The Bush administration has made what officials termed
a last-ditch effort to keep Saudi Arabia off a list of leading religious
rights violators, a move that could prompt an arms embargo on the kingdom.
A senior State Department official was sent to Riyad earlier this week
to discuss a draft of a report that detailed major Saudi violations of
religious rights. The State Department envoy was said to have sought
assurances from the Saudi government that it would change its policy.
The State Department was to have relayed its annual International
Religious Freedom Report to Congress by Sept. 30. The report was meant to
have addressed demands by a panel mandated by Congress to deem Saudi Arabia
as a "country of particular concern," a term reserved for a leading violator
of religious freedom.
Officials now said the State Department report will be delayed until at
least mid-November. They cited difficulties in obtaining information as well
as bureaucratic delays.
The department has listed Saudi Arabia a country of concern, but refused
to adopt the harsher definition by the U.S. Commission on International
Religious Freedom. In its May 2003 report, the commission reported on abuses
by the 4,500-member Saudi police against U.S. and other foreigners in the
kingdom. The report also detailed the Saudi export of Wahabi ideology and
expressed concern that this was linked to the financing of Islamic
insurgency groups deemed as terrorist.
"The U.S. government should ensure that any existing restrictions on the
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's report said.
On Thursday, John Hanford, the State Department ambassador-at-large for
international religious freedom, was scheduled to complete his visit to
Riyad. Hanford, who a year ago said the State Department must consider
designating Saudi Arabia a country of particular concern, met Saudi
officials to discuss Riyad's policy toward the religious practices of
non-Muslims in the kingdom. For three years, the State Department dismissed
recommendations by the U.S. commission to deem Saudi Arabia as a country of
"The purpose of his trip is not merely to collect information but to
continue to discuss these policy issues, to continue to encourage more
action to open up religious freedom in Saudi Arabia," State Department
spokesman Richard Boucher said on Wednesday.
Officials said the State Department would not issue a designation of
Saudi Arabia or any other country until the spring of 2004. Designating
Saudi Arabia a country of particular concern could spark a series of
sanctions against the kingdom, including an embargo of U.S. weapons.
Although weapons purchases have decreased over the last two years, Saudi
Arabia remains one of the largest consumers of U.S. arms.