By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (BosNewsLife)– Human rights activists have criticized American President Barack Obama for not addressing the persecution of Christians and other minorities during his talks with leaders in Saudi Arabia.
The Washington-based International Christian Concern (ICC) advocacy group told BosNewsLife that President Obama did not “publicly broach the subject of religious freedom” during talks Friday, March 28, with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, despite a letter from members of Congress urging him to do so.
“Obama had not had time to raise concerns about the kingdom’s human rights record,” U.S. officials reportedly said.
However, “This visit was an excellent opportunity for the president to speak up on an issue that affects millions of Saudi citizens and millions more foreign workers living in Saudi Arabia,” argued Todd Daniels, the ICC’s Middle East regional manager.
Daniels said it was “remarkable that the president could stay completely silent about religious freedom” despite pressure from Congress, “to publicly address the issue, as well as other human rights concerns, with King Abdullah…”
On Thursday, March 28, some 70 members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama urging him to “address specific human rights reforms” both in public and in direct meetings with King Abdullah and other officials. “Religious freedom is a major concern in the country… Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam, and the government also systematically discriminates against followers of minority Muslim faiths,” they wrote.
Saudi Arabia is among the most restrictive nations regarding religious freedom, rights investigators said. Christian foreign workers were detained, sometimes tortured, and deported after openly expressing their faith while house churches were raided by the religious police, known as Mutaween, BosNewsLife established in recent years.
Among other known incidents, some 35 Ethiopian Christians were detained in December 2011 and held for eight months after holding a worship service in a private home.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently said, “Not a single church or other non-Muslim house of worship exists in the country.” It was not clear whether it knew of Grace Outreach Church Riyadh, which claims to be “a Spirit-filled, Full Gospel Church” based in the capital Riyadh, with weekly congregation gatherings on Fridays.
In a statement, the church said it started in 2008 with 15 people gathering on a compound and that “Since then Grace Outreach has grown exponentially”.
Yet other evangelical Christians have told BosNewsLife in recent years of their struggle to gather without government interference.
Daniels suggested that Obama did not keep his promise to address these sensitive issues when necessary. “Last month the president clearly stated that promoting religious freedom is a key objective of American foreign policy, and then reaffirmed that opinion in remarks following his meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday [March 28], according to the White House,” recalled Daniels.
President Obama’s decision not to raise rights issues with King Abdullah comes amid concerns that the position of Assistant
Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Ambassador for International Religious Freedom remain
empty, despite pressure from Congress and rights groups to quickly fill the positions, ICC said.
“The priority the Obama administration places on promoting human rights around the world should be judged not by what is said in speeches among friends and supporters, but by the president’s words when standing face to face with leaders whose governments are oppressing millions,” said ICC’s Advocacy Manager Isaac Six.
“It should also be judged by the political determination to staff key human rights positions here in the United States.”
Six said that the “president’s silence” in Saudi Arabia and the long running vacancies at the State Department “tell us more clearly than anything else that international human rights issues and religious freedom are not at the top of this administration’s agenda.”
Last week in Brussels, however, President Obama made clear that the United States together with allies wants to promote freedom for all.
“Yes, we believe in democracy, with elections that are free and fair, and independent judiciaries and opposition parties, civil society and uncensored information so that individuals can make their own choices,” he told some 2,000 youngsters at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in the Belgian capital.
“Yes, we believe in open economies based on free markets and innovation and individual initiative and entrepreneurship and trade and investment that creates a broader prosperity. And yes, we believe in human dignity, that every person is created equal — no matter who you are or what you look like or who you love or where you come from.”
However he added that “we also know that those rules are not self-executing. They depend on people and nations of good will continually affirming them.”