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Oman - Religion

The country has an area of 119,498 square miles and a population of 3.4 million including at least one million foreigners. The government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation, but almost all citizens are either Ibadhi or Sunni Muslims. The majority of Omanis are Ibadi Muslims, followers of Abd Allah ibn Ibad. 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. Approximately 25 percent are Sunni Muslims and live primarily in Sur and the surrounding area and in Dhofar. They form the largest non-Ibadi minority.

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. The Shia minority lives along the Al Batinah coast in the Muscat-Matrah region. This minority includes the Khoja, the Baharina of Iraqi or Iranian descent, and the Ajam, of vague origin but generally considered to originate in Iran.

The majority of non-Muslims are foreign workers from South Asia, although there are small communities of naturalized ethnic Indians (Hindus and Christians). Non-Muslim religious communities, made up primarily of foreign workers, 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.

The basic law declares that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a is the basis of legislation, but provides for the freedom to practice religious rites as long as doing so does not disrupt public order. It also prohibits discrimination based on religion.

The 2006 Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) circular states that gatherings of a religious nature are not allowed in private homes or any other location except government-approved houses of worship. In theory, this restriction continued to limit the ability of some adherents who resided far from officially sanctioned locations or who lacked reliable transportation to practice their religion collectively or engage in communal religious rites; however, MERA enforced the prohibition on group worship in unsanctioned locations only when it received complaints. Generally churches and temples voluntarily abided by the 2006 circular, providing space on their compounds for worship; however, the lack of space in the locations sanctioned by the government for collective worship continued to limit the number of groups that could practice their religions.

MERA monitored sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics. The government required all imams to preach sermons within the parameters of standardized texts distributed monthly by the ministry. The government funds the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but not Shi'a, or non-Muslim religious leaders.

At one time Oman was two nations, Muscat on the coast, ruled by the Sultan and Oman in the interior, ruled by the Imam. Fighting between the two leaders in the early part of the 19th century ended with the 1920 Treaty of Seeb which created one country (called Muscat and Oman) but granted autonomy to the Imam in the interior, with a capital at Nizwa. In the 1950s, Imam Ghalib rebelled against Sultan Said bin Taimur (father of Sultan Qaboos). The rebellion was crushed and Ghalib went into exile. He campaigned against Taimur from exile, with the support of Arab nationalists such as Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1970, the current Sultan, Qaboos, overthrew his father, renamed the country Oman, and began Oman's current modernization process. Ironically, one Ghalib's complaints against Taimur was the Sultan's unwillingness to modernize the country. Ghalib's sons returned to Oman and occupied substantive positions in the government, but Ghalib decided to remain in exile.

In 2005, the Omani government convicted 31 Islamists for establishing an illegal organization for the reported purpose of overthrowing the Sultan and reestablishing the Imamate. There was no reported support by Ghalib for this plot. The 31 plotters were tried and sentenced to prison, but Sultan Qaboos pardoned them in the following month and little is said of the event.

The last Ibadi Imam of Oman, Imam Ghalib bin Ali al Hinai, died on November 29, 2009, in the eastern Saudi city of Dammam where had been living in self-exile. He was 96 years of age. Ibadi (the dominant sect in Oman) Imams are traditionally elected. As there is no successor, this nominally brings to an end the Imamate in Oman. There was no domestic press coverage of the Imam's passing. Sultan Qaboos considered himself to be the Ibadi Imam. He pointedly wore the white Ibadi Imam's white turban while on his visit to Shia Iran. That said, the Sultan declined to make an issue of it by asserting the role publically. This could also explain why there was no press coverage of Ghalib's death: in the view of the Sultan, the Imamate continues.

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Page last modified: 25-12-2012 18:36:21 ZULU