The government reportedly arrested and prosecuted citizens it considered extremist and revoked residency permits for more than a hundred noncitizen Shia Muslims, reportedly because of security concerns. In at least one case, authorities deported an expatriate Christian for talking about his faith with other persons. Some prison sentences reportedly were reduced if a non-Muslim converted to Islam. Awqaf continued to provide guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques. Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths said they could generally worship in private without government interference but faced restrictions on practicing their religion in public. A number of non-Muslim groups used worship space on land donated by the ruling families, although the groups said capacity was insufficient to meet the demand created by the large expatriate population. Government-owned internet service providers blocked web sites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered extremist. Government leaders issued statements condemning extremist activities.
The government maintained a list of what it designated as terrorist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood and organizations related to it. The government arrested and prosecuted citizens it suspected of subscribing to practices and ideologies it considered extremist. For example, in August the government put on trial 41 individuals belonging to a group allegedly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, on charges related to terrorist activity. Seven were acquitted and the remainder convicted on charges of possession illegal weapons or ammunition or providing financial support to al Qaeda or Da’esh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
Human rights activists reported many detainees arrested by the government on the grounds they were members of banned Islamist groups were people who were not violent or were members of groups that had disavowed violence. The activists stated the government detained some individuals on the basis of tweets in support of certain groups rather than advocacy of violence.
The authorities reportedly deported an expatriate Christian they accused of discussing his faith with local citizens.
According to media and other reports, the government revoked residency permits for more than a hundred noncitizen Shia Muslims during the year. Observers suggested the government action was motivated primarily by security concerns.
Within prisons, the authorities required Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services, and non-Muslims reported some pressure to attend ostensibly nonmandatory lectures and classes about Islam. In some of the emirates, Christian pastors and priests were not able to visit Christian prisoners.
The government supported Islamic institutions and programs facilitating conversion to Islam. Some prison sentences reportedly were reduced if a non-Muslim converted to Islam.
There was no data available on the number of conversions taking place during the year. As was true in past years, there were also no reports of prosecutions or legal punishments for apostasy.
Representatives from non-Muslim faiths said registration procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear. The government did not require non-Islamic religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation resulted in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain operational functions. Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some groups were reportedly unable to open bank accounts due to the lack of a clear legal category to which to assign the organization. This reportedly created practical barriers to collecting funds, paying salaries, purchasing insurance, or renting space, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.
According to Awqaf, the government continued to fund 95 percent of the approximately 5,000 Sunni mosques, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees. The government considered the remaining 5 percent of Sunni mosques to be private.
Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques and provided guidance to Shia mosques. On its website, Awqaf stated its goals included instilling “moderation in Islam through religious guidance.” It continued to distribute weekly guidance to 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 Awqaf’s website. Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf Friday sermon script 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. Awqaf officials also reviewed religious materials such as books and DVDs.
Awqaf continued to appoint 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. All of the imams in Dubai’s 2000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens.
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. The government considered all Shia mosques to be private, and they were able to receive funds from the government upon request. The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private, but not in public. The government allowed Shia mosques to broadcast the Shia version of the call to prayer from their minarets.
Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings, or in private facilities or homes. The government restricted their ability to worship, preach, or pray in public, however. 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.
There were no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays at a private home in Dubai.
The government allowed some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, to advertise religious functions in the press, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, choral concerts, and fundraising events. The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Muslim holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.
The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics, and in some cases denied permits or canceled events. For example, in one reported case, authorities did not grant a permit for an interfaith theological conference that had been held in previous years.
The government limited the publication and distribution of religious literature to what it considered to be moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Muslim religious publications such as material which could be seen as proselytizing or promoting another religion over Islam. The government prohibited the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam.
The country’s two primary internet service providers, which are both majority owned by the government, blocked certain web sites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist. The service providers blocked other sites on religion-related topics, including some with information on Judaism, Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.
Customs authorities continued to review the content of religious materials imported into the country, and sometimes barred passengers deemed to be carrying items intended for “sorcery” from entering. Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, bags containing fish skeletons, animal bones, and sealed containers filled with blood. According to media reports, the government continued to arrest individuals or denied them entry to the country for the practice of sorcery, usually in connection with allegations of financial fraud. For example, in February authorities convicted three Sudanese of fraud for attempting to sell potions they claimed would increase wealth. The men allegedly said they had magic powers and the ability to create money from stars. In May Abu Dhabi police conducted a campaign against witchcraft and sorcery, saying it was part of its efforts to combat hoaxes and increase security awareness.
Noncitizens relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship. This was true for many minority religious groups, whose membership mostly consisted of noncitizens. For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. Some observers stated local rulers were more likely to grant land to groups representing monotheistic religions. There were approximately 40 Christian churches built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for the Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Anglican and other denominations.
The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis. Noncitizen groups said the construction of new houses of worship had not kept up with the growth of the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches faced overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space. Some smaller congregations shared space with churches that had been given land by rulers or met in private locations. Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also waived utility payments for religious buildings.
The government reportedly did not always enforce the law against bell towers and crosses on churches and some churches displayed crosses on their buildings.
In June the Roman Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi opened a second church in the large industrial neighborhood of Musaffah, where many migrant laborers lived and worked and where several new churches had been built in recent years. In August during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government announced it would grant land to build a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi.
The government continued to provide land for non-Muslim cemeteries. There were cremation facilities and associated cemeteries for the large Hindu community in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai, and Sharjah. The Hindu community reported these were sufficient to meet present demand. The government required residents and nonresidents 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.
In Islamic court cases involving non-Muslim defendants, judges had the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties, and sources said the judges generally imposed civil penalties.
Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on residence applications. School applications also asked for family religious affiliation. According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.
Government leaders issued public statements condemning what the government considered to be extremist activities on multiple occasions, arguing they represented an incorrect interpretation of Islam. For example, addressing the UN General Assembly the foreign minister stated his country condemned the “brutal methods used by these groups and organizations in the name of Islam.”
Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities such as providing meals or social services was also circumscribed because of government restrictions on charitable activities and giving, and they had difficulty spending the funds they raised.
In April the government hosted a second annual conference in Abu Dhabi focusing on peaceful coexistence in Muslim societies. The event brought over 350 Islamic scholars, intellectuals, researchers and observers together to discuss Islam, the challenges of promoting peace within Muslim societies, and solutions for promoting stable multi-cultural societies.