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The Saudi–Iranian conflict and religious liberty in the Middle East

Late Saturday, scores of Iranians stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, overrunning security and setting fire to the building. The protesters were pushed back by the Iranian police before any Saudi diplomats were injured.

The incident was provoked by the Saudi execution of a prominent Shia cleric and dissident, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, earlier on Saturday. Sheikh al-Nimr was executed along with 46 others in the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabia since 1980.

Sheikh al-Nimr was a religious leader who protested the Sunni-led Saudi government’s treatment of the the country’s Shia minority. He was convicted of a number of charges, including “disobeying the ruler,” being an “instigator of sedition,” and others. The U.S. State Department had urged the Saudi government to release Sheikh al-Nimr despite the fact that Sheikh al-Nimr had preached and spread anti-American messages. After the execution, John Kirby, State Department spokesman, shared U.S. concern about the execution, and said that the execution “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”

In response to the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the Saudi government has announced that Iranian diplomats have 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia. Bahrain and Sudan, close Saudi allies, have also cut diplomatic ties with Iran. The UAE has “downgraded” its diplomatic presence in Iran.

Proxy conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia are raging in Syria and Yemen, but the Saudi and Iranian governments clash in subtler ways in nearly every country in the Middle East and North Africa. This recent episode could lead to a significant increase in sectarian violence across the region.

Christians in the Middle East will likely suffer more because of this. But let us also remember that Muslims themselves have suffered more than anyone else at the hands of radical Islamic terrorists.

This is a story we need to pay attention to. Let us pray for peace. And let us also pray for a future for the Middle East and North Africa where principled pluralism flourishes, protecting all religious minorities.

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