Reports on Religious Freedom: Saudi Arabia
There generally was no change in the status of religious freedom during the period covered by this report, although the Government initiated a limited campaign to foster greater moderation and tolerance of religious diversity. The Government enforces a strictly conservative version of Sunni Islam. Muslims who do not adhere to the officially sanctioned Salafi (commonly called "Wahhabi") tradition can face severe repercussions at the hands of the Mutawwa'in (religious police). The Government continued to detain Shi'a religious leaders and members of the Ismaili Shi'a community in Najran province. Members of the Shi'a minority continue to face political and economic discrimination, including limited employment opportunities, little representation in official institutions, and restrictions on the practice of their faith and on the building of mosques and community centers. The Government has stated publicly that its policy is to allow non-Muslims to worship privately; however, this policy is not consistently enforced, resulting in the violation of some non-Muslims' freedom of worship and causing other non-Muslims to worship in fear of harassment and in such a manner as to avoid discovery.
During the period covered by this report, senior Government officials have made some efforts to improve the climate of tolerance toward other religions and within Islam. The Government convened a "National Dialog" meeting between members of different Muslim traditions, and issued statements condemning incitements to violence and the disparagement of other religions. The Grand Mufti issued a fatwa (religious ruling) denouncing incitement to violence and the disparagement of other religions. The Government also took measures to remove disparaging references to other religious traditions from the educational curriculum. In addition, increased press freedom permitted journalists to publicly criticize abuses by the religious police. However, there continued to be religious discrimination and sectarian tension in society during the period covered by this report, including ongoing denunciations of non-Muslim religions from government sanctioned pulpits.
The majority of citizens supports a state based on Islamic law, and many oppose public non-Muslim worship, although there are differing views as to how this should be realized in practice. There is societal discrimination against members of the Shi'a minority.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Senior administration officials have continued to raise U.S. concerns with the Government.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 1,225,000 square miles and its population is approximately 24 million, with an estimated foreign population of 6-7 million. The foreign population includes approximately 1.4 million Indians, 1 million Bangladeshis, nearly 900,000 Pakistanis, 800,000 Filipinos, 750,000 Egyptians, 250,000 Palestinians, 150,000 Lebanese, 130,000 Sri Lankans, 40,000 Eritreans, and 36,000 Americans. Comprehensive statistics for the religious denominations of foreigners are not available; however, they include Muslims from the various branches and schools of Islam, Christians, and Hindus. Approximately 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.
The majority of 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 2 million citizens are Shi'a Muslims, the majority of whom live in the eastern province, where they constitute approximately one-half of the population.
There is no information regarding foreign missionaries in the country. Proselytization by non-Sunni Muslims is not permitted.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. The Government limits the practice of all but the officially sanctioned version of Islam and prohibits the public practice of other religions. During the period covered by this report, the Government publicly restated its policy that non-Muslims are free to practice their religions at home and in private. While the Government does not always respect this right in practice, many non-Muslims engage in private worship without harassment. As custodian of Islam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, the Government considers its legitimacy to rest largely on its interpretation and enforcement of Shari'a. Consequently, the Government has declared the Koran and the Sunna (tradition) of Muhammed to be the country's Constitution. The Government follows the rigorously conservative and strict interpretation of the Salafi (often referred to as "Wahhabi") school of the Sunni branch of Islam and discriminates against other branches of Islam. The Government limits the practice of all but the officially sanctioned version of Islam, and prohibits the public practice of other religions. Neither the Government nor society in general accepts the concept of separation of religion and state, and such separation does not exist.
The country is governed according to the Basic Law, which sets out the system of government, rights of residents and citizens, and powers and duties of the Government. The judiciary bases its judgments largely on Shari'a, a code derived from the Holy Koran and the Sunna. The Government permits Shi'a Muslims to use their own legal tradition to adjudicate cases limited to family law, inheritance, and endowment management. However, there are only two such judges, one in Qatif and one in al Hasa, which is insufficient to serve the sizable Shi'a populations of those areas and the rest of the country.
The 'Eid al-Fitr and 'Eid al-Adha religious holidays are recognized as the only national holidays. Observance of the Shi'a holiday of Ashura is allowed in the eastern city of Qatif and in the southern province of Najran, but public observances continue to be prohibited elsewhere.
Hindus are considered polytheists by Islamic law, which is used as a justification for greater discrimination in calculating accidental death or injury compensation. According to the country's "Hanbali" interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law), once fault is determined by a court, a Muslim male receives 100 percent of the amount of compensation determined, a male Jew or Christian receives 50 percent, and all others (including Hindus and Sikhs) receive 1/16 of the amount a male Muslim receives.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Tolerated Islamic practice generally is limited to a school of the Sunni branch of Islam as interpreted by Muhammed Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, an 18th century Arab religious reformer. (This branch of Islam is often referred to as "Wahhabi," a term that many adherents to this tradition 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 Muhammed's birthday and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, are discouraged. The Government prohibits the spreading of Muslim teachings that do not conform to the officially accepted interpretation of Islam. During the period covered by this report, there was a greater degree of public discussion of the conservative religious traditions than previously seen. Particularly after the May 12 terror attacks in Riyadh, some citizen writers began to criticize abuses committed by the religious police (the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, commonly called the "Mutawwa'in"). However, discussion of religious issues is severely constrained, and the editor of a major local daily newspaper was fired from his position after he allowed the publication of a series of articles and cartoons critical of the religious establishment.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs supervises and finances the construction and maintenance of almost all mosques in the country, although approximately 30 percent of all mosques in the country are built and endowed by private persons for charity or at private palaces. However, all mosques fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The Ministry pays the salaries of imams (prayer leaders) and others who work in the mosques. The Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice is a governmental entity, whose chairman has ministerial status. A separate government committee defines the qualifications of imams.
Since the May terrorist attacks in Riyadh, the Government has taken public measures to control religious extremism. It announced the firing of hundreds of Imams for immoderate preaching, and said that over 1,000 more had been called in for retraining and "guidance." The Government also announced a training course for Mutawwa'in in interpersonal relations.
The Government bars foreign imams from leading worship during the most heavily attended prayer times and prohibits them from delivering sermons during Friday congregational prayers. The Government states that its actions are part of its "Saudization" 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. There was a report of a citizen who had converted to Christianity and was convicted of blasphemy.
The Government prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention. The Government has stated publicly, including before the UN Committee on Human Rights (UNCHR) in Geneva, that its policy is to allow non-Muslim foreigners to worship privately. However, the Government 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 and instances of inconsistent enforcement led many non-Muslims to worship in fear of harassment and in such a way as to avoid discovery. The Government almost always deports those detained for visible non-Muslim worship 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 officially permit non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services, although some come under other auspices and the Government generally has allowed their performance of discreet religious functions. 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. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs sponsors approximately 50 so-called "Call and Guidance" centers employing approximately 500 persons to convert foreigners to Islam. Some non-Muslim foreigners convert to Islam during their stay in the country. The press often carries articles about such conversions, including testimonials.
The Government requires noncitizens to carry Iqamas, or legal resident identity cards, which contain a religious designation for "Muslim" or "non-Muslim." There have been reports that individual Mutawwa'in have pressured Saudi sponsors not to renew Iqamas, which had been issued for employment, of individuals for religious reasons.
Members of the Shi'a minority are the subjects of officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination. During the period covered by this report, authorities permitted a greater degree of freedom to Shi'ites in the Eastern Province city of Qatif than in the past, overlooking religious practices and gatherings that were previously prevented. There were no reports of meeting places being closed down. In other areas with large Shi'a populations, however, such as al-Hasa and Dammam, there continue to be restrictions on Shi'a religious practices. The authorities permit the celebration of the Shi'a holiday of Ashura in Qatif, provided that the celebrants do not undertake large, public marches or engage in self-flagellation (a practice of some Shi'a). The police, as with any public gathering in the country, monitor the Ashura observances. In March observance of Ashura took place in Qatif without incident, including a sermon given by a prominent Shi'a cleric who preached to a gathering of 10,000. 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 sporadically to enforce other restrictions on the Shi'a community, such as banning Shi'a books and excluding Shi'a perspectives from the extensive religious media and broadcast programming.
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 the past, the Government has closed Shi'a mosques built without government permission.
Members of the Shi'a minority are discriminated against in government employment, especially in national security-related positions, such as the military or Ministry of the Interior. There is an absence of Shi'a representatives at management levels in most of the country's largest government agencies and private companies. 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. There are no Shi'a principals in the approximately 300 female schools in the Eastern Province. There are no Shi'a cabinet ministers, and only 2 Shi'a in the 120 member Majlis al-Shura (consultative council). There are no Shi'a members of the country's highest religious authority, the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars (Ulema).
Since 2001, the Government has allowed 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 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. However, laws and regulations state that defendants should be treated equally.
Customs officials routinely open mail and shipments to search for contraband, including Sunni printed material that is deemed incompatible with the Salafi tradition of Islam, Shi'a religious materials, and non-Muslim materials, such as Bibles and religious videotapes. Such materials are subject to confiscation, although rules appear to be applied arbitrarily.
Sunni Islamic religious education is mandatory in public schools at all levels. Regardless of which Islamic tradition their families adhere to, all public school children receive religious instruction that conforms to the Salafi tradition of Islam. Non-Muslim students in private schools are not required to study Islam. Private religious schools are not permitted for non-Muslims, or for Muslims adhering to non-Salafi traditions of Islam. Shi'a are banned from teaching religion in schools.
Public debate over reform in the country increased during the period covered by this report. In January a group of intellectuals presented a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah calling for political, economic and social reform, including freedom of expression. In April a group of 450 Shi'ites presented a petition to the Crown Prince calling for political and economic reform, and an end to discrimination against Shi'ites and other Muslim sects. Following the May terrorist attacks in Riyadh, a speech was delivered on behalf of the King to the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) outlining a program of reform and calling for moderation and tolerance. And in June, the Government sponsored a "National Intellectual Dialog" among leaders of different Islamic traditions that resulted in a statement acknowledging theological diversity within Islam. Nevertheless, despite positive statements, there has, thus far, been little tangible improvement in the status of those who do not adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Islam or who belong to a minority religious group.
During the period covered by this report, the Government permitted independent human rights monitors to visit the country for the first time. In October, a United Nations Special Rapporteur visited the country to review the country's legal system. In January Human Rights Watch visited the country for several weeks and met with government officials including the Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs, and the President of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The Government also gave formal authority over human rights issues to the Shura Council's Islamic Affairs Committee.
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. Fear and consequent secrecy surrounding any non-Muslim religious activity contribute to reluctance to disclose any information that might harm persons under government investigation. Moreover, information regarding government practices is incomplete because judicial proceedings have been closed to the public, although the 2002 Criminal Procedural Law allows some court proceedings to be open to the public.
While there has been an improvement in press freedom during the period covered by this report, open discussion of religious issues remains severely constrained. After the May terror attacks, several national newspapers published cartoons, editorials and articles critical of the Mutawwa'in and religious establishment. This prompted much criticism from the religious establishment, and some religious conservatives advocated a boycott of al-Watan, one of the more vocal newspapers in this discussion. After an editorial appeared questioning the teachings of the 14th Century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya, al-Watan's Editor-in-Chief was fired from his post. There was also a report that a university professor was fired for criticizing the Government's discriminatory policies against Shi'a.
Unlike in previous years, there were no reported arrests of Shi'a religious leaders for religious violations and all of the Ismaili prisoners arrested during the 2000 Najran civil disturbances received pardons in 2002, halving their sentences. Many of the prisoners with shorter sentences were released, including Hajj Mohammed al-Saadi, a 65-year-old Ismaili shaykh.
According to various reports, a number of Shi'a remained in detention during the period covered by this report, and there were reports of religious prisoners who were subjected to torture. Shaykh Ali bin Ali al-Ghanim was released from prison in 2002 after 20 months imprisonment. There continue to be reports of young Shi'a being detained for days or weeks. Charges are rarely filed, and family members are not notified where the young men are held. 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's policies toward the Shi'a minority. In April 2002, he was sentenced to flogging and 7 years in prison.
The Government continued to detain and deport non-Muslims engaged in worship services. Early in 2002, eleven Christian detainees were deported and, in March 2002, three more were deported. Prior to their release, they claimed in a publicly and internationally circulated e-mail letter that the authorities had tortured some of them while in prison.
In 2002 two Filipino Christian residents were arrested and imprisoned in Dammam for conducting a Roman Catholic prayer group in their home. In April 2002, the two Filipinos were sentenced to 150 lashes and deportation following a 30-day jail sentence. They were deported in late May 2002.
In April 2002, police and Mutawwa'in detained a total of 26 Christians in successive raids on two private houses where worship services were being held in a residential area of downtown Riyadh. After two days, 23 of the Christians were released, but one Sudanese and two Sri Lankans were kept in detention and moved to another Riyadh prison. 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. On September 5, the remaining prisoners were released. The two Sri Lankans were deported and the Sudanese national was resettled in the United States.
There were additional cases of arrests of third country nationals for expressing their religious beliefs. In early 2003, four expatriate Protestants were arrested and three were imprisoned without charge by the Mutawwa'in. Two of those were later released and deported. One was still in prison as of March 12. There was no additional information on the status of these cases as of the end of the year covered by this report.
There have also been reports of surveillance of Christian religious services by security personnel.
In May 2002, police and Mutawwa'in in Jeddah detained 11 Christians, including foreign nationals from both Ethiopia and Eritrea, at the end of the period covered by this report. They allegedly had been engaged in activities that violated restrictions against public worship. All 11 were subsequently deported.
In March 2003, an Eritrean man was arrested in Jeddah and sentenced to deportation for proselytizing Muslims. He was still detained at the end of the period covered by this report. A second, Ethiopian, man was arrested on charges of proselytization, making alcohol, and involvement in prostitution in April and deported in May. The Ethiopian claimed that he was beaten while in custody.
Magic is widely believed in and sometimes practiced; 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 in the past, self-proclaimed "miracle workers" have been executed for sorcery involving physical harm or apostasy, but there have been no reports of executions during the period covered by this report. During the period covered by this report, the local press reported several cases of arrests of foreigners and citizens for practicing sorcery.
Mutawwa'in practices and incidents of abuse varied widely in different regions of the country. Reports of incidents 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 do not always comply with the requirements. During the period covered by this report, the Government has acknowledged inappropriate conduct by some Mutawwa'in, but has refused to provide information on the number of reported incidents or disciplinary actions. While senior officials have defended the role of the Mutawwa'in, in 2003 the Committee announced plans for a training program for Mutawwa'in in interpersonal skills; however, the extent and effect of the program was not clear as of the end of the period covered by this report. During the period covered by this report, Mutawwa'in excesses have received increasing attention in the English and Arabic press, with editorials, cartoons and letters calling attention to abuses. This trend increased after the May 12 terrorist bombings in Riyadh.
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.
During the period covered by this report, there were no reports of abuse cases involving Hindus. The Government regards members of the large Hindu community as polytheists, and non-Muslim, non-Western religious communities must exercise extreme caution when practicing their religion.
During the period covered by this report, there were frequent instances in which mosque preachers, whose salaries are paid by the Government, used violently anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in their sermons. Although this language has declined in frequency since the May attacks, there continue to be instances in which Mosque speakers have prayed for the death of Jews and Christians, including from the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.
Forced Religious Conversion
Under the law, children of male citizens 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 the country or who were taken by their citizen fathers to the country reportedly were coerced to conform to Islamic norms and practices, although forcible conversion is prohibited. The Government's application of this law discriminates against non-Muslim, non-Saudi mothers and denies their children the freedom to choose their religion. 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.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
As a deeply conservative and devout Muslim society, there is intense pressure to conform to societal norms. During the period covered by this report, there was a report of a Muslim-citizen convert to Christianity who was prosecuted for apostasy. According to his account, members of his family, including his mother and brothers, requested that the Government bring charges and testified against him at his trial. Despite evidence that the individual had renounced his Muslim identity, the court declined to convict him of apostasy and instead convicted him of blasphemy.
The conservative religious leadership also exerts pressure on the state to maintain its strict Islamic practices. During this period, senior leaders made efforts to call for moderation, including the Crown Prince and the Grand Mufti. These efforts intensified after the May terror attacks in Riyadh. To combat religious extremism, in May the Government announced the firing of several hundred prayer leaders and plans to retrain prayer leaders and mosque employees.
In June the Government hosted a "National Intellectual Dialog" that brought together representatives of different Muslim traditions in the country, including Sunni and Shi'ite leaders. Following the meetings, the participants issued a statement acknowledging that theological differences are "natural," and committing themselves to resolve differences through dialog. Despite some improvement in press freedom - including a limited public discussion of religious issues - there remain severe limitations on criticism of the religious establishment.
There is societal discrimination against members of the Shi'a minority; however, better relations between the country and Iran (a predominately Shi'a nation) improved the climate of Sunni-Shi'a relations in the country. The majority of citizens supports a state based on Islamic law and opposes public non-Muslim worship, although there are differing views as to how this should be realized in practice. 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 within 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.
Relations between Muslim-citizens and foreign Muslims are generally good. Each year the country welcomes approximately two million Muslim pilgrims from all over the world and of all branches of Islam, who visit the country during a two-week period to perform the Hajj. Foreign Muslims of all denominations may pray in mosques as long as they follow Sunni prayer practices.
In certain areas, religious vigilantes unaffiliated with the Government and acting on their own harassed, assaulted, battered, arrested, and detained citizens and foreigners.
During the period covered by this report, the local press rarely printed articles or commentaries disparaging other religions.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
U.S. Government policy is to press the Government to consistently honor its public commitment to permit private religious worship by non-Muslims, to eliminate discrimination against minorities, and to promote tolerance toward non-Muslims. The U.S. Ambassador called for increased respect for religious minorities in the country. During the period covered by this report, U.S. Embassy officers met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) officials to deliver and discuss the U.S. Government's 2002 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Senior U.S. Embassy officers called on the Government to enforce its public commitment to allow private religious practice, and to respect the rights of Muslims who do not follow the Salafi tradition of Islam. Senior Embassy officials also protested the raids on private homes and detention of Christian worshipers in Riyadh, contributing to the successful release of several Christian prisoners in September 2002. During the period covered by this report, the U.S. Government also facilitated the resettlement of a former Christian prisoner so that he would avoid facing persecution if deported to his country of origin. 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