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Saudis stay off U.S. list of nations violating religious freedom

List includes China, Iran, Iraq, N. Korea

Friday, March 7, 2003

The Bush administration has rejected the recommendation by a government commission to list Saudi Arabia as a major violator of religious freedom, a move that could have resulted in U.S. sanctions on the kingdom.

Officials said Secretary of State Colin Powell had assured Saudi leaders that he would not comply with the recommendation to classify Saudi Arabia as a major violator of religious freedom. They said the decision was part of the Bush administration's effort to maintain U.S. relations with Riyad until at least the end of 2003 and the expected war against Iraq.

Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the Bush administration to add Saudi Arabia to the list of major violators of religious freedom, Middle East Newsline reported. In a report, the panel said Riyad is one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.

The State Department list of countries "of particular concern" regarding violations of religious freedom includes: Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Sudan.

Instead, Powell renewed the designation of those same six countries deemed in 2002 as severe violators of religious freedom.

"Regrettably, the status of religious freedom has not significantly improved in any of these countries since that time," the State Department said in a statement.

On Wednesday, the commission expressed deep disappointment with the failure of the State Department to deem Saudi Arabia and several other countries as major violators of religious freedom. They include India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

The department issues a list of countries of particular concern for the violation of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act. The legislation also established a governmental panel that monitors religious rights around the world.

"For three years, the commission has recommended Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Laos for CPC [country of particular concern] status because of their deplorable religious freedom violations, yet none has been named," Felice Gaer, who chairs the commission, said. "Even the State Department's own report states that religious freedom 'does not exist' in Saudi Arabia. We urge the department to continue to assess the religious freedom violations in these countries and make CPC designations throughout the year."

Under U.S. law, the administration has 90 days to explain its decision regarding the State Department's latest list of major violators of religious freedom. Last year, commission members complained of long delays by the department in dealing with the issue.

In separate reports, the commission as well as the State Department reported the detention and torture of numerous foreign Christian workers for their religious views. The commission report also complained of the Saudi religious police, "who exercise their vague powers in ways that violate others' religious freedom."

The department did not explain why Saudi Arabia was not added to the list of major religious violators. But the statement said the designation of "countries of particular concern" is just "one of many tools the U.S. government uses to address religious persecution and bring pressure on those governments which are responsible."

Last month, the American Jewish Committee released a report that asserted that Saudi textbooks promote hatred of Christians and Jews. The study by the AJC and the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace examined 93 books used in Saudi schools between 1999 and 2002.

"Despite Saudi government statements to the West promoting unity, friendship and tolerance, the report clearly demonstrates a disturbing pattern of hateful language that is pervasive in official textbooks published by the Saudi Ministry of Education," AJC executive director David Harris said. "Given that these books are being used in government schools, the inescapable conclusion is that this represents the position of the Saudi Arabian government."

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