View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Religion in the United Arab Emirates

The recently published ‘International Religious Freedom Report (2007)’ has been welcomed by UAE commentators (See Gulf News) and referred to as a source of praise for the country’s record in religious freedom.

This report is issued each year and it documents the changes in countries in relation to their government’s repression of religious expression, the persecution of innocent believers, the toleration of violence towards religious minorities as recording the positive moves of respect, protection and the promotion of religious freedom. The 2007 report recognizes that in this last year there have been no significant changes or cases of religious discrimination in the UAE.

The report is valuable in the way it offers a window on the various religious groups that make up religion in the UAE.

Some general observations about religious groups in the UAE include the following:
* The government controls virtually all Sunni mosques.
* The government funds or subsidizes almost 95% of Sunni mosques (5% are private) and employs all Sunni imams.
* The Shi’a minority (concentrated in the northern emirates) is free to worship and maintain its own mosques.
* The government restricts the freedom of assembly and association, thereby limiting the ability of religious groups without dedicated religious buildings to worship and conduct business.
* There are neither authority, licensing, nor registration requirements for the recognition and regulation of non-Muslim groups.
* The government follows a policy of tolerance toward non-Muslim religious groups and in practice, interfers very little in their religious activities.

Some restrictions to the generally free practice of religion in the UAE include the following:
* The government distributes religious guidance on religious sermons to mosques and clergy and it ensures that clergy do not deviate frequently or significantly from approved topics in their sermons.
* Hardships were cited regarding the Buddhist community which does not have its own temple.
* There were hardships mentioned in regard to the Hindu communities who had to share temples with Sikhs and there were insufficient cremation facilities and associated cemeteries.
* The government prohibits non-Muslims from distributing religious literature, under penalty of criminal prosecution, imprisonment and deportation.
* The government’s Internet service Provider blocks many web sites containing information about religions other than Islam.
* Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women ‘of the book’, that is, Christian or Jewish women, however Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men, unless the men convert to Islam.
* The UAE publicly lists and welcomes the people who are converting to Islam but it does not guarantee the same privilege and freedom to Emiratis to choose to become a member of another faith.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the UAE and no reports of forced religious conversion.

The report lists some specific cases of concern whilst also listing many advances and instances of tolerance and inter-faith cooperation.

Staff Report, ‘Religious Freedom in UAE Comes in for Praise’, Gulf News, 17 September 2007.
2007 Report of International Religious Freedom, US Department of State.

Geoff Pound

Image: Collage of religious buildings.