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Nigeria

Executive Summary

The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion.  The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law in addition to common law civil courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts.  Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts.  In addition to civil courts, sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory, and customary courts in most of the 36 states.  Religiously affiliated state schools must admit students of all faiths or no faith; Christian-owned state schools must allow students to wear the hijab, while Muslim-owned state schools require all female students to wear it.  Civil society organizations and media stated that general insecurity again increased and was prevalent throughout the country, particularly in the North West region.  There were kidnapping and armed robbery rings in the South as well as the North West, criminal groups in the South South, and criminal groups and separatists in the South East, but there was a significant reduction in the number of violent incidents and deaths in the North East linked to the terrorist insurgency there.  There were numerous violent incidents between predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian, but also Muslim, farmers in the North Central and South West regions and between predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Muslim, but also Christian, farmers in the North West.  According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there were an estimated 1,112 deaths during the year from violence among ethnic groups, herdsmen, and farmers.  The government continued security operations and launched operations that authorities stated were meant to stem the insecurity and violence throughout the country.  Some observers, such as the nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Crisis Group (ICG), said the government’s efforts were inadequate.  The Kaduna State Court released Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, head of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shia political organization, and his wife in July.  On several occasions, security forces clashed with IMN marchers, resulting in reports of casualties, including at least one death on each side, which both sides disputed.  After detaining him for more than a year, the Kano State government in June charged Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, with deliberately “posting blasphemous statement(s)…insulting the Holy Prophet of Islam” and Muslims in Kano State calculated to “cause a breach of public peace,” among other charges.  In January, the Kano State High Court vacated a sharia court’s conviction and death sentence of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu for blasphemy and remanded the case to the sharia court for retrial.  The same high court acquitted a man convicted of blasphemy as a minor by the same sharia court and vacated his 10-year prison sentence.  Kano State authorities banned Muslim cleric Sheikh Abduljabbar Nasiru-Kabara from preaching and charged him with blasphemy for comments he made during a television debate.

Terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA), attacked population centers and religious targets, including churches and mosques, and maintained an ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers.  ISIS-WA increased its use of improvised explosive devices, which resulted in dozens of military deaths.  Observers also reported that ISIS-WA expanded efforts to implement shadow governance structures in large swaths of the region.

According to NGOs such as ICG, the level of insecurity and violence increased, including in the predominantly Muslim North West, where expanded numbers of criminal groups carried out thousands of killings, kidnappings, and armed robberies.  Because issues of religion, ethnicity, land and resource competition, and criminality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely, or even principally, based on religious identity.  According to information on its website, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), an NGO, reported 3,699 civilian deaths from the violence during the year, compared with 2,455 in 2020.  According to a survey conducted by NGO Mercy Corps, a minority of the violence in the north of the country was interreligious, and both Christians and Muslims were perpetrators and victims.  The NGO stated that “rather than religious belief or animus, we find that intercommunal violence is largely driven by insecurity and a lack of trust between ethno-religious groups competing for political power and control over natural resources.”  The report also stated that “for a minority of northern residents … religious freedom remains a concern,” if indirectly, because fear of attacks created a fear of gathering in religious communities and “exacerbates tensions and mistrust between religious groups – the primary pathway to intercommunal conflict in the north.”  There were instances of mob violence against clergy and members of religious groups and mass killings of Muslims and Christians that press reports and observers described as planned and carried out by organized groups.  For example, in May, criminals shot and killed eight Christians and burned down a church and several homes in Kaduna State.  In August, Christian youths killed 27 Muslims on a bus in Plateau State.  On September 26-27, according to international NGO CSW and subsequent reports by other NGOs and press, Muslim herders killed at least 49 persons and abducted 27, most of whom were Christian, in several attacks on communities in religiously mixed southern Kaduna State.  In June, the Tiv and Jukun communities, both of which are Christian, clashed over land and water resources, often razing churches.  On October 25, gunmen killed at least 18 worshippers and abducted 11 during early morning prayers at a mosque in Mashegu Local Government Area in Niger State.  On December 8, at a mosque in the same area, ICG reported an armed group killed between nine and 16 persons and injured 12 others during early morning prayers.  CSW reported several cases during the year of Muslim men kidnapping young Christian girls and forcing them into marriage and conversion to Islam.

The U.S. embassy, consulate general in Lagos, and visiting U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State – raised freedom of religion issues such as the resolution of widely publicized blasphemy cases, the role of religious leaders in peacebuilding and social trust, and reports of societal abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion during the year.  These included meetings with government officials such as President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Presidential Chief of Staff Ibrahim Gambari, cabinet ministers – including Attorney General Abubakar Malami, Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, and Minister of Interior Rauf Aregbesola – and National Assembly members.  The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials regularly met with interfaith and religious groups across the country, including the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the Society for the Support of Islam, the Islamic Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna (JIBWIS), and the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC).  They met with religious leaders in Plateau and Taraba States to discuss and encourage efforts to promote peace and religious tolerance in those states.  The embassy continued to fund peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states such as Kaduna and Plateau, and interfaith dialogue training for leaders in six North West and North Central states.  The embassy awarded five small grants to faith-based and community organizations to support reconciliation in communities, primarily in the North Central region, experiencing ethnoreligious violence.

The Secretary of State determined that Nigeria did not meet the criteria to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom or as a Special Watch List country for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 when such designations were announced on November 15, 2021.  Nigeria had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern in 2020 and a Special Watch List country in 2019.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 219.5 million (midyear 2021).  The Pew Global Religious Futures project estimates the country is roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, while approximately 2 percent belong to other or no religious groups.  Many individuals syncretize indigenous animism with Islam or Christianity.

A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identifies as Sunni, the vast majority of whom belong to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, although a sizable minority follows the Shafi’i school of fiqh.  The same study found 12 percent of Muslims in the country self-identify as Shia, with the remainder declining to answer or identifying as “something else” (5 percent) or “just a Muslim” (42 percent).  Included among the Sunnis are several Sufi brotherhoods, including Tijaniyyah, Qadiriyyah, and Mouride.  A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found 37 percent of Nigerians identify with Sufi orders (19 percent identified specifically as Tijaniyyah and 9 percent as Qadiriyyah).  There are also Izala and Salafist minorities and small numbers of Ahmadiyya and Kala Kato (Quraniyoon) Muslims.  A 2011 Pew report found roughly one quarter of Christians are Roman Catholic and three quarters Protestant, with small numbers of Orthodox or other Christian denominations.  Among Protestant groups, the Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches maintain the largest populations, while evangelicals, Pentecostals, Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, New Apostolics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses report tens of thousands of adherents each.  Other communities include Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, animists, and individuals who do not follow any religion.

Although accounting for far less than 1 percent of the population, there are also two distinct Jewish communities.  The smallest of these are mostly foreigners, whom Israel and the diaspora recognize.  A larger group of several thousand indigenous Nigerian Jews are not recognized internationally.  There are also significant numbers of Sabbatarian groups, variously self-identifying as Christian, non-Christian, or neither.  These groups include some that have adopted Jewish customs.

Islam is the dominant religion in the North West and North East regions, although significant Christian populations reside there as well.  Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the North Central region.  Christianity is the dominant religion in the South West, including Lagos, which is also home to significant Muslim populations.

In the South East region, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority.  In the South South, Christians form a substantial majority.  There are small but growing numbers of Muslims in the South South and South East.

Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the North Central and South East, South South, and South West regions.  Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja.  The Shia Muslim presence is heavily concentrated in the North West region, while Nigerian Jews and Judaic-oriented groups are prevalent in the South East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds.  It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others.  The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.”  It prohibits political parties that limit membership based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation.  The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other qualities, as a distinct component of the “national ethic.”

The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law civil (i.e., secular) courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts.  Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts.  In addition to civil courts, sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory.  Customary courts function in most of the 36 states.  The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction.  The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for noncriminal proceedings, but state laws do not compel participation in sharia courts in noncriminal cases.  Non-Muslims, as well as Muslims, have the option to have their civil cases tried in secular or sharia courts.  In addition to noncriminal matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both the complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue.  Zamfara State law makes it mandatory for all Muslims to utilize sharia courts in such cases, but not in noncriminal cases.  Criminal cases with possible sentences of death or life in prison may be heard by secular courts, usually at the preference of police.

Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide hudud punishments such as caning, amputation, and stoning.  Sharia penal code offenses and charges are only applicable to Muslims.  Sharia courts operate under similar rules as common law courts, including requirements for mens rea and other due process considerations.  According to the Chief Registrar of the Kano Sharia Court, by law defendants have the right to legal representation in all cases, and certain high crimes require the testimonies of four witnesses to be considered as admissible, corroborative evidence.  Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal sentences through common law appellate courts, and these courts have sometimes found for the plaintiff in cases where they have sued individual states for assault for penalties, such as flogging, imposed by sharia courts.  The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the sharia panel of the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, often do and may seek advice from sharia experts.  In some states with sharia penal codes, blasphemy or religious insult is a crime that may incur a fine, imprisonment, or in some cases the death penalty.  The various states’ sharia penal codes do not prohibit apostasy or heresy.

According to the federal penal code, any person who carries out an act “which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanor” and may be subject to imprisonment for two years.

The Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) authorizes the federal government to intervene in the management of private entities and gives it broad and discretionary powers to withdraw, cancel, or revoke the certificate of any business or association; suspend and remove trustees (and appoint any one of their choice to manage the organization “in the public interest”); take control of finances of any association; and merge two associations without the consent and approval of their members.

Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools.  The constitution prohibits schools from requiring students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own.  State officials and many religious leaders stated that students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own.  The constitution also states that no religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place of education maintained wholly by that community.  The law requires schools that receive state funding (state schools) to admit and accommodate students of all faiths or no faith, regardless of the student’s or school’s religious affiliation.  Christian state schools are required to allow Muslim students to wear a hijab.  In Muslim state schools, the hijab is required of all female students, regardless of religion, as part of the uniform.

Katsina and Kaduna States have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools.  In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including by issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators.  The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison, a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,200), or both for operating without a license.  In Kaduna State, the Interfaith Preaching Council issues permits to those who wish to preach in public and regulates against the use of foul, demeaning, or derogatory language against individuals or other religions based on recommendations from the Local Government Interfaith Committee.  Violators of the law are subject to fines and/or two to five years’ imprisonment.  Local government areas and states establish their own modalities for licensing public preachers, but do not license religious organizations.

In the states of Kano, Zamfara, and Sokoto, legally established Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license imams, attempt to resolve interpersonal and family disputes between Muslims in those states, and work with police to enforce the respective states’ sharia penal code.  The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, Kano, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs commissions, ministries, or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.

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

Government Practices

Civil society organizations and media stated that insecurity was pervasive throughout the country and increased nationwide, particularly in the North West region.  There were kidnapping and armed robbery rings in the South as well as the North West, criminal gangs in the South South, and criminal groups and separatists in the South East, but a significant reduction in the number of violent incidents and deaths in the North East.  There was pervasive violence involving predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian, but also Muslim, farmers, particularly in the North Central, but also in the North West (where most farmers were Muslim), and South West regions.  There were thousands of killings, kidnappings, and armed robberies.  According to the Nigeria security tracker maintained by the Council on Foreign Relations, there were an estimated 10,399 deaths from violent conflict during the year, compared with 9,694 in 2020.  Of the deaths in 2021, the council estimated 1,112 resulted from violence among ethnic groups, herdsmen, and farmers, some of which had implications for religion and religious freedom, according to multiple observers or, in the words of the council, “sometimes acquires religious overtones.”  Other violent deaths were carried out by militants, Boko Haram, or government security forces.  The council said the estimates were conservative and based on press reports.

During the year, the government undertook 20 targeted military operations, the stated aim of which was to root out criminals and armed gangs and to arrest perpetrators of communal and criminal violence.  In May, the government launched Operation Whirl Strike, a security operation that it said sought to deter and minimize intercommunal violence in Benue and Nasarawa States.  In October, the army launched Operation Golden Dawn with the stated intent of helping it confront security challenges that included armed criminal gangs, kidnapping, land disputes and communal clashes, chieftaincy disputes, assassinations, youth restiveness, and secessionist activities by the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra, the Indigenous People of Biafra, and Eastern Security Network.  In addition, in November, the Police Service Commission announced it would recruit 30,000 constables over the next three years to meet manpower requirements for the fight against insurgencies, armed criminal gangs, and kidnapping.

In response to increased criminality in the North West and South East regions, the Nigerian Police Force deployed more personnel and equipment on major road networks.  State governors across the regions ran local “community policing” operations to combat kidnappings, primarily through state-supported vigilante groups such as neighborhood watch groups, the Nasarawa/Benue Agro Rangers and Livestock Guard, the Enugu Forest Guard, the Amotekun that worked across six South West states, and the Abia State and Anambra State Vigilante Services.  According to observers, local media and officials, particularly in the South West region, often initially said Fulani herdsmen were responsible for criminal attacks, but, upon further investigation, stated local armed criminal groups of various ethnicities perpetrated most incidents.  In January, Chief Gani Adams, a traditional leader in Yorubaland, said, “The security threat we are having in the South West now, our people (Yoruba) constituted about 25-30 percent of the security threat.”

The government further implemented substantial reforms in the cattle-rearing industry with input from state and local stakeholders to facilitate and incentivize ranching over herding, with the stated aim of “combatting violence” between farmers and herders.  To implement the National Livestock Transformation Policy (NLTP), in November, the federal government began to receive applications from states for allocated funds for herding-to-ranching projects, and disbursed funds to Nasarawa and Plateau States.  According to NLTP Coordinator Andrew Kwasari, the work of constructing the first NLTP model farm for training the pastoralists began “in earnest” in Awe Local Government Area, Nasarawa State in December, adding that communities within the project site were “very happy with the initiative and committed to its success.  The dialogue between the cropping and herding communities is most encouraging.”

Multiple sources, however, stated that the government measures were largely reactive and insufficient to address the scale of the violence.  For example, in an update on the country issued in May, the ICG stated that, although the government had repeatedly pledged to curb violence, it lacked sufficient personnel and resources, and its military response had been inadequate.  The ICG also said the government had made little progress toward resolving the farmer-herder conflict.  The report cited the proliferation and evolution of the criminal gangs popularly known as bandits, stating the gangs spread from Zamfara to all neighboring states, including Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Niger, Kebbi, and Sokoto, and were expanding in number and size, acquiring more sophisticated weaponry, and carrying out an increasing number of abductions of students and others.  The ICG said the insecurity could create more opportunities for jihadists in the region.  According to the report, attempted peace deals (including offers of unconditional amnesties) with the gangs by state governors had been unsuccessful, and all the governors, except for Zamfara’s, had abandoned the deals.  Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom also said the government’s efforts to combat the violence were inadequate.

During his Easter homily, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Kukah said about conditions in the country, “The nation has since become a massive killing field, as both government and the governed look on helplessly.”  He continued to criticize what he said was a lack of response from the government to violence in the country.  President Buhari’s spokesperson Garba Shehu reacted to the Bishop’s statements by saying, “Some of the comments are no more than a sample of the unrestrained rhetoric Father Kukah trades in, which he often does in the guise of a homily… We urge well-meaning citizens to continue to support the ongoing efforts by the administration to secure the country and move it forward.”

The military remained engaged in a decade-long war against terrorist groups Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, both of which killed or kidnapped Muslims and Christians.  Boko Haram’s Leader Abubakar Shekau was killed or killed himself in May, and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara died in August.

On October 19, the military announced it killed 24 suspected Islamist insurgents and recovered two gun trucks and destroyed another during an encounter with insurgents a few kilometers from Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.  On October 25, Air Force spokesman Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet said the military carried out air operations targeting terrorist camps in the Lake Chad basin and stated several terrorists were killed.  On October 28, the army announced it had taken delivery of 60 new armored personnel carriers to boost the war against the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East and banditry in the North West.  Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Faruk Yahaya said the deployment of new platforms to the battlefield underscored the government’s commitment to ensure that a state of normalcy was achieved across the country.

CAN stated Christians faced persecution from ISIS-WA and Boko Haram but that the problem also affected other groups.  On November 20, CAN President Reverend Samson Ayokunle said the terrorist groups, “have joined other militant Islamic groups to be ferociously attacking churches, killing worshippers, and kidnapping for ransom.  Though the madness has grown now and those who are not Christians are being attacked, killed, and kidnapped, this is because these criminal acts have become a lucrative business and it is whoever you can kidnap for money!  If the government had responded appropriately when this criminal madness began and subdued these evil groups immediately, we wouldn’t be where we are now!”

The government’s proscription of the Shia group IMN as an illegal political organization remained in place, and the government continued to state that the proscription was not directed against Shia Muslims.  On July 28, the Kaduna State Court acquitted IMN head Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife, who had been imprisoned since 2015 on charges of “aiding and abetting homicide, unlawful assembly, and disruption of public peace” and released them.

In January, March, and May, protesters marching for the release of Sheikh El Zakzaky, calling themselves the Free Zakzaky movement, clashed with security forces.  The NGO Shia Rights Watch stated that government security forces opened fire on Free Zakzaky protestors on May 7.  IMN said some protesters were injured when police fired on them.  According to press reports, police arrested 49 persons and stated that IMN protesters killed police officer Ezekiel Adama – which the IMN denied – and destroyed public property during the protest.  On September 28, IMN members and security forces clashed again in Abuja during IMN’s annual march coinciding with the Shia Muslim Arbaeen religious observance.  IMN spokesperson Ibrahim Musa stated security forces killed eight marchers but later lowered the number to one.  According to press reports, the government arrested 57 persons and denied any marchers were killed.

Several Shia religious leaders, including Sheikh Salle Sani Zaria, Secretary General of the Rasulul A’azam Foundation of Nigeria, criticized IMN as a political group that was not representative of the majority of Shia Muslims in the country.  In Kano in June, Zaria stated that Shia Muslims throughout the country “make their religious processions unimpeded every Friday.”

NGOs and others criticized the continuing lack of accountability for soldiers involved in the 2015 clash between the army and IMN members in Zaria in which, according to a Kaduna State government report, 348 IMN members and one soldier were killed.

In July, authorities detained for 20 days three visiting Israeli filmmakers making a documentary about Nigerian Jews in South East region on suspicion they were supporting the Indigenous People of Biafra, a group the government outlawed for its stated aims of seeking the separation of the South East region from the country, the leaders of which professed a connection to Judaism.  Authorities released them without charge, and they left the country.  The filmmakers were allowed to retain their recordings.

In January, President Buhari expanded his policy of directing senior government officials to convene meetings with local traditional and religious leaders throughout the country.  According to the President, the meetings aimed to reinforce community-based early warning programs and thereby help prevent religiously motivated violence and property destruction.  Such meetings included those between Presidential Chief of Staff Ibrahium Gambari and Ministers of Interior Rauf Aregbesola, Works and Housing Babatunde Fasola, and Trade and Industry Niyi Adebayo with the Oba of Lagos, Relwanu Akiolu, the Ooni of Ife, Adayeye Oniton II, the Olubadan of Ibadanland, Obasaliu Adetunji, several bishops from different Christian denominations, and local imams.  Media reported Buhari also chaired several National Security Council meetings to consider solutions to insecurity, some of which included enhanced grassroots peacebuilding and increased security presence in certain areas.

The government also said it promoted interfaith dialogue at the state and local level to address violence.  For example, the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency incorporated an interreligious council into its operations throughout Plateau State.  The Kaduna Peace Commission sought out national religious leaders to convene a meeting within the state to condemn the chronic violence there.  Taraba State enlisted the help of the Taraba Interreligious Council to draw up plans to initiate a state government agency to promote reconciliation and peacebuilding.  According to several local NGOs, various early warning systems operating throughout the North Central and North West were also responsible for preventing attacks from occurring.  One NGO, the Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, said that, since law enforcement was often exclusively reactionary, citizen peacebuilding committees in local communities fearing violence or noting the seeds of conflict alerted police and other authorities in Plateau and Kaduna States in order to thwart plans of attacks or to calm brewing disputes.

In June, authorities filed 10 criminal charges against Humanist Association of Nigeria president and former Muslim Mubarak Bala on counts of making statements calculated to cause a breach of public peace by insulting religion, which carry a sentence of up to two or three years in prison per charge.  The government charged Bala with deliberately posting “blasphemous statement(s)” to his social media account, thus “insulting the Holy Prophet of Islam, … [and] the entire followers of Islamic religion in Kano State, calculated to cause breach of public peace.”  The Kano State prosecutor said the government feared Bala’s statements would incite mob violence.  After Bala posted statements on Facebook that state officials in Kano called “inflammatory and disparaging” towards Islam, police arrested him at his home in Kaduna State in April 2020 and transferred him to Kano State, where authorities imprisoned him without charge.  Bala’s attorneys, NGOs, secular humanist groups, and others stated they believed he was arrested for his comments on Islam.  According to Kano State Attorney General M.A. Lawan, when prosecutors indicted him in June, Bala was not charged with blasphemy under sharia because authorities did not consider him to be a Muslim.  In December 2020, a Federal Capital Territory High Court ordered Bala’s release, but Kano State authorities did not release him because of what the authorities said was confusion over the federal court’s jurisdiction in ruling on Bala’s detention.  Bala remained in detention at year’s end.

In January, the Kano State High Court acquitted 17-year-old Omar Farouq, whom a Kano sharia court had convicted of blasphemy in 2020 and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.  The High Court ruled that Farouq lacked adequate legal representation during his sharia court trial.

Also in January, the Kano High Court remanded to the same Kano sharia court the case of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, whom the sharia court had convicted of blasphemy against Islam and sentenced to death in 2020.  The High Court remanded this case to the sharia court for retrial, citing a lack of evidence presented.  At year’s end, an appeal by Sharif-Aminu against the order for a new trial and seeking dismissal of the case was pending.

In February, Kano State authorities banned well known Muslim cleric Sheikh Abduljabbar Nasiru-Kabara from preaching following complaints from the Kano Ulama Council that his sermons would disturb the peace.  In July, after he participated in a televised, three-hour debate in which he expounded on his religious views, Kano State authorities detained Nasiru-Kabara and charged him with blasphemy, saying statements he made during the broadcast insulted Islam.  Authorities also ordered the closure of his mosque and affiliated religious schools and prevented his followers from protesting and carrying out the community’s annual Mauqibi religious festival procession.  At year’s end, Nasiru-Kabara remained in detention, and his trial had not yet been scheduled.

At year’s end, Muslim cleric Abdul Inyass remained imprisoned pending an appeal of the death sentence he received following his blasphemy conviction in 2016.  The Kano Sharia Court barred the public from his trial after a mob razed the courthouse following Inyass’ arraignment in September 2015.

According to the Chief Judge of the Kano High Court as well as the Chief Registrar of the Sharia Court in Kano, the secular court system has always vacated death sentences for blasphemy in that state on appeal.  The Chief Judge said that a death sentence for blasphemy helps to assuage mobs who might seek to lynch the offending individual, keeping public peace while enabling the individual to quietly move out of the state.

There were reports that Hisbah Boards detained, abused, harassed, or intimidated individuals while enforcing their respective state’s sharia penal code.  In January, Hisbah officials in Kano State reportedly arrested barber Elija Ode for giving a customer a “blasphemous” haircut before later releasing him, stating the accusation had been a “misunderstanding.”  In July, a Kano Hisbah group arrested five Muslim men on “suspicion of homosexuality,” a crime punishable by caning, imprisonment, or death by stoning.  The accused were tried, convicted, caned, and released within two weeks.

During the year, the Kano State Films and Censors Board (KSFCB), a government organization responsible for regulating music and film, began requiring poets and singers to obtain a license to perform all new materials.  It also took into account the views of Kano’s Ulama Council, an informal gathering of respected Muslim clerics representing each of Kano’s various Muslim groups, to which the state government often defers on matters that could affect public peace.  In June, Kano State authorities arrested Ahmad Abdul for allegedly insulting Allah in a song he released without vetting it with the KSFCB.  Authorities subsequently released him after he apologized for circumventing the KSFCB.

In May, after an internal dispute among members of the local Muslim community over the installation of a new imam, the Osun State government closed the Inisha Central Mosque to forestall, according to the state government, a religious sectarian crisis from which the government feared violence.  The government reopened the mosque in July.

CSW reported that in October, the Kaduna State government demolished 263 buildings in the predominantly Christian Gracelands community in Zaria, including six churches, a school complex, and homes.  According to CSW, state authorities said the land belonged to an aviation college, but community members said state authorities had granted them certificates of ownership for the land more than 20 years earlier in most cases and that they had been paying all required taxes.

Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and federal government laws discriminated against them.  For example, they stated the Kaduna State Town and Urban Planning Law only allowed the construction of houses of worship in authorized nonresidential areas to prevent the conversion of private homes into houses of worship.  Representatives of both religions complained the law is implemented unevenly and in a biased manner.

In April, CAN President Ayokunle accused President Buhari of “Islamizing” the country through judicial appointments to courts of appeal, stating that out of 20 judges recommended, 13 were from the north and seven from the south.  In a statement, the CAN leadership called for “serious adjustments” on already executed appointments, stating that “Under the watch of President Buhari, especially throughout his first term, the judiciary was literally an appendage of Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs [NSCIA] because its members were in charge of its affairs.”  The NSCIA called CAN’s statement “scurrilous propaganda.”  According to the NSCIA, there were 70 appeals courts justices (JCAs) – 34 from the north and 36 from the south – and that the three geopolitical zones of the south had two Muslim JCAs, while the zones of the north had 15 Christians.

In August, the Anglican Church spoke against a newly enacted Anambra State law on burials that dictated the type, manner, and time of the religious service or rites and how they would be performed.  The law was passed originally at the urging of the Catholic and Anglican churches to curtail what they saw as a trend of extravagant funerals.  The Anglican Church later stated the final text of the law had been enacted without the Church’s input, which it said violated the country’s constitution.

Violence erupted in March when the Kwara State Governor confirmed all female Muslim students could wear the hijab in Christian-owned but state-run “grant aid” schools, per a Court of Appeal decision.  Following the announcement – which came after some Christian schools in the state had said the hijab violated their uniform policies – 10 state Christian schools closed for a week in protest.  When they reopened on March 17, five persons were injured in Christian-Muslim clashes when the Baptist Secondary School and Cherubim and Seraphim College prevented Muslim students wearing the hijab from entering.  According to local press reports, Muslims attacked these schools and their collocated churches in the Sabo Oke area of the state capital, Illorin, in retaliation, breaking windows and causing minor damage.

The Judaism Fellowship Initiative of Nigeria, representing more than 50 Nigerian Jewish and Judaic-oriented congregations, requested the government organize and facilitate pilgrimages for Jews to Jerusalem as the National Hajj Commission does for Muslims to travel to Mecca and state and federal government Christian Pilgrims Welfare Boards do for Christians to Jerusalem, parts of Jordan, and Rome.

While the CAMA law enacted in 2020 allowing the government to intervene in the management of private entities neither specifically addresses nor exempts nonprofit, nongovernmental, or religious organizations, nor contains language about religion, some NGOs and religious organizations continued to express concern about the law.  CAN and the NIREC continued to state that the law might allow the government to exert administrative control over smaller religious organizations that are organized as NGOs or as small religious schools with high tuition costs that are not legally considered charities.  They said such state control would infringe on constitutional rights of association and freedom of religion, although no such cases were reported during the year.  According to some legal scholars, the law was enacted to counter fraudulent NGOs that have served as fronts for money laundering or other criminal behaviors.  CAN sued the federal government over the law in February, and the case remained in litigation at year’s end.

State-level actors, including government, traditional, religious, and civil society organizations, regularly negotiated resolution of disputes.  In February and March, prominent Muslim and Christian leaders organized by the Kaduna State Peacebuilding Commission led peacebuilding efforts following ethnic clashes in Kaduna State.

The community in Yelwan Shandam in Plateau State completed rebuilding the JIBWIS mosque that had been demolished during sectarian riots in 2004, and the mosque began operation in February.

In April, Akwa Ibom State authorities banned the use of state schools for church services after school authorities complained church attendees did not clean up following their services.  Smaller Christian churches had often used the schools for worship services on Sundays but reverted to gathering in private homes or outdoors in compliance with the ban.

In April, the Bauchi State Interfaith Preaching Council indefinitely suspended Muslim cleric Malam Abubakar Idriss for preaching what it deemed incitement against rival ethnic groups.

President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo regularly condemned attacks on places of worship and those attempting to exploit religious differences.  Buhari regularly consulted with key Muslim and Christian leaders and celebrated both official Christian and Muslim holidays.  In a statement on February 15, Buhari appealed to religious and traditional leaders as well as governors and other elected leaders across the country to “join hands with the Federal Government to ensure that communities in their domain are not splintered along ethnic and other primordial lines.”  Reacting to intercommunal violence stemming from conflict over resources in the South West region, in a statement on February 15, Buhari stated that his “government will protect all religious … groups, whether majority or minority, in line with its responsibility under the constitution.”  Buhari again directed his Chief of Staff Gambari to lead a dialogue in each of the country’s geopolitical zones with state, local, traditional, religious, and security leaders.  According to media reports, Gambari stated that he met with senior Christian and Muslim leaders, for example, CAN in September and NIREC in October, to address what the reports described as infringements on religious freedom and demonstrate the country’s high level of interreligious collaboration.  In a meeting with supporters on June 30, Buhari said about the country’s rising insecurity, “Our problem is not ethnicity or religion.  It is ourselves.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to government services, NGOs, media, academic, and other observers, the level of insecurity driven by rising criminality worsened during the year.  Because issues of religion, ethnicity, land and resource competition, and criminality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely, or even primarily, based on religious identity.  Numerous fatal clashes continued to occur throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim herders.  There were also incidents of violence involving predominantly Muslim herders and Christian or Muslim farmers in the North West region.  In addition, criminal groups continued to commit crimes of opportunity, including kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and banditry in the North West, North Central, and South East regions.  According to security experts, the criminal activity in these regions increased in volume, geographic scope, and attendant violence during the year.  Media reported on at least six attacks by bandits or armed criminal gangs on religious sites, including mosques and churches.  Multiple academic and media sources said banditry and ideologically neutral criminality, rather than religious differences, were the primary drivers of violence in the North West region.  Christian organizations, however, said clergy were often targeted as victims of these crimes, because they were viewed as soft targets who often traveled conspicuously without security in the evenings, were typically unarmed, had access to money, and generated significant media attention.  While many churches, including the Catholic Church, formally refused to pay ransom, some communities raised money to ensure the return of their religious leaders.  Family members of kidnap victims also sometimes paid ransom.  According to data ACLED cited on its website, there were 3,699 civilian deaths from the violence during the year, compared with 2,455 in 2020.

In May, Mercy Corps released a report entitled, Fear of the Unknown:  Religion, Identity, and Conflict in Northern Nigeria, which reported on the religious attitudes of northerners it surveyed to gauge the perceived influence of religious actors, beliefs, and identities in violent conflict in the north.  The report, based on in-depth interviews of 165 persons and a survey of 750 persons in 15 communities in Kano and Kaduna States, concluded only some violence in the north had been interreligious in nature and that Muslims and Christians were both perpetrators and victims.  According to the report, “Since 2016, deaths from conflicts over religious issues have waned relative to the number of people killed by criminal violence and conflicts over land and cattle grazing.  While deaths from inter-religious violence increased in 2020, they still paled in comparison to those caused by crime and resource conflicts.  These trends were confirmed in interviews and surveys.  Equally important, interreligious violence has been perpetrated by, and on, both Muslims and Christians.”  The report stated, “Christians appear to have suffered more attacks on average, and likely as a result, they were more likely to report feeling victimized.  Yet a majority of Muslim and Christian respondents said that members of both faiths are responsible for violence in their area, as opposed to pinning blame solely on one side.”  The report stated that conflict data from multiple sources indicated that in the previous decade “only nine percent of attacks explicitly targeted or were carried out by religious groups, and only 10 percent of fatalities were ascribed to conflicts over a religious issue.”  The report found that the more religious persons were, the less likely they were to support or engage in violence.  It stated that, “rather than religious belief or animus, we find that intercommunal violence is largely driven by insecurity and a lack of trust between ethno-religious groups competing for political power and control over natural resources.”  While religion, according to the report, was usually not a direct cause of conflict, political and religious leaders, as well as the public, appealed to religious identity and solidarity to motivate persons to take action and to garner support to advance political, economic, or personal objectives.  In addition, the Mercy Corps report stated religious leaders were important in both fomenting violence, by politicizing and emphasizing religious identity, and preventing it, by resolving disputes and promoting peace.  The report also stated that “for a minority of northern residents… religious freedom remains a concern,” if indirectly, because fear of attacks created a fear of, or reluctance about, gathering in religious communities and “exacerbates tensions and mistrust between religious groups – the primary pathway to intercommunal conflict in the north [emphasis in the original].”

Numerous fatal intercommunal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim herders.  According to the ICG, the causes of the North West turmoil were complex and interrelated, saying that “Environmental degradation and rapid population growth have aggravated resource competition between herders and farmers.  Disputes over land and water prompted both herders and farmers to form armed self-defense groups, fueling a cycle of retaliatory violence that has taken on a communal dimension.”  Several international and domestic experts stated that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought foreign transhumance (movement of livestock) groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they were unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups.

Citing witnesses, media and NGOs such as CSW reported that on September 26-27, Muslim herdsmen killed at least 49 persons and abducted 27 in attacks on communities in three Local Government Areas in Kaduna State.  According to the reports, most of the victims were Christian.  In Kacecere village in southern Kaduna, eight persons were killed and six injured on 27 September; in Gabachuwa community in southern Kaduna, one person died, an unknown number were injured, and 27 members of Evangelical Church Winning All were abducted on 26 September; and 40 persons were killed and eight injured and 20 homes burned down in an attack on Madamai and Abun villages on 26 September.  A Catholic priest who witnessed the attack on Madamai and Abun described it as “well coordinated” and “a massacre against the natives.”

On June 2, Christian Post reported that Fulani herdsmen killed Pastor Leviticus Makpa and his three-year-old son in their home.

Morning Star News reported that individuals, which it described as “suspected Fulani herdsmen,” kidnapped and killed Reverend John Gbaakan Yaji, a Catholic priest of the Minna Diocese, on January 15, during a return journey from Benue State.  His brother, who was travelling with him, was also kidnapped, and his whereabouts were unknown.

On July 16, Religion News Service reported that bandits killed 33 persons and burned down four churches and hundreds of homes in Kaduna State.

On August 14, Christian ethnic Irigwes youths attacked a convoy of five buses carrying Muslims from Bauchi State to Ondo State as it passed north of the Plateau State capital, Jos, killing as many as 27 and injuring 14 people.  According to local media, the attack heightened existing communal tensions and led to further clashes elsewhere in Jos and neighboring communities.  Authorities subsequently arrested 20 suspects, but there was no further information on the status of the case at year’s end.

According to media reports, armed bandits killed 10 worshippers at a mosque in Yasore, Katsina State on the evening of October 5.

Also in October, bandits attacked a village in Kaduna, killing 17 and kidnapping 18 as they exited the mosque from early morning prayers.  Police killed one suspected perpetrator.

On May 24, the newspaper Christian Post reported that bandits shot and killed eight Christians and burned down a church and several homes in Kaduna State.

On September 29, NGO International Christian Concern reported that Reverend Yohanna Shuaibu, the chair of CAN in Kano State, died from wounds he suffered during a mob attack.  The mob, which also burned down the pastor’s church, school, and home, reportedly believed that Shuaibu had played a role in converting to Christianity from Islam a man who had recently killed his sister-in-law.  According to CAN and media reports, authorities arrested and charged six persons in connection with the killing.

According to ICG, on October 25, gunmen killed at least 18 worshippers and reportedly abducted 11 during early morning prayers at a mosque in Mashegu Local Government Area in Niger State.  ICG reported that on December 8 at a mosque in the same area, an armed group killed between nine and 16 persons and injured 12 others during early morning prayers.

On October 31, according to press reports and the ICG, suspected bandits occupied the Emmanuel Baptist Church, Kakau Daji in Chikun Local Government Area, Kaduna State during Sunday services, killing two parishioners, wounding several, and kidnapping 65.  The abductors reportedly demanded 99 million naira ($244,000) for the kidnapped parishioners, whom they released on December 4.

There were numerous attacks against schools in which armed groups kidnapped schoolchildren for ransom, which religious leaders stated impacted the broader activities of their religious communities.  According to analysts, these kidnappings generally had a financial motive.

For example, in July, armed kidnappers abducted more than 120 students from Bethel Baptist High School in Kaduna State.  The kidnappers demanded 500,000 naira ($1,200) ransom for each student.  Subsequently, some students were either released or escaped from the kidnappers.  In May, according to press reports, armed kidnappers abducted 136 students from an Islamic school in the town of Tegina in Niger state, killing one person and demanding an unspecified ransom.  In August, the school’s principal told Reuters the kidnappers had called him and said six of the kidnapped students had died of illness.

On November 29, authorities in Zamfara State announced that the state’s Christian community had received a letter from a group of bandits threatening “ferocious attacks” unless all churches in the state were permanently closed.  In response, CAN directed its constituent churches to hold services only during daylight hours as an interim measure from December to end of February, while calling on the Buhari administration to ensure the protection of Christians in Zamfara and their religious freedom.  Media reported some Zamfara Christians were contemplating relocating to other parts of the country.  Police authorities in Zamfara said they created a special squad to patrol and protect Christian worshippers, especially on Sundays, and had deployed plain-clothes personnel for intelligence gathering to find those behind the letter.

CSW stated in November that Christian families in states that have implemented sharia continued to face abuses, including the abduction, forced conversion, and forced marriage of underage girls and reported it was assisting seven families whose underage daughters were abducted by members of their local communities.  In three cases, the local authorities in Rogo in Kano State were reportedly collecting dowries on behalf of prospective suitors and offering them marriage “at no cost” by January 2022.  Local media reported three Muslim men abducted and forcibly converted to Islam three Christian girls from Nariya village in Garko Local Government Area, Kano State.  The girls were in Hisbah protective custody at year’s end, while the Kano State chapter of CAN took the matter to the Kano State High Court for the girls’ return to their families.

On August 23, CAN President Ayokunle decried the violence and the government’s lack of adequate response by saying, “Stopping killing of the innocent by the criminals cannot be done by merely issuing press statements and holding periodical meetings with the security chiefs by the president.  Until the government shows the political will by arresting and bringing the culprits to book, the shedding of innocent blood will not cease.  We charge the Federal Government to fix the security challenges or throw in the towel.”  On December 9, the Sultan of Sokoto cautioned assembled religious leaders about the reach of their influence at the quarterly NIREC meeting, stating, “We have to be careful in the way we handle, say and do things as religious leaders.  We are not political leaders.  Therefore, we have to be wary of what we say, where and how we say such things, because our followers will definitely believe in what we say.  They will believe and feel that it is from the Holy Koran or the Holy Bible.  We cannot go on telling things to people without thinking that they will believe.  We cannot go on saying things that we know we don’t have full knowledge of.”

In June, local media reported Tiv and Jukun communities, both of which are Christian, clashed over land and water resources, often razing churches in Benue and Taraba States.  After a pastor and his wife were killed in predominantly Jukun Tunga village, Taraba State, the predominantly Tiv neighboring village of Maigoge was attacked and its church burned.

The Enugu State government completed the rebuilding of two mosques that were destroyed during protests in 2020 in the state, and the mosques reopened.

A Pew Research Center study from 2018 found that more than 80 percent of self-identified Christians in the country said they attended worship services at least once per week.  According to both Christian and Muslim religious organizations such as CAN and the Society for the Support of Islam, Nigerians attended prayers and services regularly, even in areas of conflict.

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.  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.  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.  The government, having designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, in September designated four members of al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, as terrorists.  Despite changes to federal laws removing penalties for adultery or consensual extramarital sex, in August the Supreme Federal Court rejected the appeal of a woman from Sharjah convicted of consensual extramarital sex, finding that local prohibitions were still applicable, even in the absence of any federal penalty.  In May, the public prosecutor’s office released a video on social media highlighting the penalties for acts of witchcraft and sorcery.  In September, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) began consultations for official recognition from the Dubai Community Development Authority (CDA) in anticipation of building a temple in Dubai on government-granted land at what will be the former site of the Expo 2020 following that event’s conclusion in 2022.  In February, the Dubai CDA granted an official license to the Jewish congregation “Gates of the East,” making it the first and only Jewish congregation with CDA recognition.  Dubai authorities eased COVID-19 restrictions gradually during the year.  Prayer halls were open to Muslim men throughout the year and authorities reopened prayer halls for Muslim women in June.  Authorities permitted all houses of worship to return to 50 percent capacity in August.  Limits on capacity, however, remained stricter on places of worship than on businesses and entertainment venues.  According to leaders of some communities, restrictions on the number of attendees per religious service put undue burdens on non-Muslim faiths due to the limited number of houses of worship non-Muslim communities were permitted.  COVID-19 related restrictions disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so because of social distancing regulations and closures.  Federal regulations designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission continued to prohibit practices affecting Christian churches, such as receiving communion.  In December, the government announced that effective in the new year, the country would adopt a four-and-a-half-day workweek, with Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday serving as the new weekend, after previously following the Islamic workweek, which uses Friday and Saturday as its weekend.  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 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 limiting the spread of what the authorities characterized 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.  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.  In September, the Dubai Executive Council issued a resolution authorizing the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD) to license public and private prayer rooms and prohibiting anyone from building, allocating, or modifying a space to be used as a prayer room without prior approval from IACAD.  Minority religious groups said 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.  During the year, Abu Dhabi began constructing the country’s first, purpose-built synagogue as part of the larger government-sponsored Abrahamic Family House, scheduled to open in 2022 and bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths on one site.  Except in the judiciary and military, non-Muslim minorities did not serve in senior federal positions, while among Muslims, Sunnis predominated in these positions, reflecting the country’s religious demographics.

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 houses of worship officially recognized by the federal or local emirate governments, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged.  Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however.  Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 3,800 Dubai residents converted to Islam during the year, compared with 3,184 in 2020.  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 minority groups, including registered religious organizations, encountered difficulties obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces.  In February, Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), and incorporated it in Dubai.  In June, a memorial exhibition on the Holocaust, which its organizers said was the first of its kind in the Arab world, opened in Dubai.  On April 8, Holocaust Remembrance Day (HaShoah), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a virtual forum about teaching the Holocaust in the Arab world.  Ali al-Nuaimi, the chairman of Hedayah, an organization partly funded by the government that is focused on countering violent extremism, participated from its Abu Dhabi location.

The U.S. Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers engaged government officials on issues pertaining to religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, as well as licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious and religiously affiliated minority groups.  They met with representatives of minority religious organizations and community groups, including the Jewish and Baha’i communities, and different Islamic groups during the year.  In these meetings, U.S. officials discussed the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.  Embassy and consulate general officials also regularly kept in contact with minority religious groups to monitor their abilities to freely associate and worship.  Remarks by U.S. officials throughout the year encouraged efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.9 million (midyear 2021).  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 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, and 2 percent Buddhist, with the remainder belonging to other faith traditions.  According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 125,000 atheists or agnostics, 72,000 Sikhs, and 49,000 Baha’is.

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, a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600), and deportation in the case of noncitizens.  Individuals seeking the aid of sorcerers also face jail sentences and/or fines.

The law defines blasphemy as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship.  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, 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 criminalizes any form of expression the government interprets as blasphemous or offensive toward “divine recognized religions,” inciting religious hatred, or insulting religious convictions.  Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams to two million dirhams ($68,100-$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 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, collecting donations, 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 10,000 dirhams ($2,700).  Most local authorities across the country grant exemptions allowing non-Muslims to eat during the day in malls, hotels, and some stand-alone restaurants.  In April, the governments of the Dubai and Abu Dhabi emirates issued guidelines lifting a requirement to install curtains or otherwise cover the front of restaurants as a precondition of serving food during Ramadan fasting hours.  The law prohibits Muslims from knowingly eating pork throughout the year.  Consumption of alcohol by non-Muslims is not criminalized at the federal level.  The government announced a series of legal reforms in 2020 decriminalizing the consumption of alcohol by Muslims at the federal level, while allowing each emirate to regulate “the use, circulation, and possession or trade of alcoholic beverages,” which may include a ban for Muslims at the local level.  The government of the Sharjah emirate bans all consumption of alcohol.

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 – 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.  Each emirate’s government is responsible for administrative oversight of schools.

Land ownership by noncitizens is restricted to designated freehold areas.  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 antidiscrimination law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious discrimination, and criminalizes acts or expressions the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion; this provides a legal basis for restricting events, such as conferences and seminars.  The law also criminalizes broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audiovisual 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, divorce, and inheritance.  Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system.  In the case of noncitizens, or noncitizens married to citizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply rather than sharia in cases involving divorce and inheritance.  The federal law applies if either spouse is Emirati.  On November 7, the emirate of Abu Dhabi issued a decree allowing non-Muslims to apply civil law in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony, proof of paternity, and custody.

Sharia also applies in some criminal matters.  Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters.  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.  Amendments to the federal law in November 2020 repealed an article giving reduced (lenient) sentences in what are called “honor crimes,” and the law now treats “honor killings” as normal murder cases.

Federal legal reforms in 2020 also removed flogging from the federal penal code, limited the jurisdiction of sharia courts to deal with blood money cases, and removed penalties for adultery, cohabitation outside marriage, and consensual extramarital sex.  Local sharia laws and punishments regarding adultery and consensual extramarital sex, however, remain applicable.

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.

Strict interpretation of sharia – which often favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases, and courts have applied the “best interests of the child” standard for several years.  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.

In custody cases involving noncitizens, UAE courts may apply the laws of the country of nationality of each child involved.  In December, a new personal status law for most expatriates went into effect in the emirate of Abu Dhabi that allows for joint custody agreements, civil marriages, birth certificates for children of unmarried parents, the equality of men and women as witnesses, and new alimony and inheritance laws.  The new law also allows for non-Muslim judges, creates a new court to hear these cases, and requires cases to be heard in both Arabic and English.  This new personal status law does not apply to Muslim citizens of countries that base their law on sharia, including the UAE.

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.

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 (DCD) as officially recognized to perform these acts.

Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live.  Since 2020, personal status laws permit 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.  Non-Muslims may register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system 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 membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations or that promote damage to national unity or harm public order, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.  Promoting these activities using any means, written or otherwise, is punishable with not less than 15 and no more than 25 years of prison.  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 up to life imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams to one million dirhams ($136,000-$272,000).  Electronic violations of the law are subject to a maximum fine of four million dirhams ($1.09 million).  Abuse of religion to promote sedition and strife or to harm national unity and social peace is punishable with not less than 10 years imprisonment and a fine of not more than 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

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 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, an independent federal legal authority that reports directly to the cabinet.  The Awqaf director general holds the title of Deputy Minister, and he and the Awqaf board of directors are appointed by the cabinet.  The Awqaf is responsible for managing domestic Islamic endowments, imam tutelage, education centers, publications, and general messaging.

Under the law, emirate and federal authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, including religious centers used by Shia Muslims, 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 and 500,000 dirhams ($54,500-$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 and 500,000 dirhams ($68,100-$136,000).

In Abu Dhabi, the Awqaf is entrusted with overseeing Islamic religious affairs across mosques, sermons, imam tutelage, and publications.  Non-Islamic 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 Abu Dhabi DCD uses a three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship.  Under the system, instituted in 2020, 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.

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 to 100,000 dirhams ($140-$27,200).  Repeated violations may result in the doubling of fines, not to exceed 200,000 dirhams ($54,500).

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

Government Practices

During the year there were reports of persons held incommunicado and without charge because of their political views or affiliations, which often involved alleged links to Islamist organizations.  The government continued to make arrests or impose other restrictions for speech related to and in support of Islamist political activities.

Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017, remained imprisoned at year’s end, following a 2018 court ruling upholding an earlier conviction under the cybercrime law of insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols.”  As of year’s end, the government had yet to announce the specific charges against Mansoor but said that he promoted “a sectarian and hate-filled agenda,” as well as other accusations.  In July, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that authorities held Mansoor in solitary confinement and removed his clothes, mattress, blanket, and toiletries from his cell.  Authorities reportedly denied him access to lawyers, granted only a limited number of family visits, and subjected him to death threats, physical assault, government surveillance, and inhumane treatment while in custody.

The government, having designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, continued to restrict the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.  According to HRW, in September, the government designated four members of al-Islah, all living in self-imposed exile, as terrorists:  Hamad al-Shamsi, Mohammed Saqr al-Zaabi, Ahmed al-Shaiba al-Nuaimi, and Saeed al-Tenaiji.  The designation included asset freezes, property confiscations, and criminalizing communications with their families.  The four men told HRW that authorities threatened their families with prosecution for “communicating with terrorists.”  The men learned of their designations only after the Cabinet of Ministers issued the decision.

Despite changes to federal laws removing penalties for adultery or consensual extramarital sex, local sharia laws and punishments remained applicable.  A member of the Sharjah Consultative Council reported that in August, the Supreme Federal Court rejected the appeal of a woman from the Emirate of Sharjah convicted of having consensual extramarital sex, finding that local emirate laws were still applicable, even in the absence of any federal penalty.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery.  In May, local press reported Dubai customs authorities prevented five attempts in 2020 to smuggle material local authorities believed were related to witchcraft and sorcery, including books, knives, talismans, amulets, containers of blood, and animal skins and bones, compared with 22 attempts in 2019.  In May, the federal prosecutor’s office released a video on social media highlighting the penalties for acts of witchcraft and sorcery.  In addition, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft.  In July, local media quoted a Dubai police official as saying that 80 percent of individuals seeking the aid of sorcerers were women, and that they likely “turned to sorcery” because they believed they had been bewitched.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths again 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 many groups having ambiguous legal status and created difficulties for them in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases.  Religious groups said the bureaucracy was slow to conduct security checks and issue necessary visas.  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 Awqaf continued to vet and appoint men to be Sunni imams (except in Dubai), based on their educational background and knowledge of Islam, along with security checks.  According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, except for those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques.  All imams in Dubai’s more than 2,100 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens.  Dubai’s IACAD maintained more stringent qualification requirements for expatriate imams than for local imams, such as requiring them to demonstrate memorization of larger parts of the Quran, and starting salaries were much lower, a practice permitted under federal law.  Expatriate imams also could not obtain other employment without permission from the authorities.  Local communities said these additional requirements did not hinder their ability to find qualified imams.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, continued to manage Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams.  The council complied with weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.  Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques.  The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were technically eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.  Shia sources said they doubted the government would provide funding in practice, and therefore did not seek it.

Ismaili Muslims continued to appoint their own community leaders.

One source said it was difficult for his church to access funds or receive an extension of its operating license under Abu Dhabi DCD’s new three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship.  The source attributed these difficulties to it being a new system rather than a deliberate attempt by the government to discriminate against his church.

In September, the Church of Jesus Christ began consultations for official recognition from the Dubai CDA in anticipation of building a temple in the emirate on government-granted land at what will be the former site of Expo 2020 following that event’s conclusion in 2022.  Consultations remained ongoing and the Church of Jesus Christ had not yet submitted a formal application at year’s end.  Church officials toured the site in October.  The Church continued to maintain a chapel in Abu Dhabi.

In February, the Dubai CDA granted an official license to the Jewish congregation “Gates of the East,” making it the first and only Jewish congregation with CDA recognition.  Official recognition allowed the group to secure religious worker visas.  According to local sources, at year’s end, discussions between the congregation and the government on plans to build a physical synagogue in Dubai were ongoing, and the congregation continued to rent hotel rooms for worship.

Community leaders stated the tacit Abu Dhabi guidelines requiring non-Muslim religious leaders to work in the ministry full-time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa continued to create difficulties for religious leaders who served their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who did 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 stated the system discriminated against smaller and less recognized denominations and forced them to either end operations or join with other denominations.

Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services, and non-Muslims reported some pressure to attend ostensibly nonmandatory lectures and classes about Islam.  Some Christian clergy stated incarcerated Christians did not have worship spaces.  They said that when authorities granted them prison access, authorities permitted them to take Bibles to the prisoners.  In several emirates, authorities did not allow Christian clergy to visit Christian prisoners.

The government continued to permit 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.

The government continued to maintain COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings for religious purposes throughout the year.  From January to June, religious venues operated at 30 percent capacity.  In Dubai, only men were allowed to attend mosques during this time.  In June, Dubai authorities permitted women’s prayer halls for Muslims to reopen, also at 30 percent capacity.  In August, authorities permitted houses of worship to return to 50 percent capacity.  During the same period, the Dubai government allowed entertainment and sporting events and social activities to operate at 60 percent capacity, entertainment venues (e.g., museums and cinemas) and restaurants to operate at 80 percent capacity, and business events and hotels to operate at 100 percent capacity.  In September, the government increased the allowed capacity at houses of worship throughout the country, and further increased it in November.  At year’s end, capacity in worship spaces was limited by the congregants’ ability to maintain mandatory social distancing.

According to representatives of various religious groups, restrictions on the number of attendees per religious service put undue burdens on non-Islamic faiths due to the limited number of houses of worship non-Muslim communities were permitted.  According to religious community leaders, Dubai authorities conducted regular inspections to ensure adherence to COVID-19-related restrictions.  Religious community leaders stated Dubai authorities required them to report the number of COVID-19-positive cases in their congregations.  Federal regulations designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission continued to prohibit practices affecting Christian churches, such as receiving communion.  Christian sources said they understood the need for such precautions.  In November, authorities in Abu Dhabi permitted women to attend Friday prayers again at the Grand Mosque.

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

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings or in private facilities or homes and provided they observed the prohibition on proselytizing.  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 November, leaders of the Hindu community attended a ceremony marking the placement of carved stones as part of the ongoing construction of Abu Dhabi’s Hindu temple, expected to be completed in 2023.  The ceremony included a religious blessing of the site.  The Jerusalem Post reported that on November 28, UAE resident Rabbi Levi Duchman lit a Hanukkah menorah and recited holiday blessings at the Israel pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 (which opened in 2021, following a year’s delay).  Members of Dubai’s Jewish community held multiple public and private celebrations throughout the holiday.

Christian community leaders stated the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in Dubai fined both drivers and passengers of buses transporting worshipers to churches for lacking proper RTA permits.  Religious leaders said the rules and regulations were confusing, particularly the requirement to obtain permits from a government authority other than the CDA.

The Dubai Quran Award program continued to allow prisoners who memorized the Quran to have their sentences reduced or be granted amnesty.

In December, the government announced that, effective in the new year, the country would adopt a four-and-a-half-day workweek, with Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday serving as the new weekend.  The country previously followed the Islamic workweek, which uses Friday and Saturday as its weekend.  As part of the change, the government said that Friday midday sermons and prayers would be held at 1:15 p.m., slightly later than the previous schedule.

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 some 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.  International media sites, accessed using the country’s internet providers, contained content filtered by government censors.

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.

Observers familiar with the media environment stated government officials warned journalists against publishing or broadcasting material deemed politically or culturally sensitive.  Editors and journalists commonly practiced self-censorship due to fear of government retribution, particularly since most journalists were foreign nationals and could be deported.  Authorities did not allow the importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.

The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the IACAD.  On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.”  The Awqaf stated 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.  The Awqaf regularly held training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.

The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior Sunni 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.  Sermons sometimes dealt with contemporary topics; for example, in December, after President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan appointed the board of directors of the country’s newly established National Human Rights Institution, sermons praised the country for its human rights record.  Other sermon topics reportedly included the power of contemplation, and prayer and piousness as keys to inner peace.  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.

The Jaafari Affairs Council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.

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 Awqaf also operated an online “e-fatwa” service.

Authorities did not allow the importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.

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.

Bookstores in the country carried pro-atheism, anti-organized religion titles by well-known authors in English and Arabic.  These stores also sold books on non-Islamic religions.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them.

In September, the Dubai Executive Council issued a resolution authorizing IACAD to license public and private Islamic prayer rooms, and prohibiting anyone from building, allocating, or modifying a space to be used as a prayer room without prior approval from IACAD.

The Jaafari Council continued to regulate Shia worship spaces.

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 continued to gather in other spaces, such as hotels, subject to COVID-19 capacity restrictions.  There was one Sikh temple in Dubai, built on land provided by the government within a religious complex shared with Christian churches, the same complex in which the new Hindu temple construction, expected to be completed in 2023, was underway.

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

There continued to be no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place in hotels on the Sabbath and holidays.  During the year, Abu Dhabi began constructing the country’s first purpose-built synagogue as part of the larger government-sponsored Abrahamic Family House project, scheduled to open in 2022 and bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths on one site.  According to the Times of Israel website, in June, the government announced that the synagogue at the site would be named the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, after the 12th-century philosopher and rabbinical scholar Maimonides.  The mosque would be named Imam al-Tayeb Mosque, and the church St. Francis Church.

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.

Members of unregistered religious organizations stated that their organizations continued to face challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances.  In Abu Dhabi, the DCD continued to require religious functions at hotels be pre-approved and overseen by registered clergy.  The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes as long as these activities did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion.  COVID-19-related restrictions, however, continued to disproportionately impact 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, although restrictions on public gatherings eased as the year progressed.

In Dubai, non-Muslim community members reported continued delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds.  Community representatives also reported restrictions on 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.

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 generally sufficient to meet demand, although press reporting indicated some strains on capacity during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.  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.  Hindu temples also provided cremation services to non-Hindus.

Except in the judiciary and military, non-Muslim religious minorities did not serve in senior federal positions, while among Muslims, Sunnis predominated in these positions, reflecting the country’s religious demographics.

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-related concerns.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications, although immigration officers said foreigners, including atheists and agnostics, had the option to leave the field blank.  School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation in order to distinguish between Muslim students, who were required to take Islamic studies, and non-Muslim students, who were exempt.  According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis.

Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their places of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.  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.  The government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities.

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 November, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan publicly commemorated the Hindu festival of Diwali.

Media reported that in September, Minster of Tolerance and Coexistence Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan spoke at the government-sponsored Eshraqat (“Radiance”) Festival in Abu Dhabi to students about “the role of education in preparing future generations with ethics and virtues who will renounce extremism and hate and promote the values of tolerance and coexistence.”

On November 16, the Minster of Tolerance posted to Twitter a “call for upholding the values of coexistence, tolerance, and humanity, and rejecting violence, fanaticism, and extremism for a better future for all mankind.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be strong cultural and societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam, particularly from family members.  Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively.  Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 3,800 Dubai residents converted to Islam during the year, compared with 3,184 in 2020.  Ajman police reported in October that six inmates converted to Islam in the previous three months, for a total of 47 inmates in five years.

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 houses of worship officially recognized by the federal or local governments.

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.  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.

Private and government-run 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 minority groups, including registered religious organizations, encountered difficulties obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces.

There continued to be two Hindu temples, both predating the country’s independence, in Dubai.  There were no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

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

Following the opening of the first kosher restaurant in 2020, kosher food services continued to expand in Dubai.  In March, a second kosher restaurant opened in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, and a local company, led by a member of the country’s resident Jewish community, partnered with the established kosher kitchen to cater airline meals for Emirates and other airlines.

In February, Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the AGJC, incorporated in Dubai.  Rabbi Elie Abadie, the senior rabbi for the Jewish Council of the Emirates, led the group, along with its president, Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, a citizen of Bahrain.  According to press reports, the AGJC was creating a Jewish court to preside over issues of civil disputes, personal status, inheritance, and Jewish ritual.  It planned also to run the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency throughout the six countries.  On June 4, the AGJC hosted an in-person Shabbat dinner for diplomats and Emiratis in Dubai.  Rabbi Abadie, President Nonoo, and Alex Peterfreund of the UAE spoke about Jewish life in the Gulf and answered questions from Emirati participants about opportunities for Muslim and Jewish cooperation.

In June, a memorial exhibition on the Holocaust, which its organizers said was the first of its kind in the Arab world, opened in Dubai.  The “We Remember” exhibition at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum included first-hand testimonies of Holocaust survivors.  The museum hosted visits from local school groups beginning in November.

Expo 2020 Dubai featured a thematic week on “Tolerance and Inclusivity” from November 14 to 20.  The week highlighted the country’s efforts to support religious tolerance and included the launch of a “Global Tolerance Alliance,” announced by Minister al-Nahyan, and a “Global Interfaith Summit” that brought together various government representatives with local and regional religious leaders to discuss religious coexistence.

On April 8, Holocaust Remembrance Day (HaShoah), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a virtual forum about teaching the Holocaust in the Arab world.  Ali al-Nuaimi, the chairman of Hedayah, an organization partly funded by the government and focused on countering violent extremism, participated from its Abu Dhabi location.  In his remarks, al-Nuaimi said, “The older generation operated in an environment where speaking about the Holocaust was tantamount to betraying Arabs and Palestinians.  Public figures failed to speak the truth, because a political agenda hijacked their narrative.”

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