'Freedom of religion does not exist,' but Saudis avoid sanctions

Monday, December 22, 2003

The Bush administration has categorized Saudi Arabia as the worst violator of religious freedom in the Middle East, but has refrained from placing the kingdom in a category that would have resulted in U.S. arms sanctions.

A State Department report cited Saudi Arabia as the most flagrant violator of religious freedom in the region. They said the Saudi kingdom continues to display hostility toward non-Islamic religions despite numerous U.S. appeals.

But the report, dismissing a recommendation by a congressionally-mandated U.S. commission, avoided placing Saudi Arabia in a category termed "countries of particular concern." The six countries in that category have been subject to a range of U.S. sanctions, including a ban on the delivery of U.S. military platforms, Middle East Newsline reported.

Saudi Arabia is the biggest client of U.S. weaponry and has been negotiating several major deals to modernize the kingdom's military and National Guard.

The six countries of particular concern are Burma, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. Iran has not been on the list State Department list despite being cited as a major violator of religious freedom in the Middle East.

"Freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia," the report said. "Muslims not adhering to the officially sanctioned version faced harassment at the hands of the [religious police]."

"Saudi Arabia has been very close to the threshold, and in terms of restrictions of religious freedom there are few countries that are more restrictive in terms of their laws," John Hanford, the State Department's ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said. "There are other countries that are much harsher in terms of the ways that they manifest their laws, in terms of arresting and torture and murdering people.

The government of Saudi Arabia has begun to implement some measures to address this problem, and we will be in the process of trying to assess how far those are along before we make that final decision."

The department's report, however, said there was no change in the status of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia over the last year. The department cited the continued detention of Shi'ite leaders and members of the Ismaili Shi'a community in the Najran province.

Saudi mosque preachers paid by the government used what was termed violently anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in their sermons, the report said. The report said Hindus, regarded as polytheists, faced greater discrimination than Christians with respect to compensation for accidental death and injury.

The report said the United States would press Riyad to honor its commitment to permit private religious worship by non-Muslims, to eliminate discrimination against minorities, and to promote tolerance toward non-Muslims. The report said U.S. embassy staffers have discussed allegations of Saudi religious rights violations with kingdom officials.

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