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Bahrain

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons by sending circulars to mosques, and to summon for questioning clerics who spoke on unapproved topics.  The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse.  According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds that their actions jeopardized national security.  The MOJIA reported reviewing on a weekly basis sermons preachers submitted to the government.  The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques on unannounced visits to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes.  According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications it perceived as criticizing Islam.  The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses.  The MOJIA also reviewed books that discussed religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shia community members said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities.  The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally.  The MOLSD organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods.

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

NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations, with some NGOs describing this as government overreach.  NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.

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

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

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

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

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

Kuwait

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion but also declares freedom of belief is “absolute.”  It stipulates that the state protects the freedom to practice one’s religion, provided such practice does not conflict with established customs, public policy, or morals.  The constitution states that sharia is a main source of legislation and that all individuals are equal before the law, regardless of religion.  Defamation of the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), publication or broadcast of material the government deems offensive to religious groups, and practices the government finds inconsistent with Islamic law are prohibited by law.  The government prosecuted numerous individuals for remarks deemed religiously offensive, mostly for comments made online, and sentenced some to prison terms.  In January, according to press and human rights activists, authorities arrested Mubarak al-Bathali as a part of a 2014 criminal court ruling that convicted him of inciting sectarian strife, insulting a group of society (Shia), and disrupting national unity through his Twitter posts.  According to human rights activists and social media accounts, authorities arrested and interrogated religious freedom activist Nasser Dashti in July on charges of blasphemy for public statements he made criticizing religion and praising secularism.  The government continued to appoint and pay the salaries of Sunni imams and provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques.  The government did not exercise the same oversight of Shia imams.  The government paid the salaries of some Shia imams.  The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (MAIA) opened investigations on three Sunni imams for delivering sermons perceived as politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, or violating the national unity law.  Minority religious groups said they were able to worship in private spaces without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and restrictions on proselytizing.  Leaders of registered churches reported that government authorities allowed only citizens to sign official documents, even if the citizens were not among the churches’ ordained clergy.  If there were no citizen members, the authorities recognized the highest church authority as the official signatory of the church.  Most minority religious groups reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulty obtaining permission to construct new facilities.  The government did not accredit any religious schools or permit Shia religious training within the country.  Shia leaders continued to report discrimination in clerical and public sector employment.  The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials referring to the Holocaust or Israel.

Individuals continued to face societal pressure against conversion from Islam; some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them because of their conversion.  In January, a television journalist and announcer posted a video on Snapchat announcing that he was converting from Islam to Christianity.  Reactions on social media varied, with some users stating the journalist had the right to choose his faith, and others saying he was an apostate risking damnation.  In January, a prominent cleric issued a statement condemning the construction an interfaith center in the United Arab Emirates that would include a synagogue, church, and mosque.  He also uploaded to YouTube a statement calling Jews “the brothers of apes and pigs, because they are essentially like them.”  Hotels, stores, and businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.  News media continued to publish information about celebrations of religious holidays such as Christmas.  Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval on social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays.

In November, embassy officials met with MAIA representatives to better understand the ministry’s efforts to promote religious tolerance, its relationship with religious minority groups, and the activities of its Center for the Promotion of Moderation.  During the year, embassy officials met with religious leaders and members of the Sunni, Shia, Bohra, Hindu, Baha’i, and Christian communities to discuss the groups’ needs.  In May, November, and December, the Ambassador hosted roundtables with representatives from minority faiths, including the Bohra, Hindu, Baha’i, and Christian communities, to discuss a broad range of religious freedom issues.  The group discussed the status of religious freedom in the country, the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns on their communities, barriers to religious practice caused by the government’s administrative procedures for religious minority groups, and how to promote dialogue among expatriate religious minority communities and Kuwaiti citizens.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state and the freedom of belief to be “absolute.”  It provides for state protection of the freedom to practice all religions, provided such practice is “in accordance with established customs, and does not conflict with public policy or morals.”

The constitution declares sharia to be a main source of legislation and all individuals to be equal before the law regardless of religion.  It declares the emir shall be Muslim (the emir and ruling family are Sunni) and the state shall safeguard the heritage of Islam.

The law prohibits defamation of the three Abrahamic religions and denigration of Islamic and Judeo-Christian religious figures acknowledged within accepted Islamic orthodoxy (e.g., prophets mentioned in the Quran, and wives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad), and prescribes a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for each offense.

A national unity law prohibits “stirring sectarian strife,” promoting the supremacy of one religious group, instigating acts of violence based on the supremacy of one group, or promoting hatred or contempt of any group.  Violations of this law by individuals are punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment, a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 dinars ($33,100-$331,000), or both.  Repeated crimes carry double penalties.  If a group or an organization violates the law, it could have its license to operate revoked temporarily or permanently and face fines up to 200,000 dinars ($662,000).  Noncitizens convicted under this law are also subject to deportation.

The law allows citizens to file criminal charges against anyone they believe has defamed any of the three recognized Abrahamic religions or harmed public morals.

The law criminalizes publishing and broadcasting content, including on social media, which the government deems offensive to religious “sects” or groups, providing for fines ranging from 10,000 to 200,000 dinars ($33,100-$662,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment.

There is no officially published process outlining steps religious groups must take to register with the government.  Government offices do not offer guidance on the registration process.  There are no fixed criteria for an application to be approved.  To obtain a license to establish an official place of worship and gain benefits from the central government, a religious group must first receive approval from the local municipality for its place of worship.  Previously, religious groups reported the municipality would pass the paperwork to MAIA for an “opinion” on the application for a worship space.  MAIA would then issue a certificate that lists board members for the organization, making the religious group a legal entity, followed by further approvals by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MOSA) and the Ministry of Interior (MOI).  However, MAIA representatives stated during the year that MAIA is not responsible for the registration process for churches, and they did not provide clarification on which government agency is responsible for the registration process for non-Islamic places of worship.

The officially registered and licensed Christian churches in the country are the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait (NECK) (Protestant); Roman Catholic; Greek Catholic (Melkite); Coptic Orthodox; Armenian Orthodox; Greek Orthodox; Anglican; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  There are no officially recognized synagogues, and according to MAIA, no application has ever been submitted for one.  The government does not recognize any non-Abrahamic religions.  Nonregistered religious groups include Hindus, Sikhs, Druze, Bohra Muslims, and Baha’is.

A religious group with a license to establish a place of worship may hire its own staff, sponsor visitors to the country, open bank accounts, and import texts needed for its congregation.  Nonregistered religious groups do not have the same rights as licensed groups and may not purchase property or sponsor workers and must rely on volunteers from within their community for resources.  Some registered religious groups have agreed to assist nonregistered groups in these matters.

The law prohibits practices the government deems inconsistent with Islamic law, including anything the government deems to be sorcery or black magic, which under the penal code constitutes “fraud and deception” and carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.

The law does not specifically prohibit proselytizing by non-Muslims, but individuals proselytizing may be prosecuted under laws criminalizing contempt of religion.

The law prohibits eating, drinking, and smoking in public between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, including for non-Muslims, with a prescribed maximum penalty of up to 100 dinars ($330), one month’s imprisonment, or both.

It is illegal to possess, import, trade, or manufacture alcohol.  Importing alcohol carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment; consuming alcohol may result in a fine of up to 1,000 dinars ($3,300).  It is illegal to consume alcohol publicly, which carries a penalty of up to six months’ imprisonment and a fine up to 50 dinars ($170).  It is illegal to import and sell pork products; the penalty ranges from three months to three years’ imprisonment.

Islamic religious instruction is mandatory at all levels for all Muslim students in both public and private schools with one or more Muslim students enrolled, regardless of whether the student is a citizen.  Non-Muslim students are not required to attend these classes.  The law prohibits organized religious education in public high schools for faiths other than Islam.  All Islamic education courses are based on Sunni Islam.

The law states apostates lose certain legal rights, including to inherit property from Muslim relatives or spouses, but it does not specify any criminal penalty.  If a Muslim man married to a Muslim woman converts from Islam, his existing marriage is annulled.  If he is married to a non-Muslim woman and converts from Islam, the marriage remains valid.  If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to another Abrahamic faith (Christianity or Judaism), the marriage is not automatically annulled, but the Muslim husband may request an annulment.  If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to a non-Abrahamic faith, the marriage is automatically annulled.

Religious courts administer personal status laws dealing with issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody.  For non-Muslims, courts apply Sunni sharia in matters of personal status and family law.  Noncitizens not belonging to the three recognized Abrahamic religions are also subject to sharia if family matters are taken to court.  According to the law, sharia governs inheritance for all residents regardless of their religious affiliation if the case is brought to court.

Courts may follow Shia jurisprudence in matters of personal status and family law for Shia Muslims at all levels of the judiciary.  The law allows for the creation of separate courts for Shia Muslims for cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody.  These courts have six judges, none of whom has a formal background in Shia jurisprudence.  An independent Shia waqf (trust) administers Shia religious endowments.  Cases are assigned to either Sunni or Shia judges based on the religious affiliation of the man.  If a man is married to a non-Muslim woman, the husband’s religious practice is followed.  If a couple is from one of the registered churches, the court may consider the settlement offered by the church, although if the dispute is not settled, Sunni sharia is applied.

The law forbids, and the state does not recognize, marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, but Muslim men may marry women of other recognized Abrahamic faiths.  The law requires the raising of children of such marriages in their father’s faith, and the father’s religion governs the settlement of marital disputes.  Muslim marriage and divorce cases are heard in Sunni or Shia religious courts, depending on whether the marriage certificate is Sunni or Shia.  Both Sunni and Shia marriage certificates need to be authenticated by appropriate notaries.  While non-Muslim divorce, inheritance, and child custody cases are heard in Sunni religious courts, Christian couples who are part of a registered church may resolve these cases following their religious customs.  Local authorities and courts recognize documents in these cases, provided there is a Kuwaiti signatory from the church’s congregation.  If the church has no Kuwaiti citizen among its congregation, the authorities will accept a signature from the church’s highest authority.  With the exception of Hindus and Sikhs of Indian nationality, who may marry at the Embassy of India, members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches may not marry legally in the country but may have their foreign wedding certificates recognized.  Citizens who are members of the Baha’i Faith may marry abroad and petition the court to recognize their marriage.

If a religious group wishes to purchase land, a citizen must be the primary buyer and must submit a request for approval to the local municipal council, which allocates land at its discretion.  Citizens, or in a few cases the government, may also rent land to religious groups.

The law prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims but allows male citizens of any religion to transmit citizenship to their descendants.  Female citizens, regardless of religion, are unable to transmit nationality to their children.

An individual’s religion is not included on passports or national identity documents except for birth and marriage certificates, on which it is mandatory.  On birth certificates issued to Muslims, there is no distinction between Sunni and Shia.  Members of non-Abrahamic faiths are not able to list their religion on their birth certificate and a dash (-) is denoted in place of their religion.

The government has not recognized political parties, including religiously based parties, or allow their formation, although no formal law bans political parties.  National Assembly candidates must nominate themselves as individuals; however, well-organized, unofficial blocs operate as political groupings inside the National Assembly.  Those convicted of insulting the emir and Islam are banned from running for elected office.

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

Government Practices

In January, press and human rights activists reported that authorities arrested Mubarak al-Bathali as a part of a 2014 Criminal Court decision that convicted him of inciting sectarian strife, insulting a group of society (Shia), and disrupting national unity through his Twitter posts.  In 2014, the government sentenced al-Bathali to three years in prison, which was the first decision of its kind since the passage of the 2012 National Unity Law.  However, according to local observers, it was unclear whether al-Bathali served any prison time or completed this sentence.  According to press and human rights activists, authorities arrested al-Bathali in 2021 in connection to the 2014 case, but the press and activists did not address why authorities waited seven years to arrest him or if he was rearrested on related charges.  Authorities did not issue any statement on al-Bathali’s arrest.

According to human rights activists and social media accounts, authorities arrested and interrogated religious freedom activist Nasser Dashti in July on charges of blasphemy for public statements he made criticizing religion and praising secularism.  Authorities released Dashti a day after his arrest and acquitted him of all charges in a December 27 hearing, although the ruling was subject to challenge in the Court of Appeals.  Some social media users thanked the Ministry of Interior for arresting Dashti and said insulting religion is a crime.

In November, authorities arrested a British woman for having a tattoo displaying a Quranic verse and violating religious sanctity.  Local media stated a citizen reported her to the police.  Authorities released her after she posted bail and signed a statement that she would remove her tattoo.

On December 7, authorities summoned Shia cleric Hussein al-Maatouk, who had been living in exile in Iran, for questioning as part of an ongoing investigation of a Shia mosque endowment accused of laundering money for Hizballah.  After the interrogation, they released him that same day.

Although the law does not prohibit apostasy, the government continued its policy of not issuing new official documents for recording a change in religion unless the conversion was from another religion to Islam.

In accordance with MAIA policy, the government continued to vet, appoint, and pay all new Sunni imams to ensure compliance with the government’s guidance on moderate and tolerant religious preaching.

The Shia community continued to select its own clerics without government oversight.  The government funded Sunni religious institutions, including mosques, and paid the salaries of all Sunni imams.  The Shia community generally did not receive funding from the state for religious institutions and mosques.  The government paid the salaries of some Shia imams.  Some Shia mosques requested government assistance and received funds to pay for salaries and maintenance of their facilities.

MAIA opened investigations into three Sunni imams for delivering sermons perceived as being politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, or violating the national unity law.

The government continued to provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques.  Imams could add content to the sermons but needed to ensure the text adhered to the laws on political speech and avoided stoking sectarianism.  Media sources reported MAIA continued to caution imams to ensure their sermons were consistent with MAIA guidelines, including refraining from discussing political issues or insulting other religions in their sermons or at any other time.  MAIA required Sunni imams to send a recorded audio of their sermons to MAIA for review after the fact.  MAIA also relied on reports of worshippers and others who might be dissatisfied if the imam discussed politics or insulted other faiths.

Shia sources and government authorities said the government did not officially monitor Shia clerics, who were free to write their own sermons if they did not violate existing laws or instigate sectarianism.  If a questionable video appeared on social media or a worshipper reported a cleric, the government investigated.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were fewer religious gatherings during the year.  As in 2020, but unlike years prior, Shia representatives and government officials reported no incidents of suspected violations.  According to officials at MAIA and members of the Shia community, MAIA did not monitor sermons or other activities at husseiniyas (Shia prayer halls for religious commemorations) or at private gatherings.  Some sources stated they believed the government unofficially monitored Shia clerics.

Due to the pandemic, MAIA again organized several online courses for Sunni imams during the year to make their messages more effective in promoting tolerance and countering radicalization.  In November, the Director of the Center for the Promotion of Moderation, Abdullah al-Shuraika, said that the center received a few reports of cases of extremism during the year through the hotline the center launched in 2020 for receiving such reports.  The center also continued its efforts to promote tolerance and moderation via television, radio, and online media, as well as to rehabilitate prison inmates who were convicted in terror and extremism cases.  The center organized courses for all MAIA staff to enhance the ministry’s capacity to promote moderation and tolerance and to counter radical messaging and violent extremism narratives.  In November, the Undersecretary of MAIA issued a decision to create a counseling team headed by the Director of the Center for the Promotion of Moderation that would conduct a dialogue with those affected by extremist ideology.  He said the team would be in place for three months beginning November 1.

On April 12, the news website Middle East Monitor cited a report in Al-Rai newspaper that the Funeral Department of the Kuwait Municipality rejected requests by the Hindu and Buddhist communities to cremate bodies of their deceased in the city.  The director of the office said, “Whoever wants to cremate corpses, he should take them to his country and burn them there.”  The report said the government banned cremations in the early 1980s, in line with Islamic teaching.

Representatives of registered churches continued to state the government was generally tolerant and respectful of their faiths.  Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches continued to state they remained free to practice their religion in private but faced harassment and potential prosecution if they disturbed their neighbors or violated laws regarding assembly and proselytizing.  They also continued to say they avoided conflict with authorities by not proselytizing or disparaging the government or other faiths.  The government continued to allow such groups to operate in rented villas, private homes, or the facilities of registered churches.  Many of these groups said they did not publicly advertise religious events or gatherings to avoid bringing unwanted attention to their organizations, both from the public and from government authorities.

Leaders of registered churches reported government authorities continued to allow only citizens to sign official documents, even if the citizens were not among the churches’ ordained clergy.  However, if there were no citizen members, the authorities continued to recognize the highest church authority as the official signatory of the church.

The Public Authority for Manpower (PAM) continued to impose fines on churches that did not hire the required percentage of citizens as employees, a threshold that remained unclear to many churches.  Some churches stated they paid more than 7,000 dinars ($23,200) in fines for their failure to comply with this policy.

Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches continued to say they experienced hardship in commemorating major religious or life events.  Almost uniformly across these communities, members said they lacked sufficient religious facilities and religious leaders or clerics to lead prayers, bless births and marriages, and conduct appropriate death rituals.  In many cases, members of these religious groups stated they resolved conflicts, such as child separation issues in divorce, marital status, or inheritance, internally within their communities rather than take legal action in the courts where they would be subject to sharia.

The government continued to require religious groups to obtain licenses from their respective municipalities for religious celebrations.  Authorities retained the right to withdraw the license of any husseiniya not complying with the municipality’s rules.  Minority religious communities continued to state they tried to keep a low profile and did not request permission for public celebrations from authorities, which they presumed would be rejected if they applied for it.

The MOI continued to provide added security and protection at religious sites for all recognized non-Sunni religious groups.  Muslim and Christian leaders continued to report that the government, citing security concerns, kept in place the ban on outdoor religious observances instituted following an ISIS bombing of a Shia mosque in 2015 that killed 27 persons.  The government continued to station security forces outside some Sunni mosques and all Shia and Christian religious venues during times of worship throughout the year as a deterrent to attacks.  The government also continued to provide security to Shia neighborhoods during Muharram and Ashura.

The government continued to require the Shia community to conduct Ashura activities inside closed structures rather than at outdoor locations.  The government did not permit public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein or public marches in commemoration of Ashura.  In August, the government imposed additional COVID-19-related health restrictions on Shia pilgrims returning from Iraq after participating in a religious commemoration there following Ashura.  The government required the travelers to quarantine in facilities at their own expense for seven days and to undergo home quarantine for an additional seven days.

Authorities continued the government’s longstanding practice of prohibiting churches from displaying exterior signs, such as a cross or church bell.

The government allowed only shops owned by registered religious organizations to import, display, or sell non-Islamic religious literature.  The government did not permit non-Islamic religious publishing companies, although several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use.  Church leaders continued to report the government permitted registered Christian churches to import religious materials for use by their congregations under the condition that none of the content insulted Islam.  Registered churches reported they were able to import religious materials in any language.  According to the Ministry of Information, the MAIA reviewed books of a religious nature.  Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches continued to state they could import religious materials for their congregations if they brought in the materials as personal items when entering the country and did not try to sell them in public stores.  While minority religious communities said they continued to be selective in the religious materials they imported, and even more selective in giving access to the materials, many noted this was less of an issue during the year, given their activities had moved almost entirely online due to COVID-19.  They said they did not allow the circulation of these materials outside their congregations.

Municipalities handled building permits and land issues for religious groups.  The government said it received no applications for construction of new churches from religious groups during the year.  The government said it did not receive additional requests for registrations of new groups during the year.

Christian churches continued to report that government authorities did not respond to their petitions for expanding existing places of worship or increasing the number of staff the churches could sponsor.  The Greek Catholic Church indicated that it had requested additional land near its location in 2020 to accommodate more worshippers but had not received a response by year’s end.  Some churches said they stopped submitting such requests because the government did not respond.

Shia community members reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities caused by the government’s delay in approving repairs to existing mosques or constructing new ones.  MAIA reported there were 1,735 mosques in the country, including 46 mosques opened during the year.  According to 2018 government statistics, of the 1,601 mosques existing that year, 1550 were Sunni and 51 Shia.  According to Shia representatives, over the past two years, the government authorized licenses for seven mosques to be built.  A source from the Shia community said that while there were three Shia mosques under construction, no new Shia mosques opened during the year.  There were 20-30 husseiniyas registered with the MOI, and thousands of smaller Shia gatherings took place in private homes.

Again citing security concerns, authorities stated they continued to act against unlicensed mosques.  The government tasked MAIA, MOI, Kuwait City municipality, and other agencies with finding solutions to end the use of such unregistered mosques.  During the year, the government continued to close makeshift mosques for operating without proper licenses.  MAIA continued to operate under a mandate from the Council of Ministers to demolish unregistered mosques, stating that some of those mosques served as extremist platforms.  The demolition of these mosques continued during the year.  Authorities said new unlicensed mosques continued to open.  MAIA sources stated the ministry attempted to bring some underground mosques under its supervision by appointing and vetting imams, monitoring sermons, and licensing them.

According to the NGO Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), Shia Muslims are not allowed to organize religious courses in public high schools or establish religious training centers, in keeping with the law that mandated all Islamic education courses use the Sunni interpretation of Islam.

The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials, including fiction and nonfiction books and textbooks, that referenced the Holocaust or Israel.  The ministry permitted public schools to teach and celebrate only Islamic holidays.  Members of non-Islamic faiths largely said the government did not interfere with religious instruction inside private homes and on church compounds.

According to church leaders, although most churches provided faith-based instruction for children, none of them had government-accredited, church-based schools.  Accreditation for church-based schools would enable students to receive religious education while fulfilling government requirements and allow graduates to move on to higher education.  NECK repeatedly requested accreditation for its church-based school for many years, most recently in 2017, but authorities still did not provide a response.  After years of unsuccessful attempts, NECK decided to no longer seek accreditation with the authorities for its school.  The Armenian Church and the Bohra Muslim community continued to operate accredited community schools in lieu of seeking accreditation as religious schools.  Other groups continued to report they conducted religious studies in their places of worship.

Local sources suggested that the passage of the Shia Personal Status Law in 2019 increased the need for Shia religious training facilities to help staff the courts with qualified judges.  Shia leaders continued to report that the lack of Shia imams limited their ability to staff Shia courts, causing a backlog of personal status and family cases.  To address the backlog and shortage of staff, an ad hoc Shia jurisprudence council the government created many years ago under the marital issues court continued to function.

The government continued its practice of not responding to requests to establish Shia religious training institutions.  Shia Muslims had to seek religious training and education abroad.  According to the NGO Freedom House, the government did not permit training of Shia clerics in the country.  According to members of the Shia community, the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies at Kuwait University, the only institution in the country that trains imams, provided some Shia jurisprudence courses but did not permit Shia professors on its faculty.

According to reports by press and community members, MAIA continued to use less stringent testing criteria for mosque imams and muezzins that it implemented in 2020 to encourage qualified nationals to apply, with the aim of raising the number of citizens working in these positions.  Observers saw this as part of an ongoing and longstanding effort by the government to reduce reliance on foreign workers and to provide economic opportunities to its own nationals.

Shia remained underrepresented at all levels of government:  six of 50 elected members in parliament, one of 16 cabinet members, one of six Amiri Diwan advisors, and disproportionately fewer senior officers in the military and police force.  Shia community leaders continued to say there was a “glass ceiling” in promotions and difficulties in obtaining government jobs.  Shia leaders said it was particularly difficult for Shia to ascend to leadership positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the Ministry of Justice.  Shia also rarely held leadership positions in the security forces.  Some Shia leaders said discrimination continued to prevent Shia from obtaining training for clerical positions and leadership positions in public sector organizations, including the police force and the military/security apparatus.  According to the NGO MRGI, some Shia faced discrimination and obstacles when applying for senior leadership positions in the public sector.

The Ministry of Interior, in coordination with PAM, issued visas for clergy and other staff to work at licensed places of worship.  The government continued to impose quotas on the number of clergy and staff of licensed religious groups entering the country but sometimes granted additional slots upon request.  The government continued to require foreign leaders of unregistered religious groups to enter the country as nonreligious workers.

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), during Israeli-Palestinian violence in March, MAIA published a sermon for use by the country’s Sunni imams for Friday prayers on May 14 that declared, “Oh God, it is incumbent upon you to deal with the usurper Jews, and to take revenge upon the criminal Zionists, and to return al-Aqsa [Mosque complex] the wounded to the possession of the Muslims.”  The ADL said that the official Friday sermon the following week stated that al-Aqsa should be “freed from the claws of the attacker Jews and cleansed from the filth of the usurper Zionists” who hide truths and “assert fabricated claims” about “their alleged temple.”  It declared it “an obligation” for Muslims to stop this “sabotage” and “to end the plots of scheming, deceit, and aggression.”

On March 3, citing press reports, the news website Middle East Monitor stated that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry said it refused to register a trademark with Masonic symbols.  According to the website, the newspaper Al-Anbar reported that the official overseeing the issuance of trademarks in the ministry said, “Trademarks which… violate public morals, offend the ethical code, offend the Islamic religion or any other religion, or undermine national unity, are not permitted to be registered.”

Media coverage included news on events and celebrations held by various Christian denominations in the country, such as Christmas services and church inauguration anniversaries attended by high-level government officials, although in practice, the COVID-19 pandemic limited such events.

Oman

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qatar

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ismaili Muslims continued to appoint their own community leaders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jaafari Council continued to regulate Shia worship spaces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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