U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Bahrain

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution states that Islam is the official religion; however, while the Constitution also provides for freedom of religion, the Government does not tolerate political dissent from religious groups or leaders, and subjects both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to governmental control and monitoring. Most world religions are represented in the country, and their followers generally practice their faith privately without interference from the Government.

The population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Citizens belong to the Shi'a and Sunni branches of Islam, with Shi'a constituting over two-thirds of the indigenous population. However, Sunnis predominate because the ruling family is Sunni and is supported by the armed forces, the security service, and powerful Sunni and Shi'a merchant families. Foreigners constitute 35 to 40 percent of the total population. Roughly half of resident foreigners are non-Muslim. Christians and other non-Muslims including Jews, Hindus, and Baha'is are free to practice their religion, maintain their own places of worship, and display the symbols of their religion.

Bibles and other Christian publications are displayed and sold openly in local bookstores that also sell Islamic and other religious literature. Some small groups worship in their homes. Notable dignitaries from virtually every religion and denomination visit the country and frequently meet with the Government and civic leaders. Religious tracts of all branches of Islam, cassettes of sermons delivered by Muslim preachers from other countries, and publications of other religions are readily available.

However, proselytizing by non-Muslims is discouraged, anti-Islamic writings are prohibited, and conversions from Islam to other religions, while not illegal, are not tolerated well by society.

Both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims are subject to governmental control and monitoring. During 1998 the Government closed a few mosques and Ma'tams (Shi'a community centers) to prevent religious leaders from delivering political speeches during their Friday prayers and sermons.

The High Council for Islamic Affairs is charged with the review and approval of all clerical appointments within both the Sunni and Shi'a communities, and maintains program oversight for all citizens studying religion abroad. Public religious events, most notably the large annual commemorative marches by Shi'a, are permitted but are watched closely by the police. There are no restrictions on the number of citizens permitted to make pilgrimages to Shi'a shrines and holy sites in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. However, stateless residents who do not possess Bahraini passports often have difficulties arranging travel to religious sites abroad. The Government monitors travel to Iran and scrutinizes carefully those who choose to pursue religious study there.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

The political dynamic of Sunni predominance has led to incidents of unrest between the Shi'a community and the Government, including during the period covered by this report. For example, in October 1998 police detained up to 20 young men following demonstrations against the Government over the death of a Shi'a man who died from injuries he allegedly received when police detained and tortured him in 1994. Also during the period covered by this report, the Government held in detention hundreds of Shi'a for security-related crimes such as treason. In June 1999, the Government gradually began freeing incarcerated individuals as part of an Amiri decree calling for the release or pardon of over 350 Shi'a political prisoners, detainees, and exiles, including politically active Shi'a cleric Abdul Amir Al-Jamri. By the end of the period covered by this report, as many as 700 persons still remained in detention. There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners during the period covered by this report whose imprisonment could be attributed to the practice of their religion.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Although there are notable exceptions, the Sunni Muslim minority enjoys a favored status. Sunnis receive preference for employment in sensitive government positions and in the managerial ranks of the civil service. Shi'a citizens are not allowed to hold significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. However, the Amir recently opened up employment to Shi'a in the Bahrain Defense Force and the Ministry of the Interior, two bodies in which Shi'a had been denied employment during the past four years. In the private sector, Shi'a tend to be employed in lower paid, less skilled jobs.

Educational, social, and municipal services in most Shi'a neighborhoods, particularly in rural villages, are inferior to those found in Sunni urban communities. In an effort to remedy social discrimination, the Government has built numerous subsidized housing complexes, which are open to all citizens on the basis of financial need. In order to ease both the housing shortage and strains on the national budget, in 1997 the Government revised its policy in order to permit lending institutions to finance mortgages on apartment units.

The Government has declared the Shi'a religious celebration of Ashura to be a national holiday. In a gesture of conciliation toward the Shi'a community, the Amir donated rice and lamb to some 500 Shi'a community centers for the 1999 Ashura.

Converts from Islam to other religions are not well tolerated by society (see Section I).

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

An official written dialog takes place between U.S. Embassy officials and government contacts on matters of religion. One such example is the memorandum received by the Embassy each year from the Government in response to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Bahrain.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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