The US State Department issued a report documenting violations of religious freedoms in Bahrain and the wide use of religious discrimination to maintain power and practice interfaith coexistence to obscure violations.
This report included around 51 specific individual cases of religious repression, discrimination, or harassment perpetrated by the Government of Bahrain during 2021. Almost all of these crimes were committed against Shia Muslims, and nearly all were politically motivated.
The opening and independent sentence in the Government Practices section of the report refers to Bahrain’s authoritarianism: “Since religion and political affiliation are often closely linked, it has been difficult to classify many incidents as based solely on religious identity.” However, the monarchy also pursues religious discrimination as political control.
The report notes that “the government continued to discriminate against Shia citizens and grant preferential treatment to Sunni citizens for scholarships and positions in the Ministry of Interior and the military.”
Religious discrimination against Shi’a Muslims has resulted in a discriminatory imbalance in the workforce, the military, political bodies, and civil society. The persistently high unemployment rates, the limited possibilities for upward social mobility, and the weaker socio-economic status of this sect compared to the Sunnis are the best evidence of the religious discrimination that the Shiites suffer from in the country.
The report said that religious discrimination by the Sunni monarchy against Shiite citizens is so severe that it has been brought up in meetings between US government officials, the chargé d’affaires and other embassy representatives with senior government officials.
In its report, the State Department acknowledged that US officials “called on the government to pursue political reforms that would take into account the needs of all citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation.”
He said that the ruling family in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa family, are Sunni Muslims. But, at the same time, most of the country’s citizens (about 65%, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) are Shiite Muslims.
Between the country’s constitution and Islamic law, Bahrain’s citizens enjoy on paper the rights and guarantees of freedom of opinion, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to express and disseminate ideas.
In practice, however, these rights either do not exist or are selectively protected by the government. Moreover, the government’s long list of abuses, many of which are identified in the State Department’s report, could lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the rights enshrined in the country’s laws are camouflaged to give the Bahraini ruling family access to the benefits of relations with Western countries.
The State Department report notes government interference and harassment of Shiite worshipers during one of the most important days of the Shiite religious calendar, the Ashura commemoration.
The report also notes criticism of the government for removing Ashura banners and “summoning Shiite leaders for questioning in connection with the sermons they gave on that commemoration.”
The report stated that the government investigated 100 citizens and arrested three on charges of “practising their religious rites” in 45 government operations to stop Shiite religious rites.
The State Department provides multiple details of how the government “effectively suppressed and expressed Ashura practices,” denied Shia prisoners the right to commemorate the occasion, punished those who insisted on performing their religious rituals and held them in isolation from contact with their families.
During Ramadan, the report notes that one NGO recorded “one incident of harassment, one incident of threats, and nine incidents in which the authorities prevented the practice of religious rites.”
The government’s justification for this religious repression was based on the prevention of the coronavirus. However, the State Department report includes an account of the king’s son, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, publicly “joining the Indian Onam festival among large crowds and without taking any apparent public health measures.”