State Department: Yemen Faces Obstacles to Religious Freedom

The State Department released its 2016 International Religious Freedom report which details the status of religious freedom in every country. In its section on Yemen, the report describes the laws that place Islam as the state religion and basis of legislation, the harassment and difficulties that religious minorities face, and the violence perpetrated by both Sunni and Zaydi Shi’a militants against those considered apostates.


Although the vast majority of Yemenis practices Islam, there are also minority religious groups such as Baha’is, Christians, Hindus, and Jews. These minority religions have reported increasing levels of harassment, especially in Houthi-controlled areas. Houthis have arrested numerous people of the Baha’i faith, raided and vandalized Baha’i homes and religious centers, imposed Zaydi Shi’a customs on non-Zaydi residents, intimidated Christian community representatives and Sunni imams, and promoted anti-Semitism in speeches. Local populations across the country also conduct anti-Semitic actions, including printing anti-Semitic material, trying to coerce Jewish citizens into converting to Islam, and closing off roads to Jewish communities. Additionally, Ismaili Muslims continue to face discrimination.


The Yemeni constitution and government play a large role in restricting religious freedom. The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, teaches Islam in state schools, and prohibits converting from Islam, denouncing Islam, and proselytizing Muslims. Political parties must not oppose Islam, and penalties for ridiculing Islam in public are greater than those for ridiculing other religions. It also states that sharia is the source for the legal code, although in practice the legal system also includes secular common law and civil codes. Under such laws, marriages are restricted by faith; Muslim women cannot marry a non-Muslim, and a Muslim man cannot marry a woman who isn’t Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. Furthermore, the constitution doesn’t provide for freedom of religion, and it states that the president of Yemen must be Muslim. Since the outbreak of the conflict between the government and the Houthis in 2015, religious discrimination has become more violent: pro-government forces have destroyed religious facilities and targeted religious gatherings with airstrikes.


Since March 2015 the government has been engaged in a military conflict with Houthi rebels and with forces loyal to former President Saleh. The rebels established control over Sana’a in September 2014 and expanded their control to take over large portions of the country. Following house arrests and other measures taken by the Houthis against government members, senior government officials fled and reconstituted the country’s government in Saudi Arabia, where it requested assistance from Saudi Arabia and other states in the region to defeat the rebels. The civil conflict has been accompanied by sectarian violence. Terrorist groups, including AQAP and ISIS, have continued to contribute to the violence.


The conflict, which has crippled the government’s control over its territory, has also allowed for the proliferation of militant organizations that target religious minorities and enforce strict religious codes. Groups such as ISIS and AQAP have contributed to the violence that has undermined the security of Yemen and the government’s authority. ISIS members have attacked Christian facilities, such as the attacks on a Christian convent and nursing home, where ISIS militants destroyed Christian symbols, killed 4 nuns, and captured a priest. ISIS has also threatened infidels and those violating clothing rules with death. Extremist violence is exacerbated by sectarian violence, which often takes the form of religious discrimination. Religious leaders of both Sunni and Zaydi Shi’a faith have declared other Muslims to be apostates in order to target opposition groups. Parts of Yemen’s legislation and political system undermine religious freedom, but the civil conflict greatly endangers the rights and security of those who practice minority religions.