US Department of State releases 2016 International Religious Freedom Report on Saudi Arabia


On 15 August 2017, the US Department of State released its 2016 International Religious Freedom report, which “details the status of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories,” including in Saudi Arabia. In remarks introducing the report, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson specifically criticized Saudi Arabia for the dire status of religious freedom in the kingdom. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the State Department report and its assessment of Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) and seeks to further call attention to the kingdom’s continued denial of the right to freedom of religion.

“The Saudi government systematically suppresses freedom of religion, forbidding the practice of any worship not sanctioned by the state. It harasses and prosecutes Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Shia Muslims when they attempt to practice their internationally-sanctioned rights to freedom of religion. Perhaps even more alarmingly, the government often treats its Shia Muslim minority as terrorists when they advocate for freedom of religion and the right to worship,” states Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “It thus comes as no surprise that the State Department has once again designated Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for the twelfth consecutive year. However, despite being a CPC since 2004, the US continues to waive the sanctions accompanying the designation against Saudi Arabia. The US should finally impose the sanctions outlined in the International Religious Freedom Act against the Saudi government.”

Designation as a CPC indicates that a government is “engaged in or tolerates systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.” It can entail the use of policies like sanctions to bring about the cessation of severe violations of religious freedom unless a state receives a waiver. ADHRB strongly urges the US government to fully utilize the International Religious Freedom Act and apply the CPC sanctions against the Government of Saudi Arabia until it brings its domestic policies in line with international standards respecting freedom of religion.

Please see below for full analysis of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report.

The Government of Saudi Arabia does not recognize the rights to freedom of religion for its citizens or residents to worship any religion other than the state-sanctioned interpretation of Islam. Pursuant to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the Saudi government criminalizes publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. As a result of these restrictions, the nearly two million non-Muslims in the country cannot openly practice their religions, putting them at particular risk of persecution and arrest.

Out of the country’s total population of around 28 million, approximately 25.5 million are Muslim, 1.2 million practice a form of Christianity, there are 310,000 Hindus, 180,000 religiously unaffiliated, 90,000 Buddhists, 70,000 followers of folk religions, and 70,000 followers of other religions. Those populations of citizens and residents who do no practice Islam are forced to worship in private and can face charges and arrest for crimes that include black magic, folk medicine, curses, and casting of spells, as well as undertaking non-Islamic practices. The report noted one specific case: “In November local media reported on a woman in her 60s who was arrested in Taif city by police for practicing magic inside her home.” The report also highlighted instances of arrest and deportation of worshippers at Christian gatherings for participating in “un-Islamic prayer” and possession of the “Gospel.”

Shia Muslims, who constitute 10 to 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total population, also face systematic discrimination based on their faith. There is a pattern of societal prejudice against them in private sector employment, in education, in the law, public services, and in political representation. In interviews, Shia respondents have stated that there is no formal policy about hiring and promotion, but identification as Shia “would negatively affect career advancement.” Oftentimes applicants for university, scholarships, or government jobs are asked their place of residence, which will likely indicate their religious affiliation. Schools must teach a government-approved religious curriculum that favors the Saudi state’s interpretation of Sunni Islam. Similarly, though the Saudi government has said it is reviewing its textbooks for prejudicial language, some intolerant material remains, including negative references to Shia Islam. Despite state efforts by the Saudi government to revise textbooks, updated versions still include content justifying executions of “sorcerers” and stating that non-Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Sufi Muslims “do not properly adhere to monotheism.”

In addition to systematic forms of discrimination, the report highlights the Saudi government’s practice of often applying the country’s counter-terror law against Shia residents who express opposition to the government. On 2 January 2016, the government executed Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric and social justice advocate, on charges including terrorism and sedition. The State Department report noted that international human rights organizations found Sheikh al-Nimr “was executed because of his sermons criticizing Saudi authorities.” Sheikh al-Nimr’s trial “lacked transparency and did not adhere to minimum fair trial standards.” There are currently 32 Shia men on death row, with 17 men facing imminent execution for participating in peaceful protests in the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012. Among them are Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Mujtaba al-Suwaiket, and Munir al-Adam, all of whom were tortured and forced to confess; Ali, Dawood, and Abdulla were minors at the time of their alleged protest-related crimes. Not mentioned in the report are the cases of 15 other men on death row for their alleged role in an espionage case; their trials were deeply marred by the lack of due process. Many international human rights groups consider the death penalties to be motivated by sectarian hostility towards Shia Muslims.

The State Department report notes the April 2016 royal decree that stripped the country’s Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) from previous authority to pursue, arrest, detain, or demand identification of suspects. These suspects are individuals the plain-clothes CPVPV officers deem have violated rules against gender-mixing, practicing non-Islamic faiths, immodest dress, and celebrating events inconsistent with state-sanctioned Muslim practices, among other alleged crimes. According to the report, CPVPVP officers are only allowed to act in an official capacity when accompanied by regular police. While the stripping of pursue and arrest powers from CPVPV officers is positive step, individuals are still at risk of arbitrary arrest and detention by regular police officers accompanied by the CPVPV officers.