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Saudi Arabia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government imprisoned individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. Authorities arrested Shia clerics and activists who advocated for equal treatment of Shia Muslims, and one Shia cleric was executed after being convicted of numerous charges including inciting terrorism and sedition. There were no reports of executions carried out for either apostasy or blasphemy during the year. Many foreign residents worshiped privately within their homes or in other small gatherings, but authorities raided some private, 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 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, and judicial matters.

On January 2, authorities executed prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr after he was convicted in 2014 on charges of inciting terrorism and sedition, interfering in the affairs of another country, disobeying the nation’s rulers, attacking security personnel during his arrest, and meeting with wanted criminals. International human rights organizations said al-Nimr was executed because of his sermons criticizing Saudi authorities and his trial before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) lacked transparency and did not adhere to minimum fair trial standards.

Up to 26 Shia men faced the possibility of execution for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012. They were convicted of attacking security forces, among other crimes. Three of the men, Ali al-Nimr (Nimr al-Nimr’s nephew), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher, who were minors at the time of the acts for which they were convicted, were allegedly tortured by authorities during their detention in order to obtain a confession. Their death sentences were upheld on appeal and, at the end of the year, they were awaiting implementation of their sentences. Many Shia and international human rights groups considered the death sentences as motivated by sectarian hostility toward Shia Muslims, particularly as the public prosecutor in each case asked that the defendant be executed and his corpse publicly displayed.

In February an appeals court remanded a death sentence from the Abha General Court for Ashraf Fayadh, a resident of Palestinian origin, whom the general court had found guilty of apostasy, spreading atheism, threating the morals of Saudi society, and having illicit relations with women. Instead of the death sentence Fayadh was sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes. He is also to repent in official media.

In March the SCC in Riyadh found journalist Alaa Brinji guilty of a variety of charges, including “ridiculing Islamic religious figures,” based on tweets on his Twitter account, and sentenced him to five years in prison and an eight-year travel ban. He was not convicted of apostasy due to lack of evidence, according to Amnesty International.

There were numerous reports of government authorities calling for the prosecution of atheists and sorcerers. During the year, there were at least two cases reported in the media of courts prosecuting accused atheists.

In July local media reported that authorities arrested and investigated a man employed as a lab technician at King Fahad Central Hospital in Jizan for calling for atheism on Twitter.

In February the Medina Criminal Court sentenced a 28-year-old man to 10 years in prison, 2,000 lashes, and a fine of 20,000 riyals ($5,330) for expressing his atheism on Twitter, according to local newspaper Al Watan. According to the report, the man made over 600 tweets and refused to repent, saying he was entitled to his opinion.

In August the SCC in Riyadh sentenced an Egyptian national to six years in prison on charges of attempting to disturb the public order, violating labor laws, and communicating with a sorcerer to bewitch his employer, according to media reports.

In December Saudi al-Hayat newspaper reported that the CPVPV’s annual report mentioned “the Anti-Witchcraft Unit received 949 arrest warrants, resulting in the arrest of 25 magicians within a year.”

In June and July local media reported Medina police arrested at least seven people in two separate incidents on charges that included sorcery such as black magic, trickery, folk medicine, curses, and casting of spells. Medina police chief Major General Abdul Hadi al-Shahrani said in June “the authorities in Medina conduct regular inspections to apprehend illegal workers to curb crimes such as thefts, sorcery, employing illegal workers, brewing liquor and to prevent them from becoming involved in nefarious activities.”

In November local media reported that police in al-Ais arrested a Sudanese resident in a metal workshop after receiving reports of witchcraft from the CPVPV; police reportedly found more than 70 items including papers and talismans used for practicing sorcery and witchcraft. As of the end of the year the man remained in custody, according to press reports.

In November local media reported on a woman in her 60s who was arrested in Taif city by police for practicing magic inside her home. The arrest resulted from a tip reported to the anti-witchcraft unit of the CPVPV.

In July local media reported police in Taif arrested 35 African and Yemeni women for begging inside a mosque; some of them reportedly possessed “talismans and magic rings.”

In February Emirati media reported 30 members of the CPVPV’s anti-witchcraft unit received specialized training during a five-day course on combating magic.

Authorities have arrested more than 1,000 Eastern Province Shia since 2011 in connection with public protests demanding greater rights for Shia. Shia Muslim groups that track arrests and convictions of Shia reported more than 300 persons remained in detention in prisons throughout 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.

The government continued not to recognize the freedom to practice any non-Muslim religions publicly. 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.

Saudi authorities reportedly raided a Christian house in Aziziyah during a private celebration for the Assumption of Our Lady, according to multiple media reports. 27 Lebanese Maronite Christians were arrested and deported for participating in “un-Islamic prayer” and possession of the “Gospel,” according to multiple media reports.

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. For example, in December local newspaper Okaz cited Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh as saying that imams “should also comply fully with the instructions of the ministry [of Islamic Affairs] which should advise and direct them on all important issues.” The newspaper also cited lawyer Dr. Ibrahim al-Abadi as saying that calling for opposing ideologies is “a major crime.” 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.

Authorities indicated they considered members of the Ahmadiyya community to be Muslims, but the group’s legal status in the country remained unclear, and the mainly foreign resident Ahmadis reportedly hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

Authorities permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, Eastern Province, where the population is almost completely Shia Muslim. As a result of several 2015 ISIS-inspired or directed attacks on Shia gathering places in the Eastern Province, there was a significant deployment of government security services in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration.

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 (MFA). 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 the country located in Jeddah, though 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.

Shia mosques were generally required 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 as Sunnis do), 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 a list of 50 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. Since April, instances of CPVPV field officers who approached and harassed individuals reportedly decreased in most urban areas.

The CPVPV was considered to be less prevalent and aggressive in public places in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.

On December 12, Riyadh police detained a woman for “violations of general morals” after she posted pictures of herself in public without a hijab or abaya on social media and discussed sexual relations with men outside her family.

The government neither recognized nor financially supported several centers of Shia religious instruction located in the Eastern Province; it did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for their graduates 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. The government continued to distribute revised textbooks, although some 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. Additionally, some teachers reportedly continued to express intolerance of other faiths and of alternative viewpoints regarding Islam, while discouraging critical thinking in matters of religion.

Shia were reportedly not represented in proportion to their numbers in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, while some teachers were Shia. In Najran, which has a high concentration of Ismaeli Shia, some Shia principals were hired but Najran University’s administration allegedly continued to discriminate in the hiring of Shia professors, according to a Shia academics. 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 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 Shia perspectives from the extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming. Shia bookstores were reportedly unwilling or unable to obtain official operating licenses.

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 an undisclosed number of social media users were arrested in accordance with the anticyber crimes law. Saudi Twitter users, for example, created the hashtag Arrest of Atheist Mazen al-Hamzi to discuss local media reports of an individual who was arrested and whose accounts were suspended after the individual allegedly posted tweets expressing atheism. According to al-Hayat newspaper on December 19, the CPVPV’s 2015-16 annual report said its Cyber Crimes Unit had received 4,850 reports of users “committing religious and ethical violations, of which 1,372 were related to pornography, 544 to religion, and 10 to gambling. The government also reportedly located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence.

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, who 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 Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to extend its explicit endorsement of these mosques. The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques. Authorities prohibited Shia 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. Reports indicated Ismaili Shia in Najran Province did not face similar obstacles to building and renovating mosques.

Following attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places, government security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in Eastern Province. Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and 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 Jafari School of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government appointed, located in Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Shia lived.

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 much 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.

Sunni clerics continued to employ anti-Shia rhetoric in Sunni mosques during the year, according to local reports. The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and restricted the inclusion of content in Friday sermons that 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 anti-Shia, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic language in their sermons, as well as in other public statements. In a May interview on the Saudi Al-Majd TV channel, for example, one cleric referred to Jews as “enemies of (Islam). In fact they are at the top of the list.”

Government officials made statements throughout the year condemning terrorist attacks on Shia Muslims and on Shia mosques. Senior leaders – including the king, crown prince, and deputy crown prince – as well as government-supported clerics – denounced the attacks.

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 more specific religious designations such as “Christian.”

The government did not formally permit 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. This was reportedly particularly problematic for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.

The Riyadh International Book Fair in March, inaugurated by the king and the Minister of Culture, and the Jeddah Book Fair in December sold numerous anti-Semitic books. The book fair also contained some misogynistic material including author Mansour Abdel Hakim’s Women Who Deserve to go to Hell, a religious guide for women that issues warnings and punishments for those who divert from the path of Islam.

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.

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