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Saudi Dissidents Criticize Riyadh's Religious Practices - 2002-01-30

The September 11 terorrist attacks on the United States have brought the question of religious tolerance into the international spotlight, highlighting the need for freedom, but casting a shadow on religious intolerance even among America's allies in the battle against terrorism. Among these is Saudi Arabia, where some human rights groups say freedom of religion does not exist.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Bush said America will always stand firm for human dignity, the rule of law, respect for women, free speech, and religious tolerance.

But many human rights groups say these rights, religious freedom in particular, do not exist in Saudi Arabia, one of America's ally in the anti-terrorism campaign.

In a report released Wednesday, Saudi dissidents say of the seven Islamic minorities living in Saudi Arabia, the government in Riyadh tolerates only those following the official Wahhabi interpretation, which most Saudis do not follow.

They say millions of books have been seized and burned and centuries-old mosques and historic landmarks destroyed. And Ali al-Ahmed of the Washington-based Saudi Institute charges that the Saudi government tolerates religion-motivated murder. "To allow one Saudi to kill another Saudi based on religious differences is scary," he said.

The Saudi Institute says in its report authorities in Riyadh are holding 220 religious prisoners, 17 of whom face execution.

This is of particular concern to Sharon Burke, Middle East advocate of Amnesty International. She says religious prisoners, as well as many of those jailed for other crimes, face torture, forced confessions, grossly unfair trials, and beheadings. "Saudi Arabia has the right to have its culture and its belief system but they also have to have a justice system that's consistent and fair and not arbitrary," he said.

But Ms. Burke says there is cause for optimism. She says the Saudi government has made a number of encouraging promises in recent years to improve human rights and legal guarantees. She also says Riyadh has signed on to international conventions against torture and racism.

No Saudi official contacted would comment on Wednesday's report. But earlier this week, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah told several U.S. newspapers that Islamic faith and culture are the foundation of his country, and systems that work elsewhere may not work in Saudi Arabia.