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US Panel Criticizes Saudi Arabia For Lack of Religious Freedom

A U.S. advisory panel says Saudi Arabia has made little progress on pledges to protect religious freedom and tolerance in the country or to halt the export of literature that promotes hatred and intolerance. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom traveled to Saudi Arabia in May to discuss measures on greater religious freedom and rights for non-Muslims that the Saudi government had promised to implement a year earlier.

At a news conference Thursday, commissioner Leonard Leo expressed disappointment at what the panel members found during their recent trip.

"Private religious worship is still a very serious problem in practice," he said. "It's very hard to engage in worship if you are not a Sunni Muslim that ascribes to the beliefs that the Saudi government requires."

The commission, created by Congress in 1998 to monitor religious freedom around the world, also says the Saudi government has failed to show it is not involved in exporting militant Sunni textbooks to mosques and religious schools worldwide. Calls made by VOA seeking comment from Saudi Arabia's diplomats in Washington were not successful.

A flashpoint of the criticism is the Islamic Saudi Academy, a private school located in northern Virginia. The commission says the school appears to be substantially funded by Saudi Arabia's government. It adds that the academy's website says the school sticks closely to curriculum used in schools in Saudi Arabia. The commission says that curriculum promotes intolerance against Jews, Christians and Shiite Muslims

Commissioner Leo says the Saudi embassy has failed to make textbooks from the school available for outside scrutiny.

"After repeated requests for Saudi textbooks and curricula material, we have received absolutely nothing from the government that gives us an indication of where the curriculum stands and whether textbooks are in fact being sufficiently adjusted and revised to reflect adequate human rights standards and standards for religious freedom," he added.

The school's director-general, Abdalla al-Shabnan, says the academy has adjusted its curriculum in recent years and removed some inflammatory language.

The panel is asking the Secretary of State to discuss the school with the Saudi government.

Asked about the school, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he did not know about it, but he did comment on the export of materials.

"We think that no government, Saudi Arabia or any other, should be producing materials that are intolerant of other religions or intolerant of other racial or ethnic groups," he said. "And we will continue to work with the government of Saudi Arabia to press them to make the kinds of changes that they have committed to make in their textbooks."

The commission has no power to implement policy. But it is asking the State Department to continue designating Saudi Arabia as a "country of particular concern" in the annual religious freedom report and to strengthen diplomatic efforts to promote human rights and religious freedom as part of the countries' bilateral relationship.