FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 1, 2006
Schumer, Collins Urge State Dept To Add Saudi Arabia To List Of Religiously Intolerant Nations
U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Susan M. Collins today urged the U.S. State Department to keep Saudi Arabia on the U.S. list of religiously intolerant nations, a classification that could subject the country to further action against it, including economic sanctions. In September 2004, the State Department designated Saudi Arabia as a “county of particular concern” (CPC) for its systematic violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief in accord with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). Last summer, the State Department issued a waiver for Saudi Arabia claiming the need to engage in direct diplomacy. However, the waiver expired in late March, and no action with regard to Saudi Arabia has been announced by the U.S. government.
"It boggles the mind that even though our own government has concluded that religious freedom does not exist in Saudi Arabia, the State Department refuses to put any muscle into its relationship with Saudi Arabia and make it a priority that they face the consequences of being named a CPC," Schumer said. "We know that Saudi-funded madrassas promote religious intolerance and violence in schools. We know that Saudi Arabia brutally prohibits the public expression of religion that is not the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. And we know that Saudi efforts to export militant ideology inflame anti-Western sentiments throughout the world. If that isn't enough to warrant action by the State Department, I don't know what is."
Senator Collins said, "It is disheartening that the Saudi Government continues to persecute Shi'a Muslims and those who deviate from the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Although it is a positive step forward that the State Department has designated Saudi Arabia as a "Country of Particular Concern," this designation means nothing if there are not steps taken to sanction Saudi Arabia for its actions. This religious intolerance must not continue without consequence."
Saudi Arabia has a long history of denigrating its religious minorities. According to the State Department’s 2006 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, the approximately one million Shi'a Muslims that claim Saudi citizenship are prohibited from teaching their religion and must worship in secret because government law forbids the practice of any form of Islam aside from the official state religion of Wahhabism/Salafism. Shi'a Muslims also face state-sanctioned discrimination as a result of their beliefs, as the Saudi regime restricts their employment in the petroleum industry, the military, and government agencies. Non-Muslims also face similar persecution and marginalization. Despite laws permitting non-Muslims to practice their religions privately, those who do are routinely subject to arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture. Government policy allows court judges to dismiss the testimony of people who are not practicing Muslims. Crimes against Muslims often result in harsher penalties than those against non-Muslims. Finally, non-Muslim religious materials like Bibles and videotapes are often confiscated by government officials.
Schumer and Collins said that it is clear from our the U.S. government’s own reporting that over the past few years the Saudi government has continued to violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief. In September 2003, the mutawaa (religious police) arrested 16 foreign workers for practicing Sufism. A month later, two Egyptian Christians were arrested and jailed on religious grounds and released three weeks later. Also that month, several Protestant foreign workers were arrested by the civil police and released the same day without charge. In December 2003, a foreign worker was arrested and charged with apostasy, later reduced to blasphemy and resulting in a sentence of two years in jail and 600 lashes. In March of last year, an Indian Christian foreign worker was arrested and tortured for preaching Christianity, and remains in prison.
In order that the promotion of freedom of religion and belief is a consistent part of U.S. foreign policy, IRFA requires the U.S. government to take steps in response to the CPC designation. One year later in September 2005, a 180-day waiver of action on that designation was authorized “in order to allow additional time for the continuation of diplomatic discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues.” At that time, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom stated publicly that the U.S. government should use the 180-day extension directly to engage the Saudi government to achieve demonstrable progress by the end of that period of time.
In a letter to Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, Schumer and Collins wrote, “We are very concerned that since the waiver expired in late March, now two months ago, no action with regard to Saudi Arabia has been announced by the U.S. government. We fully expect that any action or agreement reached with the Saudi government will be made public in the interest of the accountability that results from transparency. Therefore, we write today requesting further information on what actions the U.S. government will take to address Saudi Arabia’s designation as a CPC.”