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Reports on Religious Freedom: Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy without legal protection for freedom of religion, and such protection does not exist in practice. Islam is the official religion, and the law requires that all citizens be Muslims. The Government prohibits the public practice of non-Muslim religions. The Government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private; however, it does not always respect this right in practice.

There generally was no change in the status of religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The Government continued to detain Shi'a religious leaders and members of the Ismaili Shi'a community in Najran province. Freedom of non-Muslims to worship privately has received increasing attention in recent years through published interviews with government officials and press articles that addressed the subject in the context of human rights; however, the right to private worship remains restricted. The Government has stated publicly that its policy is to protect the right of non-Muslims to worship privately; however, it does not provide explicit guidelines for determining what constitutes private worship, which makes distinctions between public and private worship unclear. Such lack of clarity, as well as instances of arbitrary enforcement by the authorities, force most non-Muslims to worship in such a manner as to avoid discovery by the Government or others. Members of the Shi'a minority continued to face institutionalized political and economic discrimination, including restrictions on the practice of their faith.

An overwhelming majority of citizens support an Islamic state and oppose public non-Muslim worship. There is societal discrimination against adherents of the Shi'a minority.

Senior U.S. government officials raised the issue of religious freedom with the Government on numerous occasions during the period covered by this report.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country's total land area is 756,981 square miles and its population is approximately 17 million, with an estimated foreign population of 7 million. The foreign population includes approximately 1.5 million Indians, 1 million Bangladeshis, nearly 900,000 Pakistanis, 800,000 Egyptians, 800,000 Filipinos, 250,000 Palestinians, 150,000 Lebanese, 130,000 Sri Lankans, 40,000 Eritreans, and 36,000 Americans. Comprehensive statistics for the denominations of foreigners are not available, but they include Muslims from the various branches and schools of Islam, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews. For example, the Embassy of the Philippines reports that over 90 percent of the Filipino community is Christian. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates there are well over 500,000 Catholics in the country, and perhaps as many as 1 million. There is no information regarding the number of atheists in the country.

The majority of Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims predominantly adhering to the strict interpretation of Islam taught by the Salafi or Wahhabi school that is the official state religion.

Approximately 1 million citizens are Shi'a Muslims, who live mostly in the eastern province, where they constitute approximately one-third of the population.

There is no information regarding foreign missionaries in the country. Proselytizing is not permitted.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

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. The Government recognizes the right of private worship by non-Muslims; however, it does not always respect this right in practice. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy and the Government has declared the Holy 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 Salafi or Wahhabi 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.

The legal system is based on Shari'a (Islamic law), with Shari'a courts basing their judgments largely on a code derived from the Holy Koran and the Sunna. The Government permits Shi'a Muslims to use their own legal tradition to adjudicate noncriminal cases within their community.

The only national holidays observed in Saudi Arabia are the two Eids, Eid Al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan and Eid Al-Adha at the conclusion of the Hajj. Observance of the Shi'a holiday of Ashura is allowed in the eastern city of Qatif and in the southern province of Naran.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Islamic practice generally is limited to that of a school of the Sunni branch of Islam as interpreted by Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, an 18th century Arab religious reformer. (Outside Saudi Arabia, this branch of Islam is often referred to as "Wahhabi," a term the Saudis do not use. The teachings of the reformer Abd Al-Wahhab are more often referred to by adherents as "Salafi" or "Muwahiddun," that is, following the forefathers of Islam, or unifiers of Islamic practice.) Practices contrary to this interpretation, such as celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, are discouraged. 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.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs supervises and finances the construction and maintenance of almost all mosques in the country, although over 30 percent of all mosques in Saudi Arabia are built and endowed by private persons. The Ministry pays the salaries of imams (prayer leaders) and others who work in the mosques. A governmental committee defines the qualifications of imams. The Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (commonly called "religious police" or Mutawwa'in) is a government entity, and its chairman has ministerial status.

Foreign imams are barred from leading worship during the most heavily attended prayer times and prohibited from delivering sermons during Friday congregational prayers. The Government states that its actions are part of its "Saudiization" plan to replace foreign workers with citizens.

Under Shari'a conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death if the accused does not recant. There were no executions for apostasy during the period covered by this report, and there have been no reports of such executions for the past several years.

The Government prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in overt religious activity that attracts official attention. The Government has stated publicly, including before the U.N. Committee on Human Rights in Geneva, that its policy is to protect the right of non-Muslims to worship privately; however, it does not provide explicit guidelines--such as the number of persons permitted to attend and acceptable locations--for determining what constitutes private worship, which makes distinctions between public and private worship unclear. Such lack of clarity, as well as instances of arbitrary enforcement by the authorities, force most non-Muslims to worship in such a manner as to avoid discovery by the Government or others.Those detained for non-Muslim worship almost always are deported by authorities after sometimes lengthy periods of arrest during investigation. In some cases, they also are sentenced to receive lashes prior to deportation.

The Government does not permit non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services, although some come under other auspices and perform religious functions in secret. Such restrictions make it very difficult for most non-Muslims to maintain contact with clergymen and attend services. Catholics and Orthodox Christians, who require a priest on a regular basis to receive the sacraments required by their faith, particularly are affected.

Proselytizing by non-Muslims, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles, is illegal. Muslims or non-Muslims wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the Mutawwa'in. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, approximately 50 so-called "Call and Guidance" centers employing approximately 500 persons work to convert foreigners to Islam. Some non-Muslim foreigners convert to Islam during their stay in the country. According to official reports, 942 foreign workers converted to Islam in the past year. The press often carries articles about such conversions, including testimonials. The press as well as government officials publicized the conversion of the Italian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in late 2001.

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

Members of the Shi'a minority are the subjects of officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination. The authorities permit 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). The celebrations are monitored by the police. In 2002 observance of Ashura took place without incident in Qatif. No other Ashura celebrations are permitted in the country, and many Shi'a travel to Qatif or to Bahrain to participate in Ashura celebrations. The Government continued to enforce other restrictions on the Shi'a community, such as banning Shi'a books.

Shi'a have declined government offers to build state-supported mosques because they fear the Government would prohibit the incorporation and display of Shi'a motifs in any such mosques. The Government seldom permits private construction of Shi'a mosques. In March 2001, religious police reportedly closed a Shi'a mosque in Hofuf because it had been built without government permission.

Members of the Shi'a minority are discriminated against in government employment, especially with respect to positions that relate to national security, such as in the military or in the Ministry of the Interior. The Government restricts employment of Shi'a in the oil and petrochemical industries. The Government also discriminates against Shi'a in higher education through unofficial restrictions on the number of Shi'a admitted to universities.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution some Shi'a suspected of subversion have been subjected periodically to surveillance and limitations on travel abroad. Prior to 2001, the Government actively discouraged Shi'a travel to Iran to visit pilgrimage sites due to security concerns. Shi'a who went to Iran without government permission, or who were suspected of such travel, normally had their passports confiscated upon their return for periods of up to 2 years. However, according to press reports, in early 2001, the Government lifted the requirement that citizens intending to travel to Iran seek permission in advance from authorities. This change corresponded with improving relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The effect has been to allow Shi'a citizens to travel freely to Iran for religious pilgrimages. Advance permission for travel to Iraq, whether for business or religious pilgrimage, has been necessary for some time due to security concerns, but such travel remains possible.

Under the provisions of Shari'a law as practiced in the country, judges may discount the testimony of people who are not practicing Muslims or who do not adhere to the official interpretation of Islam. Legal sources report that testimony by Shi'a is often ignored in courts of law or is deemed to have less weight than testimony by Sunnis. For example, in May 2001, a judge in the eastern province ruled that the testimony of two Shi'a witnesses to an automobile accident was inadmissible. Sentencing under the legal system is not uniform. Laws and regulations state that defendants should be treated equally; however, under Shari'a as interpreted and applied in the country, crimes against Muslims may result in harsher penalties than those against non-Muslims. Observers believe that the new Criminal Procedure Law, passed in late 2001 and became effective on May 1, 2002, should give fairer treatment to all defendants.

Customs officials routinely open mail and shipments to search for contraband, including non-Muslim materials, such as Bibles and religious videotapes. Such materials are subject to confiscation, although rules appear to be applied arbitrarily.

Islamic religious education is mandatory in public schools at all levels. All public school children receive religious instruction that conforms with the official version of Islam. Non-Muslim students in private schools are not required to study Islam. No private religious schools are permitted for non-Muslims.

Women are subject to discrimination under Shari'a as interpreted in the country. In a Shari'a court, a woman's testimony does not carry the same weight as that of a man: the testimony of one man equals that of two women. Female parties to court proceedings, such as divorce and other family law cases, generally must deputize male relatives to speak on their behalf.

Islamic law permits polygyny, with one man allowed to have a maximum of four wives at one time. While polygyny is becoming less prevalent among some segments of the population due to demographic and economic changes, the practice is still common. Islamic law enjoins a man to treat each wife equally. In practice such equality is left to the discretion of the husband. Women may not marry noncitizens without government permission; men must obtain approval from the Ministry of Interior to marry women from countries outside the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In accordance with Shari'a, women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims; men may marry Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims.

While Shari'a provides women with a basis to own and dispose of property independently, women often are constrained from asserting such rights because of various legal and societal barriers, especially regarding employment and freedom of movement. In addition, daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers.

Women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without cause. In doing so, men are required to pay immediately an amount of money agreed upon at the time of the marriage, which serves as a one-time alimony payment. Women who demonstrate legal grounds for divorce still are entitled to this alimony. If divorced or widowed, a Muslim woman normally may keep her children until they attain a specified age: 7 years for boys, 9 years for girls. Children over these ages are awarded to the former husband or the deceased husband's family. Numerous divorced foreign women continued to be prevented by their former husbands from visiting their children after divorce.

Failure of Muslim women to wear an abaya or headscarf can lead to admonishment (and in the past occasionally has led to arrest) by some Mutawwa'in enforcing their own interpretation of religious doctrine.

Abuses of Freedom of Religion

During the period covered by this report, the Government continued to commit abuses of religious freedom. However, reports of abuses are often difficult or impossible to corroborate for a variety of reasons. First, the fear and consequent secrecy surrounding any non-Muslim religious activity contribute to reluctance to disclose any information that might lead to more harm of persons under investigation by the Government. Moreover, information regarding government practices is incomplete because judicial proceedings have been closed to the public, although the new Criminal Procedural Law that became effective in May 2002 allows some court proceedings to be open to the public.

The Government restricts freedom of speech and association, and the media exercises self-censorship regarding sensitive issues such as religious freedom. There are no independent nongovernmental organizations that monitor religious freedom. However, the Government has stated publicly that it would welcome foreign human rights organizations to conduct independent investigations, although there were no such visits during the period covered by this report.

The Government continued to commit abuses against members of the Shi'a minority. 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. The Government reportedly continued to detain an unknown number of Shi'a who were arrested in the aftermath of the Al-Khobar bombing. Government security forces reportedly arrest Shi'a based on the smallest suspicion, hold them in custody for lengthy periods, and then release them without explanation.

According to various reports, a number of Shi'a sheikhs (religious leaders) remained in detention during the period covered by this report. Amnesty International (AI) reported that Sheikh Ali bin Ali al-Ghanim was arrested in August 2000 at the border with Jordan and held by the Mabahith, the national investigative bureau that is part of the Ministry of Interior. In March 2001, Mabahith officers reportedly arrested and detained Sheikh Mohammed Al Amri in Medina. In January 2002, Sheikh Ahmed Turki al-Saab was arrested 1 week after the U.S. newspaper The Wall Street Journal published his comments that were critical of the Government. On April 23, he was sentenced to flogging and 7 years in prison.

Early in 2000, a Shi'a sheikh was taken into custody and three other sheikhs were arrested for unknown reasons near the border with Jordan. According to AI, Hashim Al-Sayyid Al-Sada, a Shi'a cleric suspected of political or religious dissent, was arrested in his home in April 2000 and reportedly remained held incommunicado.

In April 2000, in the city of Najran in the southwestern province bordering Yemen, rioting by members of the Makarama Ismaili Shi'a eventually led to an attack by an armed group of Shi'a on a hotel that contained an office of the regional governor. Security forces responded, leading to extended gun battles between the two sides. 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. In November 2001 and again in January 2002, the authorities in Najran arrested at least six more Ismailis. They were charged with practicing sorcery and continued to be detained at the end of the period covered by this report. The November and January arrests were in addition to the 93 Ismailis, including several Ismaili leaders, who have been detained since the April 2000 incident.

In October 2000, AI reported that two Ismaili Shi'a teachers, who were arrested in April 2000 following the unrest, were convicted on charges of sorcery and sentenced to 1,500 lashes; however, this report could not be confirmed. In May 2001, independent sources in Najran reported that the Government had during the year since the riot removed dozens of natives of Najran from government jobs in the region to work elsewhere in the country.

The Government continued to detain non-Muslims engaged in worship services. Between June and August 2001 in Jeddah, 14 Christians were arrested and imprisoned for months, reportedly on charges of conducting public worship services and attempting to proselytize. Early in 2002, 11 of the detainees were deported and, in March 2002, the remaining 3 Christians, 2 Ethiopians and 1 Filipino, were deported. Prior to their release, they claimed in a publicly and internationally circulated e-mail letter that some of them had been tortured by the authorities while in prison.

In early 2002 in the eastern city of Abqaiq, 2 Filipino Christian residents were arrested and imprisoned in Dammam for conducting a Roman Catholic prayer group in their home. In April 2002, the 2 Filipinos were sentenced to 150 lashes and deportation following a 30-day jail sentence, allegedly for their religious beliefs. They were deported in late May 2002.

In April 2002, Saudi police and Mutawwa'in detained a total of 26 Christians in successive raids on 2 private houses where worship services were being held in a residential area of downtown Riyadh. One of those originally arrested later reported that after 2 days, 23 of the Christians were released, but that 3, 1 Sudanese and 2 Sri Lankans, were kept in detention and moved to another Riyadh prison. Their Saudi sponsors believe that the three men probably will be deported following a trial. Following these raids, the authorities returned to one of the private houses and confiscated chairs, Bibles, musical instruments, a microphone, and curtains that they ripped from the walls.

In May 2002, Saudi police and Mutawwa'in detained a total of 11 Christians, including foreign nationals from both Ethiopia and Eritrea, then living in the Jeddah area at the end of the period covered by this report. They allegedly had been engaged in activities that violated restrictions against public worship. Of the 11, 3 had been deported and 8 remained in prison.

There were reports during the period covered by this report that authorities interrogated members of the tiny Baha'i community regarding the size and status of their community, although there were no reports of any additional actions taken against them.

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," including 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.

Mutawwa'in practices and incidents of abuse varied widely in different regions of the country. While reports of incidents were most numerous in the central Nejd region, which includes the capital Riyadh, reports of incidents in the eastern province increased during the period covered by this report. 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 do not always comply with the requirements. The Government has not criticized abuses by the Mutawwa'in directly, but criticism of the group has appeared in the largely government-controlled English-language press. The Government has sought to curtail these abuses; however, the abuses continue.

Mutawwa'in enforcement of strict standards of social behavior included closing commercial establishments during five daily prayer observances, insisting upon compliance with strict norms of public dress and dispersing gatherings in public places. Mutawwa'in frequently reproached citizen and foreign women for failure to observe strict dress codes, and detained 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. Procedures require a police officer to accompany the Mutawwa'in at the time of arrest. Mutawwa'in generally complied with this requirement. According to reports, the Mutawwa'in also 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.

Forced Religious Conversion

Under the law, children of Saudi fathers are considered Muslim, regardless of the county 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, although forcible conversion is prohibited. 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 the country was subjected to pressure--and at times force--by her Saudi relatives to renounce Christianity and conform to Islamic norms and practices. The child has since returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

There is societal discrimination against members of the Shi'a minority; however, improved relations between Iran (a predominately Shi'a nation) and Saudi Arabia in the period covered by this report continued to improve the climate of Sunni-Shi'a relations in the country. The overwhelming majority of citizens support an Islamic state and oppose public non-Muslim worship. They believe this stance conforms with a teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. The official title of the head of state is "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," and the role of the King and the Government in upholding Islam in the country is regarded as a paramount function throughout the Muslim world.

Many non-Muslims who undertook religious observances privately and discreetly during the period covered by this report were not disturbed; however, problems occurred after some citizens complained to the authorities about services by their neighbors. Some non-Muslims claim that informants paid by the Mutawwa'in infiltrate their private worship groups. Employers claim that contracts of non-Muslim employees were not renewed because of performance problems or efforts to increase employment opportunities for Saudi workers.

Relations between Saudi Muslims and foreign Muslims are generally good. Each year the country welcomes approximately 2 million Muslim pilgrims from all over the world and of all branches of Islam, who visit the country during a 2-week period to perform the Hajj. Foreign Muslims of all denominations may 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 than their Saudi counterparts.

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

Senior U.S. government officials on numerous occasions during the period covered by this report raised the issue of religious freedom with government officials and sought reconfirmation of the Government's commitment to permit private non-Muslim worship. In December 2001, U.S. embassy officers met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) officials to deliver and discuss the U.S. Government's 2001 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. In May 2002, senior U.S. embassy officers met again with MFA officials to protest the detention of Christians arrested in the Eastern Province and the detention of Christian worshipers in Riyadh. In addition embassy officers met with MFA officials at various other times during the year on matters pertaining to religious freedom.

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