Religious Freedom: A Taboo in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
In a report released in November, the State Department cites that Saudi Arabia and a few other countries restrict religious freedom. The situation has not improved much since last year, when the State Department also reported that religious freedom was lacking in the Saudi kingdom.
The report stated: "Islam is the official religion and all citizens must be Muslims." Moreover, the Saudi state imposes the Sunni version of Islam on all citizens, be they Shia Muslims or non-Muslims. However, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the time refused to sanction Saudi Arabia, saying she wanted "to allow additional time for the continuation of discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues."
Despite actions taken by Saudi Arabia to thwart terrorism, in terms of religious freedoms and human rights the reality is still gloomy. In response to the issue of women driving cars in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah said that "patience is beautiful." There are other challenges as important as this one that must be dealt with in the near future such as: The internal conflicts within the royal family, the threat of terrorism, job creation, religious freedom, freedom of speech and human rights reforms - especially for women and youth. In addition, political challenges must be considered — will the Kingdom be able to allow political pluralism, minimize the Islamist threat and still survive?
Dr. Mai Yamani wrote recently in The Independent that: "Saudi Arabia has remained trapped in a state of suspended animation, its body politic sick and infirm. Now it is caught between two choices: Progressive reform or continuing paralysis and decay."
Micha van Waesberghe, Vice President of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia wrote recently about the case of Samuel Daniel, a Christian of Indian nationality who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for more than 20 years. Being a Christian in Saudi Arabia proves to be a ticking bomb in the Kingdom, regardless of how exemplary one's life is. Without any official mandate or explanation, the Saudi religious police arrested and detained Samuel Daniel for a period of 10 days. As there was nothing wrong with his behavior, one can only deduct that Samuel Daniel was arrested for no other reason than his affiliation to the Christian faith - the reason he was jailed and later deported.
Daniel has taken this matter to the Indian Ambassador, who asked for further explanation from the Saudi officials. Their response was that Samuel Daniel was never arrested or detained because there were no charges made against him, and that was the end of the story for the Saudis.
The practice of entering someone's private home and imprisoning him because of his religious affiliation should not only be considered an act of moral injustice, but also of barbarism. The only positive aspect of the story, if there is one, is the insight Samuel Daniel had into the manner in which the Saudis treat Christians - actually their mistreatment of all non-Muslims. Because of Daniel’s courage to alert and give his testimony to the Indian authorities as well as to human rights NGOs, maybe others will not have to suffer the despair and injustice that he was subjected to.
The conditions of imprisonment are hard to imagine — the indignity of 100 or 200 people confined in a small room without proper food, water or medication while being threatened and verbally and physically abused. The whole image is disturbing. People are jailed for months without knowing what they have been accused of, and they are denied access to a lawyer and visits from official representatives.
It is a pity that Saudi Arabia, a country that hosts Islam's two holiest cities — Mecca and Medina — has proven to be a place where tolerance, humanity and respect for religious faith are not known.
In the end, if the Saudi royal family is looking to play a key role in stabilizing the region, it should first deal with its domestic issues.