The country’s civilian-led transitional government, installed in August 2019, was led until October 25, 2021, by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who headed the Council of Ministers. On October 25, Sovereign Council Chair and head of the Sudanese Armed Forced (SAF) General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan dissolved the cabinet, declared a State of Emergency, and detained Prime Minister Hamdok, along with other senior government officials. On November 21, Prime Minister Hamdok’s dismissal was reversed, and at year’s end he was attempting to forge a political consensus that would allow the naming of a new government. As of year’s end, the country remained under a State of Emergency, without a Council of Ministers. An undersecretary named by Prime Minister Hamdok on December 2 was charged with running the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA), with its activities severely limited.
The constitutional declaration signed in August 2019 includes several provisions protecting the right to freedom of religious belief and worship “in accordance with the requirements of the law and public order.” Unlike the former constitution, it makes no reference to sharia as a source of law, although the clause restricting the death penalty permits its imposition as sharia-sanctioned (hudud) punishment for certain crimes. Laws promulgated under the former constitution remained in effect while the civilian-led transitional government (CLTG) worked to amend or abolish those laws and pass new legislation within the framework of the constitutional declaration. The Miscellaneous Amendments (Fundamental Rights and Freedoms) Act of 2020 (MAA) repealed the law criminalizing apostasy, although some criminal laws and practices established by the previous government led by Omar al-Bashir remained in effect, including those dealing with blasphemy. Those criminal laws and practices were based on that government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups stated did not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups. In March, General al-Burhan and the rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), active in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan States and led by Abdul Aziz al-Hilu, signed a declaration of principles agreement that outlined priorities for restarting peace talks. The declaration prioritized unification of the armed forces and the separation of religion and state, a key demand of the SPLM-N. On February 19, General Intelligence Services (GIS) officers reportedly detained the president of a Christian youth organization in Wad Madani in Gezira State. Local parishioners continued to state that compared with Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship were disproportionately affected by unclear zoning laws. According to Muslim religious leaders, the CLTG discontinued the practice of security forces monitoring imams’ sermons. Members of minority religious groups continued to express concerns regarding the education system, which lacked sufficient teachers equipped to teach courses on Christianity and textbooks that promoted religious diversity. On January 7, Prime Minister Hamdok, following criticism from Muslim clerics, instructed the National Center for Curricula and Educational Research in Khartoum to stop work on developing new school curricula, and established a committee that included religious leaders to review the education program.
Media reported a Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) church located in Jabarona near Khartoum that was attacked four times between December 2019 and January 2021, was rebuilt during the year. Church leaders stated that during the period of reconstruction, they received threats from individuals whom they characterized as Muslim extremists living in the area. On July 2, five armed men reportedly attacked an advisor to the MRA in Khartoum, threatening to kill him if he continued to publicly press the government to return church properties confiscated during the Bashir regime. On January 3, a youth set fire to an SCOC church in Tamboul, Gezira State. During the year, Shia husseiniyas (places of worship) remained closed, but followers of Shia Islam continued to enter Sunni mosques to pray.
Embassy officials encouraged respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups. They urged repeal of blasphemy laws. In addition, they highlighted the need for a new and inclusive education curriculum and urged government officials to abstain from the former regime’s abuses of religious freedom, which included confiscating and demolishing religious properties. Embassy officials maintained close contact with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Embassy representatives monitored the state of religious freedom in the country and stressed the importance of religious tolerance among the various religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 46.8 million (midyear 2021). 2020 Pew Research Center data estimates that 91 percent of the population is Muslim, 5.4 percent Christian, 2.8 percent follow folk religions, and the remainder follow other religions or are unaffiliated. Some religious advocacy groups estimate non-Muslims make up more than 13 percent of the population. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports 1,141,313 refugees and asylum seekers in the country as of year’s end, including 801,014 South Sudanese refugees.
Almost all Muslims in the country identify as Sunni, although there are significant distinctions among followers of different Sunni traditions, particularly among Sufi orders. Small Shia Muslim communities are based predominantly in Khartoum. At least one Jewish family remains in the Khartoum area.
The Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) reports the presence of 36 Christian denominations, of which 24 are registered denominations. Christians reside throughout the country, primarily in major cities such as Khartoum, Port Sudan, Kassala, Gedaref, El Obeid, and El Fasher. Christians also are concentrated in some parts of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State.
Relatively small but long-established groups of Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians are in Khartoum, El Obeid in North Kordofan, River Nile State, Gezira State, and eastern parts of the country. Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox communities largely made up of refugees and migrants are in Khartoum and the eastern part of the country. Other larger Christian groups include the Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal Anglican Church, SCOC, Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC), and the Presbyterian Church of Sudan. Smaller Christian groups include the Africa Inland Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Sudan Interior Church, Sudan Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Government statistics indicate less than 1 percent of the population, primarily in Blue Nile and South Kordofan States, adhere to traditional African religious beliefs. Some Christians and Muslims incorporate aspects of these traditional beliefs into their religious practice. There is a small Baha’i community.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The 2019 constitutional declaration includes provisions regarding freedom of belief and worship. As stipulated in the constitutional declaration, existing laws and institutions governing religion remain in effect while the current government works to amend and restructure them. While the previous constitution stated all national legislation should be based on sharia, the constitutional declaration makes no reference to sharia, although the clause restricting the death penalty permits its imposition as sharia-sanctioned (hudud) punishment for certain crimes.
The constitutional declaration also has provisions for access to education regardless of religion. It requires that political parties be open to citizens of all religions, and ensures all “ethnic and cultural” groups have the right to “exercise their beliefs” and “observe their religions or customs” “in accordance with the requirements of the law and public order.”
Abuses of freedom of religion are often addressed in lower courts but may, in theory, be appealed to the Constitutional Court. As of the end of the year, however, the Constitutional Court had not been established.
National laws concerning personal and family matters of Muslims adopted during the Bashir administration remain largely in effect and are based on a sharia system of jurisprudence. The existing criminal code states the law, including at the state and local levels, shall be based on sharia sources and include hudud, qisas, and diyah principles (regarding punishment, restitution, and compensation for specific serious crimes). The criminal code takes into consideration multiple sharia schools of jurisprudence (madhahib). The Islamic Panel of Scholars and Preachers (Fiqh Council), an official body of 50 Muslim religious scholars responsible for explaining and interpreting Islamic jurisprudence, determines under which conditions a particular school of thought applies. Other criminal and civil laws are determined at the state and local level.
Members of the Fiqh Council serve four-year renewable terms. In the past, the council advised the government and issued fatwas on religious matters, including the levy of customs duties on the importation of religious materials, payment of interest on loans for public infrastructure, and determination of government-allotted annual leave for Islamic holidays. The council’s opinions are not legally binding. Muslim religious scholars may present differing religious and political viewpoints in public. The scope of the Fiqh Council mandate was unclear under the CLTG and remained so following the military takeover.
In July 2020, the CLTG ratified the MAA, rescinding a provision of a 1991 law that criminalized and imposed the death penalty for apostasy (conversion from Islam to another faith). The MAA replaced the apostasy provision with an article criminalizing takfir (the act of declaring someone a kafir, or nonbeliever). Those charged with takfir face imprisonment not to exceed 10 years, a fine, or both.
The criminal code’s section on “religious offenses” criminalizes various acts committed against any religion. These include insulting religion; blasphemy; questioning or criticizing the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet; disturbing places of worship; and trespassing upon places of burial. In July 2020, the CLTG removed flogging as a punishment for blasphemy. The criminal code states, “Whoever insults any religion, their rights or beliefs or sanctifications, or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof” shall be punished with up to one year in prison and/or a fine. The article includes provisions that prescribe penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both for anyone who curses the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, or members of his respective households.
In July 2020, the CLTG repealed a provision of law under which individuals could be arrested for indecent dress and other offenses deemed injurious to honor, reputation, and public morality. The MAA also removed penalties for anyone who imported or distributed alcohol to any individual, regardless of religion.
Some parts of the criminal code specify punishments for Muslims based on government interpretation of sharia punishment principles. For example, the penalty for adultery with a married person is hanging and for an unmarried person is 100 lashes. An unmarried man may additionally be punished with banishment for up to one year. These penalties only apply to Muslims. Adultery is defined as sexual activity outside of marriage, prior to marriage, or in a marriage that is determined to be void.
Under the law, the Minister of Justice may release any prisoner who memorizes the Quran during his or her prison term. The release requires a recommendation for parole from the prison’s director general, a religious committee composed of the Sudan Scholars Organization, and members of the Fiqh Council, which consults with the MRA to ensure decisions comply with Islamic jurisprudence.
The MRA is responsible for regulating Islamic religious practice, supervising churches, and guaranteeing equal treatment for all religious groups. The MRA also provides recommendations to relevant ministries regarding religious issues that government ministries encounter.
To gain official recognition by the government, religious groups are required to register at the state level with the MRA. The MRA determines, along with the state-level entities responsible for land grants and planning, whether to provide authorization or permits to build new houses of worship, taking into account zoning concerns such as the distance between religious institutions and population density. The allocation of land to religious entities is determined at the state level.
The Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), formerly known as the Higher Council for Guidance and Endowment, oversees NGOs and nonprofit organizations. Religious groups that engage in humanitarian or development activities must register as nonprofit NGOs by filing a standard application required by the HAC. Only NGOs registered with the HAC are eligible to apply for other administrative benefits, including land ownership, tax exemptions, and work permits. The HAC works with the Ministry of Interior to facilitate the visa process for NGO representatives seeking to obtain visas.
The MRA has federal entities in each state that coordinate travel for the Hajj and Umra.
The state-mandated education curriculum requires that all students receive religious instruction from elementary school to secondary school. The curriculum further mandates that all schools, including international schools and private schools operated by Christian groups, provide Islamic education classes to Muslim students from preschool through the second year of university. The law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, and it mandates that public schools provide Christian students with other religious instruction if there are at least 15 Christian students in a class, although the government does not always provide sufficient resources for carrying out this provision, or sufficient resources for hiring the requisite number of teachers overall. According to the Ministry of Education, following the separation of South Sudan in 2011, this number was not reached in most schools. Non-Muslim students therefore normally attend religious study classes of their own religion outside of regular school hours to fulfill the religious instruction requirement. The Ministry of Education is responsible for determining the religious education curriculum. According to the ministry, the Islamic curriculum must follow the Sunni tradition.
Under the law, a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman. In practice, Muslim men follow sharia guidance, which advises they may marry “non-Muslim women of the book,” i.e., either Christian or Jewish women. A Muslim woman, however, legally may marry only a Muslim man. A Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man can be charged with adultery.
There are separate family courts for Muslims and non-Muslims to address personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody, according to their religion. By law, in custody dispute cases where one parent is Muslim and the other is Christian, courts grant custody to the Muslim parent if there is any concern that the non-Muslim parent would raise the child in a religion other than Islam.
According to Islamic personal status laws, Christians (including children) may not inherit assets from a Muslim. Children of mixed (e.g., Muslim-Christian) marriages are considered Muslim and may inherit.
Government offices and businesses are closed on Friday for prayers and follow a Sunday to Thursday work week. A 2019 decree mandates that academic institutions shall not give exams on Sunday, and it authorizes Christians to leave work at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday for religious activities. Individuals may also leave work to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, an official state holiday, along with several key Islamic holidays.
An interministerial committee, which includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the General Intelligence Service, and, in some cases, Military Intelligence, must approve foreign clergy and other foreigners seeking a residency permit.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The country’s civilian-led transitional government, installed in August 2019, was led until October 25, 2021, by Prime Minister Hamdok, who headed the Council of Ministers. On October 25, General al-Burhan dissolved the cabinet, declared a State of Emergency, and detained Prime Minister Hamdok, along with other senior government officials. On November 21, Prime Minister Hamdok’s dismissal was reversed, and at year’s end, he was attempting to forge a political consensus that would allow the naming of a new government. As of year’s end, the country remained under a State of Emergency, without a Council of Ministers, with the state led by military authorities and a number of civilians appointed by Prime Minister Hamdok following his restoration.
After the military takeover in October, authorities dismissed the Minister of Religious Affairs. On December 2, Prime Minister Hamdok named new undersecretaries at 20 ministries, including the MRA, and charged them with leading those institutions. MRA activities were limited in the wake of the political crisis that ensued following the military takeover.
International media reported that in March, Sovereign Council Chair al-Burhan and SPLM-N leader al-Hilu signed a declaration of principles agreement that outlined priorities of the peace talks. The agreement prioritized unification of the armed forces and the separation of religion and state, the latter a key demand of the SPLM-N. In September 2020, al-Hilu and Prime Minister Hamdok had also signed a declaration of principles that included the separation of religion and state. Media outlets reported that the peace talks were ongoing in June, but that they stalled prior to the military takeover in October. As of year’s end, al-Hilu and the Sudan Liberation Movement’s Abdel Wahid al-Nur remained non-signatories to the Juba Peace Agreement and expressed their opposition to the military government.
Some criminal laws and practices continued to be based on the Bashir government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups stated did not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups.
According to the religious freedom advocacy NGO CSW, on February 19, General Intelligence Services (GIS) officers detained Osama Saeed Musa Kodi, the president of a Christian youth organization, in Wad Madani, Gezira State. They reportedly told Saeed Christianity was evil and accused him of trying to “brainwash” local residents. They ordered Saeed, a member of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, to stop criticizing officials in Gezira for not allowing the reconstruction of a SCOC church that arsonists burned in January and warned he could be killed if he continued. According to CSW, Saeed sustained injuries while in custody.
According to CSW, on December 27, members of the government-appointed church committee of the SPEC changed the locks to the church in Kosti, White Nile State. CSW stated that this prevented access by the “properly-constituted committee.” According to CSW, on November 15, an administrative court judge dismissed the case the SPEC had filed to remove the government-appointed church committee. The SPEC stated it had hoped the ruling would implement the 2015 Court of Appeals decision that the government erred by giving administrative control of SPEC churches to government-appointed committees. In 2020 the MRA abolished the government-appointed committees imposed on churches under the Bashir government. However, some continued to operate at year’s end. Despite the 2015 court ruling, the government had not officially recognized the committee led by SPEC leader Rafat Obid as the legitimate body to administrate on behalf of the church. CSW reported that in response to an accusation by a member of the government-appointed church committee, authorities arrested Obid and charged him with “impersonating others” under Article 113 of the Criminal Act. They released him on bail on June 28.
The government did not report the result of investigations into incidents in which government forces under former President Bashir allegedly attacked protesters outside mosques during antigovernment protests that took place from December 2018 to April 2019, or whether such investigations continued as of year’s end.
During the year, the Gezira State general prosecutor charged Nada Hamad Koko and Hamoda Teya Kaffi with adultery. In 2018 Kaffi converted to Christianity, after which the court granted a divorce decree from his wife Koko and annulled the marriage, as the law prohibited a Muslim woman from being married to a non-Muslim man. Koko also converted to Christianity in 2020, and the couple reunited in 2021. Koko’s family then filed the criminal case against the couple. The prosecutor did not recognize Koko’s conversion to Christianity, and at year’s end the couple was still awaiting trial.
Christians reported being subject to punishment for selling alcohol, despite amendments to the law that exempt non-Muslims from the prohibition except in cases where Muslims were supplied alcohol. Police reportedly continued to arrest individuals selling alcohol (mostly women) and punishments usually took the form of a fine, or limited prison time if the original fine went unpaid. Punishments varied based on the location of the arrest and the judge’s discretion.
Local parishioners continued to state that compared with Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship were disproportionately affected by unclear zoning laws.
According to the SCOC, government officials in Gezira State in December 2020 allocated vacant land for the construction of three church buildings, two for SCOC and one for an evangelical Christian church. Church representatives stated, however, that as of year’s end, they had not received deeds to the land. According to the SCOC, this was the first time authorities granted land to Christians since 2005.
According to Muslim religious leaders, the CLTG discontinued the practice of security forces monitoring imams’ sermons, and sermons remained varied and sometimes critical of the CLTG.
Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims, but observers said authorities did not allow Shia prayers. Shia prisoners were permitted to join prayer services led by Sunni imams. Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance. Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular, according to SCOC and Roman Catholic clergy.
Members of minority religious groups continued to express concerns regarding the education system, which lacked sufficient teachers equipped to teach courses on Christianity and textbooks that promoted religious diversity. Although the law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, some schools did not excuse non-Muslim students from these classes. Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students were not required to attend those classes. Most Christian students attended religious education classes at their churches, based on the availability of volunteer teachers from their church communities.
Local media reported that on January 7, the Prime Minister instructed the National Center for Curricula and Educational Research in Khartoum to stop work on developing new school curricula and established a committee that included religious leaders to review the education program. In a press statement, Prime Minister Hamdok said the decision was made because the National Center’s curricula proposals were controversial. According to local media, the proposed new textbooks were widely criticized, in particular by Muslim clerics, and Center director Dr. Omal El Garai had received death threats. On January 8, El Gari resigned. In a press statement, he criticized the government for “handing over the revolution to supporters of the former regime, the forces of religious obsession, and blind extremism.”
Christian churches continued to report that the CLTG continued to grant churches and their affiliated humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status. The Bashir government had only granted such status to Islamic relief agencies. Leaders of religious institutions said they must formally request permission to import items such as vehicles into the country, but that these items continued to be tax-exempt. While some church officials encountered challenges requesting visas and resident permits for foreign Christian missionaries, the officials stated that the CLTG largely continued to ease restrictions.
In 2020, the CLTG and the SPLM-N agreed to establish an independent religious freedom commission to work through religious freedom issues from the previous regime. As of year’s end, the commission had not been created.
According to the Sudan Tribune, on July 16, Khartoum State granted the Orthodox Church in Sudan approval to build a place of worship on land it owns in Omdurman after the urban planning department had denied permission because development on the land was only authorized for residential purposes.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Individuals from minority religious groups, including Shia and other Muslim minorities, stated they avoided expressing beliefs or discussing religious practices that differed from the Sunni majority. Local media stated they exercised self-censorship to avoid covering religious issues, due to concern about receiving negative reactions or reprisals from the majority Sunni community.
Media reported an SCOC church located in Jabarona near Khartoum was attacked four times between December 2019 and January 2021. The church, which was burned, was rebuilt during the year in the same location. Christian congregants resumed their activities and reported that they did not encounter issues following the reconstruction. Church leaders stated that during the period of reconstruction, they received threats from individuals whom they characterized as Muslim extremists living in the area.
CSW reported that on July 2, five armed men attacked Boutrous Badawi, an advisor to the MRA, in Khartoum while he was on his way home. Badawi reported that one man held a gun to his head and threatened to kill him if he continued to publicly press the government to return church properties confiscated during the Bashir regime, or to speak publicly about issues surrounding the SPEC committees. Badawi reported the attack to the police. CSW further reported that in a second incident on October 27, two persons followed and attacked Badawi.
CSW reported that on January 3, a 13-year-old boy set fire to a church in Tamboul, Gezira State, belonging to the SCOC. According to CSW’s sources, an adult had provided the boy with the gasoline used to ignite the fire. Police filed a case against the boy on January 6 but did not charge the adult.
CSW reported that on November 29, 2020 the trial began in the case of nine defendants accused of setting fire to a church in Omdurman. The case was continuing at year’s end.
On May 11, the 29th day of Ramadan, members of neighborhood Resistance Committees and grassroots civil society groups led demonstrations to commemorate the June 3, 2019 massacre of prodemocracy protesters. Some demonstrators protested Israeli government actions in Jerusalem and burned an Israeli flag.
Media outlet Sudan Akhbar reported that activists organized a demonstration on May 18 in solidarity with the Palestinian cause at Jackson Square in Central Khartoum. Activists denounced what they said was Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip and the CLTG’s steps toward normalizing ties with Israel.
In February, businessman Abu al-Qassem Bortoum hosted an interfaith event to promote religious tolerance, following the signing of the Abraham Accords in January. The event included prominent Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu participants and attracted international media attention.
On January 6, protestors rallied and burned Israeli flags outside the cabinet offices in Khartoum after the government signed the Abraham Accords, which was seen as a step toward normalizing ties with Israel.
During the year, Shia husseiniyas remained closed, but followers of Shia Islam continued to enter Sunni mosques to pray, hosted informal gatherings in their homes, or used open spaces to worship together.
In August, the NGO Sudanese Human Rights Initiative hosted a two-day workshop for journalists. The Minister of Information and Culture, advisor to the Minister of Religious Affairs, and representatives of the Ministry of Justice attended the seminar to discuss the role media could play in promoting and protecting religious freedom.
Many minority religious groups reported that they experienced delays when trying to register as a religious organization. They reported that the MRA was working with select groups but that smaller groups were still awaiting guidance and updates on their registration applications.
Throughout the year, a private citizen, with permission from the MRA, worked toward restoring the Jewish cemetery in Khartoum.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials met regularly with government officials to encourage respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups. They urged officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to rescind blasphemy laws hindering religious freedom. The Charge d’Affaires encouraged the government to develop an inclusive education curriculum, and to refrain from the former regime’s abuses of religious freedom, which included confiscating and demolishing church property, establishing government-appointed church committees, and restricting visas for foreign missionaries.
Throughout the year, embassy officials engaged with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and civil society organizations, including SPEC, the Sudan Council of Churches, the Evangelical Church of Bahri, and the Catholic Archbishop of Khartoum to discuss legislation enacted under the CTLG and seek their views on actions needed to expand religious freedom. In meetings, embassy officials stressed the importance of identifying measures to collectively advance religious tolerance among the various religious groups.
United Arab Emirates
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
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.
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.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers engaged government officials throughout the year on efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, and discussed licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious and religiously affiliated groups.
The Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers regularly met with representatives of religious organizations and other groups associated with minority religious communities, including Jewish community and diaspora representatives and the Baha’i community, to learn more about issues affecting them as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to freely associate and worship; they discussed the ongoing efforts by different UAE-based groups to accomplish these objectives. The Charge and embassy and consulate general officers also met with Islamic organizations. In these meetings, U.S. officials discussed the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.
As part of its Ramadan outreach activities, the embassy hosted iftars in April and May with government, media, religious, business, and cultural figures. Remarks by U.S. officials throughout the year encouraged efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures. Embassy and consulate general officers also participated in minority religious celebrations, such as Jewish Shabbat services, and consulate representatives attended a Hannukah event on November 29 at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum.
The USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 featured Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, on loan from the Library of Congress for its first overseas exhibition, to illustrate the long history of religious freedom in the United States. The USA Pavilion also cohosted with the Israel Pavilion a screening of the documentary “Amen-Amen-Amen: A Story of Our Times,” which highlighted the story of the Jewish community in the UAE and its presentation of a sacred Torah scroll to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in 2019.