07/23/2021 Washington, DC (International Christian Concern) – In a July 7 meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken highlighted the United States’ commitment to prioritizing human rights in its relations with Saudi Arabia. President Biden has expressed his discomfort with the previous administration’s non-confrontational relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country whose domestic and foreign policy consists of deeply concerning violations of human rights. Secretary Blinken confirmed this shift in foreign policy goals with his emphasis on human rights during his meeting with Minister bin Salman, which was the first major conference between high-ranking US and Saudi officials during the Biden Presidency.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has undertaken a government effort to modernize the country’s culture while retaining its identity as a Sunni Muslim state whose legal system adheres closely to Islamic Sharia Law. This plan, known as Vision 2030, has resulted in notable progress in the expansion of religious liberty in Saudi Arabia, but major concerns remain. The Saudi education system is an area in which religious extremism has been particularly present, and Vision 2030 has included efforts to revamp the country’s educational curriculum to be more accepting to minority religious groups. For example, textbooks now contain information on Hindu sacred texts. However, these educational reforms seem to have intentionally omitted teaching on Christianity or Shia Islam, both of which face significant limitations on freedom to practice in the country.
As the implementation of Vision 2030 has amplified hopes that religious freedom will continue to improve in Saudi Arabia, there is much discussion on the possibility of the establishment of a Christian church in the country. As of now, there is not a single church building in Saudi Arabia, and Christians face severe repurcussions for practicing their faith from their conservative Sunni Muslim neighbors.
Blinken’s emphasis on human rights is an important precedent to set for the next four years of US-Saudi Arabia relations, especially in the context of Vision 2030. Despite recent progress, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) designated Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern for its violations of religious freedom in its 2021 Annual Report. While Vision 2030 provides a ray of hope for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in Saudi Arabia, the United States would do well to continue to strongly emphasize its standards for human rights and religious freedom in its ongoing interactions with Saudi Arabia.
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