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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

Article one of the constitution of 1994[1] declares the country to be an independent Arab state and article two names Islam as the state religion. Article three states that “Islamic Shariʻa is the source of all legislation”. Neither the constitution nor other laws protect freedom of religion. That said, freedom of thought is protected in article 42 “within the limits of the law” and the constitution declares that the state adheres to international human rights law. However, proselytism is forbidden as well as conversion from Islam to another religion. Mockery of religion is also prohibited.[2] The building of mosques and other places of worship requires approval. Non-Muslim clerics are permitted to wear liturgical dress, and, officially at least, non-Muslim services and liturgies are allowed. Islamic religious education is required for state-run schools, but not for private educational institutes.[3] Other forms of religious education are not provided in public schools. The transitional government has eased certain restrictions on various religious practices and on religious speech, including lifting a ban on public commemorations of the Shia holy days of Ashura and Ghadir. Public commemoration of Shia holy days have occasionally resulted in clashes with Sunni groups.[4]

In recent years, Shias, Sunnis, jihadists and tribal fighters have frequently engaged in conflict, leaving the poorest country in the Middle East in a state of permanent civil war.

Since the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990, three parliamentary elections have taken place, the last in 2003.[5] Planned elections in 2009 were cancelled because of a legal dispute over election reform. Since 1999, the head of state has been elected. President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in 2012. In his place, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was elected for a two-year transitional period to form a national unity government. Shia Houthi rebels from the former North Yemen, backed by former President Saleh, staged an armed takeover against the government in 2014. Hadi resigned in January 2015 and fled to Aden. Consequently, the rebels took over the capital, Sanaʼa, and the presidential palace.[6]

In March 2015 a Saudi-led military coalition[7] intervened in Yemen to stop the rebels. Despite a ceasefire agreement in April 2016, fighting between government troops and Houthi rebels has continued. The EU has issued travel bans for, and frozen the assets of, Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, and Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, son of the former president, for their roles in undermining Yemen’s peace and stability.

The ongoing war between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran-backed Houthis has caused a major humanitarian crisis, including a cholera outbreak that killed 2,100 people and infected almost 900,000 others between June and November 2017.[8]

In December 2017, in a move interpreted as a desire for rapprochement, former President Saleh established contact with the Saudi-led coalition. A few days later, he was killed by the Houthis.[9]

Minority religious groups such as Bahaʼis, Christians, Hindus and Jews have reported increasing levels of harassment, especially in Houthi-controlled areas. Houthis have arrested numerous Baha’is, raided their homes and religious centres, but they have also intimidated Christians and Sunni imams, and promoted anti-Semitism. Local communities across the country have also engaged in anti-Semitic activity including printing anti-Semitic material, trying to coerce Jews into converting to Islam, and closing off roads to Jewish communities. Additionally, Ismaili Muslims also continue to face discrimination.[10]

The internationally recognised government-in-exile was weakened by the Houthi takeover and has lacked the capacity to enforce laws against human rights abuses. According to the US State Department’s 2017 Human Rights report, this has resulted in a number of human rights abuses such as arbitrary killings, disappearances, kidnappings, and other acts of violence committed by various groups.[11] The report also lists infringements of citizens’ privacy rights and limits on freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion and movement.


In October 2016, Heiner Bielefeldt, then United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, called on Yemeni authorities to put an end to the systematic harassment of the country’s Bahaʼi population, including arbitrary arrests and detentions. He also demanded the release of detained Bahaʼi leaders. The Special Rapporteur stated: “No one should be persecuted based on their (sic) religion or belief and neither should they (sic) be targeted when belonging to religious minorities. […] Random arrests, detentions, raids of [Baha’is] homes and offices as well as confiscation of electronic devices and significant sum of money are simply unacceptable.”[12]

Mr Bielefeldt also asked for the release of all detained Bahaʼis arrested because of their religion. This followed the detention of some 60 people, Bahaʼis and non-Bahaʼis, who had met at the Jud Organisation building in Sanaʼa for a moral and educational conference for youth. Eventually, most of those taken into custody were released.[13]

On 27th November 2016, the authorities released two of the Bahaʼis still held.[14] One of the detainees, Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, remains in custody. Detained since December 2013, he was sentenced to death in January 2018 for allegedly collaborating with Israel and forging official documents. Human Rights organisations have called for Haydara’s death sentence to be quashed.[15]  According to family members, he was accused of being “a destroyer of Islam and religion.”[16] Government officials had accused him of proselytising for the Baha’i Faith, spying for Israel, and apostasy. Human Rights Watch reported that one of the judges presiding over the case threatened Haydara’s wife with prison because of her Bahaʼi faith and said that all Bahaʼis ought to be jailed.[17]

Jewish community members reported that declining numbers made it difficult to continue their religious practices. In 2016, 19 Jews left the country for Israel.[18] It is believed that in 2017 Yemen was home to around 50 Jews.[19] According to Israel Radio, 40 of those who did not want to leave the country despite the civil war resided in the Houthi-controlled capital of Sanaʼa.[20] In April 2017, speaking to an Israel Radio reporter, Yemen’s Information Minister, Moammer al-Iryani, said that his government was unaware of the fate of Yemen’s few dozen remaining Jews. He, furthermore, declared that the Houthis consider the tiny remaining Jewish population as an enemy, and that they were engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that includes ridding Yemen of its Jewish community.[21]

Accused of atheism following some Facebook posts considered “critical of Islam”, Omar Mohammad Bataweel was abducted and murdered in April 2016. [22] Yemeni Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkol Karman commented on the killing, blaming “takfiri ideology”.[23] She called on the authorities to bring the killers to justice.

In January 2017 Mohammed Atboush, a medical student and author of a book criticising “Qurʼanic science”, survived an assassination attempt. In his book, Critique of Scientific Inimitability, published in February 2016 in Kuwait, he critically examines claims that the Qurʼan contains references to modern science.[24]

In May 2017 UN Special Rapporteur on religious freedom, Ahmad Shahid, warned that “the recent escalation in the persistent pattern of persecution of the Bahaʼi community in Sana’a mirrors the persecution suffered by the Bahaʼis living in Iran. [. . .] The harassment against the Bahaʼis, as religious minorities, seems to persist, if not worsen amounting to religious persecution in Yemen,” the UN rapporteur said.[25]

May 2017 saw the release of Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil kidnapped in Yemen in March 2016. Father Uzhunnalil was abducted from the Missionaries of Charity home for the elderly in Aden on 4th March 2016. Unidentified gunmen killed four nuns, two Yemeni female staff members, eight elderly residents and a guard. Father Uzhunnalil had worked in Yemen for 14 years. When Aden’s Holy Family Church, where he served, was set on fire in 2015, he moved to the care home.[26] On Good Friday 2016, a false rumour circulated that Daesh (ISIS) had crucified the clergyman. Then at Christmas 2016, while still in captivity, he appeared in a video urging the government of India and the Church to ensure his release.[27]

On 23rd March 2018, a highly symbolic day (i.e. the first Friday of the Islamic month of Rajab commemorating the introduction of Islam to Yemen), Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi gave a televised speech. His aim was to rally Yemenis against foreign powers and ideologies. He vehemently vilified and denounced the Bahaʼi faith, raising concerns about further persecution of the community. His rhetoric describing the Bahaʼis as a “satanic movement” that is “waging a war of doctrine”[28] against Islam was very similar to statements made by Iran’s Supreme Leader. His speech was widely relayed by different media. In the same vein, a prominent Houthi writer and strategist commented on social media that “we will butcher every Baha’i”.[29] These messages were also taken up by religious authorities in Sanaʼa, including the recently Houthi-appointed Mufti of Yemen, Shams al-Din Muhammad Sharaf al-Din, who warned Yemenis against the influence of the Bahaʼis. Such a message has been repeated in other venues, including national conferences and seminars, and event TV shows where International and domestic humanitarian organisations were accused of spreading Baha‘i and Christian ideas.[30]

Prospects for freedom of religion

The ongoing civil war, and recent worrying developments, have put the cohesion of Yemeni society at greater risk. The intensification of the armed conflict makes dialogue at a national level more and more difficult. Taking advantage of the country’s social, political and security instability, radical Islamic groups have turned Yemen into a base for their operations.[31] The continuous fighting and high tensions remain a cause for concern with regard to human rights and freedom in general, and to religious freedom in particular.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] Yemen’s Constitution of 1991 with Amendments through 2015, op. cit.

[2] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Yemen”, International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, U.S. Department of State,, (accessed 12th June 2018).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Stephen Day, “Yemen Postpones Its April 2009 Parliamentary Elections”, Middle East Institute, 2nd June 2009,, (accessed 24th June 2018).

[6] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Yemen”, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015, U.S. Department of State,, (accessed 10th June 2018).
[7] “Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen”, Wikipedia,, (accessed 12th June 2018).

[8] Amanda Erickson, “1 million people have contracted cholera in Yemen. You should be outraged”, The Washington Post, 22nd December 2017,, (accessed 10th June 2018).

[9] Patrick Wintour, “Yemen Houthi rebels kill former president Ali Abdullah Saleh”, The Guardian, 4th December 2017,, (accessed 12th June 2018).

[10] April Artrip, “State Department: Yemen Faces Obstacles To Religious Freedom”, The Yemen Peace Project, 21st August 2017,, (accessed 10th June 2018).

[11] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Yemen”, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017, U.S. Department of State,, (accessed 10th June 2018).
[12] Office of the High Commissioner, “Freedom of religion: UN expert urges Yemen to halt systematic harassment of Bahá’í community”, United Nations Human Rights, 4th October 2016,, (accessed 12th June 2018).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Yemen”, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, op. cit.

[15] “Yemen: Huthis must quash death sentence of Baha’i prisoner of conscience”, Amnesty International, 3rd January 2018,, (accessed 24th June 2018).
[16] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Yemen”, International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, op. cit.

[17] “Yemen: Baha’i Adherent Faces Death Penalty”, Human Rights Watch, 1st April 2016,, (accessed 10th June 2018).
[18] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Yemen”, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, op. cit.

[19] “Yemen minister says fate of country’s last 50 Jews unknown”, Times of Israel, 16th April 2017,, (accessed 10th June 2018).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Yemeni murdered by extremists after being accused of atheism”, The New Arab, 26th April 2016,, (accessed 12th June 2018).

[23] Ibid.

[24] Brian Whitaker, “Yemeni who questioned Qur‘an “science” survives assassination attempt”, Al-Bab, 18th January 2017,, (accessed 15th June 2018).

[25] “U.N. Rapporteur: Persecution Of Baha’is In Yemen Mirrors Iran’s Actions”, Radio Farda, 30th May 2017,, (accessed 15th June 2018).
[26] Anto Akkara, “Indian priest released after 18 months’ captivity in Yemen”, World Watch Monitor, 12th September 2017,, (accessed 14th June 2018).
[27] “Indian priest kidnapped in Yemen pleads for help”, UCANews, 11th May 2017,, (accessed 14th June 2018).

[28] “Inflammatory speech by the Houthi leader targets Baha‘is in Yemen with genocidal intent”, PR Newswire, 19th April 2018,, (accessed 24th June 2018).

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid; Exclusive – Program “Honestly” talks about the negative role of the work of humanitarian and relief organizations in Yemen” (in Arabic), YouTube, 13th April 2018,, (accessed 15th June 2018).

[31] “Yemen country profile”, BBC, 24th April 2018,, (accessed 10th June 2018).

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