Rabbi, religious freedom delegation end Saudi trip early after yarmulke incident

(RNS) — A U.S. religious freedom watchdog group’s delegation left Saudi Arabia earlier than planned after its chair, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, was asked to remove his kippah, or yarmulke, during the delegation’s official visit to the kingdom.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, known as USCIRF, said in a news release that Cooper, an Orthodox rabbi and director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, refused the request, which came from a Saudi official as the delegation arrived to tour the Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage Site, a mud-brick city, near Riyadh.

“No one should be denied access to a heritage site, especially one intended to highlight unity and progress, simply for existing as a Jew,” said Cooper in a Monday (March 11) statement. “Saudi Arabia is in the midst of encouraging change under its 2030 Vision. However, especially in a time of raging antisemitism, being asked to remove my kippah made it impossible for us from USCIRF to continue our visit.”

Cooper has been chair of USCIRF, a bipartisan and independent body created by Congress in 1998 to report on religious freedom issues around the world, since June 2023.

The rabbi and the Rev. Fred Davie, USCIRF’s vice chair, had been invited by the Saudi government to tour the site on March 5 after arriving in the predominantly Muslim country two days earlier. The commission said the officials requested that Cooper remove his kippah at the location and at other times when he was in public, despite the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ approval of the visit to the site.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, center, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, speaks in front of civic and faith leaders outside City Hall, Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. Faith and community leaders in Los Angeles called for peace, tolerance and unity in the wake of violence in the city that is being investigated as potential hate crimes. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, center, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, speaks in front of civic and faith leaders outside City Hall, May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

U.S. Embassy staffers with the delegation supported Cooper’s “polite but resolute refusal to remove the kippah,” the commission said.

“Despite their efforts, site officials escorted the delegation off the premises after Chair Cooper indicated he sought no confrontation or provocation but as an observant Jew could not comply with a request to remove his kippah,” it added.

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In a statement released Tuesday, the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington described the incident as a misunderstanding.

“This unfortunate incident was the result of a misunderstanding of internal protocols,” the embassy said. “The matter was escalated to senior officials, and HRH the Ambassador had the opportunity to speak with the Rabbi. The matter was resolved but we respect his decision to not continue the tour.”

The embassy added that it hoped to welcome Cooper back at a later time.

The incident came as international relations are tense due to the Hamas-Israel war. President Joe Biden has named Saudi Arabia as one of the countries with which he was holding discussions as the U.S. seeks peace between Israel and neighboring countries.

Davie called the Saudis’ request “stunning and painful” in a statement. 

“It directly contradicted not only the government’s official narrative of change but also genuine signs of greater religious freedom in the Kingdom that we observed firsthand,” said Davie. “We stand by our Chair and look forward to further discussions with our Saudi counterparts about protecting freedom of religion or belief for all.”

Prior to the incident, the delegation held meetings with representatives of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior, Human Rights Commission and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The key to real progress for all who seek peace is to remember that respect is a two-way street,” Cooper and Davie added in a joint statement.

As recently as November, USCIRF has reiterated that countries with restrictions on wearing religious garb, including Jewish men wearing kippahs, are violating the freedoms of individuals.

In its 2023 annual report, USCIRF had included Saudi Arabia among its nominees to be called a “country of particular concern,” a designation for nations with “systematic, ongoing and egregious” violations of religious freedom. The country has received that designation repeatedly since 2004 but the State Department, most recently in its December 2023 designation, has issued waivers based on other U.S. interests that have permitted Saudi Arabia to avoid repercussions.

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