- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 27, 2001

The United States yesterday issued a report that harshly criticizes Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states crucial in the fight against terrorism for suppressing religious freedom, but refrained from placing them on its blacklist of countries of "particular concern."
China is the only state on the list that has pledged cooperation with Washington in its anti-terrorist efforts. North Korea is the single new addition to the list this year. The other countries on the list Iran, Iraq, Burma and Sudan have also been designated as state sponsors of terrorism.
Afghanistan's Taliban militia, while singled out for especially severe violations, does not qualify for inclusion on the list because the United States doesn't recognize the hard-line regime as the country's legitimate government.
The annual report, issued yesterday by the State Department as a requirement of the Religious Freedom Act of 1998, is highly critical of Saudi Arabia and other Muslim regimes friendly to the United States, as well as some of Washington's new allies in Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics.
"The report does make clear what the situation is with regard to religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, and that is that there is, essentially, no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia," said Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman. "The government requires all citizens to be Muslim and continues to prohibit any public manifestation of non-Muslim religions."
There was no reason, however, to downgrade Saudi Arabia's status to being of "particular concern," because "no significant change one way or the other" occurred over the past year, Mr. Boucher said.
He noted that the Uzbek government, which has been surprisingly helpful to the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, only partially respects its citizens' religious freedoms guaranteed by the Uzbekistan Constitution.
"Uzbekistan does not provide the respect to Islamic groups and mosques that we think is necessary or required under customary international law," he said. "In Turkmenistan, the same kind of thing. The harassments of unregistered religious groups has continued and, in fact, some say intensified there, but we didn't feel that they met the standard to be designated this year."
In Afghanistan, where "atheism and conversion from Islam are both considered apostasy and are punishable by death," the Taliban "has severely restricted freedom of religion in the territory" under its control, Mr. Boucher said.
"Due to the absence of a constitution, religious freedom is not protected and is subject to the arbitrary action of Taliban officials. Law and custom require affiliation with religion," he said. "Women have been subject to beatings by religious police for not wearing proper attire, in their view."
Last February, the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan's giant Buddha statues, defying appeals of religious and political leaders from around the world.
The religious-freedom report, which was submitted to Congress on Thursday, is similar to the State Department's annual report on human rights. It surveys the freedom to practice one's faith in every country in the world, including established democracies like Britain and Canada.
The countries of concern list was put together by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
The consequences for the countries on the list can be diplomatic and economic, but in practice, no sanctions have been imposed in the past.
Mr. Boucher said North Korea was added to the list this year because of reports that its communist government has cracked down on unauthorized religious groups in recent years.
"There have also been unconfirmed reports of the killing of members of underground Christian churches," he said. "In addition, people who proselytize or who have ties overseas appear to have been arrested, subjected to harsh penalties, according again to unconfirmed reports."
Regarding China, yesterday's report said the situation for religious freedom and spiritual movements there worsened in the past year.
Catholic and Protestant members of unauthorized churches were subjected to detention, raids and persecution.
Other religious groups also fared badly.
"According to some reports, the government intensified its harsh and comprehensive campaign against the Falun Gong spiritual movement during the early spring of 2001, and some practitioners reportedly died in prison due to torture and other kinds of mistreatment. Tibetan Buddhist monks suffered abuse and torture after being imprisoned on charges of political activity," the report said.
Russia, one of the most important allies in the war on terrorism, was also criticized in the report for its treatment of religious minorities.
"There were allegations of politically motivated government interference in the internal affairs of the Jewish, Pentecostal and Muslim communities.
"Muslims, who constitute approximately 10 percent of the population, encountered registration problems along with societal discrimination and antagonism in some areas, apparently as a result of feelings engendered by the continuing conflict in [the breakaway republic of] Chechnya," the report said.

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