Saudi Arabia Reopens to Tourism but not to Religious Freedom
Saudi Arabia reopened its borders on Sunday for the first time in a year and half after imposing restrictions prior to start of the Covid-19 outbreak.
As part of the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) Vision 2030, the kingdom, which has historically been a no-go zone for visitors, is looking to rebrand itself as a unique tourist destination for nature lovers and curious travelers as a way to boost non-oil revenue and create more jobs.
Citizens of 49 countries, including the U.S. and China, will be allowed to enter Saudi Arabia with visas and the Green Pass — non-Muslims will still be barred from entering Mecca and Medina, which are considered the holiest cities in Islam.
While this may be all fine and good for Western tourists, the fact remains that Saudi Arabia is still one of the most oppressive countries in the world. The Saudis, in fact, continue to engage in an array of severe violations of human rights as part of its repression of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.
Repression of Religious Freedom
The Saudis, despite permitting Christians to enter their country — as foreign workers for temporary work — they do not allow them to practice their religious rituals publicly. There are still no official churches (or synagogues) in the country, even though it has a number of Christian churches in ruins, including the world’s oldest standing church dates back to the fourth century near the eastern town of Jubail.
Notwithstanding the 1.2 million Christians that are believed to live in the country — there is also an estimate 12.6 million expatriates living in the kingdom Saudi Arabia — most of them are Roman Catholic Filipino expatriates who are allowed to work in the country, but are not considered Saudi Arabian citizens.
A 2015 study estimates that there are about 60,000 Muslims in Saudi Arabia who have converted to Christianity between the years 1960 to 2015, but the study does not specify whether all of these people are Saudi citizens or people from other nationalities.
As can be gathered, the Saudi regime also prohibits the building of churches, to say nothing of allowing Muslims to freely convert to Christianity:
- On 9 July 2006, police arrested two Ethiopians and two Eritrean church leaders in a private place of Christian worship in Jeddah.
- In 2012, a Saudi court charged two men, a Lebanese Christian and a Saudi, with persuading a woman to convert to Christianity and flee Saudi Arabia. The court sentenced the former to six years in prison and 300 lashes. The Saudi man was sentenced to two years in prison and 200 lashes.
Conversion by Muslims to other faiths is forbidden under most interpretations of sharia and converts are considered apostates (non-Muslims, however, are allowed to convert into Islam). Some Muslim clerics equate this apostasy to treason, a crime punishable by death. The legal precedent stretches back to the seventh century when Prophet Muhammad ordered a Muslim man to death who joined the enemies of Islam at a time of war: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.” —Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 84, hadith 57
According to a 2019 report from the U.S. State Department, Saudi Arabia prohibits religious publications related to any other religion than Islam. This includes anything baring a supposed religious symbol, Gospels, crosses, statues, and sculptures.”
Consequently, most Christians practice their worship in their homes or via Internet chat rooms and private meetings.
The Scandal of Apathy
Open Doors, a Christian non-profit organization, ranks Saudi Arabia as 14th among countries with the most rates of Christian persecution. In 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that Saudi Arabia “remains uniquely repressive in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam.”
As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to make a pariah out of Saudi Arabia over the 2018 killing of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, among other human rights violations. But when it came time to actually punish MBS for ordering the hit, Biden reneged.
State Department spokesman Ned Price had said that U.S. interests in maintaining relations with Saudi Arabia forbid making a pariah of a young prince — who may go on to rule the kingdom for decades — to say nothing about the suppression of religious freedom, among an endless list of human rights violations.
In a July 7 meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken highlighted the America’s commitment to prioritizing human rights in its relations with the kingdom. He expressed President Biden’s discomfort with the previous administration’s non-confrontational relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country whose domestic and foreign policy consists of deeply concerning violations of human rights. Yet apparently no overwhelming efforts have yet to be made to press the Saudis to change.
While Riyadh has “revamped” its educational curriculum to be more “accepting” to minority religious groups, such as informing on Hinduism in certain school books as part of educational reforms, the Saudis intentionally omitted any reference or teaching on Christianity or Shi’ite Islam — considered a heretical by Sunni Muslims — both of which face significant limitations on freedom to practice in the country.
Saudi Arabia’s reopening to foreign tourists is something positive but it is an appeasement at best so long as Islam is the only religion to be publicly allowed to be exercised in the country.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.