A Report on Freedom of Religion in Saudi Arabia

Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must 
be Muslims. The Government prohibits the practice of other religions. There are 
isolated reports of harassment and arrest of foreign workers conducting clandestine 
worship services, particularly around non-Muslim religious holidays. One Christian 
worship service was broken up by police and Mutawwa'in, and the man who hosted 
the service was punished by lashing. 

Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy. Public apostasy is 
a crime under Shari'a law and punishable by death. 

Islamic practice is generally limited to that of the Wahhabi sect's interpretation of the 
Hanbali School of the Sunni branch of Islam. Practices contrary to this interpretation, 
such as visits to the graves of renowned Muslims, are discouraged. 

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs directly supervises and is a major source of funds for 
the construction and maintenance of almost all mosques in the country. The Ministry 
pays the salaries of all imams and others who work in the mosques. A governmental 
committee is responsible for defining the qualifications of imams. The religious police, 
or the Mutawwa'in, receive their funding from the Government and the general 
president of the Mutawwa'in holds the rank of minister. 

The Shi'a Muslim minority (roughly 500,000 of over 13 million citizens) lives mostly in 
the eastern province. They are the objects of officially sanctioned social and economic 
discrimination (see Section 5). Prior to 1990, the Government prohibited Shi'ite public 
processions during the Islamic month of Muharram and restricted other processions 
and congregations to designated areas in the major Shi'ite cities. Since 1990, the 
authorities have permitted marches on the Shi'a holiday of Ashura, provided the 
marchers do not display banners or engage in self-flagellation. In May Ashura
commemorations in the eastern province passed without incident. 

The Government seldom permits private construction of Shi'ite mosques. The Shi'a 
have declined government offers to build state-supported mosques because Shi'ite 
motifs would be prohibited in them. 

The Government does not permit public or private non-Muslim religious activities. 
Persons wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the 
Mutawwa'in. The general prohibition against religious symbols applies also to 
Muslims. A Muslim wearing a Koranic necklace in public would be admonished. Non-
Muslim worshippers risk arrest, lashing, and deportation for engaging in any religious 
activity that attracts official attention. 

Excerpted from Human Rights Practices in Saudi Arabia, 1996
U.S. State Department
January 30, 1997

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