Freedom of Thought, Belief and Religion in Oman is in Danger: 22 August |International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief
The United Nations General Assembly has designated August 22 of each year as International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, emphasizing the right to freedom of thought, religion and belief and denouncing acts of violence based on religion. The United Nations also refers to the responsibility of governments on the promotion and protection of human rights.
In Oman, the problem is not just the refusal of a large segment of population to accept any divergence from the prevailing way of thinking, such as atheism or even minority sects, but also the way influential religious figures agitate against intellectual and religious freedom, and the absence of laws protecting freedom of religion and belief.
In fact the law itself violates these freedoms. For example, Article 269 of the revised Omani Penal Code states:
The punishment shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than three years and not more than ten years for anyone who commits one of the following acts:
(a) blaspheming against or insulting the Divinity verbally or by means of writing, drawing or gestures or by any other means;
(b) insulting, perverting or desecrating the Holy Quran;
(c) insulting the Islamic religion or any of its rites, or reviling any of the divine religions;
(d) blaspheming against or insulting any of the prophets verbally or by means of writing, drawing or gestures or by any other means.
Article 277 of the new Penal Code also states:
The punishment for anyone who openly consumes food or drink or other substances subject to fasting in a public place during daytime in Ramadan shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than ten days and not more than three months.
The Grand Mufti of Oman, Sheikh Ahmed al-Khalili, who is one of the most influential figures in Omani society as well as being a government employee, has launched sharp attacks on secularists, rationalists and atheists in lectures and interviews, seeking to whip up opinion against them, calling their activities “a sickness and hidden disease”, and saying they “want to spread delusion”. He also recently led an online campaign and seminar entitled “Atheism and the fact of the oneness of God”, in which he expressed hostility, and encouraged hate speech, towards groups such as “the atheist communists” and “hateful Crusades” of the past.
In June this year four people were arrested and put on trial over issues of religious freedom and freedom of thought generally. They were prosecuted for different charges such as “insulting the divine religions”, “the felony of blasphemy and sacrilege”, “the felonies of blasphemy and sacrilege… and misuse of the internet and information technology for incitement and enticement to commit immorality”.
When the court’s verdicts were published, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmed al-Khalili expressed his backing for the sentences passed on the four defendants, even though they had not yet gone to appeal in the Supreme Court and were therefore not final. He railed against atheists, and described anyone supporting religious freedoms as misguided enemies of God and humanity.
Article 248 of the Omani Penal Code, incidentally, mandates a prison sentence and a fine as punishment for anyone who criticises the judiciary or casts doubt on its impartiality.
In a report on the Omani Penal Code after its revision in 2018, the Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) referred to the fact that Article 269 (a) is always used to clamp down on or censor any activity that the authorities may characterise as atheistic, and that this usually ends with imprisonment.
The Omani Centre for Human Rights calls for the government to stop using its power to prosecute and harass people for expressing their religious beliefs, and repealing Article 269, which is a threat to freedom of religion, thought and belief in Oman, in addition to dropping charges against all detainees because of their beliefs, including Maryam Al-Nuaimi and Ali Al-Ghafri, who have been on trial since June.