- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Saudi Arabia was cited as the top violator yesterday in an annual report issued by the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom on the status of religious liberties worldwide.

“These are not idiosyncratic American perceptions of religious freedom,” committee Vice Chairman Michael Young said. The report was issued as Saudi Arabia was reeling over at least 20 deaths caused by suicide bombings in an exclusive Riyadh suburb inhabited by foreigners.

The commission was formed by Congress in 1998 and remains the world’s only government-sanctioned entity to investigate and report religious-freedom violations. Because Saudi Arabia has the most onerous violations among the 15 countries cited, the report said, the U.S. government needs to get serious about pressuring the desert kingdom to reform.

“It’s time to apply the same standards to Saudi Arabia that are applied elsewhere,” commission Chairman Felice Gaer said.

Religious freedom is one of the bedrocks of American culture, and a recent poll of 350 evangelical Christian leaders found that 73 percent believed that stopping religious persecution should be a “top priority” in American foreign policy. But freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia, the commission’s report said, except for those practicing an extreme form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.

Commissioners called on Saudi Arabia to let non-Muslims at least practice their religion in private and criticized the kingdom for “harassment, detention, arrest, torture” and deportation of foreign Christians employed in the country.

The country’s “mutawaa” religious police metes out similar treatment to Shi’ite Muslim clergy and scholars, they added.

The commission also took the country to task for “offensive and discriminatory language” disparaging Jews, Christians and non-Wahhabi Muslims found in government-sponsored school textbooks, in Friday sermons preached in prominent mosques, and in state-controlled Saudi newspapers.

One theme in the report was American acquiescence to Saudi demands, such as a recent U.S. Postal Service prohibition against mailing materials “contrary to the Islamic faith” to U.S. troops in the Middle East. As recently as March, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell failed to designate Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern (CPC),” the diplomatic term for the most severe violators of human rights.

“We don’t understand how one could not name Saudi Arabia as a CPC,” Mr. Young said. “Saudi Arabia has been explicitly left out of any [State Department] citations.”

Also at fault, he added are unnamed U.S. businesses in Saudi Arabia that aid the government in cracking down on religious dissent.

The Saudi Embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The commission also expressed frustration with the State Department for not heeding a long-standing recommendation: installing a human rights official among U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan.

“The groundwork is being laid in Afghanistan for a government almost as repressive as the Taliban,” commission member Leila Sadat said.

Torture, mass deaths and “a continuing culture of impunity” toward human rights reigns in Afghanistan, but so far, she said, she has met with only a “brick wall” from U.S. government agencies.

“We don’t even have a copy of the [proposed Afghan] constitution,” she said.

Vietnam was castigated by the commissioners, who called the communist regime a “dictatorship of fear” where government forces have been known to beat Christian pastors to death for not recanting. Conditions there have worsened, they said, since Congress passed a bilateral-trade agreement between the United States and Vietnam in 2001.

China, they said, presents an “appalling situation” for religious rights as “people are continually confined, tortured and imprisoned because of religion,” according to Commissioner Richard Land. North Korea, where religious freedom is “nonexistent,” is even worse, he said.

“North Korea is what a country would look like if run by John Gotti.”

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