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US Panel Recommends Ways for Saudi Arabia to Increase Religious Freedom - 2003-05-13

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which makes policy recommendations to Congress and the White House, is singling out a host of countries for special criticism in its annual report released Tuesday in Washington. The commission is also, for the first time, turning its focus to Saudi Arabia.

The ten-member commission was created under the 1998 U.S. International Religious Freedom Act, which emphasized the importance of religious freedom to American foreign policy. Commission chairwoman Felice Gaer, of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, says protection of religious freedom is an important tool in the fight against terrorism.

"It is a conviction of the members of this commission that a country that respects freedom of religion and that includes freedom for all religious minorities, is a more stable and responsible member of the international community," she said.

The commission's annual report highlights repression of religious freedom in countries like Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Laos, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam.

Commissioner Leila Sadat, a Washington University law professor, says she believes the current problems in Afghanistan can serve as a cautionary tale for what could happen in Iraq.

"Even as attention shifts to Iraq, the United States needs to be careful not to forget that the work in Afghanistan is just beginning," she said. "The groundwork is potentially being laid in Afghanistan for a regime that may become almost as repressive as the Taleban was, particularly with regard to religious freedom."

When asked about the possibility of a democratically-elected Islamic government in Iraq, commissioner Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, says his main concern is that the majority religion should not persecute the minority.

"If a country wants to give preference, if the citizens of that country decide they want to give preference to a particular religion, they have the right to decide to do that," he said. "What they don't have the right to do is to say we will then punish you, discriminate against you, persecute you or kill you if you change from that religion or if you choose to be of another faith and want to express that faith."

The commission singled out Saudi Arabia in its annual report and also featured it in an individual country report. Commissioner Mike Young, dean of the George Washington University Law School, says criticism of Riyadh in the past was complicated because Saudi Arabia has such a long-standing friendship with the United States.

"The stars are aligning to make the timing right on this, in the sense that the Saudi government, itself, I think as there has been more and more scrutiny on what has happened within the country, has begun to be more sensitive to the international expression of concern," he said.

Commissioner Nina Shea, of the human rights organization Freedom House, says the reports make what she described as "creative" and "achievable" recommendations to the Saudi government. She says the goal is to press for greater religious freedom in Saudi Arabia without destabilizing the country.