- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

When a government’s religious police bar its citizens from practicing all religions but one — like Saudi Arabia’s — the words “freedom of religion does not exist” are apt. But the State Department has quietly dropped that accurate six-word description for the Saudi Arabia section of this year’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. This is unfortunate.

The facts on the ground have not changed, which State admits. In place of the tough language, this year’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom states that “[t]here is no legal recognition of religious freedom, and it is severely restricted in practice” in Saudi Arabia. Here’s the department’s explanation, which reads in part:”As the report states, on any given day, thousands of citizens and guest workers practice their faith. In practice, religious practice is permitted and tolerance is growing. The Government is working to address concerns about the status of freedom for religious practice and tolerance and has confirmed a number of concrete steps to advance these goals.

“These policies are designed to halt the dissemination of intolerant literature and extremist ideology, both in Saudi Arabia and around the world, which includes educational curricula and textbooks. In addition, these policies also include protection of the right to private worship, curbing the harassment of religious groups and empowering its Human Rights Commission.” The report goes on to mention examples of discrimination and harassment against those who do not practice the approved version of Sunni Islam.

Earlier Friday, John Hanford, ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, explained that “We’ve been given assurances that, as of this school year, those textbooks will no longer contain intolerant references to other faiths.,”

These stated explanations don’t wash. Even the State Department itself acknowledges in the same report that religious freedom in Saudi Arabia has not improved measurably in the last year. “[T]here was generally no change in the status of religious freedom during the reporting period,” it reads.

It would be far better not to rate the religious-freedom performance of repressive governments at all than to appear to loosen the standards for countries which happen to be U.S. allies.

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