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Administration Seeks More Time for Religious Freedom Talks With Vietnam, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia

The Bush administration is asking Congress for more time to pursue talks with Vietnam, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia on improving their record on respect for religious freedom. The three countries could be subject to U.S. sanctions after being named as major violators of religious freedom in a State Department report last September.

Officials here say the Bush administration is asking Congress for a few more weeks to continue what are seen as productive contacts with Vietnam, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia aimed at resolving U.S. concerns about their records on religious freedom.

All three were added to a list of so-called Countries of Particular Concern in the State Department's annual report on the status of religious freedom around the world, issued last September.

Under the 1998 act of Congress that required the annual State Department assessments, the administration had up to six months to discuss shortcomings with the countries cited, and to propose punitive steps against those that did not take or promise action to address U.S. concerns.

At a news briefing Tuesday, the six-month anniversary of the report, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the administration was seeking a little extra time because some important progress has been made in diplomatic contacts with the three countries.

"As you know, in September we designated Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam as Countries of Particular Concern,” he said. “Since that time, 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. I think we're 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."

Mr. Ereli said the degree of progress varied among the three countries.

A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here said the most promising discussions had been with Vietnam, where the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom John Hanford held talks with senior officials last week.

The government in Hanoi has recently taken steps to improve its international image including releasing at least two high-profile dissidents as part of a prisoner release to mark the Lunar New Year.

It has also said it would allow previously-banned Protestant house churches to operate in the Central Highlands region, provided they sever ties with an exile group Hanoi considers a separatist movement.

Last September's State Department report said that despite nominal guarantees for religious freedom, Vietnam significantly restricted activities of religious groups not recognized by the government.

It said Eritrea's poor record on the issue continued to worsen last year with the government monitoring, harassing and arresting members of Evangelical Christian groups.

In Saudi Arabia, the report said flatly that freedom of religion does not exist, and that freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sponsored version of Sunni Islam.

Under questioning, spokesman Ereli said he could not say that Saudi Arabia had become a more tolerant society since the September report, but he said there had been good discussions with Saudi officials, and what he termed real engagement on the issue.

The U.S. law setting up the religion reports provides for a variety of sanctions against those listed as Countries of Particular Concern, but it also allows for a waiver of penalties if the administration deems that to be in the U.S. national interest.

In September, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea were added to the list, while Iraq was removed.

Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan remained on the list, all of which are already subject to some U.S. sanctions.