US interfaith delegation ends Saudi Arabia visit after rabbi asked to remove kippah

The US Commission on International Freedom delegation was denied access to a heritage site in Riyadh when rabbi would not remove kippah


Rabbi Abraham Cooper

A US interfaith delegation on religious freedom cut short a trip to Saudi Arabia on Monday after one of its members was denied access to a heritage site for refusing to remove his kippah.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a statement on Monday that USCIRF Chair Rabbi Abraham Cooper was asked to remove his kippah upon entry to Diriyah Gate UNESCO World Heritage Site in Riyadh during an official visit and, when he refused to do so, Saudi authorities asked the delegation to leave.

According to the USCIRF’s statement, the Saudi government had invited the delegation, led by Rabbi Cooper and Vice Chair Reverend Frederick A. Davis, to tour the site on 5 March as part of an official visit to the country.

“After several delays to the tour, officials requested that Cooper, an Orthodox Jewish 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 statement said.

US Embassy staff accompanying the USCIRF delegation conveyed to Saudi officials Cooper’s “polite but resolute” refusal to remove the kippah. However, site officials escorted the delegation off the premises after the rabbi indicated he “sought no confrontation or provocation but as an observant Jew could not comply with a request to remove his kippah.”

“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. “Especially in a time of raging antisemitism, being asked to remove my kippah made it impossible for us from USCIRF to continue our visit.

“We note, with particular regret, that this happened to a representative of a US government agency promoting religious freedom. USCIRF looks forward to continuing conversations with the Saudi government about how to address the systematic issues that led to this troubling incident,” Cooper added.

The Saudi embassy responded with a statement on Tuesday and called the “unfortunate incident” the result of a “misunderstanding of internal protocols.” The statement added that the matter had been resolved but officials “respect [Chair Cooper’s] decision not to continue the tour.”

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