Saudi Arabia is known for its brutal repression of religious freedom. Here’s how the State Department has put it:
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy without legal protection for freedom of religion, and such protection does not exist in practice. Islam is the official religion, and the law requires that all citizens be Muslims. The Government prohibits the public practice of non-Muslim religions. The Government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private; however, it does not always respect this right in practice.
It’s a horrible situation for religious minorities, obviously, and they do exist there despite the Kingdom’s coercive attempts. I don’t know if the lack of coverage about this situation is due to Saudi Arabia being an ally of the United States and Great Britain or what.
But last week, Saudi Arabia’s highest official of religious law moved to expand the religious repression to other countries. Here’s how Arabian Business News put it:
The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has said it is “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region,” following Kuwait’s moves to ban their construction.
Speaking to a delegation in Kuwait, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, stressed that since the tiny Gulf state was a part of the Arabian Peninsula, it was necessary to destroy all of the churches in the country, Arabic media have reported.
Saudi Arabia’s top cleric made the comment in view of an age-old rule that only Islam can be practiced in the region.
The article goes on to say that the Grand Mufti is also the head of the Supreme Council of Ulema (Islamic scholars) and of the Standing Committee for Scientific Research and Issuing of Fatwas. We also learn that a Kuwaiti parliamentarian made plans to submit a draft law calling for the removal of Christian churches there, later saying he only wanted to prohibit construction of new churches.
Now, I would of course like to know more about this “age-old rule” regarding religious practice in the region. I assume it’s related to a hadith quoting Muhammad on his death bed, as mentioned in this Christian Broadcast News article.
But what’s most interesting about this story from a media analysis is that it generated precisely no mainstream media attention.
Can you imagine the coverage if, say, the Pope or some other major religious leader called for similar destruction? Even if it were a minor Christian or Jewish figure using such rhetoric, one imagines it would receive tremendous coverage.
I find it interesting that this is news that is covered almost exclusively in the business or Christian press. I should mention that there is a blog item at the Atlantic, which asks why there is not more denunciation of Saudi Arabia.
This is clearly an important news story and one that deserves coverage. Why doesn’t it receive more coverage? I would say that part of it is surely that it’s difficult to write critically of an ally, although journalists seem to do all right when it comes to Israel. So maybe it’s that there are so few reporters stationed in Saudi Arabia, particularly compared to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Many Middle East bureaus are, in fact, stationed in Israel, resulting in disparate coverage of that country over some of its neighbors.
Certainly language issues also come into play. It’s hard enough to cover those regions where language problems aren’t a huge concern and freedom of the press is stronger.
Still, it’s important that coverage of pronouncements harmful of religious liberty are not ignored, downplayed or poorly covered.