Following months of negotiations, Saudi Arabia agreed in mid-July to curb serious abuses of religious freedom. The agreement struck between the Saudi government and the U.S. State Department is raising cautious hope for substantial changes in the strict Muslim country.
The Saudi government has promised that worship services will be allowed in private homes. Religious police will not be allowed to conduct surveillance, invade homes, confiscate private religious materials, or detain or punish suspects. In addition, Saudi leaders pledged to revise school textbooks and remove disparaging references to non-Muslims. The agreement also stipulates that teachers and imams will be retrained to preach tolerance instead of extremism. Finally, the Saudi Human Rights Commission will educate the public about human rights and assist those whose religious rights have been violated.
While proposing major changes for Saudi society, the agreement specifies no accountability system to make sure it is implemented. As a result, some believe the encouraging promises will never get off the page.
Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi national and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, is wary of his government's assurances.
"They are trying to buy time," he said. "When you corner them, they say they will do it. Then they hope you will forget. This is not the first time they said they would reform the textbooks."
Due to repeated and systemic restrictions on religious freedom, the State Department first labeled Saudi Arabia a "country of particular concern" in 2004. This designation means the country is subject to further U.S. action, including economic sanctions. Negotiations forestalled punitive measures.
Saudi Muslims who do not follow the official Wahhabi interpretation ...1
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