The Bush administration has put off for six months a decision on whether to sanction Saudi Arabia for violations of religious freedom. The key U.S. ally was cited as a country of particular concern on the issue in a State Department report a year ago.

Officials here say Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has notified the Congress that she has authorized a 180-day waiver of action to allow more time for talks with Saudi Arabia on improving its record on religious freedom.

The Gulf kingdom, a key regional ally of the United States, was listed as one of the most severe violators of religious liberties in the State Department's annual report on the issue released a year ago.

The annual report is mandated by a 1998 act of Congress, which also provides for a range of sanctions against countries found to be severe violators of religious freedom.

Saudi Arabia was one of three countries, along with Vietnam and Eritrea, added to the list of so-called "countries of particular concern" in last year's report.

The report said flatly that religious freedom does not exist in Saudi Arabia and is not protected by the country's laws.

It said only followers of the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam have freedom of worship, and that adherents of other faiths risk imprisonment, lashing, deportation or even torture.

Speaking to VOA, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli noted that the administration did not exercise the option to entirely waive the possibility of sanctions against Saudi Arabia on national security grounds.

Instead, Mr. Ereli said American diplomats intend to engage Saudi authorities in the coming months with the hope of developing a plan of action to deal with U.S. concerns, including allowing other religious groups to hold public worship sessions, and giving them the right to possess their respective holy books and other religious documents.

"I think there's a possibility, we hope a probability, that Saudi Arabia together with the United States will be able to develop a plan of action to deal with these issues," said Mr. Ereli.  "And based on that, in 180 days, we'll review and decide whether sanctions are warranted, or whether they've made sufficient progress in addressing the shortcomings that we've identified."

Vietnam was spared the risk of U.S. sanctions when it reached an agreement with a senior State Department envoy last May, committing to ease curbs of religious practices.

Last week, the State Department notified Congress that it was banning the commercial export of certain defense items to Eritrea because of its continued status as a country of particular concern.

It was the first time sanctions have been applied to any country under the U.S. religious freedom law.

The September report also listed Burma, China, North Korea, Iran and Sudan among leading violators. All of them had previously been cited, and all of them already face varying sorts of U.S. sanctions for human rights violations.

A State Department official said Secretary Rice raised the religious freedom issue in a Washington meeting last week with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and stressed the importance of continuing to work on the matter.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a monitoring group established under the 1998 Congressional act, noted with approval the administration's decision not to invoke a national interests waiver on Saudi Arabia.

In a statement Friday, the commission said it hopes the course of action will be justified by "genuine progress" in the religious dialogue with the Saudis.

The commission says that in the absence of such progress, the administration should ban exports of high-technology items with police or military applications to Saudi agencies responsible for religious-freedom violations.

It has also recommended a ban on U.S. travel for Saudi officials engaged in such violations, or who globally propagate an ideology promoting hate, intolerance and human rights violations.