Christianity is banned in Saudi Arabia. Will promised reforms make a difference?

ReutersMuslim pilgrims walk on roads as they head to cast stones at pillars symbolising Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mina earlier this month. Churches are banned in Saudi Arabia

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has declared his intention of returning the country to a 'moderate Islam'. In a significant interview for the Guardian, he's said the conservative state has been 'not normal' for the last 30 years and blamed the religious reactionary spirit on the Iranian revolution.

Now, he says: 'We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. Seventy per cent of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won't waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.'

If bin Salman is able to carry out his reformist plans, there's plenty that religious rights campaigners will want to see change. According to the US State Department:

1. Freedom of religion is 'neither recognised nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice'. The public practice of any religion other than Islam is banned. Its 'Basic Law provides that the Qur'an and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Mohammad) serve as the constitution.

2. The law criminalises 'the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form', 'any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam', publications that 'contradict the provisions of Islamic law' and other acts deemed contrary to sharia, including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.

3. Foreigners who participate in non-Muslim worship can be harassed, detained, arrested and deported.

4. Shia Islam can be practised but Shias faced discrimination at multiple levels in the Sunni country.

5. Conversion is illegal and is grounds for the charge of apostasy, a crime punishable by death, though in practice the death penalty has not been carried out in recent years.

6. Blasphemy against Islam is also punishable by death.

7. Criticism of Islam is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

8. The calculation of compensation for accidental death or injury differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. A Jewish or Christian male is entitled to receive only 50 per cent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; all other non-Muslims are entitled to receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.

These are not the only instances of areas where Saudi law and practice is ripe for reform. According to the State Department there is arbitrary arrest and detention, and discrimination based on gender, religion and race. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented many cases where prisoners are serving sentences based on confessions obtained through torture. Punishments imposed by the courts include floggings, though a copy of the Qur'an may be placed under the arm of the flogger preventing him raising his arm above his head, thereby reducing the severity of the lashing. Freedom of speech is not protected under the law and the media are censored.

ReutersWomen in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive.

Prince Mohammad has made progress during the last six months in his attempts to roll back the extreme conservative interpretation of Islam that Saudi Arabia has been exporting worldwide – including to the UK. Women are now allowed to drive and guardianship laws restricting women's roles have been reformed. Furthermore, the feared religious police have lost their powers of arrest – a major advance.

However, the fear must be that the ultra-conservative nature of Saudi Islam runs too deep to be easily uprooted. The fact that so many Saudis are young people is no guarantee that they will be attracted to a more liberal form – a lack of employment opportunities, itself at the top of Prince Mohammad's agenda, has the potential to drive them in exactly the direction he most wants to divert them from.

Saudi Arabia is a key Western regional ally. But it has a long way to go before it can be a true ideological partner.

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