30 November – On 22 November, the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) held a public hearing on freedom of religion and the persecution of religious minorities, chaired by DROI Chair MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri. Several experts attended the hearing, including prominent Bahraini scholar and human rights defender Sheikh Maytham Al Salman who comprehensively illustrated the systematic religious based discrimination and persecution against Shia in Bahrain.
With the aim of addressing the recent rise of intolerance and religious restrictions across the world, DROI hearing “Freedom of Religion or Belief: the situation of persecuted minorities, notably the Christians” gathered a number of experts from different parts of the world who focused on the persecution of various religious minorities, in particular Christians in the Middle East, China, India, North Korea and Russia, Rohingya in Myanmar, and, lastly, Shia in Bahrain.
Systematic discrimination against Shia in Bahrain
Shia Muslims in Bahrain compose 60-65 % of the religious demography of Bahraini nationals, therefore constituting the majority of the country’s population. For decades, they have been subjected to a harsh persecution at the hand of the Sunni ruling authorities, and since the uprising of 2011, their condition has been further deteriorating.
The abuse and discrimination of Shia in Bahrain is enshrined in the wide misrepresentation of Shia in legislative and judiciary bodies. Discrimination is institutionalised in nearly every aspect of Bahraini society, including the marginalization from assignments in government posts (composing below 15% in government positions) and the exclusion from social services and public sector employment. In addition, despite the multiple religious’ denominations in Bahrain, the government has always promoted an anti-Shia discourse, including imposing a certain curriculum of religion and belief on public and private schools, thus preventing the Shia community from learning anything related to their religious doctrine. It is worthy to note that 99% of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Bahrain are predominately from the Shia community.[For more information: see, ADHRB, BCHR, BIRD, Apart in their own land, Government discrimination against Shia in Bahrain : Volume I Violence, Political Disclusion, and Attacks on the Shia Religious Establishment / Volume II Economic Disclusion, Cultural Marginalization, and Media Discrimination, 2015]
Recent wave of repressive measures
In 2016, a group of UN experts, including UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, expressed deep concerns about “the systematic harassment of the Shia population in Bahrain”, noting the increased numbers of Shia religious clerics, human rights defenders and peaceful activists who had been summoned, interrogated, detained or had seen their nationality revoked by the Bahraini authorities just on the basis of their religious affiliation. Similarly, the US International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 released in August 2017 documents severe forms of discrimination in the kingdom, arbitrary denaturalisation, excessive restrictions religious practices and speech, and the targeted judicial harassment of Shia faith leader and political figures.
Among the dozens of most prominent Shia religious leaders recently harassed, Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s most prominent Shia cleric and the spiritual leader of al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition group, had his nationality revoked in June 2016, rendering him stateless and at risk of being forcibly expelled. had his nationality revoked in June 2016, rendering him stateless and at risk of being forcibly expelled. On 21 May 2017, he was sentenced to one-year in prison, suspended for three years, and a fine of 100 thousand dinars for alleged money-laundering. The charges relate solely to the Shia religious practice of khums, a payment made by Shia Muslims to Shia clerics for charitable distribution to the community. His health recently deteriorated sharply after six month under house arrest, deprived from medical care and denied his basic and fundamental human rights.
In a further attempt to repress Bahrain Shia civil society, on 17 July 2016, the Bahraini Higher Civil Court dissolved the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society while failing to present credible evidence to show that Al-Wefaq is anything but a peaceful opposition movement. Members of Al-Wefaq have repeatedly been summoned for questioning or detained. Sheikh Ali Salman, Al-Wefaq’s Secretary General, is currently serving a four-year sentence for allegedly inciting hatred. Following his sentencing in 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that his detention was arbitrary and called on the Bahraini authorities for his immediate release.
In parallel to these actions, the government of Bahrain has also dissolved in 2016 the only two providers of religious education for Shia in the country: the Islamic Olamaa Council and the Islamic Enlightment Society.
Following those developments, the European Parliament resolution of 7 July 2016 on Bahrain expressed concern for the suppression of legitimate political opposition in Bahrain, and in particular the judicial harassment against Al-Wefaq, the unfair trial of Sheikh Ali Salman and the denaturalisation of Sheikh Isa Qassim. It further called on the Bahraini authorities “to live up to the country’s constitution, which stipulates that there shall be no discrimination as regards the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion and to end any discrimination against the Shia population”.
The EU noted that these measures “can only represent an obstacle to the national reconciliation in the Kingdom.” A concern that was later repeated by the EU and echoed several times by the French Ministry of Foreign affairs.
During the hearing, Sheikh Maytham Al Salman, who is also Chairman of the Bahrain Interfaith Centre, addressed the following recommendations to all European actors:
- Encourage the Government of Bahrain and non-state actors, whether religious or non-religious, to refrain from fostering inter-religious tensions, either by law or practice, to support initiatives to promote an atmosphere of respect and tolerance between all persons regardless of their religion or belief, and to defuse emerging tensions while publically calling for an all-inclusive dialogue process that leads to democracy, respect of universal human rights and equal citizenship in Bahrain.
- Condemn and take appropriate action including public statements against all forms of intolerance and discrimination against persons because of their religion or belief as contrary to the right to equality and non-discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights
- Call upon Bahrain to ensure the protection of Shia religious heritage sites and places of worship and to continue the rebuilding of 38 Shia mosques which were demolished by government forces in 2011 and to hold the perpetrators accountable before the law
- Call upon Bahrain to fully implement the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) recommendations that cover a broad range of tasks, including the ensuring of accountability and the prevention of the recurrence of human rights violations.
- Calling upon Bahrain to respond favorably to the requests for visit of the country and also facilitate the visits of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Special Rapporteur on torture, Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
- Calling upon Bahrain to release all political prisoners & prisoners of conscious, lift the house arrest imposed on Ayatollah Qasim and bring the national legislation in Bahrain into compliance with article 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
Sheikh Maytham Al Salman concluded “the persecution of Shiites and practice of discrimination in Bahrain is not only a human rights issue but also a geopolitical issue that could never serve the purpose of […] establishing sustainable peace and stability in our troubled region. The misery of Shia citizens in Bahrain has to come to a stop and equal citizenship must by constitutionally guaranteed”.
ECDHR calls upon the EU to ensure the respect of freedom of religion or belief in Bahrain and to condemn the targeting and harassment of the Shia majority at the hand of the Bahraini authorities. We also urge the Government of Bahrain to end immediately the persecution of Shia clerics and activists for their religious activities and in particular, to reverse the dissolution of Al-Wefaq Society, the sentence against Sheikh Ali Salman and to end the prosecution of Sheikh Isa Qassim. In conclusion, ECDHR urges Bahraini authorities to review laws and policies that perpetuate religious based discrimination, marginalization and exclusion against its Shia citizens.