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Malaysia

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. Individuals diverging from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. Sources stated that there was some selective persecution of non-Muslim faiths through legal and extralegal means. In February, the human rights commission (SUHAKAM) initiated a public inquiry into the 2016 disappearance of a Christian pastor and his wife. A government-appointed panel formed in 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s findings on the enforced disappearances of another Christian pastor and a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings in 2016 made little progress. In February, the wife of the second Christian pastor initiated legal action against the federal government and senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s disappearance. In July, the High Court convicted a man for training members of a WhatsApp group to commit terrorist acts, including attacks on a Hindu temple and other houses of worship. The Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against a member of parliament who stated that sharia courts discriminated against women. The government continued to selectively prosecute speech that allegedly denigrated Islam, while it largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. Non-Muslims faced legal difficulties when they sought to use the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report challenges in registering as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship. Some political parties said only Malay-Muslim parties should be allowed to lead the country. In July, a court sentenced a man to 26 months’ imprisonment for insulting Islam and a Muslim politician. The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs and limited Malaysians ability to travel to Israel.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again expressed concern that society was becoming less tolerant of religious diversity. A joint council of minority religious communities released a statement expressing its “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.”

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance, respecting religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of the three Christians and a Muslim activist in 2016. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders and scholars in virtual conferences and webinars that promoted religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy funded a civic education curriculum and training program that will teach students in federal religious schools about freedom of expression and association, including freedom of religion.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent, Buddhism; 9.2 percent, Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions; and less than 1 percent each of other religious groups that include animists, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Baha’is. Almost all Muslims practice Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school. Ethnic Malays, defined in the federal constitution as Muslims from birth, account for approximately 55 percent of the population. Rural areas – especially in the peninsular east coast of the country – are predominantly Muslim, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have relatively higher numbers of non-Muslims. Two-thirds of the country’s Christian population inhabits the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The federal constitution states, “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion,” but gives federal and state governments the power to control or restrict proselytization to Muslims. The constitution names Islam as the “religion of the Federation,” and gives parliament powers to make provisions regulating Islamic religious affairs. Federal law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom. Federal and state governments have the power to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.” The constitution identifies the traditional rulers, also known as sultans, as “Heads of Islam,” are the highest Islamic authorities within their respective states. Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the King, selected to a five-year term from among the nine sultans in an established rotation order. Islamic law is administered by each state. The office of mufti exists in every state to advise the sultan in all matters of Islamic law. Sultans oversee sharia courts and appoint judges based on the recommendation of the respective state Islamic religious departments and councils who manage the operations of the courts. In states with no sultan and in the Federal Territories, the King assumes responsibility for this process.

Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law except in matters concerning Islamic law. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. However, since 2018, the Federal Court, the country’s highest, has held it has jurisdiction over the procedures of the sharia administrative authority in cases involving conversion of minors and that such jurisdiction may not be abrogated by a constitutional amendment.

The Sharia Judiciary Department (JKSM) is the federal agency charged with coordinating the sharia courts. The federal Department of Development of Islam (JAKIM) is the permanent secretariat of the federal Fatwa Committee, which consists of 14 muftis, one from each state and one representing the Federal Territories. The Sharia and Civil Technical Committee within the Attorney General’s Chambers oversee the process of sharia lawmaking at the federal level. A 1996 fatwa, supported by state laws, requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings of the Shafi’i school and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.

Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests, especially for those born Muslim and ethnic Malays, and are reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. Penalties for apostasy vary by state. In the states of Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. The maximum penalty for apostasy in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu is death, but this penalty has never been imposed, and its legal status remains untested. According to former Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir, from 2000 to 2010, the sharia court approved 135 of 686 applications to no longer identify as a Muslim. NGOs report that most converts from Islam prefer to do so privately, without legal approval. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam. In some states, sharia courts allow one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent. The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation. A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam for the sharia court to officially recognize the marriage.

A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without explicit parental permission; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15. A 2018 decision of the Federal Court ruled against the unilateral conversion of children by a sharia court without the consent of both parents. The judgment said civil courts had jurisdiction to exercise supervisory powers over administrative decisions of state Islamic authorities.

Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting Islam. Convictions may result in prison sentences of three to seven years or up to 20 years if there is physical harm or damage to property. The law also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”

Under sharia, which differs by state, individuals convicted of “deviant” religious activity face up to three years in prison, caning, or a 5,000-ringgit ($1,200) fine for “insulting” Islam. According to some state laws, Muslims may be fined 1,000 ringgit ($250) if they do not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what authorities deem immodest clothing. According to sharia law in some states, any individuals who sell food to fasting Muslims or Muslims who do not fast are subject to a fine, a jail sentence, or both.

JAKIM and state Islamic authorities prepare all Friday sermons for congregations as well as oversee and approve the appointment of imams at mosques. JAKIM and state Islamic officials must formally approve all teachers of Islam before they may preach or lecture on Islam in public.

There is no legal requirement for non-Muslim religious groups to register, but to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s Registrar of Societies (ROS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and by paying a small fee. These organizations are legally required to submit annual reports to the ROS to remain registered. The ROS may inspect registered organizations and investigate those suspected of being used for purposes “prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order, or morality.”

Tax laws allow a tax exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for individual donors. Donors giving zakat (tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate. Donors to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.

Under sharia, caning is permitted in every state. Offenses subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, include consensual same-sex sexual relations and prostitution. Caning is also permitted for a wider variety of offenses under the penal code.

The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, with punishments varying from state to state, including imprisonment and caning. The law allows and supports Muslims proselytizing without restriction.

State governments have exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship as well as land allocation for all cemeteries.

All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and prayer rooms – fall under the authority of JAKIM and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or prayer rooms.

Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses. Private schools may offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims.

Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. Non-Muslims have no standing in sharia proceedings, leading to some cases where sharia court rulings have affected non-Muslims who have no ability to defend their position or appeal the court’s decision, most frequently in rulings affecting custody, divorce, inheritance, burial, and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains largely unresolved in the legal system. When civil and sharia jurisdictions intersect, civil courts continue largely to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where sharia judgments affect non-Muslims.

Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have enacted hudood (the Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the implementation of that code. The states may not implement these laws without amendments to federal legislation and the agreement of the sultan.

The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim females and 18 for Muslim males, except in Selangor State, where Muslim and non-Muslim females must be 18. Sharia courts may make exceptions for marriage before those ages with the permission of parents. Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry, but may marry as young as 16 with the approval of their state’s chief minister.

National identity cards specify religious affiliation, and the government uses them to determine which citizens are subject to sharia. The cards identify Muslims in print on the face of the card; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is encrypted in a smart chip within the identity card. Married Muslims must carry a special photo identification of themselves and their spouse as proof of marriage.

Foreign missionaries and international students for religious courses must apply for a professional visit pass with the Department of Immigration. This visa is given on a year-to-year basis and must be endorsed by a national body representing the respective faiths.

JAKIM coordinates the Hajj, endowment (waqf), tithes (zakat), and other Islamic activities.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Police made little progress in investigating the disappearance in 2016 of Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Sitepu, reportedly due to a lack of information on the case. In February, SUHAKAM initiated a public inquiry into their disappearance. A witness testified that Hilmy had told him that “religious authorities were looking for him” due to his conversion from Islam to Christianity without following the required legal procedures. The witness said Hilmy told him he had not been threatened. Another witness testified in March that Hilmy had shown him an email from then Minister of Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin instructing Hilmy to “leave the country.” Jamaluddin denied the accusation in a statement, noting, “I never personally knew Joshua Hilmy, Ruth Hilmy, nor (the witness) Selvakumar Peace John Harris. I also deny having sent the alleged email, nor have I contacted them through any means of communication.” SUHAKAM’s inquiry was suspended in March after two of its commissioners tested positive for COVID-19, but it resumed in August and was ongoing at year’s end.

A government-appointed panel formed in June 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s determination that the Royal Malaysia Police intelligence unit, Special Branch, was responsible for the 2016 “enforced disappearance” of Shia Muslim social activist Amri Che Mat made little progress in its investigation, according to SUHAKAM. In August, the NGO Citizens against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED) urged the government to release the findings of the panel and police to reveal actions taken in response to the SUHAKAM report. The government-appointed panel did not investigate the disappearance of Christian pastor Raymond Koh in 2016, however, as the government argued it was “out of scope” of the panel, purportedly because prosecutors had previously charged him with extorting Koh’s son for information in the case.

In February, Susanna Liew, the wife of Pastor Koh, initiated legal action against the federal government and several senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s kidnapping, accusing them of negligence, misfeasance, and conspiracy to injure.

Despite calls from the High Court for police to locate Indira Gandhi’s former husband and their youngest child, whom he abducted in 2009, both remained missing as of September. Gandhi, a Hindu, had earlier sued successfully to deny her former husband’s unilateral conversion of their three minor children to Islam. In February, Gandhi initiated legal proceedings against the police and the police inspector-general (IGP) for failing to locate her daughter, Prasana. At year’s end, the IGP had not disclosed Prasana’s location nor announced any progress on her case.

In February, the Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against Member of Parliament Maria Chin Abdullah for statements she made in 2019 asserting that the sharia court discriminated against women. The prosecution said Chin’s comments harmed the reputation of the court.

In July, an Indonesian man was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment and fined 5,000 ringgit ($1,200) for training members of a WhatsApp group, “sejati sejiwa” (one true soul), to commit terrorist acts and for possessing items linked to ISIS. Police said the man had been preparing to attack a Hindu temple in Selangor in 2019 to “avenge” the death of a Muslim firefighter who was killed when responding to a riot at a Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur in 2018.

In May, the Federal Court allowed a man to challenge the constitutionality of a law in the sharia legal code against “unnatural sex.” The man’s lawyer argued that the Selangor State legislative body had no power to apply sharia because sharia pertained to criminal law, which falls under federal jurisdiction, and that there was already a federal law on “unnatural sex” in the penal code.

Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is a member party of the ruling Perikatan National coalition, said that the NGO G25, described by academics and the media as a promoderation group of eminent Malay individuals and civil servants, posed an intellectual threat to Muslims and was more dangerous than a militant group. A G25 report on the administration of Islam in Malaysia stated that Muslims who chose to convert to another faith or practice no faith should not face criminal punishment.

Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In February, a sessions court fined Wai Foo Sing 15,000 ringgit ($3,700) under the Communications and Multimedia Act for posting what the court said was an obscene graphic of the Prophet Muhammad and his wife on Facebook. The court said, “It is undeniable that the accused’s inappropriate, offensive, and obscene posting based on religion has transgressed the parameters of free speech guaranteed under our constitution.” In March, a judge fined Ain Zafira Md Said, a student, 4,000 ringgit ($1,000) in lieu of three months in jail for insulting the Prophet Muhammad on social media in 2019. In April, authorities detained two individuals and initiated investigations under the Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act relating to a social media video mocking Muslims praying. In July, a court sentenced Danny Antoni to 26 months in prison after finding him guilty on two counts of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and the president of PAS, Abdul Hadi Awang, in a Facebook post.

In September, police opened an investigation into Member of Parliament Nik Muhammad Zawawi Nik Salleh for his remarks in parliament stating that “the Bible was distorted or altered.” Zawawi said he had no reason to apologize, since his statement was “a fact,” and he said the Christian community had “no right to be offended.” The investigation against Zawawi remained open at year’s end.

Lawyers called for the Ministry of Education to issue a directive forbidding religious conversion of students in school. In January, a Christian family in Sarawak state sued authorities over the conversion of their son, a minor, to Islam by a ustaz (religious teacher) in his school without the parents’ knowledge or consent. “My client’s instruction is to challenge the validity of the conversion of their son. He is still a minor. The parents were unaware of the conversion. They were shattered when they found out,” said Priscilla Ruth Marcus, the family’s lawyer. According to Marcus, “This is not the first reported case.” NGOs reported that similar cases reinforced fears among parents of rural Christian communities in Sabah and Sarawak State about what might happen if they send their children to boarding schools.

In January, government and religious authorities in Sabah State initiated investigations into reports that the Malaysian Islamic Economic Development Foundation, a quasigovernmental charity trust fund, offered cash to individuals who agreed to convert to Islam. Then Assistant Education and Innovation Minister Jenifer Lasimbang told media, “It’s not a new thing. These things have been happening for a few years.” The foundation denied the allegations.

JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines on what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief. State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length but often lasted approximately six months. These counseling programs continued to be designed to ensure the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam. In January, the NGO G25 denounced various state laws penalizing apostasy, whether by fines, caning, imprisonment, or extended “rehabilitation,” as inconsistent with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri made a statement in July that religious authorities would arrest transgender individuals and provide them religious education to “return to the correct path.” In August, JAKIM filed a police report against activist Nicole Fong, accusing her of defamation because of her tweets detailing JAKIM’s religious conversion program that targeted the LGBTQ community. In a statement, 15 NGOs said JAKIM intimidated human rights defenders with heavy-handed tactics that “send a message to Malaysians that we are not allowed to question governmental policies and programs.”

NGO sources reported it remained difficult for Muslims attempting to convert and for non-Muslims mistakenly registered as Muslims to change the religious designation on their identification cards. A woman in Sabah State, Nusiah Pulod, faced significant bureaucratic challenges in attempting to remove the “Islam” designation printed on her identification card even though she said she was born Christian and had never converted. As a result, Nusiah was unable to marry her non-Muslim fiance, since the registration office would not recognize what it considered to be a mixed-faith marriage involving a Muslim. Nusiah said many Christian families in her village faced similar problems.

The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and it limited Malaysians’ ability to travel to Israel. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in a June interview with Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV that it is better for Muslims to attack Israelis directly rather than carry out terrorist attacks against European countries and the United States. “The enemy is Israel. [If] you want to do anything, do it to the Israelis, like some of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, who individually attack Israeli soldiers. That is the enemy.” He also said that Jews controlled the media in the United States. “It is a propaganda campaign on the part of the Jews. They own all the newspapers in America. They own the TV stations. So they have tremendous influence.”

All foreign missionaries – both Muslim and non-Muslim – coming to the country to conduct religious talks were subjected to mandatory background checks for what the government termed national security reasons to ensure missionary groups are free from “deviant” teachings.

State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex). In January, the Islamic Affairs and Religious Department in Kelantan State detained seven Muslim couples on suspicion of committing khalwat during a seasonal “antivice” operation in conjunction with the Lunar New Year celebration. A government representative said the operation was intended to “track down those who took the opportunity of the long public holiday to commit immoral behavior.” Four Muslim women were also issued summonses for wearing “sexy and tight clothing in public.”

In July, the Terengganu State government implemented a gender segregation policy in cinemas in what it said was a measure to ensure adherence to sharia. According to a local cinema operator, married couples needed to provide legal proof of marriage and were subjected to random checks. Muslim moviegoers were also required to dress according to Islamic regulations, while non-Muslim moviegoers were required to dress modestly.

Authorities in Terengganu State said they would soon introduce additional gender-segregation guidelines for event organizers barring female entertainers, including non-Muslims, from performing before male audiences.

In August, the chairman of the Kelantan State Community Unity, Culture, Heritage, and Tourism Committee said the state would review for “corrections” a century-old indigenous dance form, Main Puteri, that it considered “un-Islamic” in order to meet sharia compliance before the dance could be reintroduced for public entertainment.

Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed all sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion deemed contrary to Sunni Islam. In February, a mosque in the state of Perak that organized a Chinese New Year celebration was censured by the Perak Islamic Religious Department for “disrespecting the sensitivity of the Muslim community.” In December, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmad Marzuk Shaary reported that the National Fatwa Council was investigating the teachings of Asmaul Husna Wan Maseri, founded by former PAS council member Professor Wan Maseri Wan Mohd in Kelantan, on allegations of deviation from Sunni Islam. The group had been declared as heretical in the states of Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang and the Federal Territories.

The government continued to maintain restrictions on religious assembly and provisions; these denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Many churches and NGOs continued to find registration difficult, with the ROS denying or delaying many applications without explanation or for highly technical reasons. Representatives of religious groups continued to say the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups.

In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Religious groups reported registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization to conduct certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but registering did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of religious groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be “deviant” Islamic groups, including Shia, Ahmadiyya, and al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers, as these could only be performed in an officially registered mosque. In January, the Selangor State Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) said there were 15 Shia religious centers, which JAIS considered to be a significant increase. The chairperson of JAIS said the agency would intensify efforts to monitor Shia Muslims and raid Shia religious gatherings and would also provide information on the alleged dangers of Shia Islam to schools and mosques throughout the state. In response, the NGO Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) said JAIS was promoting “an intolerant religion [Islam] in this modern age.”

In August, the Court of Appeal petitioned the High Court to determine whether 39 Ahmaddiya Muslims were to be considered Muslim following an appeal by JAIS against a 2018 High Court decision stating that the sharia court had no jurisdiction over the Ahmadi community, since JAIS had refused to recognize them as adherents of Islam. The petitioners challenged their 2014 sharia offenses charged by JAIS on the basis that Islamic authorities in Selangor State did not recognize Ahmadiyya as Muslims and that the petitioners were therefore outside JAIS jurisdiction. The High Court ruled in August, “The Ahmaddiya were, as with all other persons, entitled to freedom of religion, subject to the Federal Constitution.” The court also said the country’s dual legal system and the issuance of identity cards stating their holders’ religion as Islam compounded the ambiguity of their religious status as Muslims. The three-member bench chaired by Justice Badariah Sahamid further stated, “It is timely that all states, along with the federal government, work out a unified regime to determine the religious status of the Ahmadiyya so that they are not put at risk of sharia investigations and prosecution.”

The country’s movement control order (MCO), established to prevent the spread of COVID-19, banned gatherings of any kind from March 18 through June 4, including religious gatherings. During Ramadan, the MCO prohibited Muslims from worshiping in mosques, breaking their fast outside their homes, and visiting Ramadan bazaars, a popular tradition. The government assured Muslims that all religious obligations could be carried out at home and noted exceptions for front-line responders and those who were ill. State religious leaders, including conservative representatives from PAS, supported the federal government’s measures, noting “we must accept it and obey the rules of social distancing to protect our lives.” Non-Islamic leaders said that they were not consulted or warned by the government before restrictions were imposed.

In September, the Federal Court allowed the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) to proceed with a hearing to seek a court declaration to invalidate a Selangor State law that enabled sharia courts to review decisions made by state religious authorities. In 2019, the High Court dismissed the NGO’s application for a civil court to review a 2014 Selangor State fatwa that found the organization “deviant” infringed the group’s and its members’ constitutional rights. The 2014 fatwa said SIS deviated from the teachings of Islam because the group subscribed to the principles of liberalism and religious pluralism. The fatwa did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” The fatwa also ruled that the NGO’s books and materials could be seized. At year’s end, no action had been taken against the NGO, which continued to function nationally.

In September, JAIS arrested Abdul Kahar Ahmad and 16 followers for spreading the teachings of a “deviant sect” that had been banned in 1991. JAIS confiscated books, cell phones, laptops, and other materials. Following the arrest, the Minister of Religious Affairs said the government will consider distributing reading materials on “deviant” teachings to imams and religious teachers appointed by religious authorities in order to warn the public of the dangers of such teachings. Abdul Kahar and three of those arrested were released on bail, while the other 13 remained in custody. Abdul Kahar, who proclaimed himself a Rasul Melayu (Malay prophet), was previously arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, six strokes of caning, and a fine of 16,500 ringgit ($4,100).

There were restrictions on the use of the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words by non-Muslims. These restrictions included saying certain words, such as “Allah,” “al Quran,” or “fatwa” out loud, or using or producing Bibles or recorded religious materials that refer to God using the term “Allah.”

In October, the Court of Appeal dismissed a discovery application by Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Christian church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the documents the Home Affairs Ministry used to support its ban on the Church’s and its Malay-language speaking congregation’s right to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications. The ministry argued that the documents sought by the Church fell under the Official Secrets Act 1972.

The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.” In February, the Court of Appeal overturned the government’s ban on three books written by IRF. The Ministry of Home Affairs originally banned the books in 2017 for content that did not comply with the government’s interpretation of Islam, a decision the High Court upheld in 2019. IRF representatives welcomed the court’s decision, stating it fulfilled its role as “the last bastion for the protection of freedom of expression.”

A 2019 investigation into the book Unveiling Choices by Maryam Lee remained open. The book was alleged by JAIS to “insult or bring into contempt the religion of Islam.” It narrates Lee’s personal reasons for removing her hijab as well as the sociopolitical relationship between Muslim women and the Malaysian state. Lee would be subject to a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,200), up to three years in prison, or both, if found guilty.

Non-Muslim groups continued to report regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services. Observers said this practice remained largely tolerated but left the religious groups vulnerable. In March, authorities demolished the 100-year-old Sri Maha Mariamman Temple located within the Kamunting detention center in Taiping, Perak State. According to media reports, authorities did not inform the temple’s leaders of the impending demolition. Facebook later removed a post by Penang Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy questioning whether the demolition was in part organized by a federal government dominated by ethnic Malay Muslims. “I think the title of the post, which asserted that the structure was probably the first Hindu temple demolished under the Perikatan National [ruling coalition] government, irked the powers that be,” Ramasamy commented to the media.

PAS party leader Hadi said during a September speech at the annual general meeting of party that only Malay-Muslim unity could lead and save the country. According to media reports, Hadi said, “The nation that is with Islam must rise so that it is not swept away by the influence of non-Muslims, who lose their identity.” In January, Hadi described choosing between Muslim and non-Muslim rule: “If we [Muslims] are patient with each other, and even if [the leadership] is cruel, we can at least be cow herders, but under other people’s rule, we will become pig herders.” Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the Democratic Action Party, which is part of the opposition coalition but has the most seats in the lower house of parliament, responded, “The advocates of this version of politics are gambling with the future of a multiracial, multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural nation.”

The Prime Minister’s office tasked government agencies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that no entity had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, and they cited the large footprint and budget for JAKIM compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration. That department’s annual budget was approximately 275 million ringgit ($68.41 million), while 1.4 billion ringgit ($348.3 million) was marked for the development of Islam under JAKIM alone.

In April, the government allocated 21 million ringgit ($5.22 million) to assist private Islamic schools whose operations were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government said the assistance was part of 100 million ringgit ($24.88 million) allocated to JAKIM under the 2020 budget supplement intended to finance the maintenance and upgrading of Islamic schools. Non-Islamic schools did not receive this funding.

During the year, JAKIM continued to fund a wide variety of Islamic education- and mosque-related projects. There were no funds in the government budget specifically allocated to non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and other activities.

At public primary and secondary schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with the recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader. Particularly in the country’s peninsula, community leaders and civil liberties groups said religion teachers in public schools pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school. Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils covering their faces except for their eyes. Homeschooling remained legal, but some families continued to report difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education.

There were continued complaints concerning what critics said were religious overtones and symbols in public schools. In January, family members of children enrolled in government residential schools questioned what they said was an overemphasis on religious practices: schools frequently compelled students to attend group prayers and rituals, causing the studies of other subjects to be neglected. In response, the schools stated the rituals were intended to obtain “blessings” that would ensure that students excelled academically, and that would elevate the status of the school. “They are competing on which school is more Islamic instead of being better academically,” said one parent. Another parent told the online news portal Free Malaysia Today that her daughter was compelled to attend a “ruqyah” (exorcism) session to be cured from the possession of “bad spirits” after skipping Islamic instruction to attend biology classes.

An effort by the government to revive Jawi, an archaic Arabic script, in lessons on Bahasa Melayu in vernacular primary schools sparked tensions along ethnic and religious fault lines. Following an outcry from Chinese groups that the Jawi revival was an attempt at Islamization, the Ministry of Education pared down the pages to be taught on Jawi from six to three. Then Deputy Minister of Education Teo Nie Ching later clarified that Jawi lessons in vernacular schools could only be introduced with majority approval from parent-teacher associations.

In January, Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz, vice president of Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia, a Malay nationalist political party, wrote that a public school in Puchong, Selangor State, was propagating religion to its students through decorations for Lunar New Year. He stated, “The complaints we’ve received show unease at the excessive Chinese New Year 2020 decorations….This is distressing for Muslim students and is also against Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution.” In a sign of support for the school, the then Deputy Prime Minister and six other cabinet ministers visited it and helped put up Lunar New Year decorations.

In the same month, the Ministry of Education issued a circular stating that JAKIM advised that Ponggal, a Tamil harvest festival, is haram (forbidden) in Islam. Responding to a public outcry, then Minister of Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said that JAKIM had not prohibited schools from celebrating the festival, since, “It was permissible for Muslims to take part in the celebration as long as Islamic ethics were observed.” Mujahid called for stern action against the Ministry of Education official responsible for the circular in question.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate. In a February ruling, the Federal Court determined that a Muslim child conceived or born out of what the state determined to be wedlock could not bear his or her father’s name, even if requested by the father. The court said the law “does not enable Muslim children to be named with the personal name of a person acknowledged to be the father” because ethnic Malays do not use surnames. The NGO SIS praised the court’s other ruling that children born out of wedlock do not have to automatically use the surname “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah,” which carries a social stigma in the country where children with these surnames are often “ridiculed, attacked, bullied, or targeted.”

Then Minister for Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said he would ask the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to take action against Nur Sajat, a prominent transgender entrepreneur, after she posted pictures of herself wearing a prayer garment on pilgrimage in Mecca in February. Muhajid said Nur Sajat’s actions were an “offense” and could compromise the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. JAKIM circulated copies of Nur Sajat’s passport and other documents were circulated on social media, raising concerns among civil society groups about her privacy and safety. The NGO Justice for Sisters condemned the government’s action, stating, “The real concern is not the telekung (prayer garment), but her safety and security, the breach of privacy, and the lack of rights and evidence-based response by the government.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

As in years past, local human rights organizations and religious leaders said society continued to become less tolerant of religious diversity. In September, the interfaith organization Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism (MCCBCHST) released a press statement to express “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.” NGOs also cited some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic” as well as heavily publicized statements targeting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups.

In January, the NGO ILMU, whose members were closely linked to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party and who have in the past spoken out against Shia Islam, hosted a national convention on “Knowledge of the Hadith,” in Kuala Lumpur. Sheikh Abdurrahman Ibrahim al-Rubai’in, the religious attache of the Saudi Arabian embassy, in his keynote speech, said it was useless to include Shia Muslims in any efforts to unite Muslims, since “They are deviant.” He added, “The difference between Sunnis and Shias is not merely over jurisprudence, but also between truth and falsehood.”

Hundreds of Muslim students gathered in January outside a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur to demand the government ban the Chinese educational group Dong Zong, on the grounds that Dong Zong opposed the inclusion of Jawi lessons in the national school syllabus. The PAS youth chief spoke at the protest and blamed Chinese majority political parties in the ruling and opposition coalitions for perpetuating baseless fears against Islam. The Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition said Dong Zong was attempting to foment a repeat of the country’s bloody 1969 race riots. Also in January, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad labeled Dong Zong as “racist” against the Malay-Muslim majority after the group petitioned against the government’s move to introduce Jawi lessons in schools on grounds that the measure would be a form of “Islamization.”

The leader of the apolitical group of Malay-Muslim NGOs Pertubuhan Pembela Islam (Pembela), Aminuddin Yahaya, called on the new Perikatan Nasional coalition government to appoint an ethnic Malay attorney general and to “take action” against insults to Islam. “We have to take this seriously because Malays don’t insult other religions or other races, but other races insult Malays and Islam. Therefore, there must be enforcement.”

Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from their former cobelievers, including friends and relatives.

Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. Muslim women who did not wear the headscarf or conform to religious notions of modesty were often subject to shaming in public and on social media.

In March, the Malaysian rock band Bunkface released its song “The End of Times,” which caused controversy over lyrics that urged the LGBTQ community to “go and die.” In a statement, the band defended the lyrics as a criticism of the growing Muslim LGBTQ movement in the country and indicated its rejection of any rights for LGBTQ Muslims, describing the LGBTQ community as haram. “What has been set as haram will always remain haram,” the band said in its press released. YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music removed the song from their platforms following international media attention.

In April, a video of a local man harassing a Rohingya individual from Burma surfaced on Facebook amid an increase in comments online aimed at the Rohingya community. In the four-minute video, the man demanded the Rohingya prove his Islamic faith. In April, activist Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi of the European Rohingya Council rights group said in response, “There is harassment [of Rohingya] on the streets and online. I’ve never seen anything like this in Malaysia before.” In the same month, Tengku Emma was threatened with rape on social media, including the online group “32 Million Malaysians Reject Rohingya,” after asking the government to allow boats carrying Rohingya asylum seekers to land.

Religious groups hosted virtual interfaith dialogues and intercultural celebrations throughout the year. In September, the Dalai Lama and a professor from the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, Osman Bakar, discussed compassion and mercy as common values in Islam and Buddhism in a virtual forum organized by the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious groups’ taking the opportunity to discuss different ways of promoting people’s right to pursue different ways of life. In an interfaith dialogue in December, Council of Churches Malaysia secretary general Hermen Shastri said the establishment of a “truly interfaith council” was hindered by a “majority vs. minority” mentality, since interfaith groups in the country have yet to form an entity that engages with the majority Islamic community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, as well as with other agencies, on religious freedom and tolerance issues throughout the year, including concerns about the denigration of religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children, and the disappearances of Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, and Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth Sitepu.

Embassy officials met with members of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups, who described heavy government restrictions on their religious activities and continued societal discrimination. The embassy also met with Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government, such as those from SIS, G25, and the Islamic Renaissance Front, and with MCCBCHST to discuss strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom.

The embassy broadcast messages related to religious freedom on its social media platforms on International Religious Freedom Day and throughout the year.

The embassy nominated Susanna Liew, wife of missing pastor Raymond Koh, for the International Women of Courage (IWOC) award and facilitated her travel to the United States to attend the annual IWOC ceremony in Washington D.C. in March.

Maldives

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the President, to be followers of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. The law criminalizes “criticism of Islam” and speech “in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.” The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as flogging, stoning, and amputation of hands, but no sentences were carried out during the year. During June and July, groups of religious scholars, island councils, and youth groups released statements calling on the government to deregister the women’s rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Uthema, citing the group’s Shadow Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women as including content derogatory to Islam. In October, a group of religious scholars called on the government to stop “allowing irreligious individuals and those who criticize Islam to remain free and take action against them as prescribed by Islamic Shariah and the law.” In March, Maldives Police Services (MPS) investigated a man from Thinadhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll for a second time on suspicion of “criticizing Islam” and in April charged him with the lesser charge of “obstructing justice.” He was convicted in June, sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, and remained in detention at year’s end. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government continued to prohibit resident foreigners and foreign tourists from practicing any religion other than Islam in public.

NGOs reported that religiously motivated violent extremists continued to issue death threats against individuals on social media, including employees of human rights organizations, labeling them “secularists” or “apostates” and calling for attacks against them. NGO representatives said they continued to see what they termed Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism among the populace, stating the government’s efforts to address this trend were insufficient. NGO representatives also said the open investigation against the NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), which was banned in 2019 on grounds of releasing a report that “criticized Islam,” and the failure of the government to publicly refute statements by popular religious figures characterizing NGOs as “irreligious” prevented them from publicly supporting those subjected to this harassment.

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Maldives, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and Embassy Colombo staff represents U.S. interests there. In contacts with government officials, embassy officials regularly encouraged the government to investigate threats against individuals targeted as “secularists” or “apostates,” to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, and to ease restrictions preventing non-Sunnis from practicing freely. In meetings with government agencies, embassy officials expressed concern over harassment of individuals and organizations characterized as “irreligious,” appealed against the dissolution of Uthema, and urged the government to formulate a longer-term strategy to deal with incidents of online hate speech and harassment of NGOs and individuals.

Section I. Religious Demography

The total population of Maldivians is 392,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). The government estimates the total population is 557,426, including 117,000 documented and 63,000 undocumented foreign workers in the country, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. While most citizens follow Sunni Islam (indeed, citizenship requires it), there are no reliable estimates of actual religious affiliations. Foreign workers are predominantly Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the country is a republic based on the principles of Islam and designates Islam as the state religion, which it defines in terms of Sunni teachings. It states citizens have a “duty” to preserve and protect Islam. According to the constitution, non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship.

The constitution states citizens are free to engage in activities “not expressly prohibited” by sharia, but it stipulates the Majlis (the country’s legislative body) may pass laws limiting rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” In deciding whether a limitation on a right or freedom is constitutional, the constitution states a court must consider the extent to which the right or freedom “must be limited” to protect Islam.

The constitution makes no mention of freedom of religion. Although it contains a provision prohibiting discrimination “of any kind,” it does not list religion as a prohibited basis for discrimination. The constitution states individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression, but only in a manner “not contrary to the tenets of Islam.”

The law prohibits the conversion of a Muslim to another religion. By law, a violation may result in the loss of the convert’s citizenship, although a judge may impose a harsher punishment per sharia jurisprudence. Although the law does not stipulate such punishment, sharia jurisprudence is often understood by the public and religious scholars to provide for the death penalty in cases of conversion from Islam (i.e., apostasy), but the government has made no such statement.

The law states both the government and the people must protect “religious unity.” Any statement or action found to be contrary to this objective is subject to criminal penalty. Specific infractions include expressing religious beliefs other than Islam, disrupting religious unity, and having discussions or committing acts that promote religious differences. The list of infractions also includes delivering religious sermons in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country or limiting the rights of a specific section of society. According to the law, sentences for violators may include a fine of up to 20,000 rufiyaa ($1,300), imprisonment for two to five years, or deportation for foreigners.

Laws criminalize speech breaking Islamic tenets, breaching social norms, or threatening national security. The penal code criminalizes “criticism of Islam.” According to the law, a person commits the offense of “criticizing Islam” by “engaging in religious oration or criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intent to cause disregard for Islam; producing, selling, or distributing material criticizing Islam; producing, selling, distributing, importing, disseminating, or possessing ‘idols of worship’; and/or attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizenry and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause ‘religious segregation.’” Individuals convicted of these offenses are subject to imprisonment for up to one year.

By law, no one may deliver sermons or explain religious principles in public without obtaining a license from the MIA. Imams may not prepare Friday sermons without government authorization. To obtain a license to preach, the law specifies an individual must be a Sunni Muslim, have a degree in religious studies from a university recognized by the government, and not have been convicted of a crime in sharia court. The law also sets educational standards for imams to ensure they have theological qualifications the government considers adequate. Government regulations stipulate the requirements for preaching and contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. The regulations prohibit making statements in sermons that may be interpreted as racial or gender discrimination, discouraging access to education or health services in the name of Islam, or demeaning the character of and/or creating hatred toward persons of any other religion. The law provides for a punishment of two to five years in prison or house arrest for violations of these provisions. Anyone who assists in such a violation is subject to imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320 to $1,300). The law requires foreign scholars to ensure their sermons conform to the country’s norms, traditions, culture, and social etiquette.

Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in prison or house arrest. Proselytizing to change denominations within Islam is also illegal and carries the same penalty. If the offender is a foreigner, authorities may revoke the individual’s license to preach in the country and deport the individual.

By law, mosques and prayer houses are under the control of the MIA. The law prohibits the establishment of places of worship for non-Islamic religious groups.

The law states, “Non-Muslims living in or visiting the country are prohibited from openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities, or involving Maldivians in such activities.” By law, those expressing religious beliefs other than Islam face imprisonment of up to five years or house arrest, fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320 to $1,300), and deportation.

By law, a female citizen may not marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he first converts to Islam. A male citizen may marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish; other foreigners must convert to Islam prior to marriage.

The law prohibits importation of any items the MIA deems contrary to Islam, including religious literature, religious statues, alcohol, pork products, and pornographic materials. Penalties for contravention of the law range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment. It is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen, although government regulations permit the sale of alcoholic beverages to foreigners on resort islands. Individuals must request permission to import restricted goods from the Ministry of Economic Development.

The constitution states education shall strive to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” In accordance with the law, the MIA regulates Islamic instruction in schools, while the Ministry of Education funds salaries of religious instructors in schools. By law, educators who teach Islamic studies must have a degree from a university or teaching center accredited by the Maldives Qualification Authority or other religious qualification recognized by the government. By law, foreigners who wish to teach Islamic studies may receive authorization to do so only if they subscribe to Sunni Islam. Islam is a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students. The curriculum incorporates Islam into all subject areas at all levels of education, specifying eight core competencies underpinned by Islamic values, principles, and practices. In practice, foreign, non-Muslim children are allowed to opt out of studying Islam.

The constitution states Islam forms one basis of the law, and “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.” The constitution specifies judges must apply sharia in deciding matters not addressed by the constitution or by law, but sharia is not considered applicable to non-Muslims.

The penal code prescribes flogging for unlawful sexual intercourse (adultery, fornication, and same-sex relations), incest, false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, failing to fast during Ramadan, or (for Maldivian citizens only) consuming pork or alcohol. Other sharia penalties are not specified, but the code grants judges the discretion to impose sharia penalties for certain offenses under sharia – including murder, apostasy, assault, theft, homosexual acts, drinking alcohol, and property damage – if proven beyond all doubt. The penal code requires that all appeal processes be exhausted prior to the administration of sharia punishments specific to these offenses, including stoning, amputation of hands, and similar punishments.

The Supreme Council of Fatwa has the authority to issue fatwas, or legal opinions, on religious matters. The council functions under the MIA and comprises five members appointed to five-year terms. The President names three members directly and chooses a fourth from the faculty of either the Maldives National University or the Islamic University of Maldives. The Minister of Islamic Affairs recommends the fifth member, subject to the President’s approval.

The constitution stipulates the President, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and judges must be Sunni Muslims.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation stating the government’s application of the principles set out in ICCPR Article 18, which relates to religious freedom, shall be “without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic.”

Government Practices

The government reported that eight adults were sentenced to flogging during the year, five for consuming alcohol and three for extramarital sex, but none of the sentences were carried out, pending completion of appeals.

In January, six men linked to a Maduvvari Island-based terrorist cell were charged with supporting a terrorist organization and promoting materials supporting terrorist organizations and producing or distributing obscene materials under the Anti-Terrorism Act and penal code. Their trial continued at year’s end, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office, but all six had been released from custody by the court because of an “excessive amount of detention.” The group was led by Maldivian ISIS leader and recruiter Mohamed Ameen, who was arrested in December 2019 and remained in custody with his trial underway at year’s end.

In March, MPS investigated a man from Thinadhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll for a second time on suspicion of “criticizing Islam,” and in April charged him with “obstructing justice.” He was convicted in June, sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, and remained in detention at year’s end. The man was initially arrested in 2019 after he posted on social media that he was holding “irreligious discussions” with the youth on his island with the intention to plan rallies encouraging secularism. The government filed charges of “criticizing Islam” against him in 2019, but the Thinadhoo Magistrate Court dismissed the case and released him from custody in March after police failed to present him for a court hearing. He was arrested again two days later for again posting social media content that authorities determined to be critical of Islam. In 2019, MPS told media it was separately investigating death threats against the man, but as of the end of the year, they had not made arrests or filed charges over the death threats.

In October 2019, MPS questioned a woman not identified by local media in relation to “content that criticizes Islam being posted on a social media account.” The case was closed with no further action when the woman left the country.

During the year, the government did not take further action on an investigation launched in 2019 against employees of the NGO MDN, which had been deregistered in December 2019 because the group’s 2015 Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives contained content that mocked Islam and the Prophet, according to MPS and the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment. MPS reported the investigation remained open as of year’s end.

In June and July, groups of religious scholars, island councils, and youth groups released statements calling on the government to deregister the women’s rights NGO Uthema because the group’s Shadow Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women included content the groups said was derogatory to Islam. The statements called on the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment to deregister Uthema as it had previously done with MDN. The government had not taken action against Uthema as of year’s end.

In January, the MIA announced it was looking into a complaint submitted by an unidentified party alleging the international NGO Quilliam Foundation had conducted “anti-Islamic” workshops for school students and parents in Hanimaadhoo Island in Haa Dhaalu atoll and Hithadhoo in Addu City in January. The ministry had taken no further action in the case as of year’s end.

NGOs reported the open investigation against MDN and failure of the government to publicly refute statements by popular religious figures characterizing NGOs as “irreligious” prevented them from expressing solidarity or publicly supporting those subjected to harassment in case of similar action against their organizations. In December, to mark one year since the deregistration of MDN, four international human rights NGOs released a statement that noted, “The Government of Maldives, by taking arbitrary and unconstitutional actions to silence civil society, has set a dangerous precedent that has resulted in a violent witch hunt of human rights defenders and civil society organizations.”

The trial of seven men for the 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed, a critic of religious fundamentalism and violent extremism, remained pending at year’s end.

Victims of online harassment and threats continued to say they believed themselves vulnerable because of the lack of police responsiveness to their complaints and because similar occurrences had preceded the 2014 disappearance and killing of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the 2017 killing of Rasheed. MPS reported investigating one case of online harassment, which was concluded without any arrests or action.

The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) continued to maintain an unpublished blacklist of websites containing material it deemed un-Islamic or anti-Islamic. CAM did not proactively monitor internet content but instead relied on requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites violating laws against criticism or defamation of Islam. Police reported investigating one website and 14 twitter handles for “criticizing Islam” because of un-Islamic content but had filed no charges as of year’s end.

The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government maintained its ownership and control of all mosques, including their maintenance and funding. The government continued to permit private donors to fund mosques as well.

According to the MIA, foreign residents, such as teachers, laborers, and tourists, remained free to worship as they wished in private, but congregating in public for non-Islamic prayer remained illegal, as was encouraging local citizens to participate in such activities

Customs authorities said the MIA continued to permit the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The MIA also continued to allow some religious literature for scholarly research. Customs officials reported 26 cases involving importation of religious idols, statues, and Christian crosses during the year. Authorities confiscated these items but did not press charges.

The Christian international NGO Open Doors said that Christians visiting the country reported being “closely watched.” The government reported that no such complaints were lodged with police or other authorities, and if any cases of this nature were identified, there would have been records of an investigation. There were no other reports of Christians being monitored in the country.

The MIA continued to conduct what it termed “awareness programs” through radio and television broadcasts in Male and on various islands to give citizens information on Islam, and it continued to provide assistance and counseling to foreigners seeking to convert to Islam. The ministry, in partnership with religious NGOs, continued to send imams to outer atolls to conduct workshops for students, youth, and others in schools and government buildings for the stated purpose of strengthening the islanders’ understanding and acceptance of Islam.

The National Institute of Education continued to implement a curriculum for public and private schools incorporating Islam into all subject areas. According to NGOs, passages in some textbooks portrayed democracy as being anti-Islam, encouraged anti-Semitism and xenophobia, glorified jihad, and demonized the West. The MIA continued to permit foreign individuals to opt out of Islamic instruction as a stand-alone subject. The MIA continued to permit foreigners to teach their own children religious content of their choice, but only in private.

In contrast with previous years, observers did not note any cases of the Family Court refusing to register children if one of the parents was a non-Muslim, although NGO representatives said they did not believe this was from any change in government policy.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs continued to report that persistent online and in-person threats against individuals perceived to be insufficiently Muslim effectively foreclosed the possibility of meaningful discussion on religious issues in the country. NGOs reported that online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam continued throughout the year with little action from authorities. MPS reported investigating one case of online harassment, which was concluded without any arrests or action.

NGOs reported continuing instances of individuals deemed “secularists” or “apostates” receiving death threats and being cyberbullied. As of the end of the year, MPS had yet to publicize any action taken in relation to an investigation into hate speech and death threats launched in 2019 after “Murtad Watch” (Apostate Watch), a public channel on the social media application Telegram, compiled a list and profiled citizens deemed to be “apostates” and pointed out that the sharia penalty for apostasy is death. MPS reported the lack of cybercrime legislation posed obstacles to investigation of online hate speech perpetrated by anonymous accounts and on social media channels. However, MPS reported in December that the Murtad Watch group “is currently not active on any platforms,” although MPS did not specify whether authorities had taken any action that resulted in the group’s removal, or if the operators deleted the group on their own accord.

In October, a group of religious scholars who had played a leading role in the campaign calling for deregistration of MDN in 2019 released a statement calling on the government to stop “allowing irreligious individuals and those who criticize Islam to remain free…,” and urging it to “take action against them, as prescribed by Islamic Shariah and the law.”

NGOs reported continued community pressure on women to wear hijabs and harassment of women who chose not to do so.

In its report covering 2020, Open Doors included the country on its World Watch List, noting that conversion to Christianity “can easily result in a report to Muslim authorities.” Open Doors reported that the children of converts experienced shunning and harassment in school if the conversion was discovered. They said that converts were forced to live secret lives and tried to conceal their conversion and blend in.

Media did not question Islamic values or the government’s policies on religion. NGO and journalist sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment for being labeled “anti-Islamic.” Several outlets continued to avoid publishing bylines to protect their journalists from punitive actions or harassment.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and Embassy Colombo staff represent U.S. interests there. In virtual meetings throughout the year, embassy officials continued to encourage the government to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, to ease restrictions preventing individuals other than Sunni Muslims from practicing their religions freely, and to prioritize investigations into threats against individuals targeted for their perceived “secular” viewpoints. In meetings with government agencies, embassy officials expressed concern regarding harassment of individuals and organizations characterized as “irreligious,” appealed against the dissolution of Uthema, and urged the government to formulate a longer-term strategy to deal with incidents of online hate speech and harassment of NGOs and individuals.

Qatar

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” The law punishes “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal, but authorities generally permitted them to practice their faith privately. The government continued to censor or ban print and social media religious material it considered objectionable. In July, the government issued administrative deportation notices to four longtime resident Indian-national Christians and their families. The deported individuals attributed the deportations to their religious activities. After closing all mosques and churches in mid-March as part of its measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, the government allowed the reopening of 500 mosques in June and the reopening of other houses of worship and all other mosques in mid-August. In September, the government sent a letter to nearly 150 unregistered religious groups temporarily banning any worship outside the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, which is located on government land and provides worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, justifying the ban on its efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 and for security reasons. Sixty-one church villas were slated to open but had not received permission from the government by year’s end. Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971. The Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) reported that some particularly offensive material was removed from school textbooks and the “curriculum does not meet international standards of peace and tolerance.” The NGO stated, “Elements of Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood dominate the religious tenor of the curriculum” and “In Islamic religious studies there is very little improvement. Jihad war, martyrdom and violent jihadi movements are praised.”

The Doha branch of Northwestern University cancelled an event by the pro-LGBTQI rock band Mashrou’ Leilaa after the booking created controversy in the country. A faculty member at a private graduate school posted a tweet that criticized Northwestern for its sponsorship of the event, stating that the concert crossed a “red line” for observant Muslims. In June, the privately owned newspaper al-Raya published an article by Khalifa al-Mahmoud, later removed from the daily’s website, which stated that Jews over the course of history had infiltrated international power centers and shaped decision-making, including through the overthrow of governments, to serve their own interests. In his June 25 column in the online newspaper al-Arab, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman wrote that secularism was to blame for the “horrific state” of Arab and Muslim societies, stating, “This is one of the gravest forms of treason against the noble Islamic nation, faith and culture.…In our Islamic society, secularism represents a position of hostility to Islam and Muslims.”

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with relevant government bodies as well as with quasigovernmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations, and anti-Semitism. Embassy officials maintained a dialogue throughout the year with the Ministry of Education (MOE) about newly published Islamic studies textbooks for public school students in grades seven through 12, including a discussion during a December 15 visit by the Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism. In March, the embassy participated in a religious freedom conference among various faiths and academics hosted by the government-funded Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), which included embassy-funded guest speakers. Throughout the year, the embassy met with various faith communities, including the Hindu, Shia Muslim, Baha’i, and evangelical Christian communities, and the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC), which oversees a variety of Christian denominations, to discuss issues of mutual concern. Embassy representatives continued to meet with Ministry of Culture and Sports officials regarding anti-Semitic books being available at the annual Doha International Book Fair.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population as 2.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Citizens make up approximately 12 percent of the population, while noncitizens account for approximately 88 percent. Most citizens are Sunni Muslims, and almost all of the remaining citizens are Shia Muslims. Reliable figures are unavailable, but estimates based solely on the religious composition of expatriates suggest Muslims, while they are the largest religious group, likely make up less than half of the total population. The breakdown of the noncitizen population between Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim groups is not available.

Other religious groups, which are composed exclusively of expatriates, include (in descending order of size) Hindus, almost exclusively from India and Nepal; Roman Catholics, primarily from the Philippines, Europe, and India; and Buddhists, largely from South, Southeast, and East Asia. Smaller groups include Anglicans and Protestant denominations, Egyptian Copts, Baha’is, and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. According to the constitution, the Emir must be Muslim. The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the Emir’s branch of the al Thani family. The Emir exercises full executive power. The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.” It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and is illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.

The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for offending or misinterpreting the Quran, “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs, insulting any of the prophets, or defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions. The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment of up to six months in prison.

To obtain an official presence in the country, expatriate non-Muslim religious groups must apply to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations, which are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Interdenominational Christian Churches. Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may register with the government with the support of the CCSC, an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of the eight already registered denominations.

Non-Christian groups must apply for registration through the MFA. Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures, such as private villas, recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution. Unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religious-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.

According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.

The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths. It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public. The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison. Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam may result in a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment. The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity. The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.

The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials. The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities. To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and Sports and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.

The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity. All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The law designates the MEIA Minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers. The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the emir.

The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA, working in coordination with the director of the MFA’s Human Rights Department, is responsible for handling church affairs.

A non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim; the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim, however. The law dictates that a non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.

Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools. Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services. All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools. These schools must offer optional Islamic instruction; non-Islamic religious education is prohibited.

A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims. The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters using Shia interpretations of religious law. In other religious matters, family law applies across all branches of Islam. Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.

Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia. The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence. There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are punished according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging. Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases. The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia. Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned. Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies. The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.

The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours during Ramadan are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The government submitted documents to the United Nations in 2018, and made a formal statement in its treaty accession document, that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia. The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”). The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.

Government Practices

In July, the government issued administrative deportation notifications to four longtime resident Indian-national Christian expatriates and their families. The deported individuals attributed the deportations to their religious activities. Petitions to the government and requests to clarify the decisions were left unanswered.

As part of the government’s measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, all churches and most mosques were closed down from mid-March until mid-August. The government allowed the reopening of 500 mosques in June as part of a graduated reopening. (There are an estimated 2,100 in the country.) Although Christian congregations within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex were allowed to resume activities in August, the government sent a letter to nearly 150 unregistered religious groups in September banning any worship outside the complex and asking all house churches to find space inside the already over-crowded complex. In December, the government said 61 congregations out of the 150 under the umbrella of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar (ECAQ) could reopen as a temporary solution until the alliance establishes its permanent premises in the complex. At year’s end, however, the 61 churches had not yet reopened, and the MFA had not responded to inquiries by the ECAQ management regarding the government’s reopening announcement.

The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so.

In a May 6 interview on the Al Jazeera network, Dr. Ahmad al-Farjabi, identified by an NGO as a MEIA sharia expert, said that when a man suspects his wife might become “disobedient” and “rebellious,” he should take the measures prescribed by the Quran, which include beating her. Al-Farjabi added that even Western psychologists have said that wife-beating is “inevitable” in the case of women who had been beaten while they were growing up and for women who have no respect for their husbands. He said that these kinds of women must be “subdued by muscles,” and that some kinds of women “may be reformed by beating.” Al-Farjabi also said that he even heard from women at his lectures that it is preferable to beat one’s wife than to allow her to ruin the home and lose her children.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions were unable to follow up on their 2019 visit. During that visit, the UN representatives said there were approximately 26 cases of expatriate women serving prison terms for adultery and five cases of individuals serving time for “sodomy,” behaviors prohibited by sharia.

In its 2020 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “Christians in Qatar, especially converts from Islam to Christianity, remain under extremely high pressure from the government and society – risking discrimination, harassment, police monitoring and intimidation. Even one’s family can be dangerous in a culture that sees conversion as a betrayal. In the Persian Gulf country, Islam is seen as the only acceptable faith, and conversion remains a capital offense. As for church gatherings, while Muslims are free to worship in public, Christians can only worship in private houses or designated places.”

Representatives of the Baha’i community stated that the community faced challenges with 13 cases of longtime (in some cases, lifelong) Baha’i residents who were either prevented from reentering the country or from renewing their residency permits. In 2019, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues and the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion cowrote a letter to the government expressing concern over discriminatory treatment of Baha’is, including in the 13 Baha’i deportation and residency refusal cases, and over the challenges Baha’is faced in registering marriages. The government denied the allegations.

The CCSC continued to meet regularly with the MFA to discuss issues related to its congregants and to advocate for increased space for the large number of parishioners. The MFA also met with unregistered congregations to discuss their interests and needs.

The MEIA continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques. The ministry continued to provide, on an ad hoc basis, thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions against using pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths. The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons. The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance.

The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties. There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of the penal code’s ban on eating or drinking in public during daylight hours in Ramadan. All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The Saudi Arabian government greatly reduced the number of pilgrims allowed to make the Hajj due to concerns regarding COVID-19. In the previous three years, however, the government had already discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in Umrah and Hajj due to an ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia that started in 2017 and resulted in the severing of diplomatic ties. Officials at MEIA stated that concerns for pilgrims’ security due to the lack of diplomatic representation and coordination with Saudi authorities were behind discouraging citizens and expatriates from performing the Hajj and Umrah.

In a May 16 Al Jazeera interview, Dr. Abduljabbar Saeed, a department chair in the sharia faculty at the state-run Qatar University, cited a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad said that Judgment Day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews, who will hide behind rocks and trees, which will in turn call upon Muslims to kill the Jews hiding behind them. Saeed referred to a version of the hadith in which a type of tree called a gharqad will not call out to the Muslims. He said that he rejected this version and that he believed that every rock and every tree will call out to the Muslims. Saeed said that victory would only be achieved through sacrifice of all that is precious and through the “blood of the martyrs and over the skulls of the enemies.”

In August, the Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) issued a comprehensive interim report on religious textbooks in the country from 2016 to 2020. The report said, “The Qatari curriculum appears to be in a phase of transformation. While somewhat less radical than previous versions, the process of moderation is in its infancy. Some particularly offensive material has been removed after decades of radical propaganda in Qatari schools, but the curriculum does not meet international standards of peace and tolerance.” The report stated, “Elements of Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood dominate the religious tenor of the curriculum.” It added, “In Islamic religious studies there is very little improvement. Jihad war, martyrdom, and violent jihadi movements are praised….Christians are still seen as infidels (kafirun) and are expected to go to hell. Some anti-Christian material has been removed. Jew hatred continues to be a central problem for this curriculum, while slightly less widespread than previous iterations. Israel is demonized. Textbooks teach [that] Jews control and manipulate world powers and markets.”

The Anti-Defamation League reported that the government appeared to have eliminated nearly all of the anti-Semitic book titles from the 2020 Doha International Book Fair, provided its online catalogue for the event was still an accurate representation of what was for sale onsite. The NGO described these efforts as “significant improvements” in this area.

Although the law prohibits Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites. The government, however, continued to prohibit them from publishing such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards. Church leaders and religious groups continued to state that individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.

The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Journalists and publishers at times said they practice self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.

The Mesaymeer Religious Complex, also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings. The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.

According to church leaders, approximately 75,000 to 100,000 expatriate Christians continued to attend weekly services at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex. Citizens of the country and other Muslims were not allowed to attend these services. Representatives of the CCSC continued to state there was overcrowding in seven buildings in the complex, and noted difficulties with parking, access, and time-sharing. In addition to the permanent buildings, the government allowed the churches to erect tents during Easter and Christmas outside of the primary complex to accommodate the extra congregants wanting to attend services during these holidays. The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors. Ministry of Interior (MOI) security personnel continued to ask churchgoers to show identification at the gates because non-Christians, either expatriates or citizens, continued to be prohibited access to the complex.

Representatives of the Hindu community continued to express concern that the government had not granted Hindus permission to open new places of worship.

The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and to conduct monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.

The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities, a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions. In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.

Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches. Some smaller unregistered churches continued to use the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.

The government-funded DICID postponed its international religious freedom conference originally scheduled for March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The country continued to host the headquarters of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a group widely viewed in the press and academia as being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Although IUMS stated that it was an independent association of scholars, observers said that its close relationship with the government helps it to serve as an instrument of the country’s soft power.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to press reports, the local branch of Northwestern University cancelled an event by the pro-LGBTQI rock band Mashrou’ Leilaa, whose booking created a controversy. A faculty member at a private graduate school posted a tweet that criticized Northwestern for its sponsorship of the event, stating that the concert crossed a “red line” for observant Muslims.

On June 3, the privately owned newspaper al-Raya published an article by Khalifa al-Mahmoud that was later removed from the daily’s website. In the article, al-Mahmoud claimed that Jews over the course of history infiltrated international power centers and shaped decision-making, including through the overthrow of governments, to serve their own interests. Pointing to the Rothschild family as an example, al-Mahmoud said that members of the family spread throughout Europe, taking over economies and profiting from wars. He also stated that the family controls the price of gold, media, and important banks to this day.

In his June 25 column in the online newspaper al-Arab, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman wrote that secularism is to blame for the “horrific state” of Arab and Muslim societies. He stated that colonial powers realized that “the idea of exporting the concepts of secularism or of the separation of religion and state to the Arab and Muslim world had no merit and would not last long. [They also realized] that it would expose [their own] ideology, which is hostile to the principles of religion and of the Islamic sharia.” Abd al-Rahman continued, “If we regard Islam as a spiritual connection [to God] and nothing else, or as a religion that is confined to the domain of the individual and his personal life, as reflected in his relationship with God – which is what the West or secular Christianity wants – this interpretation would divest the Islamic character of its cultural, educational, and behavioral content.…This is one of the gravest forms of treason against the noble Islamic nation, faith, and culture.…In our Islamic society, secularism represents a position of hostility to Islam and the Muslims…”

In poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 58 percent of respondents in Qatar either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels.” The rate of agreement in Qatar was among the lowest of the 13 regional countries included in the poll, where 65 percent of respondents either strongly or agreed with the statement.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In September, embassy officials met with the MFA, MOI, and the MOE to discuss concerns of the evangelical church congregations following an MOI decision to ban house churches outside the religious complex.

In March, embassy officials attended a religious freedom conference hosted by DICID, which included embassy-provided guest speakers.

In October, embassy representatives met with leaders from the evangelical Christian community, CCSC, and small Shia community to learn about their ability to freely practice their faiths in the country.

Embassy representatives continued to meet with Ministry of Culture and Sports, MFA, and MOE officials regarding anti-Semitic books being available at the annual Doha International Book Fair. Partially as a result of these discussions, the government did not allow three publishers who sold offensive materials at previous fairs to return. Organizers also did not allow anti-Semitic books sold at the 2019 fair to be sold at this year’s event. Embassy officials maintained a dialogue throughout the year with the MOE about newly published Islamic studies textbooks for public school students in grades seven through 12. In December 15 meetings with senior MFA officials, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism discussed a newly released NGO report and press coverage on anti-Semitism in the country’s textbooks as well as an invitation from the government for the U.S. government to participate in a government-sponsored interfaith conference in 2021.

Embassy officials continued to facilitate an agreement between the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs and the CCSC to raise awareness among churchgoers about ongoing changes to the labor law, including amendment of the kafala (labor sponsorship laws), which affected the expatriate population, and the procedures for submitting complaints to authorities.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Mohammed). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In practice, there is some limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious exercise, but religious practices at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations (of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) were marked by improved sectarian relations and public calls for mutual tolerance. Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of their community on a religious basis with security operations and legal proceedings. In July, Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that security forces raided the largely Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one injury. In September and October, rights groups reported the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics arrested in 2017, sentencing them to between three to 10 years in prison. In February, rights groups reported the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat, who was convicted on charges including disrupting security and participating in demonstrations. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a member of the Council of Senior Scholars (CSS), delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” Government leaders, including the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League, continued to advocate for interreligious tolerance and dialogue and to denounce religious extremism. In September, following the UAE and Bahrain’s agreement to normalize ties with Israel, the government-appointed imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca said in a televised sermon that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors, and he urged listeners to avoid “passionate emotions.”

The Saudi-owned MBC television network aired a historical drama series during the prime Ramadan viewing season centered on a Jewish midwife living in an unnamed multireligious Persian Gulf community in the 1930s to 1950s. Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world. Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.

In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 34.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they are believed to constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, reportedly number several hundred, most of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering in total approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam. The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed) and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.” The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person CSS that reports to the King. By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna. The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.

The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the Grand Mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the King’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” It criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”

According to the Basic Law of Governance, “The Judiciary is an independent authority. The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia. The courts shall apply rules of the Islamic sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Quran and the Sunna.” In the absence of a common law system and comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation that a Muslim male would. In some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC. During the year, the commission had approximately 26 members from various parts of the country, including four Shia members.

Blasphemy against Islam is legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

In April, the Supreme Court instructed all courts to end flogging as a ta’zir (discretionary) criminal sentence and to replace it with prison sentences or fines. As a result of this decision, flogging may no longer be used against those convicted of blasphemy, public immodesty, sitting alone with a person of the opposite sex, and a range of other crimes. However, judicial officials noted that flogging still may be included in sentences for three hudood offenses (crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law): drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.

In April, a royal decree abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors. (The Juvenile Law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18, based on the Hijri calendar.) Minor offenders, however, who are convicted of qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudood offenses could still face the death penalty. The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.

The country is the location of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina. Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The King employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. Citing reasons of public safety and logistics, the government establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.

Sunni Muslim clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA. Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by the MOIA in advance.

Clerics traveling abroad to proselytize must be granted approval by the MOIA and operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of this regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the actual or apparent interference by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses entail one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The CPVPV’s powers have been significantly curbed in recent years and its activities are now limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; these actions are explicitly reserved to the purview of law enforcement officials. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.

A royal decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the Grand Mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

Social media users who post or share content considered to attack religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anticybercrime Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order, public morals, or religious values may also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000).

The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations. The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans a number of organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Shia activists said authorities committed a range of abuses against members of Shia communities. While NGOs and Shia activists stated that the prosecution of Shia was often based on religious affiliation, observers said that members of other religious groups faced arrest and trial for similar offenses.

In February, online activists reported that the Supreme Court upheld a death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat. The court convicted al-Khayat on charges including participating in demonstrations, disrupting security, and carrying weapons, according to the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).

On June 8, ESOHR reported that on January 24, 2019, the Public Prosecutor’s Office sought the hudood penalty for hirabah (unlawful warfare or insurgency) against Shia Jalal Hassan Labbad on a variety of charges, including participating in protests, some of which dated to when he was a minor. ESOHR also stated that authorities tortured Labbad during his imprisonment.

In July, SRW stated that security forces raided the predominately Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one individual being shot and injured.

As many as 53 individuals, most believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by ESOHR. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling. International human rights NGOs stated that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture” during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On October 29, ESOHR reported the SCC held a new hearing in the trial of eight Shia detainees, including five minors (Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed al Bati, Mohammed Hussein al Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Issam al-Faraj). Human Rights Watch reported that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for the eight men under hudood, which would leave them ineligible for pardons if sentenced to death. They faced charges that included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.” ESOHR reported that a total of 13 Shia youth who were arrested for crimes committed as minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher.

On August 26, the HRC said in a statement that the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered a review of the death sentences of al-Nimr, al-Zaher, and al-Marhoon as part of the implementation of a royal decree announced in April abolishing ta’zir death sentences for crimes committed as minors. The HRC stated that under the decree, the three will be resentenced based on the Juvenile Law, which provides for a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The Washington Post reported that authorities refused to return the bodies of at least 33 Shia Muslims executed in April 2019, ignoring repeated pleas from the families. ESOHR stated this refusal was “part of a cycle of persecution” against Shia and reported that from 2016 through the end of 2019, the bodies of at least 84 Shia men executed or killed in Saudi security raids were not returned for burial.

Shia inmates were in some cases held in separate wings of prisons and reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.

On August 25, ESOHR reported that the Public Prosecutor’s Office no longer sought the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests, but that the Public Prosecutor’s Office was still pursuing the death penalty for her codefendants, including her husband Moussa al-Hashim. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals.

On September 4, the Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, reported that in August, security forces arrested Quran reciter Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, an associate professor of sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. It added that authorities also arrested the former head of the Faculty of Sharia at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University, Dr. Saud al-Fanisan, in March. There was no further information on the charges; observers noted that persons of any religious affiliation who expressed views not supported by the government did so at personal risk, and when clerics were arrested, it was often for expressing views that are counter to government policy.

In February, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC in Riyadh upheld an eight-year prison sentence and travel ban against Murtaja Qureiris, a 20-year-old Shia whom authorities had arrested as a juvenile after he participated in protests when he was between the ages of 10 and 13. The SCC issued its verdict following a 2019 decision that had reversed the death sentence initially imposed on Qureiris. On May 11, seven UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hassan al-Habib and Murtaja Qureiris expressing concern at the use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and possible incriminating evidence.

The government continued to incarcerate individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, and engaging in “black magic” and sorcery.

Raif Badawi remained in prison based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols. On April 30, Badawi’s wife said authorities referred Badawi’s case to court after he staged a hunger strike to protest poor treatment and because he did not feel safe in prison after he was attacked by a fellow inmate. Badawi had originally been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but a court increased his sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes. The impact on Badawi’s case of the April Supreme Court directive ending flogging and replacing it with prison sentences or fines remained unclear at year’s end.

According to media reports, authorities arrested Ahmad al-Shammari and sentenced him to death for apostasy in 2017 after he posted videos to social media in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. He was believed to be incarcerated as of year’s end. It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

In September, local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery. A court in Jeddah sentenced an African businessman to six years in prison and deportation after serving his sentence on charges of fraud, impersonating a diplomat, and sorcery.

On March 21, Prisoners of Conscience reported the arrest of Islamic scholar Abdullah al-Saad after he posted a video online denouncing the government decision to suspend all prayers at mosques to limit the spread of COVID-19. Prisoners of Conscience reported in April that authorities released al-Saad 10 days after his arrest. On March 27, the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of four individuals for claiming the spread of novel coronavirus was a “punishment from God.” The Public Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement that it ordered the arrest of another three individuals who “exploited social media to interpret God’s will amid the coronavirus.”

On July 12, the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) issued a statement announcing the suspension of the children’s television show Green Wish after the host asked members of the audience to pin their wishes on a wishing tree and hope they would come true, which many viewers said was “a call for polytheism.” In the statement, the SBC affirmed the adherence of its programs to “tolerant” Islam.

On March 21, local media reported that Mecca police arrested a Saudi man and two female Yemeni residents in Jeddah for “mocking Islamic religious rituals” after the man appeared in a photo kneeling down before one of the women as a sign of worship in front of a mosque in Jeddah.

On April 30, local media reported that Riyadh police arrested a man for posting a Snapchat video “mocking prayers.”

During the year, the SCC held at least three hearings in the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by Human Rights Watch as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. Following a December 25 hearing, his son tweeted that the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed). According to Human Rights Watch, the charges against him also included criticism of several early Islamic figures, insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist.

The SCC, which specializes in terrorism and national security cases, continued trials of some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government continued to regard as a terrorist organization, a view also expressed by the CSS, which stated the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent the true values of Islam. The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. Most of the 37 charges against al-Odah concerned alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari government as well as his public support for imprisoned dissidents. Al-Odah’s son stated in a December press article that his father’s physical and mental condition had declined during three years of solitary confinement and that he had partially lost his sight and hearing due to medical negligence. Beginning in mid-May through mid-September, activists said authorities denied al-Odah access to family telephone calls.

Prisoners of Conscience stated a number of clerics were detained, charged, or sentenced for offenses related to their religious opinions, although the charges were not specified. In September, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics and religious leaders arrested in 2017 and charged for offenses related to free expression and their religious views, including Dr. Ibrahim al-Harthi, Abdullah al-Maliki, Khalid al-Ajeemi, Ahmed al-Suwayan, Dr. Yousef Ahmad al-Qasem, Sheikh Ghorom al-Bishi, Rabea Hafez, Fahad al-Sunaidi, and Dr. Ibrahim al-Faris. According to Prisoners of Conscience, the SCC sentenced them to between three and 10 years in prison.

On October 9, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced cleric Naif al-Sahafi to 10 years in prison. Authorities arrested al-Sahafi in a wide-ranging crackdown on Shia clerics in 2017.

On October 14, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC sentenced cleric Ali Badahdah, detained since 2017, to six years in prison. On October 15, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced Habib bin Mualla, in detention since 2017, to three-and-a-half years in prison. Mualla previously served as an advisor at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

On October 12, Prisoners of Conscience said authorities suspended clerics Khaled al-Mushaiqeh and Abdulrahman al-Aqel from preaching and giving religious lectures.

Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. Members of the expatriate Christian community said that congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities. Members of other minority faith communities similarly reported less interference in private religious gatherings than public ones.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance to Sunni imams on the substance of Friday sermons. It restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. According to local observers, Shia clerics did not receive guidance on their sermons from MOIA and did not submit them for preapproval. However, Shia clerics continued to exercise significant self-censorship in light of the government’s well-known views on the scope and substance of acceptable preaching.

Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship, although husseiniyas (prayer halls) were found in areas inhabited by Shia residents. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any reported violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as in urban areas. In 2018, the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. An MOIA mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) allowed mosque-goers to monitor sermons and rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

There were media reports that some Sunni clerics who received government stipends used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. On May 26, Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif al-Sheikh announced Sunni imams were required to select their sermons from among those published on the MOIA portal. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to express discriminatory or intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

According to a report in the newspaper al-Watan, the government fired 100 imams and preachers for failing to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as instructed by MOIA.

On February 27, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, authorities suspended the Umrah for pilgrims traveling from outside the country and did the same on March 4 for citizens and residents of the country. The MOIA announced that on March 17, it was suspending daily prayers and weekly Friday prayers at all mosques in the country, except for the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. The government also closed Shia husseiniyas, allowing them to reopen in late-July to be used for August Ashura commemorations. On March 20, the Grand Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques announced that it would stop worshippers from entering the two Holy Mosques. Prayers resumed at mosques outside Mecca on May 31 and resumed in Mecca on June 21.

On June 22, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that the 2020 Hajj would be limited to approximately 1,000 pilgrims, all living in-country, approximately 700 of whom would be noncitizens representing 160 nationalities. On September 23, the government announced that it would start allowing pilgrims to perform Umrah in gradual stages beginning on October 1. On October 18, the government allowed citizens and noncitizen residents to pray in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

The government continued to mandate that imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina be “moderate” and “tolerant,” among other requirements, including holding a degree from a Saudi sharia college.

Authorities continued to permit public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the country’s largest Shia population, a practice begun in 2016. According to community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities; such events were also scaled down during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They stated that the Shia Ashura commemoration was marked by improved sectarian relations and publicity for mutual tolerance. In one instance, a photograph of a Sunni police officer aiding an elderly Shia follower was shared across social media platforms, drawing praise for the message of tolerance it depicted. In Qatif, authorities eased restrictions imposed after civil unrest in 2011-2012 and took steps to encourage development and tourism to improve conditions for the town’s predominantly Shia residents.

On October 6, according to SRW, authorities arrested two orators, Muhammad Bou Jabara and Ali Khulayya, for their participation in Arbaeen ceremonies (the Shia mourning observance occurring 40 days after the Day of Ashura).

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times, per Sunni practice) or in some instances not to close at all. Residents in Sunni and Shia communities noted that although businesses historically were required to close after the call to prayer, there appeared to be a gradual but growing tendency for businesses to remain open during prayer times.

According to the NGO SRW, on April 17, authorities bulldozed Shia graves in Awamiya, Qatif, damaging historical structures and monuments. SRW also reported that on May 14, military forces raided the neighborhood of Umm al-Jazm in Qatif, to prevent use of the Shia variant of the call to prayer. According to SRW, raids by government forces occurred in Shia-dominant neighborhoods in October, July, February, and January.

The al-Awamiyah mosque of former Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was demolished by authorities in December.

While authorities indicated that they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and community members said the mainly foreign-resident Ahmadi Muslims hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

In January, Muslim World League (MWL) secretary-general Mohammed al-Issa announced that Saudi Arabia will stop funding mosques in foreign countries. According to the Swiss newspaper Le Matin Dimanche, the country planned to establish local administrative councils for each of these mosques in cooperation with the local authorities, in order to transfer these mosques to “secure hands.”

Observers stated that judges sometimes discounted the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam and favored the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under their interpretation of sharia and the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases, such as financial disputes or criminal charges.

The government continued to enforce Islamic norms, such as prohibiting eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. On October 13, local media reported that the CPVPV in Khobar Governorate intensified its field presence with foot and vehicle patrols in markets, malls, and streets to implement the programs and events of the “Prayer is Light” campaign, which aimed to highlight the importance of prayer. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasigovernmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There were, however, public non-Islamic cemeteries in Jeddah and Riyadh that, according to officials, were used in cases where repatriation was not possible, such as when there were no claimants for a body, the family did not accept the body, or the deceased received the death penalty. There also was a private, non-Islamic cemetery in Dhahran only available to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. According to a February report by the Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), Saudi curricula for the years 2016-2019 taught students that non-Muslims – including Christians and Jews – were infidels and described them as enemies of Islam. Christians were referred to derogatorily as “polytheists.” In addition, textbooks also taught students to consider Jews “monkeys” and “assassins” and “eternally treacherous, murdering prophets, committing irreparable evil, and determined to harm Muslim holy places.” In a separate study published in December on a review of textbooks used in the 2020-2021 school year, IMPACT-se found a notable reduction in anti-Semitic content. In a statement about the report, the NGO said, “While the latest…report did not find that new tolerant material had been injected into the curriculum, it did find that a substantial amount of offensive material had been removed.” IMPACT-se’s CEO said, “The Saudi authorities have begun a process of rooting out anti-Jewish hate.”

On February 19, Minister of Education Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sheikh dismissed Dr. Jamil bin Abdulmohsin al-Khalaf, dean of the Sharia Faculty at Imam Mohammed Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, after he reportedly invited “people with deviant ideology” to a faculty event. In a statement, the university said the decision was intended to “purify” its campus of intellectual impurities that could harm national security or contradict moderate Islam.

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import Bibles for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.

Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring “objectionable” content, such as views of religion it considered extremist or misinformed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for “religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users under the cybercrimes law. The government also shut down websites it regarded as being used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In 2017, authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain applications, including FaceTime and Facebook Messenger. However, some users continued to report that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype remained blocked.

Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion when seeking government employment. Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population. They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including in the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education. According to HRW, the government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. Although Shura Council members’ religious affiliations are not publicly announced, there were an estimated seven or eight Shia on the 150-member council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis reside, had large proportions of Shia Saudis as members to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa.

Shia stated the government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious training centers for employment credit and that the government did not apply the same standards to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions applying for government positions and religious jobs.

According to human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals were Sunni, although some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, with the remaining 30 percent located in private residences or built and endowed by private persons. The construction of any new mosque required permission from the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits. The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerics.

The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to officially endorse these mosques, according to some NGOs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Two Shia mosques in Dammam licensed by the government served approximately 750,000 worshippers. There were no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers, such as Jeddah and Riyadh. Shia in those areas had to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship.

Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Media and other sources additionally reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in Qatif and al-Ahsa. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

On April 16, Minister of Islamic Affairs al-Sheikh said the MOIA would refer to the Public Prosecutor’s Office a number of women preachers who delivered religious sermons and lectures without prior permits from the MOIA, which constituted a violation of the law.

The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations, such as “Christian.”

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices to which one should report violations of this policy.

Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform Islamic religious observances such as prayers.

The government did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain in-person contact with clergy not resident in the country, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries.

On January 23, MWL secretary general al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim leaders to visit the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The visit was part of a joint enterprise between the MWL and the American Jewish Committee. In a June 9 online ceremony, the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the American Sephardi Federation presented al-Issa with their inaugural Combat Anti-Semitism Award. On February 20, King Salman received a delegation from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue that included Israeli Rabbi David Rosen, who became the first Israeli rabbi to meet with a Saudi king in recent history.

In February, a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited the country and met with senior government officials and MWL secretary-general al-Issa to discuss countering violent extremism in the Middle East. This was believed to be the first official visit to the kingdom by an American Jewish organization since 1993, when the American Jewish Congress sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to endorse the Oslo agreements.

On June 14, MWL Secretary-General al-Issa said that Jews and Muslims working together could defeat “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or any other form of prejudice.” In a speech delivered at the American Jewish Committee Virtual Global Forum 2020 and posted to YouTube, he said the MWL was proud to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Jewish brothers and sisters to build understanding, respect, love, and interreligious harmony.”

In August 22 remarks to an online media forum, al-Issa stressed the need for promoting coexistence among different faiths and cultures, and he called for confronting perpetrators of the ideology of hatred and racism to achieve lasting global peace.

On September 4, shortly after the UAE and Bahrain agreed to normalize ties with Israel, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Abdulrahman al-Sudais, said in a televised sermon that Muslims should avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” toward Jews, and he emphasized that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors and the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well.”

On October 13, the country hosted a virtual global interfaith forum as part of its presidency of the Group of 20, with participation from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, and Christian leaders, among other religious representatives. The online forum was accessible to Saudis and international participants.

Instances of anti-Semitic statements by public officials continued. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February, cleric and former director of the CPVPV in Mecca Ahmed al-Ghamdi said during a media interview that secularism was not tantamount to atheism and that it did not force people to renounce their religion or deny them the right to religious exercise.

In April and May, during the prime viewing month of Ramadan, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based MBC network aired Umm Haroun, a historical drama series centered on the life of a Jewish midwife in an unnamed, multireligious Persian Gulf community. The New York Times stated, “Fans laud the program, set in the 1940s and 1950s, for highlighting an often-overlooked aspect of the region’s past – Jewish communities in the Persian Gulf – while providing a much-needed example of coexistence among different faiths.” Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world.

Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. She called for embracing change, religious enlightenment, and the application of reason in religious interpretation to bring the younger generation closer to Islam.

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, but self-censorship was common, given the risk of official reprisals. While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, self-censorship on social media remained prevalent when discussing topics such as religion or the royal family. Online discussions included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms like “rejectionists” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were common in public discourse. In September, cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini referred to Shia as “rejectionists” in a tweet under the hashtag “rejectionists’ creed.”

Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy and consulate officials engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance issues. The Ambassador and embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, the National Society for Human Rights, members of the Shura Council, the National Committee for Interreligious and Multicultural Dialogue, the MFA, the MOIA, the MWL, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior U.S. officials pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.

Senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and restrictions of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices. Embassy representatives also met with non-Islamic religious leaders to discuss their ability to gather and practice their faith.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to inquire about the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns with members of religious minority communities, including Shia and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents. Embassy officials attended or sought access to a number of trials related to religious freedom. The embassy and Department of State officials also engaged Saudi officials regarding these detainees.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The constitution states that Islam is the country’s official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The law prohibits blasphemy and proselytizing by non-Muslims. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions. According to media reports in January, Dubai courts fined three Sri Lankan men 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) each and ordered them deported for insulting Islam in social media posts. In September, the Dubai Public Prosecution filed blasphemy charges against an Arab man after an altercation with police in which he reportedly insulted Islam. In January, local media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Jordanian man in absentia to three months in prison, fined him 500,000 dirhams ($136,000), and ordered him deported after the courts determined that he insulted Islam in WhatsApp messages. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques with the stated purpose of limited the spread of what the authorities characterize as extremist ideology. Some Shia imams chose to follow Awqaf-approved guidance, while the Dubai-based Jaafari Affairs Council, charged with management of Shia affairs, issued additional instructions to Shia mosques. Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families. The Abu Dhabi Emirate implemented a three-tier authorization system for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship by issuing licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations. Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders, and formally recommend to the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. A new Abu Dhabi guideline requiring religious leaders to work in the ministry full-time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa posed a challenge for the numerous religious leaders who serve their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who do not have a theology degree, and led to the denial of permits to leaders of some groups. Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths otherwise reported they could worship in private without government interference but faced some restrictions on practicing their religion in public. Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered religiously extremist. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting religious extremism. Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited certain charitable activities. In April, Dubai’s government granted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) a land concession at the Expo 2020 site, which Dubai will hand over after the event’s conclusion in 2022. COVID-19 related restrictions disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures. A phased reopening of all houses of worship began with mosques.

The press reported that a man identified as a citizen of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country tried to burn his grandmother alive because he believed she was using black magic to turn him into a woman. A court sentenced him to three years in prison and ordered him to pay 50,000 dirhams ($13,600) to the victim. In April, the press reported an Indian manager at an Abu Dhabi firm posted graphic anti-Islamic images on Facebook showing how the “jihadi” coronavirus could cause exponentially more deaths than explosives. His employer told the press that he would investigate the incident. An employer fired an Indian worker in Dubai and referred the case to police after the individual ridiculed Muslim worshippers in a Facebook posting about COVID-19. The press reported that three other Indians, in separate incidents, had been disciplined by their employers in Dubai and Sharjah for social media posts deemed offensive to Islam. In one case, the employer referred the matter to police. According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with the houses of worship officially recognized by the Abu Dhabi government in 2019, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged. Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however. In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported on difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations. On September 17, Dubai’s first kosher restaurant opened in the Burj Khalifa, a local landmark and the world’s tallest building, and the country’s first Jewish wedding was held in Dubai on December 1.

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, visiting U.S. government officials, and embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the DCD, and the Department of Culture and Tourism during the year. In meetings with government authorities, U.S. officials discussed issues related to the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In addition to discussing the implementation of licensing procedures, regulatory practices, and interfaith education and training, officers discussed international, bilateral, and governmental efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance as well as host government initiatives to promote what it believed were moderate interpretations of Islam. Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship. Remarks by both U.S. and local officials throughout the year praised efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Approximately 11 percent are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports. The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.

Of the estimated 89 percent of noncitizen residents, the majority comes from South and Southeast Asia. Although no official statistics are available on the percentage of the noncitizen population who are Muslim or the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population is Shia.

Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census, the most recent, found 76 percent of the population to be Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other noncitizen religious groups comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists, and also including Parsis, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews. Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, 2 percent Buddhist, with the remainder belonging to other faith traditions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.” The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The constitution states that the country is an independent, sovereign, and federal state comprised of seven emirates.

The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years and deportation for noncitizens.

The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; but the penal code’s blasphemy provisions punish behavior viewed as contemptuous of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad or offensive to Islamic teachings.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims. The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, insulting any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred. Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams ($545,000) and imprisonment that generally ranges from five to 10 years or more.

The law prohibits blasphemy, defined as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship. Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) to two million dirhams ($545,000); noncitizens may be deported. The law prohibits any form of expression, including through broadcasting, printed media, or the internet, that the government determines is contradictory to Islam as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive toward religions.

Federal law does not require religious organizations to register or obtain a license to practice, although the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions, such as opening a bank account or renting space. Each emirate oversees registration and licensing of non-Muslim religious organizations and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance; these procedures are not published by the emirate governments. The federal government has also granted some religious organizations land in free-trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license that allows them some operational functions. In Dubai, religious organizations are required to obtain a license from the Community Development Authority (CDA). The governments of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai also require religious communities to obtain permits for certain activities, including holding public events and worshipping in temporarily rented spaces, such as hotels.

The federal law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan. Violations of the law are punishable by one month’s imprisonment or a fine not exceeding 2,000 dirhams ($540). The law prohibits Muslims from drinking alcohol or knowingly eating pork throughout the year. The government announced a series of legal reforms in November decriminalizing the consumption of alcohol but had not published the text of the reforms by year’s end. Despite legal prohibitions on eating during daylight hours during Ramadan, most local authorities across the country grant exemptions allowing non-Muslims to eat during the day in malls, hotels, and some stand-alone restaurants.

The federal law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.

Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools. The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools. In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes. All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include teaching on Islam. The government permits Christian-affiliated schools to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student; for example, Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.

Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defaming any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure. All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government. Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education, and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry. Administrative oversight of the schools is a responsibility of each emirate’s government.

Land ownership by noncitizens is restricted to designated freehold areas. Outside of special economic zones and designated freehold areas, the law restricts majority company ownership to citizens except in certain exempted sectors. This restriction is an impediment to most minority religious communities, which consist of noncitizens, that wish to purchase property to build houses of worship.

The law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious, and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion through any form of expression. It also criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audio/visual or print media or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred. Violations of the law carry penalties of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to one million dirhams ($272,000).

According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case. Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage and divorce, and inheritance for both Muslims and non-Muslims; however, in the case of noncitizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply, rather than sharia. Sharia also applies in some criminal matters. Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters. Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system. When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties. In these cases, judges generally impose civil penalties. Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties.

In November, the country’s President announced decrees amending the federal laws on personal status, civil transactions, the penal code, and criminal procedures. Amendments to the penal code and criminal procedure law repealed “the article giving [a] reduced (lenient) sentence in what are called honor crimes.” “Honor” killings will henceforth be treated as normal murder cases. In other amendments, noncitizens may choose not to apply sharia in cases involving divorce and inheritance, and other acts “that do not harm others,” leaving to prosecutors and judges to define those specific acts.

The Fatwa Council, headed by the president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, is tasked with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research, in coordination with the Awqaf.

Under the law, citizen and noncitizen Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish). Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men. Marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are not recognized under the law; non-Muslim men and Muslim women who marry are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds of engaging in extramarital sex, which carries a minimum sentence of one year in prison; any extramarital sex between persons of any religion is subject to the same penalties.

Strict interpretation of sharia – which often favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases, and courts have applied the “the best interests of the child” standard since 2010. According to sharia, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach 13 years of age and sons 11 years of age. Women may file for continued custody until a daughter marries or a son finishes his education. The father, deemed the guardian, provides for the child financially, while the mother, the custodian, provides day-to-day care of the child.

The country’s citizenship law does not include religion as a prerequisite for naturalization. Non-Muslim wives of citizens are eligible for naturalization after seven years of marriage, if the couple has a child, or 10 years of marriage if the couple has no children. There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim. Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will. In the event of a divorce between a Muslim father and non-Muslim mother, sharia usually applies.

Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department permits Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for Christians and agnostics if the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate. The government permits church officials to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the couple must also obtain the marriage certificate from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department. In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development as officially recognized to perform these acts.

Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live. In November, the government announced changes to the personal status laws allowing the general terms of a will to be dealt with according to the law of the country specified in the will or, in cases where a country is not specified in the will, the law of the deceased person’s country of nationality. This is not applicable to property purchased in the UAE, however, which remains subject to UAE law. The government had not published the text of these reforms by year’s end. Non-Muslims are able to register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system as a way to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights. In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry, which may cover assets held in the UAE as well as abroad. The DIFC Wills Service Center allows non-Muslim business owners and shareholders to designate an heir. Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia. There are courts for personal status and for inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.

The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam. These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals. Punishment may include imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) to one million dirhams ($272,000). Electronic violations of the law are subject to a maximum fine of four million dirhams ($1.09 million). The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.

Under the law, local authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, determining the timing of the second call to prayer, organizing religious lectures, and preparing sermons. The law also defines acts prohibited in mosques, prayer spaces, and Eid Musallas (open prayer spaces outside of mosques or prayer halls smaller than mosques) without a license, such as giving lectures or sermons, holding Quran memorization circles, fundraising, and distributing written and visual material. The law further stipulates citizen applicants must be given first consideration for vacant positions at mosques. The law prohibits those working in mosques from belonging to any illegal group or from participating in any political or organizational activities.

The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities. Violations of the law are subject to a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600). Under the cybercrimes law, the use of any information technology to promote the collection of any type of donation without a license is subject to a fine between 200,000 dirhams ($54,500) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

Individuals who donate to unregistered charities and fundraising groups may be punished with a three-year prison term or a fine between 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

In Abu Dhabi, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments is entrusted with overseeing Muslim religious affairs across mosques, sermons, imam tutelage, and publications. Non-Muslim religious affairs fall under the mandate of the DCD, which regulates, licenses, and oversees non-Islamic houses of worship, religious leaders, religious events organized outside houses of worship, and fundraising activities across the emirate.

The Dubai CDA is the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups. The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events and monitors fundraising activities. The law states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval. Fines for noncompliance range from 500 dirhams ($140) to 100,000 dirhams ($27,200).

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

According to media reports in January, Dubai courts fined three Sri Lankan men 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) each and ordered their deportation for insulting Islam in social media posts. In September, Dubai Public Prosecution filed blasphemy charges against an Arab man after an altercation with police in which he reportedly insulted Islam. In January, local media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Jordanian man in absentia to three months in prison, fined him 500,000 dirhams ($136,000), and ordered him deported for insulting Islam in WhatsApp messages.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery. Customs authorities in Dubai and the northern emirates reported seizing shipments containing materials they said were intended for use in magic and sorcery. According to media reports, in late 2019, Abu Dhabi police arrested a European national for charges of witchcraft and fraud; the subsequent status of his case remained unknown. In February, local press reported Dubai Customs prevented 22 attempts in 2019 to smuggle material local authorities believed were related to witchcraft and sorcery.

Following a 2018 court ruling upholding his earlier conviction, the government continued to imprison Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017. Although specifics of the charges against Mansoor remained unknown, authorities stated that, among other violations of the law, Mansoor promoted “a sectarian- and hate-filled agenda.”

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, designated by the government as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. Since 2011, the government also has restricted the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.

Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services. In Abu Dhabi, some Christian clergy again raised concerns about lack of worship space for incarcerated Christians. They said that when they were granted prison access, they were permitted to take Bibles to the prisoners.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain websites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites. The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including ones with information on Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity. Following the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel, the government unblocked some websites containing information on Judaism.

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint Sunni imams, except in Dubai, based on their gender, educational background, and knowledge of Islam along with security checks. According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, with the exception of those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.” It continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website. Leading up to Ramadan, the Awqaf launched training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.

In January, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi announced on Instagram that well-known preacher and television personality Waseem Youssef was no longer an imam and preacher at the mosque. Although the reason for Youssef’s removal was not provided, according to the press it was tied to lawsuits that Youssef pursued against 19 individuals for “defamation” on social media, following his comments questioning the validity of one of the canonical sources of the hadith. The lawsuits culminated in the court finding four defendants guilty of defaming Youssef while dismissing the remaining cases.

Following these civil trials, in February, private citizens filed a civil law suit against Youssef in the Abu Dhabi criminal court, charging him under the cybercrime law with promoting ideas and programs that spread hatred and racism and harm national unity and social peace. Youssef maintained his innocence. In March, the court decreed in March that the case was outside its jurisdiction and referred it to federal prosecutors for further review. The government took no action in this regard.

The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf script for Friday sermons closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons. Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to use Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons. Friday sermons were translated into English and Urdu on the Awqaf’s website and mobile application.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques. All of the imams in Dubai’s more than 2,000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens. Qualification requirements were more stringent for expatriate imams than for local imams and starting salaries much lower.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, managed Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams. The council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.

The government did not appoint imams for Shia mosques. Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques. The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in Arabic, English, and Urdu. Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues. Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa. Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the telephones at the fatwa hotline.

The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private but not in public. There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates, where the majority of the country’s Shia population resides.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths said registration and licensing procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates. The federal government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases. The governments of individual emirates continued to require religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces such as hotels or convention centers.

The Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) implemented a new three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship. Under the system, the DCD issues licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations. Licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. The establishment of this system followed a 2019 DCD decision to grant licenses, and thereby formal legal status, to 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and the emirate’s first traditional Hindu temple. These changes did not apply to religious groups in the other emirates.

In August, Dubai’s Jewish community publicly announced that it was negotiating with the Dubai government for an official license.

The new Abu Dhabi guideline instituted in late 2019 and early 2020 requiring religious leaders to work in the ministry full time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa posed a challenge for religious leaders who serve their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who do not have a theology degree. Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders, and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. Some religious community members expressed concern that the new system discriminated against smaller and less-recognized denominations.

Since the September 2019 licensing of 18 houses of worship by the DCD, community sources reported that unregistered religious organizations faced challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances. The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes as long as this activity did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion. COVID-19 related restrictions, however, disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in early March, the government instituted a nationwide mandatory suspension of group prayers at all mosques, churches, and temples, followed by the ordered closure of all houses of worship in the UAE. From July through September, the Abu Dhabi and Dubai governments began the phased reopening of houses of worship, beginning with mosques and then non-Islamic houses of worship. Houses of worship located in labor camps and industrial zones, which included more than half of all churches located in Abu Dhabi and Al-Ain, were the last to receive permission to open.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

In Dubai, there were continued reports of delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds. The CDA oversees civil institutions, nonprofits, and non-Muslim faith communities in the emirate. There were continued reports of restrictions as well as confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies for obtaining licenses and event permits, which were not published by the CDA. There were also reports of last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

In May, the CDA ordered St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai to cease online live-streamed masses until it obtained a permit, following the government-ordered closure of religious facilities across the UAE due to the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Mary’s subsequently obtained a permit, and the CDA allowed live-streamed masses to resume. COVID-19 restrictions continue to restrict the activities of some churches in Dubai, including the Catholic and Anglican communities. While these churches were allowed to reopen at the same time as other religious facilities, local regulations prohibited practices such as receiving communion due to concerns these practices would contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Despite the closure of houses of worship as a result of COVID-19, the Abu Dhabi government encouraged non-Islamic houses of worship to live-stream services for major holidays, such as Easter.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications. School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation. Applicants were required to list a religious affiliation, creating potential legal issues for atheists and agnostics. According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they generally could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings or in private facilities or homes. While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions. In February, worshippers attended a prayer ceremony marking the start of the construction of Abu Dhabi’s Hindu temple.

News reports during the year quoted religious leaders, including from the Catholic, Anglican, and Hindu communities, expressing appreciation for government support for their communities and the relative freedom in which their communities could worship. Following a meeting in Abu Dhabi between UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and members of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushotta Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Hindu community, the BAPS said the meeting “spoke volumes” about the UAE leadership’s “vision and commitment for a more inclusive, more peaceful, and harmonious future.”

The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries. Cremation facilities and associated cemeteries were available for the large Hindu community. Non-Muslim groups said the capacity of crematoriums and cemeteries was sufficient to meet demand. The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits. The government allowed individuals from all religious groups except Islam to use the crematoriums.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection. The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community safety reminders.

The government did not always enforce the prohibition against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them, such as books. In addition, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft. Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, animal bones, knives, and containers of blood.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials, such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad. The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to texts it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting a religion other than Islam. The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation. The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam. The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

Except in the judiciary and military, religious minorities (including Shia Muslims) did not serve in senior federal positions.

In October, the Federal Supreme Court upheld a sentence of 100 lashes in an adultery case involving an unmarried Muslim man and woman who confessed to having illicit sex in one of the northern emirates. The court stated, “Article 1 of the Penal Code under the provisions of Islamic Sharia law stipulates giving 100 lashes and expatriation or distancing for a period of one year to an unmarried person.” Although the pair challenged the ruling, both the court of appeal and the Federal Supreme Court based in Abu Dhabi upheld the flogging sentence.

In October, the press reported that the government was considering a proposal to provide additional housing grants and loans to men who take second and third wives.

In November, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a letter to the Emir of Sharjah reporting that the Sharjah International Book Fair, held November 4-14, included displays of anti-Semitic books, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other titles. The Wiesenthal Center sent similar letters to the country’s UNESCO representative and to the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested a list of the anti-Semitic titles and vowed to work with the book fair authorities and other relevant ministries to address and prevent the presence of such books in the future.

Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious issues.

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis. Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space. Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different groups shared worship space, sometimes in private homes. In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic. Some smaller congregations met in private locations or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land. Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who generally made up the entire membership of minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship. For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. The country’s Christian churches were all built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations. Ajman and Umm Al Quwain remained the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations gathered in other spaces, such as hotels. In April, Dubai’s government granted the Church of Jesus Christ a land concession at the Expo 2020 site, which Dubai will hand over after the event’s conclusion in 2022 for construction of the Church’s first temple in the Middle East region.

There are two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple in Dubai. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed allocated land in Al-Wathba, Abu Dhabi, for the construction of a privately funded Hindu temple, scheduled to be completed by 2022. There are no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

There are no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays in private Dubai villas and hotels. Construction in Abu Dhabi of the first official synagogue in the country is scheduled to begin in 2021 as part of the larger government-funded Abrahamic Family House – a project slated to bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths. In October, international press reported members of Dubai’s Jewish community built a sukkah (a small shelter used during celebration of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival) outside a hotel at Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper. In December, Dubai’s Jewish community held several public Hanukkah celebrations, which included one congregation lighting a large Menorah in front of the Burj Khalifa.

Construction of a new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi remained stalled at 50 percent completion due financial issues; the projected completion date was not clear at year’s end.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some unlicensed noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization. Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

In January and February, the government hosted members of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, a nine-member multifaith committee that included representatives from the UAE, Egypt, Italy, the United States, Bulgaria, and Spain and was tasked with implementing the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together a declaration of reconciliation, cooperation, tolerance, and fraternity among believers and nonbelievers that was announced during the Pope’s 2019 visit to Abu Dhabi. During the meetings, the participants discussed their commitment to the goal of fostering coexistence, peace, and social fraternity.

In February, the government hosted the Voices of Human Fraternity Forum, which brought together 150 students, youth leaders, advocates, and educational representatives from around the world to promote the values reflected in the Document on Human Fraternity.

Following the announcement of normalization of relations with Israel, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism sent a letter to all hotels advising them to add kosher menus to their food services. The letter said that kitchens must be prepared for the requirements of Jewish dietary laws and that there would be ongoing kashrut supervision, similar to that of hotels in Israel. According to the letter, “All hotel establishments are advised to include kosher food options on room service menus and at all food and beverage outlets in their establishments.”

During a joint World Muslim Communities Council and Supreme Council of Imams and Islamic Affairs virtual seminar in August, entitled “The Role of Imams in Reinforcing Community Peace,” the chairman of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, Dr. Mohammed al Kaabi, said, “The right path to confronting extremism is to develop moderate religious awareness and support influential religious leaders.”

In September, the Minister of Culture and Youth said the government wanted to send “a message of hope to the community in Mosul, which has always been an incubator for religious and intellectual discourse.”

In November, the Education Affairs Office of the Crown Prince in Abu Dhabi announced that at least 1,500 teachers would receive moral education training to instill tolerance, community spirit, and compassion in students.

Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions. For example, the government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities. Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their place of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.

Prominent government figures routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays and promoted messages of tolerance through various print and media platforms. In September, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan extended New Year’s greetings to the country’s Jewish community on social media on Rosh Hashanah. In October, he visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, where he stated that the visit to the memorial “underscored the importance of human values such as coexistence, tolerance and accepting the other…as well as respect for all creeds and faiths.”

In November, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi opened a multifaith prayer room for use by hospital visitors.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January, local press reported that a man identified as a GCC national tried to burn his grandmother alive because he believed she was using black magic to turn him into a woman. The grandmother suffered second and third-degree burns over 25 percent of her body. The Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance sentenced the man to five years in prison and ordered him to pay 50,000 dirhams ($13,600) to the victim. The man challenged the ruling in the appellate court, which reduced the prison sentence to three years but maintained the compensation amount. The defendant then appealed to Abu Dhabi’s Court of Cassation, the emirate’s highest court, where the prosecution argued that the appeal be rejected and that the court order the defendant to pay the court costs. At year’s end, the status of the appeal remained unknown.

In April, the press reported an Indian manager at an Abu Dhabi firm posted graphic anti-Islamic images on Facebook showing how “jihadi” coronavirus could cause exponentially more deaths than explosives. His employer told the press it would investigate the incident. Later that month, an employer fired an Indian worker in Dubai and referred the case to police after the individual ridiculed Muslim worshippers in a Facebook posting about COVID-19. In May, the press reported that three other Indians, in separate incidents, had been disciplined by their employers in Dubai and Sharjah for social media posts deemed offensive to Islam. In one case, the employer referred the matter to police.

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam. Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively. By contrast, observers reported conversion from Islam was highly discouraged through strong cultural and social pressure, particularly from family members. In October, Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 2,570 Dubai residents converted to Islam in the first three quarters of 2020.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls, hotels, and major shopping centers. The news media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas festivities and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.

Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores, although bookstores generally did not carry the core religious works of other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.

Radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.

In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations.

According to press reports, Dubai’s first kosher restaurant, Kaf, opened in the Burj Khalifa, a local landmark and the world’s tallest building, on September 17. On September 18, the Dubai newspaper Khaleej Times published a Rosh Hashanah supplement. On December 1, Dubai hosted the country’s first Jewish wedding.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, visiting U.S. government officials, and embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Abu Dhabi’s DCD and the Department of Culture and Tourism during the year. U.S. representatives discussed efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance; licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious groups; and government initiatives to promote moderate interpretations of Islam. Embassy representatives also engaged with government entities on the importance of prohibiting anti-Semitic materials from government-sponsored book fairs.

The U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom spoke with the chairman of the UAE Fatwa Council and president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, on the subject of furthering religious freedom, protecting religious minorities, and the role of scholars in promoting peace. He also spoke with the head of the Fatwa Council about organizing joint events under the New Alliance of Virtue, an initiative launched by the government in 2019 aimed at fostering religious freedom, cooperation, and tolerance.

The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Dr. Ali al-Nuaimi of the government-affiliated Hedayah, a center focusing on countering violent extremism, to discuss combatting anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Embassy and consulate general officers regularly met with representatives of minority religious groups to learn more about issues affecting their communities as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship. As part of its Ramadan outreach activities, in May the embassy hosted a virtual iftar for the healthcare workers of Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. Remarks by U.S. and local officials throughout the year praised mutual efforts to understand different religions and cultures.

Yemen

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. The conflict that began in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end. The secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) remained in control of Aden, the temporary capital, until December 30, when the cabinet of a unity government, formed under the 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, returned to the city. The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory and had limited ability to address abuses of religious liberty. The government publicly condemned religious persecution by the Houthi movement. Sources pointed to the support of Shia-majority Iran for the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and the support of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia for the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year.

At year’s end, the Houthis continued to control approximately one-third of Yemeni territory and nearly 80 percent of the population. In areas they controlled, the Houthis followed a strict religious regimen and continued to discriminate against individuals who did follow those practices, particularly religious minorities. According to the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media, military actions by Houthis continued to damage places of worship and religious institutions, and to inflict casualties at religious gatherings. In January, media reported that Houthi militants launched a missile attack on a mosque at a government military installation in Ma’rib Governorate, killing at least 116 soldiers during prayers. The UN Panel of Experts reported a second Houthi attack in August on a mosque at a government security compound in Ma’rib killed seven. A Houthi-controlled court held hearings early in the year on the appeal of Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i sentenced to death by the Houthi-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in 2018 on charges of apostasy and spying for Israel. In March, Mahdi al-Mashaat, President of the Houthi Supreme Political Council (SPC) in Sana’a, ordered the release of all detained Baha’is and pardoned Haydara. In July, Haydara and five other detained Baha’is – part of a group of 24 Baha’is charged with apostasy and espionage in 2018 – were released and exiled. According to the Sana’a-based human rights organization Mwatana, the Specialized Criminal Court continued proceedings against the six exiled Baha’is, ordering them to return to Sana’a to face trial, and the court continued to hold hearings against the other 19 Baha’is charged in 2018. Mwatana reported more than 70 instances of abuse against the Baha’i community since 2015, such as arbitrary detentions of dozens of Baha’is for practicing cultural activities, and deportation and enforced disappearances of others. A local human rights organization reported that since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, the Houthis damaged or destroyed 49 mosques in Hudaydah alone and transformed more than 100 mosques throughout the country into military barracks and sniper positions. In January, Minister of Endowments Ahmed al-Attiyah stated that the Houthis had targeted 76 mosques in areas under their control. According to the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, the Houthis continued to use anti-Semitic rhetoric – including multiple speeches made by Houthi supreme leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi – that incited violence against Jews. The Group of Experts reported Jews faced Houthi-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement and constant threats to their lives and security. According to the United Nations, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active in Hadramawt, Shabwah, Ma’rib, Bayda’, and Abyan Governorates. According to media, gunmen killed Khalid al-Hameidi, a university professor known as a secular thinker and critic of religious extremism, in the city of Dhale on December 5. Local officials said they believed the gunmen were members of AQAP or of an ISIS affiliate.

Jewish community members said their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. No rabbis remained in the country, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with family members. Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the country’s small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.

The Department of State suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in 2015, and the embassy has operated since then as the Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU), based in Saudi Arabia. In March, the U.S. Ambassador expressed his concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Hamed bin Haydara, a Baha’i Faith leader imprisoned since 2013. The Ambassador emphasized that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear. In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 29.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), associating their beliefs with either the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or Zaydi Islam, a distinct form of Shia Islam. There are also significant numbers of Sunni followers of the Maliki and Hanbali schools, and significant numbers of Ismaili and Twelver followers of Shia Islam. While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 65 percent of the population is Sunni and 35 percent Zaydi. Baha’is, Jews, Hindus, and Christians, many of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents, comprise less than 1 percent of the population. Christian groups include Roman Catholics and Anglicans. According to the UN Group of Experts, many Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian economic migrants transit the country on their way to find work in Saudi Arabia, making the total number of Christians subject to fluctuation.

There is no firm estimate of the number of persons of Indian origin or of those who practice Hinduism, Sikhism, or the Dawoodi Bohra variant of Ismaili Shia Islam residing in the country. The preconflict Hindu population was 150,000 (2010 estimate), concentrated in Aden, Mukalla, Shihr, Lahaj, Mokha, and Hudayah. According to one source, the current number of Indian nationals is fewer than 3,000. Many members of the Indian-origin community have resided in the country for generations and hold Yemeni nationality.

The Jewish community is an indigenous non-Muslim minority religious group. Reports estimate approximately 20 to 40 Jews remain, concentrated in Sana’a and Raydah, in Amran Governorate north of Sana’a.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system.

Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system. The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases. Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.

The constitution states the President must be Muslim who “practices his Islamic duties”; however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.” The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.

The criminal code states that “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense. The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities to repent; upon repentance, they are spared the death penalty.

Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate. Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism). By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.

The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims. The law prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for public “ridicule” of any religion and prescribes up to five years’ imprisonment if the ridiculed religion is Islam.

There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.

By law, the government must authorize construction of any new buildings. The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.

Public schools must provide instruction in Islam, but not in other religions. The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization. The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education. Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum, but the government is unable to enforce it in Houthi-controlled areas, where instructional materials indicate schools are teaching Zaydi principles only.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Media reports noted Shia-majority Iran supported the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supported the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and they said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. Many sources, including international media and foundations, continued to describe the conflict as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

In July, the government and STC reached a new agreement to accelerate implementation of the November 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, which called for a ceasefire, military withdrawal, and power-sharing. In December, the parties reached agreement on the formation of a new unity government, and the cabinet returned to Aden on December 30. The government did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country throughout the year, which limited its ability to address abuses of religious liberty by nonstate actors in areas not under its control.

The September 2019 UN Group of Experts report Situation of human rights in Yemen including violations and abuses since September 2014, covering the 2014-2019 period, reported that military actions by all parties during the conflict had inflicted casualties at religious gatherings and damaged places of worship and religious institutions. According to the NGO Yemen Data Project, the number of airstrikes by Saudi-led coalition forces during the year increased significantly compared with 2019. The NGO reported a continued decrease in airstrikes against nonmilitary targets, however, while airstrikes on military targets increased, as did airstrikes of unknown origin on a variety of targets. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year, however. According to the UN Protection Cluster’s Civilian Impact Monitoring Project (CIMP), civilian casualties from air strikes fell from 2,588 in 2018 to 796 in 2019, and finally to 216 in 2020. Air strikes accounted for less than 10 percent of the 2,087 civilian casualties CIMP reported during the year (749 persons killed and 1,338 injured).

In August, the government publicly condemned, through the state news agency, Houthi authorities for persecuting religious minorities, in response to the Houthi deportation of six Baha’is to European countries and the United States.

Because of the conflict and the government’s absence from the country until the end of the year, the government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in private schools. Many public and private schools throughout the country remained closed, and those operating were open for only a few hours a day.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Jewish community members continued to report their declining numbers, which made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. The country’s only remaining rabbi – Yahyia Bin Youssef – fled the country in January 2019, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the UAE government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with relatives.

Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Department of State suspended embassy operations in Sana’a in 2015 and the embassy has operated since then as the YAU, based in Saudi Arabia. In meetings with officials from the government, U.S. government officials continued to stress the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. In March, the YAU released a statement from the Ambassador expressing deep concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Bahai’i leader Hamed bin Haydara and emphasizing that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear.

In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country, saying “We call on the Houthis to respect religious freedom, stop oppressing Yemen’s Jewish population, and immediately release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi.”

The YAU coordinated closely with the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, regional missions, and international organizations in facilitating the resettlement of Baha’is after their release. The YAU continued to closely monitor the conditions of religious minority detainees and to press for their release.

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