27 July 2018 – Yesterday, Bahrain announced the appointment of an Ambassador-at-Large for Peaceful Coexistence and Religious Freedom. This announcement was applauded by several United States (US) officials including State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert, who also commended Bahrain’s “welcoming environment for religious minorities and their right to worship.” Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) is concerned the US is accepting Bahrain’s efforts to whitewash its systematic oppression and harassment of the Shia religious majority in all sectors of life. This praise is especially disturbing, as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom  downgraded Bahrain to Tier 2 in this year’s annual religious freedom report due to “deteriorating religious freedom conditions” in the kingdom.

In mid-July 2016, the Bahraini government arbitrarily dissolved the country’s largest political opposition society, Al-Wefaq. Although it appealed the decision, earlier this year, Al-Wefaq, exhausted its final appeal and the government confirmed the dissolution of the society. As a moderate Shia political group, the society represented much of Bahrain’s majority Shia population. Al-Wefaq’s closure thus only further marginalizes the Shia population, a situation made worse since the government amended Article 5 of Bahrain’s Political Society Law in May 2016. Article 5 puts strict prohibitions on political participation by religious figures such as clerics and imams, forbidding them from discussing politics during sermons and other assemblies, among other restrictions.

Additionally, the Bahraini government continues to harass Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq and Shia cleric. On 27 June 2018, Sheikh Ali Salman was acquitted of charges of espionage brought against him by the Bahraini government for talks with Qatar surrounding a mediation attempt in 2011 – a discussion encouraged by the US government. Though he was acquitted, his trial remains a cause for grave concern. Not only is the Public Prosecutor appealing the ruling – a trial has been scheduled on 5 September 2018 – but the government is potentially pursuing the death penalty against Sheikh Salman. These actions illustrate the Bahraini government’s goal of targeting and minimizing Al-Wefaq’s influence, as well as its efforts to further marginalize the country’s Shia population’s political representation.

The targeting of Sheikh Ali Salman and Al-Wefaq is only one aspect of the Bahraini government’s ongoing attempts to silence the country’s religious majority. The government systematically targets Shia clerics, harassing, interrogating, arresting, or prosecuting over 70 clerics last year alone, including Bahrain’s most prominent Shia leader, Sheikh Isa Qassim. Sheikh Qassim has been continually targeted by authorities. The government has arbitrarily denaturalized him and confined him to house arrest since 2016, although he needed medical care for numerous health complications. Furthermore, security forces have repeatedly attacked peaceful sit-ins around his home in Duraz, killing six protestors in two violent raids in early 2017. In the past month however, Bahraini officials relented, allowing Sheikh Qassim to travel to London for urgent medical care in light of recent, rapid health deterioration.

Bahraini government officials not only target, discriminate against, and persecute political and religious leaders, but also use these practices against the greater Shia community. The Shia population also faces marginalization in economic and labor sectors. Bahrain’s security forces, in particular, are notably sectarian in their hiring practices, allowing Bahraini Shia to hold only low-level or administrative positions. While the Shia community makes up approximately 70 percent of Bahrain’s native population, they comprise less than five percent of the security sector, indicating larger sectarian and discriminatory practices. At the same time, the Bahraini government actively recruits and nationalizes large numbers of foreign Sunnis throughout each of kingdom’s security services, only deepening the sectarian imbalance. Furthermore, ADHRB has identified and analyzed highly sectarian materials published by the Bahrain Defence Force itself that includes religious justification for violence and even murder of Shia as non-believers. Such institutional discrimination and state-supported sectarianism led one of Bahrain’s leading human rights defenders, Nabeel Rajab, to criticize the security services as an “ideological incubator” for extremism after it was reported that members of Bahrain’s security forces had defected to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Because of his comments, he may face charges that could extend his seven-year prison term even further.

Beyond systemic employment discrimination, Bahrain’s Shia community has faced additional negative economic impacts from the thousands of Shia political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who are unable to support their families while in government custody. Because access to government services remains unequal, particularly to Shia communities, various local Shia charities have attempted to serve as a lifeline supporting the effected families. However, officials have targeted and shut down Shia charities, creating further strain on families relying upon them and the Shia community as a whole.

Land discrimination is also common practice against Bahrain’s Shia community. After 2011, the government bulldozed 38 Shia mosques, later promising to rebuild them but neglecting to fully follow through with their promise. In one case, rather than restore the government-demolished three-century old Abu Dharr mosque in its original location, the government relocated it and repurposed the land as a playground. Additionally, Shia communities have been outright refused rights to their own land. There are entire areas including East Riffa, West Riffa, and Al-Hunainiyah, where Shia are not allowed to rent or buy homes or land.

“Is the United States really so enamored in the Bahraini government’s hollow attempts at masking religious freedom abuses that the State Department managed to forget the findings in their own report?” asks ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “Bahrain has continuously suppressed a majority of its population on the sole basis of religious beliefs. It is unacceptable to applaud the kingdom when it has not taken any concrete steps to end discriminatory practices and promote equality for the Shia majority. The Trump administration has made religious freedom a priority; this must encompass all religions, minority and majority, wherever they are repressed. The United States must make it clear to Bahrain that religious discrimination at any level is unacceptable.”

ADHRB urges the US to remain skeptical of Bahrain’s decision to appoint an Ambassador-at-Large for religious freedom, and calls on the US government to instead pressure Bahrain to take serious and tangible steps to end religious discrimination.