Religious Repression in Saudi Arabia

By Todd Daniels

06/05/14 (International Christian Concern) – The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains one of the most restrictive countries in the world in regards to religious freedom and human rights. Despite the fact that millions of Christians – largely foreign workers – live in the country, there is not a single place of worship. Saudi Arabia is officially an Islamic state, home to some of the most extreme interpretations of Islam. Those who express disagreement or dissent are regularly arrested on charges of apostasy or blasphemy.

The grave abuse of fundamental rights in Saudi Arabia, an American ally, should not go unaddressed as millions of Christians are denied the freedom to worship God, and millions more suffer under the Kingdom’s harsh Sharia-inspired laws.

“Not a single church…exists in the country”

 “Saudi Arabia remains unique in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam,” the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in its 2014 Annual Report. “Not a single church or other non-Muslim house of worship exists in the country.” Churches are forbidden “because the entire country is a ‘sacred mosque’ for Islam’s holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina,” according to Bandar al-Aiban, the director of the Saudi National Human Rights commission.

30 million people live in Saudi Arabia, and more than 30% of the population are foreign workers. Among those foreign workers, there are an estimated 2 million people who would identify as non-Muslims, and nearly 1.5 million are Christians, according to Operation World. While not recognized by the government, there are also many Saudis who, despite great risks, have come to accept Christianity. Still there is not a single church where Christians can publicly meet.

The government employs more than 4,000 religious police officers to publically enforce the country’s Islamic laws. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), or Hai’a, patrols the streets looking for any activity deemed un-Islamic. They are watching to ensure businesses close five times a day for prayer, that no women are mingling with men or violating the Islamic dress code. They actively monitor for any public, or even private, gathering of Christians. The CPVPV is known to regularly beat, whip, detain, and otherwise harass those who are seen as not conforming to the dictates of Islam.

Based on its interpretation of Islamic law, conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and is punishable by death. Two men who left Sunni Islam have been detained for more than two years on just the accusation of apostasy and still await formal charges. A website editor, Raif Badawi, was convicted on charges of apostasy in 2013 and sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years in jail. After his conviction was overturned, he was retried, and sentenced on May 7, 2014 to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison.

These cases represent the continued hostility towards any ideas contrary to the state-sanctioned interpretation of Islam. Those caught promoting Christianity, distributing literature or speaking openly about their faith face the threat of death, lengthy prison sentences, public floggings, and, in the case of foreign workers, deportation.

Expatriate Workers in the Kingdom

Saudi Arabia hosts an estimated 8-10 million foreign workers. They are drawn to the country by the promise of benefiting from the extensive oil wealth of the Kingdom. While some are white collar workers who come as executives in oil, defense, or construction companies, the vast majority occupy jobs on the lowest rungs of society, working as construction workers and domestic servants. These foreign workers coming from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Southeast Asia, have few rights and are subject to exploitation and abuse. In some cases they live in what rises to “slavery-like conditions,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Christian foreign workers face the added discrimination of practicing the wrong religion. To pray together, even in secret, puts them at great risk. The CPVPV is actively looking for these gatherings. If they are caught they face months of imprisonment, torture, possible sexual abuse, and eventually deportation, as happened to a group of 35 Ethiopian Christians in 2011.

The more fortunate expatriates may have the opportunity to meet behind closed doors on the compound of an oil company or at a foreign embassy, but even here they must be cautious. In May, 2013, a Saudi woman became a Christian and fearing for her life, eventually fled the country. A Lebanese national was sentenced to six years in prison and 600 lashes and a Saudi national was sentenced to two years and two hundred lashes for his role in her escape, Fox News reported.

Pressing For Change

The United States maintains a close relationship with Saudi Arabia in a number of areas. Yet, the current administration has failed to take key opportunities to speak up about fundamental rights and continues to give Saudi Arabia a pass on reforms related to religious freedoms.

In March President Obama travelled to meet with King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia for the first time in over four years. Prior to his trip, 70 members of Congress sent a letter urging him to address the issue of human rights. “The United States has turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record for far too long,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ).

Even with significant pressure from Congress, President Obama completely failed to mention the issue of human rights and religious freedoms. This missed opportunity raises questions about whether or not these rights are a true priority for him, as he has claimed on occasion.

In its 2014 report, USCIRF highlighted that despite Saudi Arabia being labeled a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), since 2006 an indefinite waiver has been in place, requiring no actions be taken.

At present it seems the same course will be followed. No actions will be taken, and religious repression and human rights abuses will continue to be the norm.

For interviews, contact Todd Daniels, Regional Manager for the Middle East:

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