Bahrain’s population is approximately 1.35 million, of which an estimated 45% are Bahraini citizens. The large majority of non-Bahrainis are from Asian countries. Overall, Muslims constitute 70% of the population and Christians between 10-15%. The indigenous Bahraini population is 99% Muslim, the majority Shi’a though the ruling elite is Sunni. There is a small number of Christian Bahraini families, descendents of Arabs from the Levant who moved to Bahrain before the establishment of the modern nation state, most of whom are Greek Orthodox. A range of churches serve Bahrain’s predominantly expatriate Christian communities, including Roman Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Mar Thoma, Coptic Orthodox, Anglican and National Evangelical churches.
The constitution of Bahrain enshrines Islam as the religion of the State and Islamic law as a principal source of legislation. However, the constitution also affirms the principle of non-discrimination, including on the basis of religion, and guarantees the ‘inviolability of worship’, including freedom to perform religious rites provided these are in accordance with national customs. Public defamation of an officially recognised religious group or of their practices is a criminal offence. Churches must be registered with the Ministry of Social Development.
Bahrain acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 20th September 2006. The ICCPR upholds the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion (Article 18). It also upholds the rights of minorities and the principle of non-discrimination. However, Bahrain’s accession to the ICCPR was made with a reservation that gave primacy to Islamic law in matters relating to gender equality, religious freedom and marriage.
Expatriate Christians enjoy considerable freedom in Bahrain, provided that their activities are restricted to designated compounds and, in particular, that they avoid interaction with Muslims that could be construed as proselytism. In February 2013 title deeds were handed to the Catholic church to enable the building of a new Cathedral, and in 2016 it was announced that land had also been granted for the construction of a Coptic Orthodox church. However, some requests from other churches for additional land, in order to relieve current overcrowded sites, remain outstanding. The small number of indigenous Bahraini Christians (i.e. from Christian backgrounds) enjoy good standing in society, some having held government posts and membership of the Consultative Council. Bahraini nationals or other Muslims who choose to leave Islam are likely to face strong family and societal pressure. In extreme cases those who leave Islam can face violent responses from family members. Those considered apostates could also face imprisonment under the Penal Code defamation provisions, and sanctions such as forcible divorce and removal of child custody under personal status laws overseen by Shari’a courts.