By Donnelly McCleland (with contribution by Mike Burnard)

The United States government commission on religious freedom has urged action against ally Saudi Arabia after its mass execution of 37 people, most of them Shia Muslims. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose members are appointed by the president and legislators across party lines but whose role is advisory, said the US State Department “must stop giving a free pass” to Saudi Arabia. On Friday [26 April], the commission issued a statement after reports emerged the youngest of the 37 men executed on Tuesday [23 April] was only 16 when he was charged. (Al Jazeera)

Concerns raised over legitimacy of trials

Saudi Arabia is ranked among the top five executioners in the world, and according to Amnesty International carried out the death sentences of 149 people in 2018. On Tuesday 23 April, the kingdom beheaded 37 citizens (bringing the number of people executed since the start of the year to around 100, according to official announcements), nearly all of whom were from its Shia minority. The body of one of those executed was also put on display to “deter others” from “committing similar crimes”. Concerns have been raised that many of those executed were made to give false confessions obtained under torture, according to media reports. The United Nations said at least three were minors when charged. Court documents seen by CNN show that 34 of the men had repeatedly denied the truth of their confessions to judges trying their case. Fourteen were convicted of forming a “terror cell” in the city of Awamiya, a Shia heartland in eastern Saudi Arabia, after anti-government demonstrations in 2011 and 2012.

Documents from the Awamiya case reveal how the men repeatedly told the court that their admissions were false and had been obtained through torture. In some cases, the suspects said they had provided nothing more than their thumbprints to sign off on confessions which they claimed had been written by their torturers.

The Saudi government did not immediately respond to several requests for comment on the allegations of torture and forced confessions laid out in the documents. In an official statement on the day of the executions, a Saudi official said: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long ago adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards terrorists who spill the blood of the innocent, threaten the national security of the kingdom and distort our great faith. The convicted criminals who were executed today had their day in court and were found guilty of very serious crimes.”

The mass execution was the largest since January 2016, when Saudi Arabia executed a group of 47 people convicted of “terrorism”, including prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. There had been hopes that Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s powerful crown prince, would follow through on his promise of reforming the ultraconservative country, however the ongoing crackdown on those seen as critical to his and his father’s rule appears to continue.

Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority

It is estimated that 10-15% of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million citizens are Shia Muslims. The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 by the House of Saud, who are followers of a movement within Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Followers of ‘Wahhabism’ — who dominate the Kingdom’s religious institutions, courts and educational institutions — believe that “Muslims should return to the interpretation of Islam found in the classical texts, the Quran and the Sunnah.” They also believe that “Muslims who seek intercession from holy men, such as the imams revered by Shiites, are not ‘true’ Muslims.”

Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslims are found primarily in the country’s eastern province, chiefly Qatif and Al-Ahsa. The region consists of the majority of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, and is also the area closest to their arch regional rival, Iran. The region has seen numerous uprisings in recent years. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 in neighbouring Iran, hundreds of Saudi Shiites have been jailed, executed, and exiled.

Abdulkarim al-Hawaj, 21, was the youngest of those executed in April, four years after being arrested in the country’s Shia-majority Eastern province for spreading information about protests on WhatsApp. According to international law, executing anyone who was under 18 at the time of the crime is strictly prohibited. Human rights charity Reprieve said al-Hawaj was beaten and tortured until he ‘confessed’ to his crimes.   Reprieve said al-Hawai was sentenced to death at the end of ‘sham trials’ when he was denied access to a lawyer.

Saudi dissident Ali al Ahmed, who runs the Gulf Institute in Washington says that the kingdom and its Sunni-led Arab allies have been emboldened by US President Donald Trump’s unwavering dedication to pressuring Iran’s Shia clerical leadership. Al Ahmed described the recent executions as a politically motivated message to Iran. “This is political,” he said. “They didn’t have to execute these people, but it’s important for them to ride the American anti-Iranian wave.”

US State Department waivers and international responses

The US State Department classifies Saudi Arabia among its “countries of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom, which would normally require Washington to take punitive actions such as imposing economic sanctions. However, successive secretaries of state have each year issued waivers on punishing Riyadh, citing national security interests.  US President Donald Trump has vowed to preserve a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, pointing to its major purchases of US weapons, its giant oil exports and its hostility towards US rival Iran. Mr Trump has not commented on the executions, although the State Department said it urged “Saudi Arabia and all governments” to respect freedom of religion.

Reprieve Director Maya Foa said: “This is another egregious display of brutality by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. That the Saudi regime believes it has impunity to carry out such patently illegal executions, without notice, should shock its international partners into action.”

Amnesty International called the executions “a chilling demonstration of the Saudi Arabian authorities callous disregard for human life.” Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director went on to say: “It is also yet another gruesome indication of how the death penalty is being used as a political tool to crush dissent from within the country’s Shia minority.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called Saudi Arabia’s mass executions of 37 men “shocking” and “abhorrent”, joining a growing chorus of condemnation by rights groups and activists. Bachelet said the executions were carried out despite repeated warnings from rights officials and UN rapporteurs about lack of due process and fair trial guarantees amid allegations that confessions were obtained through torture.

It is not only secular organisations and rights activists which question Saudi Arabia’s repressive government, Barnabas Aid (a Christian organisation dedicated to providing relief for the persecuted church) state on their website: “The largely unquestioning support of Western governments for Saudi Arabia is an insult to Christ’s followers there who live in the shadow of death. It is a tragedy that Western nations whose governments claim to be defenders of democracy and religious freedom ignore Saudi Arabia’s brutal repression of all religions other than Islam.”


Saudi Arabia’s law of public execution is not very different to Jesus’ time when prostitutes were stoned (John 8:7) and apostates suffered a similar fate (Act 7:58).  And within this culture of “death by law” we find Christ, not condemning the act of applying the law, but addressing both the dignity of a human life and the sinful nature of man.

The implication of the story in John 8:1-8 is that the law we choose to enforce will always reveal the character of the God we believe in.  It was the God of grace that pardoned the sinner without condoning the sin. The morality of Scripture is a pattern of life that reflects God’s own life.  The commandments obtained in the Quran embodies the god of Islam.   That revelation is revealed through the community of people who share a common faith. It was the religious leaders who believed in a god of judgment who condemned the prostitute by inflicting judgement.

The truth is that true Islam cannot do anything else than condemn both sinner and sin in a way that their god demands. There is no redemption and there is no forgiveness.  Western nations will achieve more by engaging in dialogue with Saudi Arabia than to either cut ties or keep silent.  Leaders like Donald Trump of the USA, Angela Merkel of Germany and Theresa May of the UK – all professing Christians – will do well to convey a message of lawful punishment that reflects the character of the forgiving God they profess to believe in.


  • For international leaders to be able to confront issues of justice with Saudi Arabia in a constructive manner
  • For justice for those who may be on death row in Saudi Arabia for unjust reasons
  • For Christians in Saudi Arabia to remain steadfast in a very hostile environment