US State Department’s 2017 Religious Freedom Report Highlights Systematic Discrimination in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain

31 May 2018 – Two days ago, the United States (US) Department of State (DoS) published its annual International Religious Freedom Report. In it, the State Department highlights systematic, government-sanctioned religious discrimination in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, including specific targeting of the countries’ Shia Muslim communities. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the report’s findings on Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, but we remain gravely concerned by the US Government’s broader refusal to act on these conclusions. We call on the US to seriously press Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to end religious discrimination and promote basic human rights, including by suspending new arms deals in the absence of much-needed reforms.

Saudi Arabia

The DoS report highlights ongoing structural and government-sanctioned discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslim community, including in both private and public sector employment as well as the freedom to engage in religious and cultural practices. Due to government regulations, Shia Muslims cannot build mosques outside of approved areas in the Eastern Province, where the kingdom’s Shia community is predominantly concentrated. Businesses discriminate against Shia Muslims in hiring practices and Shia are underrepresented in senior government and academic positions. Similarly, there are no Shia represented on the Council of Senior Scholars – the official body that advises the king on religious matters.

Shia Muslims also face discrimination in the judicial system, where they are frequently subject to spurious terrorism charges stemming from the freedoms of religion, expression, assembly, and association. For example, on 20 July 2017, a court sentenced Shia cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki three months in prison, a fine, and the closure of his Twitter account for “extremism, fanaticism, and holding an impure (takfiri) ideology.” The DoS report notes that al-Maliki’s supporters argue that his arrest was due to his criticism of discrimination against the Shia community.

Members of the Shia community also face the death penalty for expressing dissent or for participating in peaceful protests and assemblies. For example, on 11 July 2017, the Saudi government executed four Shia men – Amjad al-Moaibad, Yusuf al-Mshaikhass, Zaher al-Basri, and Mahdi al-Sayegh – for alleged terrorism offenses, despite credible concerns that they had provided coerced confessed under torture. There are currently at least 33 Shia Muslims on death row for alleged terrorism crimes stemming from their participation in protests in the Eastern Province.

The DoS report also draws attention to Saudi Arabia’s continued use of blasphemy laws, which are tied to concerns over national security and terrorism. The report states that “criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability” as well as that “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion,” is considered a criminal act under the counterterrorism law. These offenses can be punishable by death. The DoS highlights the cases of several individuals charged with crimes of apostasy and blasphemy. In January 2017, a court sentenced an unnamed Yemeni expatriate to 21 years in prison followed by deportation for allegedly insulting Islam, the Prophet Muhammed, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab on his Facebook account. In April 2017, a court charged Ahmad al-Shammari with apostasy and sentenced him to death, for allegedly posting videos to social media in which he renounced Islam. In perhaps the most prominent case, blogger Raif Badawi remains in prison for “violating Islamic values, violating Sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet.” He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison. He received 50 of his lashes, but due to medical reasons, the other 950 have been postponed indefinitely. The punishment has not been reversed, however, and he remains at risk of further lashes.

The report concludes by noting that “senior embassy and consulate officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.” But it also notes that US government has not taken any actions that would press the Saudi government to halt or prevent systematic discrimination. Indeed, though the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the State Department have labeled Saudi Arabia a Country of Particular Concern for the past several years in a row due to its widespread and egregious religious freedom violations, the DoS has maintained a waiver exempting the kingdom from sanction. Moreover, the US and Saudi governments recently “signed a defense agreement involving nearly $110 billion in intended sales of American defense equipment and services.”


ADHRB welcomes the State Department’s reporting on Bahrain’s systemic discrimination against its Shia majority population. However, as with Saudi Arabia, ADHRB is disappointed that the US government has taken no concrete steps to pressure Bahrain to halt or prevent religious discrimination. Instead, like Saudi Arabia, the US government has ignored concerns of widespread prejudice and continued to offer consistent support – militarily, economically, and diplomatically – for the Bahraini government. In recent years, the US has actually dramatically increased assistance to some of the Bahraini security institutions most deeply implicated in severe religious discrimination, such as the Bahrain Defence Force.

The DoS report emphasizes that while Bahrain’s “Constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, the freedom to perform religious rites, and the freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings,” the government continues to practice systematic discrimination against its Shia majority population. The constitution also ostensibly provides for the “freedom to form associations as long as these do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed,” but the DoS finds that Bahraini officials have continued to target Shia political societies and gatherings. The report notes that, despite these nominal legal protections, the government continues to “question, detain, and arrest clerics, community members, and opposition politicians associated with the Shia community.”

For example, Bahraini authorities have repeatedly targeted Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia community, for judicial harassment. In 2016, the government arbitrarily stripped him of his Bahraini nationality and, in 2017, a court sentenced him to a one-year suspended sentence for allegedly laundering money on charges stemming from the Shia custom of khums, by which religious leaders collect and distribute funds for the community. The government has also targeted his supporters, with the DoS report highlighting the 23 May 2017 raid on a peaceful sit-in in front of Sheikh Qassim’s house in the village of Diraz. Security personnel used excessive force against the participants, killing five people and injuring hundreds amid mass arrests.

The DoS documented a variety of other attacks on Shia clerics, including many who delivered sermons on “unapproved topics.” For example, on 12 April 2017, officials questioned four Shia clerics after they commemorated an Iraqi religious leader that was put to death. On 28 June 2017, a court charged Sheikh Hasanain Al-Mhanna with “inciting hatred against the regime and inciting contempt against a sect,” based on a sermon he gave. On 25 May 2017, officials arrested Shia cleric Isa Al Moamen and a court later sentenced him to three months in prison due to a sermon he delivered in 2016.

The report details other forms of discrimination against Bahrain’s Shia community, including the denial of prisoners’ rights to practice their faith; denial of necessary permits to build new Shia mosques; and the government’s ongoing failure to honor its commitment to restore the remaining three mosques it had damaged or destroyed during its violent suppression of the 2011 pro-democracy protests. The report also notes that government officials give preferential treatment to Sunnis accused of certain crimes. For instance, official publications do not name Sunni security officials who are being investigated for committing rights abuses, but they routinely publish the names and pictures of Shia individuals under investigation, sometimes even before a court has issued an indictment.

Still, the US approach to concerns of systematic, government-sanctioned religious discrimination in Bahrain has been similar to its approach to Saudi Arabia. The report states that “The Ambassador, other embassy officers, and Department of State representatives met with government officials to urge them to respect freedom of expression for all, including clerics; ensure members of the Shia community had equal access to employment and services; pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities; and allow prisoners to practice their religions.” However, US policy has largely ignored the DoS report’s stark assessment of religious freedom violations in Bahrain, focusing instead on removing human rights conditions from arms sales and increasing military assistance to the hyper-sectarian Bahraini security forces. This approach clearly undermines any efforts to promote sustainable human rights reform in Bahrain, and deepens US complicity in the same abuses the DoS itself continues to document.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB: “The State Department’s 2017 International Religious Freedom Report rightly stresses the systematic and widespread religious freedom violations in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. A year after the former Secretary of State explicitly singled out these two countries for their failure to eliminate religious discrimination, this report reemphasizes how deep-seated and structural these abuses really are. But at the same time, after another year of continued violations, the US again refuses to back its own conclusions with real policy changes. We remain deeply disappointed by lackluster American engagement on these key issues, and we call on the US government to act on the findings of its own State Department. Staying the course will undermine the value of such reporting and signal US tolerance – if not de facto endorsement – for clear human rights violations.”