Saudi Arabia's Religious
Police Crack Down
by Paul Marshall
06/13/2005, Volume 010, Issue 37
Since May 27, the Saudis have arrested eight Christians
from India and seized documents naming others. One of those arrested,
Chittirical John Thomas, was pulled away from work and beaten in
front of his five-year-old son. He is reportedly in the Shemaissy
This followed the March 22 arrest in the Batha
area of Riyadh of Indian pastor Samkutty Varghese by the religious
police, the muttawa, for not ending a cell phone conversation when
the call for Muslim prayer went out. Rev. Varghese, who went to
Saudi Arabia as a tourist in January, was apparently not aware of
rules forbidding calls at such times. He is still being held, and
there are reports that he has been sentenced to ten months in prison,
as well as to a flogging.
The muttawa were unusually busy while Crown Prince
Abdullah was away in Texas visiting President Bush. On April 23,
they arrested 40 Pakistani Christians who were engaged in a joint
Catholic-Protestant meeting in a home. On April 29, they arrested
five Christians from an Ethiopian and Eritrean group who had gathered
Sources in Saudi Arabia believe that authorities
there are using the information they have gathered from these raids
in order to organize crackdowns elsewhere in the country. Saudi
security officials are busily arresting people whose phone numbers
were found in Rev. Varghese's diary.
Despite the Saudis' expressions of concern over
press reports that U.S. officials at Guantanamo Bay desecrated Korans,
their own security authorities have destroyed Bibles found among
the victims' possessions, just as they destroyed religious artifacts
found in a raid on a makeshift Hindu shrine found in an apartment
in Riyadh on March 24.
Apart from persecution of Christian, Hindu, and
other foreign workers, Saudi Arabia continues to persecute Shiites
and other Muslims who do not follow the repressive Wahhabi version
of Islam that is the state religion of the country. Authorities
have arrested migrant workers for "allegedly practicing Sufism."
And that's not all.
On May 15, three Saudi men--Ali al-Demaini, Abdullah
al-Hamed, and Matruk al-Faleh--were sentenced to between six and
nine years in jail for calling for a transition to a constitutional
democracy. One of the charges against them was that they used "Western
terminology" in seeking reforms. Essentially this was an accusation
of blasphemy, with the clear implication that advocating democracy
and human rights is somehow "un-Islamic."
The center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi
Arabia reports that Demaini's wife, Fawzi Al-Ouni, says, "My
husband received the harshest sentence because he had claimed that
the al Qaeda violence that had been plaguing the country was the
result of the dominance of the strict Wahhabi version of Islam in
Saudi Arabia, to the exclusion of others." Saudi Arabia's persecution
of people peacefully following their own beliefs belies all its
claims and advertisements that it is curbing and combating religious
hatred and extremism.
In September 2004, the State Department for the
first time followed the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom that Saudi Arabia be designated
a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International
Religious Freedom Act. However, despite the fact that the State
Department has reported that Religious Freedom "does not exist"
in Saudi Arabia, it has so far declined to recommend any sanctions
against the regime.
President Bush is currently winning much goodwill
among Middle Eastern democracy activists for his continued push
for political change, even by longstanding allies such as Egypt's
President Mubarak. One reason that there is such ferment and debate
is that reformers now believe, or hope, they can no longer be quietly
dragged off to a cell while the world ignores them. If America now
indicates that oil-producing allies such as Saudi Arabia are just
too important to challenge, it will reinforce the region's authoritarians
and dampen hopes for further change.
Hence, the United States should--at a minimum--follow
the commission's recommendation and deny visas to Saudis who carry
out or authorize violations of religious freedom, as well as those
who propagate religious hatred. It should redouble investigations
of Saudi funding and support for propagating religious hatred in
the Muslim world and elsewhere, including in the United States.
This would signal a genuine commitment to democracy and curtail
one of the strongest threats to political freedom worldwide.
Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at Freedom House's
Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, and editor of the just-released
Radical Islam's Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Sharia Law.
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