The government favored Islam – the state religion – over other faiths but promoted religious tolerance as government policy. There were reports of arrests for practicing sorcery, and internet service providers blocked access to certain websites on non-Sunni Muslim belief systems or those that criticized Islam. Churches and temples operated on land donated by the ruling families; however, overcrowding remained a problem.
According to media reports, the government arrested individuals for the practice of sorcery, usually in connection with allegations of fraud. According to English-language daily Gulf News, Dubai police arrested two Arab men accused of convincing women that they could solve their marital problems by practicing sorcery and of charging fraudulent fees for their service.
Customs authorities routinely reviewed the content of religious materials imported into the country.
The country’s two primary internet service providers blocked certain web sites containing religious information, including sites with information on the Bahai Faith, Judaism, atheism, negative critiques of Islam, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.
The government favored Islam over other religious groups and supported Islamic institutions and programs facilitating conversion to Islam. The government funded or subsidized almost 95 percent of the approximately 5,000 Sunni mosques, and all Sunni imams were government employees. The government considered the remaining 5 percent of Sunni mosques private. Several mosques had large private endowments.
The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) oversaw most issues related to Islamic affairs, including administering Sunni mosques and providing some guidance to Shia mosques. It distributed weekly guidance to most Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of the weekly Friday Islamic sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance online on the Awqaf’s website. It also ensured that junior clergy did not deviate frequently or significantly from the approved sermons. The Awqaf continued a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf Friday sermon script closely; mid-level 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. The Awqaf encouraged “improvisation of speeches” under these guidelines with the constraint that the speech was not to exceed 30 minutes. The advisor to the president on judicial and religious affairs, as well as the Awqaf’s chairman, and its director general, regularly represented the country at Islamic, multi-faith, and Christian-hosted interfaith conferences and events abroad. They also met regularly with religious leaders in the country.
The Awqaf appointed Sunni imams, except in Dubai, but did not appoint sheikhs (religious leaders) for Shia mosques. Dubai’s Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (emirate-level Awqaf) controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques.
Some Shia sheikhs followed Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while other Shia sheikhs wrote their own sermons. Shia Muslims had their own council, the Jaafari Waqf Charity Council, to manage Shia affairs. Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques. Officially, the government considered all Shia mosques private, and they were able to receive funds from the government upon request. The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private. Restrictions that limit all types of public gatherings, however, barred public processions. Shia mosques were allowed to broadcast the Shia version of the call to prayer from their minarets.
The government encouraged citizens to avoid practices and ideologies it considered extremist. Government leaders issued public statements condemning extremist activities on multiple occasions. Religious authorities coordinated public awareness campaigns about the dangers of violent extremism with advertisements and television commercials. The government also prohibited the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam. The government continued to support Hedayah, an international center of excellence for countering violent extremism. Hedayah, guided by an international steering board, conducted training and roundtables to increase countering violent extremism (CVE) capacity and promote tolerance in the region. On December 9-11, together with the Global Counterterrorism Forum, Hedayah hosted a CVE Communications Exposition, bringing together approximately 250 governmental and non-governmental experts, to generate new ideas and programs and to leverage new technologies for countering extremist narratives and promoting tolerance.
The government supported a training program in Afghanistan for more than 15,000 imams in collaboration with the Afghan government. The training program aimed to encourage tolerance and build local capacity to address social and religious issues.
Immigration authorities routinely asked foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on residence applications. Ministry of Interior officials stated that the government collected religious affiliation information for demographic statistical analysis only.
The government did not require religious groups to register. Since land ownership was typically limited to citizens, non-citizen Muslims and non-Muslims could request from local rulers land grants and permission to build houses of worship. For non-Muslim and Muslim minority groups, such land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. The government granted permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis when congregations outgrew smaller, private facilities. Those with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also waived utility payments for religious buildings. Rulers of the individual emirates exercised autonomy in choosing whether to grant access to land and permission to build houses of worship within their emirates. Some religious leaders stated the government was more likely to grant access to land to groups representing monotheistic religions. Some religious groups reportedly refrained from requesting land because of political sensitivities.
Although the government approved some permits for new buildings, existing churches could not accommodate all worshippers. This resulted in overcrowding at some churches, and, on occasion, forced congregations to meet in private clubs and meetinghouses, private residences, hotels, open courtyards, and other non-religious rental facilities. In March a new extension of St. Martin’s Anglican Church in Sharjah officially opened on land that the Ruler of Sharjah donated, to accommodate an increased number of attendees. In December a new Armenian church opened in Abu Dhabi on land donated by the Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
There were over 35 Christian churches in the country built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they are located, including houses of worship for the Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) communities.
There were no synagogues for the small foreign resident Jewish population. The Jewish community, however, observed holidays and ceremonies in private residences without interference.
Two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple operated in Dubai. There were no Buddhist temples, but the Sri Lankan embassy held monthly religious services open to the public. Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs conducted religious ceremonies in private homes without interference.
The government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad. Due to government restrictions on charitable giving, some Muslim and non-Muslim groups had difficulty spending the funds they raised. Religious groups openly advertised religious functions in the press, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, choral concerts, and fundraising events. The government also allowed businesses to openly advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Muslim holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.
Christian primary and secondary schools, in which students were free to study Christianity and perform religious rituals, were located in four emirates.
The government provided land for non-Muslim cemeteries. There were four operating cremation facilities and associated cemeteries for the large Hindu community, one each in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai, and Sharjah, and the Hindu community reported that these were sufficient to meet present demand. The government required residents and non-residents to obtain official permission for the use of cremation facilities in every instance, and authorities routinely granted such permission. The government allowed people from all religious groups except Islam to use the cremation facilities.
The government welcomed Coptic Pope Tawadros II to the country in March. UAE official news agency WAM reported that the vice president (who is also the UAE Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai) met with the pope to discuss interfaith dialogue and principles of tolerance.
In Abu Dhabi in March the minister of foreign affairs presided over a conference centered on peaceful coexistence in Muslim societies. The event brought over 250 of the world’s leading Islamic scholars together to discuss sectarianism and ideological differences. At the conference, the government announced its plan to create a Muslim Council of Elders intended to highlight tolerance within Islam and counter extremist ideologies. The government formally established the council in July.
Government officials condemned attacks by violent Islamist extremist groups, arguing they did not represent Sunni Islam and should not be referred to as Islamic.