Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary Paragraph: On July 11, authorities executed four Shia individuals on terrorism-related charges and in the same month the Supreme Court upheld the convictions and death sentences of at least 15 other individuals, presumed to be Shia, for involvement in the 2011-12 Eastern Province violence and protests. Human rights organizations reported their convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture while the government stated they were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced fairly and in accordance with the law. Between May and the end of the year, security forces reportedly killed multiple individuals and displaced residents when they confronted armed groups and nonviolent resistance to the government’s decision to demolish the predominantly Shia al-Musawara neighborhood of Awamiya in Qatif Governorate; 12 security officers were killed in the course of the security operation. The government imprisoned individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. Authorities reportedly detained and imprisoned prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, including Shia clerics and activists, according to multiple media reports. Many foreign residents worshiped privately within their homes or in other gatherings, but authorities raided some private Shia and non-Muslim religious meetings and arrested, detained, or deported participants. The government continued to censor and block content in the media, including social media and on the internet. It continued to employ religious police to enforce “public morals.” Authorities continued to engage in instances of prejudicial treatment and discrimination against Shia Muslims with respect to access to public services, equitable representation in government, educational and public sector employment opportunities (including in the military and other security services), and judicial matters.
On July 11, authorities executed four Shia individuals – Amjad al-Moaibad, Yusuf al-Mushaikhas, Zaher al-Basri, and Mahdi al-Sayegh – on terrorism-related charges connected to the 2011-12 Eastern Province violence and protests. The government characterized that unrest as terrorism, while one nongovernmental organization (NGO) attributed the unrest to the Shia perception of economic neglect and political marginalization by the government. Human rights organizations stated their convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture, while some third-party observers questioned the impartiality of the judiciary, citing sectarianism.
Up to 33 individuals, presumed to be largely Shia, faced the possibility of execution as they awaited implementation orders for death sentences already confirmed by the Supreme Court for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012, according to human rights organizations. Up to nine of these persons – including Ali al-Nimr (the nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, and Mujtaba al-Sweikat – may have been minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted; however, the government disputed these claims, noting the courts and sharia system use the Islamic hijri calendar for age computations. Human rights organizations said many of the convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture. Many of these individuals alleged authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation. Some Shia and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary.
In January the government began demolition operations in the predominately Shia, 400-year old neighborhood of al-Musawara in Awamiya, Qatif Governorate, which were met by nonviolent protests, according to press reports. Beginning in May, security forces reportedly killed more than 15 persons and displaced thousands of residents in the course of security operations there. The government stated the security action was a counterterrorism effort and reported that eight members of the police and four members of the special forces had been killed, according to press reports. The demolition and future redevelopment of al-Musawara had been announced in 2016.
Human rights organizations alleged that security forces used heavy-handed tactics against some civilians, and razed hundreds of buildings, including a historic Shia mosque. Authorities reportedly promised compensation for many al-Musawara residents who evacuated, according to media reports. Human Rights Watch reported that some residents who remained were restricted to their homes due to fear of a security response. NGOs also received reports alleging security forces fired on areas outside of Musawara, occupied a public school, closed clinics and pharmacies, and prevented access to other essential services. In April UN special rapporteur experts warned that demolitions would “erase” the neighborhood’s “unique regional heritage.” As of the end of the year, some residents whose houses were not destroyed had returned, according to press reports, while others accepted compensation and left the area.
The government imprisoned individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery.
In April a court sentenced Ahmad al-Shammari to death after he was convicted on charges related to apostasy, according to media reports. Shammari allegedly posted videos to social media accounts in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. At year’s end, the status of Shammari’s judicial appeal was unknown.
Beginning in September, authorities detained dozens of individuals, including prominent clerics Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Amri, and other religious scholars and academics, according to multiple media reports. The government announced arrests related to a “foreign spy cell” with links to the MB. Human rights groups said the detentions resulted from an investigation into the individuals’ purported connections to the MB or MB-inspired groups.
On January 15, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced an unnamed Yemeni expatriate to 21 years in prison followed by deportation for insulting Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab on his Facebook page, according to media reports. At year’s end, the disposition of the case was unknown.
On March 16, the SCC banned imam Awad al-Qarni from tweeting and ordered his Twitter account closed on charges related to spreading content that “could jeopardize public order and provoke public opinion,” according to the newspaper Arab News. Qarni has more than two million followers on Twitter, according to press reports. The SCC said the content “could affect the relationship of the people with the leadership, and the relationship of Saudi Arabia with other countries.” The court also fined him 100,000 Saudi riyals (SR) ($26,700). Qarni was said to be among the individuals detained beginning in September according to human rights organizations.
In May authorities arrested two women on allegations of practicing witchcraft, after a video that purported to show a woman trying to photocopy images of talismans circulated widely on social media, according to media reports.
On July 20, a criminal court convicted cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki on charges of extremism, fanaticism, and holding an impure (takfiri) ideology. Authorities reportedly arrested Maliki in 2015 after he made public statements suggesting a link between Wahhabism and ISIS. His supporters attributed the arrest to his condemnation of anti-Shia discrimination. The court’s initial sentence included a three-month prison sentence, a fine of 50,000 SR ($13,300), and closure of his Twitter account. Maliki was among the clerics reportedly detained in September.
On August 20, Riyadh police arrested a 15-year-old boy who appeared in a video clip that purported to show him abusing a copy of the Quran. According to media reports, he could face up to five years in prison under the anticybercrimes law for disrespect for religious values.
There was one report of government authorities calling for the prosecution of an individual for apostasy. Security officials detained several foreigners on charges of sorcery and witchcraft, according to local media reports. In August authorities referred cleric Ali Al-Rabieei for prosecution for allegedly tweeting sectarian and anti-Shia content, according to media reports.
By year’s end, the government had not carried out the remaining 950 lashes on Raif Badawi in accordance with a sentence based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet. In 2015, authorities publicly lashed Badawi 50 times. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi remained imprisoned at year’s end.
Authorities arrested more than 1,000 Eastern Province Shia since 2011 in connection with public protests demanding greater rights for Shia and violence, according to NGO reports. Shia groups that track arrests and convictions of Shia reported more than 300 persons remained in detention in prisons throughout the Eastern Province and others remained subject to travel bans. Most were held on charges involving nonviolent offenses, including participating in or publicizing protests on social media, inciting unrest in the country, and insulting the king.
Human rights organizations and legal experts criticized both the old and new antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.
The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Muslim religions. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and Saudi Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for noncitizens, deportation.
Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship. The government continued to address ideology it deemed “extremist” by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence abroad, including in Syria and Iraq. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.
Practices diverging from the official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, were forbidden.
While authorities indicated they considered members of the Ahmadiyya community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and the mainly foreign resident Ahmadi Muslims reportedly hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.
Authorities again permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, Eastern Province, where the population is majority Shia Muslim. As a result of several 2015 ISIS-inspired or directed attacks on Shia gathering places in the Eastern Province, there was again a significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September. Processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities. Outside of the Eastern Province, Saudi and expatriate Shia reported it was either difficult or not possible to engage in public commemorations or worship, fearing repercussions from authorities.
Certain Christian congregations were reportedly able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.
The government reported that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental organization), and, when appropriate, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Religious groups reported, however, that officials typically charged those arrested during private worship services with gender-mixing, playing music, or other infractions not explicitly related to religious observance. There were no known reports of individuals contacting these or other governmental agencies for redress when their ability to worship privately was infringed.
According to government policy, non-Muslims were prohibited from being buried in the country. There was, however, at least one public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially. The only other known non-Muslim cemetery was private and only available to employees of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (also known as Saudi Aramco). Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.
Authorities generally required Shia mosques to use the Sunni call to prayer, including in mixed neighborhoods of both Sunni and Shia residents. In some predominantly Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Shia call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages where there was virtually no CPVPV presence, reports indicated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunnis practice), or not at all.
The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government threatened to expel foreigners who did not refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan, and it prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic, according to media reports.
The CPVPV continued to monitor social behavior and promote official standards of morality. Instances of CPVPV field officers who approached and harassed individuals reportedly continued to decrease in most urban areas, such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.
The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction or provide them employment benefits, which the government provided to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions.
The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. The project continued as part of the government’s Vision 2030 announced in April 2016. The government continued to distribute revised textbooks, although intolerant material remained in circulation, particularly at the high school level, including content justifying the execution of “sorcerers” and social exclusion of non-Muslims, as well as statements that Jews, Christians, Shia, and Sufis did not properly adhere to monotheism. In September Human Rights Watch reported some school textbooks continued to employ biased, anti-Semitic, and anti-Shia language. Some teachers reportedly continued to express intolerance of other faiths and of alternative viewpoints regarding Islam.
Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal religious materials.
The government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the prevailing Sunni interpretation of Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.
The CPVPV, in coordination with the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content which reportedly contained “objectionable” content and “ill-informed” views of religion. The CPVPV shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anticyber crimes law. The government also reportedly located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In September authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, Facetime, and Facebook Messenger. Some users reported that WhatsApp and Skype remained blocked.
The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, while the remaining 30 percent were at private residences or were built and endowed by private persons. The construction of new mosques required the permission of the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits. The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerical workers.
Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to extend its explicit endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports. The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers. According to NGO reports, construction of Shia mosques was not approved outside Shia enclave areas. There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar. Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.
Following attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.
Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari School of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia lived. According to a Human Rights Watch report issued in September “the Saudi judicial system…is controlled by the religious establishment and often subjects Saudi Shia to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of Shia religious practices.”
Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities. Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring. There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated that public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown. Many Shia reportedly stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.
Although Shia constituted approximately 10 to 15 percent of the total citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population, representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI. There was only one Shia minister in the national government. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province. There were five Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council. In the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on these municipal councils. In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.
Shia were reportedly not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, while some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.
Some Sunni clerics continued to employ anti-Shia, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic rhetoric in Sunni mosques during the year, according to media reports. The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons and restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons it considered sectarian or political, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. Despite these efforts by the government to tone down some of the more intolerant language in sermons, there were reports from local groups that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used religiously intolerant language in their sermons. Cases of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. The law requires government-employed clerics to give all sermons delivered in mosques in the country. The sermons must first be vetted and cleared by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. During the year the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. According to the ministry, during the year no clerics publicly espoused intolerant views warranting dismissal. Unauthorized imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in their sermons.
The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”
The government did not formally permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious officials in neighboring countries. This was reportedly particularly problematic for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.
According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts: “The Torah, The Talmud, The Protocols of Zion.” (“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is an anti-Semitic tract originally disseminated by the Czarist secret police alleging a Jewish plot aimed at world domination.) In addition, the reports characterized the course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.
Observers noted the presence of some anti-Semitic texts at government-sponsored book fairs during the year.
The government’s stated policy was for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.
In May the country hosted the Arab-Islamic-American summit in Riyadh, which focused on “promoting coexistence and constructive tolerance between different countries, religions, and cultures” and emphasized “the importance of renewing and rationalizing intellectual discourse to be consistent with moderate Islam, which calls for tolerance, love, mercy, and peace, stressing that the misconceptions about Islam must be addressed and clarified,” according to the Riyadh Declaration published after the event. In April the government launched the Saudi Ideological Warfare Center, headed by Dr. Mohammed al-Issa under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense, to confront the “roots of extremism and promote an accurate understanding of Islam.” According to social media postings by the center, the IWC aimed to promote a “message of moderation, tolerance, dialogue, and the appreciation of diversity, as well as moderation in Islam.” Also in April, the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue launched the Tabayan (clarification) program intended to confront the religio-ideological underpinnings of violent extremism by encouraging critical thinking at the country’s universities.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in October stated during an investment conference in Riyadh that “we are returning to a centrist version of Islam, to a moderate version of Islam that is open to the world, to all faiths, and to all traditions and peoples,” according to local press reports. There were several high-profile examples of outreach to other faiths. In November the Maronite Christian patriarch of Lebanon, Bechara Boutrous al-Rai, met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in what Reuters described as the second such visit since 1975. Muslim World League Secretary General, Royal Court Advisor, and member of the ulemaMohammed al-Issa visited the Vatican in September to meet with the pope. He visited Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in November.