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 2004 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom that there were 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.

The Saudi government continues to engage in an array of severe violations of human rights as part of its official repression of freedom of thought, conscience, and 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 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 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. In recent years, prominent Shi'a clerics and religious scholars have been 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 government interpretation of Islam, have been harassed, arrested, and detained. 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 the past, Saudi authorities 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, beaten, and 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.

Although the government has publicly taken the position – reiterated again in 2004 – 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, 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 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 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 remains unknown. In October 2003, two Egyptian Christians were arrested and jailed on religious grounds and released three weeks later. 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 from apostasy, which is punishable by death, to blasphemy and that he had been sentenced to two years in jail and 600 lashes. In February 2004, a resident Christian was deported after providing an Arabic Bible to a Saudi citizen. In March 2004, an Indian Christian foreign worker was reportedly arrested and tortured for "preaching Christianity," among other charges. He was deported in November 2004. In March 2005, a press report stated that a Hindu temple constructed near Riyadh was destroyed by the mutawaa, and that three foreign guest workers worshiping at the site were subsequently deported. In April 2005, approximately 40 Pakistani Christians were detained, some for several hours and others for two days, and subsequently released by the mutawaa for holding a religious worship service in a private home in Riyadh.

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 a woman'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.

Despite claims by the Saudi government that it has made limited revisions to the intolerant and inflammatory content in the state curriculum and textbooks, several groups continue to report highly intolerant and discriminatory language, particularly against Jews, Christians, and Shi'a Muslims. Moreover, in the past year, there were frequent reports of violently anti-Semitic and anti-Christian sentiments expressed in the 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. In May 2004, following a terrorist attack in Yanbu, western Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah publicly stated that he was "95 percent sure" that supporters of Zionism were behind the attack.

In 2004, the Saudi government approved the formation of a National Human Rights Association, the country's first purportedly independent human rights body, chaired by a member of the Consultative Council, a 150 member advisory body appointed by Saudi King Fahd. It is not yet possible to determine if this body will prove to be a positive mechanism for addressing human rights concerns; the only issue the Association has publicly addressed thus far is the country's poor prison conditions.

In addition to the Saudi government's violations of religious freedom within its own borders, evidence has mounted that funding originating in Saudi Arabia that has been used to finance globally religious schools and other activities that support religious intolerance, and, in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims. The Saudi government itself has been implicated in promoting and exporting views associated with certain Islamic militant and extremist organizations in several parts of the world, and a number of reports have identified members of extremist and militant groups that have been trained as clerics in Saudi Arabia. These reports point to a role for the Saudi government in propagating worldwide an ideology that is incompatible with internationally recognized guarantees of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

The Saudi government funds mosques, university chairs, Islamic study centers, and religious schools known as madrassas all over the world. During Afghanistan's war against the former Soviet Union, Saudi-funded madrassas were established in Pakistan that were concerned less with scholarship than implementing an extremist agenda. These madrassas provided ideological training for some of those who went to fight in Kashmir, Chechnya, and Afghanistan – and many of these schools still do. The peaceful propagation of religious beliefs, including Islam, is a human right. However, there is legitimate concern when a government may be propagating an ideology that promotes hatred and violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The line separating the form of Islam allegedly preached by some Saudi clerics from the violence incited and perpetrated by radicals is a thin one, and warrants further investigation by the U.S. government. In the past year, both the Dutch Interior Ministry and a German state government entity publicly have issued reports presenting evidence that Saudi-funded activities in their countries have promoted radicalization of the Muslim communities and hatred against non-Muslims.1

The Commission has urged the U.S. government to address publicly concerns arising from the propagation of religious hatred and intolerance from Saudi Arabia. The Commission has published reports and held public hearings over the past several years regarding this issue, and issued a number of recommendations for U.S. policy. The Commission is pleased to note public statements made in the last year by the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, John V. Hanford III, and the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Michael Kozak, raising concerns about the role of the Saudi government in the promotion of religious intolerance and extremism.

In the spring of 2004, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked by the Governmental Affairs Committees of the Senate and the House to undertake a comprehensive review of U.S. oversight of Saudi support for an ideology promoting violence and religious intolerance globally. In conducting the study, the GAO was asked to seek information from relevant U.S. government agencies and consult with outside experts, including the Commission, on Saudi promotion of religious extremism. The study was inspired by the Commission's 2003 recommendation that Congress initiate a review of Saudi global exportation of religious hatred and intolerance.

In June 2004, an independent task force on terrorist financing of the Council on Foreign Relations released a report endorsing the Commission's recommendations for a study on Saudi exportation of intolerance and calling on the U.S. government publicly to acknowledge that serious human rights violations in Saudi Arabia are significant issues in the bilateral relationship.

In advance of his July 2004 visit to Saudi Arabia, the Commission urged Secretary of State Powell to call on the government of Saudi Arabia to cease its exportation and support globally of a religious ideology that explicitly promotes hatred and intolerance. The Commission also urged Secretary Powell to press for immediate improvements in respect for religious freedom.

In August 2004, the Commission welcomed the introduction by Senators Charles Schumer and Susan Collins of a resolution (S.Con.Res. 131) calling on Secretary of State Powell to designate Saudi Arabia a "country of particular concern." The resolution also called on the government of Saudi Arabia to cease its exportation of religious intolerance and other abuses of internationally recognized human rights. A number of the resolution's provisions reflected Commission recommendations.

In December 2004, the Commission met with a delegation of academic and religious scholars from Saudi Arabia through a visit sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace's Religion and Peacemaking Initiative.

In March 2005, a bi-partisan group of 15 members of Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging implementation of the Commission's recommendations in response to the State Department's designation of Saudi Arabia as a CPC. The letter also urged the Secretary to condemn Saudi government support of materials that promote hatred and intolerance and to urge the Saudi government to curtail any further distribution of such materials.

As a consequence of the designation of Saudi Arabia as a CPC, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government should:

  • identify those Saudi agencies and officials thereof who are responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom and vigorously enforce section 604 of IRFA with respect to Saudi Arabia, rendering inadmissible for entry into the United States any Saudi government official who was responsible for or directly carried out such violations;
  • issue a proclamation, under the President's authority pursuant to section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USC 1182(f)), to bar those Saudi government officials from entering the United States who have been responsible for propagating globally an ideology that explicitly promotes hate, intolerance, and human rights violations;
  • issue a demarche urging the government of Saudi Arabia to cease funding or other support for written materials or other activities that explicitly promote hate, intolerance, and human rights violations, including the distribution of such materials in the United States and elsewhere outside of Saudi Arabia; and
  • order the heads of appropriate U.S. agencies, pursuant to section 405(a)(13) of IRFA, not to issue any specific licenses and not to grant any other specific authority for the export of any item on the U.S. Commerce Control List of dual-use items [Export Administration Regulations under part 774 of title 15] to any agency or instrumentality of the government of Saudi Arabia that is responsible for committing particularly severe violations of religious freedom. In FY 2004, the Commerce Department approved approximately $67 million worth of articles for Saudi Arabia, including, for example, such items as thumbcuffs, leg irons, shackles, and other items that could be used to perpetrate human rights violations.

With regard to religious freedom conditions in Saudi Arabia, 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 allowing clergy to 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 individuals charged with apostasy, blasphemy, sorcery, and criticism of the government, (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, (8) inviting the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to conduct a fact-finding mission, and (9) 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 ensure that the Saudi government carries out political, educational, and judicial reforms in the Kingdom by: (1) raising concerns about human rights, including religious freedom, both publicly and privately in the U.S. anti-terrorism dialogue with the Saudi government, (2) institutionalizing a high-level ongoing dialogue on the Saudi reform agenda, and (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.

With regard to the exportation of religious intolerance from Saudi Arabia, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • continue efforts, along with those of the Congress, to determine whether and how – and the extent to which – the Saudi government, individual members of the royal family, or Saudi-funded individuals or institutions are directly or indirectly propagating globally, including in the United States, a religious ideology that explicitly promotes hate, intolerance, human rights violations, and, in some cases, violence, toward members of other religious groups, both Muslim and non-Muslim;
  • request the Saudi government to provide an accounting of what kinds of Saudi support have been and continue to be provided to which religious schools, mosques, centers of learning, and other religious organizations globally, including in the United States;
  • urge the Saudi government to stop funding religious activities abroad until the Saudis know the content of the teachings and are satisfied that they do not promote hatred, intolerance, or other human rights violations;
  • urge the Saudi government to monitor, regulate, and report publicly about the activities of Saudi charitable organizations based outside Saudi Arabia in countries throughout the world; and
  • urge the Saudi government to: a) cease granting diplomatic status to Islamic clerics and educators teaching outside Saudi Arabia; and b) close down any Islamic affairs sections in Saudi embassies throughout the world that have been responsible for propagating intolerance.

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

1 In January 2005, the Dutch Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations released an English translation of a 2004 report entitled, "Saudi Influences in the Netherlands: Links Between the Salafist Mission, Radicalization Processes and Islamic Terrorism," (…, accessed April 14, 2005). In June 2004, the German North Rhine-Westphalia's State Institute for Schools issued a study of more than 40 books used by the Saudi government-funded King Fahd Academy in Bonn (,,1245760,00.html, accessed April 14, 2005).


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