- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Bush administration said yesterday it is close to reaching agreements with Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Eritrea that would improve the state of religious freedom in the three countries of “particular concern” for Washington.

The administration asked Congress, which can impose sanctions on the violators under the International Religious Freedom Act, to extend yesterday’s deadline for the three governments to demonstrate commitment to becoming more tolerant toward various religions.

“We’ve been actively engaged with all three in working for improvements in respect for religious freedom in those countries. We’ve made some important progress,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters.

“We are close to arrangements that respond to issues raised in the report, and we think that, with a little bit more time, we can take care of some of the issues that were problematic for us,” he said.

Mr. Ereli referred to the annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world, which the State Department last sent to Congress on Sept. 15.

Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Eritrea were included on the list of “countries of particular concern” for the first time, joining Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Burma and China. They had six months, which expired yesterday, to at least begin reversing the negative trend.

“We are at different stages, talking about different actions with each of the three, and I think our response with each of the three are going to be different,” Mr. Ereli said.

Mr. Ereli would not say exactly how much more time the administration needs from Congress but said he expected “decisions to be finalized and announced in the next few weeks.”

He also noted that Washington is looking for at least “intent” and “commitment” to religious freedom in the countries at issue, although actions are expected to follow soon.

Mr. Ereli declined to give details of the discussions the United States has had with the countries in question. He and other officials said only that the administration has reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Last year’s report painted a grim picture of the situation in Saudi Arabia, whose relationship with the United States has been extremely sensitive since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

“Freedom of religion does not exist” in Saudi Arabia, the report said. “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 cited “frequent instances in which mosque preachers, whose salaries were paid by the government, used violent anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in their sermons.”

On Vietnam, the report said “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.”

John Hanford, the State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom, recently visited Vietnam and was encouraged by the steps the government there was willing to take, a senior official said yesterday.

In September, Mr. Hanford said he was “especially troubled by government-sponsored forced renunciations of faith” in Vietnam.

“The sort of issues that made us feel that Vietnam deserved designation would include the number of religious prisoners .”

In Eritrea, “the government monitored, harassed, arrested and detained members of Pentecostal, independent Evangelical groups, the Eritrean Orthodox Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the report said.

“There were also numerous reports of physical torture and attempts at forced recantations,” it said. “There were numerous credible reports that over 400 members of non-sanctioned religious groups had been detained or imprisoned.”

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