FILE- Rabbi Abraham Cooper, center, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center,...

FILE- Rabbi Abraham Cooper, center, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, speaks in front of civic and faith leaders outside City Hall, Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. A U.S. Congress-mandated group cut short a fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia over officials in the kingdom ordering a Jewish rabbi to remove his kippah in public, highlighting the religious tensions still present in the wider Middle East. Credit: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A U.S. Congress-mandated group cut short a fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia after officials in the kingdom ordered a Jewish rabbi to remove his kippah in public, highlighting the religious tensions still present in the wider Middle East.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom sought to distance the order over his skullcap from what he described as progress made in the kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on quietly allowing different faiths to worship privately.

He also said Saudi Arabia may release four Uyghur Muslims held prisoner in the kingdom for asylum in the U.S. over possible persecution they could face if they return to China.

However, displaying any religious symbols other than Islamic ones remains criminalized, the kingdom two years ago carried out its largest mass execution ever that included minority Shiites, and authorities continue a harsh crackdown on any perceived dissent against Prince Mohammed.

“The situation in Saudi Arabia is very complex," said the Rev. Frederick Davie of New York City, the commission's vice chair. "And not everybody’s on board, and this may be an example of that.”

Officials in Saudi Arabia, as well as at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, did not respond to questions from the AP over the kippah incident. A message from the embassy released online called it “unfortunate" and “a misunderstanding of internal protocols,” without elaborating.

The commission, accompanied by members of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, had been attending meetings for about two days when they made a visit on March 5 to Diriyah, a mud-walled village that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Saudi capital.

In this March 8, 2018 photo, visitors watch ancient palaces...

In this March 8, 2018 photo, visitors watch ancient palaces of the 18th century Diriyah fortified complex, that once served as the seat of power for the ruling Al Saud, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 8, 2018. A U.S. Congress-mandated group cut short a fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia over officials in the kingdom ordering a Jewish rabbi to remove his kippah in public, highlighting the religious tensions still present in the wider Middle East. The commission, accompanied by members of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, had been attending meetings for about two days when they made a visit on March 5 to Diriyah, a mud-walled village that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Saudi capital. Credit: AP/Amr Nabil

About a third of the way through the village, a Saudi official handed a phone to Cooper, on which an official told him to remove his kippah, a skullcap worn by some Jews also known in Yiddish as a yarmulke.

“It's a pretty stunning request, considering we’re there as a vanguard for international religious freedom and we’re preparing a report on Saudi Arabia,” said Cooper, who lives in Los Angeles.

“It’s like asking somebody in Saudi Arabia to remove her hijab. I didn’t take off my kippah 50 years ago in the Soviet Union — I was there for a month — I’m surely not taking off my kippah for you.”

Cooper refused and the rest of the group agreed to cut their visit short over the demand. However, Davie noted that Cooper's kippah hadn't been an issue in government meetings or while eating in public earlier on the trip. Some Jewish online influencers have made trips into the kingdom, publicizing their visits.

In this March 8, 2018 photo, visitors watch ancient palaces...

In this March 8, 2018 photo, visitors watch ancient palaces of the 18th century Diriyah fortified complex, that once served as the seat of power for the ruling Al Saud, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 8, 2018. A U.S. Congress-mandated group cut short a fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia over officials in the kingdom ordering a Jewish rabbi to remove his kippah in public, highlighting the religious tensions still present in the wider Middle East. The commission, accompanied by members of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, had been attending meetings for about two days when they made a visit on March 5 to Diriyah, a mud-walled village that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Saudi capital. Credit: AP/Amr Nabil

The current Saudi sensitivity may come in part because of Israel's grinding war targeting Hamas in the Gaza Strip after the Oct. 7 militant attack that killed 1,200 people and took 250 others hostage. In the months since, Israel's war in the Gaza Strip has killed over 31,000 Palestinians there and left the seaside enclave on the brink of famine, particularly enraging Muslims across the Mideast as they mark the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Saudi Arabia's Al Saud royal family, which bases part of its legitimacy on protecting the holiest sites in Islam in the kingdom, particularly feels that pressure. Just before the war, it had been negotiating a U.S.-mediated deal to potentially diplomatically recognize Israel in exchange for a series of concessions.

That deal now appears largely abandoned. A chance meeting last month between Israeli Economy Minister Nir Barkat and Saudi Arabian Commerce Minister Majid bin Abdullah al-Qasab at a summit of the World Trade Organization in Abu Dhabi drew an angry retort from Riyadh, which referred to Barkat as an “Israeli occupation official.”

“We’re not naive. We live in the real world. I have eight grandchildren in Jerusalem, so I have literally skin in the game," Cooper said. "Of course, we would prefer if people weren’t dying right now in the Holy Land. ... I think they would have canceled our meeting if they decided that they want to send a message to Washington and Jerusalem.”

Responding to questions from the AP, the State Department said it had “raised our concerns with Saudi government authorities” over the order given to Cooper to remove his kippah.

“The United States fully supports freedom of religion or belief, including the right to express beliefs through religious attire,” the State Department said. “The United States continues to work with our Saudi counterparts on religious freedom issues and we hope the net effect of this incident will push Saudi Arabia to make further strides on these issues.”

The Gulf Arab states, particularly the United Arab Emirates, have grown more religiously accommodating. Both Bahrain and the UAE reached a diplomatic recognition deal with Israel in 2020. A prominent synagogue now sits in Abu Dhabi's capital, and a new Hindu temple just opened as well.

But things have moved slower in Saudi Arabia, once dominated by ultraconservative Wahhabi religious leaders before the rise of Prince Mohammed. A U.S. religious freedom report has noted there recently have been “large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference” in the kingdom.

Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and its main rival, Shiite-power Iran, reached a détente last year as well, easing tensions between the denominations. Davie said there was “cautious optimism” those relations were improving in the kingdom with its own minority Shiite population.

Meanwhile, Cooper also said the U.S. government is prepared to take four Uyghur Muslims imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and “get them refugee status immediately in the United States.”

The State Department also acknowledged the case and said it has “engaged with Saudi officials” over it, without discussing the rabbi's claim they could be released. It warned that Uyghur Muslims and other minority groups face possible "detention and torture" if they are returned to China.

“We also continue to urge the PRC to cease its genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” the State Department said, using the abbreviation for the People's Republic of China, the country's formal name.

China's embassies in Riyadh and Washington did not respond to requests for comment over the Uyghur prisoners.

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