Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, but local residents said self-censorship was common, given the risk of official reprisals. While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, self-censorship on social media was believed to be widespread when discussing topics such as religion or the royal family. Online discussions included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms like “rejectionists” (referring to Shia who view as illegitimate the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Muhammad’s legitimate successors) which Shia consider insulting, and images of donkeys, comparing them to Shia, were occasionally found in social media discourse.
An Orthodox Jewish rabbi made several unofficial visits to the country to conduct outreach and offer religious services to Jewish residents. His social media posts depict him in traditional Orthodox clothing and show positive experiences with Saudis, whom he publicly described as “happy” to have a rabbi in the kingdom. International media described local residents as stopping to take photographs with the rabbi and offering Hebrew greetings.
Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.
On October 31, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC) told the Saudi-owned al Arabiya English-language news channel that the first-ever Jewish dating website, JSG, which stands for “Jewish Singles in the Gulf,” launched in the Gulf. The aim of the website is to help unmarried Jews living in the country and its neighboring countries meet each other.
The global consulting firm PSB Insights conducted a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 35 percent of Saudi Arabian respondents said that their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, consistent with 34 percent regionwide. Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires, as well as embassy and consulate officials, engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance issues. Embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, the National Society for Human Rights, members of the Shura Council, the National Committee for Interreligious and Multicultural Dialogue, the MFA, the MWL, the Ministry of Education, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior U.S. officials pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.
In meetings with government officials, senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and restrictions of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.
Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to inquire about the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns with members of religious minority communities, including Shia and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents. Embassy officials attended or sought access to a number of trials related to religious freedom. The embassy and Department of State officials also engaged Saudi officials regarding these detainees.
Embassy representatives also met with non-Islamic religious leaders to discuss their ability to gather and practice their faith. Embassy officials engaged regularly with like-minded partners and with religious leaders and participate in interfaith discussions and express support for the principles of tolerance and interfaith comity.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 15, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.