The State Department’s top official for international religious freedom said Friday that Saudi Arabia continues “to be one of the worst actors in the world on religious persecution” – a blunt assessment in light of the administration’s consistent pro-Saudi policies.
“I think there was a lot of hope at first with the change of leadership that things would open up substantially,” Ambassador at Large Sam Brownback said at the State Department’s release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom. “We need to see actions take place in a positive direction, but they continue to be one of the worst actors in the world on religious persecution.”
The report, prepared annually for Congress, catalogs Saudi Arabia’s extensive religious freedom abuses in 2018.
“Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes ‘anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.’ The law criminalizes ‘the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,’ ‘any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,’ publications that ‘contradict the provisions of Islamic law,’ and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim,” it notes.
The report describes discrimination against and abuse of Shiite Muslims, including up to 34 individuals who faced possible execution. Saudi Arabia executed 37 men, the majority of them Shiites, in April 2019. One of them was crucified. Three were minors when the kingdom said they carried out their crimes.
“We will continue to raise these issues with Saudi Arabia,” Brownback said.
Saudi Arabia has been a “Country of Particular Concern” since 2004. This designation, given by the secretary of state to nations with severe violations of religious freedom, can be coupled with sanctions. However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waived the sanctions that would have accompanied the most recent designation.
The International Religious Freedom report also documents violations from countries like Myanmar, Russia and China. Pompeo has repeatedly spoken out about the abuses of Uighur Muslims in China, and did so on Friday as well.
“History will not be silent about these abuses – but only if voices of liberty like ours record it,” he said in remarks at the report’s release.
The 2018 report has a special section documenting abuses against the Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang province, “given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to the region this year.”
The Chinese government has detained “possibly more than 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim groups, mostly Chinese citizens, in specially built or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity since April 2017,” the report notes.