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Written Remarks of Maria McFarland to the US House of Representatives International Religious Freedom Caucus

Briefing on “Saudi Arabia: Fueling Religious Persecution and Extremism”

Congressman Franks, Congressman Cleaver, Members of the International Religious Freedom Caucus,

Thank you for inviting me to speak on the subject of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch has long advocated for an end to Saudi Arabia's repression of religious freedom, and we have published several reports on this issue.

In the last couple of years, Saudi King Abdullah has received praise in some circles for having taken a few cautious steps in support of religious tolerance through his Interfaith Dialogue Initiative. But that initiative has been limited to international settings.

Within Saudi Arabia, repression of religious freedom continues unabated, particularly with respect to Shia Muslims. Saudi textbooks, including those used abroad, include material that promotes hostility toward the Shia creed and other religions and may in some cases justify violence. The right of non-Muslims to worship in private is subject to the whims of the local religious police. Public worship of faiths other than Islam remains prohibited as a matter of policy.

Shia Saudis, who make up an estimated 10-15 per cent of the population, are the group most affected by repression of religious freedom. Shia face systematic exclusion in employment, as well as discrimination in religious education and worship.

In some cases, this discrimination amounts to persecution. Professing Shia beliefs in private or in public may lead to arrest and detention. Saudi Shia visiting the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina regularly face harassment by the Wahhabi religious police. A government promise to update the vague law outlining religious police jurisdiction and powers has remained unfulfilled for three years.

In al-Ahsa' province, the governor, Prince Badr bin Jilawi, has repeatedly had Shia citizens arrested and detained on his authority and in violation of Saudi criminal procedure law simply for praying together in private or publicly displaying banners or slogans or wearing clothing associated with certain Shia rituals. In late January or mid-February, six young Shia of al-Ahsa', between 19 and 24 years old, were detained on Prince Badr's orders because of their peaceful exercise of their religious beliefs.  As of mid-September, they remained in detention without charge or trial despite a limit of six months for pre-trial detention under the Saudi criminal procedure code.[1]  The Saudi government has yet to take meaningful steps to stop these abuses or bring to justice those responsible.

Shia face officially sanctioned discrimination in the judicial system too. There has been no progress in affording Shia outside of the Eastern Province with courts for personal status matters to conclude marriages and adjudicate divorces, inheritances, child custody disputes, and such matters. This affects the so-called Nakhawila, Twelver Shia in Medina, and the Ismailis in Najran province as well as a small group of Zaidi Muslims in Jizan and Najran provinces. There is no separation of secular from religious law in Saudi courts, and all Shia, including in the Eastern Province where they have their own personal status courts, must follow Sunni law as interpreted in Saudi Arabia. Shia are sometimes not allowed to testify in court.

Saudi officials who engage in anti-Shia speech rarely face any reprimand for doing so. For example, on December 31, 2009, Shaikh Muhammad al-‘Arifi, the government-paid imam of the Buradi mosque in Riyadh, as well as Salih bin Humaid, Saudi chief judge, visited frontline troops in southern Saudi Arabia fighting Yemeni Huthi rebels, who belong to a branch of Shiism, albeit different from that of most Saudi Shia.  Al-‘Arifi can be seen in photos wearing camouflage, firing weapons, and preaching to soldiers. Press reports said al-‘Arifi stressed the necessity of jihad (holy war) and commended the soldiers for performing their national and religious duty. Upon returning to Riyadh, al-‘Arifi, in a sermon on Friday, January 1, 2010 condemned the Huthi rebels and called Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani-an Iranian living in Iraq, who is the highest religious authority for many Saudi Shia-an "obscene, irreligious atheist."

Meanwhile, Saudi authorities have taken steps to silence Shia critics. Saudi domestic intelligence agents have been holding Munir al-Jassas, a Shia who criticized state repression against the Shia online, in detention without charge for over a year. On June 22, 2008, authorities arrested Shia cleric Shaikh Tawfiq al-'Amir, after he spoke out in a sermon against a May 30 statement signed by 22 prominent Saudi Wahhabi clerics, in which they called the "Shia sect an evil among the sects of the Islamic nation, and the greatest enemy and deceivers of the Sunni people." Of the 22 signatories, 11 were current government officials and 6 were former government officials.

In its annual reports on religious freedom on Saudi Arabia, the United States Department of State has consistently and accurately documented severe repression of religious freedom and systematic violations against certain groups, including especially the Shia. Yet, while the United States has for years designated Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern, it has failed to take meaningful steps to promote reform in Saudi Arabia. The United States has continually waived sanctions provided under the law, and aside from issuing the annual report, has remained mostly silent in public on the subject. 

The United States has also applauded King Abdullah's Interfaith Dialogue Initiative (IDI) as evidence of greater promotion of religious tolerance. Cynical observers would see the IDI as a promotional tour of Western countries designed to soften Saudi Arabia's image of an exporter of religious hatred. Uncritical supporters of the initiative claim it as evidence that the kingdom is opening up.

Whatever its motivation, the fact remains that this initiative abroad has had no policy repercussions at home. Saudis recognize domestic state-controlled media reporting on the IDI as an official campaign, and it only serves to highlight the stark contrasts between ideals upheld abroad and the harsh reality of repression at home. If the United States is serious about promoting religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia, it cannot remain content to publish a report once a year about religious repression or to praise Saudi Arabia for symbolic commitments to religious tolerance.  Instead, it must take a clear, public stance on Saudi Arabia's systematic repression of religion and press the Saudi government to undertake effective institutional reforms to end discrimination and repression on the basis of religion in that country. 

[1] The young Shia are: Abd al-Khaliq al-Hasan, Husain al-Harbi, Munzhir al-Hashim, Ali al-Hasan, Bassam al-‘Ali, Turki al-‘Ali.

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