ADHRB: Holding an International Religious Freedom Roundtable in Bahrain Ignores Systematic Discrimination and Divisive Government Policies

6 December 2019 – On 8 and 9 December, the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence in the Kingdom of Bahrain will be holding an International Religious Freedom (IRF) Roundtable. This will be a major international religious freedom gathering in Bahrain, and part of a goal by the organizers to see a proliferation of roundtables around the world, with a concomitant increase in respect for religious freedom. While we at Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) support the spread of IRF Roundtables around the world and work to promote religious freedom within Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, we are concerned that Bahrain is the venue given the government’s longstanding refusal to respect religious freedom.

The Government of Bahrain has a long history of discriminating against the kingdom’s majority Shia community. The kingdom is ruled by a Sunni monarchy and a Sunni royal family, with approximately 70 percent of Bahrain’s citizen population belonging to the Shia community. This majority community faces discrimination and barriers within the political system, as the government has engineered the country’s political structure in such a manner as to make it impossible for Shia to obtain political power or ascend to positions of political importance, while also facing consistent slander and discrimination from a government-run, and government-supported media establishment.

Furthermore, although Shia are the vast majority of Bahrain’s citizen population, official corruption, crony capitalism, and a lack of transparency coupled with uneven development practices and a disparity of wealth, have seen them disproportionately confined to Bahrain’s lower socioeconomic strata. Moreover, official historic narratives and educational textbooks have made longstanding efforts to ignore, de-emphasize, or erase Shia history and the role played by Shia political and religious movements in the centuries before the AlKhalifa family arrived in Bahrain.

These decades-old patterns have been exacerbated and accentuated with the government’s violent response to the peaceful protests in 2011 and increasing reliance upon magnifying and emphasizing sectarian differences. In doing so, the government has thereby turned Sunni against Shia and cast attempts to secure increased freedoms for all into a sectarian struggle.

Official opprobrium appears to be largely confined to Bahrain’s Shia population with other faiths, including minority Christian, Jewish, and Hindu practitioners avoiding to some extent government repression. Even as the government approved the construction of a Catholic cathedral in honor of Our Lady of Arabia on land donated by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa AlKhalifa, to be completed by 2021, security forces have increased repression of the kingdom’s Shia community, in particular surrounding the holy month of Muharram and the day of Ashura.

In September 2018, at least 14 Shia clergymen and orators were harassed by authorities and several were arrested over the content of their sermons in the run-up to Ashura. In addition to clerics, officials have arrested several activists, including AbdulMajeed Abdulla Mohsen, a prominent pro-democracy activist, who was held for 15 days on charges of “illegal gathering.” This practice has continued into 2019, with numerous clerics again arrested ahead of Ashura.

In addition to detaining and arresting clerics and orators, police and riot police have disrupted and dispersed crowds during religious processions to commemorate Ashura. Security forces have disrupted processions in the villages of Sitra, Muharraq, Isa Town, Duraz, and other towns. In one procession in the Karzakan, security forces threatened those taking part in the procession to stop, because there were banners in the street criticizing King Hamad. Security forces also threatened to arrest the children of those taking part. Furthermore, officials, particularly from the Ministry of Interior (MoI), arrested 15 individuals during Ashura on charges of “indulging in abusive activities to cause chaos.” Although members of Bahrain’s human rights community stated the individuals were simply painting the name of the king on the ground in a manner that can be perceived as an insult, the MoI alleged that the individuals were members of a terrorist organization that was financed by regional enemies. This patter has continued into 2019, with police cancelling religious ceremonies and prohibiting people from congregating and gathering.

These practices and security force operations in support of religious discrimination run counter to goal of the IRF Roundtable set to be held in Bahrain. They also run counter to the government’s own alleged interest in promoting religious freedom as reflected in the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration, published in 2017. Indeed, despite Bahrain’s public statements that it supports religious freedom, the government has increased, rather than decreased, attacks on the Shia community and worshipers. This was reflected in remarks made by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he launched the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report, highlighting steps the Bahraini government had taken to target the Shia community.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB: “It is clear that Bahrain is systematic violator of the human right to freedom of religion. For decades the government has taken steps to disenfranchise its majority Shia community, but because it is a majority community that is oppressed rather than a minority, the government relies upon flimsy arguments as to its respect of the right to practice one’s faith. It seems the IRF Roundtable may be falling prey to this argument as well. We urge the international organizers and attendees to recognize the implications of choosing Bahrain as the venue for this forum and to see that rather than supporting a government interested in the freedom of religion, this only gives Bahrain another talking point that obscures real abuses on the ground.”

ADHRB is opposed to holding an international religious freedom roundtable in Bahrain, with its environment of suppression of the majority community’s right to gather peacefully, its attacks on religious gatherings, and its structural, systematic patterns of discrimination. Furthermore, we understand that the government will use this gathering to trumpet what it calls its progress on religious freedom, while at the same time continuing to arrest Shia activists and protesters and fanning the flames of sectarian division. We urge the international organizers and attendees of the roundtable to pull out of the conference and publicly denounce the Government of Bahrain’s divisive, religiously discriminatory policies.