Bahrain: The employment of the Covid-19 pandemic for religious persecution

A report on Ashura season 1442 AH / 2020 AD

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Three human rights organizations, Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR), Bahrain Forum for Human Rights (BFHR), and Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, published a report titled: “Bahrain: The employment of the Covid-19 pandemic for religious persecution”

Since 2011, the Bahraini government has persisted in its transformation of the occasion of Ashura – and, in a more general manner, the months of Muharram and Safar of the Islamic hijri year – into an occasion whereby it can exercise its policy of collective punishment on the Shiite citizens of its population through the methodical restraint of religious manifestation and practice of rites.

The violations thus far have been wide and varied, all malleable to fit the dominant political and legal situations of the specific period. Of the many forms the violations took were the severe restrictions on prisoners who wanted to exercise their religious rites, the obtrusion of religious displays such as signs or any public display of grief; that is, making it hard to participate in the external dress – whether of items or people – in the black of mourning. Several reciters (ruwadeed) and administrators of Hussainiyat were arrested and investigated by security forces regarding the content of their speeches and elegies. In an attempt to prevent the mass prayer on the night of Ashura in the country’s capital, many of the preachers had their speech censored. Some of the preachers had their sermons contested and criminalized due to a lack of consensus on fact relating to Islamic history.

Harassments were not only related to speech; many of the violations escalated in their intensity: several funeral processions were attacked with teargas bombs or expanding bullets. What remains a constant element underlying all these instances is their intentionality: they are borne out of a deliberate state-sanctioned political statement that is part of a system and not one individual’s sole behavior.

Violations did not stop this year, either: attempts were made to prevent the opening of Hussainiyat, threats were made to block the funeral processions, public signage of Ashura were removed, and successive summons were made by the police to the preachers, reciters, and chanters of the Ashura lamentations. Hussainiyat administrators were also summoned, amongst receiving several threatening calls. Finally, there was the closure of some mosques and several of the Hussainiyat with plans to close higher numbers.

Countless violations to the right to free belief and practice have occurred for the Shiite citizens in their attempts to practice Ashura rites in Bahrain, ranging from summonses and arbitrary arrests, the closure of funerary services and mosques, the obstruction of holding gatherings or funeral processions, the confiscation or destruction of Ashura flags and banners, and acts of provocation committed by security forces in 26 areas of Bahrain.

Security forces have adopted a methodology of undermining religious freedoms as a policy of collective punishment. This strategy bolsters the imposition of formal customs and traditions that criminalize religious practices and rights – as in the way the Bahraini authorities have used their judiciary powers of investigation and prosecution as tools of threat and intimidation against the preachers and religious reciters.
The methods not only restrict the scope of religious freedom, but, more generally, affects their freedom of expression: both rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under articles 18 and 19.