An estimated 89 percent of the country’s residents are noncitizens. Of the citizens, more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslim and an estimated 15 percent or fewer are Shia Muslims. Noncitizen residents predominantly come from South and Southeast Asia, although there are substantial numbers from the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia, and North America. According to the most recent Ministry of Economy census (2005), 76 percent of the total population is Muslim, 9 percent is Christian, and 15 percent is “other.” According to unofficial data, at least 15 percent of the resident population is Hindu and 5 percent is Buddhist. Groups that constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Parsis, Baha’is, Sikhs, Ahmadis, Ismailis, Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, and Jews. These estimates differ from census figures because census figures do not take into account the many “temporary” visitors and workers, and also count Baha’is and Druze as Muslim.
Most of the citizens of the UAE are Sunni Muslims who adhere to the Maliki legal tradition. Some Sunnis of the Wahhabi sect (followers of a strict interpretation of the Hanbali legal school) live in the Al Buraymi Oasis, and some who follow the Shafii legal school live along the Al Batinah coast.
Sunni mosques are administered by Awqaf, or the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, and by regulation must follow government-approved sermons. A central federal regulatory authority distributes weekly guidance to both Sunni imams and Shia sheikhs regarding the content of religious sermons. The UAE's constitution declares that Islam is the official religion of all seven of the constituent emirates of the federal union. Muslims are expressly prohibited from converting to other religions, but conversion by non-Muslims to Islam is viewed favorably. During Ramadan, all residents and visitors are required to abide by restrictions imposed on Muslims. Islamic studies are mandatory for citizen children attending public schools and for Muslim children attending private schools. Religious instruction in non-Muslim religions is not permitted in public schools.
Awqaf oversees most issues related to Islamic affairs in the country. The General Authority distributed weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of religious sermons. The General Authority also ensured that clergy did not deviate frequently or significantly from approved topics in their sermons. Most imams are non-citizens, and a significant number are Egyptian or Syrian. The government appoints Sunni imams, but it does not appoint sheikhs (imams) for Shia mosques except in Dubai, where the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department controls the appointment of clergy and their conduct in all mosques. The advisor to the president on judicial and religious affairs, as well as the chairman of Awqaf and its director general, regularly represented the country at Islamic, ecumenical, and Christian conferences and events abroad. They also met regularly with religious leaders in the country.
Some Shia mosques follow Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while other Shia mosques have their own sermons. The Shia minority, concentrated in the emirates of Dubai and Sharjah, worshiped and maintained its own mosques without government restriction. The government considered all Shia mosques private, and they were able to receive funds from the government upon request.
The constitution guarantees the freedom to exercise religious worship in accordance with established customs, on condition that it does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals. The constitution stipulates that all citizens are equal before the law, without discrimination between citizens on grounds of religious belief. The government defines all citizens as Muslims. The law denies Muslims the freedom to change religion. While the law permits Muslims to proselytize others, it prohibits efforts to proselytize Muslims.
The UAE’s judicial system applies two types of law, depending on the topic of the case. Courts apply Sharia (Islamic law) for most family law matters, e.g., marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and on rare occasions for criminal matters. Courts apply civil law, based on the French and Egyptian legal systems, for all other matters. Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than the regular judicial system. When Islamic law courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, crimes are generally not punishable by Islamic law penalties. In cases punishable by an Islamic law penalty, non-Muslims generally receive civil penalties at the discretion of the judge. Higher courts may overturn or modify Islamic law penalties imposed on non-Muslims.
According to the U.S. Department of State, non-Muslim religious leaders within the UAE and outside the country refer to it as one of the most liberal and broad-minded countries in the region in terms of governmental and societal attitudes toward allowing the unfettered practice of other faiths. The UAE government generally follows a policy of tolerance toward non-Muslim religions and, in practice, does not interfere very much with their religious activities. However, the government does prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing or distributing religious literature under penalty of criminal prosecution, imprisonment, or deportation, deeming such behavior to be offensive to Islam.
In August 2003, in keeping with the government's adherence to principles of "interfaith tolerance," an Abu Dhabi-based think tank affiliated with the Arab League was closed. The center was accused of providing a forum for anti-Semitic themes. In that same year, the Dubai Evangelical Church Center opened in a large compound of Christian churches outside of Dubai, and Indian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches were opened, with others given authorization for future construction.
Immigration authorities routinely asked foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on residence applications. There were reports that some Shia residents, fearing how their faith may be perceived by immigration authorities, declared themselves as Sunni or Christian in their residence applications. There were also reports that Jewish residents, fearing discrimination, also declared themselves as members of another faith, such as Buddhism. Ministry of Interior officials reported that the government only collected information regarding individuals’ religious affiliations for demographic statistical analysis. However, there were reports of religious affiliation negatively affecting the issuance or renewal of visas or residence permits. For example, a few Shia university students, professors, and professionals (some of Iranian heritage) were reportedly told by their institutions or firms that authorities had not granted or extended their residence permits, and they consequently had to leave the country.
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