The government followed a policy of religious tolerance, and adherents of most major religions in the country worshipped without government interference. However, there were reports of abuses and restrictions of religious freedom. As the state religion, Islam was favored over other religious groups, and conversion to Islam was viewed positively.
In October an Emirati citizen who identified himself as a member of a faith not considered Islamic by the government of one of the seven emirates was imprisoned for two months while awaiting trial for violating the law prohibiting proselytism of a religion other than Islam. A Federal Court of First Instance sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment. He was subsequently released after receiving a pardon. The individual alleged that he suffered verbal abuse due to his religious beliefs while incarcerated.
The government funded or subsidized almost 95 percent of Sunni mosques and employed all Sunni imams. The government considered 5 percent of Sunni mosques private, and several mosques had large private endowments. According to Awqaf, there was no formal method of granting official status to religious groups other than granting them the use of land for the construction of a building. Several non-Muslim groups operated houses of worship where they practiced their religion freely. The government recognized several Christian denominations, having issued more than 30 land use permits to construct and operate churches.
Awqaf oversees most issues related to Islamic affairs in the country. The General Authority distributed weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of religious sermons. The General Authority also ensured that clergy did not deviate frequently or significantly from approved topics in their sermons. Most imams are non-citizens, and a significant number are Egyptian or Syrian. The government appoints Sunni imams, but it does not appoint sheikhs (imams) for Shia mosques except in Dubai, where the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department controls the appointment of clergy and their conduct in all mosques. The advisor to the president on judicial and religious affairs, as well as the chairman of Awqaf and its director general, regularly represented the country at Islamic, ecumenical, and Christian conferences and events abroad. They also met regularly with religious leaders in the country.
The government encouraged citizens to avoid extremist tendencies and ideologies. Religious authorities coordinated public awareness campaigns about the dangers of violent extremism, with ads and television commercials. During the year, the country agreed to host a regional Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). The center will open in October 2012.
Government-supported Awqaf standardized and tightly controlled religious messaging in its nearly 5,000 Sunni mosques. Awqaf regulated and monitored the selection of imams, the scripting of Friday sermons, and the issuance of religious edicts (fatwahs) to ensure that religious messaging was uniform, tolerant of other faiths and cultures, and disparaging of violent ideologies. Some Shia mosques followed the Awqaf-approved weekly address, while other Shia mosques wrote their own sermons.
Immigration authorities routinely asked foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on residence applications. There were reports that some Shia residents, fearing how their faith may be perceived by immigration authorities, declared themselves as Sunni or Christian in their residence applications. There were also reports that Jewish residents, fearing discrimination, also declared themselves as members of another faith, such as Buddhism. Ministry of Interior officials reported that the government only collected information regarding individuals’ religious affiliations for demographic statistical analysis. However, there were reports of religious affiliation negatively affecting the issuance or renewal of visas or residence permits. For example, a few Shia university students, professors, and professionals (some of Iranian heritage) were reportedly told by their institutions or firms that authorities had not granted or extended their residence permits, and they consequently had to leave the country.
Non-Muslim groups and some Muslim minority sects could own houses of worship where they could practice their religion freely by requesting a land grant and permission from the local ruler to build a compound (the title for the land remains with the ruler). Examples include an Ismaili Center in Dubai, which serves as a regional Ismaili house of worship for the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Additionally, there is a presence in the country, with mosques in Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman and a facility under construction in Abu Dhabi. Those with land grants do not pay rent on the property. The Emirate of Sharjah also waived utility payments for religious buildings. There is no national standard for granting official status to religious groups or approving land grants. Rulers of the individual emirates exercised autonomy in choosing whether to grant access to land and permission to build houses of worship within their emirate. A small number of requests were pending at the end of the year; however, some have been pending for several years. Religious groups without dedicated buildings of worship often used the facilities of other religious groups, worshiped in private homes, or rented space in hotels. There were no reports of government interference in this common practice. Non-Muslim groups, as well as Shia and Muslim minority sects, reportedly provided copies of sermons and meeting agendas to local religious authorities upon request by the government.
There are at least 35 Christian churches in the country built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they are located. In some cases, chapels were clustered in close proximity to one another in locations at some distance from the residential areas in which members of these congregations live, effectively limiting attendance.
Some churches were overcrowded and conducted services or masses in open courtyards on special occasions due to limited space and the government being slow to approve new buildings. There was no government interference within church compounds. As the government does not recognize or permit conversion from Islam to another religion, churches recognized converts from all religions except Islam out of self-censorship.
There are no synagogues for the small foreign resident Jewish population; however, Jews observed holidays in private residences without interference.
There are two Hindu temples in Dubai. Although there are no Buddhist temples, the Sri Lankan embassy held monthly religious services open to the public. Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs conducted religious ceremonies in private homes without interference.
Non-Muslim groups raised money from their congregations and received financial support from abroad. Due to government restrictions, some Muslim and non-Muslim groups expressed challenges in spending funds they had raised. Religious groups openly advertised religious functions in the press, such as holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, choral concerts, and fundraising events. Non-Muslim religious leaders reported that customs authorities rarely questioned the entry of religious materials such as Bibles and hymnals into the country unless the materials were printed in Arabic. Customs authorities generally permitted the entry of materials in most instances.
The country’s two Internet service providers, Etisalat and Du, occasionally blocked Web sites containing religious information. These sites included information on the Baha’i Faith, Judaism, atheism, negative critiques of Islam, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity. The law provides penalties for using the Internet to preach against Islam, inciting someone to commit sin, and using the Internet to promote a breach of public decency.
Four emirates are home to Christian primary and secondary schools, in which students are generally free to study Christianity and perform religious rituals. The Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai donated land for Christian cemeteries, and Abu Dhabi also donated land for a Baha’i cemetery.
There were two operating cremation facilities, one each in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and associated cemeteries for the large Hindu community. Newly constructed crematoriums in Al-Ain and Sharjah encountered delays in opening. A multifaith crematorium in Al Ain became operational in October. The crematoriums currently in use met present demand. Official permission must be obtained for their use in every instance, but this did not appear to create hardship. The government allowed people from all religions except Islam to use the cremation facilities.