The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians for defaming another religion, inciting hatred against another religious group, engaging in political speech in sermons, and allegedly supporting terrorism. The government also prosecuted Shia political figures on charges which the international media and NGOs reported were politically motivated. In June a criminal court sentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the Shia political society Wifaq to a total of four years’ imprisonment on two separate charges of inciting hatred and promoting disobedience to the law in political speeches he had given in 2014. In August authorities arrested former Wifaq MP Hasan Isa on allegations his distribution of funds to families in his district had helped finance a terrorist bombing. The Court of Cassation upheld the dissolution of the Shia Islamic Ulama Council (IUC), saying it used religion as “cover” for political activities. The government investigated terrorist bombings from 2014 in which two persons were killed; 25 Shia were tried and convicted of perpetrating the attacks, with one defendant given the death penalty while the others received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life. In February by royal decree, the government revoked the citizenship of 72 individuals, including some Sunni as well as Shia, for supporting terrorist organizations. The government said it intervened in religious practices when it determined religious authorities were encouraging violence or sectarian hatred. The government did not generally interfere with religious observances performed by registered non-Muslim institutions. The MOI increased its security presence around Shia mosques following attacks on Shia mosques in other countries. The government continued to rebuild Shia mosques damaged in the 2011 unrest and to reinstate Shia workers who had lost their government employment following the unrest. Shia leaders said preference was given to Sunni citizens for educational scholarships, employment as teachers, and employment in sensitive government positions. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The government arrested individuals on charges related to defamation of religion and inciting hatred against another denomination. In June the higher criminal court sentenced opposition leader and Wifaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman to four years in jail for inciting hatred and disobedience to the law following his arrest for political speeches in 2014. The international news media, as well as international NGOs, reported the conviction as politically motivated. The UN and the European Union issued public statements condemning the conviction as an abuse of Sheikh Salman’s right to freedom of expression. As of the end of the year, his case remained under appeal and he remained in prison. The Sunni head of the socialist opposition society reportedly was jailed on similar charges.
Public officials alleged some Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism. Authorities detained and subsequently arrested former Wifaq MP Hasan Isa in August, alleging he had helped finance a terrorist bomb attack resulting in the deaths of two policemen in Sitra. Isa denied the charges, saying he had distributed funds to poor families in his role as a religious leader of the neighborhood. Wifaq said the charges were politically motivated. Isa’s trial continued through the end of the year, and he remained in prison.
In May the Supreme Criminal Court sentenced a Sunni individual to one year in prison, a BD2000 ($5,300) fine, and deportation upon completion of his sentence for inciting sectarianism and encouraging extremism on social media; his case remained under appeal at year’s end. A Sunni comedian was arrested in August for criticizing officials’ handling of Shia protesters; he was released a few days later. In January education authorities suspended a teacher and reduced her salary for using a classroom handout which reportedly insulted a companion of the Prophet.
The government investigated terrorist bombings from 2014 in which two persons were killed; 25 Shia were tried and convicted of perpetrating the attacks, with one defendant given the death penalty while the others received prison sentences from 10 years to life.
In February the government issued a royal decree revoking the citizenship of 72 individuals, including both Sunni and Shia, accused of supporting terrorist organizations. Among those deprived of citizenship were Sunnis accused of leaving the country to fight with Da’esh, as well as some Shia clerics and human rights activists. Two individuals appealed the decision; their cases were not resolved as of the end of the year.
Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 and given sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred, and associated with the political opposition protest movement, remained in prison at year’s end.
In April the Court of Cassation, the highest court, rejected the appeal by the IUC, the main assembly of Shia clerics in the country, of the 2014 decision by the High Administrative Court to dissolve the IUC and liquidate its assets. The High Administrative Court had found in favor of the government’s suit stating the IUC was unlicensed and “used religion as a cover” for political activity.
The MOI and the public prosecutor summoned a number of Shia clerics and community leaders for questioning, for engaging in political speech in their sermons. In June the authorities questioned the Chairman of the dissolved IUC, Sayed Majeed al Mesha’al, regarding a sermon he gave in which he denounced the authorities and spoke in support of Sheikh Ali Salman. He was then released. On December 31, the authorities summoned Shia clerics Maytham al Salman and Abdulla al Ghuraifi for questioning regarding speeches they gave at a rally commemorating the arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman.
The government permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen, but summoned 13 religious chanters and clerics for questioning related to politicizing their Ashura speeches. The government did not detain or arrest any of those it questioned, however. Although the MOI provided security for the processions, Shia leaders reported MOI personnel also removed some Ashura flags, banners, and decorations from streets and private property, resulting, in at least one case, in a clash with local youth who tried to prevent the banners’ removal. The government said the banners were removed for unspecified violations.
The MOJIA threatened clerics with suspension if they espoused violence. In June the authorities suspended Salafist preacher Jassim Saeedi, a former MP, who previously had been suspended for anti-Shia commentary, but then reinstated him in July. He continued to make anti-Shia commentary via social media.
In May the High Criminal Court acquitted newspaper columnist Tareq al-Amer, who had been dismissed from his position at the local daily Al-Bilad in 2014 and whom authorities had charged with disdaining the Shia denomination for printing material mocking Shia religious thought in his column. The court ruled the article did not include phrases indicating contempt for a denomination and was of a political nature and not religious. Al-Amer found employment at the Al-Watan newspaper in June.
The government reported there were 440 licensed Sunni mosques and 80 Sunni community centers, while the number of licensed Shia places of worship included 609 mosques and 618 ma’atams, (Shia prayer houses). The state funded all licensed mosques. In newer residential developments such as Hamad Town and Isa Town, often containing mixed Shia and Sunni populations, observers reported there tended to be a disproportionate number of Sunni mosques, which they said evinced government favoritism.
Some non-Muslim groups reported they had experienced bureaucratic delays in trying to complete the reregistration process instituted by the MOLSD over the past several years for unspecified reasons. The reregistration reportedly involved resubmission of documents required for a group’s original registration.
The government continued to fund, monitor, and exercise control over official Muslim religious institutions, including Shia and Sunni mosques; religious community centers; Shia and Sunni religious endowments; and the religious courts, representing both the Shia- and Sunni-affiliated schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs continued to review and approve clerical appointments within both the Sunni and Shia communities.
Following a spike in sectarian violence in the region during the summer, the MOJIA re-affirmed its commitment to monitor sermons and urged preachers to abide by the regulations against inciting violence against other denominations and against addressing political issues in sermons. The MOJIA announced it would publish model sermons to guide preachers, but would not require preachers to use them. A group of Shia scholars spoke out against the promotion of sample sermons by the government.
The government-run television station did not broadcast Friday sermons from Shia mosques, while broadcasts from Sunni mosques appeared regularly on the channel.
The MOI increased its security presence around Shia mosques following attacks on Shia mosques in neighboring countries. The MOI promised to install additional security cameras at the mosques and reached out to community volunteers to help protect the mosques. As part of its public condemnation of the attacks, the government advocated for the organization of joint Sunni and Shia prayers as a show of Muslim solidarity against such attacks. Although some citizens supported the idea of joint unity prayers, many others, both Sunni and Shia, posted opinions on social media rejecting the idea and the prayers were not well-attended. Some Shia said the government was using the idea of joint prayers as “propaganda” to avoid addressing grievances of the Shia community. Some Sunni citizens launched a social media campaign titled “I will not pray before a Shia Imam.”
In July the MOI investigated reports unknown individuals had thrown copies of the Da’esh flag at the front door of the Shia-affiliated Ain Al-Dar Mosque in the Jid Haffs neighborhood. The incident was documented in photos posted on social media. As of year’s end, authorities had not reported any results of their investigation.
The government permitted non-Muslim communities that had registered to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols. The MOI provided security for large events held by non-Muslim communities. Security forces stated they monitored religious gatherings and funerals to maintain peace and security.
Observers reported the government permitted minority religious groups to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches. Observers also reported the only religious media and publications available did not criticize Islam.
Construction on a cathedral to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia did not progress much during the year following a groundbreaking ceremony last year after the king had set aside land for the construction of a number of new churches. Christian community leaders stated the government was continuing to explore options for expanding Christian cemeteries.
The government continued to implement the recommendations made in November 2011 by the BICI to rebuild 30 Shia mosques damaged or destroyed during the 2011 unrest. On November 7, the government announced it had reconstructed and handed over 13 complete mosques to the Jaafari Waqf (the government agency responsible for Shia mosques). The head of the Jaafari Waqf reported these 13 brought the total number of reconstructed mosques to 27, with the three remaining locations under study. Observers stated, however, only 21 mosques had been completely reconstructed and reopened, including seven rebuilt by the communities where they were located. Observers said the other six remained under construction; of these six, five appeared from the outside to be nearly complete. The Shia community, which argued mosque grounds must be preserved as they were, remained dissatisfied with the locations of three of the reconstructed mosques, which the government had moved due to their proximity to major roads.
Shia politicians and activists continued to claim the government’s naturalization and citizenship processes favored Sunni applicants over Shia applicants. They said the government recruited Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, while excluding Shia citizens from those forces, and then granted new Sunni members of the security forces expedited naturalization and other benefits, such as housing. The Shia activists said this recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis was an attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country’s citizens.
Shia leaders stated Sunni citizens often received preference for government educational scholarships, employment as teachers, and employment in government positions, especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and the military. They said few Shia citizens held significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. Senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes reportedly favored Sunni candidates. Shia leaders said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods were inferior to those in Sunni communities. The government stated it had a policy of nondiscrimination in employment, promotions, and the provision of social and educational services.
The 40-member Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, included 15 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while 23 of its members were Sunni. Five of the 23 cabinet ministers were Shia, including one of the five deputy prime ministers. The royal family is Sunni.
The government continued working to address the reinstatement of Shia workers dismissed in the wake of the 2011 unrest. As of March the Ministry of Labor reported the resolution of 130 of the 165 cases identified in the 2014 agreement between the ministry, the Chamber of Commerce, and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions.
Human rights activists said claims of discrimination in education had continued since 2011. They stated many qualified Shia teachers remained unemployed despite a shortage of teachers in the public schools. In that connection, they also cited the hiring of foreign Sunni teachers. Although university scholarships had previously been based only on students’ scores, the activists stated the interview panel for scholarships, introduced in 2011, continued to ask about students’ political views and family background if their name or address suggested they might be Shia. They said many top scoring Shia applicants were offered scholarships in less lucrative or less prestigious fields, or in a field of study they did not wish to pursue. Following the decision of some of those students to self-fund their study at foreign universities, the MOE denied recognition of some of their degrees, reportedly saying the universities were not accredited.