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US Commission on International Religious Freedoms Visits Saudi Arabia - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- A delegation from the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms [USCIRF] started a series of meetings with ministers and governmental officials in Saudi Arabia last week.

Before the USCIRF’s arrival official instructions were issued by the Saudi Government about facilitating the delegation’s visit and the meetings it will hold with officials.

Saudi Arabia is currently facing criticism regarding the religious freedom issue, which Saudi officials believe to be “unfair”. The most recent report by the US Department of State still classifies Saudi Arabia as a country of “special concern”.

Asharq Al-Awsat has learned that the purpose of this visit is to “review the policies of the Saudi Government on religious practices, tolerance, and protection of religions, and also the US policies and programs to boost religious freedom by strengthening civil society, forming representative institutions, and guaranteeing the rule of law.

Through Washington’s Embassy in Riyadh, the USCIRF presented a list of the Saudi officials whom it requests to meet with during this visit. Among the names presented by the delegation were those of Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, Islamic Affairs Minister Sheikh Saleh Al al-Sheikh, Minister of Justice Dr. Abdullah Al Sheikh, Minister of Education Dr. Abdullah al-Obaid, Minister of Culture and Information Iyad Madani, in addition to, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gayth, head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

The US delegation also asked the competent Saudi authorities to arrange meetings with the officials of the Saudi Shura Council, government-backed Human Rights Association [HRA], National Society for Human Rights [NSHR], King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue, presidency of the Senior Ulema Council in Saudi Arabia, presidency of the Specialized Committee for Developing School Curricula, King Faisal Charity Foundation, and a number of non-governmental organizations and charity institutions.

Dr. Muflih al-Qahtani, vice president of NSHR-one of the associations included in the meetings of the delegation- says that they will listen to all the questions addressed by the delegation members on the religious freedoms subject. They will also clarify to them many legitimate and legislative issues related to the same subject. Al-Qahtani emphasized to Asharq al-Awsat that the NSHR will work on conveying the opinion of Saudi Arabia on religious freedoms. Saudi Arabia had previously voiced reservations on some of the issues tackled in the international agreements, especially those related to the freedom of belief. The vice president of the NSHR stressed on the religious rules of the Islamic Shariaa, on which the entire system of Saudi Arabia is based. These rules can never be changed for any reason.

The members of the NSHR will make use of the presence of the US delegation in Saudi Arabia to raise the issue of the US authorities’ failure to respect the freedom of religion with regard to Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo, particularly Saudis.

Commenting on this issue, Al-Qahtani said that during their meeting with the USCIRF delegation, the NSHR members will raise the subject of religious freedoms in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the importance of respecting these freedoms, and other concerns related to the issue of humiliating the Holy Koran in this ill-reputed prison.

The government-backed HRA will work on organizing a meeting schedule of the US delegation with Saudi officials.