- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday designated six nations as "countries of particular concern" for abuses of religious freedom but rejected widespread calls for Saudi Arabia to be included on the list.
Mr. Powell identified China, Iran, Iraq, Burma, North Korea and Sudan as such the same six he designated last year keeping in place the possibility of sanctions against them, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
"Last year, these six countries were also designated," he said in a statement. "Regrettably, the status of religious freedom has not significantly improved in any of these countries since that time."
The brief statement gave no indication of how or why Mr. Powell had come to the determinations and did not mention Saudi Arabia at all.
However, his decision not to designate Saudi Arabia, which bans nearly all forms of non-Muslim worship, as an punishable violator of religious rights was clearly the most significant information imparted by the statement.
Mr. Powell's rejection of the calls to list Saudi Arabia originating from human rights groups, U.S. lawmakers and conservative Christians came as preparations for a possible war with Iraq continue .
Saudi Arabia, a key Persian Gulf ally, is likely to play a major role in any conflict given its geography and the presence of thousands of U.S. troops there.
U.S. officials denied that Mr. Powell's refusal to designate Saudi Arabia was related to war preparations and stressed earlier this week that Washington was pressing Riyadh hard to improve its tolerance for non-Islamic religions.
"We're not going to list them, but we are going to press them on this," a senior official said on the condition of anonymity on Monday. "We think there is an opportunity to push really hard this year."
That opportunity will arise from the fact that Saudi Arabia came "very close" to being slapped with the designation and had already been warned that it is almost certain to be so tagged next year unless it eases its strict religious laws, the official said.
"We expect to have some leverage with the Saudis and other near-miss countries to do things to stay off next year's list," the official said. "We've already started talking to them about this."
In October, a government advisory panel recommended that Saudi Arabia, along with India, Laos, Pakistan, Turkemenistan and Vietnam be added to the list of "countries of particular concern" for severe violations of religious freedom.
"We hope to see actions commensurate with the severity of these abuses," said Felice Gaer, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, at the time the recommendation was submitted to Mr. Powell.
Saudi Arabia has not escaped U.S. criticism for its religious policies in the past.
Last year, it, along with Iran and Iraq, were listed in the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom as nations in which there is "state hostility toward minority or non-approved religions."
"These governments implement policies designed to intimidate certain groups, cause their adherents to convert to another faith or cause their members to flee," the report said.
That report bluntly identified Saudi Arabia as a country that is totally void of religious freedom.
"Freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia," it said, noting Riyadh's refusal to recognize any religion other than Islam and its bar on any public demonstration of a non-Muslim religion.
The report noted that Saudi Arabia generally limited its recognition of Islam to the Sunni branch of Wahhabism, and "suppressed" other interpretations of the religion.
Although the Saudi government had given indications it was willing to allow non-Muslims to worship in private, U.S. officials said the pledge had never been codified or clarified and that non-Muslims continued to suffer harassment, including assaults and the confiscation of religious material.

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