OmanInternational Religious Freedom Report 2008
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
The Basic Law, in accordance with tradition, declares that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a is the source of legislation. It also prohibits discrimination based on religion and provides for the freedom to practice religious rites as long as doing so does not disrupt public order. Government policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion, but within defined parameters that placed limitations on the right in practice.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period and the Government continued to protect the free practice of religion in general. Although the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) issued a circular in May 2006 that formalized previously unwritten prohibitions on religious gatherings in locations other than government-approved houses of worship, the Government did not actively enforce the prohibition.
There were no reports of societal abuses based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of 119,498 square miles and a population of 2.6 million, of whom 1.9 million are citizens. The Government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation, but most citizens are either Ibadhi or Sunni Muslims. Shi'a Muslims form a small but well-integrated minority of less than 5 percent of the population, concentrated in the capital area and along the northern coast. Ibadhism, a form of Islam distinct from Shi'ism and the "orthodox" schools of Sunnism, historically has been the country's dominant religious group, and the Sultan is a member of the Ibadhi community.
Non-Muslim religious communities individually constitute less than 5 percent of the population and include various groups of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha'is, and Christians. Christian communities are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah and include Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and various Protestant congregations. These groups tend to organize along linguistic and ethnic lines. More than fifty different Christian groups, fellowships, and assemblies are active in the Muscat metropolitan area. The majority of non-Muslims are noncitizen immigrant workers from South Asia, although there are small communities of ethnic Indian Hindus and Christians that have been naturalized.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Basic Law declares that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a (Islamic law) is the source of legislation. It prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of religion or religious identity and provides for the freedom to practice religious rites so long as doing so does not disrupt public order. Non-Muslim communities are allowed to practice their beliefs without interference on land specifically donated by the Sultan for the purpose of collective worship. In May 2006 the MERA issued a circular to non-Muslim religious leaders and diplomatic missions, reaffirming the individual's right to practice his or her own religious activities according to his or her values, customs, and traditions. The circular also informed them that gatherings of a religious nature are not allowed in private homes or any other location except government-approved houses of worship; however, the Government did not actively enforce the prohibition. The circular, which formalized existing but previously unwritten government policy, also requires groups to obtain approval from the MERA before issuing publications and restricts distribution of any publication to a group’s membership.
Apostasy is not a criminal offense under the law. Citizens who convert from Islam to another religion, however, generally face problems under the Personal Status and Family Legal Code, which specifically prohibits a father who leaves Islam from retaining paternal rights over his children. The law does not prohibit proselytizing, but the MERA would stop individuals or groups from engaging in it if the Ministry received complaints. Article 209 of the Penal Code prescribes a prison sentence and fine for anyone who publicly blasphemes God or His prophets, commits an affront to religious groups by spoken or written word, or breaches the peace of a lawful religious gathering; this article could be used to limit religious expression. However, there were no reports of any prosecutions under this statute during the reporting period. The Ministry reviews all imported religious material for approval.
Laws governing family and personal status are adjudicated by the country's civil courts, according to the Personal Status and Family Legal Code, which is based on principles of Shari'a. Article 282 of the code exempts non-Muslims from the code's provisions, allowing them to follow their own religious rules pertaining to family or personal status. Shi'a Muslims may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shi'a jurisprudence outside of the courts, but retain the right to transfer their case to a civil court if they cannot find a resolution.
All religious organizations must be registered and licensed by the MERA. The Ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman, the Catholic Diocese of Oman, the al Amana Center (interdenominational Christian), the Hindu Mahajan Association, and the Anwar al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as the official sponsors for non-Islamic religious communities. Groups seeking licensure must request meeting and worship space from one of these sponsor organizations, which are responsible for recording the group's doctrinal adherence, the names of its leaders, and the number of active members and submitting this information to the Ministry. Members of non-Islamic communities were free to maintain links with fellow adherents abroad and undertake foreign travel for religious purposes. The Government permitted clergy from abroad to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of licensed religious organizations, which must apply to the MERA for approval at least 2 months in advance of the visiting clergy's entry.
Officials at the MERA state there is no limit on the number of groups that can be licensed. New religious groups unaffiliated with one of the main communities must gain ministerial approval before receiving a license. While the Government has not published the rules, regulations, or criteria for approval, the Ministry generally considers the group's size, theology or belief system, and availability of other worship opportunities before granting approval. The Ministry employs similar criteria before granting approval for new Muslim groups to form. According to government regulations, mosques must be built at least 1 kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) apart and only on government-owned land.
Leaders of all religious groups must be licensed with the MERA. The Ministry has a formal licensing process for imams, and unlicensed lay members are prohibited from leading prayers in mosques. Lay members of non-Islamic communities may lead worship if they are specified as leaders in their group's license application. Foreigners on tourist visas are prohibited from preaching, teaching, or leading worship.
Instruction in Islam is mandatory in the basic curriculum in all public school grades K-12. Non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out of the public school system and attend private schools that do not offer instruction in Islam.
Non-Muslim members of the military are also exempt from otherwise mandatory Islamic studies. Military bases maintain at least one mosque and one imam for the convenience of military personnel. Training facilities dedicate approximately three sessions per week for the study of Islamic subjects. While non-Muslim members of the military were not prohibited from practicing their own religion, the military did not provide them with alternative places of worship on base.
The Government sponsored forums for examining differing interpretations of Islam, and government-sponsored interfaith dialogues took place on a regular basis. Private groups that promote interfaith dialogue were permitted to exist, as long as discussions did not constitute an attempt to cause Muslims to recant their Islamic beliefs. During the reporting period, the MERA hosted several Christian and Muslim scholars and lecturers of various schools of thought to discuss interfaith relations and tolerance in Islamic traditions.
The Government observes Eid al-Adha, Islamic New Year (Hijra), the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet's Ascension, and Eid al-Fitr as national holidays.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
While the Government generallyrespected freedom of religion, some government procedures and policies limited religious practice.
The prohibition on group worship in private homes or other locations limited the ability of some adherents who were physically distant from officially sanctioned locations or who lacked reliable transportation to practice their religion collectively or engage in communal religious rites. The MERA enforced the prohibition on group worship in unsanctioned locations only when it received complaints. The Ministry stopped several groups from meeting during the reporting period. On the whole, churches and temples voluntarily abided by the May 2006 circular, taking steps to enforce the prohibitions among groups under their sponsorship and provide space on their compounds for worship; however, the lack of sufficient space in the locations sanctioned by the Government for collective worship, as well as long waiting lists for use of these facilities, effectively limited the number of groups that could operate. Groups outside the five officially recognized religious communities faced the choice of eschewing the communal practice of their religion or violating government policy.
The MERA approved a limited number of "church visas" to professional clergy of non-Islamic congregations. Some leaders in these congregations claimed, however, that the number of approved clergy was insufficient to handle the demand for worship and therefore limited the natural growth of these congregations.
The MERA monitored sermons at mosques to ensure that imams did not discuss political topics. The Government expected all imams to preach sermons within the parameters of standardized texts distributed monthly by the Ministry.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
The Ministry provided an additional 4,000 square meters (approximately 43,000 square feet) of space to one of the Christian compounds in Muscat to facilitate its expansion and ease space constraints that limited religious practice. The Ministry of Finance provided several non-Islamic congregations with funding to rebuild facilities that were damaged by the cyclone that hit the country in June 2007.
Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination
There were no reports of societal abuses based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Discrimination was largely absent.
Anti-Semitism was present in the reporting period in the private media with anti-Semitic editorial cartoons depicting stereotypical and negative images of Jews, along with Jewish symbols. These expressions occurred primarily in the privately owned daily newspaper Al-Watan.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Embassy continued to raise its concern with the MERA about the May 2006 circular prohibiting group worship in private homes and encouraged the Government to consider easing restrictions on collective worship outside of sanctioned locations and recognize a broader range of religious groups. The Embassy also worked closely with the MERA to promote interfaith and cross cultural dialogue. In March 2008 three Muslim Americans visited the country through the Department of State’s Citizen Dialogue Program and met with a range of audiences to discuss religious pluralism and Islam in America. On invitation from the MERA, the Embassy proposed the names of three U.S. religious figures to participate in the Ministry's 2008-09 lecture series at the Grand Mosque. Embassy officials also met regularly with representatives of Islamic and non-Islamic groups to discuss religious freedom concerns.
Released on September 19, 2008
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