(Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Persecution watchdog group International Christian Concern asked why U.S. President Barack Obama failed to talk religious freedom with Saudi Arabia King Abdullah during his visit last week, after identifying the issue as a key component of U.S. foreign policy at the National Prayer Breakfast in February.
"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," said ICC Middle East Regional Manager Todd Daniels in a statement Saturday.
"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."
Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Saudi Arabia on Friday, as part of efforts to strengthen the decades-old alliance between the two countries, Reuters reported. The talks between the two world leaders reportedly centered on the civil war in Syria and the nuclear capabilities of Iran, but did not touch on human rights issues.
The White House published a fact sheet on Friday about the meeting, noting that the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship also focuses on counterterrorism efforts and supporting negotiations to achieve Middle East peace.
The Islamic nation is ranked as No. 6 on Open Doors' World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most severe persecution. Christians there are forbidden from practicing their faith publicly, and citizens who convert from Islam to Christianity face the death penalty.
Seventy members of Congress had sent Obama a letter last week urging him to address Saudi Arabia's "serious human rights violations."
At February's Prayer Breakfast, Obama described freedom of religion as central to human dignity.
"We know that each of us is wonderfully made in the image of God. We therefore believe in the inherent dignity of every human being – dignity that no earthly power can take away," the U.S. president declared. "And central to that dignity is freedom of religion – the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear."
He added, "Promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy, and I'm proud that no nation on Earth does more to stand up for the freedom of religion around the world than the United States of America."
ICC noted on Saturday that Saudi Arabia is recognized as one of the most restrictive nations in the world when it comes to religious freedom, and that not a single church or non-Muslim house of worship is allowed to exist.
The persecution watchdog group added that Obama's failure to talk with King Abdullah about human rights draws attention to the fact that both the position of assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the ambassador for International Religious Freedom remain empty in his administration.
"The priority the Obama administration places on promoting human rights around the world should be judged not by what is said in speeches among friends and close allies, but by the president's words when standing face to face with leaders whose governments are oppressing millions," said Isaac Six, ICC's advocacy manager.
"It should also be judged by the political determination to staff key human rights positions here in the United States. The president's silence today in Saudi Arabia and the long running vacancies at the State Department tell us more clearly than anything else that international human rights issues and religious freedom are not at the top of this administration's agenda."