Total population at 34 million, including more than 12 million foreign residents. Between 85 and 90 per cent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims. Saudi Arabia is known for its Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, which only accounts for approximately 20 per cent of the population but is highly influential across the country. Most of the 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 per cent of the population adhere to Shi’a 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. The expatriate population includes two million non-Muslims: Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. It is impossible to identify the size of the non-religious population.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020
Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship of any other religion or sect other than its Hanbali or Wahhabi version of Islam. It systematically discriminates against Shi’as and Ismailis in public education, justice system, employment. State-sanctioned religious authorities vilify Shi’a, Sufi and moderate Islamic interpretations in school textbooks, documents and public statements.
Shi’as in the Eastern Province, which constitute 15 per cent of the population, are one of the most persecuted communities in the country. In April 2019, Saudi authorities executed 37 people, 32 of them were Shi’as. They were prosecuted over the charges of ‘provoking sectarian strife’ or ‘disturbing security’. However, as different human rights organisations maintain, those Shi’as were executed merely on being Shi’a .
Unfair trials and forced confessions are particularly used against Shi’as to execute and imprison them . Amnesty International reviewed eight Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) trials of 68 Shi’as and has found that the majority was prosecuted only for participating in anti-government protest. Amnesty concluded that trials were ‘grossly unfair’ and based on ‘torture-trained confessions’ . At least 20 Shi’a men who were tried by SCC have been sentenced to death on forced confession, 17 of them have already been executed . Over 100 Shi’as on vague charges, including other nationalities, have been tried before the SCC .
One of the alarming trends is the prosecution of juvenile who are serving prison for participating in a peaceful protest held by Shi’as . Murtaja Qureiris who is now aged 18 is prime example of Saudi’s persecution of Shi’a juveniles. He was 16 when was moved to GDI prison in Dammam, an adult prison, and before the transfer, he was tortured and forced to confessed crimes which he did not commit .
Shi’as are deprived of their basic freedom to practice their faith such as by banning public commemoration of Ashura which is central to Shi’a faith. Shi’as are also discriminated in public jobs such as a Shi’a man cannot become judge in ordinary courts, hold senior military or diplomatic post or become religious teacher . Similarly, non-Muslim religious minorities and atheists are forbidden from practicing or expressing their beliefs in public.
Christians are often the victim of surveillance and intimidation from the authorities and struggle to practice their religion without fear. Authorities often raid their worship services and those who convert to Christianity from Muslim faith fear persecution if they reveal their conversion. The vilification of religious communities, particularly Christians, Shi’as and Jews, continues through textbooks. Christians and Jews are regarded as the ‘enemy’ of Islam.
Liberals, freethinkers and atheists are often victim of arrest, torture and, in some cases, awarded the death penalty. Raif Badawi is the prisoner of conscience who has been in prison since 2012 for having liberal and dissenting views. Ahmad Al Shamri and Ashraf Fayadh are imprisoned for promoting atheist ideas and dissenting culture.
FCDO Human Rights Report 2020
The Saudi Government continued to deliver positive messages on religious tolerance, but restrictions remained on freedom of religion or belief. It continued to be illegal to practise publicly a religion other than Islam, but the reduced presence of the religious police and permission for expatriate non-Muslim faith groups to worship privately improved religious freedom.
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.
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.
In the UK Parliament, 2020
No questions asked.
US State Department International Religious Freedom report 2020