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US delegation leaves Saudi Arabia early over Jewish kippah row

USCIRF vice-chair describes incident as ‘stunning and painful’
Chabad Rabbi Yaakov Israel Herzog walks past a gate painted with the Saudi flag, in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh.Fayez Nureldine/AFP
Chabad Rabbi Yaakov Israel Herzog walks past a gate painted with the Saudi flag, in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh.Fayez Nureldine/AFP

A United States delegation on religious freedom on Monday said it cut short its visit to Saudi Arabia after one of its members was asked to remove his Jewish head covering, or kippah.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said its delegation was near Riyadh visiting Diriyah, a historic town and Unesco world heritage site, when the commission’s chair, the Orthodox rabbi Abraham Cooper, “refused their requests that he remove his religious head covering”.

Cooper said in a statement: “No one should be denied access to a heritage site, especially one intended to highlight unity and progress, simply for existing as a Jew.”

The USCIRF said Cooper and its vice-chair, the Rev Frederick Davie, were invited to tour the site last Tuesday as part of their official visit when, after several delays to the tour, officials requested that Cooper remove his kippah “while at the site and any time he was to be in public, even though the Saudi ministry of foreign affairs had approved the site visit”.

Saudi Arabia “is in the midst of encouraging change under its 2030 vision”, Cooper noted. “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 USCIRF said it was particularly regrettable it happened to the representative of “an American government agency that promotes religious freedom”.

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

Davie, the USCIRF vice-chair, described the incident as “stunning and painful”.

He added: “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 did not immediately respond to AFP request for comment.

The incident comes against a backdrop of tensions between Saudi Arabia and US ally Israel over the war in Gaza, and US efforts to promote normalisation of ties between the two states once the conflict is over.

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