(Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Christians and religious minorities face a "unique" form of religious freedom restrictions in Saudi Arabia, a persecution watchdog group says, noting that not a single church is allowed to exist in the country.
"Not a single church or other non-Muslim house of worship exists in the country," says Bandar al-Aiban, the director of the Saudi National Human Rights commission. Churches are not allowed to exist "because the entire country is a 'sacred mosque' for Islam's holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina."
International Christian Concern has highlighted the extent of the restrictions in Saudi Arabia, which is officially an Islamic state, and the consequences they have on the millions of Christians, who are mostly foreign workers, living there.
"Saudi Arabia remains unique in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam," the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its 2014 Annual Report.
Operation World estimates that close to 2 million non-Muslim foreign workers live in Saudi Arabia, and around 1.5 million of them are Christians. Statistics on how many Saudis are Christians are harder to come by, as the government does not recognize such believers, but they face a situation in which there is not a single church in the entire country where they are allowed to publicly meet.
Saudi Arabia has close to 4,000 religious police officers entrusted to enforce its Islamic laws. Leaving the Islamic faith is considered apostasy and punishable by death, with non-Islamic prisoners often pressured to convert to the religion.
Other Christian groups have also documented the intense persecution Christians face in Saudi Arabia. Open Doors ranks it at No.6 on its list where Christians face the most persecution. In 2013, it was ranked at No.2, behind North Korea.
ICC pointed out that the United States government maintains a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and in March President Barack Obama met with King Abdullah during an overseas trip. Obama failed to call out Saudi Arabia on its severe religious freedom violations, however.
"This visit was an excellent opportunity for the president to speak up on an issue that affects millions of Saudi citizens and millions more foreign workers living in Saudi Arabia," ICC Middle East Regional Manager Todd Daniels said then.
"Only last month the president clearly stated that promoting religious freedom is a key objective of American foreign policy, and then reaffirmed that opinion in remarks following his meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday, according to the White House. On top of this, 70 members of Congress specifically asked him to publicly address the issue, as well as other human rights concerns, with King Abdullah today. How, despite all of this, the president could stay completely silent about religious freedom during his meeting is remarkable."