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Reports on Religious Freedom: Saudi Arabia


Section I. Freedom of Religion

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.

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 a rigorously conservative form of Islam. Neither the Government nor society in general accepts the concept of separation of religion and state.

Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy. Public apostasy is a crime under Shari'a (Islamic law) and punishable by death.

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 religious reformer. Practices contrary to this interpretation, such as visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, are discouraged.

The Shi'a Muslim minority (roughly 800,000 of nearly 14 million citizens) lives mostly in the Eastern Province, where it constitutes about one-third of the population.

Approximately 6 million foreigners, including about 1.2 million Indians, 1.2 million Egyptians, 800,000 Pakistanis, 600,000 Filipinos, 130,000 Sri Lankans, and 40,000 Americans live throughout the country. These foreigners include Muslims of different denominations, Christians of different denominations, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, agnostics, and atheists.

There are no statistics available regarding the exact number of foreigners in the country belonging to each religion or denomination, and foreigners continually arrive and depart when their labor contracts expire. One available statistic reveals that over 90 percent of the Filipino community (or well over half a million persons) is non-Muslim, and includes Catholics and Protestants.

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 Government monitors mosques to prevent the raising of politically and religiously sensitive subjects during sermons. Religious police, or Mutawwa, make up the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, which receives its funding from the Government. The President of the Mutawwa holds the rank of cabinet minister.

The Mutawwa 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 at the time of an arrest. Mutawwa generally complied with this requirement. During 1998 in the more conservative Riyadh district, the number of reports received of Mutawwa accosting, abusing, arresting, and detaining persons alleged to have violated dress and behavior standards was slightly higher than in 1997. The Jeddah district received a similar number of reports as in 1997.

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

Mutawwa enforcement of strict standards of social behavior included the closing of commercial establishments during the five daily prayer observances, insisting upon compliance with strict norms of public dress, and dispersing gatherings of women in public places. Mutawwa 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.

However, in early 1999, criticism of the Mutawwa began to appear in the largely government-controlled press. Also, according to reports, the Mutawwa 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.

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 marches on the Shi'a holiday of Ashura, provided that the marchers do not display banners or engage in self-flagellation. Ashura commemorations took place during the period covered by this report without incident. The Government seldom permits private construction of Shi'a mosques. The 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.

Government security forces reportedly arrest Shi'a on the smallest suspicion of subversion and pro-Iranian activities, hold them in custody for lengthy periods, and then release them without explanation.

In November several Mutawwa attacked and killed an elderly Shi'a prayer leader in Hofuf for repeating the call to prayer twice (a traditional Shi'a practice). Mutawwa 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.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, some Shi'a suspected of subversion have been subjected periodically to surveillance and limitations on travel abroad. The Government actively discourages Shi'a travel to Iran to visit pilgrimage sites, although Saudi Shi'a are permitted to visit holy sites in Iraq. The Government still punishes Shi'a who travel to Iran, or are suspected of traveling to Iran, by confiscating passports for up to 2 years. Since beginning the investigation of the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military installation at Khobar in which a number of eastern province Shi'a were implicated, authorities have detained, interrogated, and confiscated the passports of a number of Shi'a, including Shi'a returning to the country following travel to Iran.

As of June 30, 1999, the Government reportedly still held in jail an unknown number of Shi'a arrested in the aftermath of the Khobar bombing.

Iqamas, cards that the Government requires both citizens and noncitizens to carry and which indicate the bearer's nationality, contain a religious designation for "Muslim" or "non-Muslim." The Government does not permit public non-Muslim religious activities among the numerous non-Muslim foreigners living in the country. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest and deportation for engaging in public religious activity that attracts official attention, especially proselytizing. There were no credible reports of government action against private religious services during the period covered by this report.

In 1997 for the first time, a senior government official stated publicly while outside the country that the Government does not "prevent" private non-Muslim religious worship in the home. Such private non-Muslim worship occurs on a wide scale throughout the country, including on the premises of several embassies. Other high-level authorities 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. In 1999 a senior government official stated that the Government would take measures against anyone who violated the rights of foreigners who engaged in private non-Muslim worship. However, the Government does not publicize this policy domestically, and it ascribes 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 many non-Muslim denominations present in the country report that the Government is not interfering with their private worship services.

However, proselytizing, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles, is illegal. The prohibition against proselytizing also includes the spreading of Muslim teachings not in conformance with the Hanbali school of Islam. One Dutch and 14 Filipino Christian activists, who were part of an externally organized evangelical Christian group, were arrested in June 1998 for actively engaging in efforts to proselytize citizens. All detainees were released and deported in July 1998. An additional nine Filipino activists left voluntarily or were on vacation and did not return after the July deportations. Deportations of over a dozen Filipino individuals identified as having connections with proselytizing groups began in September 1998 and continued into December. Those deportations took place without arrest except in two cases of brief detention, through an order signed by the Ministry of Interior. A Korean national was arrested on November 8, 1998, on accusations of proselytization of Christianity. While in custody, he was allowed visits by his family. He reported that no mistreatment occurred during his incarceration. He was deported to Korea in January 1999. As of June 30, 1999, there were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Persons wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the Mutawwa. 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 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 adhere to the dress code may lead to admonishment by Mutawwa. Male modesty also is required. Males in short pants or shirtless while in public also risk admonishment.

The Government requires religious instruction in public schools at all levels. Classroom instruction generally is limited to that of the Hanbali school of Islam.

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

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

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

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, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States. However, under Saudi law the father of a child may restrict the child's travel and there are cases of U.S. citizen children residing in Saudi Arabia against the will of their U.S. citizen mothers. Under the law, these children automatically are considered Muslim because their fathers are Muslim. The authorities observe the Koranic injunction that there be no compulsion in religion. Religious authorities question individuals who state their intention to convert to Islam to ensure that they are acting of their own volition.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Shi'a citizens constitute nearly 5 percent of the citizenry and are discriminated against in government employment, especially with respect to jobs that relate to national security, such as the military or the Ministry of 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.

There are indications that improvements in relations with Iran (a predominately Shi'a nation) during the period covered by this report have affected positively the overall climate of Sunni-Shi'a relations. However, tension between the two branches of Islam persists.

Relationships between Muslim citizens and foreign Muslims are generally good. Foreign Muslims of all denominations may pray freely in mosques as long as they follow the locally accepted prayer practices. There are no separate mosques for foreigners.

Relationships between Saudis and non-Muslim foreigners are shaped by the general circumstances of 14 million citizens and 6 million foreigners living in the same country. Relations in the historically isolated central Nejd region are characterized by a general sense of distance and reserve as citizens try to preserve their Arabic and Islamic heritage. 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 for many centuries. However, there were some incidents in which citizens complained to the authorities that missionaries had placed non-Muslim material in their homes or at mosques.

The overwhelming majority of citizens supports an Islamic state and opposes public non-Muslim worship. Muslim citizens often ask foreigners about religious matters to determine their religion, attitudes, and knowledge of Islam. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, about 50 so-called "Call and Guidance" centers employing a total of about 500 persons work to convert foreigners to Islam. Many non-Muslim foreigners (including Christians and Hindus) convert to Islam during their stay in the country. The press often carries articles about such conversions, including personal testimonials.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Ambassador, the Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission, the U.S. Consuls General in Jeddah and Dhahran, the Embassy's Political Counselor, and its political officers have raised the issue of religious freedom on numerous occasions during the period covered by this report. The Ambassador has raised the issue a number of times with senior officials to ensure that the Government is well aware of the strong U.S. interest in freedom of religion. In January 1998, the Embassy arranged meetings for Senator Arlen Specter with American, Indian, and Filipino representatives of various Christian denominations, and with a senior government official.

The Embassy arranged the meetings of Sharon Payt, legislative assistant to Senator Sam Brownback, with the Minister of Interior, concerned foreign diplomats, and representatives of a wide variety of Christian groups during her visit from July 11-17, 1998. This visit was in connection with the detention of more than a dozen foreign citizens for distributing Christian religious literature (see Section I). Her visit followed weeks of intensive efforts by embassy officers to ascertain the facts of the case, meet with representatives of Christian (including evangelical) groups, transmit letters of concern from U.S. Congressmen to Saudi leaders, and assist the Philippine and Dutch Embassies in resolving these cases. The Ambassador discussed the issue twice with the Foreign Minister and once with the Acting Interior Minister.

The Embassy arranged the visit of Senator Brownback on November 23, 1998, which included meetings that were attended by the Ambassador and other embassy officials, and included a discussion with the Foreign Minister about religious freedom.

The Embassy's human rights officer met during November and December with Filipino Christian group members and the Philippine and Korean embassies during the period of detention and deportation of persons suspected of involvement with Christian proselytizing groups.

The Embassy's Political Counselor discussed religious freedom in a December 1998 meeting with a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official.

In a December 13 meeting with the Vice Minister of Interior, the Consul General and human rights officer raised the issue of religious freedom.

In February 1999, the Secretary of State's Special Representative for International Religious Freedom Robert Seiple visited the country and met with the Foreign Minister, the Chairman of the Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council), the Minister of Islamic Affairs, the Korean Ambassador, Philippine embassy officials, and leaders of Christian denominations. Religious freedom issues were discussed in each meeting.

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