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Reports on Religious Freedom:
Saudi Arabia

(2000)


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Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy without constitutional protection for freedom of religion, and such protection does not exist in practice. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. The Government prohibits the public practice of other religions. Private worship by non-Muslims, as defined by the Government, is recognized officially.

Through published interviews with government officials and press articles that addressed the subject in the context of human rights, non-Islamic freedom to worship privately received more attention and greater respect than in the previous year.

The overwhelming majority of citizens support an Islamic state and oppose public non-Muslim worship. There is a greater degree of tolerance of foreigners and non-Muslims in both the eastern and western provinces than in the isolated central Nejd region. There is institutionalized discrimination against adherents of the Shi'a branch of Islam.

The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, the U.S. Ambassador, and other U.S. government officials have raised the issue of religious freedom with the Government on numerous occasions during the period covered by this report.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion and all citizens must be Muslims. The Government prohibits the public practice of other religions. Private worship by non-Muslims is permitted.

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy and the Government has declared the Islamic holy book, the Koran, and the Sunna (tradition) of the Prophet Muhammad, to be the country's Constitution. The Government bases its legitimacy on governance according to the precepts of the rigorously conservative and strict interpretation of the Hanbali school of the Sunni branch of Islam and discriminates against other branches of Islam. Neither the Government nor society in general accepts the concepts of separation of religion and state, and such separation does not exist.

Islamic practice generally is limited to that of the Wahabi order, which adheres to the Hanbali school of the Sunni branch of Islam as interpreted by Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahab, an 18th century Saudi religious reformer. Practices contrary to this interpretation, such as visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, are discouraged. The practice of other schools of Sunni Islam is discouraged, and there is institutionalized discrimination against adherents of the Shi'a branch of Islam. The Government supervises almost all mosques in the country and funds their construction, maintenance, and operations.

Religious Demography

Sunni Muslims make up approximately 12.1 million of the country's nearly 14 million citizens.

Seven million foreigners reside in the country, including about 1.2 million Indians, 1.2 million Egyptians, nearly 800,000 Pakistanis, 600,000 Filipinos, 130,000 Sri Lankans, and 30,000 Americans. These foreigners include Muslims of different denominations, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and, presumably, non-believers and atheists.

Comprehensive statistics for the denominations of foreigners are not available. However, the Filipino Embassy reports that over 90 percent of the Filipino community (or over half a million persons) is non-Muslim, including Catholics and Protestants.

The Shi'a Muslim minority (roughly 900,000 persons) lives mostly in the eastern province, where Shi'a constitute about one-third of the population.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Ministry of Islamic affairs directly supervises, and is a major source of funds for, the construction and maintenance of almost all mosques in the country. The Ministry pays the salaries of imams (prayer leaders) and others who work in the mosques. A governmental committee is responsible for defining the qualifications of imams. The Mutawwa'in (religious police, who make up the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice) are government employees, and the president of the Mutawwa'in holds the rank of cabinet minister. The spreading of Muslim teachings not in conformance with the officially accepted interpretation of Islam is prohibited. Writers and other individuals who publicly criticize this interpretation, including both those who advocate a stricter interpretation and those who favor a more moderate interpretation than the Government's, reportedly have been imprisoned and faced other reprisals.

During the period covered by this report, foreign imams were barred from leading worship during the most heavily attended prayer times and prohibited from delivering sermons during Friday congregational prayers. The Government claims that its actions were part of its "Saudiization" plan to replace foreign workers with citizens.

Under Shari'a (Islamic law), upon which the Government bases its jurisprudence, conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy. Public apostasy is a crime punishable by death if the accused does not recant.

The Government prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, lashing, and deportation for engaging in overt religious activity that attracts official attention. During the period covered by this report, two group arrests were made after religious police raided large Christian congregations during services that were held on Friday, the Muslim day of rest.

Proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles. No foreign missionaries operate legally in the country. During the period covered by this report, two Filipino men were arrested, charged with proselytizing, and forced to serve approximately 2 months in prison.

Members of the Shi'a minority are the objects of officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination. Prior to 1990, the Government prohibited Shi'a public processions during the Islamic month of Muharram and restricted other processions and congregations to designated areas in the major Shi'a cities. Since 1990, the authorities have permitted the celebration of the Shi'a holiday of Ashura in the eastern province city of Qatif, provided that the celebrants do not undertake large, public marches or engage in self-flagellation (a traditional Shi'a practice). No other Ashura celebrations are permitted in the Kingdom, and many Shi'a travel to Qatif or to Bahrain to participate in Ashura celebrations.

The Government seldom permits private construction of Shi'a mosques. Shi'a have declined government offers to build state-supported mosques because the Government would prohibit the incorporation and display of Shi'a motifs in any such mosques.

The Government actively discourages Shi'a travel to Iran to visit pilgrimage sites, although Shi'a citizens are permitted to visit holy sites in Iraq.

Persons wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the Mutawwa'in. This general prohibition against religious symbols also applies to Muslims. A Christian wearing a crucifix or a Muslim wearing a Koranic necklace in public might be admonished. A very strict conservative Islamic dress code requiring extreme modesty is enforced for Muslim and non-Muslim women alike. Particularly in the more conservative Nejd region, virtually all women wear an abaya (a long black cloak), and many wear a headscarf while in public. Failure to do so can lead to admonishment by Mutawwa'in, and in the past occasionally has led to arrest. Male modesty also is required. Males going shirtless or in short pants while in public also risk admonishment.

Islamic religious education is mandatory in public schools at all levels. All children receive religious instruction, which generally is limited to that of the Hanbali school of Islam.

In accordance with Shari'a, Saudi women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims, but Saudi men may marry Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims.

The Government requires noncitizens to carry Iqamas, or legal resident identity cards, which contain a religious designation for "Muslim" or "non-Muslim."

Governmental Abuses of Freedom of Religion

A Filipino man was arrested in June 1999 and another Filipino man was arrested in July 1999. Both men were charged with proselytizing, served approximately 2 months in prison, and subsequently were deported.

There were two group arrests of Filipino Christians made during the period covered by the report, one of 13 persons in October 1999 and another of 16 persons in January 2000. Both arrests occurred after religious police raided large Christian congregations during services held on Friday, the local day of rest. In both instances, government officials maintained that the religious services were attended by such a large number of persons that they could not be considered private. Some of those arrested were charged with illegal assembly and all detainees subsequently were deported to the Philippines.

There were reports that the authorities arrested a Christian man in June 2000 for possession of a videotape of a religious event. There were no formal charges brought against him and he remained in custody at the end of the period covered by this report.

There were no reports that government security forces arrested or detained Shi'a on the suspicion of subversion and pro-Iranian activities, as had been reported in the past.

In April 2000, in the city of Najran, in the southwest region bordering Yemen, riots took place in which members of the Makarama Ismaili Shi'a community reportedly engaged in gun battles with security forces. Some press reports indicated that the rioting followed the arrest of a Makarama Ismaili Shi'a imam and some of his followers on charges of "sorcery." Various other reports attributed the unrest to the closure of two Ismaili Shi'a mosques and the provincial governor's refusal to permit Ismailis to hold public observances of the Shi'a holiday of Ashura. Still other reports attributed the unrest to a local crackdown on smuggling and resultant tribal discontent. Officials at the highest level of the Government stated that the unrest in Najran was not the result of Shi'a-Sunni tension or religious discrimination. After the unrest ended the Government stated that 5 members of the security forces were killed and Ismaili leaders claimed that as many as 40 Ismaili tribesmen were killed. There was no independent confirmation of these claims.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, some Shi'a suspected of subversion have been subjected periodically to surveillance and limitations on travel abroad. Since beginning the investigation of the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military installation at Al-Khobar, in which a number of eastern-province Shi'a were arrested, authorities have detained, interrogated, and confiscated the passports of a number of Shi'a Muslims. Shi'a who travel to Iran without government permission, or who are suspected of such travel, normally have their passports confiscated upon their return to Saudi Arabia for periods of up to 2 years.

As of June 30, 2000, the Government reportedly still held in jail an unknown number of Shi'a who were arrested in the aftermath of the Al-Khobar bombing.

Magic is widely believed in and sometimes practiced, often in the form of fortune-telling and swindles. However, under Shari'a the practice of magic is regarded as the worst form of polytheism, an offense for which no repentance is accepted, and which is punishable by death. There are an unknown number of detainees held in prison on the charge of "sorcery," or the practice of "black magic" or "witchcraft." In a few cases, self-proclaimed "miracle workers" have been executed for sorcery involving physical harm or apostasy. In 1999 the Al-Bilad newspaper reported that the Interior Ministry ordered the execution of a Sudanese man convicted of practicing magic in Jeddah for 3½ years. The man claimed to be an herbal medicine expert and had treated a number of women with tonics and potions; he reportedly possessed 16 spell books and related paraphernalia. The man reportedly confessed to conspiring with Jinns (beings made of fire who coexist with humans) in "efforts to separate wives from their husbands."

Mutawwa'in practices and incidents of abuse varied widely in different regions of the country, but were most numerous in the central Nejd region, which includes the capital Riyadh. In certain areas, both the Mutawwa'in and religious vigilantes acting on their own harassed, assaulted, battered, arrested, and detained citizens and foreigners. The Government requires the Mutawwa'in to follow established procedures and to offer instruction in a polite manner; however, Mutawwa'in did not always comply with the requirements. The Government has not criticized abuses by Mutawwa'in and religious vigilantes publicly but has sought to curtail these abuses.

Mutawwa'n enforcement of strict standards of social behavior included closing commercial establishments during the five daily prayer observances, insisting upon compliance with strict norms of public dress, and dispersing gatherings in public places. Mutawwa'in frequently reproached Saudi and foreign women for failure to observe strict dress codes, and arrested men and women found together who were not married or closely related.

The Mutawwa'in have the authority to detain persons for no more than 24 hours for violation of strict standards of proper dress and behavior. However, they sometimes exceeded this limit before delivering detainees to the police. Current procedures require a police officer to accompany the Mutawwa'in at the time of an arrest. Mutawwa'in generally complied with this requirement. During 1999 and through mid-2000, in the more conservative Riyadh district, the frequency of reports of Mutawwa'in accosting, abusing, arresting, and detaining persons alleged to have violated dress and behavior standards was about the same as in 1998. The Jeddah district also received a similar number of reports as in 1998.

In November 1998, several Mutawwa'in attacked and killed an elderly Shi'a prayer leader in Hofuf for repeating the call to prayer twice (a traditional Shi'a practice). Mutawwa'in attempts to cover up the killing were unsuccessful. The Government reportedly was investigating the incident, but there has been no further information on the case.

Criticism of the Mutawwa'in has appeared in the largely government-controlled press. Also, according to reports, the Mutawwa'in are no longer permitted to detain citizens for more than a few hours, may not conduct investigations, and may no longer allow unpaid volunteers to accompany official patrols.

Customs officials routinely open mail and shipments to search for contraband, including material that is deemed pornographic, and non-Muslim religious material. Customs officials confiscated or censored materials considered offensive, including Bibles and religious videotapes.

Improvements in Respect for Religious Freedom

Through published interviews with government officials and press articles that addressed the subject in the context of human rights, non-Islamic freedom to worship privately received more attention and greater respect than in the previous year.

Senior officials in the Government publicly reaffirmed the right of non-Muslims to engage in private religious worship. In an address to the 56th session of the U.N. Committee on Human Rights in April 2000, Prince Turki bin Muhammad bin Saud Al-Kabir, King Fahd's son-in-law and the Director of the International Organizations Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that "non-Muslims enjoy full freedom to engage in their religious observances in private." The media widely disseminated Prince Turki's speech and the media increasingly acknowledges the right to private non-Muslim worship. Such private non-Muslim worship occurs on a wide scale throughout the country, including on the premises of several foreign embassies.

Other high-level Saudi officials repeatedly confirmed during the period covered by this report that the Government's policy allows for private non-Muslim worship and that the Government does not sanction investigation or harassment of such private worship services. These officials ascribed any residual harassment of private worship services or seizure of personal religious materials such as Bibles or icons to individuals and organizations acting on their own authority and in contradiction of government policy. Representatives of Christian denominations present in the country report that the Government is not interfering with private worship services as long as those services remain discreet.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

Under Saudi law, children of Saudi fathers are considered Muslim, regardless of the country or the religious tradition in which they may have been raised. In some cases, children raised in other countries and in other religious traditions who came to Saudi Arabia or who were taken by their Saudi fathers to Saudi Arabia reportedly were coerced to conform to Islamic norms and practices. There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States during the period covered by this report or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States. However, there was a report that prior to the period covered by this report, at least one U.S. citizen child in Saudi Arabia was subjected to pressure--and at times force--by her Saudi relatives to renounce Christianity and conform to Islamic norms and practices.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Members of the Shi'a minority constitute nearly 8 percent of the citizenry and are discriminated against in government employment, especially with respect to positions that relate to national security, such as the military or the Ministry of the Interior. The Government also restricts employment of Shi'a in the oil industry. Shi'a are the objects of government discrimination in higher education in the form of unofficial restrictions on the number of Shi'a admitted to universities.

Improved relations between Iran (a predominately Shi'a nation) and Saudi Arabia (a majority Sunni nation) during the period covered by this report have affected positively the overall climate of Sunni-Shi'a relations in general.

Relations between Saudi Muslims and foreign Muslims are generally good. Foreign Muslims of all denominations pray freely in mosques as long as they follow Saudi Sunni prayer practices, although foreign imams have a more difficult time obtaining employment in mosques. All sermons are monitored. There are no separate mosques for foreigners.

Relations between Saudis and non-Muslim foreigners reflect the general relationship between 14 million Saudi citizens and 7 million foreigners residing in the Kingdom. Saudis from the historically isolated central Nejd region have had less exposure to foreigners and tend to be more reserved and insular. There is a greater degree of tolerance toward foreigners in both the eastern and western provinces, where trade and pilgrimage have exposed citizens living in coastal areas to foreigners and their customs for many centuries.

Non-Muslims who undertook religious observances privately and discreetly were not disturbed during the period covered by this report. However, several problems resulted after Saudi citizens complained to the authorities about services being held on rooftops, in full view and within hearing range of Muslims living nearby.

In certain areas, religious vigilantes acting on their own harassed, assaulted, battered, arrested, and detained citizens and foreigners.

The overwhelming majority of citizens support an Islamic state and oppose public non-Muslim worship. Citizens often ask foreigners about religious matters to determine a person's religion, attitudes, and knowledge of Islam. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, about 50 so-called "Call and Guidance" centers employing about 500 persons work to convert foreigners to Islam. Some non-Muslim foreigners convert to Islam during their stay in the country, including more than 200 persons in Jeddah each year. The press often carries articles about such conversions, including personal testimonials.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Ambassador, the U.S. Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission, the U.S. Consuls General in Jeddah and Dhahran, the Embassy's Political Counselor, and other political officers have raised the issue of religious freedom on numerous occasions during the period covered by this report. The Embassy's human rights officer met several times with Filipino Christian group members and Philippine embassy staff during the period of detention and deportation of persons suspected of involvement with Christian proselytizing groups.

Several meetings were held during the period covered by this report in which the issue of religious freedom was raised. The Embassy's Political Counselor delivered a demarche on religious freedom to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs official in charge of human rights. The Assistant Deputy Foreign Minister met with David Welch, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, the Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission, and the Political Counselor regarding religious freedom and human rights issues. Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal met with Welch and the Political Counselor regarding religious freedom and human rights issues. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs official in charge of human rights, including freedom of religion, met with the Embassy's political human rights officer.


Sources: U.S. State Department - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

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