update deskAntisemitism

US delegation cuts short Saudi trip after rabbi asked to remove kippah

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, refused the demand.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Credit: CUFI.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Credit: CUFI.

A U.S. government organization on religious freedom said Monday it curtailed a visit to Saudi Arabia after one of its leaders was asked to remove his kippah.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom ended an official visit to the kingdom early after authorities required the commission’s delegation to leave the Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Riyadh when the USCIRF chair, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, refused their requests that he 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,” Cooper said in a statement.

He is also associate dean and director of the global social action agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The Saudi government had invited the delegation, led by Cooper and Vice Chair Reverend Frederick A. Davie, to tour the site last week as part of its visit to the country.

Officials requested that Cooper, an Orthodox rabbi, remove his kippah “while at the site and anytime he was to be in public, even though the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs had approved the site visit,” the commission said in a press release.

U.S. embassy staff accompanying the USCIRF delegation supported and conveyed to Saudi officials Cooper’s polite but resolute refusal to remove the kippah. Site officials escorted the delegation off the premises after Cooper responded that while he sought no confrontation or provocation, as an observant Jew could not comply with the request.

“Saudi Arabia is in the midst of encouraging change,” Cooper said. “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.”

The organization noted that it was “particularly regrettable” this happened to a representative of a U.S. government agency promoting religious freedom.

The commission is a US government advisory body that is mandated by the U.S. Congress.

“Saudi officials’ request for Cooper to remove his kippah was stunning and painful,” said 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.”  

The Saudi embassy in Washington said in a statement late on Tuesday, “This unfortunate incident was the result of a misunderstanding of internal protocols.

“The matter was escalated to senior officials, and HRH the Ambassador [Reema bint Bandar Al Saud] had the opportunity to speak with the rabbi,” the statement continued, without voicing regret over the incident. “The matter was resolved but we respect his decision to not continue the tour. We look forward to welcoming him back to the kingdom.”

USCIRF has recommended that the U.S. Department of State designate Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern,” for systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations every year since 2000, most recently in its 2023 Annual Report, the commission said.

The State Department has listed Saudi Arabia as such repeatedly since 2004, most recently in December. However, it has issued waivers on taking any action as outlined in the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

The right to religious freedom, as protected under international human rights law, unequivocally includes the freedom to wear religious symbols and attire, the commission said.

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