USCIRF 2019 Report
This is the selected summary of the violations toward Shia Muslims as it is reported by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The ongoing operation of terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), threaten the country’s overall security but particularly endanger the nation’s Shi’a Muslim population who have faced increased attacks in recent years.
In fact, 2018 was one of the most fatal in Afghanistan for all civilians—and particularly religious minorities—due to terrorist activity, and the government often was unable to protect civilians from attacks.
Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a few historically disadvantaged ethnic and religious minority groups have overcome generations of discrimination to hold prominent positions in the public and private sectors.
This is especially true for the Shi’a Muslim community, whose socio political influence has grown over the last two decades as its members increasingly hold leading positions in the government, media, and private industry.
There are now more than 10,000 Shi’a mosques in the country, 400 of which are in the capital city of Kabul. There are also several prosperous neighborhoods and enclaves throughout the country that are predominantly inhabited by the Shi’a Muslim community. Shi’a Muslims’ sociopolitical ascendance has been one of the reasons some extremist groups have continued to target the community, whom they consider to be apostates. Yet, a superficial division has formed between extremists allied with the ISKP and those working for the Taliban. For example, in the aftermath of an attack in November 2018, the Taliban’s website explained that its aim was not to target any “specific race, ethnicity or sect” but rather to attack anyone abetting the government.
On the other hand, extremists affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have intentionally escalated their attacks and increased their public hate speech dehumanizing Afghanistan’s Shi’a Muslims. This is, in part, due to the fact that some of Afghanistan’s Shi’a Muslim population fought against ISIS in Syria. As a result, many ISIS leaders who fled from Syria to Afghanistan to establish bases have exported their intent to exact revenge against all Shi’a Muslims in the country. This is especially significant because an increased number of local Taliban fighters have started to switch their allegiance to the ISKP.
In 2018, this culminated in an increasingly lethal series of ISKP attacks against Shi’a mosques, such as an attack in March 2018 that left one dead and eight wounded and another in August that resulted in the deaths of 29. While the ISKP carried out attacks that targeted all civilians in general, its attacks targeting the Shi’a Muslim community have been more lethal, with nearly 300 fatalities from almost two dozen attacks in 2018 alone. Such attacks often have coincided with Shi’a religious festivals like Ashura or Muharram.
In response to this threat, the Afghan government has attempted to provide additional security and offered weapons to civilians living near Shi’a mosques.
In 2018, extremist groups, including the ISKP, continued targeting one specific ethnic group in particular: the overwhelmingly Shi’a Hazaras. Some examples include the ISKP’s twin bombings on September 5 of a Shi’a Hazara enclave that resulted in the deaths of 20 and injuries to 70, along with an attack on August 15 that resulted in 48 young Shi’a Muslims being killed and 67 injured.
These kinds of attacks were not limited in 2018 to major cities like Kabul, but increasingly occurred at the provincial level, such as a series of attacks in Ghazni Province.
Hazara advocates have complained that the government has failed to provide proper security to the community and that Hazara political leaders were granted limited influence over the government’s policy-making process.
Elections remain a point of conflict in Afghanistan. During the leadup to the October 2018 parliamentary elections, the ISKP carried out several attacks on religious minorities—such as Shi’a Muslims—at voter registration or polling centers. For example, an April 22 attack in Kabul left 57 people dead and 117 wounded.
By the end of 2018, Sardar Babayev, an Iranian-educated Shi’a Muslim imam, remained imprisoned for violating a law that prohibited individuals with foreign religious education from performing religious ceremonies
In February 2018, MUM leader and Shi’a Muslim theologian Taleh Bagirov (also known by the surname Bagirzade) received an additional five-month sentence for allegedly possessing micro-discs containing the text and audio recordings of the Qur’an.
In December 2018, Telman Shiraliyev, a Shi’a Muslim man originally sentenced to six years in prison for participating in an October 2012 protest against a ban on headscarves in schools, was sentenced to an additional six months in prison.
USCIRF visit to Bahrain in March 2019 found that the government continued its discrimination and repression of the Shi’a Muslim community on the basis of their religious identity in certain areas. In 2018, the government arrested some Shi’a Muslim clerics during Ashura religious observances, allegedly for “inciting hatred.” In the November 2018 local and parliamentary elections, some Shi’a Bahraini candidates were prevented from participating, and several party leaders were arrested or remained in jail. Some human rights defenders who advocated for greater religious freedom remained in prison. Furthermore, discrimination against Shi’a Muslims in government employment and some public and social services also continued, even though Bahrain’s laws affirm principles of nondiscrimination.
Bahraini government has sometimes used this pretext to crack down on some Shi’a opposition leaders, clerics, and activists without substantiating charges of subversion or criminal activity.
In 2018, Bahrain’s government continued its targeting of some Shi’a Muslims in the country. While government officials discouraged sectarian language in media outlets, progovernment and private media at times used inflammatory, sectarian rhetoric. Sheikh Isa Qasim, Bahrain’s leading Shi’a cleric, had his citizenship revoked by administrative order in June 2016; such orders are usually unappealable, but past removals of citizenship required a royal decree or an order from the Ministry of Interior, both of which are subject to an extra layer of appeals.
Bahrain also continued to arrest and detain Shi’a clerics on the basis of their religious identity. Shi’a cleric Sayyed Adnan al-Sayed Hashim was arrested in Diraz in January 2018 and held incognito for two weeks. This arrest contravened the BICI report’s recommendation not to detain individuals “without access to the outside world for more than two or three days.” A Bahraini appeals court also upheld a verdict against the imam of the Shi’a al-Kheif mosque, Sheikh Isa al-Moemen, for “inciting hatred” in a July 2017 sermon. Moemen served a three-month sentence and was released in May 2018.
In September 2018, during Ashura, three Shi’a clerics—Sheikh Yassin al-Harami, Sheikh Hani al-Bana’, and Sheikh Mohammed al-Sahlawi—were arrested for allegedly “encouraging acts of terrorism” and “inciting hatred against the regime”; according to groups that monitor religious freedom in Bahrain, these charges were unsubstantiated.
In November 2018, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior arrested leading Shi’a cleric Sheikh Khalid Fadhil al-Zaki during security raids in Shakhura and Abu Saiba and held him until mid-December 2018.
As in previous years, in September 2018 Bahraini security officials clamped down on peaceful Shi’a Muslim religious rituals during Ashura observances. While Bahrain is the only Gulf state to recognize Ashura as a public holiday, authorities restricted celebrations in some areas. More than 15 Shi’a clerics, chanters, and lay assistants reportedly were summoned and interrogated over their sermons. Bahraini authorities claimed 13 preachers were arrested in 2018 for violating sermon laws, seven of whom were Sunni Muslim and six of whom were Shi’a Muslim, and that all offenders were suspended from preaching. Bahraini security forces destroyed banners and signs advertising Ashura rituals claiming that the displaying of banners across streets posed a safety hazard.
In April 2018, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior demolished a temporary building meant to replace the Shi’a Imam al-Askari mosque in Hamad Town, northern Bahrain, for the second time and without prior notice, claiming it was subject to demolition under the Building Regulations Code Law No. 13 of 1977 and the Road Works Law No. 2 of 1996.
In August, the Ministry of Interior demolished the fence and the foundation marking the outline of the al-Alawiyat mosque in al-Zinj, which had been destroyed in 2011. Since 2011, Bahraini authorities have destroyed more than 38 mosques and Shi’a religious institutions. The Bahraini government has stated that the mosques it destroyed did not comply with safety and zoning laws, and that a small number of mosque destructions in a country with 608 places of Shi’a worship is not evidence of a religious freedom violation. Members of Bahrain’s Shi’a Muslim community reportedly still cannot serve in the active military, only in administrative positions, and there are no Shi’a Muslims in the upper levels of the Bahraini government security apparatus, Members of Bahrain’s Shi’a community reportedly still cannot serve in the active military including the military and police, with the exception of a Shi’a Muslim who holds the rank of brigadier general.
Many Shi’a public sector employees who were dismissed from their jobs because of participating in the 2011 protests were reinstated in lower-level jobs, positions outside of their specialty, or positions without actual responsibilities.
The Bahraini government continued to deny any discrimination against the Shi’a Muslim community in government employment, and has asserted there has been progress to diversify the military and security apparatus, for example, by recruiting from all segments of society—including the Shi’a Muslim community—into its community policing program.
Activists informed USCIRF during its March 2019 visit that the government refused to track the exclusion of Shi’a Muslims from employment in the military and government on the grounds that keeping such records would be a violation of privacy. Several activists noted that while there is no formal hiring discrimination against Shi’a Muslims, many employers ask questions that indirectly reveal an applicant’s religious affiliation.
Discrimination against Shi’a Muslims in the November Elections The Bahraini government continued its discrimination against Shi’a electoral candidates in 2018. No candidates were allowed to run from the Shi’a al-Wefaq party, which the government dissolved in 2016 after accusing it of providing “a nourishing environment for terrorism, extremism, and violence.” A 2016 amendment by King Al Khalifa to Law 14 of 2002 banned anyone who had received a prison sentence of six months or longer from participating in elections, disqualifying hundreds of Shi’a activists and opposition figures who had previously protested mistreatment.
Ahead of the elections, Sheikh Ali Salman, the former secretary-general of the banned al-Wefaq party, and Sheikh Hassan Sultan, a senior Shi’a cleric, were sentenced to life in prison on spurious national security charges. Ali Salman had his sentence extended from four years to life in prison three weeks before the elections took place.
Prior to the elections, Bahraini authorities arrested former Shi’a al-Wefaq parliament minister Ali Rashed al-Asheeri for a tweet expressing his intent to boycott the November 2018 elections.
In 2016, King Al Khalifa amended a 2005 law banning religious parties from political participation to also preclude anyone engaged in politics from giving religious speeches, sermons, or spiritual guidance. Bahrain’s government continued to use this amendment to prevent Shi’a Muslim religious figures from running for and holding political office, while allowing Sunni religious figures to do so.
In the 2018 elections, six candidates affiliated with the Sunni Salafist Asalah Islamic Society ran for office, three of whom were elected to parliament. Candidates linked to the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Al Menbar Islamic Society also ran, but did not win any seats.
According to the report, “Shi’a Muslim reformers and dissenters faced prolonged detention and the threat of execution”:
In March 2018, the Iranian Intelligence Services (Itila’aat) arrested cleric Hossein Shirazi, the son of detained senior cleric Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi. Iran’s Special Clergy Court charged him with criticizing Iran’s leadership and its system of rule of a single jurist.
The SRW annual report derails more cases of violations. Click here to read
The quasi-governmental Indonesian Council of Ulema has issued fatwas declaring certain religious groups, including Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shi’a Muslims, and Gafatar, to be “deviant” and heretical to Islam
In 2018, public harassment of Indonesia’s one to three million Shi’a Muslims continued. For years, authorities in certain localities, such as the city of Makassar, have prohibited them from commemorating Ashura in public.
USCIRF’s October 2018 visit to Surabaya, the Commission learned that 346 Shi’a Muslims—or 83 households—remain internally displaced. Moreover, USCIRF heard that these displaced persons do not have access to a mosque qualified to conduct Shi’a Muslim religious rituals and cannot bury their dead in accord with their customs.
The Indonesian government requires all citizens to list their religious affiliation on ID cards. This has made it more difficult for individuals who do not follow one of the country’s six officially recognized faiths to obtain licenses and permits, access education and government jobs, and complete financial transactions.
federal and state-level religious authorities have banned a number of so-called “deviant” minority religious groups including Shi’a Muslims
While the constitution makes no distinction between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, in practice, Shi’a Muslims experience various forms of discrimination, Shi’a Muslims experience various forms of discrimination. Malaysian authorities surveil and harass Shi’a Muslims, ban literature that promotes non-Sunni Islamic beliefs, prohibit public worship or assembly, and threaten arrests for observing Shi’a Muslim holidays.
The IMN, the country’s largest Shi’a Muslim group, was formed by Sheikh Zakzaky in the northern city of Zaria in Kaduna State in the 1980s and 1990s. The IMN has since become the target of violence by the Nigerian government, which classifies the IMN as a “violent group” and uses excessive force to repress IMN members and activities. More than three years since the most violent crackdown on the IMN—the December 2015 mass killing and burial of 347 IMN members by the Nigerian Army in Zaria—and despite the 2016 Kaduna State COI finding the army responsible and recommending prosecutions, no Nigerian Army officers have been held to account. In 2018, Nigerian police continued to detain hundreds of IMN members—including, most prominently, Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife Malama Zeenah Ibrahim, who have been held without charges since December 2015, despite an order from the Federal High Court in Abuja on December 2, 2016, that they be released within 45 days. Authorities arrested at least 15 IMN members in 2018.
Throughout 2018, IMN members staged protests around the country advocating for Sheikh Zakzaky’s release. In Kaduna and Sokoto, state-level officials maintained bans on IMN activities, including religious processions. The IMN and news sources reported that force used to disperse protests was at times excessive, causing both injuries and deaths.
Between October 28 and November 1, Shi’a Muslims marched around the country for Arbaeen—an annual religious procession observed by Shi’a Muslims globally to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein in the seventh century. Hundreds of IMN followers reportedly marched in Abuja both to honor the religious occasion and to protest for Sheikh Zakzaky’s release.
Although the Nigerian Army said protestors threw rocks at security services, there was no evidence of any violent provocation by the IMN. The Nigerian Army fired indiscriminately into crowds, killing at least 45 people, according to human rights groups. The Nigerian Army fired indiscriminately into [IMN] crowds, killing at least 45 people, according to human rights groups. Statement from the Nigerian government condemning this excessive use of force on peaceful protestors. The Nigerian Army initially tweeted a defense of soldiers’ actions, but then deleted it.
SRW reported arrest of 230 people in April, Click to read here
A Shi’a Muslim store manager, Mazhar Sipra, was sentenced to five years on terrorism charges.
Extremists targeted a Shi’a Muslim seminary with a terrorist attack, leaving nearly 30 people dead and 50 injured.
Groups like the Islamic State, LeJ, and the TTP have particularly targeted Hazara Shi’a Muslims. T
In April 2018, two young Hazara men were shot dead; no arrests were made. Responding to the government’s failure to act, leaders in the Hazara community launched a sit-in protest to demand action by the government to protect them.
During a special case hearing in May 2018, the chief justice of Pakistan stated that attacks on the Hazara Shi’a Muslims in Balochistan Province were tantamount to wiping out an entire generation and that the state must “protect lives and property of the Hazara community.”
The persecution of the Shi’a Muslim community in Pakistan has continued not only at the hands of extremist groups, but in some instances also by the government itself. In May 2018, the BBC exposed the “story of Pakistan’s ‘disappeared Shias,’” which detailed the harassment, arrest, and torture of nearly 140 Shi’a Muslims at the hands of Pakistan’s security agencies.
These individuals were often kept in secret detention without trial or any formal charge.
The Saudi government continued to violate the rights of Shi’a Muslims.
The government restricted the observance of religious holidays by the Shi’a Muslim minorit.y
Shi’a Muslims Shi’a Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary, and lack access to senior positions in the government and military. The building of Shi’a mosques is restricted outside majority-Shi’a Muslim areas in the Eastern Province, and Saudi authorities often prohibit use of the Shi’a Muslim call to prayer in these areas.
Authorities arrest and imprison Shi’a Muslims for holding religious gatherings in private homes without permits and reading religious materials in husseiniyas (prayer halls). Saudi Arabia also restricts as a practice the establishment of Shi’a Muslim cemeteries.
During a USCIRF visit to the Eastern Province, certain Shi’a Muslims reported harassment by local police and invasions of privacy by the General Intelligence Directorate (GID). Shi’a Muslims who do not comply with GID instructions have their national identification blocked, restricting access to bank accounts and social services. Authorities also continued to target certain Shia’ religious leaders. In early 2018, the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh opened a second case against Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib for “encouraging protests intended to destabilize the kingdom.” Al-Habib, a Shi’a cleric and close associate of executed Shi’a Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was detained in 2016 for “creating dissent.”
The Saudi government has continued rebuilding the predominantly Shi’a Muslim town of Awamiya, which the government’s security forces largely destroyed following violent clashes with Shi’a Muslim protesters and armed Shi’a Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary.
During these clashes, security forces sealed off the town, occupied a boys’ secondary school near the town of al-Musawara, closed the town’s clinics and pharmacies, and prevented essential services such as ambulances from reaching the area.
The government plans to invest nearly 64 million dollars (239 million Saudi riyals) into the Awamiya reconstruction project, which includes a park, market, library, conference center, and recreational facilities. Local residents expressed concern to USCIRF in September 2018 that the government’s plans for the neighborhood do not address the area’s lack of roads, schools, and adequate hospital facilities. The government also has not expanded and modernized the local sewage system, citing security concerns. A total of 488 houses were demolished as part of the Awamiya development project, although the Saudi government provided compensation and new housing to residents of these domiciles. Residents also expressed fear that violence would re-erupt after completion of the project.
In September 2018, the Saudi government reportedly restricted the observance of Ashura in Qatif and limited the performance of public mourning rituals to specific hours. Restrictions included bans on Shi’a Muslims broadcasting their rituals via loudspeakers and the destruction of food shelters where marchers are offered free meals because authorities claimed they lacked proper permits.
Municipal police also removed kiosks selling religious and cultural books, and took down celebratory signs on the grounds that they constituted “visual pollution.”
In 2018, USCIRF met with and received information about multiple individuals charged with apostasy for expressing theological views that differ from the government’s preferred interpretation, particularly members of minority Muslim communities. Government officials were reluctant to acknowledge the presence of Shi’a Islam in the country, viewed Shi’a communities through a geopolitical lens as enmeshed with Iran, and infringed on their freedom of religion.
SRW detailed the arrest and sentencing of the first female advocate in 2018 and its importance. Click here to read
The small Shi’a Muslim minority in Tajikistan is generally tolerated by the government, although subject to the same level of official scrutiny given to the Sunni majority. Nevertheless, there were some signs of tension in 2018. During the summer, a senior member of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan published an article In January 2018, amendments to the 2009 law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Unions set rigorous new requirements for reporting mosque income, property, staff, salaries, and worshippers’ personal data alleging that the membership of IRPT had converted to Shi’a Islam, which he labeled an ‘alien religion’. On July 2, the article, which also alleged intense IRPT interest in Iran and its Islamic revolution, was re-published by the Tajikistani government news agency, Khovar.
The government has recently restricted registration of some minority group such as Shia.
In some cases the registration was rejected.
Jahongir Kulijanov, a member of Uzbekistan’s Shi’a Muslim minority community, also remained imprisoned throughout 2018 for his conviction for allegedly participating in an illegal religious organization and the possession and dissemination of extremist religious materials. Kulijanov was one of 20 Shi’a Muslims originally detained in Bukhara in February 2017 for holding an illegal religious meeting in a local café and sharing Shi’a Muslim literature.
According to Forum 18, Kulijanov’s peers believe he was targeted after he was tapped to replace the imam of a local Shi’a mosque.