Oppression of Minorities

Adalah Yemen
6 min readApr 25, 2023

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Racism and religious discrimination are pervasive issues that exist across different historical periods, but what sets Yemen apart is the systemic discrimination that has been enabled by tribal rule, allowing various forms of discrimination to flourish towards Muslims, Christians, different sects of Islam and Jews. Some argue the Sunni-Shia divide has fuelled the civil war. Members of both sects lived in an era of peaceful coexistence as their beliefs were not too different. However, matters began to change when outside powers intervened.

Following the North Yemen civil war that toppled the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, which was Saudi Arabia’s closest ally in Yemen, Wahhabism gained influence across the country. Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative sect within Sunni Islam that views all other beliefs, including other Islamic sects, as derogatory and blasphemous. They preach hatred and violence towards those who do not follow their beliefs, which has resulted in discrimination towards Shia Muslims. For instance, a religious studies textbook that included derogatory terms towards Shia Muslims sparked mass protests, but many Shia shrines were still destroyed, and Shia families were physically attacked. The state has also supported this discrimination by kidnapping and torturing Zaydis who allegedly support the Houthi Movement, particularly the Twelver Shia, which is the more popular branch of Shiism worldwide.

“Any Twelver in Yemen is considered an agent of Iran,” said Muamar al Abdali from Lahj, a human rights activist whose organization Himaya focuses on freedom of thought and freeing detainees. The group has no religious affiliation and only focuses on the public instead. However, government forces interrogated and tortured Muamar for 4 months on the assumption that he worked with Iran or the Houthis. Not even his home was safe. Muamar and his wife, Amat, ran a small library at their home for Shia religious books for some time. They even had a legal permit for the space but the government invaded their home regardless. “It was an inhumane raid,” Amat said. “The children were in the house. They broke the furniture, they took 150 or 200 books. When they took the books, I said the books run in our blood. They stepped on the books. They have tried to insult us by calling us spies and extremists.”

Sunnis have also faced discrimination since the Houthis conquered the north. It was not to the same extent since the Houthis were willing to accept any sect into their ranks. Despite this, they were still seen with suspicion. Usually the Houthis only harm or torture individuals if they criticize their rule and religious practices. However, sources suggest Houthis have been trying to enforce their beliefs on the Sunni population. “[T]here are rumors that the Houthis are targeting Sunni mosques in the capital and changing their imams,” along with other notions such as banning music and targeting progressive women’s rights usually found in Sunni areas. It is even worse for those who are politically active in the Sunni based Islah political party where many hundreds have been “arbitrarily detained, tortured, and forcibly disappeared” by Houthi militants and many unable to travel freely across Houthi territory. Though they have many Sunni supporters, many of them fled the north for the south, the heartland of Sunni Yemen.

The religious landscape of Yemen is dominated by the two aforementioned major sects, with a handful of other minorities that, when combined, make up less than 1% of the population. One of the largest of these minorities is the Ismaili sect, which split from Shia Islam after the death of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, one of the most important leaders in Shia Islam. Ismailism has been growing slowly across the Arab and Muslim world ever since, and today boasts 15 million followers worldwide, with the majority based in Pakistan and India. However, in Yemen, there are only around 15,000 Ismaili believers, making them a small and relatively unknown minority in the country.

The Ismaili sect, with only 15,000 followers in Yemen, mostly reside in the southern cities of Aden and Taiz, known for their more secular and open-minded communities. However, despite their similarities to mainstream Islam, they have always been persecuted since their creation due to their focus on shrines. Many Muslims have accused them of polytheism, leading to discrimination and violence against them. Consequently, many Ismailis have fled to nearby cities or left the country entirely, seeking safety and freedom. Those who remain in Yemen continue to face marginalization and oppression, including the lack of representation in any level of Yemen’s government and exclusion from the National Dialogue Conference. Adding to their plight, in 2015, the Islamic State blew up one of their mosques, falsely accusing them of supporting the Houthis and practicing polytheism.

Due to the increasing tensions fueled by hate speech and derogatory terms used by prominent sheikhs during Friday prayers, many Ismailis fled Yemen for nearby Djibouti, while others, including pilgrims, returned to India in fear of further escalation of the ongoing civil war.

The situation is even worse for the smaller Baha’i minority who constitute less than 1% of the non-Muslim population and are considered the most persecuted religious minority in Yemen. The increasing amount of violence, beatings, imprisonment and torture have led many to fear their extinction.

The Bahá’í faith was founded in the 19th century in Iran by Báb, who was executed in 1850. It gained popularity after the death of one of his successors, Bahá’u’lláh, and has around 6 million followers in 13 countries today. The religion aims to unify all faiths and bring justice and prosperity to humanity. Most followers live in India or the West, and their holy sites are in Israel due to religious persecution. The Iranian government banned the religion in the 1900s, and some members fled to Yemen.

Already constantly persecuted in Yemen they are now facing the chance of total extinction by the Houthis. “We will butcher every Baha’i” was said by the Houthi’s leader, Abdel Malek Al-Houthi, further urging his followers to protect themselves against the Baha’is. Since the outbreak of war, the Houthi rebels have consistently demonstrated intolerance towards heterodox Islamic groups and particularly towards the Baha’i community, whom they refer to as “satanic infidels.” Baha’is in Yemen have endured various forms of persecution such as physical violence, kidnapping, imprisonment, and even death sentences. As early as 2013, the spiritual leader of Yemen’s Baha’i community, Hamad Bin Haydara, was detained by the Houthis and subjected to brutal torture, interrogation, and forced signing of documents. “We are deeply concerned for the safety of Hamed and other Baha’is prisoners in Sana’a, and for all the Baha’is in Yemen,” said Hamed’s sister, Hoda, in a video released by the Baha’i Community of Canada. Currently, Haydara remains imprisoned, and the Houthi leader, Al-Houthi, has sentenced him to death on “baseless accusations”. The Houthis ultimate goal is to eradicate the Baha’i community, and yet, little has been done to address this grave situation.

Furthermore, there are the Christians and the Jews of Yemen, both of which have under a thousand followers remaining in the country. Their stories are similar to other minorities, arriving with hopes but leaving after facing violence and death.

For Christians, experts in this field can only describe their persecution as “extreme”. They face persecution from the authorities (including detention and interrogation), their families and radical Islamic groups who threaten converts with death if they do not re-convert. With Sharia Law being the official state law within Yemen, it allows freedom of thought and expression but has no mention of religion, belief or conscience. These loopholes found within Yemen’s state law help hard line Islamic groups persecute whom they want and get away with it.

On May 9, 2017, a video was released showing footage of the Christ Church Aden’s only priest, Tom Uzhunnalil, kidnapped by ISIS for ransom and threatened with death. He was eventually released in September that year with the help of Oman and the Catholic Church.

Since Uzhunnalil returned to India, no priest has been willing to take his place.Yemen’s Christian community has made some progress in fostering better relations with the greater Muslim community by offering free healthcare services to all Yemenis irrespective of their faith. However, the impact has been slow and limited.

Lastly, Yemen’s Jewish community is one of the smallest religious minorities in the Arab world, with only about 55 members remaining, mostly in the Amran district north of the country. Despite their murky origins predating Islam and Christianity, the Jewish community has faced persecution throughout history, with the Zaydi clan rising to power in Northern Yemen in the 12th century and actively persecuting Jews. Some Zaydi rulers protected them, especially when they gained new skills in various crafts. The community still faces oppression today, with few friends and a need for a long-term change in mentality and bias.

Even with the end of the war, Yemen’s minorities will require the support of NGOs, community groups, the government, and religious/tribal leaders to improve their situation.

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Adalah Yemen
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Adalah, which translates to ‘justice’ in Arabic, is Yemen’s leading non-aligned nongovernmental legal organisation. HQ in London with operations in Aden and DC.