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Saudi Arabia
Tuesday, 20 September 2011 14:23

Religious Freedom Ranking:

1 out of 5 stars: Serious Violations

Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia is the home of the most holy cities in Islam: Mecca and Medina. The entire nation is seen as setting the unofficial standard for Sunni Islam and thus has an attitude of strictness to maintain the most pristine and the highest standards of Islam. Saudi Arabia is one of 10 countries in the world which does not have a modern Constitution. It has been stated that its Constitution is the Quran. The system of government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. The Government prohibits the practice of other religions and no other houses of public worship are allowed. Of its population of 18.5 million, approximately 10 to 15 percent are Shi’a, with 700,000 Ismaili, who live mostly in the Eastern Province. They are the objects of officially sanctioned social and economic discrimination. They hold few official positions and sometimes suffer violence against them. Some judges consider them “unbelievers.”

The Government does not permit public or private non-Muslim religious activities. Persons wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the Mutawwa'in religious police. The general prohibition against religious symbols applies also to Muslims. A Muslim wearing a Koranic necklace in public would be admonished. Non-Muslim worshipers risk arrest, lashing and deportation for engaging in any religious activity that attracts official attention. Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy. Public apostasy is a crime under Shari'a law and punishable by death. One Saudi man-- by law a Muslim--was executed for practicing witchcraft in 1995.

The government has failed to implement promised reforms to increase tolerance since the 9-11 attacks in the US. It also still blocks the non-Muslim houses of worship (churches, synagogues, temples and other non-Muslim places of worship), and continues to use state textbooks in schools that continue to espouse intolerance and incite violence against others. The Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) has been criticized for abuses against non-Muslims. And the government continues to promote an extremist Islamic view outside of Saudi Arabia that in some cases promotes violence against non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims.

Children of Shi‘a and Ismaili Muslims must endure indoctrination in public schools with only the official government‘s Wahabbist interpretation of Sunni Islam being taught even if the parents wish otherwise.

There are five million foreign workers living in the country who, according to reports, are subject to severe discrimination. Freedom of religion does not exist. According to reports, seven Indian nationals were recently arrested in the city of Jubayl for conducting Christmas services. They were soon released after their embassy's intervention. An undetermined number of Filipinos were arrested in Damman on the same charge.

On a positive note, in 2008, King Abdullah initiated a series of international interfaith conferences and events in Europe and at the United Nations which included representatives from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other faith communities. The UN will establish an office in Vienna, Austria to follow up on this effort.

Religious freedom and women: Women are less free in Saudi Arabia than in any other Muslim nation. Women are not allowed to vote or run for office. The testimony of one man is equal to that of two women in court. A woman will receive an inheritance half, or less than half, of her brother/male relative would receive. A woman needs written permission of the closest male relative to leave the country or travel on public transportation and between different parts of the kingdom.

No unrelated men and women may frequent public places, study, or work together; and female students “attend” classrooms separately via closed-circuit TV. Women are not allowed to drive a car or ride a bicycle. If a woman needs emergency or any medical care she might be turned away if she does not have the required permission of a male relative. Women must be completely covered in public. It is reported that women’s sexuality is considered a threat to society because women uncontrolled can lead men away from God. Saudi women are not allowed to marry a non-Saudi without government permission. No marriage is allowed between Saudi women and non-Muslim men. In divorce, the children go to the father, although the law officially declares equality. Widowed women must be under the control of a close male relative.

In recent times some female lawyers have been allowed to practice in some areas of the country, although they must be covered from head to foot. Any woman showing any of her body part, even her face, is liable to harassment by the country’s modesty police, the Mutaaw’in.

Violence against women, including in the home, is still a big problem with no recourse for the women. Honor killing of women still occurs in some areas of Saudi Arabia, where a woman or girl is thought to have caused shame to her family, and by right a male relative ends her life to end that shame, this is Islamic tradition not law.

Children may receive official “flogging” for failure to obey, as six girl orphans received 10 lashes each administered at a women’s prison in Medina for “acts of mischief” when in their school. Foreign female domestic workers suffer abuse without recourse because they are not Muslim.

In 2008, a 24-member Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) formed a women‘s branch to look into human rights abuses against women and children. The commission reports directly to the King. Of the thousands of complaints registered each year, one-third are domestic violence cases. The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), the country‘s first and only independent, legally recognized human rights body, has 10 women members out of 41. It recently highlighted wide-ranging restrictions on the rights of women by the HRC.

Religious violence: Demonstrations by Shia followers who called for the release of religious and political prisoners were arrested and detained. Some were injured during the otherwise peaceful demonstrations. The religious police seem to have decreased some their violence against those they deem violators of public morality.  

2010 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report on Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia-New World Encyclopedia,, USCIRF 2011.docx

Last Updated on Tuesday, 14 February 2012 18:48