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

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Religious Freedom in UAE: Commendable Advances, Significant Challenges

This week at the two day ‘High Level Dialogue on Inter-religious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace’ in New York, the UAE representative summarised his country’s initiatives in religious freedom and joined the call for promoting inter-religious and intercultural dialogue.

In his presentation to the conference, Anwar Othman Barout Saleem Al Barout, who serves as Charge d’Affaires of the Permanent Mission of the UAE to the UN, indicated that the UAE has supported all efforts by the UN Secretary-General aimed at encouraging dialogue among cultures and respect for different religions. In particular he cited these initiatives:

* Providing education for many poor regions of the world
* Safeguarding cultural and religious heritage (Zayed Award)
* Instituting culture weeks and establishing cultural villages
* Inaugurating the Zayed Book Award to motivate writers to contribute towards cultural and religious understanding
* Attracting international museums and galleries to promote knowledge and cultural and religious understanding
* Establishing the Emirates Foundation for raising educational, technological and intellectual standards
* Hosting meetings and conferences to promote the intercultural exchange of conversation and knowledge
* Participating in regional and international programmes aimed at bringing peoples together and fostering tolerance, respect and dialogue (e.g. Sultan Al Owais Foundation)

Al Barout is right to identify the strides that the UAE has taken in religious freedom and intercultural understanding and his leadership in calling other nations to further dialogue is most welcome.

These positive steps should not lead the UAE to rest on its laurels for there are still some important advances for the country to make in the journey towards full religious freedom. Here are two main areas:

Human Rights
While the Amnesty International 2007 Report has recognised the progress the UAE has made in human rights (see the AI 2007 Report on the UAE for details), there are international concerns about the following matters:

* The lack of women elected to the newly formed Federal National Council (sixty-three women candidates stood for election but only one was voted onto the FNC).
* The continuation of the death penalty (in June a Fujairah court imposed a sentence of death by stoning, upon a Bangladeshi national. This decision was later appealed and the accused was given a lesser penalty).
* Cruel judicial punishments (these include flogging by an excessive number of lashes).
* The risk of forcible return (deporting people to countries where their lives will probably be at risk).
* Subjection to harassment of some human rights defenders.

Religious Assembly
The recently released International Religious Freedom Report 2007 noted that the UAE Constitution provides for freedom of religion… and that the government generally respected this right in practice. The report did note that there were some restrictions on religious practice which represent challenges for the UAE government, the enforcers of the law and its citizens. These include the following:

* The UAE government restricts the freedom of religious assembly and association, thereby limiting the ability of some religious groups without dedicated religious buildings to worship and conduct their business.
* The UAE government recognises a small number of Christian denominations and religious groups through the issuance of land-use permits for the construction and operation of churches, including those who use rented facilities.

In practice many religious groups with permits rent out their facilities to other groups but with the growth of the population, religious groups and worshippers, in some areas of the UAE there is insufficient officially recognised accommodation for religious worship. It is also noted that some groups who have assembled without a permit have received substantial fines.

While the UAE Constitution states that “the freedom to exercise religious worship shall be guaranteed… provided it does not disturb public peace or violate public morals” (Article 32 UAE Constitution), in the approval process there are sometimes restrictions placed on the number of people that can assemble, sound levels and the fixing of religious signs (e.g. crosses) to the outside of the building.

While high decibel worship by any religious group that disturbs the peace should be restricted, a country that promotes religious freedom and whose official religion broadcasts its call to prayer over public address speakers five times a day, should be willing to tolerate once or twice a week the sound of Buddhist chants, Hindu incantations or Christian singing with musical accompaniment.

There is a murky area in the use of private homes for religious worship in the UAE. For the first 200 years of its history Christian churches met not in temples but in homes. Many Christian groups around the world, including the UAE, still prefer to have all their meetings in homes while others prefer a combination, whereby larger (often weekly) gatherings are held in a church building and small groups are hosted in private homes. One would not think that a private home would need to be officially registered for religious observance, especially when used for irregular meetings. However, some house owners that have hosted meetings have been harassed by neighbours who also have submitted reports to UAE government officials and police, insisting that these meetings be stopped.

The UAE has made significant progress in human rights and religious freedom but certain regulations, restrictions and discrimination shown towards people of other faiths represent some of the challenges in moving towards the goal of full religious and cultural tolerance.

Geoff Pound

Image: Religious buildings.

Note: A related posting on Religion in the UAE can be found at this link.