US State Department Releases 2016 International Religious Freedom Report on Bahrain


On 15 August 2017, the United States (US) Department of State launched its 2016 International Religious Freedom Report. The report “provides a detailed and factual overview of the status of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories, and documents reports of violations and abuses committed by governments, terrorist groups, and individuals.” Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the release of this year’s International Religious Freedom report, which finds the Government of Bahrain continued to systematically discriminate against its majority Shia Muslim population throughout 2016. We additionally call on the Bahraini government to address the State Department’s concerns and take concrete efforts to safeguard the right to free belief.

“We welcome the US State Department’s work to document the systematic religious rights violations carried out by the Government of Bahrain,” said ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “It is particularly encouraging that Secretary Tillerson used his public platform to call out such severe infringements on religious freedom in the kingdom, and to urge the authorities to end discrimination against the marginalized Shia community. However, we urge the State Department to follow through on its report’s recommendations by applying further pressure on the Bahraini authorities to fully implement the BICI reforms, including the integration of the security forces and the elimination of sectarian discrimination.”

ADHRB echoes the State Department’s assessment that systematic and widespread discrimination against the Shia majority population is ongoing and that religious freedom remains restricted in Bahrain. ADHRB additionally urges the Bahraini government to abide by its obligations under international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), by combatting prejudice and ensuring the right to free belief for all.

Please see below for full analysis of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report.

To mark the launch of the report, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered remarks that specifically highlighted the current situation in Bahrain: “The [Bahraini] government continued to detain and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. Members of the Shia community there continue to report ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Bahrain must stop discrimination against the Shia communities.”

Following on Secretary Tillerson’s remarks, the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report on Bahrain documented severe forms of discrimination in the kingdom, including arbitrary denaturalization, excessive restrictions religious practices and speech, and the targeted judicial harassment of Shia faith leader and political figures. The State Department detailed how, in June 2016, the Bahraini authorities arbitrarily denaturalized the country’s leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, charging him and two other clerics, Mirza al-Dirazi and Sheikh Hussain al-Mahroos, with alleged money laundering the following month. The report notes that these charges stemmed from religious practices and that the government was targeting Sheikh Qassim for collecting money in accordance with a Shia custom known as khums, whereby money is gathered and distributed by religious leaders to members of the community in need of charitable giving. This echoes the State Department’s comments after Sheikh Qassim’s denaturalization was first announced, when it issued a statement saying it was “alarmed by the Government of Bahrain’s decision to revoke the citizenship of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim.”

The report also noted that the Bahraini government took action to suppress a peaceful sit-in that was organized in Sheikh Qassim’s hometown of Diraz to protest his denaturalization. “The authorities set up checkpoints to control access to and egress from the village and surrounding neighborhoods, which they continued to restrict through the end of the year.” These measures specifically prevented Shia clerics and worshipers from accessing the village’s mosques to lead prayers or attend services. The report omitted, however, that the Bahraini government has additionally imposed an ongoing internet blackout in Diraz, prohibiting residents in the Shia-majority village from accessing phone and internet services in the area.

The State Department further documented that “police had summoned over 73 individuals, including 44 clerics for question,” although there are discrepancies with these reports: the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) annual report, for example, cited even higher rates of judicial harassment, finding that between June 2016 and February 2017, the Bahraini government had “interrogated, charged, and/or sentenced at least 80 Shi’a clerics, imposing travel bans against several.”  Still, the State Department correctly found that prominent Shia clerics faced imprisonment over their involvement with nonviolent assemblies, including Sayed Majeed al-Mishaal, who was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly calling for public gatherings in Diraz. The report cities the cases of several clerics were also summoned for alleged “illegal gathering” in Diraz, such as Sheikh Ali Humaidan and Sheikh Maytham al-Salman, who was held overnight without access to clean clothing or showers during his interrogation. The authorities additionally refused Sheikh Maytham’s request to have a lawyer present and ordered him to strip himself of his turban and robes, a move intended to “insult and intimidate a Shia cleric.” While the report notes that the Bahraini authorities allowed Shia groups to hold processions for Ashura, it also found that the government restricted access to those processions, especially in prayer halls in Diraz. USCIRF reported that at least five Shia clerics were interrogated in relation to speeches given during Ashura commemorations, and ADHRB has documented repeated government interference in the gatherings.

Additionally, the State Department found that Shia detainees are particularly vulnerable to “intimidation, harassment, and ill-treatment by prison guards because of their religion.” Such abuse by prison guards “at times led to coerced confessions.” At Bahrain’s Jau Prison, the report documented prisoners’ allegations that guards do not allow inmates to practice their faith freely and that officials arbitrarily prohibit religious practices for violating “prison safety.” ADHRB’s information corroborates these reports of abuse in Bahrain’s detention centers, including the targeted harassment of inmates for their religious affiliation. However, though the State Department writes that the Ministry of Interior’s Office of the Ombudsman should address “the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion,” ADHRB has consistently found that the institution lacks appropriate independence from the government, fails to remedy complaints,  and has even put complainants at risk of reprisal.

Aggravating these recent reports of religious freedom violations, the report also finds that Bahraini authorities have not eliminated long-standing forms of anti-Shia discrimination, including systematic employment bias and demographic engineering. “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.” These policies directly contravene Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendation 1722(e) that calls for the integration of all members of the community into the Bahraini security forces, which the Bahraini government claims to have implemented. In addition to the community’s near total exclusion from the security forces, Bahraini Shia also face significant discrimination when seeking positions such as judges, teachers, and higher echelons of the civil service.

The State Department additionally highlighted several legislative measures that have infringed on religious liberty in 2016. The May 2016 amendment to Article 5 of the Political Societies Law specifically prohibits religious figures from participating in political societies and discussing politics during sermons, for example, among other restrictions. The State Department reported that “some Shia activists stated [the amendment] was meant target their political organizations.” ADHRB finds that authorities have used such legislation to target Shia activists and the predominantly Shia political societies. In June 2016, a month after the amendment, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJ) launched legal proceedings that ultimately led to the arbitrary dissolution of the country’s largest opposition political society, Al-Wefaq. According to the State Department, such “actions divert Bahrain from dialogue necessary to ensure its security and stability” and that the actions are “not consistent with a commitment to… pursuing unfulfilled reforms.”

Despite its documentation of many severe infringements on religious freedom in Bahrain, the State Department report did fail to mention the Bahraini government’s move to implement a new policy that will discriminate against women participating in hajj. In August 2016, the MOJ announced the unprecedented policy that will require women under the age of 45 to be accompanied by a male guardian in order to participate in the religious pilgrimage to Mecca. Bahraini authorities have attributed the decision to a new regulation in Saudi Arabia, where the male guardianship system originated. Prominent Bahraini religious leaders like Sheikh Maytham al-Salman have criticized the policy, arguing that “prohibiting women from performing the rituals of the hajj without a male guardian literally means prohibiting single women, divorced women and women who do not intend to or cannot have a male guardian during the pilgrimage of hajj  from their worship rights.” The regulation is set to be implemented during the 2017 hajj season.