The Kaaba in Mecca is the holiest site of Islam, the state religion of Saudi Arabia.

Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia.[1]

The government of Saudi Arabia has been criticized for its restrictions on religious freedom.[2][3][4][5][6] Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database estimated that approximately 31.5 million Saudi Arabian residents are Muslims. The Basic Law of Saudi Arabia states that it is the duty of every citizen to defend Islam;[1] most non-Muslim foreigners attempting to acquire Saudi Arabian nationality must convert to Islam. Hanbali is the official version of Sunni Islam and it is used in the legal and education systems.[7][1]

In 2022, the law bans the promotion of atheism, as well as any proselytizing by non-Muslims.[1]

Freedom of Religion

Main article: Freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia mostly colored in light blue (Sunni hanbali).

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocracy.[8] Religious minorities do not have the right to practice their religion openly. Conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death as apostasy.[9] Proselytizing by non-Muslims, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles, Bhagavad Gita, Torah and Ahmedi Books is illegal. In late 2014, a law was promulgated calling for the death penalty for anyone bringing into the country "publications that have a prejudice to any other religious beliefs other than Islam" (thought to include non-Muslim religious books).[10][11][12]

The 2019 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted that Saudi Arabia was seen as one of 16 “countries of particular concern” for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations [of religious freedom]”.[13][14] That status continues in 2022.[1]

In 2023, the country was scored zero out of 4 for religious freedom.[15]

Religious groups


Main articles: Islam in Saudi Arabia and Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia

See also: List of mosques in Saudi Arabia

Non-Muslims are barred from entering the holy city of Mecca and parts of the holy city of Medina.[16][17]


In 2022, the kingdom's total population was approximately 35 million; it was estimated that of these, over one-third were foreign workers.[1] Foreign workers applying for visas are informed that they have the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious items; however, there is no freedom of religion in the legal system, and there are reports of non-Sunnis and non-muslims being arrested and found guilty of religious crimes.[1]

According to Human Rights Watch, the Shia Muslim minority face systematic discrimination from the Saudi Arabian government in education, the justice system and especially religious freedom.[21] Shias also face discrimination in employment and restrictions are imposed on the public celebration of Shia festivals such as Ashura and on the Shia taking part in communal public worship.[22][23]

As no faith other than Islam is permitted to be practiced openly, no churches, synagogues, temples, gurudwaras, shrines, kingdom halls, or other non-Muslim houses of worship are permitted in the country although there were nearly three million Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs in 2022.[1][24] Foreign workers are not allowed to celebrate Christmas or Easter; private prayer services are suppressed, and the Saudi Arabian religious police reportedly regularly search the homes of Christians.[24] In 2007, Human Rights Watch requested that King Abdullah stop a campaign to round up and deport foreign followers of the Ahmadiyya faith.[25]

Proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal and conversion by Muslims to another religion (apostasy) carries the death penalty, though there have been no confirmed reports of executions for apostasy.[1] Religious inequality extends to compensation awards in court cases. Once fault is determined, a Muslim receives the full amount of compensation determined, a Jew or Christian half, and all others a sixteenth.[24]

The classical Arabic historians tell us that in the year 20 after the hijra (Muhammad's move from Mecca to Medina), corresponding to 641 of the Christian calendar, the Caliph Umar decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from Arabia to fulfill an injunction Muhammad uttered on his deathbed: "Let there not be two religions in Arabia." The people in question were the Jews of the oasis of Khaybar in the north and the Christians of Najran in the south.

[The hadith] was generally accepted as authentic, and Umar put it into effect. Compared with European expulsions, Umar's decree was both limited and compassionate. It did not include southern and southeastern Arabia, which were not seen as part of Islam's holy land. ... the Jews and Christians of Arabia were resettled on lands assigned to them – the Jews in Syria, the Christians in Iraq. The process was also gradual rather than sudden, and there are reports of Jews and Christians remaining in Khaybar and Najran for some time after Umar's edict.

But the decree was final and irreversible, and from then until now the holy land of the Hijaz has been forbidden territory for non-Muslims. According to the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, accepted by both the Saudi Arabians and the declaration's signatories, for a non-Muslim even to set foot on the sacred soil is a major offense. In the rest of the kingdom, non-Muslims, while admitted as temporary visitors, were not permitted to establish residence or practice their religion.[26]

While Saudi Arabia does allow non-Muslims to live in Saudi Arabia to work, they may not practice religion publicly. According to the government of the United Kingdom:

The public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is illegal; as is an intention to convert others. However, the Saudi Arabian authorities accept the private practice of religions other than Islam, and you can bring a religious text into the country as long as it is for your personal use. Importing larger quantities than this can carry severe penalties.[27]


Main article: Christianity in Saudi Arabia

See also: Catholic Church in Saudi Arabia and Eastern Orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia

Estimates of the number of Christians in Saudi Arabia range from 1,500,000[28][29] to 2,100,000.[1][30] As converting from Islam is illegal, the official government position is that all Christians in the Kingdom are foreign workers.[28][29]

Christians have complained of religious persecution by authorities. In one case in December 2012, 35 Ethiopian Christians working in Jeddah (six men and 29 women who held a weekly evangelical prayer meeting) were arrested and detained by the kingdom’s religious police for holding a private prayer gathering. While the official charge was “mixing with the opposite sex” - a crime for unrelated people in Saudi Arabia - the offenders complained they were arrested for praying as Christians.[31] A 2006 report in Asia News states that there are "at least one million" Roman Catholics in the kingdom. It states that they are being "denied pastoral care ... Catechism for their children - nearly 100,000 - is banned." It reports the arrest of a Catholic priest for saying mass in 2006. "Fr. George [Joshua] had just celebrated mass in a private house when seven religious policemen (muttawa) broke into the house together with two ordinary policemen. The police arrested the priest and another person."[32]

According to the Middle East editor of The Economist magazine, Nicolas Pelham, the kingdom contains "perhaps the largest and fastest-growing Christian community in the Middle East" and strict religious laws - such as banning Christians from Mecca and Medina - are not always enforced:[33]

Though Christians are forbidden from worshiping publicly, congregations at weekly prayer meetings on foreign compounds can be several hundred strong.[33]

In 2018, it was reported that the religious police had stopped enforcing the ban on Christians religious services anywhere in the Kingdom whether publicly or privately, and for the first time, a "documented Christian service" was openly conducted. Sometime before 1 December 2018, a Coptic Mass was performed in the city of Riyadh by Ava Morkos, Coptic Bishop of Shobra Al-Kheima in Egypt, during his visit to Saudi Arabia (according to Egyptian and other Arab media).[34][28] Ava Morkos was originally invited to Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in March 2018.[28]


Main article: Hinduism in Saudi Arabia

As of 2001, there were an estimated 1,500,000 Indian nationals in Saudi Arabia,[35] most of them Muslims, but some Hindus. In 2022, the estimate was 708,000 Hindus.[1] Like other non-Muslim religions, Hindus are not permitted to worship publicly in Saudi Arabia.[citation needed]


Main article: Irreligion in Saudi Arabia

Disbelief in God is a capital offense in the kingdom.[36] Traditionally, influential conservative clerics have used the label ‘atheist’ to apply not to those who profess to believe that God does not exist, but to "those who question their strict interpretations of Islamic scriptures or express doubts about the dominant version of Islam known as Wahhabism".[36] Examples of those so condemned (but not executed) include:

In February / March 2014, a series of new anti-terrorism laws were decreed. Article 1 of the law also conflated atheism and religious dissent, outlawing "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based".[39][40]

According to "anecdotal, but persistent" evidence, since sometime around 2010, the number of atheists in the kingdom has been growing.[36][41][42] News agencies such as Alhurra,[43] Saurress[44] and the American performance-management consulting company Gallup.[45][46][47][48][49]

A commission set up by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice In its report, the commission said that it got over 9,341 complaints about pornographic sites in one year. It also received over 2,734 reports about sites that promoted atheism and misleading information about religion.[50] A government official announced in that same year that 850 websites and social media pages espousing views deemed to be "atheistic" in nature have been blocked in the country over a span of 16 months.[51]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k US State Dept 2022 report
  2. ^ Open Doors website, 2023 notes on Saudi Arabia, retrieved 2023-08-08
  3. ^ Human Rights Watch, 2019 article
  4. ^ Human Rights Watch, 2018 article
  5. ^ Human Rights Watch, World Report 2013 Archived 2017-05-19 at the Wayback Machine. Saudi Arabia.] Freedom of Expression, Belief, and Assembly.
  6. ^ Amnesty International, Annual Report 2013, Saudi Arabia Archived 2015-01-30 at the Wayback Machine, Discrimination - Shi’a minority
  7. ^ a b Robert Murray Thomas Religion in Schools: Controversies Around the World Greenwood Publishing Group 2006 ISBN 978-0-275-99061-9 page 180
  8. ^ Trakic, Adnan; Benson, John; Ahmed, Pervaiz K (2019). Dispute Resolution in Islamic Finance: Alternatives to Litigation?. Routledge. ISBN 9781351188890. Saudi Arabia is a leading Islamic theocracy in the world today
  9. ^ Sheen J. Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report. (Routledge, 1997) p.452.
  10. ^ "Saudi Arabia imposes death sentence for Bible smuggling". deathpenaltynews. November 30, 2014. Archived from the original on 8 October 2015. Retrieved 20 May 2015.
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  12. ^ "Saudi Arabia imposes death sentence for Bible smuggling". Archived from the original on 8 April 2016. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
  13. ^ "Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom" (PDF). USCIRF. Archived (PDF) from the original on 29 April 2019. Retrieved 29 April 2019.
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  15. ^ Freedom House website, retrieved 2023-08-08
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  18. ^ a b "The World Factbook". 2020. Central Intelligence Agency. Archived from the original on 5 March 2023. Retrieved 17 March 2023.
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  20. ^ (Sir Richard Burton in 1853) The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian world| By Dane KENNEDY, Dane Keith Kennedy| Harvard University Press|
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  29. ^ a b House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia: Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 235.
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