Religious-freedom experts working with the U.S. government have long known Saudi Arabia was one of the world's worst persecutors of Christians. Driving home that the country also persecutes its own Muslim population is what finally pushed U.S. officials to do something about it.
In the year before the State Department last month added Saudi Arabia to its official list of persecuting countries, staff members from the department's religious-freedom office visited the kingdom five times-more than any other country they examined in the world. Relations with the United States' largest oil supplier are historically white-gloved, and many in the diplomatic corps long hoped for private improvement on church-faith matters without a public confrontation.
"I came on board knowing Saudi Arabia had to be a high priority on this job," said John Hanford, who in 2002 became the State Department's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. When meetings with the foreign minister and other top Saudi officials yielded little improvement, he could then show his colleagues it was time the United States did more than quietly catalog abuses year after year. "On the central issue of restricting religious freedom in such a wholesale fashion, there has not been progress," Mr. Hanford told WORLD.
But it was the extent of oppressive measures against other Muslims, especially Shiites, which experts learned on their visits was even worse than expected. According to Mr. Hanford, "It's the Muslims who wind up in jail." That's a point he emphasized when rolling out State's 2004 religious-freedom report Sept. 15: "The sort of issues which concerned us most, frankly, had to do with the treatment of Muslims in Saudi Arabia. The Shia Muslims suffer the most."
Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, widely known as Wahhabism, derives from the name of its 18th-century founder, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who formed an alliance with tribal leader Muhammad al-Saud around 1750 when the Saudi kingdom was established. In modern times, oil income has funded the spread of Wahhabi ideology in schools and mosques. Wahhabis generally view non-Wahhabi Muslims as un-Islamic, so other Sunnis, Shiites, and Sufis suffer economic and political discrimination and restrictions on worship.
Shiites make up about 10 percent of the Saudi population. According to this year's U.S. religious-freedom report, Saudi authorities shut down Shiite mosques built without government permission. Shiites are poorly represented in government too: Only two serve on the country's 120-member consultative council, and none as cabinet ministers. Nor does Shiite testimony in court carry as much weight as that of Sunnis.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reports that authorities have arrested several Shiite clerics and religious scholars without charge, and beaten some while in custody. Imams who have criticized the government's policies or its Islamic interpretations have suffered the same treatment. Many non-Wahhabi Muslims are detained on trumped-up charges of sorcery or witchcraft, considered by the ruling elite one of the worst forms of polytheism.
Non-Muslims, of course, have it even worse. The kingdom prohibits any public worship, and those who wear religious symbols risk a scuffle with the religious police. Evangelizing Muslims is illegal, and Muslims who convert to another religion may be tried for apostasy and executed. According to the State Department's 2004 report, authorities tried a schoolteacher for apostasy, but last March handed down a conviction of blasphemy with a three-year sentence and 300 lashes.
In theory, non-Muslims may worship in private, but Saudi Arabia offers scant guidelines on how many may gather without attracting the displeasure of the Mutawwa'in, the religious police. Many Christians congregate freely, said Mr. Hanford, but do so in secret, meeting in padded basements or huddling by the dozens around a single Bible. In practice, the religious police do disrupt worship services at whim.
One example is Indian Christian Brian O'Connor. Just hours before Mr. Hanford added Saudi Arabia to the U.S. list of egregious persecutors on Sept. 15, a Saudi court charged him with possession of alcohol, pornography, and preaching Christianity. Compass News reported that Brian O'Connor first heard the charges six months after his arrest, when the Mutawwa'in reportedly hung him upside down and whipped him with electrical cables. So far the court has not issued a verdict.
Such restrictions were a major reason that the United States decided to class Saudi Arabia as a "country of particular concern" in September, a branding reserved for only the most egregious state persecutors in the world. Those named-eight countries altogether this year-become eligible for U.S. sanctions.
For religious-freedom advocates, State's designating Saudi Arabia was long overdue. "Better late than never, at this point," said Dwight Bashir, a senior policy analyst with USCIRF. USCIRF recommended the Saudis for the list five years in a row, getting results only the fifth time around.
Why the designation this year? Mr. Bashir said pressure from his own commission and from Congress began building when State dawdled on announcing this year's worst persecutors. Eighteen months had lapsed since officials made the last designations. For the State Department, says Mr. Bashir, examining terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in May and November last year also have been eye-opening. As the two countries cooperate in the war on terror, U.S. officials are seeing firsthand the extent to which Saudi Arabia both encourages and exports extremist Islam. And ultimately, in a post-9/11 world, the U.S. diplomats could no longer ignore the nexus between radical Islam and terrorism.
But the United States also softened its rebuke against its largest Middle East ally by noting some reforms. Authorities have continued their National Dialogue with Muslims of all stripes, which includes men and women, and fired imams who preach violence. The Middle East Media Research Institute found a report 11 days after the State Department's citation that Saudi authorities are planning new training for the religious police in English, psychology, and how to handle the public. But without major reforms, no one expects sensitivity training to improve religious tolerance.
By law, the State Department has between 90 and 180 days to determine what measures to take against the eight religious-freedom violators it named (the other seven are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Vietnam). Sanctions against the Saudis, however, are unlikely, says Paul Marshall, senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.
"They have been resisting for quite a while labeling them a country of particular concern," he said. "My guess is that the U.S. will think putting them on the list will be enough and wait to see how that works." Nor in the short term does Mr. Marshall see the Saudis implementing reforms that would annoy their most virulent Wahhabi clergy. After the designation, Saudi officials went out of their way to condemn themselves with their defense. The chief of the kingdom's religious police said non-Muslims may worship as much as they wish but must keep it private: "We will not allow them to publicly practice their religion in this country," he said.
Nonetheless, USCIRF will want the United States to ratchet up the pressure immediately. Among their policy recommendations, commissioners want U.S. officials to push for dissolving the Mutawwa'in, allowing in clergy of other religions, and releasing prisoners detained for religious violations. That may read like a wish list, but for longtime religious-freedom advocates, coming this far after U.S. silence on Saudi violations still seems like a dream.