The government of Saudi Arabia engages in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief. The Commission continues to recommend that Saudi Arabia be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC. While the State Department's 2003 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom again notes that freedom of religion "does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, the country still has not been designated a CPC.

The Saudi government has engaged in an array of severe violations of human rights as part of its official repression of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief. These violations 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 religious police (mutawaa), whose powers are vaguely defined and exercised in ways that violate the religious freedom of others.

The government of Saudi Arabia continues vigorously to enforce its ban on all forms of public religious expression other than the government's interpretation and presentation 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 controls 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 that do not conform to official positions. Prominent Shi'a clerics and religious scholars continue to be arrested and detained without charge for their religious views; several remain in prison and reportedly have been beaten or otherwise ill-treated. Several imams, both Sunni and Shi'a, who have spoken in opposition to government policies or against the official interpretation of Islam, have been harassed, arrested, and detained. In the past and reportedly until now, spurious charges of "sorcery" and "witchcraft" have been used by the Saudi authorities against non-Wahhabi Muslims. Saudi authorities occasionally have arrested and detained Ismaili clerics for allegedly practicing sorcery.

Restrictions on public religious practice, for both Saudis and non-Saudis, are enforced in large part by the mutawaa, public enforcers of religious behavior. The mutawaa conduct raids on worship services, including in private homes. They have also harassed, detained, whipped and beaten, and meted out extrajudicial punishments to individuals deemed to stray from "appropriate" dress and/or behavior, including any outward displays of religiosity, such as wearing non-Wahhabi Muslim religious symbols.

Although the government has publicly taken the position that it permits non-Muslims to worship in private, the guidelines as to what constitutes "private" worship are vague. Many persons worshipping privately continue to be harassed, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, often deported, and generally forced to go to great lengths to conceal private religious activity from the authorities. Even diplomatic personnel from Western countries report difficulties in their religious practice. Foreign contract workers without diplomatic standing and 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 in order to perform private religious services for foreigners legally residing in Saudi Arabia.

A series of arrests of Christian foreign contract workers in Jeddah in 2001 and 2002 cast doubt on Saudi policy regarding private worship rights. Between June and September 2001, 14 Christians were arrested for worshipping privately, and all were deported by the end of March 2002. In April and May 2002, more than 30 Christian foreign workers were detained in raids on religious worship services, and by September, most had been deported.

In April 2003, two Christian foreign workers, Eritrean and Ethiopian expatriates, were arrested for worshipping privately. In June 2003, the Ethiopian was deported, followed by the Eritrean in July. In September 2003, the mutawaa arrested 16 foreign workers for practicing Sufism; their status is unknown. In October 2003, two Egyptian Christians were arrested and jailed on religious grounds and released three weeks later. Also in October, several Protestant foreign workers were arrested by the civil police and released the same day without charge. In December 2003, a foreign worker was arrested and charged with apostasy; in early March 2004, a press report indicated that the charge had been reduced to blasphemy and that he had been sentenced to two years in jail and 600 lashes. In March 2004, an Indian Christian foreign worker was reportedly arrested and tortured for "preaching Christianity," among other charges. As of this writing, he remains in prison.

The government's monopoly on the interpretation of Islam and other violations of freedom of religion adversely affect the fundamental 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.

The Commission issued a report on Saudi Arabia with recommendations in May 2003. A number of Commission recommendations have been included in legislation in the 108th Congress. H.Con.Res. 244 urges that Saudi Arabia be named a CPC and calls for human rights, including religious freedom, to be raised during bilateral meetings with the government of Saudi Arabia. H.Con.Res. 242 calls for reform of educational curriculum that promotes and encourages extremism, including anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Western views. The Saudi Arabia Accountability Act, S. 1888 and H.R. 3643, calls upon Saudi Arabia to cooperate with the United States and to permanently close all charities, schools, and other institutions which fund, train, and incite terrorism. In October 2003, in line with the Commission recommendation, more than 30 Members of Congress called for CPC designation for Saudi Arabia in a letter circulated by Representatives Christopher Smith and Ben Cardin and sent to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

In November 2003, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion-editorial by Commissioner Khaled Abou El Fadl entitled, "Al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia." Eight days later, the Commission held a public hearing entitled, "Is Saudi Arabia a Strategic Threat?: the Global Propagation of Intolerance" to explore Saudi Arabia's involvement in the global spread of religious extremism. In April 2004, the Commission issued a country brief on Saudi Arabia with new and updated policy recommendations based on its November hearing. The Commission's findings and recommendations regarding the alleged Saudi support for the spread of religious extremism are included in a separate section of this report.

In addition to naming Saudi Arabia a CPC, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • press for immediate improvements in respect for religious freedom, including: (1) establishing genuine safeguards for the freedom to worship privately, (2) entrusting law enforcement to professionals in law enforcement agencies subject to judicial review and dissolving the mutawaa, (3) permitting non-Wahhabi places of worship in certain areas and letting clergy enter the country, (4) reviewing cases and releasing those who have been detained or imprisoned on account of their religious belief or practices, (5) permitting independent non-governmental organizations to advance human rights, (6) ending state prosecution of apostasy, blasphemy, criticizing the government, and sorcery, (7) ceasing messages of hatred, intolerance, or incitement to violence against non-Wahhabi Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious groups in the educational curricula and textbooks, as well as in government-controlled mosques and media, and (8) ratifying international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and cooperating with UN human rights mechanisms; and
  • use its leverage to encourage implementation of numerous Saudi government statements to carry out political, educational, and judicial reforms in the Kingdom by: (1) raising concerns about human rights, including religious freedom, both publicly and privately in its anti-terrorism dialogue with the Saudi government, (2) institutionalizing a high-level ongoing dialogue on the Saudi reform agenda, (3) expanding human rights assistance, public diplomacy and other programs and initiatives, such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative, to include components specifically for Saudi Arabia, and (4) taking steps to overcome obstacles to broadcasting Radio Sawa.

The U.S. Congress should hold biannual hearings at which the State Department reports on what issues have been raised with the Saudi government regarding that government's violations of religious freedom and what actions have been taken in light of the Saudi government's response.


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