NGOs: The Bahraini Authorities Took Advantage of the Covid-19 Pandemic to Restrict the Religious Freedoms of Shia Citizens in this Year’s Ashura
The undersigned organizations express their concern about the Bahraini government’s exploitation of the Covid-19 pandemic to restrict the religious freedoms of Shia citizens during 2021’s Ashura season. On the 8th of August of this year, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs, and Waqf set precautionary measures during the Ashura season based on the recommendations of the National Medical Taskforce for Combating the Coronavirus (Covid-19). The content of these measures involved restricting the Ashura rituals in terms of limiting the participation of citizens to the minimum number possible, as the funeral service was limited to the congregation hall (the ma’tam, the religious building for the funeral). On the ninth and tenth days of Muharram, the Covid-19 risk of spreading reached orange levels, and a limitation of citizen participation in the ma’tam was set at 30 people. Funeral processions were also prevented and confined to small spaces crowded with participants in front of these religious institutions and endowments (ma’tams and Husseiniyas), in spaces that violate the principle of social distancing. Immediately after the tenth day of Muharram, the state of the country’s risk level was returned to the green level. At the same time, the mourning ceremonies were prevented from going out to public streets in some funerary processions.
Violations of the Ministry of Interior: Summonses and Investigations for the Purpose of Intimidation and the Criminalization of Religious Speech
The Ministry of Interior summoned preachers, chanters, funeral directors, and citizens who participated in the Ashura rituals with the aim of interrogating them, as well as those who hung religious banners on the wall of their house. Subsequently, based on these summonses, financial penalties ranging from 200 to 1,000 Bahraini dinars (500 to 2,500 US dollars) for violating Covid-19 procedures were issued.
Additionally, one case of a preacher being beaten at Al-Qudaibiya Police Station was recorded, the heads of the funerary organizations were held responsible for individuals violating the precautionary measures, and several arbitrary arrests were carried out. Further, it was documented that the community police photographed the participants taking part in the mourning processions, tracking them after the rituals ended, and recording their car numbers. The community police also photographed the houses that put up black signs on the walls of their house or on the roofs of their property and have imposed checkpoints to intimidate participants by setting up financial penalties.
Assigning the Task of Violating the Ashura Banners to Municipal Affairs to Cover Up the Role of Security Forces in the Violations
The Ministry of Works, Municipalities Affairs and Urban Planning removed and tore black banners and also confiscated black posters in an attempt to cover up the role of the Ministry of Interior. The pictures and videos taken by the citizens of the security forces’ infringements on the Ashura display, however, constitute an explicit condemnation of them. Therefore, they had to resort to an official civil body. Moreover, an Iraqi preacher, Mr. Hashem al-Battat, was prevented from speaking by the Nationality, Passports and Residence Affairs. Complaints were also received from prisoners in Jau Prison’s Building 12 and Building 5 that they were prevented from practicing their religious rites at the beginning of the Ashura season.
The right to practice religious rites and exercise religious freedoms is one of the rights guaranteed by the Bahraini constitution in its twenty-second article, which states that the state guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom to perform religious rites and religious parades in accordance with the customs observed in the country. Bahrain is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states in its eighteenth article that every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and this includes the freedom to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and education. We also concurrently emphasize that every religion and sect have their specificity in performing rituals, and the state is responsible in guaranteeing this right and not interfering in it and codifying it in a way that is consistent with its political and security nature under various pretexts. Infringing on this right is considered an attack on people’s identity and freedoms, and the authorities must respect this right and recognize and accept their rights and identity.
Bahraini human rights organizations call on the Bahraini government to respect the right to practice rites, religious freedoms, and the independence of religious affairs. They also call on the government to stop targeting Shia citizens, not to restrict the practice of Husseini rites, and not to interfere in matters related to funerals, Hussainiyas, and mourning ceremonies. They also ask the Bahraini government to stop summoning preachers, chanters, and citizens and those responsible for the mourning and funerals with the purpose of investigating
them to impose financial penalties or arrest. Officials involved in violations of religious freedoms for all citizens and residents must be held accountable. Human rights organizations call on the government to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit Bahrain in order to identify and put an end to violations of freedom of religion or belief.
Bahrain Forum for Human Rights
SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights
Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights