Middle East

Religious Freedom: A Taboo in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during a press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal last month in Jeddah. Rice held talks with Saudi leaders in the hopes of boosting the cause of democratic reform and mustering support for the reconstruction of post-war Iraq. (Photo: Hassan Ammar / AFP-Getty Images)

The State Department, in a report released in November, cites Saudi Arabia and a few other countries as restricting religious freedom. The situation has not improved too much since last year, when the State Department previously reported that religious freedom was lacking in the Kingdom.

The report stated, “Islam is the official religion and all citizens must be Muslims.” Moreover, the state is imposing the Sunni version of Islam on all citizens, be they Shia Muslims or non-Muslims. However, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the time refused to sanction Saudi Arabia, saying she wanted “to allow additional time for the continuation of discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues.”

Despite the Kingdom’s actions to thwart terrorism, in terms of religious freedoms and human rights the reality is still gloomy.

King Abdullah addressed women in his country saying that, “patience is beautiful,” in response to the issue of women driving cars in the Kingdom, but there are other challenges as important as this one he has to deal with, in the near future such as:

  • The internal conflicts within the royal family.
  • The threat of terrorism.
  • Creating new jobs.
  • Religious freedom.
  • Freedom of speech.
  • Human rights reforms, especially for youths and women.
  • Political challenges — will the Kingdom be able to allow political pluralism, minimize the Islamism threat and still survive?

Dr. Mai Yamani wrote recently in The Independent that “Saudi Arabia has remained trapped in a state of suspended animation, its body politic sick and infirm. Now it is caught between two choices: progressive reform or continuing paralysis and decay.”

Micha van Waesberghe, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia recently wrote about the case of Samuel Daniel, a Christian of Indian nationality who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for more than 20 years. But, being a Christian proves to be a ticking bomb in the Kingdom, regardless of how exemplary one’s life is.

The Saudi religious police, without any official mandate or explanation, arrested and detained Samuel Daniel for a period of 10 days. Presumably, since there was nothing wrong with his behavior other than his affiliation with the Christian faith, which was the reason why he was jailed and later deported.

Daniel has taken this matter to the Indian Ambassador, which asked for further explanations from the Saudi officials. Their response was that he was never arrested or detained, because there were no charges made against him, and that was the end of the story for the Saudis.

The practice of entering someone’s private home, and imprisoning him because of his religious affiliation should not only be considered as an act of moral injustice, but also of barbarism.

The only positive aspect of the story, if there is one, is the insight Samuel Daniel had into the manner in which the Saudis treat Christians, actually their mistreatment of all non-Muslims.

Because of his courage to alert and give his testimony to the Indian authorities, as well as to human rights N.G.O.’s, maybe others will not suffer the despair and injustice he had to suffer.

The conditions of imprisonment are hard to imagine — the indignity of 100 or 200 people being confined in a room of 20 on 25 feet without proper food, water or medication while being threatened, and verbally and physically abused.

The whole image is disturbing. People are jailed for months without   knowing for what they have been accused, and are denied access to a lawyer and visits from official representatives.

It is a pity that Saudi Arabia, a country that hosts Islam’s two holiest cities — Mecca and Medina — has proven to be a place where tolerance, humanity and respect for another’s religious faith are not known.

In the end, if the Saudi royal family is looking to play a key role in stabilizing the region, it should first deal with its domestic issues.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Manuela Paraipan.