The government of Saudi Arabia engages in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. Despite the State Department’s contention in its 2005 International Religious Freedom Report that there were, in fact, slight improvements in Saudi government efforts to foster religious tolerance in Saudi society, the report again concluded that freedom of religion “does not exist” in Saudi Arabia. Since its inception, the Commission has recommended that Saudi Arabia be designated a “country of particular concern,” or CPC. In September 2004, the State Department for the first time followed the Commission’s recommendation and designated Saudi Arabia a CPC. In September 2005, Secretary of State Rice approved a temporary 180-day waiver of further action, as a consequence of CPC designation, to allow for continued diplomatic discussions with the Saudi government and “to further the purposes of the International Religious Freedom Act.” The waiver expired in late March 2006.
The repressive Saudi government continues to engage in an array of severe violations of human rights as part of its repression of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Abuses include: torture and cruel and degrading treatment or punishment imposed by judicial and administrative authorities; prolonged detention without charges and often incommunicado; and blatant denials of the right to liberty and security of the person, including coercive measures aimed at women and the broad jurisdiction of the mutawaa (religious police), whose powers are vaguely defined and exercised in ways that violate the religious freedom of others.
The government of Saudi Arabia continues to enforce vigorously its ban on all forms of public religious expression other than the government’s interpretation and enforcement of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam. This policy violates the rights of the large communities of non- Muslims and Muslims from a variety of doctrinal schools of Islam who reside in Saudi Arabia, including Shi’as, who make up 8-10 percent of the population. The government tightly controls even the restricted religious activity it permits—through limits on the building of mosques, the appointment of imams, the regulation of sermons and public celebrations, and the content of religious education in public schools—and suppresses the religious views of Saudi and non- Saudi Muslims who do not conform to official positions.
Members of the Shi’a and other non-Sunni communities, as well as non-conforming Sunnis, are subject to government restrictions on public religious practices and official discrimination in numerous areas, particularly in government employment. In past years, prominent Shi’a clerics and religious scholars were arrested and detained without charge for their religious views; some were reportedly beaten or otherwise ill-treated. Reports indicate that some of these Shi’a clerics have been released, but the current status of a number of others remains unknown. Between 2002-2004, several imams, both Sunni and Shi’a, who spoke out in opposition to government policies or against the official government interpretation of Islam, 191 were harassed, arrested, and detained. On a positive note, in February 2006, thousands of members of the Shi’a community in Qatif, in the Eastern Province, made their largest public appearance in observance of Ashura without government interference.
Spurious charges of “sorcery” and “witchcraft” continue to be used by the Saudi authorities against non-conforming Muslims. Several individuals remain in prison on these charges. In 2000, in the Najran region, after the mutawaa raided an Ismaili mosque for practicing “sorcery,” approximately 100 Ismailis, including clerics, were arrested. Many were released after serving reduced sentences, but dozens remain in prison and reports indicate that some are occasionally subject to flogging. Members of the Sufi community continue to be harassed, arrested, and detained because of their non-conforming religious views; some are held for hours but others are detained for days. In September 2003, the mutawaa arrested 16 foreign workers for allegedly practicing Sufism; their status remains unknown. In June 2005, Saudi authorities shut down a weekly gathering held by a Sufi leader who adheres to the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence.
Criminal charges of apostasy, blasphemy, and criticizing the nature of the regime are used by the Saudi government to suppress discussion and debate and silence dissidents. Promoters of political and human rights reforms, as well as those seeking to debate the appropriate role of religion in relation to the state, its laws, and society, are typically the target of such charges. For example, in April 2006, a Saudi journalist was arrested and detained by Saudi authorities for almost two weeks for “denigrating Islamic beliefs” and criticizing the Saudi government’s strict interpretations of Islam. In November 2005, a Saudi high school teacher, accused for discussing topics such as the Bible, Judaism, and the causes of terrorism, was tried on charges of blasphemy and insulting Islam and sentenced to three years in prison and 750 lashes. Although he was pardoned by King Abdullah in December 2005, he nevertheless lost his job and suffered other repercussions. In a positive development, in August 2005, King Abdullah pardoned three human rights reformers who had been imprisoned since March 2004 on charges of “sowing dissent and disobeying the ruler.”
Restrictions on public religious practice, for both Saudis and non-Saudis, are enforced in large part by the mutawaa, official enforcers of religious behavior that fall under the direction of the Ministry of Interior. The mutawaa conduct raids on worship services, including in private homes. They have also harassed, detained, whipped, beaten, and otherwise meted out extrajudicial punishments to individuals deemed to have strayed from “appropriate” dress and/or behavior, including any outward displays of religiosity, such as wearing Muslim religious symbols not sanctioned by the government. In November 2004, a press report identified a former member of the mutawaa as the leader of an attack on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah that resulted in the deaths of five people. In recent years, the Saudi government has stated publicly that it has fired and/or disciplined members of the mutawaa for abuses of power, although reports of abuse persist. Equally troubling, many of the human rights abuses committed by the mutawaa are within the scope of their authority.
Although the government has publicly taken the position—reiterated again in early 2006—that it permits non-Muslims to worship in private, the guidelines as to what constitutes “private” worship are vague. Surveillance by the mutawaa and Saudi security services of private non-Muslim religious activity continues unabated. Many persons worshipping privately continue to be harassed, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, deported, and generally forced to go to great lengths to conceal religious activity from the authorities. Even diplomatic personnel from Western countries report difficulties in their religious practices. Foreign guest workers without diplomatic standing, and with little or no access to private religious services conducted at diplomatic facilities, face even greater difficulties. Moreover, the Saudi government does not allow clergy to enter the country for the purpose of performing private religious services for foreigners legally residing in Saudi Arabia.
There is a continuing pattern of punishment and abuse of non-Muslim foreigners for private religious practice in Saudi Arabia. In September 2004, seven Filipino Christian leaders were arrested and detained when the mutawaa raided a religious service. All were released within one month, but the mutawaa reportedly pressured their employers to deport them, resulting in six deportations by late 2005. In March 2005, a Hindu temple constructed near Riyadh was destroyed by the mutawaa, and three guest workers worshiping at the site were subsequently deported. Also in March 2005, the mutawaa arrested an Indian Christian and confiscated religious materials in his possession; he was released in July 2005 after four months of detention. In April 2005, the mutawaa raided a Filipino Christian private service in Riyadh and confiscated religious materials such as Bibles and Christian symbols. Also in April 2005, at least 40 Pakistani, three Ethiopian, and two Eritrean Christians were arrested in Riyadh during a raid on separate private religious services. All of the Pakistani Christians were released within days and all five of the African Christians were released after a month in detention. In May 2005, at least eight Indian Protestant leaders were arrested, interrogated, and subsequently released for reportedly being on a list, obtained by the mutawaa, of Christian leaders in the country. Throughout the spring of 2005, dozens of Christian guest workers were detained, some for several days and others for several months, for holding religious worship services in private homes. Several of those who were released have been deported and others fear criminal charges and possible deportation. In April 2006, an Indian Catholic priest, who was visiting Saudi Arabia, was deported after being detained for four days in Riyadh for conducting a private religious service.
The government’s monopoly on the interpretation of Islam and other violations of freedom of religion adversely affect the human rights of women in Saudi Arabia, including freedom of speech, movement, association, and religion, freedom from coercion, access to education, and full equality before the law. For example, women must adhere to a strict dress code when appearing in public and can only be admitted to a hospital for medical treatment with the consent of a male relative. Women need to receive written permission from a male relative to travel inside or outside the country and are not permitted to drive motor vehicles. Religiously based directives limit women’s right to choose employment by prohibiting them from studying for certain professions such as engineering, journalism, and architecture. In addition, the Saudi justice system does not grant women the same legal status as men.
In March 2006, the Saudi Embassy in Washington published a report summarizing efforts by the Saudi government to revise the state curriculum and a number of school textbooks to exclude language promoting religious intolerance. Nevertheless, non-governmental organizations from outside Saudi Arabia continue to report the presence of highly intolerant and discriminatory language, particularly against Jews, Christians, and Shi’a Muslims, in these educational materials. Moreover, in the past year, there were frequent reports of virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Christian sentiments expressed in the official media and in sermons delivered by clerics who are under the authority of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. In some cases, the State Department reported, clerics prayed for the death of Jews and Christians.