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US religious freedom delegation cuts short Saudi Arabia visit after rabbi is asked to remove his kippah

An American delegation on religious freedom cut short its visit to Saudi Arabia after one of its members was asked to remove his Jewish head covering, or kippah.

The delegation from the US Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) was on an official visit to the UNESCO heritage site of Diriyah, the original home of the Saudi royal family, when Saudi officials asked its chairman Rabbi Abraham Cooper to remove his kippah, the commission said in a statement Monday.

US embassy staff accompanying the delegation tried to convey Cooper’s “polite but resolute refusal,” but site officials escorted the delegation out after Cooper “indicated he sought no confrontation or provocation but as an observant Jew could not comply with a request to remove his kippah,” the commission said.

It added that the Saudi government had invited the group to tour the site and that the visit had been approved by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Saudi Arabia said Wednesday that the “unfortunate incident” was the result of a “misunderstanding of internal protocols.”

The Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, spoke with Cooper about the incident, according to a statement from the Saudi embassy.

“The matter was resolved but we respect his decision to not continue the tour,” it said. “We look forward to welcoming him back to the kingdom.”

USCIRF, a bipartisan advisory body independent from the State Department, condemned the Saudi officials’ request.

“Saudi officials’ request for Chair Cooper to remove his kippah was stunning and painful. 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 USCIRF Vice Chair Reverend Frederick A. Davie.

While we appreciate the various meetings we had in country with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior, the Human Rights Commission, and other interlocuters, this unfortunate incident starkly illustrates that much more work remains to be done for Saudi Arabia to align with international legal protections guaranteeing this fundamental right,” Davie added.

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.

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