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Bahrain: Shi’a Worshippers Blocked from Attending Friday Prayers

Twice in June, Police at Checkpoints Kept People from Reaching the Largest Shi’a Mosque

Imam al-Sadeq mosque, Bahrain.  © Dr Ajay Kumar Singh/Shutterstock

(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities blocked Shi’a worshippers from attending Friday prayers, Bahrain’s largest Shi’a mosque, on two Fridays in June, Human Rights Watch said today. Imam al-Sadeq Mosque, which is in al-Diraz neighborhood, is the main site for Shi’a Friday prayers in Bahrain.

The access restrictions followed the Bahraini authorities’ brief detention of a prominent Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Mohammad Sanqoor, who often gave sermons at Imam al-Sadeq Mosque, as well as Saudi Arabia’s execution of two Shi’a Bahrainis, which sparked protests in Bahrain. A few days before his arrest, Sheikh Sanqoor called on Bahraini authorities to share information with the families of people detained at Jau Prison in Bahrain, saying the families had recently heard that detainees at the prison had been abused.

While there continued to be significant police presence in and around al-Diraz neighborhood and around Imam al-Sadeq Mosque on Friday, June 23, 2023, restrictions to the neighborhood have since been eased.

“Bahraini authorities have long discriminated against the country’s Shi’a majority population,” said Niku Jafarnia, Bahrain and Yemen Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Most recently, officials restricted Shi’a worshipers from attending Friday prayers. Nobody should be restricted from practicing their faith.”

The Bahraini government has discriminated against its Shi’a majority population for years, including by targeting Shi’a clerics and arresting and prosecuting human rights defenders from Shi’a backgrounds, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja in 2011. In 2016, a group of UN experts expressed concern that members of the Shia community were “clearly being targeted on the basis of their religion.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to six individuals regarding the situation in al-Diraz neighborhood in June, including four people from the Shi’a community blocked by authorities at checkpoints when trying to access the mosque to attend Friday prayers, as well as two representatives of Bahraini civil society following the events.

On May 22, 2023, Bahraini authorities arrested Sheikh Sanqoor after he called on authorities “to reassure the families of prisoners about their loved ones.” Sheikh Sanqoor made the comments in response to recent reports of abuse of individuals detained in Jau Prison. After protests, authorities released Sheikh Sanqoor on May 25, 2023, but interviewees said that he has not returned to the mosque since then.

On May 29, 2023, Saudi Arabia executed two Shi’a Bahrainis. Members of the Shi’a community in Bahrain protested the executions.

Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that Bahraini authorities set up checkpoints in and around al-Diraz neighborhood starting on Friday, June 2, 2023.

Restrictions became more severe on the following two Fridays, June 9 and 16. Sources who spoke to Human Rights Watch described checkpoints at every entry point to al-Diraz neighborhood on these dates, including Sar roundabout, al-Diraz roundabout, and Al-Nakheel Street. Interviewees stated that Bahraini police – including riot and traffic police – were present at the checkpoints.  

According to those who spoke with Human Rights Watch, authorities checked the identity documents of those seeking to pass through the checkpoints to al-Diraz neighborhood. Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that police continued to allow non-Bahrainis and residents of al-Diraz and nearby neighborhoods to enter the area.

Imam al-Sadeq Mosque serves a large part of the Shi’a community in Bahrain, most of whom live outside of the al-Diraz area. Interviewees explained that Sunni Bahrainis usually attend Friday prayers at al-Fatih Mosque in Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

“Imam al-Sadeq Mosque is the main mosque for the Shi’a community [in Bahrain] and the primary location for Friday prayers. It is where the community discusses its suffering, needs, concerns, social and economic issues, problems in government, and oppression,” said one of the interviewees who was blocked from entering al-Diraz neighborhood on June 16 to attend prayers.

Another interviewee said, “I have been going to pray in al-Diraz for 30 to 40 years, every week.” On June 9, the person had been on the way to prayers at the mosque but was stopped by Bahraini police at a checkpoint and turned around.

Another person, likewise aiming to attend prayers but blocked from entering al-Diraz neighborhood on June 16, said, “I saw migrant workers on bikes who were allowed in without question. Anyone who did not look Shi’a was allowed in.”

A video circulated on Twitter shows foreigners riding bikes through the checkpoints without being stopped, in contrast to the videos and photos posted on June 9 and June 16 showing authorities preventing Shi’a Bahrainis from entering the area.

The June 9 and 16 blocking of the Imam al-Sadeq Mosque was not the first time Bahraini authorities have restricted access to it. Authorities closed access to the mosque, as well as the broader area, in 2016, following mass protests after the government stripped Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, a prominent Shi’a cleric, of Bahraini citizenship. Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that they were particularly upset by the recent restrictions to al-Diraz and the mosque, as Bahraini authorities had only recently another long-standing set of restrictions on access to the mosque in 2022.

The constitution of Bahrain protects freedom of belief and guarantees the freedom to perform religious rites under article 22. Articles 18 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, protect individuals’ rights to freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression.

“Bahraini authorities’ recent blocking of Shi’a worshippers from attending Friday prayers is another reminder of the discrimination the community has long suffered,” Jafarnia said. “Bahraini authorities should immediately end all forms of discrimination against its Shi’a community.”

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