Yemen: Freedom of religion but limited freedom of sect [Archives:2007/1087/Local News]

September 20 2007

Extracts from the report by Yemen Times Staff
SANA'A, Sept 19 ) Government actions to counter an increase in political violence in Saada restricted some practice of religion. In January 2007, for the third year, the Government banned the celebration of Ghadeer Day (a holiday celebrated by Shi'a Muslims) in parts of the Saada governorate. According to the report, the Government reportedly intensified its efforts to stop the growth of the al-Houthis' popularity by limiting the hours that mosques were permitted to be open to the public. The Government closed down what it claimed to be extremist Shi'a religious institutes, reassigning imams who were thought to espouse radical doctrine, and increasing surveillance of mosque sermons. The Government abolished the Zaydi-affiliated al-Haq political party in March 2007, reportedly for not meeting political party law requirements. Many members of the party, however, believed the party was inappropriately dissolved because of its links to the al-Houthis and Shabab movement.

During the reporting period, the Government engaged in efforts to ease religious tension between it and some members of the Zaydi-Shi'a establishment; however, public tension reemerged in January 2007, most notably in the media, as a result of government action against the al-Houthi group's armed insurrection. The Government maintains that the al-Houthis are adherents of Twelver Shi'ism, a variant of Shi'ism which differs from that of the country's predominant Zaydi-Shi'a. The al-Houthis and the Shabab follow the teachings of the late rebel cleric Hussein Badr Eddine al-Houthi, who was killed during a ten-week rebellion that he led in June 2004 against the Government in Saada. Some Zaydis reported harassment and discrimination by the Government because they were suspected of sympathizing with the al-Houthis. However, it appears the Government's actions against the group were probably politically, not religiously, motivated.

The Government continued its efforts to prevent the politicization of mosques and schools, and to curb extremism, and increase tolerance. The Government's efforts concentrated on monitoring mosques for sermons that incite violence or other political statements that it considered harmful to public security. Private Islamic organizations could maintain ties to international Islamic organizations; however, the Government sporadically monitored their activities through the police and intelligence authorities.

During the reporting period, the Government also continued efforts to close unlicensed schools and religious centers. By the end of the period covered by this report, more than 4,500 unlicensed religious schools and institutions were closed. The Government expressed concern that these schools deviated from formal educational requirements and promoted militant ideology. The Government also deported some foreign students found studying in unlicensed religious schools. The Government prohibited private and national schools from teaching courses outside of the officially approved curriculum. The purpose of these actions was to curb ideological and religious extremism in schools.

There were reports that both the Ministry of Culture and the Political Security Office (PSO) monitored and sometimes removed books that espoused Zaydi-Shi'a Islamic doctrine from store shelves after publication. There were also credible reports from Zaydi scholars and politicians that authorities banned the publishing of some materials that promoted Zaydi-Shi'a Islam. The Government denied that the media was subject to censorship by any security apparatus.

Government policy does not prohibit or provide punishment for the possession of non-Islamic religious literature; however, on occasion there were credible reports that persons were harassed by members of the PSO, an organization which reports directly to the president's office, and by police for possessing such literature. There were also reports that some members of the PSO monitored, harassed, and occasionally censored the mail of missionary groups and those associated with them, ostensibly to prevent proselytizing.

Religious Demography

The country has an area of 328,100 square miles and a population of 20 million. Virtually all citizens are Muslims, either belonging to the Zaydi order of Shi'a Islam or to the Shafa'i order of Sunni Islam. While there are no available statistics, estimates are that the Zaydis form 30-35 percent and the Shafa'is form 65-70 percent of the general population. There are a few thousand Ismaili Muslims who reside mainly in the north.

Jews are the only indigenous religious minority. Nearly all of the country's once-sizable Jewish population has emigrated. Fewer than 500 Jews remain in the northern part of the country, primarily in the vicinity of Raida and Saada; however, in January 2007, the historic Saada governorate community of 45 Jews was relocated to Sana'a, reportedly after being threatened by a follower of the al-Houthis, who ordered them to leave the governorate. Violence between government forces and the al-Houthis flared in Saada shortly thereafter, causing the continuous internal displacement of Jews in northern Yemen and their eventual transfer to Sana'a. Since fleeing their homes, the 45 Jews have been under the protection and care of the Government.

There are 3,000 Christians throughout the country, most of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents. There are 40 Hindus living in Aden who trace their origins to India. There are four churches in Aden, three Roman Catholic and one Anglican. Aden also has one Hindu temple. There were three known functioning synagogues in the north of the country; however, since the displacement of the Saada Jews earlier this year, this number may have changed.