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HRW Calls On Saudi Arabia To End 'Systemic Discrimination' Against Shi'a

Saudi Shi'ite pilgrims clashed with Sunni religious police at the cemetery in Medina where they believe contains the grave of the Prophet Muhammad.
(RFE/RL) -- Human Rights Watch says the Saudi authorities need to start treating minority Shi'ite Muslims in the kingdom as equal citizens.

In a 32-page report, the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization documents what it calls "systemic state discrimination" against Saudi Shi'a in the areas of religion, education, justice, and employment.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) spokesman Reed Brody tells RFE/RL that the treatment of the Shi'a has exacerbated sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia -- leaving relations between Sunni and Shi'a at the worst level in decades.

"What we've seen is an increasing intolerance toward the Shi'a minority, which is estimated at about 10 to 15 percent of the Saudi population," Brody adds.

Brody says the problem stems from Saudi government policies that are based on Wahhabi theology and which have led to violent actions against Muslims whom the Wahhabis consider to be infidels.

"The Saudi government has long regarded its Shi'a citizens through the prism of Wahhabi dogma or state stability, and brands them as unbelievers or suspects even their national loyalties," Brody says.

"It's time for a new approach in which the government treats its Shi'a citizens as having equal rights."

Clash With Pilgrims

The HRW report says tensions have risen dramatically since February, when Shi'ite pilgrims from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province clashed with Sunni religious police at a cemetery in Medina.

The Shi'ite pilgrims were trying to conduct a ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Muhammad when Sunni police objected to the rituals they were performing.

The security forces shot a 15-year-old Shi'ite pilgrim in the chest during that clash, while a Sunni man stabbed a Shi'ite religious sheikh in the back with a knife while shouting anti-Shi'a slogans.

The pilgrims fled the cemetery in droves, chased by uniformed Saudi police who arrested some members of the group.

In the weeks that followed, Shi'a in the Eastern Province towns of Qatif and Safwa organized street protests in solidarity with the Shi'a who were arrested during the Medina clashes.

HRW says Saudi authorities responded with arbitrary arrests of Shi'a at Khobar in May, June and July. Private Shi'ite halls for communal prayer have also been closed in Khobar.

At the town of Ahsa, in the southern part of Eastern Province, HRW says at least 20 Shi'a have been arrested since the start of the year because of their religious or cultural practices -- such as conducting classes for women about the Koran or selling special clothing for Shi'ite ceremonies.

"These arrests form part of a discrimination that extends to other realms. We look at discrimination in the education system, where Shi'a may not teach religion in class and Shi'a pupils learn from their Sunni teachers that they are unbelievers," HRW's Brody says.

Systemic Discrimination

Brody adds that this extends to "the judiciary, where Sunni judges sometimes disqualify Shi'a witnesses on the basis of their religion and where Shi'a cannot become judges in the ordinary court.

"In employment, there are no Shi'a government ministers, senior diplomats or high-ranking military officers. And Shi'a students generally can't even get admission to military academies."

HRW notes that King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud has made some moves toward religious tolerance.

In 2003, when he was the Saudi crown prince, Abdullah launched a "National Dialogues" initiative that brought together many senior Sunni and Shi'ite clerics. And in 2008, after Abdullah had become king, he returned his attention to the issue of religious tolerance -- bringing Shi'a and Sunnis together in Mecca as well as issuing pleas for religious tolerance.

But HRW researchers conclude that Saudi Arabia has not made any substantial progress toward religious tolerance within the kingdom. They say the Saudi government should create commissions to investigate arbitrary arrests of Shi'a and to recommend steps to end systemic state discrimination.