November 14, 2005
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) -- A court sentenced a teacher to 40 months in prison and 750 lashes for "mocking religion" after he discussed the Bible and praised Jews, a Saudi newspaper reported yesterday.
Al-Madina newspaper said secondary-school teacher Mohammad al-Harbi, who will be flogged in public, was taken to court by his colleagues and students.
He was charged with promoting a "dubious ideology, mocking religion, saying the Jews were right, discussing the Gospel and preventing students from leaving class to wash for prayer," the newspaper said.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, strictly upholds the austere Wahhabi school of Islam and bases its constitution on the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. Public practice of any other religion is banned.
A U.S. State Department report criticized Saudi Arabia last week, saying religious freedoms "are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam."
The newspaper said Mr. al-Harbi will appeal the verdict.
A similar case was cited in the State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2004.
"During the period covered by this report, a schoolteacher was tried for apostasy, and eventually convicted in March of blasphemy; the person was given a prison sentence of 3 years and 300 lashes. The trial received substantial press coverage," the report said.
A 2003 report by the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, the world's only government-sanctioned entity to investigate and report religious-freedom violations, named Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest violator of religious liberties.
The commission took the country to task for "offensive and discriminatory language" disparaging Jews, Christians and non-Wahhabi Muslims found in government-sponsored school textbooks, in Friday sermons preached in prominent mosques, and in state-controlled Saudi newspapers.
For example, in 2003, Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah reacted to the killing of six Westerners by terrorists in Yemen by saying he thought Zionism was behind them.
In Saudi Arabia, the public practice of any religion other than Islam is illegal; only Muslims can be Saudi citizens; one of the Saudi king's titles is "custodian of the two holy mosques"; proselytizing for any religion other than Sunni Islam is barred; and Mecca, Islam's holy city, is forbidden to all non-Muslims.
For years, Saudi Arabia also imposed restrictions, or persuaded the U.S. government to impose restrictions, on American troops defending the country during and after then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's 1990-91 occupation of Kuwait.
For example, U.S. postal and customs officials have barred mailing materials "contrary to the Islamic faith," including Bibles. The U.S. military also has required female service members to wear a long, black robe called an abaya when traveling off base in Saudi Arabia. Both regulations were rescinded or clarified after public outcry based on reporting in the U.S. media.