Bahrain: Shia scholars vision for reforms

Shia scholars in Bahrain occupy a prominent position in Bahraini society, regularly demanding equal rights for all citizens, stressing freedoms of belief and opinion, and ensuring religious issues of the indigenous Shia Bahraini population are resolved within the boundaries of the constitution and international agreements on freedom of religion. They operate within the articles set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bahrain signed and ratified, which further gives precedence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Article 18 of the ICCPR states unequivocally:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
Whilst, the UDHR repeats this principle under Article 18 of the declaration.

The Bahraini Constitution of 2002, as well, states under Article 22 that:
Freedom of conscience is absolute. The State guarantees the inviolability of worship, and the freedom to perform religious rites and hold religious parades and meetings in accordance with the customs observed in the country.

This was repeated historically under the previous constitution of 1973, under the same article.
Shia scholars in Bahrain have also served to oppose sectarian rhetoric fermented by official media outlets and fanatics, implored protesters to remain peaceful in all endeavours for change in the country, including the 2011 popular uprising, and regularly pose peaceful solutions to the political and human rights crises that have recently unfolded.

Shia scholars have reflected their collective stand on many occasions and agreements, including in a public statement titled the “Document on Tolerance and Coexistence”, as well as many others.
Articles 3 and 7 of the Document on Tolerance and Coexistence states the following:
3. Dialogue is a civilized way of resolving differences between the followers of different religions and sects. It is also one of the means for mutual understanding and rapprochement between different peoples
7. Human dignity and human freedom and legitimate rights are common elements in human life, and are supported by all religions.
Prominent Shia scholars have publically come out and stated their solutions for the growing crises in Bahrain, ranging from torture and stateless victims, to denouncing the rest of human rights violations that have been carried out.

On 18 July 2013, Shia scholars drafted and released the ‘Document on Islamic Unity’ hoping to curb any extremist or sectarian thoughts in Bahraini society. The document contained ten peaceful principles, which included a strong call to reject any forms of terrorism, as well as condemning any violations against any individuals. It states clearly within its preamble and one of the ten principles, that any sectarian strife or discord is strictly rejected, as to prevent the nation slipping into sectarian conflicts which produce nothing but weakness and failure”.

Key principle of Document on Islamic Unity: To reject all incitements of sectarian strife from any side.”

Sheikh Isa Qasim and Sheikh Al-Sangoor have regularly and consistently expressed in their Friday Prayer sermons the solutions identified by Bahrain’s scholarly community, as well demanding an end to violations. Friday Prayer sermons are seen as an important facet within the lives of Muslims, which extends to Bahrain’s largely Muslim population. It is an opportunity for a scholar to project his views and reaffirm principles and stands. The Friday Prayer headed by Sheikh Isa Qasim and Sheikh Al-Sangoor is attended by hundreds every week, and is closely followed and listened to by the Bahraini Shia population.

Sheikh Isa Qassim has mentioned in a Friday sermon that, “the Bahraini authorities must ensure an environment favourable to the success of a political dialogue [between the Government and the Opposition], and take the issue of dialogue much more seriously.”

He has also reiterated that:
Regarding the use of violence, the opposition has stated in numerous avenues, and by the release of the Nonviolence Document, that it will not resort to violent means. It is time for the Bahraini authorities to control and stop its security apparatus from using violence.

The Declaration of Nonviolence, referred to by Sheikh Isa Qassim, was declared on 7 November 2012 by the opposition, and endorsed by Bahrain’s scholarly community as well as prominent human rights defenders and activists. It is a declaration repeatedly referred to in speeches by Bahraini scholars, and is seen by them as a foundation to all calls for rights and plans for future activities.

Last month, on 7 March 2016, 39 prominent Bahraini scholars released a joint statement articulating that the Bahraini people “demand equal citizenship and not a sectarian state”. The statement referred to the need for a constitution and system of governance that is approved by the Bahraini population. The statement further highlighted the fact that the judiciary must serve justice by ensuring equal citizenship, attributed rights and duties, and an end to any forms of discrimination. This sentiment has been repeated by senior scholars individually and separately, including Sheikh Al-Sangoor and Sheikh Al-Ghuraifi.

Sheikh Al-Ghuraifi alluded to the fact that equal citizenship among all Bahrainis with the clampdown on discrimination may lead to an opening that can resolve domestic disagreements and issues, stating:
Equal citizenship with no discrimination that is based on sect will surely harmonize all factions of the [Bahraini] people.

Moreover, scholars in Bahrain have paid close attention to the workings of the United Nations and the related bodies, including the UN Human Rights Council. Bahraini scholars have called for the Government of Bahrain to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to enter the country, and have consistently urged the Bahraini authorities to heed the advice and criticisms stated by the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, extreme poverty and human rights, and field of cultural rights.

Demands for the full and fast implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry (BICI) and the UN Universal Period Review recommendations by the Shia scholars have been constant and overwhelming. Sheikh Maytham Al-Salman, a Bahraini scholar and human rights defender, who has been summoned numerous times and faces serious charges for demanding fair and equal rights, respect of freedoms, and the implementation of BICI recommendations, restated this key demand.

Unfortunately, the Bahraini authorities maintain a blanket suppression on the demands of the scholars, refusing to consider their vision for solutions on any issue in Bahrain. The Bahraini authorities have even gone a step further recently when it commenced a line of action to revoke citizenships of what it considers opponents to the government, and forcefully deports scholars, activists and politicians from the country. Scholars include Sheikh Al-Najati, a Shia scholar that was born, raised and lived in Bahrain, was was stripped of his nationality and forcefully deported in April 2014.

We urge the international community to stand and take up the demands of Bahrain’s scholarly community, and stress, the way Bahraini Shia scholars like Sheikh Al-Sangoor and Isa Qasim have done in many speeches, in demanding that the Bahraini authorities ensure equal citizenships and rights to all citizens, a favourable environment for dialogue, and an end to all violations.