(New York, November 11, 2008) - World leaders should press King Abdullah to end systematic religious discrimination in Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said today. The leaders will gather on November 12 at the United Nations for an interfaith meeting spearheaded by Saudi Arabia to foster the culture of peace.
"There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, yet the kingdom asks the world to listen to its message of religious tolerance," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The dialogue should be about where religious intolerance runs deepest, and that includes Saudi Arabia."
Saudi Arabia does not permit its citizens or foreign residents to practice publicly any religion other than Islam. Muslims who do not follow the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia also face restrictions on public and private worship. A special religious force polices the morality of Saudis in public and private, and, for Muslims, attendance at the five prayers every day.
On September 22, 2008, Human Rights Watch detailed the systematic discrimination by Saudi authorities against its own Muslim Ismaili Shia minority in a report, "The Ismailis of Najran: Second-Class Saudi Citizens." The group, the Ismailis of Najran, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, is discriminated against in government employment. High officials publicly disparage their faith and prohibit them from teaching their religion or building new mosques. Ismailis are discriminated against under the religious law that is applied in all aspects of the justice system. Wahhabi judges have banned Ismaili lawyers from courtrooms and forcibly divorced an Ismaili man from his Sunni wife, deeming the man religiously "inadequate."
Saudi domestic intelligence forces in early May arrested an Ismaili leader, Shaikh Ahmad bin Turki Al Sa'b, after he had led an Ismaili delegation presenting grievances to King Abdullah in late April. He remains in detention without charge.
Hadi Al Mutif is another Ismaili prisoner who remains on death row for having uttered two words in 1993 that Saudi religious judges considered an insult to the Prophet Muhammad worthy of capital punishment. Al Mutif denied insulting the prophet.
On November 4, King Abdullah accepted the resignation of Najran's governor, Prince Mish'al bin Sa'ud, whom Ismailis viewed as a divisive figure in the region, after 12 years in office.
Saudi Arabia's non-Ismaili Shia population also has faced systematic discrimination for years. There are approximately 2 million Twelver Shia, another branch of Shiism, in Saudi Arabia; most live in the Eastern Province. In October, a Saudi religious scholar with followers throughout the kingdom declared in a fatwa (religious ruling) that Sunni Muslims were forbidden from selling property to the Shia because they receive "support from [the sale of property] in exposing their corrupt religion and evil creed."
Saudi intelligence forces in August arrested a Shia religious leader, Nimr al-Nimr, over comments he made in a sermon criticizing the Saudi government, saying it had failed to pursue real reforms. In June, Saudi authorities briefly arrested a Shia cleric, Tawfiq al-‘Amir, after he criticized a statement by leading Sunni Wahhabi clerics declaring the Shia to be "unbelievers."
In July, King Abdullah initiated the interfaith World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, Spain, inviting Jewish and Christian religious officials as well as representatives of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism. The conference adopted the Madrid Declaration, which recognized "diversity and differences among peoples," and called for "disseminat[ing] the culture of mutual respect." Saudi and UN officials told Human Rights Watch that Saudi Arabia intended to submit the Madrid Declaration for adoption by UN member states at the General Assembly meeting.
"Saudi Arabia should practice at home what it preaches abroad," Whitson said.