As Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia jetted to the United States with a five-plane entourage, his religious police took care of business at home. In late April that meant raiding a Riyadh apartment and arresting 40 Christians.
The Christians-all Pakistani men, women, and children-were worshipping privately together in the Badeea district on April 22 when carloads of the mutawaa, or Islamic police, disrupted the group. Police arrested the worshippers and confiscated Christian tapes and literature. One official's explanation: "These people tried to spread the poison and their beliefs to others, by means of distributing pamphlets and [missionary] publications," according to a translation of the Middle East Media Research Institute.
Last September the U.S. State Department labeled Saudi Arabia one of the world's worst religious persecutors, a distinction it shares with seven other countries. The designation lays Saudi Arabia open to measures such as sanctions. By law, the State Department must decide six months after the designation on action against such countries, but that deadline came and went in silence. Meanwhile, analysts say Saudi Arabia is not only eschewing religious reform, it is actually intensifying the persecution in some ways. At the same time, the kingdom is spreading its brand of terrorist-breeding Islam around the world.
The religious raid against the Pakistani group "gives the message to extremists that we are cracking down on infidel Christians," said Ali Al-Ahmed, director of Washington's Saudi Institute. The organization advocates democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia. "This is the first time ever in the history of Saudi Arabia that they've published [it] in newspapers."
Mr. Al-Ahmed said Saudi police have been conducting sweeps of Riyadh neighborhoods aimed at uncovering illegal drugs, prostitution, and pirated materials. But they are also discovering coveys of clandestine Christians. The kingdom outlaws non-Islamic public houses of worship and restricts Muslims who do not follow its strict Wahhabi version of Islam. Evangelizing Muslims also is forbidden.
Non-Muslims may worship in private, but the distinction separating private and public gatherings is so murky, many try to congregate secretly to avoid attracting attention. The mutawaa released the 40 Pakistanis within a few days, but as "proselytizing" foreigners, they risk being deported. Their materials-including Bibles and religious statues-were due for burning.
Restrictions against others have also been flourishing. In late March the religious police bulldozed a Hindu temple they discovered. Authorities have always restricted Shiite religious observances, but in March they banned the festival of Ashura in the eastern city of Qatif, where just last year it was allowed. The Saudi Institute reported that officials summoned the festival's organizers a day before it began and told them to cancel it.
The Saudis may stamp out religious freedom at home, but elsewhere in the world they take full advantage of it. King Fahd, the official head of state, has an English-language website boasting of his efforts to spread Wahhabi Islam: "The cost of King Fahd's efforts in this field has been astronomical, amounting to many billions of Saudi Riyals. In terms of Islamic institutions, the result is some 210 Islamic Centers wholly or partly financed by Saudi Arabia, more than 1,500 Mosques and 202 colleges and almost 2,000 schools for educating Muslim children."
In the United States, such investment has led to most mosques preaching Wahhabism. Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom last year studied literature from 15 mosques nationwide and found chilling prescriptions for Muslims. The Center collected some 200 books and other publications, mostly in Arabic. All had some link to the Saudi government: distributed by the Saudi embassy, published by a government ministry, or preached by a state-appointed cleric, for example.
The publications divide the world into the realm of unbelief, under which the United States falls, and the realm of Islam. As such, Muslims must keep a "wall of resentment" between themselves and unbelievers like Christians and Jews, not greeting them first, not helping them nor wearing Western clothes. Peaceful interfaith relations are a threat because they create "no loyalty and enmity, no more jihad and fighting to raise Allah's name on earth," according to one document from a San Diego mosque.
Muslims of other sects, such as Sufis and Shiites, are mistaken or downright apostate. The publications forbid taking up citizenship in the United States because "infidels" govern it; the only reason to stay is to spread Islam. Screeds against democracy are also rampant among school textbooks that warn children not to separate Islam and government. "Freedom of thinking, requires permitting the denial of faith . . . and defending the heretics," says one tract from a Washington mosque.
Freedom House's report, which it released in January, underscores the risks of allowing mosques to preach such radical Islam: The same ideology that inspired the 9/11 hijackers could cultivate terrorists on U.S. soil. Moderate Muslims warn that Wahhabism has already overrun American mosques.
"It's certainly become more exposed, but the problem is very much still there," explained Mateen Siddiqui, vice president of the Islamic Supreme Council of America. The group was virtually alone in warning of extremism's spread as far back as 1999 and criticizing national Muslim advocacy groups for soft-pedaling it. "It's a matter of who has influence and who has money . . . the Saudis continue to peddle their influence. Even if (the mosques) were to disappear overnight, the influence would still remain."
Saudi oil dollars are not limited to mosques either. Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, heads the diplomatic corps and enjoys wide-ranging ties in Washington. The Saudis also help fund think tanks such as the Middle East Institute, ensuring sophisticated policy positions on their behalf.
Saudi Arabia is now boosting its image, holding events such as interfaith forums. Wahhabi adherents are adopting the language of Muslim moderates, too. "From the back, if you know these people, you know they support terrorism," Mr. Siddiqui said.
Overall, the Saudis have done little to promote religious reform since the United States fingered them as persecutors. In February Saudi Arabia hosted an anti-terrorism conference that was a "charade," according to Center for Religious Freedom Director Nina Shea. "In my view that's just an appearance if in fact they're teaching the same thing with the same fatwas and books and doing the same thing."
The kingdom also appointed the former head of the World Muslim League, a Saudi arm that exports Islamism worldwide, as the country's new minister of education. "That does not bode well for the prospects of reform," Ms. Shea said, "to have the man responsible for extremism as the minister of education."
Yet the United States is nowhere ready to alienate its Mideast ally. At the same time, Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli acknowledged the kingdom had not become more tolerant in the last six months. One State Department official told WORLD the diplomacy was "complicated."
"We don't want to offend governments by announcing something prematurely," he said.
When Crown Prince Abdullah met with President Bush at his Crawford ranch in April, the top agenda item was increasing oil production. If political reform received any attention in private conversation, it did not register publicly. The leaders simply released a joint statement saying both countries agree a "message of peace, moderation, and tolerance must extend to those of all faiths and practices."
But the United States has not pressured the Saudis to follow such sentiments. "Part of the problem that has allowed this to continue is that U.S. policy is so hesitant," Mr. Al-Ahmed said. He said Washington at least "talks tough" on human rights with heavyweights such as China and Russia, but treats the Saudis gently. Ending that will mean no more hand-holding between Messrs. Bush and Abdullah-both physically and figuratively.