American Delegation Terminates Visit To Saudi Heritage Site

An American delegation representing the Commission on International Religious Freedom (1USCIRF) announced the sudden cancellation of their visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia.

The surprise announcement followed a Saudi demand that USCIRF Chairman Abraham Cooper, an Orthodox rabbi, remove his kippah head covering.

On Monday, USCIRF’s March 5 incident report was made public. It noted that Cooper was asked not to wear his kippah “anytime he was to be in public.”

The kippah, also known by its Yiddish name ”yarmulke,” is a common and revered head covering worn at all times by Orthodox Jewish men.

USCIRF officials initially responded to the demand by informing Saudi officials the kippah was a religious vestment and that it would be inappropriate for a rabbi not to wear one. The officials further noted that the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs had approved the site visit and were aware the U.S. delegation included an orthodox rabbi.

Over protests and assurances that Cooper “sought no confrontation or provocation,” heritage site officials escorted the USCIRF delegation off the premises.

U.S. government officials immediately criticized the Saudi government for its treatment of an official delegation commissioned by Congress.

Cooper later noted the inappropriateness of being denied access to a heritage site by a country that has expressed a desire to initiate reforms to better global perception of religious intolerance, particularly during a time of growing antisemitism.

“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 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman introduced what has come to be known as the Saudi Vision 2030 modernization plan. Salman called for changes to Saudi society to “make it more compatible with the rest of the modern world – and more enticing to foreign investors.”

Cooper added, “We note, with particular regret, that this happened to a representative of a U.S. government agency promoting religious freedom.”

The rabbi also remarked that the USCIRF commission looked forward to working with the Saudi government in the future to “address the systematic issues that led to this troubling incident.”

The Saudi government has issued a tentative apology and invited Cooper to return.