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U.S. panel calls for end to Saudi restrictions on U.S. military

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

WASHINGTON A U.S. commission has called on the Bush administration to press Saudi Arabia to end restrictions on religious practices of American military personnel.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the administration to insist that Saudi Arabia respect the rights of religious practices by Americans in the kingdom. The commission also asserted that U.S. companies in Saudi Arabia were violating religious freedom and other human rights in their dealings with the Saudi monarchy.

The commission designated Saudi Arabia a "country of particular concern" and said religious freedom does not exist in the kingdom. The panel, established by Congress in 1998, said Saudi religious police have been brutal with Americans and other nationals who do not practice the Wahabi brand of Sunni Islam.

"The U.S. government should ensure that any existing restrictions on religious practice of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel be lifted permanently and that American citizens visiting or residing in Saudi Arabia have full access to embassy and consular services under current U.S. law, particularly any American citizens seeking refuge or assistance," the commission said in a report released on Tuesday. "The U.S. government should investigate reports that some U.S. companies doing business in Saudi Arabia engage in practices that constitute or facilitate discrimination or violations of religious freedom or other human rights."

The commission did not identify the U.S. companies. The United States has been active in Saudi Arabia's defense and energy sectors.

Saudi Arabia continues to fund activities that promotes hatred against non-Wahabis, the commission said. The panel said Saudi funding has reached groups in the United States.

"The commission also is concerned about credible reports that Saudis are funding, directly and indirectly, efforts to propagate globally, including in the United States, a religious ideology that promotes hate, intolerance, and other human rights violations, in some cases violence, toward members of other religious groups, both Muslim and non-Muslims," the report said.

The report discussed the role of the Saudi religious police. The commission said the police, known as the "mutawaa," has detained and beaten Westerners, harassed women and raided places of private worship.

"Even diplomatic personnel from Western countries face difficulties in their religious practice; these difficulties are compounded for foreign contract workers that have no diplomatic standing and little or no access to private religious services conducted at diplomatic facilities," the report said. "Moreover, the government does not allow clergy to enter the country in order to perform private religious services for foreigners legally residing in Saudi Arabia."

Last year, the State Department refused to term Saudi Arabia a leading violator of religious freedom. The classification of "country of particular concern" could lead to the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Saudi Arabia.

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