- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

The State Department yesterday put Saudi Arabia on its blacklist of severe violators of religious freedom for the first time, opening the door to U.S. sanctions.

U.S. officials, however, said penalties against the desert kingdom are not likely to follow.

Vietnam and Eritrea were also added to the list, which includes China, Sudan, Iran, Burma and North Korea.

Iraq was taken off the list earlier this year.

The Bush administration has been criticized by religious and human rights groups in recent years for turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s religious practices by failing to designate it as a country of “particular concern.”

Even though in previous years the State Department has used strong language on the situation in the kingdom in its annual report on international religious freedom, this year’s edition is especially harsh.

“Freedom of religion does not exist” in Saudi Arabia, the report says. “Freedom of religion is not recognized or protected under the country’s laws, and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam.”

The document also cites “frequent instances in which mosque preachers, whose salaries were paid by the government, used violent anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in their sermons.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell played down the criticism of one of Washington’s key allies in the Middle East and the world’s largest oil exporter.

“Let me emphasize that we will continue engaging the countries of particular concern with whom we have bilateral relationships,” Mr. Powell told reporters.

“Our existing partnerships have flourished in numerous capacities and they are just one of the best ways for us to encourage our friends to adopt tolerant practices,” he said.

John Hanford, the State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said his office “felt that the time had finally come” to list Saudi Arabia.

“There are positive developments in Saudi Arabia that we take encouragement from, but there are a number of problems that persist that we feel place Saudi Arabia over the line,” he said.

Washington’s relationship with Riyadh has been extremely sensitive since the September 11 terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

The Saudi Embassy had no immediate comment on the country’s designation yesterday.

The report, which is mandated by Congress and prepared by the State Department with input from U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, also criticized the government of Vietnam.

“Respect for religious freedom remained poor or deteriorated for some groups, notably ethnic minority Protestants and some independent Buddhists, though it slightly improved for many practitioners,” the document said.

“The sort of issues that made us feel that Vietnam deserved designation would include the number of religious prisoners, and that’s of various faiths: Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai,” Mr. Hanford said.

“There are over 45 instances or cases that we know of right now. There had been many hundreds of churches, which had been shut down, and house churches, and places of worship, and the government has refused, in most cases, to reopen these,” he said.

“And then we are especially troubled by government-sponsored forced renunciations of faith,” Mr. Hanford said.

The State Department has been reluctant in the past to blacklist Vietnam out of concern that such a rebuke might provoke the government to crack down on religious rights activists even more.

Human rights groups yesterday welcomed the additions to the list.

“The suffering of religious minorities in Saudi Arabia rightly compelled the U.S. to finally designate that state a country of ‘particular concern,’ ” said Alex Arriaga, director of government relations for Amnesty International USA.

“However, sustained pressure will be required to bring about any improvement in Saudi Arabia’s egregious record of religious repression,” he said.


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