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US says Saudi Arabia stifling religious freedom

A scathing United States report on religious freedoms, accusing Saudi Arabia of backing anti-Jewish and anti-Christian campaigns, met with stony silence last week from the government in Riyadh.

But a member of the appointed Shura (consultative) Council lashed out at the State Department charges, insisting that freedom of belief is respected in the conservative Muslim kingdom.

”Freedom of belief is guaranteed in Saudi Arabia,” said Nayef Al-Doaiss, a member of the Council’s Committee for Islamic Affairs and Human Rights.

He said the kingdom was not affected by the US criticism, ”because all citizens of Saudi Arabia are Muslims … and they enjoy religious freedom”.

In its annual report on religious freedom released on Wednesday last week, the US State Department for the first time named ally Saudi Arabia — as well as Eritrea and Vietnam — as ”countries of particular concern”.

The report accused Saudi Arabia of backing anti-Jewish and anti-Christian campaigns, torturing non-Muslims and discriminating against Muslims — mostly from the Shi’ite sect — who did not adhere to the officially sanctioned Wahhabi tradition.

Riyadh, a pivotal US ally in the Middle East, has come under constant criticism for violating religious freedom, but Washington had hitherto been reluctant to add it to its blacklist.

The report comes as US-Saudi relations, strained by the September 11, 2001 attacks in which 15 of the 19 presumed hijackers were Saudi, continue to come under scrutiny in the United States.

Earlier this month, the Saudi embassy in Washington launched a radio advertising campaign in the United States in a bid to persuade Americans it does not have ties to terrorists.

”Non-Muslims who live in the kingdom do not have places for worshipping, like churches, because they are not citizens … They can practice their religions freely inside their houses,” Doaiss said.

But liberal Saudi writer Mansour al-Nugaidan agreed that such practices are an obvious discrimination against non-Muslims in the kingdom.

”There are around seven million non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia.

They are not allowed to practice their rituals openly,” said Nugaidan.

”Saudi Arabia perceives itself as the custodian of Islam. This explains the belief that it should be void of any other religion,” he added.

US ambassador for religious freedom John Hanford, the official in charge of the report, said on Wednesday that US concerns also have to do with the treatment of Muslims in Saudi Arabia.

”Shi’ite Muslims suffer the most,” with a number of their religious leaders facing arrest, Hanford added.

But Doaiss rejected accusations of discrimination against Shi’ites, who are estimated to make up about 10% of the 17-million-strong indigenous population of Saudi Arabia, where a rigorous Sunni form of Islam is upheld.

”King Abdul Aziz [founder of the kingdom] gave Shi’ite Muslims the freedom of belief. But the belief of the ruler has to be applied on the official level,” he said.

Nugaidan — a former Islamist extremist who spent time in jail — said that discrimination against Muslims of other sects was a real problem in Saudi Arabia.

”Non-Salafi [a strict form of Sunni Islam] sects … are discriminated against because they are considered deviant groups,” he said.

Acknowledging that Shi’ite Muslims have their own mosques, Nugaidan said that these mosques exist only in the regions of Shi’ite concentration in the Eastern Province.

”Even there, Shi’ites are not allowed to build new mosques. They can only get permissions to restore old ones,” he added.

Doaiss lashed back at accusations of inciting hatred against other religions in schools and mosques.

”They [Americans] would not find any part of the Koranic text that incites fighting against Jews and Christians. It only calls for fighting the enemies of Islam,” he said.

But animosity towards other religions is seen as part of the Muslim belief, according to Nugaidan.

”Do you want us to change our religion? The Koran has cursed them [Jews], why should we not,” Nugaidan said, explaining how those who hate other religions understand the Muslim holy book. – Sapa-AFP

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