The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a 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.” In May parliament passed new legislation prohibiting clerics from being members of political societies or participating in political activities while serving at a religious institution. While some commentators stated the legislation was designed to ensure the separation of religion from state affairs, some Shia activists stated it was meant to target their political organizations. There were scores of attacks on police during the year, some of which were accompanied by social media messages using Shia religious terminology to justify attacks on the authorities, including one attack in which a policeman was killed. The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. It convicted a Shia cleric on charges of giving an unauthorized sermon, and revoked the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, whom the media characterized as the country’s leading Shia cleric, on the grounds he had allegedly sought to form an organization supporting foreign religious leaders. After Qassim’s supporters staged a sit-in demonstration around his home, police sealed off access to the neighborhood where Qassim lived, detained over 70 individuals in connection with the sit-in, and judges sentenced two Shia clerics to prison terms for participating in the sit-in. The police continued to restrict entry and exit into the predominately Shia neighborhood though the end of the year. In December an appeals court agreed with an earlier appeals court and resentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the Shia opposition political society Wifaq, to nine years after he continued to appeal his 2014 conviction and four-year sentence on charges of inciting hatred and promoting disobedience to the law. As of year’s end, Salman had not refiled a final appeal to the Court of Cassation, but planned to do so in 2017. In June the authorities obtained a court order to shut down the Shia Wifaq, accusing it of creating “an environment for terrorism, extremism, and violence.” International human rights organizations published reports stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill-treatment by prison guards because of their religious affiliation. Shia community representatives complained about what they said was ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Public officials continued to allege some Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism. The government permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen. Registered non-Muslim communities reported the government seldom interfered with their religious observances.
Although there were reports of conversion by some Muslims to other religions, those who did remained unwilling to speak publicly about their conversion. Representatives of the Shia community reported the continued higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia were exacerbated by continued discrimination against Shia in the private as well as the public sectors and added to tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities. Both anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared on social media, including allegations that prominent Shia leaders supported terrorism or engaged in what was termed “treasonous behavior.” Representatives of non-Muslim religious groups reported there continued to be general acceptance of their presence and activities, although there were reports some employers denied migrant workers the opportunity to observe their religious beliefs.
The Secretary of State, the U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. government officials, and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to urge them to implement fully the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations on the reconstruction of places of worship; to end discrimination against Shia in government employment and education; to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities; and to allow prisoners to practice their religions. In this connection, U.S. officials urged the government to observe the religious freedom provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). U.S. officials also continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms, which would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Embassy officers met regularly with religious leaders of all faiths and representatives of NGOs to discuss freedom of worship.