FCO Human Rights Report 2019

Freedom of religion or belief remained restricted and it continued to be illegal to publicly practise a religion other than Islam. In his 2019 Ramadan message, King Salman bin Abdulaziz called for tolerance and moderation in Islam. Private worship of religions other than Islam was tolerated.

APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019

While Saudi Arabia is known for its Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, it is estimated that its adherents only make up approximately 20% of Saudi Arabia’s population. Most of Saudi Arabia’s 85-90% Sunni population follow the Hanbali School of jurisprudence, with adherents of the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Sufi groups also present. Additionally, between 10-15% of the population adhere to Shia Islam, mainly of the Twelver or Ithna’ashari grouping, with some Isma’ilis (approximately 700,000) and Zaydis also present in the country. Other groups, including Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh groups are also present.

Shia Muslims experience significant religious persecution in Saudi Arabia. The group faces daily discrimination in areas such as education, employment, and the judiciary, as well as being prevented from accessing senior positions in the government and military. The building of Shia mosques and the use of the Shia call to prayer is severely restricted outside of majority-Shia areas in the Eastern Province. Permits are necessary for Shia religious gatherings in private homes. Existing persecution has intensified in the aftermath of Shia protests in the Eastern Province in 2011. The Saudi government responded with an extreme crackdown, systematically arresting and sentencing Shia citizens with any connection to such protests. This crackdown has continued in 2019.

On the 23rd of April, the government announced the mass execution of 37 men, with at least 33 of these being members of the minority Shia community. Moreover, in May 2019, a second case was heard for Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammad bin Hassan al-Habib, as Saudi authorities sought to extend his existing seven-year prison sentence as a result of his support for Shia protestors.

Non-Muslim religious minorities and atheists are forbidden from practicing or expressing their beliefs in Saudi Arabia in public. While there remains a supposed allowance for the private practice of faith for non-Muslims who are not converts from Islam, this is uncodified and offers little real protection to religious minorities who fall under such a categorisation.

The view of the Saudi Arabian government regarding religious minorities is evident in the language it uses to refer to them. Government-appointed religious scholars refer to religious minorities in derogatory terms in official documents and religious rulings which have an influence on government decisions, while in the Education Ministry’s school textbook, minority religious communities are referred to as ‘kuffar’ or ‘unbelievers’. To confound this, the cleric Saad bin Ateeq al-Ateeq, notorious for sectarian hate speech against Shias, Alawites, Christians and Jews, serves as a supervisor for Islamic awareness at the Ministry of Education.

Moreover, Christian celebrations such as Easter and Christmas are banned, while the holy month of Ramadan must be strictly obeyed by Saudi citizens.

Criticism of Islam is severely punished in Saudi Arabia with ‘blasphemy’ treated as ‘apostasy’, making it punishable by death. The blogger, Raif Badawi, who was arrested in 2012 for insulting Islam, remains in prison.

In March 2014, the Government approved new anti-terrorism legislation. Article 1 of the new law defines one form of terrorism as: ‘Calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.’ Since the Saudi political system is grounded in Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, non-believers are assumed to be enemies of the Saudi state. This legislation not only frames non-believers as terrorists but creates a legal framework that outlaws as terrorism nearly all thought or expression critical of the government and its understanding of Islam.

Apostasy is also criminalised and mandates a death penalty. The criminal accusation of ‘apostasy’ is sometimes deployed against people (including writers, activists, artists, or lawyers) who show any serious sign of pushing at the outer boundaries of freedom of expression, or who are critical of the religious authorities, and whose views (rightly or wrongly) are termed ‘atheist’ or as ‘insulting to religion’.

Despite restrictions of FoRB, it is reported that the Christian faith has increasingly been shared over the internet and through Christian smartphone apps and satellite TV channels. In rare cases, believers who live in gated compound facilities feel secure enough to practice their faith, hanging up paintings of Christ and religious quotes and crucifixes. On 6 December 2018, Saudi Arabia hosted its first ever mass by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church in Riyadh. Other positive acts such as a change in the law regarding women wearing the abaya have also taken place.

Non-Muslim migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are from India, the Philippines and the African continent, are often Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh and experience persecution based on ethnicity, class and religion. Low-paid foreign Christian workers are continually under pressure to convert to Islam, while Christian maids living in Saudi Arabian households have been reported to experience high levels of physical and sexual abuse.

Likewise, the case of Gurwinder Singh in 2018 highlights that Sikh migrants are being forced to cut their hair and eat halal meat when in Saudi Arabian prisons. In January 2019, two Rohingya Muslim refugees were forcibly returned to Bangladesh, despite the suggestion that they would be jailed upon arrival in the country.

In the UK Parliament, 2020

No questions asked.


USCIRF report 2020

US State Department International Religious Freedom report 2019



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