gathered at Qassim’s home village of Diraz on the anniversary of a 2017 police raid on his home that resulted in the deaths of two protestors.

While by law Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence were eligible to apply for citizenship, arbitrary implementation of the law from the application stage to approval remained a common criticism of both Shia and Sunni citizens, as well as migrant rights activists.  The government stated foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation.  Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to state the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni 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, the continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance of the country’s citizens.

The government did not maintain official statistics on the religious affiliation of public sector employees, members of parliament, or ministers.  According to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 19 Shia Muslim members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 19 members were Sunni Muslims.  Following parliamentary elections in 2018, of 40 seats on the elected Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia.  Five of the 22 cabinet members, including one of the four deputy prime ministers, were Shia.

According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to give Sunni citizens preference for government positions, especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service, military, and security services.  They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses.  Few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces.  According to Shia community members, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes favored Sunni candidates.

Shia community members 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.  The MOLSD 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 private sector, again said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year.  Shia community activists again responded that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination and therefore did not utilize them.

NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations, with some NGOs describing this as government overreach.  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.

On July 7, the government announced it had created a new medal for peaceful coexistence named after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to recognize leading personalities and international organizations supporting interfaith and coexistence in the country.  The Board of Trustees of the King Hamad Centre said the medal would “contribute to enhancing regional and global awareness of the importance of respecting religions and accepting others to achieve peace and harmony among different peoples and societies.”

Media reported that on August 22, King Hamad’s son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, participated in the celebration of the Hindu festival of Onam, where he said the observance confirmed the importance of dialogue and understanding in the country.

On September 13, Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments Shaikh Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa, speaking during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Italy, highlighted the importance of establishing the rule of law without differentiating between persons of different beliefs.

The Baha’i World News Service and local media reported that on October 30, Hamad Centre chairman Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa and foreign diplomats attended a ceremony in Manama marking the centenary of the passing of Abdu’l-Baha, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892-1921.

The government said developments connected to the signing of the Abraham Accords and to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel promoted tolerance and acceptance of Jews in Bahrain.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Non-Muslim religious community leaders again reported that there was ongoing societal pressure on individuals not to convert from Islam.  Those who did so were unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.

Both anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media.  Anti-Shia posts described Shia opponents of the government as “traitors,” “agents of Iran,” “terrorists,” “killers,” “criminals,” plotters,” and, occasionally, “rawafid” (a derogatory term describing Shia who refused to accept the early caliphs).  Anti-Sunni posts described the royal family and its supporters as “nawasib” (a derogatory term describing Sunnis who are hostile to the family of the Prophet Muhammad).

NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to have a negative economic effect.  Shia representatives stated the persistent higher unemployment rate among members of their community, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and the lower socioeconomic status of Shia, exacerbated by ongoing private sector discrimination against them, added to the tensions between the two communities.  Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize these effects as being solely based on religious identity.

In February, the Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), incorporated in Dubai.  The AGJC president was Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, a citizen of Bahrain.  On August 22, Bahraini Jews held services in the newly renovated synagogue in Manama for the first time since 1947, with the participation of diplomats, members of Jewish communities throughout Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and Bahraini and Emirati Muslims.  In October, the AGJC organized the first Jewish wedding in the country in 52 years.  The event, conducted under the auspices of the Orthodox Union, which identifies itself as “the world’s largest kosher certification agency,” was the first strictly kosher wedding in the country’s history.

The government-supported NGO King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence held a conference in December entitled “Ignorance is the Enemy of Peace,” focusing on religious freedom.  The center conducted programs on combating antisemitism in the wake of the government’s normalizing relations with Israel under the 2020 Abraham Accords.

According to minority religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although not for conversion from Islam or for atheistic or secularist views.  Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books were widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features in malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels.  The news media continued to print reports of non-Muslim religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.

Anti-Zionist commentary in social media peaked with announcements of government normalization efforts with Israel, alongside protests employing antinormalization slogans such as “Death to the Zionists” and “Death to Israel.”  After the normalization took place, there was negative public reaction to a Twitter post by Houda Nonoo, a former Bahraini Ambassador to the United States, inviting Jews from abroad to visit and settle in Bahrain.

The UAE research and consulting firm PSB took a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 37 percent of Bahraini respondents said their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, slightly higher than the regionwide result of 34 percent and the result from the previous year’s survey of 32 percent.  Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation.  It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.”  According to the Basic Law, the Sultan must be a Muslim.  A royal decree issued by the Sultan on February 12 established a new mechanism for the appointment of a Crown Prince, stating that the Crown Prince must be a Muslim, sane, and a legitimate son of Omani Muslim parents.  According to the law, offending Islam or any other Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense.  There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.  Proselytizing in public is illegal.  All religious organizations must register with the government.  The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) continued to monitor sermons and distribute approved texts for all imams.  Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), remained without permanent, independent places of worship.  Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, though they requested more space to ease overcrowding concerns.  MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership, although the ministry did not review all imported religious material.  According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), on May 10, government-appointed Grand Mufti Ahmad al-Khalili issued a message describing the confrontations at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators as an “attempt to desecrate” the mosque “by the enemies of God, the corrupters.”

Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.

The Ambassador and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials throughout the year to discuss support for freedom of religion and the needs of minority groups.  The Ambassador met with the Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs in March to convey U.S. support for religious freedom.  The Ambassador and embassy officers also met regularly with religious minority leaders and faith-based community members to discuss the needs and support the worship practices of all religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.7 million (midyear 2021).  The government’s National Center for Statistics and Information estimates the population at 4.5 million; citizens constitute approximately 62 percent of the population.  The government does not publish statistics on the percentages of citizens who practice Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia Islam.  In 2015, the Dubai-based al-Mesbar Center estimated Sunni Muslims at nearly 50 percent of the citizen population, Ibadhi Muslims at 45 percent, and Shia Muslims, Hindus, and Christians at a combined 5 percent.

Academic sources state the majority of non-Muslims are foreign workers from South Asia.  Noncitizen religious groups include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians.  Christians are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah, and include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation.  It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.”  The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion.  According to the Basic Law, the Sultan must be a Muslim.  A royal decree on the Basic Law, issued by the Sultan on February 12, establishes a new mechanism for the appointment of a Crown Prince.  The decree states that to be eligible to govern the country, the Crown Prince must be a Muslim, sane, and a legitimate son of Omani Muslim parents.

There is no provision in the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.

The penal code sets the maximum prison sentence for “insulting the Quran,” “offending Islam or any [Abrahamic] religion,” or “promoting religious and sectarian tensions” at 10 years.  The law also penalizes anyone who, without obtaining prior permission, “forms, funds, [or] organizes a group…with the aim of undermining Islam…or advocating other religions” with up to seven years’ imprisonment.  Holding a meeting outside government-approved locations to promote another religious group is also criminalized with a maximum sentence of three years in prison.  The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message sent via any medium that “violates public order and morals.”  Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is a crime that carries a penalty of between one month and one year in prison and a fine of not less than 1,000 rials ($2,600).

All religious organizations must register with the government.  The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for gaining ministerial approval.  Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by MERA.  New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from MERA before they may register.  Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor.  MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form.  No published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval.  For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, al-Amana Center (an interdenominational organization affiliated with the Reformed Church of America), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors.  The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry a statement of the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders.

All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with MERA.  The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must deliver sermons within “politically and socially acceptable” parameters.  Lay members of non-Muslim groups may lead prayers if they are specified as leaders in their group’s registration application.

The law restricts collective worship by non-Muslim groups to houses of worship on land specifically donated by the Sultan for the purpose of collective worship.

The law prohibits public proselytizing by all religious groups, although the government authorizes certain “Islamic propagation centers.”

The law states the government must approve the construction or leasing of buildings by religious groups.  In addition, new mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from existing mosques.

Islamic studies are mandatory for Muslim students in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.  Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement if they notify school administrators they do not wish to attend such instruction.  The classes take a historical perspective on the evolution of Islamic religious thinking and teachers are prohibited from proselytizing or favoring one Islamic group over another.  Many private schools provide alternative religious studies courses.

The Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation.  Principles of sharia inform the civil, commercial, and criminal codes, but there are no sharia courts.  Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code.  The law states that Shia Muslims, whose jurisprudence in these matters differs from that of Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims, may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shia jurisprudence outside the courts and they retain the right to transfer their cases to civil courts if they cannot find a resolution within the Shia religious tradition.  The law allows non-Muslims to seek adjudication of matters pertaining to family or personal status under the religious laws of their faith or under civil law.  According to the Personal Status Law, a mother may lose custody of a child after the child turns seven if she is not the same religion as the father.

Citizens may sue the government for abuses of their right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; there have been no known cases of anyone pursuing this course in court.

Birth certificates issued by the government record an individual’s religion.  Other official identity documents do not do so.

Foreigners on tourist visas who are not clergy may not preach, teach, or lead worship.  Visa regulations permit foreign clergy to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious groups, which must apply to MERA for approval before the visiting clergy member enters the country.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On July 23, security forces arrested internet activist Ghaith al-Shibli at his home in Sohar, according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights and social media.  Al-Shibli’s arrest was followed by the arrest of a number of internet activists who participated in the dialogues that al-Shibli organized on religious freedom and other topics.  Other activists reportedly detained in the same crackdown included Maryam al-Nuaimi and Abdullah Hassan.  Both of their Twitter accounts were suspended following their arrests.

On August 9, police arrested Talal bin Ahmed al-Salmani after he submitted a request to the director of the Bousher Police Station in the Governorate of Muscat for permission to organize a peaceful rally on August 11 calling for liquor shops to be shut down, according to human rights observers based outside the country.  Authorities released al-Salmani in October, according to the state-run Oman News Agency.

According to religious leaders, MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics.  The government required all imams, regardless of their branch of Islam, to preach sermons within what the government considered politically and socially acceptable parameters.  These parameters, which the government outlined monthly, included the distribution of a list of acceptable topics along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams.  Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring.  The Grand Mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, who was appointed in 1975, remained the only cleric able to speak publicly outside the designated government parameters.  Government officials made clear he did not represent the views of the government.

Religious groups, including some who were actively seeking to register with the government, continued to report opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, leadership structure, and the availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration.  MERA reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim.  Observers said details of the process remained vague, although there were reports MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group.  According to MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register.  Representatives of some religious groups said that additional communication and clear guidelines from MERA would help their communities navigate the process of obtaining property for religious facilities and clarify legal provisions governing religious practices.

Some religious communities remained without a registration sponsor or permanent place of worship, including the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Sikh and Buddhist communities.  MERA was working with the Church, the Sikh community, and other groups to identify suitable, permanent places of worship, a MERA official said.  This process has stalled, some community leaders reported.  Other religious minority groups, such as the Buddhist community, reported they did not have permanent independent places of worship as recognized groups even though they represented a significant population in the country, primarily of expatriate workers.

Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations.  Some non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship and said that they requested more space to ease overcrowding concerns.  According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship.  Some communities worshiped via virtual meetings or met in reduced numbers due to COVID-19 safety measures, temporarily easing space limitations.  A MERA official stated the ministry was willing to work with other government ministries to secure additional, government-approved land to relieve the overcrowding that some minority groups experienced.  At least one of the groups said that it had submitted requests in the past to acquire land for a house of worship, and it intended to begin actively pursuing land acquisition again.  The group reported that in February MERA asked it to wait until a new cabinet was in place before inquiring about land.  At year’s end, the group continued to engage with officials in pursuit of the acquisition.  The government paused the land distribution process, in part because of the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

MERA informally approved the Protestant Church of Oman hosting of worship services conducted by religious groups lacking their own houses of worship.  MERA also allowed the Sri Lankan embassy to host Buddhist religious services and ceremonies on its compound.

MERA approved religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis as pandemic-related restrictions eased, returning to pre-pandemic practices.  Hindu temples were permitted to host modified Diwali celebrations, which they coordinated with MERA, with pandemic precautions including social distancing and takeaway food instead of eating as a group in the temple.

Authorities blocked the import of certain publications, including religious texts, without the necessary permit.  Shipping companies said customs officials sometimes confiscated these materials.  The government also continued to require religious groups to notify MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to MERA.  Religious minority leaders said the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval, and non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.  Religious groups said that consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, they continued to need MERA approval to publish texts in the country or disseminate religious publications outside their membership.  Religious groups stated they did not attempt, however, to share material with members of the public outside their places of worship.

The government provided land for all approved religious groups to build and maintain religious facilities in the country.  Christian community leaders and MERA said that they were coordinating to establish a second Christian cemetery, since the first was reaching capacity.  As of the end of the year, Christian community leaders indicated that MERA officials were supportive in their efforts to find a location that met their needs.  MERA officials stated that they had enlisted the help of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning to identify a site for this purpose.

According to members of the legal community, judges often considered the religious affiliation of parents during custody hearings.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

According to the ADL, on May 10, government-appointed Grand Mufti Ahmad al-Khalili issued a message describing the confrontations at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators as an “attempt to desecrate” the mosque “by the enemies of God, the corrupters.”  According to the ADL report, al-Khalili said the violence was a “blatant plot against Islam” by the “dirty” and “defiling” occupation.  Khalili subsequently referred to Israel as “the enemy” and called on all Muslims to “liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and cleanse it from the befoulment of the occupation.”

In December, the Foreign Minister hosted an American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation.  The MFA’s Chief of Global Affairs participated in a two-hour virtual meeting with AJC officials in November as part of the country’s outreach to representatives of non-Muslim religious groups.

The government, through MERA, continued to publish a digital version of al-Tafahum (Understanding), a quarterly periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths.  MERA discontinued the print version of al-Tafahum to cut costs.

MERA hosted events marking the International Day for Tolerance on November 16-17, in coordination with the Ministry of Information.  Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Salmi reaffirmed the country’s commitment to peaceful coexistence, and an interfaith panel discussed moving beyond mere tolerance to embracing diversity.  The event also featured the exhibitions “Message of Islam from Oman” and “Message of Peace from Oman to the World,” which shared words of tolerance and acceptance from members of religious groups in the country.

According to religious minority leaders, the Royal Oman Police collected religious affiliation information from expatriates applying for work visas.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although not prohibited by law, according to some non-Muslim religious leaders, conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.

The interfaith al-Amana Center, which was founded and is supported by the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination, continued to sponsor programs to promote interreligious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims.  During the year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it hosted virtual programs in conjunction with MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations.  The center also worked closely with MERA to promote interfaith dialogue.

One Arabic-language newspaper, Al Watan, featured multiple cartoons critical of the Israeli government in which a man representing stereotypical anti-Semitic tropes of Jews symbolized the state of Israel.

The UAE research and consulting firm PSB took a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 20 percent of Omani respondents said their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, which was lower than the regionwide result of 34 percent.  Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.

An initiative, Fak Kurba (Redeeming Anguish), by the Omani Lawyers Association’s (OLA), focused on the release of prisoners jailed for noncriminal offenses, including unpaid debts.  An OLA official said Fak Kurba’s supporters were motivated by Islamic humanitarian principles, and the group conducted fundraising during Ramadan to free prisoners by Eid al-Fitr.

Qatar

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation.  According to the constitution, the Amir must be Muslim.  The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.”  The law punishes “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.  Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the registered religious groups in the country.  Unregistered religious groups are illegal, but authorities generally permitted them to practice their faith privately.  The government continued to censor or ban print and social media religious material it considered objectionable.  In March, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) said it was “extremely concerned” by “systematic attempts over many years” by the government to blacklist and deport Baha’is, in particular a lifelong resident of the country whose residency permit renewal was refused in January on what the community described as “baseless charges.”  He left the country in August.  A ban on worship outside the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, which is located on government land and provides worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, and which the government described as temporary when instituted in 2020 as a measure both to limit the spread of COVID-19 and for security reasons, remained in effect.  Citizens of the country and other Muslims were not allowed to attend services in the Mesaymeer Complex.  The “villa” (or house) church community wrote multiple letters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and requested multiple meetings but received no reply.  In April, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a report on antisemitic material in textbooks of government schools, saying that while some material was removed from textbooks, the updated editions “still contained numerous passages that teach hateful antisemitic misinformation and myths.”  In June, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) updated its review of the country’s textbooks, stating that its “review determined that the Qatari curriculum does not yet meet … international standards” and “was influenced by elements of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood.”  In December, in an updated report, IMPACT-se said, “…Since then [June], Qatar’s books have somewhat improved.  They still have a long way to go when it comes to removing hateful content and consistently teaching tolerance, and yet the improvements that have occurred over the last two academic years…are still a pleasant surprise.”  In December, the press reported that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry issued a directive regarding the need for suppliers, traders, and shopkeepers to refrain from selling goods bearing logos and symbols that do not comply with Islamic values.

On October 18, the privately owned newspaper Al-Sharq published a column by author Ahmad al-Mohannadi warning against what he considered attempts by Christian organizations to penetrate Muslim Persian Gulf societies via animated Bible-based missionary cartoons dubbed in Gulf dialects.  In its 2021 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “There are two general categories [of Christians in country]:  Christian foreigners, most of whom are migrant workers, and Christians who have converted from Islam.  Foreign workers who are Christian are much freer to worship.  Muslims who convert to Christianity face much more significant persecution.  Converts from both indigenous and migrant backgrounds bear the brunt of persecution, and Qatari converts face very high pressure from their families.”

U.S. embassy leadership and other embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials, relevant government bodies, as well as with quasigovernmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations, and antisemitism.  The Charge d’Affaires raised the reopening of worship space for the Christian community and freedom of worship for the Baha’i community with senior government officials.  Throughout the year, embassy officers met with various faith communities, including the Hindu, Shia Muslim, Baha’i, and evangelical Christian communities, and they also met with the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC), which oversees a variety of Christian denominations, to discuss issues of mutual concern.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.5 million (midyear 2021).  Citizens make up approximately 12 percent of the population, while noncitizens account for approximately 88 percent.  Most citizens are Sunni Muslims, and almost all others are Shia Muslims.  Reliable figures are unavailable, but estimates based solely on the religious composition of expatriates suggest Muslims, while they are the largest religious group, likely make up less than half of the total population.  The breakdown of the noncitizen population between Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim groups is not available.

Other religious groups, which are composed exclusively of expatriates, include (in descending order of size) Hindus, almost exclusively from India and Nepal; Roman Catholics, primarily from the Philippines, Europe, and India; and Buddhists, largely from South, Southeast, and East Asia.  Smaller groups include Anglicans and Protestant denominations, Egyptian Copts, Baha’is, and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation.  According to the constitution, the Amir must be Muslim.  The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the Amir’s branch of the al-Thani family.  The Amir exercises full executive power.  The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.”  It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and is illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.

The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for offending or misinterpreting the Quran, “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs, insulting any of the prophets, or defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.  The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions.  The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment of up to six months in prison.

To obtain an official presence in the country, expatriate non-Muslim religious groups must register with the MFA.  The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations, which are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Interdenominational Christian Churches.  Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may register with the MFA with the support of the CCSC.

Non-Christian groups must also register with the MFA.  Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures, such as private villas, recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution.  Unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religiously-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.

According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.

The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths.  It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public.  The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison.  Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam may result in a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment.  The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity.

The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials.  The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content.  Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities.  The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.  To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.

The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity.  All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA).  The law designates the MEIA Minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers.  The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the Amir.

The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA, working in coordination with the director of the MFA’s Human Rights Department, is responsible for handling church affairs.

A non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim; however, the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim.  The law dictates that a non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.

Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools.  Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services.  All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools.  According to instructions from the Ministry of Education, these schools must offer Islamic instruction; non-Islamic formal religious education is prohibited.

A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims.  The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody.  For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters using Shia interpretations of religious law.  In other religious matters, family law applies across all branches of Islam.  Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.

A non-Muslim wife does not have the automatic right to inherit from her Muslim husband.  She receives an inheritance only if her husband wills her a portion of his estate, and even then, she is eligible to receive only one-third of the total estate.  A female heir generally receives one-half the amount of a male heir; a sister would inherit one-half as much as her brother.  In cases of divorce, children generally remain with the mother until age 13 for boys and 15 for girls, at which time custody reverts to the husband’s family, regardless of the mother’s religion.

Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia.  The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence.  There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are subject to punishment according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging.  Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases.  Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned.  Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies.  The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.

The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours during Ramadan are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The government submitted documents to the United Nations in 2018,  and made a formal statement in its treaty accession document, that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia.  The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”).  The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.

Government Practices

In March, BIC said it was “extremely concerned” by “systematic attempts over many years” by the government to blacklist and deport Baha’is.  The BIC press release cited the case of Omid Seioshansian, described as a Baha’i born in Qatar and whose family has lived there for generations, saying that authorities’ actions in not renewing his lifelong residency permit were attributed to “baseless charges” of unspecified criminal and national security violations.  The BIC release stated that once so identified, Baha’is are “blacklisted and expelled” and then permanently refused reentry, even in cases where they have lived their entire lives in the country.  In the case of Seioshansian, who departed the country for India in August, the government said its refusal to renew his residency permit was based on immigration law and age, since the country does not allow persons over age 60 to obtain residency.  The local Baha’i community and BIC raised these concerns with the government, including the National Human Rights Committee.  According to BIC, the government told UN and foreign diplomats that cases involving members of the Baha’i community were unrelated to each other and each involved national security concerns.  BIC raised these issues with the UN Human Rights Council on two occasions during the year.  Writing for the Religion News Service, Seioshansian’s brother Baher said, “The anti-Baha’i momentum has been building and has resulted in a dismissiveness toward Baha’is and their families that would have been unthinkable in the past,” and he stated deportations affecting the Baha’i community involved a wide range of nationalities, including Jordanian, British, American, Malaysian, Indian, and Canadian.

“Villa” churches were open during the year, with pandemic regulations in place.  The church villas did not receive approval to reopen, but they did so anyway.  Early in the year, the “villa” church community had written several letters to authorities asking to reopen their 150 (later consolidated to 61 at government orders) house churches under the umbrella of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar (ECAQ) that had been closed under COVID-19 mitigation regulations.  Not receiving an official government response to these inquiries, many of these informal churches reopened in September.  At year’s end, they had faced no repercussions for reopening.

The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions were again unable to follow up on their 2019 visit.  During the 2019 visit, the UN representatives said there were approximately 26 cases of expatriate women serving prison terms for adultery and five cases of individuals serving time for “sodomy,” behaviors prohibited by sharia.  The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia; there were no statistics available regarding rates of corporal punishment during the year.

The CCSC continued to meet regularly with the MFA to discuss issues related to its congregants and to advocate for increased space for the large number of parishioners.  The MFA also met with unregistered congregations to discuss their interests and needs.

The MEIA continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques.  The ministry continued to provide, on an ad hoc basis, thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions against using pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths.  The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons.  The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance.

The MEIA estimated that there are approximately 2,300 mosques in the country.  Government officials estimated that as many as 10 of these were Shia mosques, although online sources stated the number was closer to 15.  Government officials stated the MEIA did not allow foreign funding for the building or upkeep of Shia mosques or other community facilities.

The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties.  There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of the penal code’s ban on eating or drinking in public during daylight hours in Ramadan.  All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The government of Saudi Arabia restricted pilgrims allowed to make the Hajj in 2021 to residents of Saudi Arabia due to concerns regarding COVID-19.  In October, the MEIA announced that Umrah tour operators had resumed arranging Umrah tours from Qatar to Saudi Arabia for pilgrims, including expatriates.  In November, the MEIA launched a new online registration system allowing individuals to upload their personal data and tour contracts, thereby permitting greater government oversight of the process and compilation of more accurate statistics.

The national organizing body of the 2022 FIFA World Cup encouraged local residents to host visiting soccer fans at their private residences during the upcoming tournament, touting the initiative as “a chance to demonstrate to fans our culture and hospitality.”  Some comments on social media criticized the suggestion, saying that it was a violation of the country’s religious values, Islamic principles, and conservative culture.

In April, the ADL published a report on antisemitic material in textbooks of government schools, saying that while some material was removed from textbooks, the updated editions “still contain numerous passages that teach hateful antisemitic misinformation and myths.”  One text, for the seventh-grade textbooks for Islamic studies, said, “Treachery and treason are among the traits of the Jews.”  According to the ADL, the eleventh-grade Islamic studies text “accuses Judaism of idolatry, deifying the Prophet Ezra, subordinating the Torah to the Talmud, and believing in amoral hedonism and supremacy.”  An eleventh-grade history text stated that among the principles of the Nazis was “enmity toward the Jews, because they were the reason for Germany’s defeat” in World War I.

In June, IMPACT-se updated its review of the country’s textbooks in conjunction with a London-based NGO, the Henry Jackson Society.  The study assessed more than 314 textbooks, building upon previous IMPACT-se research that used UN and other international standards as benchmarks.  According to IMPACT-se, the “review determined that the Qatari curriculum does not yet meet those international standards.  …. The curriculum reflects in many ways the same overall tension facing Qatar’s leadership between Qatar’s Islamist affinities and its desire to be seen as an open, neutral, and progressive leader in the Arabian Gulf.  Textbooks teach Qatari children to accept others different than themselves and advocate for peace at the same time echoing antisemitic canards…. While the curriculum emphasizes nationalist identities over tribal affiliations, it is also influenced by pan-Islamic and pan-Arab nationalism, as well as elements of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood.”  In December, in an updated report, IMPACT-se said, “…Since then [June], Qatar’s books have somewhat improved.  They still have a long way to go when it comes to removing hateful content and consistently teaching tolerance, and yet the improvements that have occurred over the last two academic years in Qatar are still a pleasant surprise. …. For example, it has removed a passage which taught that Zionism ‘strives to rule the world and control it.’  And it has reduced problematic passages with regard to martyrdom and violent jihad – such as removing a passage that referred to jihad as ‘the peak of Islam.’  However, such progress remains incomplete at best.”  The government stated it was seeking NGOs and outside experts that could assist it in a review of current school textbooks.

Although the law prohibits Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites; however, the government continued to prohibit them from publishing such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards.  Church leaders and religious groups said individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.

The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.  Journalists and publishers at times said they practiced self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.

In December, press reported that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry had issued a directive regarding the need for suppliers, traders, and shopkeepers to refrain from selling goods bearing logos and symbols that do not comply with Islamic values.  The circular said its intent was to protect consumer rights, preserve Islamic values, and respect the country’s customs, traditions, and cultural heritage.  Several observers stated their belief that the government’s actions in this regard were directed at items, including children’s toys, bearing rainbow colors of the LGBTQI+ pride flag.

The Mesaymeer Religious Complex, also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings.  The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.

According to church leaders, approximately 75,000 to 100,000 expatriate Christians continued to attend weekly services at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex.  Citizens of the country and other Muslims were not allowed to attend these services.  Representatives of the CCSC stated there was overcrowding in seven buildings in the complex, and noted difficulties with parking, access, and time-sharing.  In addition to the permanent buildings, the government allowed the churches to erect tents during Easter and Christmas outside the primary complex to accommodate the extra congregants wanting to attend services during these observances.  The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors.  Ministry of Interior security personnel asked churchgoers to show identification at the gates because non-Christians, either expatriates or citizens, were prohibited access to the complex.

Representatives of the Hindu community continued to express concern that the government had not granted Hindus permission to open new places of worship.

The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and to conduct monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.

The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities, a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions.  In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.

Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches.  Some smaller unregistered churches used the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.

The country continued to host the headquarters of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a group widely viewed in the press and academia as being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni transnational organization that promotes political Islam.  Although IUMS stated it was an independent association of scholars, observers said its close relationship with the government helped it to serve as an instrument of the country’s soft power.  Following the 2020 recognition of Israel by some Arab states, the IUMS in a November 27 statement said any normalization of ties with Israel was religiously forbidden and called for concerted efforts to “liberate” all Israeli-occupied lands, especially the al-Aqsa Mosque compound and Jerusalem.

According to an analysis published in February by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the government provided support for the IUMS, which the WINEP report described as “the clerical arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.”  In November, a report by the Carnegie Endowment said diminishing regional support for political Islamist groups was a factor in the recent rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain.

In June, the Ministry of Public Health issued a guide on halal food that authorities described as a “historic milestone.”  According to a statement by the ministry, the importance of the guide “lies in clarifying the requirements of halal and verifying the validity, accuracy, and credibility of halal certificates” issued by licensed providers in the country.

On March 29, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the country’s male guardianship system that inhibits women’s freedom of travel, marriage choices, employment, and health decisions.  According to the report, entitled “Everything I Do is Tied to a Man,” the country’s Family Law, as in many majority-Muslim-countries, is based on sharia, which treats marriages as contracts concluded by two mutually consenting parties” – although the report also states that “male guardianship is not unique to Islamic law and history.”  The government issued a statement calling the report inaccurate, and social media users criticized the report, saying it contained neocolonialist overtones, assaults on Islam, and attacks on the country’s values and heritage.

According to the NGO Humanists International, the government funded, managed, and used the website Islam Web to “promote the Salafi literalist school of Sunni-Islam, a radical interpretation of Islam considered incompatible with the promotion of co-existence.”  The NGO said that between its establishment by MEIA in 1998 and 2019, the site provided 245,000 fatwas and addressed 191,000 inquiries on topics related to culture, family, and the youth.  “The website preaches in six languages:  Arabic, English, French, Spanish, German, and soon, Indonesian.  In January, a MEIA official said the website received two million visits every day.”

In May, the government organized an official visit to Doha of the leadership of the U.S. NGO Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, during which delegation members met with government officials, church leaders, and foreign missions to discuss the situation of religious freedom in the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On October 18, the Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq published a column by author Ahmad al-Mohannadi warning against what he said were attempts by Christian organizations to penetrate Muslim-majority Persian Gulf societies via animated Bible-based missionary cartoons that are dubbed in Gulf dialects.  He called for combating such attempts to save Muslim children from the expected impact of these videos.

In its 2021 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “There are two general categories [of Christians in country]:  Christian foreigners, most of whom are migrant workers, and Christians who have converted from Islam.  Foreign workers who are Christian are much freer to worship.  Muslims who convert to Christianity face much more significant persecution.  Converts from both indigenous and migrant backgrounds bear the brunt of persecution, and Qatari converts face very high pressure from their families.”

The NGO Middle East Concern stated on its website, “Expatriate Christians enjoy considerable freedom in Qatar, provided that their activities are restricted to designated compounds and, in particular, that they avoid interaction with Muslims that could be construed as proselytism.”

During an outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in May that coincided with the end of Ramadan, Al-Araby al-Jadeed, a London-based newspaper owned by Fedaat Media and based in Doha, published antisemitic editorial cartoons.  One image showed “Israeli forces” shaped to resemble the COVID-19 virus in the courtyard of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, while another showed an Israeli soldier portrayed as some type of insect or monster dropping ordnance on buildings below, next to a sign saying, “escalation on the days of Eid.”

In September, press reported that the Ministry of Education said a private school in the country was facing legal action after it was found to be using an educational resource that included content contrary to Islam.  The ministry said a parent of a student at the school alerted it on September 14 to the problematic curriculum.  Government representatives visited the school and found it had not followed a ministry circular requiring schools to review new educational resources and submit them for ministry approval.

On July 20, a high profile Qatari social media figure who hosts a YouTube channel with more than 90,000 subscribers posted a video criticizing a Saudi government decision to allow a Saudi woman to compete against an Israeli in judo in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which were postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19), adding, “The Saudis made ‘a mockery of Islam and Muslims.”  On August 26, he posted another video in which he stated Arab secularists dislike sharia punishments for certain offenses because they (secularists) are guilty of those offenses.

In his November 11 column in the newspaper Al-Sharq, Abdallah al-Amadi, former media advisor to the education minister, discussed at length a story in which God transformed the Jews into apes and pigs as punishment for violating their Sabbath.  According to a Doha-based business group, Khalid Thani al-Thani, a member of the country’s royal family, owns the newspaper

On its website, Middle East Concern stated, “Qatari nationals or other Muslims who choose to leave Islam are likely to face strong family and societal pressure.”

A paper published by WINEP in January, based on an opinion survey in late 2020, stated that the “majority of Qataris express at least a ‘somewhat’ negative view of MB [Muslim Brotherhood],” although approval for the group in country (36 percent) was higher than in any other Arab state.  Members of the small Shia community, whose members originated from Arab and Persian families who immigrated to the country in the twentieth century, reported that unlike previous generations, they faced no anti-Shia prejudice.  Some community members said they attributed the currently warm relations with the Sunni majority to the country’s widespread prosperity, the high degree of societal integration, and to enlightened national leadership.  Shia citizens included prominent wealthy members of the business community, among them the owner of one of the country’s larger conglomerates.  The Shia community maintained husseiniyas (Shia prayer halls), in addition to mosques overseen by the government.

In December, social media campaigns criticized hotels for displaying Christmas decorations in their lobbies.  Some Qatari citizens on social media condemned marking non-Islamic festivities and warned against the impacts of such displays on young generations.  Some social media influencers posted messages discouraging congratulating non-Muslims on Christmas.  Imams of a few mosques reportedly disseminated similar warnings in their Friday sermons.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad).  The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.  Freedom of religion is not provided for under the law.  The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law bans “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts, including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.  In practice, there is limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious gatherings and public displays of non-Islamic religious symbols, but religious practitioners at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation.  According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased sectarian tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations were marked by improved relations between the Shia and other communities and public calls for mutual tolerance.  Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of the Shia community while carrying out security operations and legal proceedings against them specifically because of their religious beliefs.  On June 15, authorities carried out a death sentence against Shia citizen Mustafa al-Darwish, initially arrested for involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012.  Government authorities stated al-Darwish received the sentence not for crimes he committed as a minor but rather for crimes that he committed subsequently as an adult.  As many as 41 individuals faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), which stated that an undetermined number were Shia.  On October 12, London-based human rights organization ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, reported that religious leader Musa al-Qarni, a former professor of Islamic jurisprudence, died in prison after his health deteriorated while serving a 20-year prison sentence of which he completed 15 years.  On March 29, al-Watan newspaper reported that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA) fired 54 imams and preachers in Mecca Province because of ideological and administrative violations.  In a September review of Saudi textbooks used in the second semester of the 2020-21 and the first semester of the 2021-22 school years, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) reported that the trend of “significant improvement” in content dealing with religions other than Islam had continued from its last review of the Saudi curricula in late 2020.  The 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, organized by the Ministry of Culture under the sponsorship of the King, allowed booksellers to exhibit and sell antisemitic publications.  The fair permitted the sale of books about atheism as well.

Some social media platforms carried disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were found in some social media discourse.  An Orthodox Jewish rabbi made several unofficial visits to the country to conduct outreach and offer religious services to Jewish residents.  His social media posts depicted him in traditional Orthodox clothing and showed positive experiences with Saudis.

In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  Embassy officials engaged regularly with like-minded partners and with religious leaders and participated in interfaith discussions.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.8 million (midyear 2021).  In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners.  Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population.

According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 31.5 million Muslims, 2.1 million Christians, 708,000 Hindus, 242,000 atheists or agnostics, 114,000 Buddhists, and 67,00 Sikhs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam.  The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.”  The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion.  Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland.  Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize.  The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority.  The law deems children born to Muslim fathers as Muslim.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and Sunna.  All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects.  In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts.  Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the King.  By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna.  The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.

The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions.  The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters.  The CSS is headed by the Grand Mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i).  There are no Shia members.  Scholars are chosen at the King’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”  It criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law also bans publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.

According to the Basic Law of Governance, “The Judiciary is an independent authority.  The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.  The courts shall apply rules of the Islamic sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Quran and the Sunna.”  In the absence of a comprehensively codified criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely.  Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision.  Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff.  In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation that a Muslim male would receive.  In some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount that a Muslim male would receive.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia.  The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints.  There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC.  During the year, the commission had approximately 26 members from various parts of the country, including four Shia members.

The law permits death as punishment for blasphemy against Islam.  Courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992.  Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences.  Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

In 2020, as the result of a Supreme Court decision, the government ended flogging as a ta’zir (discretionary) criminal sentence and replaced it with prison sentences or fines.  As a result, flogging may no longer be used against those convicted of blasphemy, public immodesty, sitting alone with a person of the opposite sex, and a range of other crimes.  However, judicial officials have stated that flogging still may be included in sentences for three hudood offenses (crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law):  drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.

In 2020, a royal decree abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors.  The juvenile law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18, based on the Hijri (Islamic lunar) calendar.  Minor offenders, however, who are convicted of qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudood offenses could still face the death penalty.  The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.

The country is the location of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites.  The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina.  Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year.  The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims.  The King employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities.  Citing reasons of public safety and logistics, the government establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.  Saudi authorities continued to limit access to Mecca and Medina, including for the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, due to ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The MOIA vets, employs, and supervises Sunni Muslim clerics.  Those who preach at government-owned mosques are government employees who receive a monthly stipend.  The MOIA permits only government-employed clerics to deliver sermons and vets the sermons in advance.

The MOIA must approve clerics traveling abroad to proselytize and they operate under MOIA supervision.  The stated purpose of this regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the actual or apparent interference by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence.  Private schools must also follow the official, government-approved religious curriculum.  Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students may receive a course on Islamic civilization or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses entail one hour of instruction per week.  The government permits private international schools to teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities.  The CPVPV provides counseling and reports individuals suspected of violating the law to police.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf.  According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Muhammad.”  CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.

A royal decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the Grand Mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

Social media users who post or share content considered to attack religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Cyber Crimes Law.  Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order, public morals, or religious values may also be subject to a fine up to three million riyals ($800,000).

The government requires noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.”  Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicate other religious designations, such as “Christian.”

The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations.  The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.  NGOs and Shia activists said authorities committed a range of abuses against members of Shia communities.  While NGOs and Shia activists stated that the prosecution of Shia was often based on religious affiliation, observers said that members of other religious groups faced arrest and trial for similar offenses.

On February 7, according to NGOs, the government commuted the death sentences of Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher and Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016) to 10 years in prison.  On October 27 and November 16, authorities released Shia youths Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah al-Zaher following completion of their 10-year prison sentences.  Al-Nimr and al-Zaher, along with Dawood al-Marhoon, who remained imprisoned, were among a group of 13 Shia youth previously arrested as minors who faced possible execution, according to ESOHR.  The government reviewed their sentences as part of the implementation of a royal decree announced in 2020 abolishing ta’zir death sentences for crimes committed as minors.  In a March 3 statement, UN human rights experts welcomed the government’s decision to commute the death sentences given to the three men “for crimes allegedly committed when they were less than 18 years old.”  The statement also said the government should “quash” the convictions and release the three men.

The news website Middle East Eye reported that authorities arrested Ali al-Nimr’s father Mohammed Bakr al-Nimr on February 24 in his home in the Eastern Province town of Awamiyah.  The government released Mohammed al-Nimr on February 26.  The reason for his detention was not known.

On February 8, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), prosecutors amended charges against eight Shia detainees, seeking prison sentences rather than the death penalty for five of the eight – Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed al-Bati, Mohammed Hussein al-Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Issam al-Faraj – who were minors at the time of the alleged commission of the offenses.  The remaining defendants were Haidar al-Saffar, Hussein Saeed al-Subaiti, and Mujtaba Abu Kabus.  According to ESOHR, in October, the government dropped the request for the death penalty against the five younger prisoners, but all eight still face trial.  The men faced charges that included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.”  According to ESOHR, in late October, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which focuses on terrorism and national security cases, held a new hearing in the case of eight detainees, including the five minors.  The NGO stated the hearing was the first after a break of more than seven months.

On February 10, the SCC sentenced Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained in 2015 for participating in antigovernment protests, to eight years in prison and an eight-year travel ban, according to ALQST and Amnesty International.  The SCC also sentenced al-Ghomgham’s husband, Mousa al-Hashim, to 17 years.  The court sentenced four other Shia arrested along with them to prison, with sentences ranging from eight to 15 years:  Ahmed al-Matrood received a sentence of 15 years, Khaled al-Ghanim 13 years, Ali al-Ouwaisher 10 years, and Mujtaba al-Muzain eight years.

On August 24, SANAD Rights Organization, a London-based human rights NGO, reported that Shia prisoner Mustafa al-Khayat, convicted on charges involving demonstrations, disrupting security, and carrying weapons, awaited a death sentence upheld by the Supreme Court in 2020.

In February and March, authorities released three activists who had written about discrimination faced by Shia in the country, pending trial.  According to an April tweet by Prisoners of Conscience, the government also released one of the men’s wives, who – like her husband – had been held for two years.  In October, authorities found one of the men guilty under the Cyber Crimes Law and sentenced him to two years in jail, followed by a two-year travel ban.  The judge ruled that the defendant would be credited with two years of time served but that the travel ban would remain in effect.

As many as 41 Shia individuals faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by ESOHR.  The report added that trials of 32 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing, with 10 of them facing preliminary death sentences.  As is the case for detainees of any religious group, international human rights NGOs said that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture” during pretrial detention and interrogation.  Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On June 15, authorities carried out a ta’zir death sentence against Shia citizen Mustafa al-Darwish, initially arrested for involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012 and charged with membership in a terror cell and participation in an armed revolt.  Authorities stated that al-Darwish received the death penalty for crimes that he committed subsequently as an adult.  Reprieve, a London-based NGO opposed to the death penalty, said that Darwish’s execution “once again show[ed] that the Kingdom’s claim to have eliminated capital punishment for childhood crimes is not true.”  The NGO said that the government told the UN Human Rights Council in February that “anyone who commits a death-eligible crime as a child” will be subject to “a maximum sentence of 10 years in a juvenile institution.”  Reprieve also said that Darwish’s execution was contrary to a 2020 Royal Decree that abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors and capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.  On May 28, prior to al-Darwish’s execution, UN experts called on the government to halt the process leading to his eventual death, stating that authorities sentenced him for crimes when he was younger than the age of 18 and that the government did not provide due process and a fair trial.  Following al-Darwish’s execution, on July 7, the UN experts stated that they were “shocked” after the government did not address their May 28 concerns and that the government’s failure to provide details to his family about his execution inflicted “additional, unjustifiable, and useless pain” on his loved ones.

On August 3, authorities executed Shia Ahmed al-Janabi under a ta’zir sentence for armed rebellion and protesting against the state in Shia-majority Qatif.  On September 6, authorities carried out a ta’zir death sentence against Shia citizen Adnan al-Sharfa for joining a terrorist cell that aimed to “destabilize security in the country” and smuggling.

On July 1, ESOHR said at least four individuals accused of crimes committed as minors remained on death row, including Shia Jalal Hassan al-Labbad.  ESOHR reported on December 3 that Labbad was still at risk of execution.  Authorities sought the hudood penalty against Labbad in 2019 for hirabeh (unlawful warfare or insurgency) on a variety of charges, including participating in protests, some of which dated to when he was a minor.

In May, the NGOs Shia Rights Watch (SRW), Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), ALQST, and SANAD each reported that Shia Zaheer Ali Sharida al-Mohammed Ali died on May 8 in al-Hai’r Prison.  They blamed prison authorities’ medical negligence for Ali’s death and said he contracted COVID-19 in April.

In August, the SCC upheld a ta’zir death sentence issued on February 21 against Shia citizen Mohammed al-Shakhouri, according to ESOHR and UN experts.  Authorities arrested al-Shakhouri in 2017 and tried him in 2019 on charges of destabilizing the social fabric and national cohesion by calling for sit-ins and demonstrations and chanting antistate slogans.  The government also charged him with possession of arms, as well as photos and information of individuals classified as terrorists.  According to an August 27 letter by UN experts to the government, the appeals court upheld this verdict on August 2, and at year’s end the case was pending before the Supreme Court.

In the same August 27 letter to the government, the UN experts raised the case of Asaad Makki Shubbar, a Shia citizen, whom, according to the experts’ letter, authorities arrested in Asir Province in 2017 and held without trial for more than two years, subjecting him to “various types of torture and ill-treatment.”  According to the letter, interrogators reportedly used “sectarian terms denigrating minority Shia believers and insulted [Shubbar’s] religious beliefs.”  In 2019, the government charged him with several crimes under the counterterrorism law, including joining a group from Qatif in acts of sabotage, participating in demonstrations, chanting slogans, and calling for participation in demonstrations and sit-ins.  The SCC sentenced Shubbar to death in January and, in July, the Specialized Appeals Court upheld his sentence.  At year’s end, the case was pending before the Supreme Court.

On November 1, the Saudi Press Agency, citing MOI, reported that a ta’zir death sentence had been carried out against Makki Kazem al-Obeid in Damman.  The ministry statement said that al-Obeid participated in attacks against security forces and was “linked to people wanted for terrorism-related activities.”  The Committee for Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula “condemned the Saudi regime’s execution” of al-Obeid and said that he was a “Shia prisoner of conscience.”

In February, media reported authorities arrested 65-year-old Aisha al-Muhajiri, reportedly because she continued to preach and teach the Quran at her home in Mecca.  Authorities also arrested two other women along with al-Muhajiri, one of whom, according to a news site, was 80 years old.

ALQST alleged in March 2021 that the health of imprisoned Shia cleric Mohammad al-Habib was deteriorating due to neglect.  He was closely associated with Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016.

During the year, the SCC held several hearings in the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017.  Earlier in 2017, a criminal court convicted and sentenced al-Maliki to three months on charges of extremism, fanaticism, and holding an impure (takfiri) ideology.  In December 2020, his son tweeted that the public prosecutor had sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad reported by multiple sources, and thus deemed especially reliable).  According to HRW, the charges against him also included criticism of several early Islamic figures, insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist.

The SCC continued trials of some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government continued to regard as a terrorist organization, a view also expressed by the CSS, which stated the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent the true values of Islam.  The accused included prominent scholars of Islam Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017.  According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them.

Amnesty International reported in August that authorities tried al-Odah before the SCC in a secret session, where they charged him with 37 counts.  Amnesty International reported that since 2018, courts scheduled more than 10 hearings on his case, which were postponed for months at a time, with no clear explanation being provided to al-Odah or his family.  Al-Odah’s son stated in a July tweet that his father’s physical and mental condition had declined during four years of solitary confinement and that he had partially lost his sight and hearing due to medical negligence.  In July, his son said that authorities had denied al-Odah access to family telephone calls for almost a year.  According to HRW, authorities barred 18 members of al-Odah’s family from traveling abroad since his arrest.  In a report released in August, al-Odah’s son Salman told Amnesty International “No legal process or court was involved in the bans against my family, and no reason was given by any authority.  The bans are mainly to pressure me into silence, even when I’m overseas, and to further pressure my father in jail.”  In February, UN experts called for an explanation for the repeated postponements of his trial and asked for information regarding his “right to physical and mental health while detained.”

During the year, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics, religious leaders, and academics arrested in 2017 and charged for offenses related to free expression and their religious views and increased prison sentences previously issued against some of them, including Nasser al-Omar, Mohammed Mousa al-Shareef, Waleed al-Huwairini, Mohammed al-Bishr, Ali Badahdah, Yousef al-Ahmed, and Khalid al-Muhawish.  At the time of their arrests, the government said those arrested had ties to a “foreign spy cell” and the Muslim Brotherhood.  According to Prisoners of Conscience, the SCC sentenced them to between four and 10 years in prison.

On August 24, SANAD reported that the government continued to detain Sheikh Saad Matar al-Otaibi, a scholar in Islamic politics and public policy and popular preacher on national TV, whom authorities arrested in 2017.

On April 15, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC commuted prison sentences against clerics Dr. Adel Bana’ma, Dr. Ibrahim al-Harthi, and Sheikh Ali Badahdah to four years from eight, five, and six years, respectively.  On August 16, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted and on August 24 SANAD confirmed that authorities released Sheikh Khaled al-Ajeemi, whom authorities arrested in 2017, due to failing health.  On November 24, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted that authorities extended al-Harthi’s sentence to eight years.

On June 24, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC increased the prison sentence of religious leader Sheikh Yousef al-Ahmed from four to 13 years.  In December 2020, the SCC sentenced al-Ahmed to four years in prison and a four-year travel ban on charges that included visiting prisoners of conscience and appearing in a television show hosted by Fahd al-Sunaidi, who is also serving a four-year prison sentence.

In November, ALQST reported that authorities detained Abdulrahman al-Dowaish, son of missing preacher Sulaiman al-Dowaish, after he asked about the whereabouts of his father.  On November 10, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted authorities held a secret trial of Abdulrahman al-Dowaish, which took place without his family or legal representation being present.  Officials had previously arrested his brother, Abdulwahhab al-Dowaish, in August, according to ALQST.  The NGOs DAWN and MENA Rights Group reported that security personnel arrested Sulaiman al-Dowaish in 2016 after he posted several tweets summarizing a religious lecture he delivered that day during a trip to Mecca that warned about the dangers of individuals providing their sons with great privileges and responsibilities without proper oversight and accountability.  In March, ALQST reported that it obtained and confirmed information that high-ranking officials “brutally tortured” preacher Sulaiman al-Dowaish after his 2016 disappearance.  ALQST stated that the last reported sighting of al-Dowaish was in July 2018, and that nothing has been heard of him since then.

On September 1, ESOHR stated that from 2016 through the end of August 2021, the bodies of at least 88 persons executed or killed in Saudi security raids, including nine minors and three foreigners, were not returned for burial.

According to NGOs and Shia community members, prison officials held Shia inmates in some cases in separate wings of prisons, and they reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.

According to ESOHR, authorities detained Shia cleric Mojtaba al-Nimr on June 6 at King Fahd Airport when he returned from a trip to the Shia holy city of Qom in Iran.  Mojtaba al-Nimr is a member of executed sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s family, although their exact relationship remained unclear.

Prisoners of Conscience reported that on September 14, authorities arrested Abdulrahman al-Mahmoud, a former professor of Islamic faith at Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, on charges that were not made public.  There was no update on his case at the end of the year.

On October 12, ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience reported that religious leader Musa al-Qarni, a former professor of Islamic jurisprudence, died in prison after his health deteriorated while serving a 20-year prison sentence, of which he completed 15 years.  “Qarni was subjected to brutal torture, and the Saudi authorities deliberately harmed him by giving him unsuitable medication,” ALQST said on Twitter, adding that it “questions the causes of death & calls for an international investigation.”  Prisoners of Conscience tweeted that al-Qarni died after “extremist prisoners” had beaten him and that prison authorities had refused his request to be housed with other older prisoners.  In addition, the authorities waited three days to inform al-Qarni’s family of his death.  SANAD stated that authorities did not allow al-Qarni’s family to see his body before his funeral.  In November, Prisoners of Conscience reported that prison authorities had beaten and withheld medicines from another prisoner arrested with al-Qarni in 2007, Mukhtar al-Hashimi.

In July, the website Together for Justice reported there were no updates since 2020 regarding the arrest of Quran reciter Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, an associate professor of sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah and imam of the Mansour al-Shuaibi Mosque in the al-Salama neighborhood of Jeddah.  The site stated that until his detention was confirmed in September 2020, a month after his arrest, Basfar had not appeared before any court.  On December 8, Prisoners of Conscience reported that Basfar remained in detention.  At the time of Basfar’s arrest, observers noted that persons of any religious affiliation who expressed views not supported by the government did so at personal risk and that when clerics were arrested, it was often for expressing views counter to government policy.

In 2020, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities had arrested Saud al-Fanisan, the former head of the Faculty of Sharia at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University, on undisclosed charges earlier in the year.  In November, Prisoners of Conscience and SANAN both reported that the SCC had sentenced the 85-year-old al-Fanisan to two years’ imprisonment.

Several human rights NGOs signed a letter publicly calling on the government to return the remains of individuals executed in 2019 in connection with “terrorism crimes.”  At the time, HRW reported that at least 33 of the 37 citizens executed by the government were from the country’s Shia minority.  ESOHR reported that at the time authorities carried out the sentences, at least six of those executed were minors, a statement which the government denied.  Separately, in August, SANAD reported that authorities were refusing the family of executed Shia activist Yousef al-Mushaikhis access to his remains.  The government executed al-Mushaikhis in 2017, after arresting him in 2014.

According to an August 16 tweet sent by Prisoners of Conscience, the government sentenced three sons of prominent religious scholar Safar al-Hawali to four years in prison.  Authorities arrested the three men, along with their father, his brother, and another son on undisclosed charges in 2018.  In 2019, officials released the youngest son, after detaining him for seven months.  According to the website Middle East Monitor, authorities charged Safar al-Hawali, in his seventies and facing chronic health issues, although details of the charges remained unknown.  In an August 24 post, SANAD stated that a family member reported that one of the three brothers, Abdullah, had serious medical concerns, due in part to having only one kidney and to prison conditions.  In a separate post, SANAD noted that in addition to the sentences given to Safar al-Hawali’s three sons, authorities also sentenced his brother, Saadallah, and his office manager, Ismail Hassan, to three and a half year sentences.

The SCC sentenced well-known preacher Nasser al-Omar to 10 years in prison.  Authorities arrested al-Omar in 2018.  He was a professor at the Faculty of Fundamentals of Religion at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, near Riyadh.  Like Safar al-Hawali, he was associated with the Sahwa (Islamic Awakening) movement.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, in an April 27 televised interview, cautioned against adherence to one particular school of Islamic jurisprudence or Islamic scholarship.  He said any Saudi with extremist views, even if that person had not yet committed a crime, “is a criminal and will face the full force of the law.”  In the same interview, the Crown Prince said no sharia punishment could be enforced without a clear Quranic stipulation or an explicit stipulation from the Sunna.  He also stated that only hadith were to be enforced.

The government continued to incarcerate individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, and engaging in “black magic” and sorcery.

At year’s end, authorities continued to imprison Raif Badawi based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols.  In a June 18 post on its website, the NGO Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans Frontiers, or RSF) stated that the government continued to hold Badawi in solitary confinement and limited his contact with the outside world to two phone calls per week with his wife and children, were living in Canada.  According to RSF, authorities monitored these calls, which were very short and sometimes suddenly disconnected.  Badawi had originally been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but a court increased his sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes, as well as a one million riyal ($267,000) fine.  Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes.  The Supreme Court directed that flogging be ended in 2020.

According to media reports, authorities arrested Ahmad al-Shammari and sentenced him to death for apostasy in 2017 after he posted videos to social media in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.  He was believed to be incarcerated as of year’s end.  It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

In June, media reported that the Saudi Zakat, Tax, and Customs Authority said a customs officer at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam thwarted an attempt by an air traveler to smuggle suspected sorcery-related pieces into the kingdom.  Authorities referred the smuggler and the seized items for possible prosecution.

In March, a Christian convert faced two court cases as well as threats of violence against him and his family, according to media reports.  Authorities charged the man in court on March 11 with trying to convert Muslims after he allegedly discussed his own conversion to Christianity.  A second court case, on March 26, concerned financial assistance he gave his sister, also a convert to Christianity, for her and her children to flee the country.

On November 17, RSF called for the immediate release of Yemeni journalist Ali Aboluhom, who received a 15-year prison sentence for tweets that, according to Saudi authorities, promoted apostasy, atheism, and blasphemy.  According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights, the Criminal Court in Najran sentenced Aboluhom on October 26 to 10 years in prison after convicting him of apostasy and atheism, and another five years in prison for publishing his writings on social media networks that “would prejudice public order, religious values, and morals.”

On November 23, local media reported that Public Prosecutor Sheikh Saud al-Muajab issued an order to arrest a man who posted a video on his Twitter account that showed him making remarks insulting the Divine Essence.

On September 21, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the Supreme Court increased prison sentences issued by the SCC against three clerics and academics:  Sanhat al-Otaibi from four years to eight years, Ibrahim al-Nasser from three months to three years, and Omar al-Muqbil from six months to four years.  In August, the NGO Together for Justice reported that authorities arrested al-Nasser in 2017 but did not disclose charges.  Authorities arrested al-Muqbil in 2019 for criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority, calling them a threat to the country’s culture.

Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion.  According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation.  Members of the expatriate Christian community said that congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.  Members of other minority faith communities similarly reported less interference in private religious gatherings than public ones.

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer.  In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer.

Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform Islamic religious observances, such as prayers.

On May 23, the MOIA instructed mosques to set loudspeakers at only one-third of the maximum volume and limited the use of loudspeakers for the call for prayers and to signal for prayers to start.  The MOIA mandated that full prayers and sermons could not be broadcast via loudspeaker.  The MOIA said the changes were a response to complaints from the public, including from the elderly and parents whose children’s sleep was disrupted.  On May 28, the MOIA modified its decree to allow use of loudspeakers during Eid and Friday prayers.  On July 19, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities arrested academic and legal advisor Dr. Omar Abdullah al-Saadoun for an article criticizing the decision to restrict the use of loudspeakers.

On March 17, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that domestic pilgrims between the ages of 18 and 70 would be allowed to perform Umrah.  On April 8, an official source at the MOI said pilgrims who performed Umrah without a permit during the month of Ramadan would be fined 10,000 riyals ($2,700), along with a 1,000 riyal ($270) fine for anyone entering the Holy Mosque in Mecca without a permit.  On June 12, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that it would limit the 2021 Hajj to approximately 60,000 vaccinated pilgrims, all living in-country, who had to be free of chronic diseases and be between the ages of 18 and 65.  On August 7, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said the country would begin receiving Umrah pilgrimage requests from abroad for vaccinated pilgrims starting August 9 after nearly 18 months of barring overseas pilgrims due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Foreign Umrah pilgrims who took two approved doses of Covid-19 no longer needed to be institutionally quarantined upon arrival.  On September 7, the ministry announced it increased the number of Umrah pilgrims to 70,000 per day under a plan to gradually raise capacity to two million per month.  As of September 14, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah no longer required a quarantine or a negative COVID-19 test result prior to issuing a permit to perform prayers at the Holy Mosque in Medina.  On September 18, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that 10 million pilgrims performed Umrah since October 4, 2020, following the launch of its “safe Umrah” procedures and the gradual return of pilgrims to the two Holy Mosques.  On October 25, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that pilgrims wishing to perform Umrah would no longer be required to wait for 14 days to book for the ritual.

On June 13, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah allowed women to attend without a male guardian as long as they performed the pilgrimage with other groups of women.  Some pilgrimage service providers announced they would not accept women without a guardian.  Some companies reportedly charged women more than men.

Authorities continued to permit public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the country’s largest Shia population.  According to community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.  They stated that the Shia Ashura commemoration was marked by improved sectarian relations and publicity for mutual tolerance.  In May, local media reported that the community in the Eastern Province observed the anniversary of the death of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (the first of the Twelve Imams) in Shia mosques and husseiniyas (prayer halls).  In Qatif, authorities eased restrictions imposed after civil unrest in 2011-2012 and took steps to encourage development and tourism to improve conditions for the town’s predominantly Shia residents.  Shia activists reported that security authorities closed some Shia mosques and husseiniyas in Qatif and al-Ahsa, summoned the individuals in charge, and fined them 60,000 riyals ($16,000) for violating COVID-19 precautionary measures.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance to Sunni imams on the substance of Friday sermons.  The MOIA does not vet sermons in advance, but imams must choose from a list of Friday sermons on the MOIA website.  The ministry restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy.  The MOIA may also issue circular notes directing all imams to dedicate their Friday sermons to certain topics, such as denouncing political Islam groups.  In this regard, MOIA supervisors may attend Friday sermons to ensure compliance with MOIA directives.  According to local observers, Shia clerics did not receive guidance on their sermons from MOIA and did not submit them for preapproval.  However, Shia clerics continued to exercise significant self-censorship in light of the government’s well-known views on the scope and substance of acceptable preaching.

On October 22, the website Arabi21 reported that MOIA Minister Abdul Latif al-Sheikh directed mosque preachers to dedicate the Friday sermon to warn against “Sururi” thought and the “terrorist al-Sururiya organization, which pursues secrecy to reach its goals, foremost of which is inciting people to revolt against the rulers, divide the Muslim community, sow division among them, and spread wars in their countries.”  Commentators have referred to Sururism as a movement that is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, representing a blend of the country’s Wahhabi movement and Salafi jihadism.

On December 6, the MOIA said in a tweet that Minister al-Sheikh directed imams to use Friday sermons on December 10 to warn against the Tablighi and Da’wah group, a transnational Islamic revivalist movement that originated in India and also known as al-Ahbab.  The minister directed that the sermon cover topics that included a declaration of “the misguidance, deviation and danger of this group, and that it is one of the gates of terrorism, even if they claim otherwise,” mentioning its prominent mistakes and its “danger to society,” and a statement that affiliation with partisan groups, “including (the Tablighi and Da’wah Group), is prohibited in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

There were media reports that some Sunni clerics who received government stipends used antisemitic, anti-Shia, and religiously intolerant language in their sermons.  The MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.  Unlicensed imams, however, continued to express discriminatory or intolerant views in internet postings and in unsanctioned sermons in areas of the country lacking government monitoring.

According to a January 3 report in the newspaper Okaz, the government fired seven imams and preachers in al-Bahah Province for failing to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as instructed by the MOIA.  On March 29, al-Watan newspaper reported that the MOIA fired 54 imams and preachers in Mecca Province because of ideological and administrative violations.  In September, the Minister of Islamic Affairs said the MOIA had purged religious institutions of individuals who had adopted extremist ideologies.

The government continued to mandate that imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina be “moderate” and “tolerant,” among other requirements, including holding a degree from a Saudi sharia college.

On April 15, former imam of the Holy Mosque in Mecca Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani tweeted that authorities dismissed him without reason as imam of a Riyadh mosque.  His dismissal came hours after he appeared in a video announcing that he contracted COVID-19, despite receiving two doses of the vaccine.

On April 25, the Mirat al-Jazeera news website reported that authorities demolished the Shia al-Ahd Mosque in Qatif, which authorities said was part of a road expansion project.  The website described the action as “part of an arbitrary and systematic sectarian campaign” aimed at the Shia community.

On June 27, according to ALQST, authorities released orator Mohammed Bou Jabara [Bojbara] on completion of a nine-month prison sentence.  Security forces arrested Bojbara in October 2020 with eight other young persons on charges related to his participation in Arbaeen ceremonies (the Shia mourning observance occurring 40 days after Ashura and the death of Imam Hussein).  The same day, authorities released Shia activist Nassima al-Sadah upon completion of a three-year sentence, although a three-year travel ban remained in effect following her release.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained prohibited.  Shia community members reported that authorities permitted Shia pilgrims to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj.

In a July 16 circular, Ajlan bin Abdul Aziz al-Ajlan, the head of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, announced that the country would allow shops to remain open during prayer times, explaining that the measure was intended to “improve the shopping experience and the level of services for shoppers and clients.”  Commenting on the decision, Ali Sameer Shihabi, a commentator on Middle East politics and economics with a focus on Saudi Arabia, tweeted that keeping shops open during prayer time was a “hugely symbolic and practical step to end the dominance of the religious class in daily life.”

On August 30, the Minister of Islamic Affairs instructed all mosques to remove books that called for extremism and partisanship and banned unlicensed preaching activities, including proselytizing non-Muslims without permission.  The minister also directed mosque officials to participate in “intellectual security” courses (aimed at countering extremist ideologies) held by MOIA or other state agencies.

On May 18, the CPVPV presidency tweeted a fatwa by CSS member Sheikh Fouzan al-Fouzan obligating citizens to report to government authorities anyone who criticized the government and religious scholars.

On January 1, CPVPV head Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sanad said in an interview with al Arabiya that the CPVPV fired hundreds of employees after reports confirmed that they embraced extremist ideologies.

Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship, although husseiniyas existed in areas inhabited by Shia residents.  The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence.  The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any reported violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.  MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as in urban areas.  MOIA maintained a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable.  An MOIA mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) allowed mosque-goers to monitor sermons and rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

While authorities indicated that they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and community members said the mainly foreign-resident Ahmadi Muslims hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

The government continued to enforce Islamic norms, such as prohibiting eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan.  On May 10, local media reported that the CPVPV in Riyadh Province intensified its field presence in markets and malls during the last 10 days of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasigovernmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country.  There were, however, public non-Islamic cemeteries in Jeddah and Riyadh that, according to officials, were used in cases where repatriation was not possible, such as when there were no claimants for a body, the family did not accept the body, or the deceased received the death penalty.  There also was a private, non-Islamic cemetery in Dhahran available only to Saudi Aramco employees.  Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

The government continued a multiyear project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam.  On February 15, an HRW statement said the country had taken important steps to purge its textbooks of hateful and intolerant language.

In a September review of Saudi textbooks used in the second semester of the 2020-21 and the first semester of the 2021-22 school years, IMPACT-se reported that the trend of “significant improvement” in content dealing with religions other than Islam had continued from its last review of the Saudi curricula in late 2020.  According to IMPACT-SE, officials either removed or altered 22 anti-Christian and antisemitic lessons and five lessons about “infidels” and polytheists.  The NGO reported that this removal included an entire textbook unit on the possible need for violent jihad to spread Islam and protect Muslim lands and praising it as an act of piety.  Specifically, IMPACT-se stated that officials altered several lessons that explicitly blamed “the Jews” as a collective for attacking Muslims and Muhammad, instead attributing responsibility to Arabian tribes and in some cases removing references altogether; in addition, they removed references to forbidding friendships with Jews and Christians, formerly referred to as “infidels, as they are enemies of God.”  The NGO also reported that authorities removed a series of ahistorical, harmful, and in some cases antisemitic assertions, such as Jewish connections to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount being fabricated by rabbis, and purported Jewish threats to the al-Aqsa Mosque.

In February, HRW noted separately that the country had taken important steps to purge its textbooks of hateful and intolerant language but said current texts continued to disparage practices associated with religious minorities.  HRW’s comprehensive review of Education Ministry-produced textbooks for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years found that they still stigmatized as un-Islamic and prohibited some practices associated with the Shia and Sufi Islamic traditions.

On January 27, the head of the General Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques inaugurated a Mediation and Moderation Academy in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, with the goals of fighting extremist thoughts and promoting mediation and moderation in all aspects of life, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

On March 16, the Ministry of Education announced the establishment of intellectual awareness units in all universities and education departments that were intended “to promote loyalty to religion,” “to spread the values of moderation, tolerance and coexistence, and to prevent extremist thought and address its effects.”

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import Bibles for personal use.  There were no reports that the government confiscated personal, non-Islamic religious materials.  Media reported the confiscation of sorcery-related items.

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring “objectionable” content, such as views of religion it considered extremist or misinformed.  The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for “religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users under the Cyber Crimes Law.  The government also shut down websites it regarded as being used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence.

Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion and had difficulty securing or being promoted in government positions.  They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard.  In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools.  A small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.  Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education.

According to HRW, the government systematically discriminated against members of Muslim religious minorities, notably Shia, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

At year’s end, the 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, who assumed the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs in 2014.  There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders.  Although Shura Council members’ religious affiliations are not publicly announced, there were an estimated seven or eight Shia on the 150-member council.  Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis reside, had large proportions of Shia as members, to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa.  In both cities, five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils.

Shia reported the government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for employment credit for graduates of Shia religious training centers and that the government did not apply the same standards to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions applying for government positions and religious jobs.

According to human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals were Sunni, although some teachers were Shia.  Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, with the remaining 30 percent located in private residences or built and endowed by private persons.  The construction of any new mosque required permission from the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits.  The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerics.

The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs.  Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars.  Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to endorse these mosques, according to some NGOs.  Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques.  Two Shia mosques in Dammam licensed by the government served approximately 750,000 worshippers.  Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and authorities required Shia communities to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques.  There were no licensed Shia mosques in Jeddah and Riyadh.  Shia in those areas were obliged to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where, some Shia said, they were subject to police harassment.  Expatriate Shia resident in the country reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship.

State security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province.  Media and other sources additionally reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Reports from Shia community members cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations.  Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts.  The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management.  There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in Qatif and al-Ahsa.  Community members reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

Observers stated that judges at times discounted the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam and favored the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims.  In certain circumstances, the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man.

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials.  The government also provided the names of offices to which one should report violations of this policy.

In November, King Salman issued a royal approval to grant Saudi citizenship to Shia Islamic scholar and the Secretary General of the Arab Islamic Council in Lebanon Mohammed al-Husseini, along with 26 other Sunni religious scholars, academics, and physicians.  According to the press, the King offered citizenship “in recognition of their distinguished services and outstanding contributions.”

There is no religious worker visa category, but non-Muslim clergy were able to enter the country to minister to their communities.  Non-Muslim clergy also were able to bring religious items, including books, when traveling.

In May, local media reported that authorities removed the “Muslims only” phrase from traffic signs leading to the Holy Mosque in Medina, adding that the signs now read “Haram area,” in reference to Medina’s Haram, or sacred site.  Authorities did not comment on the decision, but media reports attributed it to the kingdom’s efforts to promote moderation.

The Crown Prince announced in February a series of judicial reforms intended to codify the law to increase transparency and predictability in judicial decision-making.

According to an October 5 posting on its website, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that the 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, organized by the Ministry of Culture under the sponsorship of the King, allowed booksellers to exhibit more than two dozen well-known antisemitic books for sale, including numerous editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  According to the ADL, other antisemitic books permitted at the 2021 fair featured references to blood libel, Holocaust denial, Jewish-Masonic conspiracy theories, and portrayals of Jews as evil puppet masters and the killers of divine prophets.  The NGO also reported that there were two books demonizing the Baha’i Faith and Yezidism.  Other observers reported that the fair permitted the sale of publications about atheism.

According to the ADL, following violence in Jerusalem between Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque and Israeli police, General President for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais delivered a May 11 sermon praying for God to “keep the al-Aqsa Mosque, God keep them from the attacker Zionists, the occupying, combatant brutes.”  He added, “We seek refuge in you from their butchery and seek protection in you from their evils and all the rest of the enemies of religion.”  The same day, Sheikh Salah al-Badir, an imam of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, delivered a sermon calling for God to “liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque from the usurper Jews and the traitorous occupying Zionists.”

On May 12, on Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a member of the CSS, delivered a sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca calling on God to “grant victory to our brothers in Palestine over your enemy and their enemy.”  He called for God to “cleanse the al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the occupier Zionists.”  Saudi state television broadcast the sermon and promoted it on social media.  In an Eid sermon at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, al-Humaid urged God to “cleanse the al-Aqsa Mosque from the befoulment of Jews.  Oh God, it is incumbent upon you to deal with the usurper Jews and the aggressor Zionists.”

On May 13, separate Eid al-Adha sermons delivered at the Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina urged God to free the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem from “usurping Zionists” and “occupying Jews.”  On May 14, Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca Sheikh Mahir al-Muayqali likewise concluded his Friday sermon with a prayer to God to free al-Aqsa from “usurping, occupying Jews.”  On June 11, Chief of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais delivered a sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to free al-Aqsa from the “usurping occupiers.”  On July 30, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered a sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping, occupying Zionist Jews.”

On April 8, local media reported that Mohammed al-Issa, the Secretary General of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), sent a letter to Facebook and Twitter urging them to combat Islamophobia.  The letter was part of a campaign to denounce hate in social media platforms and curb anti-Muslim rhetoric.

On June 11, the MWL convened a Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan Conference, bringing together senior scholars from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to discuss topics such as peace, tolerance, moderation, and reconciliation in Islam.

On August 4, the MWL sponsored talks in Mecca involving approximately 80 Iraqi Sunni and Shia representatives.  The two sides renewed calls for an end to sectarian violence and attacks on houses of worship, the release of innocent detainees, and the return of displaced persons to their homes.

On October 19, al-Issa and World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald Lauder met with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, urging him to advocate for religious freedom and an end to violence against houses of worship.  On October 4, the MWL and WJC made a joint statement before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, pledging an interfaith commitment to promote and to protect human rights for all.  It was the first time Jewish and Muslim representative groups presented a coordinated statement before a UN body.

On October 20, al-Issa met with students during a visit to Yeshiva University in New York, saying that religious communities “have a shared responsibility toward followers of different faiths to build bridges and improve relationships.”  In a March video address to an online conference organized by the U.S. Department of Defense, al-Issa said that there was now greater awareness in the Muslim world of the dangers posed by political Islam, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In January, cleric and former director of the CPVPV in Mecca Ahmed al-Ghamdi created controversy when he tweeted that Muslims could pray for mercy for non-Muslims, explaining that there was no religious text prohibiting such prayer.

In January, a group of Israeli drivers traveled to Saudi Arabia to compete in the Dakar Rally race, despite a ban on Israeli travelers to the country.  On February 2, the English-language newspaper Arab News ran the first-ever op-ed in a Saudi newspaper authored by Israeli writers.  In March, local media reported that the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities arranged the shipment of 650 pounds of matzah and kosher food to all six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia, for Passover.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, but local residents said self-censorship was common, given the risk of official reprisals.  While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, self-censorship on social media was believed to be widespread when discussing topics such as religion or the royal family.  Online discussions included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  Terms like “rejectionists” (referring to Shia who view as illegitimate the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Muhammad’s legitimate successors) which Shia consider insulting, and images of donkeys, comparing them to Shia, were occasionally found in social media discourse.

An Orthodox Jewish rabbi made several unofficial visits to the country to conduct outreach and offer religious services to Jewish residents.  His social media posts depict him in traditional Orthodox clothing and show positive experiences with Saudis, whom he publicly described as “happy” to have a rabbi in the kingdom.  International media described local residents as stopping to take photographs with the rabbi and offering Hebrew greetings.

Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution.  The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

On October 31, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC) told the Saudi-owned al Arabiya English-language news channel that the first-ever Jewish dating website, JSG, which stands for “Jewish Singles in the Gulf,” launched in the Gulf.  The aim of the website is to help unmarried Jews living in the country and its neighboring countries meet each other.

The global consulting firm PSB Insights conducted a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 35 percent of Saudi Arabian respondents said that their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, consistent with 34 percent regionwide.  Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The constitution states that Islam is the country’s official religion.  It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals.  It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.  According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case.  The law prohibits blasphemy and proselytizing by non-Muslims.  An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions.  The government, having designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, in September designated four members of al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, as terrorists.  Despite changes to federal laws removing penalties for adultery or consensual extramarital sex, in August the Supreme Federal Court rejected the appeal of a woman from Sharjah convicted of consensual extramarital sex, finding that local prohibitions were still applicable, even in the absence of any federal penalty.  In May, the public prosecutor’s office released a video on social media highlighting the penalties for acts of witchcraft and sorcery.  In September, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) began consultations for official recognition from the Dubai Community Development Authority (CDA) in anticipation of building a temple in Dubai on government-granted land at what will be the former site of the Expo 2020 following that event’s conclusion in 2022.  In February, the Dubai CDA granted an official license to the Jewish congregation “Gates of the East,” making it the first and only Jewish congregation with CDA recognition.  Dubai authorities eased COVID-19 restrictions gradually during the year.  Prayer halls were open to Muslim men throughout the year and authorities reopened prayer halls for Muslim women in June.  Authorities permitted all houses of worship to return to 50 percent capacity in August.  Limits on capacity, however, remained stricter on places of worship than on businesses and entertainment venues.  According to leaders of some communities, restrictions on the number of attendees per religious service put undue burdens on non-Muslim faiths due to the limited number of houses of worship non-Muslim communities were permitted.  COVID-19 related restrictions disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so because of social distancing regulations and closures.  Federal regulations designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission continued to prohibit practices affecting Christian churches, such as receiving communion.  In December, the government announced that effective in the new year, the country would adopt a four-and-a-half-day workweek, with Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday serving as the new weekend, after previously following the Islamic workweek, which uses Friday and Saturday as its weekend.  Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious issues.  The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques with the stated purpose of limiting the spread of what the authorities characterized as extremist ideology.  Some Shia imams chose to follow Awqaf-approved guidance, while the Dubai-based Jaafari Affairs Council, charged with management of Shia affairs, issued additional instructions to Shia mosques.  Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered religiously extremist.  The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting religious extremism.  In September, the Dubai Executive Council issued a resolution authorizing the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD) to license public and private prayer rooms and prohibiting anyone from building, allocating, or modifying a space to be used as a prayer room without prior approval from IACAD.  Minority religious groups said the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population.  Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding, and many congregations lacked their own space.  During the year, Abu Dhabi began constructing the country’s first, purpose-built synagogue as part of the larger government-sponsored Abrahamic Family House, scheduled to open in 2022 and bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths on one site.  Except in the judiciary and military, non-Muslim minorities did not serve in senior federal positions, while among Muslims, Sunnis predominated in these positions, reflecting the country’s religious demographics.

According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with houses of worship officially recognized by the federal or local emirate governments, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged.  Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however.  Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 3,800 Dubai residents converted to Islam during the year, compared with 3,184 in 2020.  In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services.  Local media reported minority groups, including registered religious organizations, encountered difficulties obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces.  In February, Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), and incorporated it in Dubai.  In June, a memorial exhibition on the Holocaust, which its organizers said was the first of its kind in the Arab world, opened in Dubai.  On April 8, Holocaust Remembrance Day (HaShoah), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a virtual forum about teaching the Holocaust in the Arab world.  Ali al-Nuaimi, the chairman of Hedayah, an organization partly funded by the government that is focused on countering violent extremism, participated from its Abu Dhabi location.

The U.S. Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers engaged government officials on issues pertaining to religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, as well as licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious and religiously affiliated minority groups.  They met with representatives of minority religious organizations and community groups, including the Jewish and Baha’i communities, and different Islamic groups during the year.  In these meetings, U.S. officials discussed the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.  Embassy and consulate general officials also regularly kept in contact with minority religious groups to monitor their abilities to freely associate and worship.  Remarks by U.S. officials throughout the year encouraged efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.9 million (midyear 2021).  Approximately 11 percent are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports.  The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.

Of the estimated 89 percent of noncitizen residents, the majority comes from South and Southeast Asia.  Although no official statistics are available on the percentage of the noncitizen population who are Muslim or the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population is Shia.

Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census, the most recent, found 76 percent of the population to be Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other noncitizen religious groups, comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists and including Parsis, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews.  Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens.  The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, and 2 percent Buddhist, with the remainder belonging to other faith traditions.  According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 125,000 atheists or agnostics, 72,000 Sikhs, and 49,000 Baha’is.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion.  It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.”  The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.  The constitution states that the country is an independent, sovereign, and federal state comprised of seven emirates.

The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years, a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600), and deportation in the case of noncitizens.  Individuals seeking the aid of sorcerers also face jail sentences and/or fines.

The law defines blasphemy as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship.  The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; but the penal code’s blasphemy provisions punish behavior viewed as contemptuous of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad or offensive to Islamic teachings.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims.

The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred.  Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams ($545,000) and imprisonment that generally ranges from five to 10 years or more.

The law criminalizes any form of expression the government interprets as blasphemous or offensive toward “divine recognized religions,” inciting religious hatred, or insulting religious convictions.  Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams to two million dirhams ($68,100-$545,000); noncitizens may be deported.  The law prohibits any form of expression, including through broadcasting, printed media, or the internet, that the government determines is contradictory to Islam as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive toward religions.

Federal law does not require religious organizations to register or obtain a license to practice, although the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions, such as opening a bank account or renting space.  Each emirate oversees registration and licensing of non-Muslim religious organizations, and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance; these procedures are not published by the emirate governments.  The federal government has also granted some religious organizations land in free-trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license that allows them some operational functions.  In Dubai, religious organizations are required to obtain a license from the CDA.  The governments of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai also require religious communities to obtain permits for certain activities, including holding public events, collecting donations, and worshipping in temporarily rented spaces, such as hotels.

The federal law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan.  Violations of the law are punishable by one month’s imprisonment or a fine not exceeding 10,000 dirhams ($2,700).  Most local authorities across the country grant exemptions allowing non-Muslims to eat during the day in malls, hotels, and some stand-alone restaurants.  In April, the governments of the Dubai and Abu Dhabi emirates issued guidelines lifting a requirement to install curtains or otherwise cover the front of restaurants as a precondition of serving food during Ramadan fasting hours.  The law prohibits Muslims from knowingly eating pork throughout the year.  Consumption of alcohol by non-Muslims is not criminalized at the federal level.  The government announced a series of legal reforms in 2020 decriminalizing the consumption of alcohol by Muslims at the federal level, while allowing each emirate to regulate “the use, circulation, and possession or trade of alcoholic beverages,” which may include a ban for Muslims at the local level.  The government of the Sharjah emirate bans all consumption of alcohol.

Federal law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.

Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools.  The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools.  In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes.  All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include teaching on Islam.  The government permits Christian-affiliated schools to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student – Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.

Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defaming any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure.  All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government.  Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education, and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry.  Each emirate’s government is responsible for administrative oversight of schools.

Land ownership by noncitizens is restricted to designated freehold areas.  This restriction is an impediment to most minority religious communities, which consist of noncitizens, that wish to purchase property to build houses of worship.

The antidiscrimination law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious discrimination, and criminalizes acts or expressions the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion; this provides a legal basis for restricting events, such as conferences and seminars.  The law also criminalizes broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audiovisual or print media, or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred.  Violations of the law carry penalties of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to one million dirhams ($272,000).

According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case.  Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system.  In the case of noncitizens, or noncitizens married to citizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply rather than sharia in cases involving divorce and inheritance.  The federal law applies if either spouse is Emirati.  On November 7, the emirate of Abu Dhabi issued a decree allowing non-Muslims to apply civil law in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony, proof of paternity, and custody.

Sharia also applies in some criminal matters.  Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters.  When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties.  In these cases, judges generally impose civil penalties.  Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties.  Amendments to the federal law in November 2020 repealed an article giving reduced (lenient) sentences in what are called “honor crimes,” and the law now treats “honor killings” as normal murder cases.

Federal legal reforms in 2020 also removed flogging from the federal penal code, limited the jurisdiction of sharia courts to deal with blood money cases, and removed penalties for adultery, cohabitation outside marriage, and consensual extramarital sex.  Local sharia laws and punishments regarding adultery and consensual extramarital sex, however, remain applicable.

Under the law, citizen and noncitizen Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish).  Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men.  Marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are not recognized under the law.

Strict interpretation of sharia – which often favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases, and courts have applied the “best interests of the child” standard for several years.  According to sharia, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach 13 years of age and sons 11 years of age.  Women may file for continued custody until a daughter marries or a son finishes his education.  The father, deemed the guardian, provides for the child financially, while the mother, the custodian, provides day-to-day care of the child.

In custody cases involving noncitizens, UAE courts may apply the laws of the country of nationality of each child involved.  In December, a new personal status law for most expatriates went into effect in the emirate of Abu Dhabi that allows for joint custody agreements, civil marriages, birth certificates for children of unmarried parents, the equality of men and women as witnesses, and new alimony and inheritance laws.  The new law also allows for non-Muslim judges, creates a new court to hear these cases, and requires cases to be heard in both Arabic and English.  This new personal status law does not apply to Muslim citizens of countries that base their law on sharia, including the UAE.

The country’s citizenship law does not include religion as a prerequisite for naturalization.  Non-Muslim wives of citizens are eligible for naturalization after seven years of marriage if the couple has a child, or 10 years of marriage if the couple has no children.  There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim.  Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will.

Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department permits Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for Christians and agnostics if the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate.  The government permits church officials to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the couple must also obtain the marriage certificate from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department.  In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) as officially recognized to perform these acts.

Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live.  Since 2020, personal status laws permit the general terms of a will to be dealt with according to the law of the country specified in the will or, in cases where a country is not specified in the will, the law of the deceased person’s country of nationality.  This is not applicable to property purchased in the UAE, however, which remains subject to UAE law.  Non-Muslims may register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights.  In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry, which may cover assets held in the UAE as well as abroad.  The DIFC Wills Service Center allows non-Muslim business owners and shareholders to designate an heir.  Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia.  There are courts for personal status and for inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.

The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations or that promote damage to national unity or harm public order, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.  Promoting these activities using any means, written or otherwise, is punishable with not less than 15 and no more than 25 years of prison.  The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam.  These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals.  Punishment may include up to life imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams to one million dirhams ($136,000-$272,000).  Electronic violations of the law are subject to a maximum fine of four million dirhams ($1.09 million).  Abuse of religion to promote sedition and strife or to harm national unity and social peace is punishable with not less than 10 years imprisonment and a fine of not more than 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations.  The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans a number of organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

The Fatwa Council, headed by the president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, is tasked with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research, in coordination with the Awqaf, an independent federal legal authority that reports directly to the cabinet.  The Awqaf director general holds the title of Deputy Minister, and he and the Awqaf board of directors are appointed by the cabinet.  The Awqaf is responsible for managing domestic Islamic endowments, imam tutelage, education centers, publications, and general messaging.

Under the law, emirate and federal authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, including religious centers used by Shia Muslims, determining the timing of the second call to prayer, organizing religious lectures, and preparing sermons.  The law also defines acts prohibited in mosques, prayer spaces, and Eid musallas (open prayer spaces outside of mosques or prayer halls smaller than mosques) without a license, such as giving lectures or sermons, holding Quran memorization circles, fundraising, and distributing written and visual material.  The law further stipulates citizen applicants must be given first consideration for vacant positions at mosques.  The law prohibits those working in mosques from belonging to any illegal group or from participating in any political or organizational activities.

The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities.  Violations of the law are subject to a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600).  Under the cybercrimes law, the use of any information technology to promote the collection of any type of donation without a license is subject to a fine between 200,000 dirhams and 500,000 dirhams ($54,500-$136,000).

Individuals who donate to unregistered charities and fundraising groups may be punished with a three-year prison term or a fine between 250,000 dirhams and 500,000 dirhams ($68,100-$136,000).

In Abu Dhabi, the Awqaf is entrusted with overseeing Islamic religious affairs across mosques, sermons, imam tutelage, and publications.  Non-Islamic religious affairs fall under the mandate of the DCD, which regulates, licenses, and oversees non-Islamic houses of worship, religious leaders, religious events organized outside houses of worship, and fundraising activities across the emirate.  The Abu Dhabi DCD uses a three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship.  Under the system, instituted in 2020, the DCD issues licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations.

The Dubai CDA is the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups.  The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events and monitors fundraising activities.  The law states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval.  Fines for noncompliance range from 500 dirhams to 100,000 dirhams ($140-$27,200).  Repeated violations may result in the doubling of fines, not to exceed 200,000 dirhams ($54,500).

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

During the year there were reports of persons held incommunicado and without charge because of their political views or affiliations, which often involved alleged links to Islamist organizations.  The government continued to make arrests or impose other restrictions for speech related to and in support of Islamist political activities.

Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017, remained imprisoned at year’s end, following a 2018 court ruling upholding an earlier conviction under the cybercrime law of insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols.”  As of year’s end, the government had yet to announce the specific charges against Mansoor but said that he promoted “a sectarian and hate-filled agenda,” as well as other accusations.  In July, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that authorities held Mansoor in solitary confinement and removed his clothes, mattress, blanket, and toiletries from his cell.  Authorities reportedly denied him access to lawyers, granted only a limited number of family visits, and subjected him to death threats, physical assault, government surveillance, and inhumane treatment while in custody.

The government, having designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, continued to restrict the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.  According to HRW, in September, the government designated four members of al-Islah, all living in self-imposed exile, as terrorists:  Hamad al-Shamsi, Mohammed Saqr al-Zaabi, Ahmed al-Shaiba al-Nuaimi, and Saeed al-Tenaiji.  The designation included asset freezes, property confiscations, and criminalizing communications with their families.  The four men told HRW that authorities threatened their families with prosecution for “communicating with terrorists.”  The men learned of their designations only after the Cabinet of Ministers issued the decision.

Despite changes to federal laws removing penalties for adultery or consensual extramarital sex, local sharia laws and punishments remained applicable.  A member of the Sharjah Consultative Council reported that in August, the Supreme Federal Court rejected the appeal of a woman from the Emirate of Sharjah convicted of having consensual extramarital sex, finding that local emirate laws were still applicable, even in the absence of any federal penalty.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery.  In May, local press reported Dubai customs authorities prevented five attempts in 2020 to smuggle material local authorities believed were related to witchcraft and sorcery, including books, knives, talismans, amulets, containers of blood, and animal skins and bones, compared with 22 attempts in 2019.  In May, the federal prosecutor’s office released a video on social media highlighting the penalties for acts of witchcraft and sorcery.  In addition, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft.  In July, local media quoted a Dubai police official as saying that 80 percent of individuals seeking the aid of sorcerers were women, and that they likely “turned to sorcery” because they believed they had been bewitched.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths again said registration and licensing procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates.  The federal government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but, according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in many groups having ambiguous legal status and created difficulties for them in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases.  Religious groups said the bureaucracy was slow to conduct security checks and issue necessary visas.  The governments of individual emirates continued to require religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces, such as hotels or convention centers.

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint men to be Sunni imams (except in Dubai), based on their educational background and knowledge of Islam, along with security checks.  According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, except for those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques.  All imams in Dubai’s more than 2,100 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens.  Dubai’s IACAD maintained more stringent qualification requirements for expatriate imams than for local imams, such as requiring them to demonstrate memorization of larger parts of the Quran, and starting salaries were much lower, a practice permitted under federal law.  Expatriate imams also could not obtain other employment without permission from the authorities.  Local communities said these additional requirements did not hinder their ability to find qualified imams.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, continued to manage Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams.  The council complied with weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.  Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques.  The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were technically eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.  Shia sources said they doubted the government would provide funding in practice, and therefore did not seek it.

Ismaili Muslims continued to appoint their own community leaders.

One source said it was difficult for his church to access funds or receive an extension of its operating license under Abu Dhabi DCD’s new three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship.  The source attributed these difficulties to it being a new system rather than a deliberate attempt by the government to discriminate against his church.

In September, the Church of Jesus Christ began consultations for official recognition from the Dubai CDA in anticipation of building a temple in the emirate on government-granted land at what will be the former site of Expo 2020 following that event’s conclusion in 2022.  Consultations remained ongoing and the Church of Jesus Christ had not yet submitted a formal application at year’s end.  Church officials toured the site in October.  The Church continued to maintain a chapel in Abu Dhabi.

In February, the Dubai CDA granted an official license to the Jewish congregation “Gates of the East,” making it the first and only Jewish congregation with CDA recognition.  Official recognition allowed the group to secure religious worker visas.  According to local sources, at year’s end, discussions between the congregation and the government on plans to build a physical synagogue in Dubai were ongoing, and the congregation continued to rent hotel rooms for worship.

Community leaders stated the tacit Abu Dhabi guidelines requiring non-Muslim religious leaders to work in the ministry full-time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa continued to create difficulties for religious leaders who served their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who did not have a theology degree.  Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination.  Some religious community members stated the system discriminated against smaller and less recognized denominations and forced them to either end operations or join with other denominations.

Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services, and non-Muslims reported some pressure to attend ostensibly nonmandatory lectures and classes about Islam.  Some Christian clergy stated incarcerated Christians did not have worship spaces.  They said that when authorities granted them prison access, authorities permitted them to take Bibles to the prisoners.  In several emirates, authorities did not allow Christian clergy to visit Christian prisoners.

The government continued to permit Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private but not in public.  There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates, where the majority of the country’s Shia population resides.

The government continued to maintain COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings for religious purposes throughout the year.  From January to June, religious venues operated at 30 percent capacity.  In Dubai, only men were allowed to attend mosques during this time.  In June, Dubai authorities permitted women’s prayer halls for Muslims to reopen, also at 30 percent capacity.  In August, authorities permitted houses of worship to return to 50 percent capacity.  During the same period, the Dubai government allowed entertainment and sporting events and social activities to operate at 60 percent capacity, entertainment venues (e.g., museums and cinemas) and restaurants to operate at 80 percent capacity, and business events and hotels to operate at 100 percent capacity.  In September, the government increased the allowed capacity at houses of worship throughout the country, and further increased it in November.  At year’s end, capacity in worship spaces was limited by the congregants’ ability to maintain mandatory social distancing.

According to representatives of various religious groups, restrictions on the number of attendees per religious service put undue burdens on non-Islamic faiths due to the limited number of houses of worship non-Muslim communities were permitted.  According to religious community leaders, Dubai authorities conducted regular inspections to ensure adherence to COVID-19-related restrictions.  Religious community leaders stated Dubai authorities required them to report the number of COVID-19-positive cases in their congregations.  Federal regulations designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission continued to prohibit practices affecting Christian churches, such as receiving communion.  Christian sources said they understood the need for such precautions.  In November, authorities in Abu Dhabi permitted women to attend Friday prayers again at the Grand Mosque.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings or in private facilities or homes and provided they observed the prohibition on proselytizing.  While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions.  In November, leaders of the Hindu community attended a ceremony marking the placement of carved stones as part of the ongoing construction of Abu Dhabi’s Hindu temple, expected to be completed in 2023.  The ceremony included a religious blessing of the site.  The Jerusalem Post reported that on November 28, UAE resident Rabbi Levi Duchman lit a Hanukkah menorah and recited holiday blessings at the Israel pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 (which opened in 2021, following a year’s delay).  Members of Dubai’s Jewish community held multiple public and private celebrations throughout the holiday.

Christian community leaders stated the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in Dubai fined both drivers and passengers of buses transporting worshipers to churches for lacking proper RTA permits.  Religious leaders said the rules and regulations were confusing, particularly the requirement to obtain permits from a government authority other than the CDA.

The Dubai Quran Award program continued to allow prisoners who memorized the Quran to have their sentences reduced or be granted amnesty.

In December, the government announced that, effective in the new year, the country would adopt a four-and-a-half-day workweek, with Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday serving as the new weekend.  The country previously followed the Islamic workweek, which uses Friday and Saturday as its weekend.  As part of the change, the government said that Friday midday sermons and prayers would be held at 1:15 p.m., slightly later than the previous schedule.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain websites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including some Islamic sites.  The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including ones with information on Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.  International media sites, accessed using the country’s internet providers, contained content filtered by government censors.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection.  The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.  The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community safety reminders.

Observers familiar with the media environment stated government officials warned journalists against publishing or broadcasting material deemed politically or culturally sensitive.  Editors and journalists commonly practiced self-censorship due to fear of government retribution, particularly since most journalists were foreign nationals and could be deported.  Authorities did not allow the importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.

The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the IACAD.  On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.”  The Awqaf stated it continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website.  The Awqaf regularly held training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.

The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior Sunni imams followed the Awqaf script for Friday sermons closely; midlevel 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.  Sermons sometimes dealt with contemporary topics; for example, in December, after President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan appointed the board of directors of the country’s newly established National Human Rights Institution, sermons praised the country for its human rights record.  Other sermon topics reportedly included the power of contemplation, and prayer and piousness as keys to inner peace.  Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to use Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons.  Friday sermons were translated into English and Urdu on the Awqaf’s website and mobile application.

The Jaafari Affairs Council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in Arabic, English, and Urdu.  Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues.  Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa.  Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the telephones at the fatwa hotline.  The Awqaf also operated an online “e-fatwa” service.

Authorities did not allow the importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials, such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad.  The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to texts it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting a religion other than Islam.  The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation.  The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam.  The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

Bookstores in the country carried pro-atheism, anti-organized religion titles by well-known authors in English and Arabic.  These stores also sold books on non-Islamic religions.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them.

In September, the Dubai Executive Council issued a resolution authorizing IACAD to license public and private Islamic prayer rooms, and prohibiting anyone from building, allocating, or modifying a space to be used as a prayer room without prior approval from IACAD.

The Jaafari Council continued to regulate Shia worship spaces.

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis.  Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population.  Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space.  Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different groups shared worship space, sometimes in private homes.  In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic.  Some smaller congregations met in private locations or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land.  Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property.  Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who generally made up the entire membership of minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship.  For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name.  The country’s Christian churches were all built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations.  Ajman and Umm al Quwain remained the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations continued to gather in other spaces, such as hotels, subject to COVID-19 capacity restrictions.  There was one Sikh temple in Dubai, built on land provided by the government within a religious complex shared with Christian churches, the same complex in which the new Hindu temple construction, expected to be completed in 2023, was underway.

The government did not always enforce the prohibition against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

There continued to be no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place in hotels on the Sabbath and holidays.  During the year, Abu Dhabi began constructing the country’s first purpose-built synagogue as part of the larger government-sponsored Abrahamic Family House project, scheduled to open in 2022 and bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths on one site.  According to the Times of Israel website, in June, the government announced that the synagogue at the site would be named the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, after the 12th-century philosopher and rabbinical scholar Maimonides.  The mosque would be named Imam al-Tayeb Mosque, and the church St. Francis Church.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some unlicensed noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization.  Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

Members of unregistered religious organizations stated that their organizations continued to face challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances.  In Abu Dhabi, the DCD continued to require religious functions at hotels be pre-approved and overseen by registered clergy.  The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes as long as these activities did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion.  COVID-19-related restrictions, however, continued to disproportionately impact unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures, although restrictions on public gatherings eased as the year progressed.

In Dubai, non-Muslim community members reported continued delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds.  Community representatives also reported restrictions on as well as confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies for obtaining licenses and event permits, which were not published by the CDA.  There were also reports of last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries.  Cremation facilities and associated cemeteries were available for the large Hindu community.  Non-Muslim groups said the capacity of crematoriums and cemeteries was generally sufficient to meet demand, although press reporting indicated some strains on capacity during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits.  The government allowed individuals from all religious groups except Islam to use the crematoriums.  Hindu temples also provided cremation services to non-Hindus.

Except in the judiciary and military, non-Muslim religious minorities did not serve in senior federal positions, while among Muslims, Sunnis predominated in these positions, reflecting the country’s religious demographics.

Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious-related concerns.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications, although immigration officers said foreigners, including atheists and agnostics, had the option to leave the field blank.  School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation in order to distinguish between Muslim students, who were required to take Islamic studies, and non-Muslim students, who were exempt.  According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis.

Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their places of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.  Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions.  The government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities.

Prominent government figures routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays and promoted messages of tolerance through various print and media platforms.  In September, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan extended New Year’s greetings to the country’s Jewish community on social media on Rosh Hashanah.  In November, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan publicly commemorated the Hindu festival of Diwali.

Media reported that in September, Minster of Tolerance and Coexistence Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan spoke at the government-sponsored Eshraqat (“Radiance”) Festival in Abu Dhabi to students about “the role of education in preparing future generations with ethics and virtues who will renounce extremism and hate and promote the values of tolerance and coexistence.”

On November 16, the Minster of Tolerance posted to Twitter a “call for upholding the values of coexistence, tolerance, and humanity, and rejecting violence, fanaticism, and extremism for a better future for all mankind.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be strong cultural and societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam, particularly from family members.  Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively.  Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 3,800 Dubai residents converted to Islam during the year, compared with 3,184 in 2020.  Ajman police reported in October that six inmates converted to Islam in the previous three months, for a total of 47 inmates in five years.

According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with houses of worship officially recognized by the federal or local governments.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls, hotels, and major shopping centers.  Media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas festivities and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.

Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores, although bookstores generally did not carry the core religious works of other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.

Private and government-run radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.

In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services.  Local media reported minority groups, including registered religious organizations, encountered difficulties obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces.

There continued to be two Hindu temples, both predating the country’s independence, in Dubai.  There were no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

Construction of a new Anglican church in al-Mushrif, Abu Dhabi, remained stalled at 50 percent completion due to financial issues; the projected completion date was not clear at year’s end.

Following the opening of the first kosher restaurant in 2020, kosher food services continued to expand in Dubai.  In March, a second kosher restaurant opened in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, and a local company, led by a member of the country’s resident Jewish community, partnered with the established kosher kitchen to cater airline meals for Emirates and other airlines.

In February, Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the AGJC, incorporated in Dubai.  Rabbi Elie Abadie, the senior rabbi for the Jewish Council of the Emirates, led the group, along with its president, Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, a citizen of Bahrain.  According to press reports, the AGJC was creating a Jewish court to preside over issues of civil disputes, personal status, inheritance, and Jewish ritual.  It planned also to run the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency throughout the six countries.  On June 4, the AGJC hosted an in-person Shabbat dinner for diplomats and Emiratis in Dubai.  Rabbi Abadie, President Nonoo, and Alex Peterfreund of the UAE spoke about Jewish life in the Gulf and answered questions from Emirati participants about opportunities for Muslim and Jewish cooperation.

In June, a memorial exhibition on the Holocaust, which its organizers said was the first of its kind in the Arab world, opened in Dubai.  The “We Remember” exhibition at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum included first-hand testimonies of Holocaust survivors.  The museum hosted visits from local school groups beginning in November.

Expo 2020 Dubai featured a thematic week on “Tolerance and Inclusivity” from November 14 to 20.  The week highlighted the country’s efforts to support religious tolerance and included the launch of a “Global Tolerance Alliance,” announced by Minister al-Nahyan, and a “Global Interfaith Summit” that brought together various government representatives with local and regional religious leaders to discuss religious coexistence.

On April 8, Holocaust Remembrance Day (HaShoah), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a virtual forum about teaching the Holocaust in the Arab world.  Ali al-Nuaimi, the chairman of Hedayah, an organization partly funded by the government and focused on countering violent extremism, participated from its Abu Dhabi location.  In his remarks, al-Nuaimi said, “The older generation operated in an environment where speaking about the Holocaust was tantamount to betraying Arabs and Palestinians.  Public figures failed to speak the truth, because a political agenda hijacked their narrative.”

West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: West Bank And Gaza

Israel

Executive Summary

West Bank and Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of separate authorities, with different implications for the fabric of life.  Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank, and, in the relevant areas, Palestinian Authority (PA) law.  Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the military commander and to Israeli law and Israeli legislation.  The PA exercises varying degrees of authority in the small portions of the West Bank where it has some measure of control.  Although PA laws theoretically apply in the Gaza Strip, the PA does not have authority there, and Hamas continues to exercise de facto control over security and other matters.  The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion and states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation, but provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality.  It also proscribes discrimination based on religion, calls for respect of “all other divine religions,” and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law.  The Israeli government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites in Jerusalem, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount (the site containing the foundation of the First and Second Jewish temples and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque).  Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site.  On September 10, Israeli police temporarily closed off all entrances to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem attempted to stab an Israeli Border Police officer.  Police shot the suspect, who later died of his wounds.  Later in September, a Palestinian woman attempted to stab police officers outside the Chain Gate to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and police shot and killed her.  On November 17, a Palestinian youth stabbed two Israeli Border Police officers in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and a civilian shot and killed him.  On November 21, a Palestinian teacher shot and killed an Israeli tour guide and wounded four others with an automatic weapon near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem.  Security officials shot and killed the attacker immediately after the assault.  In April and May, clashes occurred in the West Bank and East Jerusalem between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  The Palestinian National and Islamic Factions in the West Bank called on Palestinians across West Bank cities, villages, and refugee camps to participate in a “Day of Rage” on May 11 to protest Israeli Security Force and Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound and in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.  On April 13, at the start of Ramadan, media and Waqf officials reported that Israeli National Police (INP) entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and disconnected loudspeakers used for the call to prayer without coordinating with Waqf officials, to avoid disrupting an official Memorial Day service attended by then Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the adjacent Western Wall Plaza.  During the last Friday of Ramadan on May 7, Israeli police entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque using teargas, stun grenades, and rubber-tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians who were throwing rocks.  Media reported that in the aftermath, Palestinians stockpiled stones on the compound in anticipation of confrontations with police and far-right Israeli nationalists planning to march through the Old City.  On May 10, Israeli police entered the compound again and used stun grenades, teargas, and rubber-tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians.  The Palestinian Red Crescent stated that more than 300 individuals were injured.  In an attempt to ease tensions and reduce the potential for clashes, Israeli police temporarily barred non-Muslims from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited the site of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, throwing rocks and bottles at Israeli Defense Force (IDF) personnel providing security, who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.  On September 26, Palestinian protesters attacked buses carrying approximately 500 Jewish worshipers traveling to the site and injured two Israeli soldiers escorting the convoy.  According to police, the protestors used live fire, stones, and homemade explosive devices.  On November 4, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected an appeal submitted by the PA Hebron Municipality against the establishment of an elevator at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs.  Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling Fatah political movement, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence against Jews, often referring to assailants as “martyrs.”  Both Palestinians and Israelis evoked ethnoreligious language to deny the historical self-identity of the other community in the region or to emphasize an exclusive claim to the land.  The PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed while engaged in violence against Israelis or of those killed by Israeli military actions, including victims of air strikes in Gaza, and also continued to provide separate stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism involving Jewish targets.  In June, the German nongovernmental organization (NGO) Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research released the findings from its European Union-commissioned review of PA curriculum assessing the extent of inciteful content.  The report found the curriculum had eliminated some prior inciteful content and included promotion of UNESCO standards such as respect for human rights and pluralism, but the report also highlighted the enduring presence of problematic content, including “antisemitic references” that contain negative stereotypes of the Jewish people and some content that delegitimized the State of Israel.

Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other extremist groups disseminated antisemitic materials and advocated violence through traditional and social media channels as well as during rallies and other events.  Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia.  According to the Israeli government, Hamas and other groups launched more than 4,360 unguided rockets and mortars toward Israeli population centers, killing 13 between May 10 and 21 during the “Days of Rage.”  The United Nations reported that during the May fighting, attacks by the Israeli military killed 260 Palestinians in Gaza.

During the year, there were incidents of violence that perpetrators justified at least partly on religious grounds.  Actions included individual killings, physical attacks and verbal harassment of worshippers and clergy, and vandalism of religious sites.  There was also harassment by members of one religious group of another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and antisemitic content in media.  Amid tensions in Jerusalem and conflict in Gaza, ethnic-based violence and civil unrest broke out during a one-week period in May in a number of mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel, including Jerusalem.  The INP reported it made approximately 1,550 arrests during that time, with the overwhelming majority of the arrestees being Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel.  Security officials characterized the arrested Jewish citizens as predominately middle-aged nationalist extremists.  On December 16, gunmen killed yeshiva student Yehuda Dimentman near Jenin in the West Bank.  On March 1, unknown assailants set fire to the entrance of a Romanian Orthodox Church monastery in Jerusalem near the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim.  According to local press and social media, some settlers in the West Bank continued to justify “price tag” attacks on Palestinian property, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, vandalism of cars and buildings, arson, and slashing of tires as necessary for the defense of Judaism.  (“Price tag” attacks refer to violence by Jewish individuals and groups against individuals, particularly Palestinians and Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel, and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government contrary to the attackers’ interests.)  According to the Times of Israel, on October 13, vandals sprayed nationalist slogans and damaged cars in the Palestinian village of Marda in the West Bank.  Slogans painted on walls included “price tag” and “demolish enemy [property], not Jewish.”  According to media reports, on November 9, unidentified individuals vandalized nearly two dozen vehicles and a building in the Palestinian town of al-Bireh with slogans such as “enemies live here” and “price tag.”  On April 28, arsonists set three Palestinian cars ablaze in Beit Iksa, a village outside Jerusalem.  According to media reports, dozens of Jewish residents of a nearby neighborhood chanted, “May your village burn,” until police arrived and dispersed the crowd.

Senior U.S. officials worked to harness normalization between Israel and predominantly Muslim countries, which would improve access for Muslim worshippers to Islamic sites.  Senior U.S. officials publicly raised concerns about antisemitism among PA officials and more broadly in Palestinian society throughout the year.  Senior White House officials and other U.S. officials repeatedly pointed out that Palestinian leaders did not consistently condemn individual terrorist attacks, including the November Hamas attack at Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount, nor speak out publicly against members of their institutions, including Fatah, who advocated violence.  U.S. embassy officials met with Palestinian religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and a broad range of issues affecting Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities.  They met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote interreligious tolerance and cooperation.  U.S. representatives met with representatives of religious groups to monitor their concerns about access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship.  They also met with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about threats to the presence of Christian communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as ongoing Christian emigration.

This section of the report covers the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war.  In 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total Palestinian population at 2.9 million in the West Bank and 2 million in the Gaza Strip (midyear 2021).  According to the U.S. government and other sources, Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims, with small Shia and Ahmadi Muslim communities.  The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reports an estimated 441,600 Jewish Israelis reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  Israeli statistics do not count settlements in East Jerusalem as part of the West Bank.  Palestinian officials use the figure of 751,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank which includes settlements in the suburbs of Jerusalem.  According to various estimates, 50,000 Christian Palestinians reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and according to media reports and religious communities, there are approximately 1,300 Christians residing in Gaza.  Local Christian leaders state Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at rapid rates.  A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder includes Roman Catholics, Melkite Greek Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Maronites, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, other Protestant denominations, including evangelical Christians, and small numbers of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Christians are concentrated primarily in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus; smaller communities exist elsewhere.  Approximately 360 Samaritans (practitioners of Samaritanism, which is related to but distinct from Judaism) reside in the West Bank, primarily in the Nablus area.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates 569,900 Jews, 349,600 Muslims, and 12,900 Christians live in Jerusalem, accounting for the vast majority of the city’s total population of 952,000, as of 2020.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Residents of the occupied territories are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities.  Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and, in the relevant areas, PA law.  Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander and Israeli law and legislation.  West Bank Palestinian population centers mostly fall into Areas A and B, as defined by the Oslo-era agreements.  Under those agreements, the PA has formal responsibility for civil administration and security in Area A, but Israeli security forces frequently conduct security operations there.  The PA maintains civil administration in Area B in the West Bank while Israel maintains security control in this area.  Israel retains full security and administrative control of Area C (which constitutes approximately 60 percent of the West Bank) and has designated most Area C land as either closed military zones or settlement zoning areas.

Palestinians living in the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord are subject to military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander.  PA civil and criminal law applies to Palestinians who live in Area B, while Israel retains the overriding responsibility for security.  Although per the Oslo II Accord, only PA civil and security law applies to Palestinians living in Area A of the West Bank, Israel applies military ordinances enacted by its military commander whenever the Israeli military enters Area A, as part of its overriding responsibility for security.  The city of Hebron in the West Bank – an important city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians as the site of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs – is divided into two separate areas:  area H1 under PA control and area H2, where approximately 800 Israeli settlers live and where internal security, public order, and civil authorities relating to Israelis and their property are under Israeli military control.

The Oslo Accords stipulate that protection of 12 listed Jewish holy sites and visitors in Area A is the responsibility of Palestinian police, and the accords created a joint security coordination mechanism to ensure “free, unimpeded and secure access to the relevant Jewish holy site” and “the peaceful use of such site, to prevent any potential instances of disorder and to respond to any incident.”  Both sides agreed to “respect and protect the listed below religious rights of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Samaritans” including “protection of the Holy Sites; free access to the Holy Sites; and freedom of worship and practice.”

Israeli government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.

The Israeli Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled since 1993 that Jews have the right to pray on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but police may restrict this right in the name of public order and safety.  The court reiterated in 2019 that its precedent on this issue is nonintervention in government decisions, “except in highly unusual cases when the decision constitutes a major distortion of justice or is extremely unreasonable.”

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administers the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem.

The Israeli “Nakba Law” prohibits institutions that receive Israeli government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba (“catastrophe”), the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.  Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”

In 2007, Hamas staged a violent takeover of PA government installations in the Gaza Strip and has since maintained a de facto government in the territory, although the area nominally falls under PA jurisdiction.

An interim Basic Law applies in the areas under PA jurisdiction.  The Basic Law states Islam is the official religion but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.”  It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality.  It criminalizes the publishing of writings, pictures, drawings, or symbols of anything that insults the religious feelings or beliefs of other persons.  The Basic Law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law.  The law states the principles of sharia shall be the main sources of legislation.  It contains language adopted from the pre-1967 criminal code of Jordanian rule that criminalizes “defaming religion,” with a maximum penalty of life in prison.  Since 2007, the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, controlled by Hamas, has not convened.  The Palestinian Constitutional Court dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council in December 2018 and called for new elections.  The President of the PA promulgates executive decrees that have legal authority.

There is no specified process by which religious groups gain official recognition; each religious group must negotiate its own bilateral relationship with the PA.  The PA observes 19th-century status quo arrangements reached with Ottoman authorities, which recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Catholic Churches.  The PA also observes subsequent agreements that recognize the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Council of Local Evangelical Churches (a coalition of evangelical Protestant churches present in the West Bank and Gaza).  The PA recognizes the legal authority of these religious groups to adjudicate personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  Recognized religious groups may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities.  The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs is administratively responsible for these family law issues.

Islamic or Christian religious courts handle legal matters relating to personal status, including inheritance, marriage, dowry, divorce, and child support.  For Muslims, sharia determines personal status law, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians.  By law, members of one religious group may submit a personal status dispute to a different religious group for adjudication if the disputants agree it is appropriate to do so.

The PA maintains some unwritten understandings with churches that are not officially recognized, based on the basic principles of the status quo agreements, including with the Assemblies of God, Nazarene Church, and some evangelical Christian churches, which may operate freely.  Some of these groups may perform some official functions, such as issuing marriage licenses.  Churches not recognized by the PA generally must obtain special one-time permission from the PA to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters if these groups want the actions to be recognized by and registered with the PA.  These churches may not proselytize.

By law, the PA provides financial support to Islamic institutions and places of worship.  A PA religious committee also provides some financial support for Christian cultural activities.

In Jerusalem, the Israeli government provides separate public schools for Jewish and Arab children with instruction conducted in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively.  For Jewish children, there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families.  Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance.  Minors have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference.  By law, Israel provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semiprivate) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties:  the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System.  Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools.  Palestinian residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction.  Some Israeli-funded public schools in Jerusalem use the PA curriculum.

Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates as well as in some Palestinian schools in Jerusalem that use the PA curriculum.  There are separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians.  Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses.  Recognized churches operate private schools in the West Bank that include religious instruction.  Private Islamic schools also operate in the West Bank.

Palestinian law provides that in the defunct Palestinian Legislative Council, six seats be allocated to Christian candidates, who also have the right to contest other seats.  There are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group.  A 2017 presidential decree requires that Christians head nine municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for representation on these councils and one additional municipal council.

PA land laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to “any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf.”  While Israeli law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority, which administers the 93 percent of Israeli land in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.

Although the PA removed the religious affiliation category from Palestinian identity cards issued in 2014, older identity cards continue to circulate, listing the holder as either Muslim or Christian.

Israel’s Law of Citizenship and Entry, first passed in 2003 and renewed annually, explicitly prohibited residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the Israeli Ministry of Interior (MOI) makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.

The Jordanian Waqf administers Islamic courts in Jerusalem for Muslim residents, with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Jordan having appellate authority.

There is no Israeli legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays and on Jewish holidays.  The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest.  The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed.  There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries.  The law instructs the Israeli Minister of Labor and Welfare to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat.  The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant, to work on their day of rest.

Israeli law states public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.

Government Practices

Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

On September 10, Israeli police temporarily closed off all entrances to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem attempted to stab an Israeli Border Police officer.  Police shot the suspect, who later died of his wounds.

Later in September, a Palestinian woman attempted to stab police officers outside the Chain Gate to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and police shot and killed her.

On November 17, a 16-year-old Palestinian stabbed two Israeli Border Police officers in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and a civilian shot and killed him.

On December 19, a 20-year-old Palestinian attempted to stab two ultra-Orthodox Jews in a parking lot near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and fled the scene.  Israeli police later arrested the attacker, and no injuries were reported.

On November 21, a Palestinian teacher shot and killed an Israeli tour guide and wounded four others with an automatic weapon near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas said the gunman was a senior member of its movement in East Jerusalem.  Security officials shot and killed the attacker immediately after the assault.

On December 4, Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian after he stabbed and wounded an ultra-Orthodox Jew near the Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem’s Old City.  Israeli police released surveillance video in which the attacker could be seen stabbing the Jewish man and then trying to stab a Border Police officer before being shot and falling to the ground.  The Religion News Service reported that a widely circulated video filmed by a bystander appeared to show an officer from Israel’s paramilitary Border Police shooting the attacker when he was already lying on the ground, and another appeared to show police with guns drawn preventing medics from reaching him.  The United Nations’ Human Rights Office, PA officials, some Joint List and Meretz members of the Knesset (MKs), and Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups such as B’Tselem and Al-Haq described the police shooting as an extrajudicial execution.  Israeli investigators cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.  Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency medical service, said it treated an ultra-Orthodox man in his 20s who was stabbed.  Police identified the attacker as a 25-year-old from Salfit in the West Bank.

On December 18, Israeli Border Police arrested a 65-year-old Palestinian woman for the stabbing of an Israeli man near a checkpoint close to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

On October 20, the trial of an Israeli Jewish minor, accused in the 2018 killing of a Palestinian woman, Aysha al-Rabi, a resident of Bidya village, began at the Central District Court in Lod.  Prosecutors accused the minor, then 17, of throwing a two-kilogram (4.4 pound) stone through al-Rabi’s car windshield “with the intent of using it to harm Arab passengers out of an ideological motive of racism and hostility toward Arabs.”  In 2019, authorities arrested and later released four other suspects who, like the defendant, were yeshiva students from the settlement of Rehelim.  According to press reporting, the prosecution linked the defendant’s DNA to the stone that caused al-Rabi’s death and also linked him to Kahanism, which Haaretz described as a “far-right anti-Arab ideology inspired by Rabbi Meir Kahane.”  In January, authorities stated that the stone throwing that killed al-Rabi, a mother of eight, was a terror attack but declined to recognize her as a victim of terrorism.  Press reports said that authorities said the decision was reached because al-Rabi was not an Israeli citizen and the killing occurred outside Israel’s recognized borders.  At year’s end, the trial was continuing and the accused remained under supervised house arrest.

Clashes broke out in April and May with “Day of Rage” demonstrations throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem against Israeli actions at Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  The Palestinian National and Islamic Factions in the West Bank called on Palestinians across West Bank cities, villages, and refugee camps to participate in a “Day of Rage” on May 11 to protest actions by Israeli security forces, and Israelis living in East Jerusalem against Palestinians at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound and in Sheikh Jarrah.

According to press and NGO monitors, multiple events related to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount contributed, along with other factors, to escalations resulting in unrest and conflict across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.  On April 13 on the evening of the first day of Ramadan, media and Waqf officials reported that Israeli National Police entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and disconnected loudspeakers used for the call to prayer to avoid disrupting an official Memorial Day service for fallen soldiers attended by then Israeli President Rivlin in the adjacent Western Wall square.  The incident was condemned by PA officials as a “hate crime.”

On June 17, the New York Times reported that the government charged a police officer, whose name was not released, with manslaughter in the 2020 killing of Iyad Halak, an autistic Palestinian man, in Jerusalem’s Old City.  Following an investigation, the Ministry of Justice said that Halak had not posed any danger to police.  At Halak’s funeral, the press reported that mourners chanted, “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of [the Prophet] Mohammed will return,” a taunt referring to the seventh century Muslim massacre and expulsion of the Jews of Khaybar.

During the last Friday of Ramadan on May 7, Israeli police entered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque using teargas, stun grenades, and rubber tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians who were throwing rocks.  Media reported that in the aftermath, Palestinians stockpiled stones in the compound in anticipation of confrontations with police and far-right Israeli nationalists planning to march through the Old City.  On May 10, Israeli police entered the compound again and used stun grenades, teargas, and rubber tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians.  The Palestinian Red Crescent stated that more than 300 individuals were injured.  In an attempt to ease tensions and reduce potential for clashes, Israeli police temporarily barred non-Muslims from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

According to the Jerusalem Post, on December 24, PA security forces used tear gas and batons to disperse more than 50 Palestinians, some armed with Molotov cocktails, who were attempting to march to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, in Area A of the West Bank, a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  On December 26, more than 200 Palestinians tried to march on the shrine, but PA authorities had cordoned off the area and prevented the demonstrators from reaching the site.  Individuals that the newspaper identified as “activists” said that these attempts to set fire to the building were intended as a response to “settler crimes” against Palestinians.  The PA security forces stated that they received “clear and firm” instructions to protect the tomb.

On January 10, Israeli Border Police arrested a Palestinian teenager after he threw a Molotov cocktail at Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli Jurisdiction in Area C.  During unrest in April, police and media reported that dozens of youths threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the shrine.  The shrine remained separated from the West Bank by a barrier built during the 2000-2005 Second Intifada, and Palestinians were able to access it only if permitted by Israeli authorities.  Residents and citizens of Israel continued to have relatively unimpeded access.  Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat).  In October, Palestinian demonstrators sporadically clashed over several days with the INP after the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority began landscaping work on public land adjacent to the Islamic al-Yusufiya Cemetery in East Jerusalem and unearthed human remains in a shallow grave.  During demonstrations against the construction work, Palestinian protestors reportedly chanted, “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of [the Prophet] Mohammed will return.”  The cemetery, which is hundreds of years old, is affiliated with the Jordanian Waqf.  Multiple graves and headstones are located in the disputed area adjacent to the cemetery, some dating from Jordanian control of Jerusalem and others allegedly used more recently and without authorization.

According to an October 11 report in Haaretz, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said, “This territory [adjacent to the al-Yusufiya Cemetery] is a national park and open public space, outside the Muslim cemetery.  The Muslim Waqf, unlawfully and in violation of court orders, placed several graves there.  During works with the Jerusalem Development Authority to develop the open public space, a shallow dig was uncovered with several bones in it.  The matter is being investigated.  The works at the site are ongoing under court orders.”  On October 17, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court rejected requests submitted by the Committee for the Care of Islamic Cemeteries in Jerusalem to suspend bulldozing and exhuming graves.  However, the court restricted construction activity to only include light work, such as covering ground, placing grids, and gardening, and prohibited demolition, excavation, casting, or drilling.  Authorities did not allow construction that would affect any graves at the site.  On October 28, Israeli authorities fenced the walls surrounding area and installed surveillance cameras.  On October 29, the PA President’s advisor for religious and Islamic affairs described the bulldozing as an ongoing crime against the cemetery, while the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem stated, “No tomb was damaged during the works, and there is no intention to displace any grave, even if built illegally.”

In general, NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that arrests of Israelis in religiously motivated crimes against Palestinians rarely led to indictments and convictions.  Palestinians stated that they faced procedural difficulties in filing complaints with Israeli police, who are located at stations within settlements or at military-run liaison offices outside those settlements.  Data from the NGO Tag Meir, which tracks hate crimes, and media reports indicated in recent years Israeli authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites.

Israeli government officials made public statements against “Israeli extremists’ attacks” on Palestinians and made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, including through task forces, increased funding, and hiring additional staff members.  According to Haaretz, on December 13, Minister of Public Security Omer Bar-Lev said the government viewed settler violence “severely” and it was taking steps to address the issue, including increasing police in the West Bank and providing clearer instructions to the IDF on how to deal with attacks by Jews on Palestinians.  The report stated that Minister of Defense Benjamin Gantz had promised to increase enforcement against such attacks, which the newspaper said had increased 150 percent from 2019.  Other political leaders criticized Bar-Lev.  Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said, “The settlers are the salt of the earth.  The violence that is shocking is the dozens of cases of stone-throwing and beatings of the Jews that happen daily… with the encouragement and support of the Palestinian Authority.”  Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana said, “It is sad to see a security man rich in experience and years get such a false and distorted narrative.”

According to a December 15 report by the Times of Israel, security officials said that the year saw a drastic spike in violence by what they termed Jewish extremists in the West Bank.  According to the Times of Israel, in 2020, the Shin Bet internal security service registered 272 violent incidents in the West Bank; through the middle of December, the agency recorded 397.  On the same day, Haaretz reported that, according to government figures, there were 135 stone-throwing incidents targeting Palestinians during the year, up from 90 in 2019, and 250 other violent incidents, up from 100 in 2019.  The newspaper also reported that violence against the Israeli security services also rose, from 50 incidents in 2019 to 60 in 2021.

In a fact sheet reviewing the years 2005-2021 released in December, the Israeli NGO Yesh Din stated, “The State of Israel is evading its duty to protect Palestinians in the West Bank from Israelis who seek to harm them.  Long-term monitoring of the outcomes of investigations into ideological offenses committed by Israelis shows that Israeli law enforcement agencies leave Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories defenseless to attacks and harassment perpetrated by Israeli settlers.” According to Yesh Din statistics, Israeli police failed to make arrests in the investigation of 81 percent of the files opened between 2005 and 2021, and 92 percent of all investigation files were closed without an indictment.

Attacks in the West Bank on Palestinians by Israeli citizens, some of whom asserted their right to settle in what they stated was the historic Jewish homeland of Judea and Samaria, continued, as well as Palestinian attacks on settlers.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported 496 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the year, including 370 attacks that resulted in property damage and 126 attacks that resulted in casualties, three of which were fatal.  According to UN monitors, this was the highest reported level of settler-related violence since UNOCHA began recording incidents in 2005 and represented a 40 percent increase in the number of incidents, compared with 2020.  Comparable to the UN, the IDF recorded 446 incidents of settler violence during the year.  UNOCHA updated its metrics to incorporate more information from civil society about violence against Israelis.  During the year, “in the context of the occupation and conflict,” UNOCHA estimated that there were 82 Palestinian fatalities and 16,421 Palestinians injured and three Israeli fatalities and 146 Israelis injured in West Bank violence, including in East Jerusalem.  The Israeli government said that UNOCHA did not provide information about actions by Hamas in its public statistics and did not fully cover attacks targeting Israelis.

The Israeli government said it thwarted 270 “significant attacks” in the West Bank.  During the year, according to the Israeli government, there were 7,153 cases of “hostile destructive activity” in the West Bank and Gaza which included stone-throwing, Molotov cocktails, shootings, stabbings, and assaults with vehicles.  Of these activities, 4,417 were missiles fired from the Gaza Strip during May.  The Israeli police recorded more than 2,400 cases of Molotov cocktails and stone-throwing in Jerusalem.  The Israeli government said that during the year, 19 Israeli citizens and residents in Israel lost their lives following these attacks, and more than 3,000 were injured.

The government of Israel continued to discourage Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A), with large road signs warning Israelis against entering these areas and stating it was dangerous for Israelis and against Israeli law to do so.  Significant numbers of Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel, and some Jewish and other Israelis, chose to privately visit Area A without repercussions, according to media and individuals who visited.  Media reported that while these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting numerous Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A under Palestinian control, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and the Shalom al Israel Synagogue in Jericho.  Some Jewish religious leaders said the Israeli government policy limiting travel to parts of the West Bank prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several religious sites in the West Bank including Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than permitted through IDF coordination.  IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were necessary to ensure Jewish-Israelis’ safety.  The Israeli government said that Jewish worshippers could only visit Areas A and B of the West Bank with the protection of the IDF and that the PA was not fulfilling its commitments under the Oslo Accords to ensure freedom of religion for Jewish worshippers in these areas.  Palestinian and Israeli security forces coordinated some visits by Jewish groups to PA-controlled areas within the West Bank, which generally took place at night to limit the chance of confrontations with Palestinians who opposed the visit.

Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited holy sites in areas in the West Bank under Palestinian control, where freedom of access was guaranteed by the PA in the Oslo Accords, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (located in Area A).  On September 26, Palestinian protesters attacked buses carrying approximately 500 Jewish worshipers traveling to the site, resulting in minor injuries to two Israeli soldiers escorting the convoy.  According to police, the protestors used live fire, stones, and homemade explosive devices.  The Israeli government said the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) facilitated seven visits to the site during the year.

On November 2, according to the Jerusalem Post, which cited Palestinian media, Palestinians and Israeli security forces clashed in the vicinity of Joseph’s Tomb.  The violence involved gunfire from both sides.  Palestinian rioters placed burning tires in the middle of streets in the city to impede Israeli forces and Jewish visitors who were set to visit Joseph’s Tomb later that night.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs previously stated that Israeli officials, including high-ranking politicians and senior officials from law enforcement bodies, had declared an unequivocal zero-tolerance policy towards the phenomenon of “price tag” offenses committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians.  The Nationalistic Motivated Crimes Unit of the Judea and Samaria Police District of the INP was tasked with preventing and investigating ideologically based offenses in the West Bank and with supporting other police districts in the investigation of such crimes.  The Israeli government maintained an interagency team overseeing law enforcement efforts in the West Bank related to incitement, “violent uprisings,” and “ideological crimes.”

The Israeli government continued to allow controlled access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and said freedom of worship at the site was a supreme value.  The government expressed continued support for the post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to allow non-Muslim visitors but prohibit non-Islamic worship on the compound, while stating that Israel respected Jordan’s “special role” at the site, as reflected in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty.  The Waqf said that Israeli authorities continued to interfere in the Waqf’s administration of the site, including delaying longstanding maintenance and restoration work.  Israeli officials and activists again stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities.  In addition to the police banning individual Waqf staff members from the site, the Waqf said that it had a reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff hired to work there, leaving the Waqf seriously understaffed.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with police officers stationed both inside the site and at entrances.  Police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site.  Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance, through which non-Muslims may enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours.  Police sometimes restricted this access, citing security concerns.

In April at the beginning of Ramadan, Israeli authorities restricted the number of persons allowed to enter al-Aqsa Mosque to 10,000 vaccinated Palestinians entering from the West Bank because of “high morbidity rates” from coronavirus in the West Bank.  Israeli military authorities said the measures were being taken to allow freedom of worship and religion, and also to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the area.

According to local media, some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer.  The Israeli government reiterated that overt non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that in practice, police generally allowed discreet non-Muslim prayer on the site.  The news website Al-Monitor reported in October that although the country’s two chief rabbis repeatedly said Jews were not to set foot in the Temple Mount out of concern they could inadvertently step into an area which, in Jewish law, it was forbidden to enter unless one was ritually pure.  In recent years, some Jews had entered the mosque and tried to offer prayers.  In August, the New York Times reported that Rabbi Yehuda Glick, whom the newspaper described as a “right-wing former lawmaker,” led “efforts to change the status quo for years” and said that Glick livestreamed his prayers from the site.  The report said that although the government officially allowed non-Muslims to visit the site each morning on the condition that they did not pray there, “In reality, dozens of Jews now openly pray every day [at the site]… and their Israeli police escorts no longer attempt stop them.”  The New York Times reported that Glick and activists ultimately sought to build a third Jewish Temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock, an idea that Azzam Khatib, the deputy chairman of the Waqf council, said “will lead to a civil war.”  According to the Religion News Service, one group known as the Temple Institute hoped to build a third temple where one of the al-Aqsa complex’s three mosques now stands and to reinstate ritual animal sacrifices.  The group’s website reported that it was working with an architect on a design.  In September, al-Monitor reported, “In the past, doing so [praying out loud or making movements of genuflection], could lead to the person being detained and ejected from the site, as Jews are not allowed to pray there.  But more recently, a warning is reportedly more common.  Last July Israel’s Channel 12 filmed Jews praying silently at the site while police officers watched.”  Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles.  Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha, Jewish religious law) to enter with a police escort.

On October 5, the Jerusalem Magistrate Court ruled that “silent Jewish prayer” on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount did not violate existing police rules on the site.  The ruling was in response to a case involving a 15-day administrative restraining order against a man whom police had removed from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on September 29 on grounds that he disturbed public order by engaging in Jewish prayer.  The judge ruled that silent prayer “does not in itself violate police instructions” that prohibit “external and overt” non-Muslim prayer on the site.  Al-Monitor said the Magistrate’s Court’s ruling was “unprecedented” and “seem[ed] to question the status quo that has prevailed over the site.”  The Jerusalem District Court overturned the lower court’s ruling on October 8, ruling that the INP had acted “within reason,” and “the fact that there was someone who observed [him] pray is evidence that his prayer was overt.”  Minister of Public Security Bar-Lev supported the appeal, saying “a change in the status quo will endanger public security and could cause a flare-up.”  The Waqf said the lower court’s ruling was “a flagrant violation” of the complex’s sanctity and a “clear provocation” for Muslims.

On July 17, during the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting when Jews commemorate the destruction of the temples, activists of Liba Yehudit, a national-ultra-Orthodox NGO described by Haaretz as “ultra-extreme,” put up a makeshift partition in the middle of the egalitarian prayer area of the Western Wall Plaza, intended to divide those praying by gender, and yelled and cursed to disrupt those praying there for the holiday.  According to Haaretz, “hundreds of right-wing, Orthodox Jews, mostly teenagers” disrupted the reading of the Book of Lamentations by a female member of the Conservative movement, that organized the annual event.  Haaretz described Liba as “an extreme right-wing group, which has been trying to prevent the non-Orthodox from having access to a new and revamped prayer plaza at the southern end of the site.”

On July 18, on Tisha B’Av, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted thanks to the Public Security Minister and the Israel Police Inspector General for “maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount.”  On November 19, the Prime Minister’s Office said that the government’s policy regarding the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, which prohibits non-Islamic worship, had not changed and what Bennett actually meant was that both Jews and Muslims had “freedom of visitation rights.”

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the al-Aqsa Mosque, unless they were participating in a Waqf-sponsored visit.  It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing.  Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints concerning their lack of control of access to the site.  The Waqf objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals whom they perceived to be dressed immodestly or who caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site.  Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site.  Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials exercised only limited oversight.  Throughout the year, the government extended visiting hours in the afternoon by 30 minutes to prevent large groups forming at the entrance for non-Muslims, in accordance with COVID-19 health restrictions.

The PA Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Jordanian Waqf rejected the fatwa.  The Waqf stated that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf.  The government welcomed these visits as a positive outcome of normalization and as demonstrating freedom of religion.

Many Jewish religious leaders, including Shmuel Rabinovitch, the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites of Israel, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for reasons of ritual purity.  Some Jewish religious leaders, Knesset members, and activists called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors.

The government continued to allow Knesset members and ministers to visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site.  Members of the Knesset were required to inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with the police.

At the main Western Wall Plaza, the place of worship nearest the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to prohibit the performance of any “religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, [or] which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.”  Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services, over the objections of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements.  The organization Women of the Wall, whose membership is composed of mostly Reform and Conservative Jewish women and whose goal is to secure the official right for women to pray at the Western Wall, stated that their monthly presence at the wall for more than 30 years had established them as part of the “customs of the place.”

Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall Plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site.  Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.  On several occasions, MK Gilad Kariv (Labor) used his parliamentary immunity to bring Torah scrolls for the use of Women of the Wall and referred to the prohibition as illegal.

Within COVID-19 limitations, authorities allowed Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in a barricaded portion of the women’s area of the main Western Wall Plaza.  Ultra-Orthodox protesters harassed and attacked Women of the Wall members repeatedly during their monthly services by throwing coffee or bottles at them, screaming, cursing, blowing whistles, or pushing them.

Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the main Western Wall Plaza and which is ultra-Orthodox-run, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing.  Ahead of a November service held by Women of the Wall, tension rose when former Shas MK Aryeh Deri called MKs and the public to attend the service and prevent MK Kariv from bringing Torah scrolls to the women’s section, which Deri said would be a “desecration of the Western Wall.”  The Western Wall Heritage Fund announced it would not take responsibility for maintaining public order at the plaza, leading to increased INP presence on November 5.  With President Isaac Herzog’s intervention, and his promise to hold a meeting on pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall, most MKs refrained from attending the service at the Western Wall on November 5.  MK Ben Gvir of the Religious Zionist Party still attended to protest against the Women of the Wall, expressing outrage that police confronted protesters who attempted to reach the women who were conducting services at the site.  According to the NGO Israel Religion and Action Center (IRAC), INP and the Western Wall Heritage Fund guards confronted Women of the Wall during the service.  The President held a meeting on pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall on December 1.

A 2017 petition to the Supreme Court by Women of the Wall asking that ushers and police prevent disruption of their services was pending at year’s end.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi Bridge and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall Plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers.  Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs.  On November 4, the Supreme Court criticized the government for its lack of progress upgrading the area to a more permanent egalitarian prayer space.  On December 7, the government told the Supreme Court it intended to continue to upgrade the egalitarian plaza but did not mention steps towards further equality and recognition included in the 2016 Western Wall Agreement.  The 2016 agreement was a compromise between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities, which the government “froze” in 2017, that included the construction of a permanent plaza for mixed-gender prayer managed by non-Orthodox groups, and a merged entry to all prayer spaces adjacent to the Western Wall.  The government requested to update the court on developments within six months.

The Supreme Court case was a combination of lawsuits against the government, some dating back to 2013, that would allow prayer for all religious streams of Judaism at the Western Wall.  It resulted in the 2016 Western Wall Agreement.  In 2018, a special government committee approved expansion of the temporary platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements.  The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill their 2016 agreement with the government.  In addition, observers stated that scaffolding prevented visitors from touching the sacred wall in the egalitarian prayer space since a rock fell there in 2018.  Over the same period, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation managed large construction projects in the main plaza, making routine inspections for loose rocks at the main plaza without blocking access to the wall.

On September 2, the Supreme Court rejected a petition by female rabbis demanding structural improvements to prevent collapse of the Mughrabi Bridge (the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, that crosses over the women’s section of the main Western Wall Plaza); the court accepted the state’s argument that it was taking action to restore the wooden beams on metal bases which support the bridge.  The court added, “in a place like the Temple Mount, where any change could lead to political or security turbulence, the decision of state institutions to not change the existing situation on the ground is a practical and reasonable decision in which there is no room to intervene.”

In November and December, press reported that despite the government’s declared intention to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, the proposal appeared to be losing support within the ruling coalition.  Minister of Religious Affairs Kahana said the vast majority of Jews in Israel were Orthodox and that it would not be right to give control of parts of the space to the Conservative and Reform streams.  Kahana said the issue “must be studied, to see how we resolve the [religious] wars.”  Other members of the cabinet continued to publicly support the plan.  According to Haaretz, the two key components of the proposal were creating a new and enhanced space on the southern side of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer and providing official recognition to the Conservative and Reform movements at the site.  The newspaper reported that “the disagreements [were] about that second component.”  Under the government’s original plan, a new authority would have been created to govern the egalitarian space and representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements would sit on its board.  However, Haaretz reported that two Orthodox members of the cabinet, Kahana and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, found this unacceptable and suggested that the egalitarian prayer space continue to operate under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office or, alternatively, be handed over for supervision to the Jewish Agency.  Leaders of the non-Orthodox movements rejected that plan.  At year’s end, the government had taken no action to move the proposed changes forward.

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supported maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem.  The issue of the use of the Gate of Mercy (Bab al-Rahma), a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple that was reopened by the Waqf in 2019 after it had been closed since 2003, remained unresolved.  The Israeli government stated it regarded the reopening as a violation of the status quo.  An Israeli court extended a court order issued in July 2020 to close the site, but by year’s end the INP had not enforced the order.  The Waqf said it did not recognize the authority of Israeli courts over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Throughout the year, Muslim worshippers could generally enter the site, although Israeli police sometimes conducted security searches there.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site or incited others to violence, and public figures whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions.  Banned individuals included Waqf guards and administrative and maintenance staff and imams delivering sermons at the site, as well as prominent activists.  The Israeli government said that some individuals – including both Muslims and Jews – were prevented access to the site during the year because they could have caused disturbances and riots.  The government said Israeli security prevented access to the site for 389 Muslims and 99 Jews during 2021 due to previous incidents of public disorder at the site, including assaulting or interfering with police, or based on intelligence information.  The Wadi Hilweh Information Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 357 individuals from the site during the year.

While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned some Palestinian residents in the occupied territories, and Arab/Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel from the site.  Palestinian civil society organizations said that, in a practice that began in 2020, police continued to check the identify cards of individuals entering the Old City to visit the site for Friday prayers and would bar from entry those with West Bank identity cards and return them to the West Bank.  In May, media reported that Israeli police blocked several buses of Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel outside of Jerusalem from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Police said they stopped the buses because they had intelligence indicating some of the passengers were planning to riot at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

Media reported that Israeli authorities barred Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, former imam of al-Aqsa Mosque, former Palestinian Grand Mufti, and current head of the private Higher Islamic Council in Jerusalem, from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for several months due to charges of incitement.  In March, government security officials briefly detained Sabri before releasing him.  Sabri said that police arrested him for planning to take part in the commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem and ascension to heaven.  He said authorities accused him of violating a court decision that closed the Bab al-Rahma/Gate of Mercy.  On October 10, police again summoned Sabri for questioning; before his interrogation, he told media outlets that he expected to be asked about decisions by Israeli courts allowing Jewish prayer at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Palestinian media reported Israel banned Sabri for a week after the interrogation.  In November, Israeli authorities detained Sheikh Najeh Bakirat, Deputy Director-General of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, for four days and subsequently banned him from entering the site for 20 days and from entering the West Bank for 30 days.

Human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities at times also restricted some Muslims from entering the site based on gender and age.  Israeli authorities have not issued permits for Gazans to visit the site during Islamic holidays since 2017, when it issued several hundred permits for Gazans during Ramadan, according to UN reports.  Muslims who were Israeli citizens, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, or foreigners already present in Israel did not need permits to visit the site.

The Waqf also said that Israeli authorities continued to interfere in the Waqf’s administration of the site, including delaying longstanding maintenance and restoration work.  Israeli officials and activists again stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities.  In addition to the police banning of individual Waqf staff members, the Waqf said that it had a reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff hired to work at the site, leaving the Waqf seriously understaffed.

Israel only allowed Palestinians who had obtained certification of their COVID-19 vaccination or a certificate of COVID-19 recovery to enter Israel, a restriction which applied also to Palestinian Muslims or Christians coming from the West Bank for religious purposes.

The IDF continued periodically to limit access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a site of significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham.  The Israeli government said there were longstanding entry arrangements which should not be considered as restricting access.  Palestinian leaders continued in statements to local media to oppose the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo Accords-era agreements that gave Israel and the PA shared responsibilities for the site, although Israel retained full security responsibility for it; the Oslo Accords and 1997 Hebron Accords gave “civil powers and responsibilities” including “planning authority” for the site to the Hebron Municipality.  Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site.

The IDF again restricted Muslim access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs during 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays and Jewish access during 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays.  The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point, which was staffed by soldiers with metal detectors, while granting Jews access via several entry points.  Citing security concerns, the IDF periodically closed roads approaching the site and, since 2001, had permanently closed Shuhada Street, the former main Hebron market and one of the main streets leading to the holy site, to Palestinian-owned vehicles.  The government said the closure was done to prevent confrontations.  Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously in separate spaces, a physical separation that was instituted by the IDF in November 1994 following an attack earlier in the year by an Israeli that killed 29 Palestinians.  Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Islamic call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, stating the government acted upon requests by Jewish religious leaders in Hebron in response to requests of Jewish worshippers at the site.  The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs reported that Israel prevented calls to prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs 525 times during the first 10 months of the year, including 59 times in March and 44 times in April, per Palestinian media.  Passover was celebrated from March 27 to April 3.

In 2020, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit approved a 2019 decision by Israel’s then Minister of Defense Naftali Bennett, shortly before Bennett left office, to bypass the Hebron municipality and expropriate land at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron.  The Israeli government stated it intended to renovate the site and establish elevators to make it accessible to persons with disabilities to “promote the rights of people with disabilities and allow access to religious sites for every population.”  The Israeli government said it proceeded with the plan after multiple attempts to gain PA, Hebron municipality, and Waqf support for increased access to the site for persons with disabilities.  According to the Jerusalem Post, “Hebron’s Jewish community and right-wing politicians and activists have long lobbied to make the site wheelchair accessible.”  The paper stated that the only way that Jewish sanctuaries within the site could be reached is by climbing a long staircase.

On November 4, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected an appeal submitted by the PA Hebron municipality against the establishment of an elevator at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs.  On June 10, Defense Minister Gantz approved the implementation of the elevator project as well as the building of a road to facilitate access to the site.  On August 12, after some site preparation for the project had begun, the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs announced the closure of all other mosques in Hebron for Friday prayers on August 13 and asked Muslims to gather at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs to “denounce” the Israeli occupation.  On August 13, Israeli security forces used stun grenades to disperse a large crowd of Muslim worshippers who gathered outside the mosque for Friday prayers in the protest.  Jamal Abu Aram, director of the Hebron Waqf, told the Palestinian news agency Ma’an that the Waqf estimated the crowd to number from 15,000 to 20,000 persons.

On November 28, the first day of Hanukkah, President Herzog lit a menorah candle in the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, and said, “The historical affinity of the Jewish people to Hebron, to the Cave of the Patriarchs, [and] to the heritage of our matriarchs and patriarchs is not in doubt.  Recognition of this attachment must be beyond all controversy.”  Herzog said, “In this holy space dedicated to all the sons of Abraham, we have to continue dreaming of peace, between all faiths and creeds in this land, and to condemn any hatred and violence.”  The PA and the Hebron municipality said they viewed the shrine as exclusively Muslim.  The PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Herzog’s visit was “a dangerous attempt to Judaize the site.”  Palestinian and Israeli demonstrators protested in the center of Hebron during Herzog’s visit.

Israeli authorities and settlers, who were often armed, prevented access by Palestinians to several mosques in the West Bank located within Israeli settlements.  Israeli authorities declared all legal settlements as restricted Israeli military zones.  Palestinians were unable to visit them without Israeli government approval.

In December, Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs Kahana announced that the government would build seven of the 30 new synagogues included in his ministry’s budget in the West Bank.  He also decided to earmark 25 percent of the ministry’s budget for the construction of mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths) to building mikvehs in the West Bank.

In March, the NGO Emek Shaveh and the Arab Culture Association petitioned the Supreme Court to end what they said was the discriminatory policy of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage in allocating budgetary outlays for work on heritage sites.  The petition cited calls by the ministry that included criteria that excluded non-Jewish historical sites from qualifying for funding.  In response, the ministry’s legal advisor said that “the ministry was established with the aim of conserving the country’s national and Zionist heritage.”  In August, the ministry formally responded to the pending petition, reiterated its view of its role, and stated that “other government ministries invest budgets also in minority heritage sites.”  The Attorney General supported this argument.  At year’s end, the Supreme Court had not ruled on the petition.

The Israeli NGO Machsom (“Checkpoint”) Watch’s website compared “freedom of worship and ritual at sites of heritage and religion” for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.  According to Machsom Watch, Israeli Jews had “free access…at any site that [was] considered a heritage or sanctified site.”  The NGO said some of these sites were Palestinian and had “undergone ‘Judaization’” while Palestinians were “denied access to numerous heritage and ritual sites” and “some such sites [were] appropriated by Jews or neglected and vandalized.”  In a 2020 report, Machsom Watch stated that the Israeli government had used three strategies to “erase” Muslim religious sites in the West Bank:  enclosing sites within closed military zones, including sites in nature reserves; divesting shrines of their Islamic religious identity by opening them to the general public; and declining to recognize the site as having any religious significance in Islam.  The NGO said Israeli authorities gave more weight to sites associated with Biblical prophets than to sites significant only to Muslims.  Machsom Watch said Israeli authorities denied Palestinians any access to 13 sites in the West Bank that were of traditional Muslim heritage, worship, or prayer or that were important to multiple faiths.  The NGO said some of these sites were dilapidated and frequently the object of vandalism by Israeli settlers.

The Israeli government said it coordinated access to the Prophet Samuel’s Mosque during the year for 1,500 Palestinian residents of the Nebi Samuel and al-Khalaila villages.  The site has both a mosque and synagogue and, with the villages, is located in the West Bank, but inside the Israeli barrier.

In August, Emek Shaveh reported that the government approved a plan for the development of the archaeological and holy site of the Prophet Samuel’s Mosque, a site held sacred by Jews as the tomb of the Biblical prophet Samuel, which is inside an Israeli national park in the West Bank.  The NGO said that the plan ignored the adjacent village of Nabi Samuel, which experienced a lack of new construction since its proposed master plans had not been approved and building permits therefore could not be issued.  Emek Shaveh said that the government had previously rejected a similar plan, following objections from residents of Nabi Samuel and from Emek Shaveh and another NGO, Bimkom.  According to Emek Shaveh, although the site is considered holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, most visitors were Jewish worshippers.  The Israeli government said the site had more than 270,000 visitors during the year, including Jews, Muslims, and tourists of other religions.

According to press reports, on November 24, shortly before the start of Hanukkah, Israel Nature and Parks Authority officials erected a large electric menorah on the roof of the Mosque of the Prophet Samuel.  Israeli officials repositioned the menorah to the entrance of the synagogue after the local Palestinian population protested the installation.  A local Palestinian leader said the Muslim community previously asked Israeli authorities for permission to light up a crescent on top of the mosque, but the request was denied.  A senior official in the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs condemned the erection of the menorah as an “infringement upon the sanctity” of the site.

On February 24, the Supreme Court ordered the government to answer a series of questions by April 22 regarding its proposal to build an aerial cable car over a Karaite cemetery in Jerusalem’s Old City.  This order was in response to three petitions which were filed by the Karaite community, the Emek Shaveh, and the NGO Israel Union for Environmental Defense, which the court considered in several sessions over the last three years.  The court suspended work on the cable car project to examine why the project was approved through the National Infrastructure Committee, unlike other projects, which went through Jerusalem’s District and Planning Committee, a distinction that the court said deprived citizens of the opportunity to offer their opinions and submit reservations and objections.  The justices also questioned the government’s designation of the cable car as a transportation rather than tourism project, and why the route could not be modified to avoid the Karaite community.  During the year, the government continued to promote the establishment of a cable car route from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City that would pass over the cemetery.  According to the Karaite community, the cable car would desecrate the cemetery, thus preventing its further use.  The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, but some NGOs said the project was meant to specifically promote Jewish tourism in East Jerusalem and to reinforce Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the area.  Despite a November 26 statement by Israeli Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and a December 13 statement by Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg against the project, the government told the Supreme Court at the end of December that it supported the construction of the gondola line.

The barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals as well as the conduct of journalistic, humanitarian, and NGO activities.  The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons.

In May, the Jerusalem municipality opened a parking lot on property it had leased from the Armenian Church in 2020.  In July, the Church signed a new contract with the Jerusalem municipality extending the lease for 99 years, and the municipality announced that a Jewish-Australian developer would construct a new hotel on the property.  Palestinians widely criticized the Church for leasing the property to the municipality, including public statements by PA figures.  PA Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Riyad Malki raised the transaction with his Armenian counterpart and asked for Armenian Foreign Ministry assistance in pressuring the Church to cancel the lease.  Minister Malki characterized the deal as opening the door for “the gradual encroachment of Israel’s settler-colonialism into the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem,” and said it “risks accelerating the obliteration of the Palestinian, Muslim, and Christian character of Jerusalem.”

The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs continued to provide imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and to prohibit them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.

Unrecognized religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a continued PA ban on proselytizing but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered.  Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis personal status documents issued by unrecognized churches.  The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents (e.g., marriage certificates) issued by some of these unrecognized churches, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples.  Many unrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad and to register the action officially in that location.  Some converts to unrecognized Christian faiths had recognized churches with which they were previously affiliated perform their marriages and divorces.  Members of some faith communities and faith-based organizations stated they viewed their need to do so as conflicting with their religious beliefs.

Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem continued to state that the physical barrier begun by Israel during the Second Intifada in 2003 impeded their work, particularly south of Jerusalem in West Bank Christian communities around Bethlehem.  Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints restricted their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship.  Christian leaders continued to state the barrier hindered Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  They also said it made visits to Christian sites in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who lived on the west side of the barrier.  Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers also reported difficulty or delays accessing Christian religious sites in the West Bank because of the barrier.  The Israeli government previously stated it constructed the barrier as an act of self-defense and that it was highly effective in preventing terrorist attacks in Israel.

Christian expatriate workers in Israeli settlements complained that lack of public transportation on Saturdays prevented them from participating in religious activities and worship in Jerusalem.

The Israeli Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and West Bank settlements for burial of persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” and 33 cemeteries for civil burial, but only three were available for use to the general public regardless of residence, and one had been full for several years.  The state permitted other cemeteries located in agricultural localities to bury only “residents of the area.”  This, according to the religious freedom and equal rights advocacy NGO Hiddush, left the majority of Israel’s population unable to exercise its right, as mandated by law, to be buried in accordance with secular or non-Orthodox religious views.  The two MRS-administered cemeteries in West Bank settlements were available only for the burial of Israeli citizens.  On September 12, the Supreme Court rejected a 2019 petition by Hiddush that demanded civil burial in agricultural localities for individuals who were not local residents and who did not have another alternative.  According to the Israeli government, the existing issues regarding civil burial could not justify burial outside of place of residence.  The court invited Hiddush to submit a new petition regarding a specific locality, rather than a general petition.

According to Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the Israeli government maintained an agreement with the Church of Jesus Christ stating that no member of the Church would “engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza as a condition of its lease of land for its campus on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

In June, German NGO Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research (GEI) released the findings from its European Union-commissioned review of PA curricula from 2017 and 2019 assessing the extent of inciteful content.  The report found the curriculum included promotion of UNESCO standards for peace, tolerance, and nonviolence in educational material, but the report also highlighted the enduring presence of problematic content, including instances of antagonism toward Israel and the glorification of violence.  The review praised the curriculum’s focus on human rights and pluralism and elimination of some prior inciteful content, while noting other content still veered beyond a “narrative of [political] resistance” and including antisemitic references and language delegitimizing the State of Israel.  It found “ambivalent – sometimes hostile – attitudes towards Jews and the characteristics they attribute to the Jewish people,” noting “frequent use of negative attributions in relation to the Jewish people in, for example, textbook exercises [that] suggest[ed] a conscious perpetuation of anti-Jewish prejudice, especially when embedded within the current political context.”  The report also noted that GEI’s overview of 18 textbooks released online for the academic year 2020/2021 included increased representation of female and Christian positions as well as “reduction in the text and images that have escalatory potential:  including the alteration of a specific teaching unit that included antisemitic content by several significant changes of the narrative.”

The Israeli curriculum monitoring NGO IMPACT-se stated the GEI report contained “omissions, obfuscations, and even apologetics for Jew-hate and violence.”  In a May update of its previous reviews of the curriculum used by Palestinian schools, IMPACT-se stated that the PA curriculum moved further from meeting UNESCO standards and that the newly published textbooks were found to be “more radical” than those previously published.  According to the NGO, there is “a systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom and jihad across all grades and subjects.”  IMPACT-se’s analysis cited examples of antisemitic tropes and the inclusion of violent wording in otherwise neutral subjects.

Consistent with UN practices globally, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA) used the same curriculum and textbooks as used by PA schools in the occupied territories.  In recent years, UNRWA conducted reviews of new textbooks introduced by the PA to ensure they align with UN values.

While Israeli law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of Israel in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice foreigners were allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.  This public land includes approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews.  The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who were not Israeli citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem.  In recent years, however, an increasing number of Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel in Jerusalem acquired property built on ILA-owned land.  Arab/Palestinian citizens could participate in bids for JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA granted the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab/Palestinian citizen of Israel won a bid.  Despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that the ILA Executive Council must have representation of an Arab, Druze, or Circassian member to prevent discrimination against non-Jews, there were no members from these groups on the council at year’s end.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate continued its legal efforts to block the transfer of properties in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish organization that signed a 99-year lease for the properties in 2004.  Courts previously ruled in favor of Ateret Cohanim, and in 2020, the district court ruled against reopening the case to hear new evidence brought forward by the Church.  A Supreme Court hearing was set for 2022 to determine if the case should be reopened based upon the new evidence.

On December 12, 13 heads of Christian communities in Jerusalem issued a joint statement entitled, “The Current Threat to the Christian Presence in the Holy Land,” that said, “Christians have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups.  Since 2012 there have been countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidation of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives.  These tactics are being used by such radical groups in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”  The statement said, “The declared commitment of the Israeli government to uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land,” but it added, “It is therefore a matter of grave concern when this national commitment is betrayed by the failure of local politicians, officials, and law enforcement agencies to curb the activities of radical groups who regularly intimidate local Christians, assault priests and clergy, and desecrate Holy Sites and church properties.”  The statement continued, “The principle that the spiritual and cultural character of Jerusalem’s distinct and historic quarters should be protected is already recognized in Israeli law with respect to the Jewish Quarter.  Yet radical groups continue to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter, with the aim of diminishing the Christian presence, often using underhanded dealings and intimidation tactics to evict residents from their homes, dramatically decreasing the Christian presence, and further disrupting the historic pilgrim routes between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”

Haaretz reported that the statement marked the beginning of a campaign that included a dedicated website and articles in the media.  In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the statements made by the Christian leaders were “baseless and distort the reality of the Christian community in Israel” and that the Christians’ joint statement “could lead to violence and bring harm to innocent people.”  In an editorial, Haaretz stated, “The Christian leadership in Jerusalem may be exaggerating the sense of threat against them, to draft support from communities throughout the world… However, this does not justify the government’s irresponsible behavior toward the Christian public.  The government must recognize that the Christian congregations have an important place in Jerusalem’s human mosaic.  The government must pay attention to the needs and problems of Christian communities.”

On December 29, at an annual New Year’s reception for spiritual and lay leaders of Christian churches and communities, President Herzog affirmed his commitment to freedom of worship and religion in the country.  Herzog said that each of the Christian groups was “a blessing and an integral part” of the country’s “mosaic.”  He explicitly rejected all forms of racism, discrimination, and extremism as well as any threat to Christian communities in the country.  Interior Minister Shaked also made remarks, saying that the new year offered an opportunity to build new bonds of friendship and cooperation among all religions.

In December, a ministerial-level team approved a proposal by Minister of Interior Shaked to exempt tourist groups that fell into the category of “Jewish tourism” from entry restrictions associated with the omicron variant of COVID-19.  According to press, Christian organizations said the decision was unfair, especially given the impending Christmas holidays.  According to a lead editorial in Haaretz, “This is a discriminatory exception, not to say a bigoted one.”  In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said, “These unfounded allegations of discriminatory conduct are outrageous, false, and dangerous.”

In April, Al-Monitor reported that then Israeli Minister of Tourism Orit Farkash-Hacohen said that after the signing of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and four Arab states, “Israel’s tourist branch began preparing for Muslim tourism.  Senior ministry officials said the ministry was expecting tens of thousands of Muslim tourists in the upcoming months and that the ministry was mapping religious Muslim sites throughout the country.”

In a March 17 interview on Palestine TV, PA presidential advisor Mahmoud al-Habbash said, “When Theodor Herzl, the so-called ‘father of political Zionism,’ visited Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century and saw that Palestine is [sic] inhabited, teeming with life, and brimming with a culture that has strong historical roots, he said, ‘Where will we establish our projected [state]?  We must turn Palestine into a land with no people, by depopulating it.’”  Al-Habbash said Herzl’s “purpose was to depopulate Palestine and bring in the Jews from all over the world… The Jews have no connection to the [Middle] East, to Palestine, or to the Semite race.”

Palestinian leaders, media, and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with Israeli security forces, whether those individuals were involved in confrontations or were innocent bystanders.  Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, and terrorist organizations glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.”  Several local Fatah chapters posted memorials, including photographs, of suicide bombers.  On several occasions on PA television, senior PA and Fatah official Jibril Rajoub extolled “martyrs” and prisoners serving sentences in Israeli prisons for conducting terrorist attacks.  According to the Israeli NGO Palestinian Media Watch, beginning in 2020, the PA transferred funds to the PLO to allow the continuation of “martyr payments” to families of Palestinians killed during terrorist acts or of those killed in Israeli military actions, including victims of air strikes in Gaza, as well as stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those awaiting charges and those convicted of acts of terrorism.

The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs continued to pay for construction of new mosques, maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank.  The ministry also continued to provide limited financial support to some Christian clergy and Christian charitable organizations.

The PA’s Palestinian Broadcasting Company’s code of conduct states it does not allow programming that encourages “violence against any person or institution on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs, or sex.”  Some official PA media channels as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling political movement Fatah, however, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence against Jews.  On October 21, on official PA television, Fatah Deputy Chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul, appearing with Latifa Abu Hmeid, whose sons were convicted of the killing of Israelis, said, “I’m completely happy that next to me is sitting a giant of endurance… I don’t at all think there is anyone who exceeds her endurance and stamina:  the mother of five prisoners and also the mother of martyrs… We can’t speak about all the prisoners, but we are proud of them all… They live in the heart, conscience, and awareness of every Palestinian.”

Both Palestinians and Israelis evoked ethnoreligious language to deny the historical self-identity of the other community in the region or to emphasize an exclusive claim to the land.  On October 1, on official PA television, PA Grand Mufti Hussein said, “The injustice will certainly pass and the occupation will pass… If we turn to the history of Palestine, it has been occupied by many peoples and many invaders have entered it, but in the end the occupation left and the invaders left… Jerusalem will certainly be liberated and return to the embrace of Islam, noble and strong, with its holy sites and its people, and the evil will pass, Almighty Allah willing.”  On April 25, MK Itamar Ben Gvir said in his inaugural speech before the Knesset, “I will act, with God’s help, to restore sovereignty to Jerusalem in general and to the Temple Mount in particular, so that images such as those we saw last night, of groups of thugs beating police officers, shouting ‘Hamas, Hamas’ and informing us that they are the bosses of Jerusalem and mainly of the Temple Mount – will not be seen or heard.”

Antisemitic material continued to appear in official PA media.  In a June 29 recorded speech opening a conference on Zionism at al-Quds University in Gaza that was posted on the PA official media website WAFA and on Palestine TV, President Abbas said, “I salute the efforts made to hold this conference, which refutes the Zionist narrative that falsifies the truth and history, and which all documents and research confirm that it is a product of colonialism.  They planned and worked to implant Israel as a foreign body in this region to fragment it and keep it weak.”  In a June 8 Fatah Movement-Nablus Branch Facebook post, a picture of a wounded baby and an image of a Star of David with red drops of blood appeared in an advertisement encouraging Palestinians to boycott Israeli products.

Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Muslim leaders continued to protest archaeological excavations and construction work done at the City of David National Park in the Silwan neighborhood outside the Old City and in the Old City near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims in Jerusalem while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions.  Emek Shaveh said that Israeli authorities were “using archaeological sites as a pretext for barring Palestinians from sites in Area C.”  The government stated that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research on ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.”  Archeologists from Emek Shaveh continued to dispute the government’s representation of the “Pilgrim’s Road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan in 2019, as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple.  Emek Shaveh said IAA’s excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road.  NGOs such as the City of David Foundation and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies continued to support the government’s position.

In February, a Palestinian contractor damaged part of a wall while doing road work near the Iron Age site of Mount Ebal/al-Burnat, a West Bank archeological site in Area B near Nablus, where some believe a biblical altar erected by Joshua sits.  The contractor said he was unaware that the wall was part of the antiquities site.  The Jerusalem Post reported one “right-wing [Israeli] politician” said, “There are relentless attempts to weaken our hold on our homeland and to obscure the Jewish people’s glorious past in the land of Israel, both through terrorist acts and destruction of archaeology.”

In August, Elad, which the Times of Israel described as a “right-wing organization,” and the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) opened a Center for Ancient Agriculture in the Valley of Hinnom in East Jerusalem where tourists were invited to learn about Biblical-era agriculture traditions.  The center was located in olive tree groves tended in the past by Palestinian residents of the surrounding areas who stated that they were the landowners responsible for maintenance of the grove.  Emek Shaveh said that the center was part of a series of projects advocated by Elad to expand Jewish Israeli presence in East Jerusalem.  The INPA responded that the center was “open to all.”

During the year, the Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in the West Bank, regulations Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy and other religious workers from entering and working.  Christian leaders said Israel’s visa and permit policy also adversely affected schoolteachers and volunteers affiliated with faith-based charities working in the West Bank.  Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries said they continued to face long delays in receiving visas and reported periodic denials of their visa applications.  Officials from multiple churches expressed concern that non-Arab visa applicants and visa-renewal applicants also faced long delays.  The Israeli government said that the large number of requests resulted in delays in process times.  During the year, 1,404 foreign clergy entered Israel, and 2,230 visas were granted (including new issuances and extending visas for those already present).

According to church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority, from entering Gaza.  Some clergy complained of body searches by Israeli security when entering or exiting Gaza, including a nun subjected to a body search and requested to remove her religious habit, and a priest who was asked to disrobe for examination of his chemotherapy pump despite possessing medical documentation from an Israeli doctor.  Additionally, some Arab clergy reported Israel denied permission for them to leave Gaza for more than a year, and thus they were unable to renew visas or permits, preventing them from returning once they were permitted to leave.

In recent years, Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians to exit Gaza to attend religious services in Jerusalem or the West Bank and for Muslims from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem for Ramadan.  On November 25, COGAT announced a quota of 500 permits for Christian Gazans to visit family in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, 200 permits for Gazans wishing to travel abroad via the Allenby Bridge Crossing, and 15,000 permits for Christian Palestinians in the West Bank to enter Israel.  Haaretz reported that Israel made approximately 1,000 permits available to Gaza Christians to enter Israel and the West Bank for Christmas celebrations.  The Israeli government said that COGAT issued 24,016 permits during the year for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to travel to Jerusalem for major religious holidays such as Easter, Ramadan, or Christmas.  Of that number, 245 were issued for Christian residents of Gaza.

The Israeli NGO Gisha stated that while Israeli authorities did not issue permits to Palestinians from Gaza due to COVID-19 until December, thereby essentially restricting them from being able to go to Israel or the West Bank except in urgent humanitarian cases, it permitted foreigners to enter Israel for much of the year to study religion and to attend religious events, such as weddings, funerals, and bat or bar mitzvahs.  Furthermore, Israelis were able to move to and from settlements in the West Bank, including for religious worship and gatherings.  Gisha said that even in previous years, religious travel from Gaza was extremely limited, and announcements for “holiday permits” – if available – often came with little time for individuals to prepare for travel, file applications on time, and appeal permit denials; no Muslims were issued permits for religious travel since 2018, according to Gisha.

On July 6, the coalition government failed to renew the Law on Citizenship and Entry resulting in its expiration and paving the way for family reunification of some 3,000 Palestinians and their Israeli citizen spouses.  Under the law, non-Jewish spouses of Israelis from certain countries and the West Bank and Gaza had been denied residency without a special determination from the Israeli MOI.  Although the law lapsed, Interior Minister Shaked ordered the ministry to continue functioning as though the law were in place.  On September 14, three NGOs, including HaMoked, petitioned the Court for Administrative Affairs demanding that the MOI respect the consequences brought about by the expiration of the law.  On November 11, the government responded, supporting Shaked’s continued handling of Palestinians’ requests in accordance with the now-expired regulations, stating that Shaked could implement “interim procedures and regulations” until a new law was passed.  No new procedures were published by year’s end, however.  On November 15, the court rejected the three NGOs’ request for an injunction prohibiting the handling of requests based on the expired law.  As a result, the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court on November 17.  At year’s end, both the petition and new legislation remained pending.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in the country, including in Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families.  When the previous citizenship and entry law was not renewed and expired in July, HaMoked petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to direct the MOI to adjudicate reunification applications.  HaMoked and Israeli media reported that the ministry refused to deal with these applications, and as of December, there were 1,680 such applications waiting to be reviewed.  There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status.  Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency.  According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (i.e., Christians who held neither citizenship nor residency).  A Christian religious leader expressed concern that this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively affected the long-term viability of Christian communities.

According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability, the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry, limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions, difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits, loss of confidence in the peace process, and economic hardships created by the establishment of the barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions.  The Israeli government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

During the year, there were incidents of deadly violence that perpetrators justified at least partly on religious grounds.  Actions included individual killings, physical attacks and verbal harassment of worshippers and clergy, and vandalism of religious sites.  There was also harassment by members of one religious group of another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and antisemitic content in media.

Amid tensions in Jerusalem and conflict in Gaza, ethnic-based violence and civil unrest broke out during a one-week period in May in a number of mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel, including Jerusalem.  Armed Jewish Israelis clashed with Palestinians in East Jerusalem neighborhoods.  Responding to the violence, the government reassigned additional security personnel, including border police from the West Bank, to augment INP personnel.  The INP reported it made approximately 1,550 arrests in cities across Israel and in Jerusalem, with the overwhelming majority of the arrestees being Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel.  Security officials characterized the arrested Jewish citizens as predominately middle-aged nationalist extremists.

According to the press, on December 16, unknown gunmen killed Yehuda Dimentman near Jenin in the West Bank.  Dimentman was a student at a yeshiva near where the attack took place.  The attackers fired on a car carrying Dimentman as it was leaving the closed settlement of Homesh.  Authorities said that two other individuals traveling with Dimentman were injured in the attack.

Israeli media reported that on December 1, two Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews drove into downtown Ramallah, an Area A city in the West Bank and seat of the PA.  Israeli media described the men as wearing clothing and hairstyles preferred by an ultra-Orthodox group and by ultra-nationalist settler youth and driving a vehicle with speaker mounts and painting that matched other vehicles some member of the ultra-Orthodox group drive while playing Jewish techno music.  One of the passengers told reporters afterwards that they were lost and had been given bad directions by an Arab gas station attendant.  A Palestinian crowd attacked the vehicle with cinderblocks and stones, and after the passengers left the vehicle, set it ablaze.  PA security forces escorted the Israeli men to safety and turned them over to Israeli police, who subsequently held the two for interrogation and potential charges.  Israelis are banned by an Israeli military order from entering Area A, as noted by large signs on all roads entering Area A.  Hamas praised the assault as an “act of resistance” and criticized the PA security forces for safeguarding the two Israelis.

On March 1, unknown assailants set fire to the entrance of a Romanian Orthodox Church monastery in Jerusalem near the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim.  The local priest put out the fire quickly.  According to Church officials, this was the fourth act of vandalism during the year that targeted the same monastery.  Christian representatives said they believed religious Orthodox Jews were the probable assailants.  The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem said the arson was “a sign of hatred for the Christian religion” among some Israelis.

According to local press and social media, some settlers in the West Bank continued to justify their attacks on Palestinian property, or “price tag” attacks, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, vandalism of cars and buildings, arson, and slashing of tires as necessary for the defense of Judaism.  According to the Times of Israel, on October 13, vandals sprayed nationalist slogans and damaged cars in the Palestinian village of Marda in the West Bank.  Slogans painted on walls included “price tag” and “demolish enemy [property], not Jewish.”

Media reported that on April 28, arsonists set three Palestinian cars ablaze in Beit Iksa, a village outside Jerusalem in the West Bank and wrote, “Jews, let’s win” on the road, along with “Tiktok” and a Star of David, possibly referencing a series of videos posted on the social media app appearing to show Palestinians attacking random ultra-Orthodox Jews without provocation.  According to media reports, dozens of Jewish residents of a nearby neighborhood chanted, “May your village burn,” until police arrived and dispersed the crowd.  Some Palestinian residents stated to media outlets that an Israeli fire truck came but did not put the fire out, and they had to wait for a Palestinian fire truck, which took longer to arrive.

On November 9, unidentified individuals vandalized nearly two dozen vehicles and a building in the Palestinian town of al-Bireh, in the West Bank, with slogans such as “enemies live here” and “price tag.”  According to an AP report, Palestinian eyewitnesses said a group of Israeli settlers was responsible for the vandalism.

The Israeli government said that several times during the year, unknown persons sprayed graffiti on Joshua’s Tomb in the Palestinian village of Kifl Hares in the West Bank.

According to members of more recently arrived faith communities in the West Bank, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, established Christian groups opposed the efforts of the recent arrivals to obtain official PA recognition because of the newcomers’ proselytizing.

Political and religious groups in the West Bank and Gaza continued to call on members to “defend” al-Aqsa Mosque.

Following the announcement of the normalization agreements establishing relations between Israel and four Arab countries (the Abraham Accords), Muslims from the Gulf were at times harassed in person and vilified on social media by Palestinian Muslims for visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount as part of visits to Israel

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to state that burial of its members remained challenging since most cemeteries belonged to churches.  Jehovah’s Witnesses said the challenge was greatest in Bethlehem, where churches from the main traditions control most graveyards and refused access to them.

According to Palestinian sources, some Christian and Muslim families in the occupied territories pressured their children, especially daughters, to marry within their respective religious groups.  Couples who challenged this societal norm, particularly Palestinian Christians or Muslims who sought to marry Jews, encountered considerable societal and family opposition.  Families sometimes reportedly disowned Muslim and Christian women who married outside their faith.  Various Israeli and Palestinian groups continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation.

Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting on them.  In May, Armenian media reported that “Jewish youths” attacked an Armenian priest, sending him to the hospital with injuries.  Police reportedly arrested three of the attackers.

The Israeli government said that only one complaint was filed during the year regarding an assault on Christian clergy in Jerusalem, and that the suspect was questioned but not indicted.  In addition, it reported there was one complaint filed by church officials in Jerusalem for “blasphemy of a holy place;” no suspects were found in that case.  Church officials reported that despite presenting video evidence to Israeli police in these attacks, police took insufficient action.

The Times of Israel reported that Palestinian protestors hung a Nazi flag bearing the swastika symbol in the West Bank village of Beit Ummar near Hebron on September 25.  In October, the Times of Israel reported that Palestinian vandals drew the swastika symbol during several protests in the West Bank against Israeli settlements and outposts.  On October 23, Israeli police arrested a Palestinian man suspected of spray-painting swastikas along a road used by settlers in the West Bank village of Hawara, near Nablus.  During protests in August against the Israeli Evyatar settler outpost, Palestinians from the nearby town of Beita erected a flaming star of David with a swastika in the center.

In a December sermon at al-Aqsa Mosque, Issam Amira stated that COVID-19 spread because of the conduct of Muslim rulers.  He said that this happened because of “infidel and licentious media” had spread immorality, and rulers had “permitted and promoted homosexuality” and had followed “feminist organizations.”

In a December 8 interview on Palestine TV, Jihad al-Harazin, a professor of law and political science at al-Quds University, asked why the world “weeps” over the “so-called Holocaust” committed by the Nazis when it appears to ignore “the crimes that are being committed daily,” including the death of 12-year-old Mohammed Durrah, who was killed in Gaza in 2000.

Palestinian historian Ashraf al-Qasas during a November 2 interview with Gaza-based Alkofiya TV, said, “Jews constitute surplus, and could not integrate into society.”  He also said, “The Jews were a pile of garbage that you wanted to get rid of… and you do this by dumping them on the neighbors you hate:  the Muslims.”

Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many ultra-Orthodox Jewish denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site due to the ongoing halakhic (having to do with Jewish law and jurisprudence) debate about whether it was permissible or forbidden for Jews to enter the Temple Mount, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible.  Many among the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in visiting the site.  Groups such as the Temple Institute and Yaraeh continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there as well as for the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site.

According to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site during the year by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement decreased to 18,500 from 30,000 in 2019, the most recent year for which numbers are available, largely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Despite Israeli labor law mandating workers were entitled to take a weekly day off for worship, some foreign domestic workers in Jerusalem stated that some employers did not allow them to do so.

The research and consulting firm PSB took a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and reported 17 percent of respondents in the occupied territories said that their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, compared with 34 percent regionwide.  Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.