There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including reports of imprisonment and detention. The government generally enforced legal and policy restrictions on religious freedom. At least one individual was beheaded for engaging in “sorcery.” There were reports of activists being arrested and charged with apostasy and blasphemy, which carry potential death penalties. The government reportedly deported foreigners for worshipping privately. Shia continued to face discrimination, and public Shia celebrations were restricted, even in some areas with large Shia populations. A Shia cleric was arrested after being shot and remains in detention without charge. Shia also faced significant obstacles to building social and religious centers and were underrepresented in government and educational positions. Anti-Shia rhetoric persisted in Sunni mosques and government officials reportedly made intolerant public remarks. The government school textbook reform project continued, resulting in the elimination of some intolerant messages, but intolerant language remains. There were reports of government officials pressuring employers not to renew the residency cards of employees who had been found organizing non-Muslim religious services. Ismailis reported improved conditions. The government closed one satellite television channel after it aired remarks disparaging to Ismailis.
On June 19, Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Najran on criminal charges of “practicing witchcraft and sorcery” and for owning “written talismans.” His execution took place after his sentence was upheld by the highest courts.
Raef Badawi, a human rights activist, was arrested in Jeddah on June 17 on charges of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” Badawi had, with others, declared May 7 a day for liberals on the Free Saudi Liberals Web site, which Badawi co-founded in 2008 as a platform for debating religious and political matters in Saudi Arabia. On December 17, a Jeddah court referred a charge of apostasy, which can be punishable by death, against Badawi to a higher court, where it was pending at year’s end.
Arrests on charges of blasphemy also continued. On February 5, Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old blogger and activist, posted three tweets to his Twitter account on the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad that authorities deemed “blasphemous.” Following public calls for severe punishment, including by government officials, Kashgari fled the country; he was detained in Malaysia at the request of the government and forcibly repatriated. After returning to Saudi Arabia, Kashgari publicly “repented” before a court; he remained in protective custody at year’s end.
On December 24, writer Turki al-Hamad was reportedly arrested after publishing on Twitter comments critical of Islamists and political Islam. He remained in detention. The Riyadh-based NGO Global Commission for Introducing the Messenger claimed it had requested that the interior minister detain al-Hamad for his controversial comments.
The government blocked access to some Web sites with religious content it considered offensive or sensitive, including the Shia news Web site Al-Rasid. This was in line with a broader official policy of censoring objectionable content, including political discourse and illicit materials. In September authorities threatened to block video-sharing Web site YouTube if the site’s owner, Google Inc., did not bar access to an amateur movie many viewed as insulting to Muslims. The company complied with the demand.
Some non-Muslims in different parts of the country were detained, harassed, and ultimately deported for worshipping privately. On August 1, the government deported the last of 35 Ethiopian Christians arrested in late 2011during a Christian prayer service. The 35 were imprisoned for several months without charge and were deported, including those with legal status in the country. The Ethiopians were accused of “intermingling between members of the opposite sex outside of family.” The prisoners claimed that police had actually arrested them for practicing Christianity, and several human rights groups claimed the government’s interrogation of the individuals focused largely on their faith.
Hadi al-Mutif, a Sulaimaniya Ismaili Shia who had been on death row for 16 years for “insulting the Prophet Muhammad,” and who had received an additional five-year sentence on September 3, 2009 for criticizing the government’s justice system and human rights record, was pardoned and released in February.
Pressure on Shia clerics continued. Awamiyah-based Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was arrested July 8, suffering a gunshot wound to the leg in the process. In June al-Nimr had stated that Shia should celebrate the recent death of Crown Prince Naif, raising the ire of conservative Sunnis and presumably precipitating the arrest. Al-Nimr was arrested twice before, in 2004 and 2006, although no charges were filed at those times. An arrest warrant was issued for al-Nimr in 2009 after he called for Eastern Province secession if Shia did not receive equal rights. While at least 35 of his followers were arrested in the immediate aftermath of his call for secession, al-Nimr was not arrested at that time. He is currently being held in prison, and no charges have been filed.
Harassment of Shia during public gatherings continued. Authorities arrested approximately 500 Shia in the Eastern Province in connection with protests over the course of the year. By year’s end, approximately 163 Shia remained in detention. The government continued to prohibit public, non-Muslim religious activities across the country and further restricted non-Sunni activities in predominantly Sunni areas. Public celebrations of Ashura, a Shia religious holiday, and other smaller Shia holidays were permitted in Qatif, an almost completely Shia governorate in the Eastern Province. The same celebrations were required to be conducted in private, however, in Al-Ahsa, an area in the Eastern Province with an almost equal proportion of Sunnis and Shia.
Many of the reported abuses related to public, non-Muslim religious activities and non-Sunni activities, which were difficult to corroborate because of witnesses’ or victims’ fears that disclosing such information might cause harm to themselves or to others. Moreover, information regarding government practices was generally incomplete because judicial proceedings usually were not publicized or were closed to the public, despite provisions in the criminal procedure law that require court proceedings to be open. There were reports that some trials were open to family members of the accused and journalists. Many non-Muslims worshiped in secret because of continuing fear of harassment and intimidation by police or the CPVPV, as well as police detention or deportation. Online criticism against the CPVPV increased during the year.
According to the media, police detained and imprisoned persons on charges of sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft. The CPVPV launched a new campaign against sorcery during the year; sorcery has been described as one of the “key causes of religious and social instability in the Kingdom.” In March the CPVPV established a “field unit” to arrest “sorcerers and charlatans” and refer them to the relevant authorities. Anti-sorcery departments exist within CPVPV branches across the country.
The government continued to combat “extremist” ideology by scrutinizing religious clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found to be promoting views it deemed intolerant or extreme. At least one imam, Hani Abdulrahim Al Rifa’i, a prominent cleric in Jeddah, was dismissed and prevented from offering sermons and leading prayer at a large Jeddah mosque, reportedly for covering political topics in his sermons. The MOIA supervised clerics through regular inspections, surprise inspections, complaints received from worshipers, and investigations of accusations in the press. The MOIA also monitored and posted counter-arguments on extremist online forums and Web sites during the year.
The government restricted the ability of religious leaders and activists to express views critical of the religious establishment. However, there were reports that Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, occasionally used anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Shia language in their sermons. Anti-Shia rhetoric in Sunni mosques in the Eastern Province reportedly increased during the year, and preachers in mosques, including the mosques of Mecca and Medina, allegedly ended Friday sermons with a prayer for the well-being of Muslims and for the humiliation of polytheism and polytheists. Intolerant statements were also delivered by high-ranking religious officials. For example, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, in response to a question on a proposal to remove churches in Kuwait, reportedly stated that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula should be demolished.
There were reports from human rights organizations of non-Muslims who were under pressure to convert to Islam. According to these reports, in several public hospitals non-Muslim nurses were obliged to attend meetings in which Christian converts to Islam made speeches about their conversions.
The government generally limited public religious practice to activities that conform to the official interpretation of Islam. Practices that diverged from the official interpretation, such as celebrating Maulid Al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, were forbidden. Enforcement was more relaxed in some communities than in others. For example, authorities allowed Shia in the Eastern Province city of Qatif greater freedom in their religious practices, including the public commemoration of Ashura. This event was held with minimal government interference. In other areas with large Shia populations, such as al-Ahsa and Dammam, authorities restricted Shia religious activities, including public observances of Ashura, public marches, loudspeaker broadcasts of clerics’ lectures from Shia community centers, and, in some instances, gatherings within those centers.
Shia described restrictions on their visits to Mecca and Medina as interference by Sunni authorities in private Muslim worship. In addition, government religious authorities continued the practice of destroying ancient Shia Islamic historical sites.
Shia mosques in mixed religious neighborhoods reportedly were required to recite the Sunni call to prayer, which is distinct from the Shia call. However, in some predominantly Shia areas of Al-Ahsa, Shia mosques previously required to use the Sunni call to prayer began using the Shia call. Although Shia combine two of the five daily Sunni prayers, Shia businessmen often were forced to close their shops during all five prayer times, in accordance with the country’s official Sunni practices.
Some Shia faced obstacles constructing mosques and Husseiniyas, or community centers. At least 70 Husseiniyas in Al-Ahsa have reportedly been closed due to lack of licenses, which are difficult to obtain. Many Husseiniyas, however, have been allowed to reopen. The government stymied attempts to build Husseiniyas in private homes by not approving plans for new homes that included a Husseiniya. Constructing new Shia mosques in Al-Ahsa was much more difficult than building a Sunni mosque. Virtually all old mosques were unable to obtain licenses and faced the threat of closure at any time. Moreover, there were reports that security forces demolished a Shia mosque in Awamiyah in September during the crackdown on protesters in the town. Shia in other parts of the country were not allowed to build Shia-specific mosques. However, the government did approve construction of some new Shia mosques in Qatif and Al-Ahsa–sometimes after lengthy delays due to the numerous approvals required–but did not approve construction of Shia mosques in Dammam, home to many Shia. Ismailis in Najran Province reportedly did not face similar obstacles to building and renovating mosques.
The government did not officially recognize several centers of Shia religious instruction located in the Eastern Province, provide financial support for them, recognize certificates of educational attainment for their graduates, or provide employment for their graduates, all of which it does for Sunni religious training institutions.
During the year, there was significant public discussion, including in the media, questioning the official version of religious traditions and criticizing their enforcement. However, discussion of sensitive religious issues such as sectarian differences remained limited, and criticism of Islam was forbidden. Individuals who publicly criticized the official interpretation of Islam risked harassment, intimidation, and detention, and foreigners who did so risked deportation. Journalists and activists who wrote critically about the religious leadership or who questioned theological dogma risked detention, travel bans, and government shutdown of their publications.
The government continued to exclude Shia perspectives from the state’s extensive religious media and broadcast programming. The government sporadically imposed bans on the importation and sale of Shia books and audiovisual products. In addition, terms like “rejectionists,” which are insulting to Shia, were commonly found in public discourse.
In higher education the government discriminated against Shia in the selection process for students, professors, and administrators at public universities. For example, Shia constituted an estimated 5 percent of professors at a leading university in al-Ahsa, an area with a population that is at least 50 percent Shiite.
At the primary and secondary levels of education in al-Ahsa, there continued to be severe underrepresentation of Shia among school principals. There were no female Shia principals in the 200 schools for girls in al-Ahsa, and 15 male Shia principals in the 200 schools for boys in Al-Ahsa.
Shia faced significant employment discrimination in the public sector. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Many Shia believed that openly identifying themselves as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.
Qatif community leaders described zoning laws that prevent construction of buildings over a certain height in various Shia neighborhoods. The leaders stated the laws prevented investment and development in these areas and aimed to limit the density of the Shia population in any given area.
Members of the Shia minority were subjected to political discrimination as well. For example, although Shia constituted approximately 10 to 15 percent of the total citizen population and approximately one-third to one-half of the Eastern Province population, they were underrepresented in senior government positions. Shia were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI. Shia were better represented in the ranks of traffic police, municipalities, and public schools in predominantly Shia areas. There were no Shia ministers, deputy ministers, governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province, and only three of the 59 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia. Shia held six of 11elected seats on Eastern Province municipal councils. An elected Shia headed the Qatif municipal council.
Judicial discrimination against Shia was evident during the year. Shia leaders argued that the one court of appeals on which Shia judges sit has no real authority and only verifies documents.
In addition to these discriminatory practices, Nakhawala leaders stated that the Shia in their community faced even more problems, particularly in comparison to the Twelvers in the Eastern Province. They stated that anti-Shia sermons and statements were heard regularly in their neighborhoods. The Nakhawala also asserted that their surname (“al-Nakhly,” which roughly translates as “farmers” and identifies their minority status and sect) facilitated systematic discrimination against them in employment and education.
The Sulaimaniya Ismaili community reported improving conditions in Najran Province. Although community leaders asserted that the government discriminated against them by prohibiting their religious books, disparaging comments about Ismailis aired on the religious satellite channel Awtan in April led to the government taking the channel off the air. Ismailis reportedly occupied government positions in Najran Provice, including military and police positions.
Some authorities have indicated that they consider Ahmadiyya Muslims to be Muslims, but the legal status of the group was unclear. Ahmadis were not allowed to perform pilgrimage. Mainly foreign workers from India and Pakistan, the Ahmadis hide their faith to avoid arrest and deportation. In May two brothers, Sultan Hamid and Saud Falih Al-Enezi, were reportedly arrested and sent to a prison in the Northern Border province after refusing to recant their beliefs. Their families and community members were not allowed to contact them, and there was no information on their judicial process at the end of the year.
The Ministry of Education stated that the textbooks for grades one through nine had been reformed by the end of the year to remove intolerant language. Results for grades three, six, and nine had not yet been assessed at year’s end. Results for grades one, two, four, five, seven, and eight were mixed. Lessons discouraging the oppression of religious minorities and laws favoring Muslims replaced themes of intolerance, exclusion, and hostility. Textbooks for these grades continued to contain directives to kill “sorcerers” and socially exclude infidels, as well as claims that Jews, Christians, Shia, and Sufis violated monotheism.
Textbooks for grades 10, 11, and 12 – slated for review and reform in 2013 – retained inflammatory and anti-Semitic material. For example, these textbooks stated that apostates from Islam should be killed if they do not repent within three days of being warned, and described Islamic minorities and Christians as heretics. Descriptions of Jews and Christians as apes and swine remained. These textbooks also stated that treachery is a permanent characteristic of non-Muslims, especially Jews, propagated conspiracy theories that international organizations such as Masons support Zionism, and presented historical forgeries, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as fact.
However, textbooks at all levels contained positive statements as well, including rejection of terrorism, acknowledgement that some People of the Book “are prone to goodness,” and support for religious tolerance.
There were reports that authorities pressured the sponsor and employer of a non-Muslim and his family not to renew the family’s residence cards after it was allegedly discovered that the expatriate had organized private non-Muslim worship services. The expatriate and his family were “blacklisted” from receiving renewed residency cards and were reportedly unable to leave Saudi Arabia or travel outside their towns of residence at year’s end. It is unclear why the family was not deported per usual practice when residency status is not renewed.
King Abdullah continued a national dialogue campaign to increase tolerance and encourage moderation and understanding. The campaign advocated against religious extremism and intolerant language, especially in mosques and schools. The King Abdullah Center for National Dialogue (KACND) partnered with UNESCO to conduct international training sessions on dialogue, held abroad. The center also held domestic National Meetings on topics ranging from women’s rights to dealing with world cultures. The center continued to conclude memoranda of understanding with government ministries and institutions, including the MOIA, the CPVPV, universities, and charities. The center trained CPVPV members on “Successful Dialogue” and “Communication Skills” in two regional branches. The KACND also collaborated with the Ministry of Education and UNESCO on teaching acceptance of cultural diversity and of the Quranic concept that “there is no compulsion in religion.”
The King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, located in Vienna, Austria, opened in November.
Some leading government and religious officials, including the king and crown prince, made strong public statements against extremism and instead advocated tolerance and moderation. For example, on August 12 at the Islamic Solidarity Summit, King Abdullah stated: “If we observe justice, then we conquer injustice. If we practice moderation, then we conquer extremism. If we reject dispersion, then we could keep our unity, strength, and determination.” Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in November at the opening of the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue that sectarian differences are bases for understanding, not collision.
Other improvements included augmented efforts to curb and investigate harassment by the CPVPV (particularly through specialized training to improve its performance) and increased media coverage and criticism of the CPVPV. The CPVPV’s new director Sheikh Abd al Latif Al Sheikh vowed to regulate the organization more carefully. During the year, CPVPV leadership cracked down on religious vigilantes and volunteers unaffiliated with the CPVPV and acting on their own who sometimes harassed and assaulted citizens and foreigners. The CPVPV has also promised to hire women to deal with “female offenders.” In addition, during the year prisons began requiring a court order before accepting those arrested by the CPVPV.