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1/6/04 - SAUDI RELIGIOUS REPRESSION - 2004-01-07

People can be denied their right to religious freedom in a variety of ways. One way is for a government to favor a dominant religion and suppress other faiths. Countries where this is the case, says John Hanford, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, include Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran.

In Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest Report on International Religious Freedom, “Islam is the official religion, and the law requires that all citizens be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of non-Muslim religions. The [Saudi] government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private; however, it does not always respect this right in practice, and does not define this right in law.”

In addition to Saudi Arabia’s ban on all public worship by Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and other non-Muslims, as Ambassador Hanford points out, “There is discrimination against Shia, Ismaili Muslims, and other Muslims who don’t subscribe to the official brand of Islam that is adhered to by the [Saudi] government.”

In accordance with U.S. law, the government has designated several “countries of particular concern” in regard to their denial of religious freedom. The list from last year includes China, Burma, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Ambassador Hanford says that U.S. officials have considered adding Saudi Arabia to the list:

“Saudi Arabia has been very close to the threshold. In terms of restrictions of religious freedom, there are few countries that are more restrictive in terms of their laws. There are other countries that are much harsher in terms of the ways that they manifest their laws, in terms of arresting and torture and murdering people. The government of Saudi Arabia has begun to implement some measures to address this problem, and we will be in the process of trying to assess how far those are along before we make that final decision.”

The idea, of course, is not simply to put countries on a list but to encourage them to respect religious freedom. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, “Everyone has the right. . .in public or private, to manifest his religion in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” People in Saudi Arabia -- no less than people everywhere else -- should be allowed to practice their religion freely.