Source of report: The Human Rights Watch

A pilgrimage of Saudi Shia to Medina in February 2009 to observe the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s death led to clashes between the pilgrims and Saudi security forces. Those forces included the non-uniformed religious police, which is staunchly Sunni and opposed to what they consider the idolatrous innovations of Shia rituals of commemorating special holidays and making visits to graves. The immediate cause of the Medina clashes was the filming on February 20 of Shia women pilgrims by a man believed to belong to the religious police. The clashes continued in the area of the Baqi’ cemetery in Medina over a five-day period, and resulted in the arrest of tens of pilgrims. The Medina clashes and subsequent events in the Eastern Province stoked the sharpest manifestation of long- standing sectarian tensions that the kingdom has experienced in years. The incidents at the Baqi’ cemetery reflected in part these long-standing tensions, but they were also an outlet for anger among the Shia (who are 10-15 percent of the population) over systematic discrimination at the hands of the government in education, the justice system, and, especially, religious freedom. They also face exclusion in government employment. The government for its part reacted with repressive measures of arrest and a clampdown on public airing of Shia grievances rather than seeking dialogue to prevent further conflict. Nevertheless, underlying discrimination has risen. Since the February-March events, authorities have intensified ongoing restrictions on Shia communal life. The Saudi government should urgently address the underlying reasons for sectarian tension, and end systematic discrimination against the Shia.

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