Freedom of Religion Does Not Exist in Saudi Arabia

Folks, a report released last year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that the Saudi Ministry of Education publishes texts presenting Islam as “the only true religion” and denouncing all other religions as “invalid” and “misguided.”

Here is just the introduction to the report. The detailed report can be found here.

According to the State Department, freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a uniquely repressive case where the government forcefully and almost completely limits the public practice or expression of religion to one interpretation: a narrow and puritanical version of Islam based on the Wahhabi doctrine. Consequently, those Saudis and foreign contract workers who do not adhere to the Saudi government’s interpretation of Islam are subject to severe religious freedom violations. Among the most serious abuses and forms of discrimination are:

  • Virtually complete prohibitions on establishing non-Wahhabi places of worship, the public expression of non-Wahhabi religion, the wearing of non-prescribed religious dress and symbols, and the presence of identifiable clerics of any religion other than the government’s interpretation of Islam;
  • The harassment, detention, arrest, torture, and subsequent deportation by government authorities of Christian foreign workers for worshipping in private – with many forced to go to great lengths to conceal private religious practice in order to avoid these abuses;
  • The detention, imprisonment, and, in some cases, torture of Shi’a clerics and religious scholars for their religious views, which differ from those of the government;
  • The interpretation and enforcement of religious law in Saudi Arabia, which affects every aspect of women’s lives and results in serious violations of their human rights; and
  • The offensive and discriminatory language found in Saudi government-sponsored school textbooks, sermons in mosques, and articles and commentary in the media about Jews, Christians, and non-Wahhabi streams of Islam.

Despite occasional disagreements over regional issues and a growing public debate on the direction of U.S.-Saudi relations following the attacks of September 11, 2001, official U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia remain close.

The Commission, however, shares the State Department’s view that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia, and notes that advancing human rights, including religious freedom, has not been a public feature of the bilateral relationship. Indeed, some have argued that the U.S. government has refrained from criticizing human rights practices in Saudi Arabia, and has even gone so far as to restrict the rights of Americans to do so.

The Commission believes that U.S. efforts to encourage Saudi Arabia to comply with its international commitments to protect religious freedom should be strengthened significantly and made more transparent instead of being relegated to private discussions. As with other countries where serious human rights violations exist, the U.S. government should more frequently identify these problems and publicly acknowledge that they are significant issues in the bilateral relationship.

Saudi Arabia has an estimated population of 23 million that includes between 6 and 7 million foreign contract workers. The 16-17 million Saudi nationals are exclusively Arab and 85-90 percent are Sunni Muslims. Shi’a Muslims, including Ismailis, are concentrated primarily in the Eastern Province and constitute 8-10 percent of Saudi nationals. Approximate numbers of foreign contract workers include: Indians (1.5 million), Bangladeshis (1 million), Egyptians (1 million), Pakistanis (900,000), Filipinos (800,000), Sri Lankans (300,000), Palestinians (250,000), Lebanese (150,000), Eritreans and Ethiopians (40,000), Americans (40,000), and British (27,000).  Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia are primarily Muslims of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Among the non-Saudis, there is also a large community of Christians, including the Filipino population that is primarily Roman Catholic, as well as smaller communities of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *