USCIRF Urges President: Raise Religious Freedom on Saudi Trip

Mar 26, 2014


March 26, 2014 | USCIRF

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) today urged President Obama during his visit to Saudi Arabia later this week to raise religious freedom concerns and call for the release of prisoners of conscience.

“Religious freedom or belief fits squarely within the announced focus of the President’s Saudi visit: regional and security concerns,” said USCIRF chairman Robert P. George.  The Saudi government’s severe restrictions on religious freedom breed religious extremism and insecurity.  Given President Obama’s statement just last month that religious freedom is key to U.S. foreign policy and national security, the Saudi visit gives the President the opportunity to raise this issue with an ally with whom we share many concerns and challenges.  According to the White House, the agenda also will include ways to counter violent extremism, yet Saudi Arabia’s new terrorism law and subsequent royal decrees outlining details of the law appear to stifle all forms of dissent, including criminalizing atheism and any criticism of Islam. 

“Saudi Arabia remains truly unique in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam,” said Chairman George.  “Not a single church or other non-Muslim house of worship exists anywhere in the country.  The government elevates its own interpretation of Sunni Islam over all other interpretations.  It has arrested and detained Shi’a Muslim dissidents and continues to imprison individuals for apostasy, blasphemy, and sorcery.”

In May 2012, the Saudi government detained two Saudis, Sultan Hamid Marzooq al-Enezi and Saud Falih Awad al-Enezi, allegedly for becoming members of the Ahmadi community in Saudi Arabia.  While they could face the death penalty for apostasy, they remain detained without charge.  Their current whereabouts and status are unknown, and they have had no access to legal counsel.  Raif Badawi, the founder and editor of the Free Saudi Liberals website which encourages religious and political debate, was arrested in June 2012 in Jeddah and charged with apostasy and “insulting Islam” through electronic channels, among other charges.  In January 2013, a Saudi court elected not to pursue the apostasy charge, which carries the death penalty.  In July 2013, Badawi was sentenced by the court to 600 lashes and seven years in prison and his website was shut down. 

“I urge the President to press King Abdullah to release Sultan Hamid Marzooq al-Enezi, Saud Falih Awad al-Enezi, and Raif Badawi,” Chairman George said.  “These prisoners of conscience have done nothing more than exercise their internationally-guaranteed rights of freedom of religion and expression.”

The U.S. has designated Saudi Arabia for 10 years as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.  Although it has been designated a CPC since 2004, an indefinite waiver on taking any action in consequence of the CPC designation (which is an option under the International Religious Freedom Act) has been in place since 2006.

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at 202-786-0613 or