US Calls on Bahrain to Integrate Shia Politically: US State Department Religious Freedom Report
2019-06-26 - 7:01 p
Bahrain Mirror: The US State Department published its international religious freedom report for 2018. A 19-page section was dedicated for Bahrain, which included observations on the status of religious freedom in Bahrain.
In its report, the State Department listed a number of violations reported by the press, international non-governmental organizations, or local activists. Government allegations were also presented in this context.
"According to press, the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. Some reports stated a number of clerics were detained over the content of their sermons during the commemoration of Ashura in September; authorities released all of those detained without charge by October 30," said the State Department in its report.
On November 4, the Court of Appeal, after overturning a previous acquittal, sentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the dissolved, and largely Shia, opposition Wifaq political society, to life in prison on espionage charges for allegedly conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011. On November 13, authorities detained Ali Al Asheeri, a Shia former Wifaq member of parliament (MP), for social media posts that the government described as "incitement of non-participation in the elections." In February the government provided input to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) regarding the country's compliance with its ICCPR obligations, noting that the country's constitution guaranteed freedom of conscience and religious belief, as well as freedom to build and access places of worship without discrimination. In November the UNHRC, in its final concluding observations on the country's compliance with its International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) obligations, stated its concern about "reports members of the Shia community have been subjected to restrictions to their rights to worship and profess their religious beliefs" and "reports that the Shia population is underrepresented in political and public life." On July 11, the government removed concrete barriers, police checkpoints, and barbed wire that had previously restricted entry into the predominantly Shia neighborhood of Diraz, but local Shia continued to state that authorities prevented nonresidents from leading Friday prayers.
The report further stated that on June 12, the government enacted an amendment to the Exercising Political Rights Law, which prohibited former members of Wifaq, as well as other banned political societies, from running as candidates in municipal and parliamentary elections. Based on reports it received, Amnesty International (AI) published a report in September stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill-treatment, and denied access to needed medical care because of their religious and political affiliation. Shia community representatives said there was ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system.
It added that in June the government inaugurated the King Hamad Center for Interfaith Dialogue and Coexistence and in July it announced its plan to establish an Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom and Coexistence. In June the Catholic Church held a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a cathedral to be built on land donated by the king.
The State Department reported from representatives of the Shia community reported the higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia were exacerbated by continued discrimination against hiring of Shia in the private as well as the public sectors. Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared on social media, including allegations that some prominent former and current Shia political leaders were "traitors" and "Iranian servants." According to non-Muslim religious groups, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha'is, Buddhist, and Jews, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs, traditions and houses of worship.
It noted that the Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, Ambassador, and embassy officers met with government officials to urge respect for freedom of expression; to ensure full inclusion of all Bahraini citizens in political, social, and economic opportunities; and to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities. U.S. officials also continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms, which would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to meet regularly with religious leaders of a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and political groups to discuss their freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it relates to religious practices.
The U.S. government estimated the population at 1.4 million (July 2018 estimate). Of the total population, citizens number 677,000, according to the local government 2017 statistics, its most recent available estimate. According to 2017 U.S. estimates, Muslims make up 73.7 percent of the total population, Christians 9.3 percent, Jews 0.1 percent, and others 16.9 percent (Hindus, Baha'is, Sikhs, and Buddhists).
According to the government, the citizen population comprises approximately 45 percent of the total population. The government does not publish statistics regarding the sectarian breakdown between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Most estimates from NGOs state Shia constitute a majority (55 to 60 percent) of the citizen population. Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The report highlighted that the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance for the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics. Authorities arrested Shia cleric Isa Al Mo'min on February 4 for "inciting hatred against the government" during a Friday sermon and sentenced him to three months in prison. International and local NGOs reported the police summoned more than 25 individuals, including clerics, in the lead-up to, as well as after, the September 20-21 Ashura commemoration, the most significant day of the Shia religious calendar. Based on reports it received, AI said that many of those detained were reportedly under investigation for inciting hatred against the regime and more than 15 clerics and lay assistants among them were "interrogated for the content of their sermons." The police held many individuals overnight; others were detained and released thereafter. According to local reports, of those summoned, authorities detained nine for varying periods ranging from one day to over a month pending investigation.
The report said Amnesty International stated that prior to the November parliamentary elections, security forces carried out a series of arbitrary detentions of activists and religious figures suspected of supporting political opposition to the monarchy. On October 12, AI received reports that authorities detained approximately a dozen protestors in the village of Karrana and held them for approximately one month for unlawful assembly. On November 4, security forces entered approximately 10 private homes in the Shia majority town of Karbabad and detained 16 individuals, seven of them minors. In November AI received reports of the re-establishment of police checkpoints in the majority Shia village of Arad, the neighborhoods of al-Dair and Samahij, which have notable Shia concentrations, and the religiously mixed locality of Hamad Town.
Several internal checkpoints and roadblocks remained in place in the mostly Shia town of Sanabis. On July 11, the government removed concrete barriers, barbed wire, and police checkpoints that had previously restricted entry into the predominantly Shia neighborhood of Diraz. Local Shia continued to state that authorities prevented nonresidents, including Shia clerics, from entering to attend or lead prayers at mosques in Diraz.
It added that on November 4, an appeals court sentenced Ali Salman, former leader of Wifaq, and two associates to life in prison for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011. The appeals court reversed a previous June criminal court acquittal following an appeal by the Office of the Public Prosecutor. Authorities had already imprisoned Salman on another charge of inciting hatred; he was due to be released in December after completion of his original four-year sentence. The government tried Salman's two co-defendants, former Wifaq MPs Hasan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al Aswad, in absentia.
According to local press, NGO, and social media reports, on November 13, authorities detained former Wifaq MP Ali Al Asheeri for a social media post in which he announced his intention to boycott the elections, saying, "I am a Bahraini citizen deprived of my political and civil rights so I and my family will boycott the elections." He was released from detention November 27, and charges were still pending at year's end. The Public Prosecution stated authorities were investigating Al-Asheeri for "incitement of non-participation in the elections."
On April 18, a court sentenced former MP Mohamed Khalid to three months in prison for a posting on social media that "defamed" a religious symbol revered by Shia.
In January Shia cleric Hussain al-Qassab lost his appeal of a suspended one-year sentence and a 100,000 dinar ($265,000) fine for money laundering and collecting funds without a government license. In 2017, the High Criminal Court convicted prominent Shia cleric Isa Qassim, who employed Qassab, on the same charges, but he did not appeal them. Media identified Qassim as the leading Shia cleric in the country and his supporters reported his office had collected the money and spent the funds in accordance with Shia customs and obligations, and said the government had targeted him due to his prominent status in the Shia community. Although Qassim had been under de facto house arrest since June 2016 and had his citizenship revoked, the government facilitated Qassim's travel to London for medical treatment. At year's end Qassim was still undergoing treatment in London.
On October 29, the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the 2017 sentence imposed by the Lower Criminal Court on former Wifaq MP Hasan Isa to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($265,000) for helping to finance a terrorist bomb attack in July 2015 that killed two police officers. Isa denied involvement in the bombing, saying he had not given money to terrorists, but had distributed funds to poor families in his role as a religious leader of his neighborhood.
The report noted that several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year's end. They had been associated with the political opposition and given 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.
On November 6, the MOJIA issued a notice to imams, muezzins, and preachers that candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections were prohibited from holding any campaign-related activities in houses of worship or religious centers. On November 15, both the government-sponsored Sunni and Jaafari Waqf endowment boards called on citizens to participate in the upcoming municipal and parliamentary elections.
In November the UNHRC released its concluding observations on the country and its compliance with its ICCPR obligations. The government provided input to the UNHRC in February, indicating that the constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and of religious belief, that no law or custom discriminates against any group or religion, and the constitution "envisages freedom of worship and access to such places, without discrimination in favour of one group or religion over another." The UNHRC, in its report, stated its concern about reports that "members of the Shia community have been subjected to restrictions of their rights to worship and profess their religious beliefs ...."
The State Department went on to say that the committee also expressed concern about "reports that the Shia population is underrepresented in political and public life, including in the National Assembly." On freedom of religion, the committee was "concerned about the existence of practices that adversely affect the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief enshrined in article 18 of the Covenant" and suggested the government "should decriminalize blasphemy and guarantee that all people within their territory can fully enjoy the right to freedom of conscience, religion or belief," including efforts to ensure the Shia population is fairly represented in public and political spheres and protected from discrimination.
The Department also reported that in a submission prepared in June for the UNHRC review, a U.S.-based NGO stated that "the government has "intensified restrictions on Shia religious and cultural rights since 2011." The submission also stated that "security forces routinely employ violence to suppress the Shia community's rights to free assembly, free association, free speech, and free cultural or religious expression."
It stated that in December the king appointed Shia citizens to senior leadership positions, including cabinet members and members of the Shura council. Official statistics on the religious affiliation or sect of public employees, members of parliament, or ministers are not maintained by the government. However, according to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 18 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 20 members were Sunni.
Following the parliamentary elections in November and December, sources suggested that of 40 seats in the Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia. None of the current members of parliament ran on an explicitly sectarian platform. Five of the 24 cabinet members, including one of the five deputy prime ministers, were Shia.
According to local activists and social media reports, the government's amendments to the Exercising Political Rights Law of 2002, prevented at least five individuals from registering as candidates in the parliamentary and municipal elections in October due their prior affiliation with Wifaq, the largely Shia political society that was dissolved in 2016, a government decision that was upheld by the court in 2017.
The report further asserted that although the government stated it viewed the amendments as necessary to prevent lawbreakers from participating in elections, many members of the Shia community stated they viewed the law as an attempt to limit participation of opposition-oriented Shia politicians.
AI pointed out that since members of Wifaq, which it described as the largest Shia opposition group in the country, were prohibited from participating in elections, the new law "will have a de facto discriminatory effect on Shias' political participation." According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), this legislation effectively disqualified opposition candidates from participating in the elections. After the elections, an NGO noted that "the [historic] gerrymandering of electoral districts ... has diluted the influence of ... [the] Shia majority."
According to the government, it generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports from Shia activists that authorities sometimes denied prisoners access to religious services and prayer time. The Office of the Ombudsman, which was criticized by at least one NGO for failing to fulfill its mandate, reported it had not received any complaints or requests for assistance on the rights of prisoners to practice their religion during the year. According to MOI, 10 inmates were permitted to attend funerals outside of the prison during the year. The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees.
However, Based on reports it received, AI said Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill treatment from prison guards, and denied access to needed medical care, because of their religion. Government officials continued to state the MOI, which supervised detention facilities, only prohibited practices when they violated prison safety rules, such as waving religious banners or organizing large- scale gatherings for religious ceremonies. The government reported that special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation. The National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), a government human rights organization, which has been criticized by a U.S.-based NGO for what it said was its lack of independence, stated that it had not received any cases of prisoners being subject to harassment or ill-treatment by prison guards due to their religious affiliation during the year.
The State Department report further stated that In September, according to reports received by HRW, three female prisoners said prison officials assaulted them after they complained authorities denied them the right to participate in religious commemorations of Ashura. According to one of the women's relatives, prison authorities later restricted the inmates' access to family visits, phone calls, and time spent outside their cells. Following a prison visit, meetings with the detainees, and reviews of prison files, the NIHR issued a statement on October 1 that the claims of interference in religious practice were "incorrect and contrary to reality." On October 4, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, an NGO based in the United Kingdom, said the detainees contacted them to dispute the NIHR's statement.
The Ministry of Justice reported regularly visiting mosques 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. It also continued to announce how much money an adult should give on a voluntary basis to the poor on religious feast days.
According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and had them sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.
As in previous years, the Ministry of Interior provided security for the processions, but again removed some Ashura flags, banners, and decorations from streets and private property in Shia villages but not at the large procession in Manama, according to Shia leaders. The government stated MOI personnel had removed the banners because they violated zoning restrictions or because they contained political messages.
In March the MOJIA reported that it had concluded reconstruction to the extent feasible of 27 of the 30 mosques it had destroyed or damaged in 2011, in compliance with an independent fact-finding commission. Of the three remaining mosques, the government reported that one, in Salmabad, was reconstructed by local residents without a permit on an "illegal" site, despite the government's offer for an alternative site in the same neighborhood. According to the government, the second remaining mosque, in Hawrat Sanad, remained under evaluation because nine other Shia mosques already existed within close proximity. The government stated the third mosque, in Madinat Hamad, would likely be relocated. Some Shia stated they remained dissatisfied with three of the 27 reconstructed mosques because they had been rebuilt in different locations.
NGOs stated the government continued its disparate treatment of Shia versus Sunni individuals and stated this different treatment fueled perceptions among the Shia community of a justice system that was biased against them.
The report noted that the government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from the country's largest Sunni mosque, Al Fateh Mosque, but not any sermons from Shia mosques.
Naturalization, Employment, Services and Education
The report mentioned that the government stated that foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation. Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to say 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, this continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country's citizens. According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to provide Sunni citizens preference for government positions, including as teachers, and especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and military.
They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses. They continued to report 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 continued to favor Sunni candidates. Other community members complained educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities.
The Ministry of Labor, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the civil 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, so they did not utilize them.
The report further pointed out that human rights activists reported discrimination against Shia in education continued. Activists said interview panels for university scholarships continued to ask about students' political views and family background. Rights activists said many top scoring Shia applicants continued to receive scholarship offers in less lucrative or less prestigious fields. The government reported students were offered funding in particular fields based on the student's grade point average. Some Shia business leaders reported that government officials had overturned decisions to deny scholarships to Shia students over concerns that the decisions had been biased and did not reflect student merit. There were continued reports of the MOE refusing to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who pursued studies in China. Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.
On March 14, the government announced a fine ranging from 50 dinars ($130) to 400 dinars ($1,100) for defacing the country's passports. It stated that writing, tearing, or stamping a passport was illegal unless done by authorized immigration officials in Bahrain or overseas. The NIHR stated that the ban included any alterations done by ministries, embassies, hotels, banks, or tourism agencies. Often tourism agencies, hotels, and other individuals at overseas religious sites placed stickers or wrote on the passports.
Former Shia MP Ali Al Ateesh said the law targeted citizens for visiting [Shia] religious sites in Iran and Iraq, while those with unofficial markings from other destinations were not held accountable. Other MPs said the new rule did not target sects, religious tours, individuals or countries.
During the year, local press reported individuals allegedly associated with militant groups committed attacks on police, and some groups claiming responsibility used Shia religious terminology to justify their attacks. The government reported 22 police officers suffered injuries from such attacks during the year. Protestors using Molotov cocktails in one attack on police stated they were throwing "holy fire" to demand the ruling family "step down." Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. Posts stated that former Shia leaders were "traitors" and "Iranian servants," used the hashtag "Iran Supports Sedition in Bahrain," and displayed images of prominent Shia political figures Ali Salman and Isa Qassim.
NGOs reported the government continued to monitor closely the collection of funds by religious organizations, including charity donations. The 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 26, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the Secretary of State in Washington, Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa delivered remarks highlighting that "religious violence, incitement to hatred, and sectarianism have no place in Bahraini society."
The US State Department also said that the Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, Ambassador, and embassy officers met with government officials to urge respect for freedom of expression, including the right of clerics and other religious leaders to speak and write freely; to ensure full inclusion of all citizens, including members of the Shia majority, in political, social, and economic opportunities; and to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities. U.S. officials both publicly and in private meetings continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.
It further highlighted that the Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to meet 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 it related to religious practices. The Ambassador and embassy officials visited various houses of worship and attended religious events throughout the year, including the observation of Ashura, Christmas, and Diwali. At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government's commitment to religious freedom.
The embassy continued to sponsor the participation of religious leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one's faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability.
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