Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, the vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), last week described Saudi Arabia as “the poster country” for religious restrictions, and shared his frustration over America’s reluctance to condemn the Wahhabi Sunni kingdom.
“If we were to write…how you would define a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) that restricts religious freedom, Saudi Arabia would be the poster country,” Jasser said in an interview with The Christian Post.
On the recommendation of the USCIRF, Saudi Arabia has been on the State Department’s list of CPCs since 2004. However, the U.S. government has been waiving sanctions that the CPC designation brings with it since 2006.
To show Washington’s failure in Saudi Arabia, Jasser pointed to the recent sentencing of a cyber-activist, Raef Badawi, by a Jeddah criminal court. The activist was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for allegedly offending Islam and violating the kingdom’s cyber-crime law.
“The only thing Mr. Badawi appears to be guilty of is creating a platform on the Internet for religious debate in Saudi Arabia, a right he is guaranteed to under international law,” Jasser’s colleague and USCIRF chairman, Robert George, told another news outlet.
Such sentencing is commonplace in the kingdom.
In May, the Saudi Gazette reported that a court sentenced a Christian Lebanese man, accused of helping a Saudi women convert to Christianity, to six years in prison and 300 lashes. The daughter was also sentenced to six years and 300 lashes, but she reportedly fled to Sweden.
In February, the WEA-RLC reported that Saudi authorities arrested 53 Ethiopian Christians –
46 women and six men – who were attending a worship service in the private, rented home of an Ethiopian believer in Dammam, the capital of the Eastern Province. They were charged with trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
Saudi Arabia’s royal family thinks it is their responsibility to protect Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and spread the strict brand of the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, which has a tendency to breed militant Islamists and promote religious restrictions for minorities. For example, most of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States were Saudi.
Neither the government nor the Saudi Basic Law provides for religious freedom. On the contrary, all citizens are bound by the government’s interpretation of Sharia law.
There are more than 1.5 million Christians, mostly Catholics, who are non-citizens. They are allowed to worship only at home, but the kingdom’s religious police are known for cracking down even on private religious services.
It is against the Saudi law for Muslims to abandon their faith, and proselytizing for other religions is also illegal. Both blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death.
While there are churches in Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, no non-Muslim religious place of worship is allowed in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has also sought to influence other nations on the Arabian Peninsula. Last March, the Middle East Forum reported that Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, declared that it is “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region.”
The main role of the Grand Mufti is to issue fatwas (opinion) on legal and social affairs, which heavily influences the Saudi court system. He is the highest authority on Islamic law in the birthplace of Islam, and, therefore, such a provocative statement by him can have far-reaching effects. Yet, no Western nation condemned it.
The Saudi government seeks to justify repression under the pretext of fighting radical Muslims. “The monarchy claims to be sort of victims of this conservative movement,” Jasser said in the interview. “They say, ‘if we move too quickly, it will be taken over by an Islamic regime.’” However, on the other hand, the government feeds “these ideologies, creates the radical monster, and then uses it as a foil to legitimize dictatorship and repression of free speech, and especially freedom of religion,” he added.
Saudi Arabia has showcased limited reforms, and yet the United States and other Western nations have regrettably allowed the kingdom to evade sanctions.
Years ago, the Saudi government promised to reform their textbooks, but in reality the kingdom’s education system still indoctrinates children with hatred and incitement. For example, a Class IX textbook published by the Ministry of Education reads, “The Jews and the Christians are enemies of the believers, and they cannot approve of Muslims.” A textbook for Class VIII states, “The Apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews; and the Swine are the infidels of the communion of Jesus, the Christians.”
While Saudi Arabia itself is one of the worst violators of religious freedom, King Abdullah started a center for religious dialogue in Vienna, and has sponsored an inter-faith conference in Spain.
The USCIRF has recommended that the indefinite waiver on Saudi Arabia be replaced with a 180-day waiver, but its call has not been heeded. “Religious freedom in Saudi Arabia has not been a U.S. priority in the bilateral relationship and, as a consequence, the U.S. government has not adequately held to account the Saudi government on its implementation of reforms,” the commission said in its 2013 report.
“The Saudi absolute regime feels safe to do whatever it wants and gets away with it,” Ali Alyami, executive director of the U.S.-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told CNSNews.com last week. “This is due to the fact that the Saudi ruling family can rely on lobbyists, universities, major media outlets, think tanks, many members of Congress and big companies to get things done on its behalf in Washington and in other Western capitals.”
Saudi Arabia has wealth, and is strategically important to the United States due to strategic reasons, including the kingdom’s oil reserves, its ability to help Washington to have good relations with the Muslim world and the common opposition to Iran.
However, the United States’ failure to address religious freedom and human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia does not reflect Washington’s inability, but lack of will. As Alyami said, “The U.S. has tremendous leverage that it could use to make the Saudis sweat.”
World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.
This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogarajah. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.