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Yemen

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. The conflict that began in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end. The secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) remained in control of Aden, the temporary capital, until December 30, when the cabinet of a unity government, formed under the 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, returned to the city. The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory and had limited ability to address abuses of religious liberty. The government publicly condemned religious persecution by the Houthi movement. Sources pointed to the support of Shia-majority Iran for the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and the support of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia for the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year.

At year’s end, the Houthis continued to control approximately one-third of Yemeni territory and nearly 80 percent of the population. In areas they controlled, the Houthis followed a strict religious regimen and continued to discriminate against individuals who did follow those practices, particularly religious minorities. According to the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media, military actions by Houthis continued to damage places of worship and religious institutions, and to inflict casualties at religious gatherings. In January, media reported that Houthi militants launched a missile attack on a mosque at a government military installation in Ma’rib Governorate, killing at least 116 soldiers during prayers. The UN Panel of Experts reported a second Houthi attack in August on a mosque at a government security compound in Ma’rib killed seven. A Houthi-controlled court held hearings early in the year on the appeal of Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i sentenced to death by the Houthi-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in 2018 on charges of apostasy and spying for Israel. In March, Mahdi al-Mashaat, President of the Houthi Supreme Political Council (SPC) in Sana’a, ordered the release of all detained Baha’is and pardoned Haydara. In July, Haydara and five other detained Baha’is – part of a group of 24 Baha’is charged with apostasy and espionage in 2018 – were released and exiled. According to the Sana’a-based human rights organization Mwatana, the Specialized Criminal Court continued proceedings against the six exiled Baha’is, ordering them to return to Sana’a to face trial, and the court continued to hold hearings against the other 19 Baha’is charged in 2018. Mwatana reported more than 70 instances of abuse against the Baha’i community since 2015, such as arbitrary detentions of dozens of Baha’is for practicing cultural activities, and deportation and enforced disappearances of others. A local human rights organization reported that since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, the Houthis damaged or destroyed 49 mosques in Hudaydah alone and transformed more than 100 mosques throughout the country into military barracks and sniper positions. In January, Minister of Endowments Ahmed al-Attiyah stated that the Houthis had targeted 76 mosques in areas under their control. According to the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, the Houthis continued to use anti-Semitic rhetoric – including multiple speeches made by Houthi supreme leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi – that incited violence against Jews. The Group of Experts reported Jews faced Houthi-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement and constant threats to their lives and security. According to the United Nations, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active in Hadramawt, Shabwah, Ma’rib, Bayda’, and Abyan Governorates. According to media, gunmen killed Khalid al-Hameidi, a university professor known as a secular thinker and critic of religious extremism, in the city of Dhale on December 5. Local officials said they believed the gunmen were members of AQAP or of an ISIS affiliate.

Jewish community members said their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. No rabbis remained in the country, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with family members. Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the country’s small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.

The Department of State suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in 2015, and the embassy has operated since then as the Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU), based in Saudi Arabia. In March, the U.S. Ambassador expressed his concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Hamed bin Haydara, a Baha’i Faith leader imprisoned since 2013. The Ambassador emphasized that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear. In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 29.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), associating their beliefs with either the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or Zaydi Islam, a distinct form of Shia Islam. There are also significant numbers of Sunni followers of the Maliki and Hanbali schools, and significant numbers of Ismaili and Twelver followers of Shia Islam. While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 65 percent of the population is Sunni and 35 percent Zaydi. Baha’is, Jews, Hindus, and Christians, many of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents, comprise less than 1 percent of the population. Christian groups include Roman Catholics and Anglicans. According to the UN Group of Experts, many Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian economic migrants transit the country on their way to find work in Saudi Arabia, making the total number of Christians subject to fluctuation.

There is no firm estimate of the number of persons of Indian origin or of those who practice Hinduism, Sikhism, or the Dawoodi Bohra variant of Ismaili Shia Islam residing in the country. The preconflict Hindu population was 150,000 (2010 estimate), concentrated in Aden, Mukalla, Shihr, Lahaj, Mokha, and Hudayah. According to one source, the current number of Indian nationals is fewer than 3,000. Many members of the Indian-origin community have resided in the country for generations and hold Yemeni nationality.

The Jewish community is an indigenous non-Muslim minority religious group. Reports estimate approximately 20 to 40 Jews remain, concentrated in Sana’a and Raydah, in Amran Governorate north of Sana’a.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system.

Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system. The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases. Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.

The constitution states the President must be Muslim who “practices his Islamic duties”; however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.” The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.

The criminal code states that “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense. The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities to repent; upon repentance, they are spared the death penalty.

Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate. Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism). By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.

The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims. The law prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for public “ridicule” of any religion and prescribes up to five years’ imprisonment if the ridiculed religion is Islam.

There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.

By law, the government must authorize construction of any new buildings. The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.

Public schools must provide instruction in Islam, but not in other religions. The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization. The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education. Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum, but the government is unable to enforce it in Houthi-controlled areas, where instructional materials indicate schools are teaching Zaydi principles only.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Media reports noted Shia-majority Iran supported the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supported the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and they said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. Many sources, including international media and foundations, continued to describe the conflict as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

In July, the government and STC reached a new agreement to accelerate implementation of the November 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, which called for a ceasefire, military withdrawal, and power-sharing. In December, the parties reached agreement on the formation of a new unity government, and the cabinet returned to Aden on December 30. The government did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country throughout the year, which limited its ability to address abuses of religious liberty by nonstate actors in areas not under its control.

The September 2019 UN Group of Experts report Situation of human rights in Yemen including violations and abuses since September 2014, covering the 2014-2019 period, reported that military actions by all parties during the conflict had inflicted casualties at religious gatherings and damaged places of worship and religious institutions. According to the NGO Yemen Data Project, the number of airstrikes by Saudi-led coalition forces during the year increased significantly compared with 2019. The NGO reported a continued decrease in airstrikes against nonmilitary targets, however, while airstrikes on military targets increased, as did airstrikes of unknown origin on a variety of targets. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year, however. According to the UN Protection Cluster’s Civilian Impact Monitoring Project (CIMP), civilian casualties from air strikes fell from 2,588 in 2018 to 796 in 2019, and finally to 216 in 2020. Air strikes accounted for less than 10 percent of the 2,087 civilian casualties CIMP reported during the year (749 persons killed and 1,338 injured).

In August, the government publicly condemned, through the state news agency, Houthi authorities for persecuting religious minorities, in response to the Houthi deportation of six Baha’is to European countries and the United States.

Because of the conflict and the government’s absence from the country until the end of the year, the government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in private schools. Many public and private schools throughout the country remained closed, and those operating were open for only a few hours a day.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Jewish community members continued to report their declining numbers, which made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. The country’s only remaining rabbi – Yahyia Bin Youssef – fled the country in January 2019, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the UAE government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with relatives.

Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Department of State suspended embassy operations in Sana’a in 2015 and the embassy has operated since then as the YAU, based in Saudi Arabia. In meetings with officials from the government, U.S. government officials continued to stress the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. In March, the YAU released a statement from the Ambassador expressing deep concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Bahai’i leader Hamed bin Haydara and emphasizing that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear.

In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country, saying “We call on the Houthis to respect religious freedom, stop oppressing Yemen’s Jewish population, and immediately release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi.”

The YAU coordinated closely with the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, regional missions, and international organizations in facilitating the resettlement of Baha’is after their release. The YAU continued to closely monitor the conditions of religious minority detainees and to press for their release.

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