- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

Saudi Arabia is famously hostile to freedom of religion, but for years the State Department was reluctant to do much about it. That is now changing. On Wednesday morning, in a press conference to unveil this year’s State Department international religious freedom report, Secretary of State Colin Powell listed Saudia Arabia for the first time alongside Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Vietnam as a “country of particular concern.” Such countries “engage in or tolerate gross infringements of religious freedom,” the department says.

Although the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act empowers the secretary to impose sanctions, in the Saudi case, Mr. Powell is likely to take the middle ground of deeper engagement, stern words and pressure to resolve a handful of egregious cases. Up until now, the Bush administration has mostly avoided open criticism of Saudi Arabia. But the new designation confirms that the State Department is prepared to publicly identify, condemn and act upon gross infringements of religious freedom, even when sensitive bilateral relationships are at stake. President Bush, Mr. Powell and Ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom John Hanford are to be commended for calling a spade a spade and acknowledging publicly the well-known unsavory truth about a critical ally in the war on terror.

Now comes the hard part: Pushing the Saudis toward incremental changes, and doing so without destabilizing a government whose efforts are critical to our success in the war on terror and which sits atop the world’s largest petroleum fields.

The good news is that in this case strategic interests and moral imperatives coincide. Ever since 23 people were killed in the triple car bombings that targeted Western residences in Riyadh in May 2003, the Saudi regime has cracked down ever harder upon al Qaeda militants and terrorist financing within its borders. Security — the Saudis’ own, and ours — dictates that they continue doing so. Now, American diplomats have an additional tool to use as they push reform-minded elements in the House of Saud to strengthen their position and move to control the more virulent Islamists within their ranks and within the larger Saudi society.

For the Saudis, the standards have never been higher. But then, for the rest of us, so are the stakes.

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