EU calls on Saudi Arabia to allow public worship for all faiths

In this Wednesday, July 10, 2013 photo, worshippers circle the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy Muslim city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.(AP)

The European Union has today called for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to respect the public worship of all faiths.

In a motion drafted by Portuguese MEP Ana Maria Gomes, the European Parliament said that while Saudi Arabia was an important strategic partner, Saudi authorities should accept that it is a human right for individuals to worship any religion in public.

Issues like terrorism, Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Syrian conflict, post-Arab-Spring transition, and better relations with Iran, were all key areas in which the EU said Saudi co-operation was needed.

However, it made clear that if this partnership "is to be effective, [Saudi Arabia] must respect basic human rights and civil liberties".

MEPs demanded that the Saudi state show "respect the public worship of any faith and to foster moderation and tolerance of religious diversity".

Saudi Arabia has a poor track record on religious freedom.  In February 2013, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah Al al-Sheikh said it is "necessary to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula".

Article 23 of Saudi Arabia's constitution says: "The state protects Islam; it implements its Sharia; it orders people to do right and shun evil; it fulfils the duty regarding God's call."

While private practice of non-Islamic beliefs is protected by law, public practice is prohibited and this prohibition is enforced by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, otherwise known as 'mutawa' or religious police.

However, the line between public and private worship is unclear. In December 2011 a group of Ethiopian Christians were arrested for "illicit mingling" when they met together to pray during Advent.

Mutawa officers patrol the streets enforcing laws such as the strict prohibition of Bibles brought to convert locals, or any form of public worship of a religion other than Islam.

According to the US State Department's Office for International Religious Freedom, Saudi Arabia continues to impose a blanket ban on all foreign non-Islamic clergy entering the country for purposes of conducting religious services.

Apostasy - conversion from Islam to another religion - is a crime punishable by death and Saudi Arabia is one of the last countries in the world where public executions still take place.

The feared mutawa also enforce strict segregation of the sexes and the absolute prohibition on the sale or consumption of alcohol.

They are frequently accused of abusing their powers, particularly when it comes to dealing with members of other faiths.

The call from the European Parliament comes two days after mutawa chief Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Sheikh was quoted in the Saudi newspaper, Okaz, as saying that he would "eliminate" religious extremists within his organisations ranks who are "advocates of sedition".

The European Parliament also called for the Saudi Arabian authorities to improve respect for religious diversity "at all levels of the education system and in the public discourse of officials".

Article 13 of the Saudi Constitution says, "Education will aim at instilling the Islamic faith in the younger generation, providing its members with knowledge and skills and preparing them to become useful members in the building of their society, members who love their homeland and are proud of its history."

The mutawa also enforce a ban on women driving, something the European Parliament also protested strongly against in its recent resolution.

"MEPs urge Saudi Arabia to remove all restrictions on women's rights, including freedom of movement, health, education, marriage, employment opportunities, representation in judicial processes, to promote women's participation in the economic, social, cultural and political life," the European Parliament stated.

MEPs called for an end to the male guardianship system that requires all women to have some form of male legal guardian, usually a father, husband or brother.

On other issues, the European Parliament recognised that new rules have stopped money being directly channelled to terrorist organisations, but MEPs called on Saudi authorities to improve control over the funding of radical militant groups by Saudi citizens and charities.

"Saudi Arabia's financial and political support for some religious and political groups in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia may result in reinforcing fundamentalist and obscurantist forces that undermine efforts to nurture democratic governance," the EU said.

"Saudi Arabia should also stop any financial or military support of extremist groups in Syria and contribute to a peaceful and inclusive solution to the conflict there."

The Saudi Interior Ministry estimates 1,200 Saudis have travelled to Syria to fight there since March 2011.

The Parliament also called for an immediate moratorium on the death penalty, as well as better protections for freedom of expression and the press, both on the internet and through other media, saying such freedoms were "essential in a free society".

The resolution also called on Saudi authorities to work to end recent violent attacks against migrant workers, as well as to release the many thousands who have been arrested and are being kept in makeshift centres.

Adopted by 47 votes to 4, the resolution is scheduled to be put to a vote by the European Parliament in full when it meets in Strasbourg in March.