U.S. diplomats end Saudi Arabia trip after Jewish chair told to remove kippah

The chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, was told by a Saudi Arabia official to remove his kippah during a recent visit to the Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage Site in Riyadh. Cooper refused and the U.S. diplomats cut their trip short. Photo courtesy of USCIRF

March 11 (UPI) -- U.S. diplomats visiting Saudi Arabia last week cut their trip short after a Saudi official asked the Jewish chair to remove his kippah, the organization announced Monday.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom -- or USCIRF -- left during a visit Tuesday to the Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage Site in Riyadh, after the organization's chair Rabbi Abraham Cooper was told to remove his religious head covering.

"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.

"Saudi Arabia is in the midst of encouraging change under its 2030 vision. However, especially in a time of raging anti-semitism, being asked to remove my kippah made it impossible for us from USCIRF to continue our visit," Cooper added.

"We note, with particular regret, that this happened to a representative of a U.S. government agency promoting religious freedom," he continued. "USCIRF looks forward to continuing conversations with the Saudi government about how to address the systemic issues that led to this troubling incident."

USCIRF was touring the site Tuesday, as part of their official visit to Saudi Arabia, when officials requested that Cooper, who is an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, remove his kippah while at the site and anytime he was in public. When Cooper indicated he would not comply, the delegation was escorted off the premises.

"Saudi officials' request for Chair Cooper to remove his kippah was stunning and painful," said USCIRF Vice Chair Frederick Davie. "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."

Censorship of religious freedoms and suppression of political opposition across social media platforms is the norm in a number of Arab world countries, according to the Brookings Institution.

In a report released last year, the United States also called out religious freedom violations in China, Russia, Iran and India. Among the key findings were that governments had continued to target faith community members within their borders.

While Saudi Arabia has worked to increase interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance, it has also violated religious freedoms by making it illegal to practice any faith other than Islam," the State Department said in its 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity, established by the U.S. Congress to monitor and report on religious freedom abroad. USCIRF supports the right to religious freedom, as protected under international human rights law, which includes the freedom to wear religious symbols and attire.

USCIRF recommended in its 2023 Annual Report that the U.S. State Department designate Saudi Arabia a "country of particular concern" for "systemic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations every year since 2000."

The State Department has designed Saudi Arabia a CPC repeatedly since 2014, and most recently in December 2023.