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US Concerned About Religious Freedom in Saudi Arabia - 2004-09-15

The State Department has added Saudi Arabia to its list of Countries of Particular Concern with regard to violations of religious freedom. Vietnam and Eritrea were also added to the list while Iraq, following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, was removed.

Saudi Arabia had come under severe criticism in each of the five previous State Department reports on international religious freedom.

But officials say it was added to the list of Countries of Particular Concern for the first time this year because its efforts to deal with the shortcomings, while tangible, fell short of what was needed to avoid the designation.

In the annual report, mandated under a 1998 act of Congress, Saudi Arabia was one of only two countries, North Korea being the other, in which it is said flatly that religious freedom does not exist.

Along with North Korea, the report also kept Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, and Sudan on the list of countries of concern. Added to the list, along with Saudi Arabia, were Eritrea and Vietnam.

The designation as a country of particular concern does not require punitive measures by the United States, but does mandate Secretary of State Colin Powell to engage the offending state, if the United State has relations with it, on steps it might take to improve its record.

At a news briefing to launch the new report, Mr. Powell said he intends to do just that. "Let me emphasize that we will continue engaging the Countries of Particular Concern with whom we have bilateral relationships," he said. "Our existing partnerships have flourished in numerous capacities, and they are just one of the best ways for us to encourage our friends to adopt tolerant practices."

The State Department Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, John Hanford, said U.S. officials had been pleased with on-going discussions with Saudi leaders and that there had been sincere efforts on their part to address problems raised by the United States.

Yet he said Saudi Arabia's overall record on religious freedom left it "over the line" in terms of a critical designation.

Mr. Hanford said the main focus of U.S. concern was the Saudi government's mistreatment of Shiites and followers of other branches of Islam outside of the state-sanctioned Wahabi version of Sunni Islam.

He said members of the Shia minority, about 10 percent of the Saudi population, face political and economic discrimination, while followers of non-Muslim faiths face even more serious restrictions.

"Non-Muslims are not allowed to be citizens," he said. "You must be a Muslim in order to be a citizen of Saudi Arabia. There are no public places of worship, which are allowed. We are encouraged that the government tolerates people of other faiths meeting privately. They have stated this publicly and many, many do without harassment. But there are cases where there are instances of harassment and even arrests of non-Muslims."

Mr. Hanford said the United States is also concerned about religious hate speech in Saudi mosques against non-Wahabi Muslims and followers of other religions, including Jews and Christians.

The new report said the Chinese government's respect for freedom of religion remained poor, especially for unregistered religious groups, and spiritual movements such as the Falun Gong.

The Burmese government is said to have engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom for Muslims and Christians and the report says that efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom were systematically restricted.

The Iranian government is also accused of severe violations of religious freedom, with members of religious minorities including Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Jews and Christians reporting jailings, harassment, intimidation and discrimination based on their beliefs.

The report credits several countries including Georgia, Turkey, Afghanistan, India and Turkmenistan for taking steps to promote greater religious tolerance.

The report gave no assessment of Iraq's record over the past year because it was largely under U.S.-led occupation for that period.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell removed Iraq from the list of countries of concern in June, based on provisions of its Transitional Administrative Law guaranteeing freedom of worship.