Saudi Arabia

International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy without legal protection for freedom of religion, and such protection does not exist in practice.  Islam is the official religion, and all citizens are Muslims.  Based on its interpretation of the hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, the Government prohibits the public practice of non-Muslim religions.  The Government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private; however, the distinction between public and private worship is not clearly defined, and at times the Government does not respect in practice the right to private worship.

There generally was no change in the status of religious freedom during the period covered by this report; however, the number of arrests for public worship of other religions decreased compared with the previous period.  Freedom of non-Muslims to worship privately has received increasing attention and respect in recent years through published interviews with government officials and press articles that addressed the subject in the context of human rights; however, the right to private worship still is restricted.  The Government has stated publicly that its policy is to protect the right of non-Muslims to worship privately; however, it does not provide explicit guidelines for determining what constitutes private worship, which makes distinctions between public and private worship unclear.  Such lack of clarity, as well as instances of arbitrary enforcement by the authorities, force most non-Muslims to worship in such a manner as to avoid discovery by the Government or others.

Members of the Shi'a minority continued to face institutionalized political and economic discrimination, including restrictions on the practice of their faith.  However, the Government lifted the requirement that Shi'a obtain advance permission to travel to Iran, thus effectively allowing them to visit religious sites in Iran without prior notice.

The overwhelming majority of citizens support an Islamic state and oppose public non-Muslim worship.  There is societal discrimination against adherents of the Shi'a minority. 

Senior U.S. government officials and members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom raised the issue of religious freedom with the Government on numerous occasions during the period covered by this report.

Section I.  Religious Demography

The country's total land area is 5,273,965 square miles and its population is 15 million.  There are approximately 14 million Sunni Muslims in the country.  Approximately 1 million citizens are Shi'a Muslims, who live mostly in the eastern province, where they constitute approximately one-third of the population.

Seven million foreigners also reside in the country, including approximately 1.5 million Indians, 900,000 Bangladeshis, 800,000  Egyptians, nearly 800,000 Pakistanis, 600,000 Filipinos, 130,000 Sri Lankans, and 36,000 Americans.  Comprehensive statistics for the denominations of foreigners are not available, but they include Muslims from the various branches of Islam, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews.  For example, the Embassy of the Philippines reports that over 90 percent of the Filipino community (or over half a million persons) is Christian.  The Embassy of India reports that the Indian community includes Muslims and Hindus, as well as Christians and Buddhists.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates there are well more than 500,000 Catholics in the country, and perhaps as many as 1 million.  There is no information regarding the number of atheists in the country.

There is no information regarding whether there are foreign missionaries in the country.  Proselytizing is not permitted.

Section II.  Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

Freedom of religion does not exist.  Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims.  The Government prohibits the public practice of other religions.  The Government recognizes the right of private worship by non-Muslims; however, it does not always respect this right in practice.  Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy and the Government has declared the Holy Koran and the Sunna (tradition) of the Prophet Muhammad to be the country's Constitution.  The Government bases its legitimacy on governance according to the precepts of the rigorously conservative and strict interpretation of the Hanbali school of the Sunni branch of Islam and discriminates against other branches of Islam.  Neither the Government nor society in general accepts the concepts of separation of religion and state, and such separation does not exist. 

The legal system is based on Shari'a (Islamic law), with   Shari'a courts basing their judgments largely on a code derived from the Holy Koran and the Sunna.  The Government permits Shi'a Muslims to use their own legal tradition to adjudicate noncriminal cases within their community.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Islamic practice generally is limited to that of the Wahhabi order, which adheres to the Hanbali school of the Sunni branch of Islam as interpreted by Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, an 18th century Arab religious reformer.  Practices contrary to this interpretation, such as visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, are discouraged, as is the practice of other schools of Sunni Islam.  The spreading of Muslim teachings not in conformance with the officially accepted interpretation of Islam is prohibited.  Writers and other individuals who publicly criticize this interpretation, including both those who advocate a stricter interpretation and those who favor a more moderate interpretation than the Government's, reportedly have been imprisoned and faced other reprisals, although there were no reports of such actions during the period covered by this report. 

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs supervises and finances the construction and maintenance of almost all mosques in the country.  The Ministry pays the salaries of imams (prayer leaders) and others who work in the mosques.  A governmental committee defines the qualifications of imams.  The Mutawwa'in (religious police, who make up the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice) are government employees, and the president of the Mutawwa'in holds the rank of cabinet minister.

Foreign imams are barred from leading worship during the most heavily attended prayer times and prohibited from delivering sermons during Friday congregational prayers.  The Government states that its actions are part of its "Saudiization" plan to replace foreign workers with citizens.

Under Shari'a conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death if the accused does not recant.  There were no executions for apostasy during the period covered by this report, and no reports of any such executions for the past several years. 

The Government prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, lashing, and deportation for engaging in overt religious activity that attracts official attention.  The Government has stated publicly, including before the U.N. Committee on Human Rights in Geneva, that its policy is to protect the right of non-Muslims to worship privately; however, it does not provide explicit guidelines--such as the number of persons permitted to attend and acceptable locations--for determining what constitutes private worship, which makes distinctions between public and private worship unclear.  Such lack of clarity, as well as instances of arbitrary enforcement by the authorities, force most non-Muslims to worship in such a manner as to avoid discovery by the Government or others.  During the period covered by this report, the number of reports of detentions and deportations related to non-Muslim worship has decreased compared to the previous period, and there were no reports of lashings.

The Government does not permit non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services, although some come under other auspices.  Such restrictions make it very difficult for most non-Muslims to maintain contact with clergymen and attend services.  Catholics and Orthodox Christians, who require a priest on a regular basis to receive the sacraments required by their faith, particularly are affected.

Proselytizing by non-Muslims, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles, is illegal.  There were no reports during the period covered by this report of arrests for proselytizing.  Muslims or non-Muslims wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the Mutawwa'in.  Under the auspices of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, approximately 50 so-called "Call and Guidance" centers employing approximately 500 persons work to convert foreigners to Islam.  Some non-Muslim foreigners convert to Islam during their stay in the country, including more than 200 persons in Jeddah each year.  The press often carries articles about such conversions, including testimonials.

The Government requires noncitizens to carry Iqamas, or legal resident identity cards, which contain a religious designation for "Muslim" or "non-Muslim."

Members of the Shi'a minority are the subjects of officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination.  The authorities permit the celebration of the Shi'a holiday of Ashura in the eastern province city of Qatif, provided that the celebrants do not undertake large, public marches or engage in self-flagellation (a traditional Shi'a practice).  The celebrations are monitored by the police; however, police presence at the April 2001 Ashura celebrations reportedly was much less prominent than in previous years.  No other Ashura celebrations are permitted in the country, and many Shi'a travel to Qatif or to Bahrain to participate in Ashura celebrations.  The Government continued to enforce other restrictions on the Shi'a community, such as banning Shi'a books.

Shi'a have declined government offers to build state-supported mosques because they fear the Government would prohibit the incorporation and display of Shi'a motifs in any such mosques. The Government seldom permits private construction of Shi'a mosques.  In March 2001, religious police reportedly closed a Shi'a mosque in Hofuf because it had been built without government permission.

Members of the Shi'a minority are discriminated against in government employment, especially with respect to positions that relate to national security, such as in the military or in the Ministry of the Interior.  The Government restricts employment of Shi'a in the oil and petrochemical industries.  The Government also discriminates against Shi'a in higher education through unofficial restrictions on the number of Shi'a admitted to universities.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution some Shi'a suspected of subversion have been subjected periodically to surveillance and limitations on travel abroad.  Prior to 2001, the Government actively discouraged Shi'a travel to Iran to visit pilgrimage sites due to security concerns.  Shi'a who went to Iran without government permission, or who were suspected of such travel, normally had their passports confiscated upon their return for periods of up to 2 years.  However, according to press reports, in early 2001, the Government lifted the requirement that citizens intending to travel to Iran seek permission in advance from authorities.  This change corresponds with improving  relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Advance permission for travel to Iraq, whether for business or religious pilgrimage, has been necessary for some time due to security concerns, but such travel remains possible. 

Under the Hanbali interpretation of Shari'a law, judges may discount the testimony of people who are not practicing Muslims or who do not have the correct faith.  Legal sources report that testimony by Shi'a is often ignored in courts of law or is deemed to have less weight than testimony by Sunnis.  For example, in May 2001, a judge in the eastern province asked two witnesses to an automobile accident if they were Shi'a.  When they so confirmed, the judge announced to the court that their testimony was inadmissible.  Sentencing under the legal system is not uniform.  Laws and regulations state that defendants should be treated equally; however, under Shari'a as interpreted and applied in the country, crimes against Muslims may result in harsher penalties than those against non-Muslims. 

Customs officials routinely open mail and shipments to search for contraband, including non-Muslim materials, such as Bibles and religious videotapes.  Individuals generally are able to bring religious materials into the country for personal use.

Islamic religious education is mandatory in public schools at all levels.  All children receive religious instruction, which generally is limited to that of the Hanbali school of Islam.  Non-Muslim students in private schools are not required to study Islam. 

Women are subject to discrimination under Shari'a as interpreted in the country.  In a Shari'a court, a woman's testimony does not carry the same weight as that of a man:  The testimony of one man equals that of two women.  Female parties to court proceedings, such as divorce and other family law cases, generally must deputize male relatives to speak on their behalf.

Although Islamic law permits polygyny, with up to four wives, it is becoming less common due to demographic and economic changes.  Islamic law enjoins a man to treat each wife equally.  In practice such equality is left to the discretion of the husband.  Some women participate in Al-Mesyar (or "short daytime visit") marriages, in which the women relinquish their legal rights to financial support and nighttime cohabitation.  In addition, the husband is not required to inform his other wives of the marriage, and any children resulting from such a marriage have no inheritance rights.  Women may not marry noncitizens without government permission; men must obtain approval from the Ministry of Interior to marry women from countries outside the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.  In accordance with Shari'a, women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims; men may marry Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims. 

While Shari'a provides women with a basis to own and dispose of property independently, women often are constrained from asserting such rights because of various legal and societal barriers, especially regarding employment and freedom of movement.  In addition, daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers. 

Women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without cause.  In doing so, men are required to pay immediately an amount of money agreed upon at the time of the marriage, which serves as a one-time alimony payment.  Women who demonstrate legal grounds for divorce still are entitled to this alimony.  If divorced or widowed, a Muslim woman normally may keep her children until they attain a specified age: 7 years for boys, 9 years for girls.  Children over these ages are awarded to the former husband or the deceased husband's family.  Numerous divorced foreign women continued to be prevented by their former husbands from visiting their children after divorce. 

Failure of Muslim women to wear an abaya or headscarf can lead to admonishment (and in the past occasionally has led to arrest) by some Mutawwa'in enforcing their own interpretation of religious doctrine.

Abuses of Freedom of Religion

During the period covered by this report, the Government continued to commit abuses of religious freedom.  Information about government practices is incomplete because judicial proceedings are closed to the public and the Government restricts freedom of speech and association.  In addition, the media exercises self-censorship regarding sensitive issues such as religious freedom, there are no independent nongovernmental organizations that monitor religious freedom, and the Government does not issue visas to foreign human rights organizations to conduct independent investigations.  Thus, reports of abuses often are difficult or impossible to corroborate.

The Government continued to commit abuses against members of the Shi'a minority.  Since beginning the investigation of the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military installation at Al-Khobar, in which a number of eastern province Shi'a were arrested, authorities have detained, interrogated, and confiscated the passports of a number of Shi'a Muslims.  The Government reportedly continued to detain an unknown number of Shi'a who were arrested in the aftermath of the Al-Khobar bombing.  Government security forces reportedly arrest Shi'a based on the smallest suspicion, hold them in custody for lengthy periods, and then release them without explanation.

According to various reports, a number of Shi'a sheikhs (religious leaders) were arrested and detained during the period covered by this report.  Amnesty International (AI) reported that Sheikh Ali bin Ali al-Ghanim was arrested in August 2000 at the border with Jordan and held by the Mabahith, the national investigative bureau that is part of the Ministry of Interior.  In March 2001, Mabahith officers reportedly arrested and detained Sheikh Mohammed Al Amri in Medina.

Early in 2000, a Shi'a sheikh was taken into custody and three other sheikhs were arrested for unknown reasons near the border with Jordan.  Human Rights Watch reported that at least seven additional Shi'a religious leaders reportedly remained in detention at the end of the period covered by this report for violating restrictions on Shi'a religious practices.  According to AI, Hashim Al-Sayyid Al-Sada, a Shi'a cleric suspected of political or religious dissent, was arrested in his home in April 2000 and reportedly remained held incommunicado at the end of the period covered by this report.

The Government continued to detain non-Muslims engaged in worship services, although at times it was unclear whether the services constituted public or private worship.  For example, on November 30, 2000, police broke up a gathering of 60 Christians worshiping in a rented building and detained 5 of the worshipers for approximately 1 hour for questioning.  In December 2000, authorities broke up a private Christian worship service of 12 Filipino citizens, arrested 6 of the Filipinos, and detained 3 of those arrested for nearly 2 months.  On April 20, a Filipino Christian man reportedly was stopped at a routine police checkpoint while driving a woman from a Christian service.  After discovering religious materials in the car, the police detained the man for 2 days.

In August 2000, authorities released a Christian Indian national who had been arrested in June 2000 for possession of a videotape of a religious event.  According to the Indian Embassy, the man spent approximately 2 months in jail and was released pending deportation on charges of violating the labor law.  There were reports during the period covered by this report that authorities interrogated members of the tiny Baha'i community regarding the size and status of their community, although there were no reports of any additional actions taken against them. 

In April 2000, in the city of Najran, in the southwest region bordering Yemen, rioting by members of the Makarama Ismaili Shi'a eventually led to an attack by an armed group of Shi'a on a hotel that contained an office of the regional governor.  Security forces responded, leading to extended gun battles between the two sides.  Some press reports indicated that the rioting followed the arrest of a Makarama Ismaili Shi'a imam and some of his followers on charges of "sorcery."  Various other reports attributed the unrest to the closure of two Ismaili Shi'a mosques and the provincial governor's refusal to permit Ismailis to hold public observances of the Shi'a holiday of Ashura.  Still other reports attributed the unrest to a local crackdown on smuggling and resultant tribal discontent.  Officials at the highest level of the Government stated that the unrest in Najran was not the result of Shi'a-Sunni tension or religious discrimination.  After the unrest ended the Government stated that 5 members of the security forces were killed, and Ismaili leaders claimed that as many as 40 Ismaili tribesmen were killed.  There was no independent confirmation of these claims.  In October 2000, AI reported that two Ismaili Shi'a teachers, who were arrested in April 2000 following the unrest, were convicted on charges of sorcery and sentenced to 1,500 lashes; however, this report could not be confirmed.

Magic is widely believed in and sometimes practiced, often in the form of fortune-telling and swindles; however, under Shari'a, the practice of magic is regarded as the worst form of polytheism, an offense for which no repentance is accepted and which is punishable by death.  There are an unknown number of detainees held in prison on the charge of "sorcery," including the practice of "black magic" or "witchcraft."  In a few cases, self-proclaimed "miracle workers" have been executed for sorcery involving physical harm or apostasy. 

Mutawwa'in practices and incidents of abuse varied widely in different regions of the country.  While reports of incidents were most numerous in the central Nejd region, which includes the capital Riyadh, reports of incidents in the eastern province increased during the period covered by this report.  In certain areas, both the Mutawwa'in and religious vigilantes acting on their own harassed, assaulted, battered, arrested, and detained citizens and foreigners.  The Government requires the Mutawwa'in to follow established procedures and to offer instruction in a polite manner; however, Mutawwa'in do not always comply with the requirements.  The Government has not criticized abuses by the Mutawwa'in directly, but criticism of the group has appeared in the largely government-controlled English-language press.  The Government has sought to curtail these abuses; however, the abuses continue.   

Mutawwa'in enforcement of strict standards of social behavior included closing commercial establishments during five daily prayer observances, insisting upon compliance with strict norms of public dress and dispersing gatherings in public places.  Mutawwa'in frequently reproached citizen and foreign women for failure to observe strict dress codes, and detained men and women found together who were not married or closely related.

The Mutawwa'in have the authority to detain persons for no more than 24 hours for violation of strict standards of proper dress and behavior; however, they sometimes exceeded this limit before delivering detainees to the police.  Procedures require a police officer to accompany the Mutawwa'in at the time of arrest.  Mutawwa'in generally complied with this requirement.  According to reports, the Mutawwa'in also are no longer permitted to detain citizens for more than a few hours, may not conduct investigations, and may no longer allow unpaid volunteers to accompany official patrols.

Forced Religious Conversion

Under the law, children of Saudi fathers are considered Muslim, regardless of the county or the religious tradition in which they may have been raised.  In some cases, children raised in other countries and in other religious traditions who came to Saudi Arabia or who were taken by their Saudi fathers to Saudi Arabia reportedly were coerced to conform to Islamic norms and practices, although forcible conversion is prohibited.  There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States during the period covered by this report, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.  However, there was a report that prior to the period covered by this report, at least one U.S. citizen child in the country was subjected to pressure--and at times force--by her Saudi relatives to renounce Christianity and conform to Islamic norms and practices.  The child has since returned to the United States. 

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

The Government welcomed two delegations on freedom of religion from the United States:  Members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom visited in March 2001 and the Director of the Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. Department of State visited in January 2001.  In meetings with these officials and others, senior Saudi government officials stated that the Government will not interfere in private non-Muslim worship and invited the U.S. Government to provide specific information if that policy is violated. 

According to press reports, in early 2001, the Government quietly lifted the requirement that Shi'a obtain advance permission to travel to Iran, thus effectively allowing them to visit pilgrimage sites in Iran without prior notice.

Section III.  Societal Attitudes

There is societal discrimination against members of the Shi'a minority; however, improved relations between Iran (a predominately Shi'a nation) and Saudi Arabia in the period covered by this report continued to improve the climate of Sunni-Shi'a relations in the country. 

The overwhelming majority of citizens support an Islamic state and oppose public non-Muslim worship.  The majority of non-Muslims who undertook religious observances privately and discreetly during the period covered by this report were not disturbed; however, problems occurred after some Saudis complained to the authorities about services by their neighbors.  While some non-Muslims claim that paid informants infiltrate their private worship groups and that employers did not renew the work contracts of non-Muslim employees who were found to be participating in worship groups, employers indicated contracts were not renewed because of performance problems or efforts to increase employment opportunities for Saudi workers. 

Relations between Saudi Muslims and foreign Muslims are generally good.  Each year the country welcomes approximately 2 million Muslim pilgrims from all over the world and of all branches of Islam, who visit the country during a 2-week period to perform the Hajj.  Foreign Muslims of all denominations may pray freely in mosques as long as they follow Saudi Sunni prayer practices, although foreign imams have a more difficult time obtaining employment in mosques than their Saudi counterparts.

In certain areas, religious vigilantes unaffiliated with the Government and acting on their own harassed, assaulted, battered, arrested, and detained citizens and foreigners.

Section IV.  U.S. Government Policy

Senior U.S. government officials and members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom raised the issue of religious freedom with government officials on numerous occasions during the period covered by this report.  U.S. government officials met with senior government officials to confirm the Government's commitment to permit private non-Muslim worship and to discuss other concerns related to religious freedom.  In September 2000, U.S. Embassy officers met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) officials to deliver and discuss the U.S. Government's 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom and to protest the detention of Filipino worshippers arrested in December 2000.  In addition, Embassy officers met with MFA officials at various other times during the year on matters pertaining to religious freedom.