US mulls blacklisting Saudis on religion

By ELI J. LAKE and KRISHNADEV CALAMUR  |  Oct. 9, 2002 at 1:15 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- The United States is debating whether to include Saudi Arabia on a blacklist of "countries of particular concern" that restrict religious freedoms, and a decision may be affected by U.S. plans for military action against Iraq, U.S. officials tell United Press International.

"Freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia," said the 2002 Report on International Religious Freedom released Monday by the U.S. State Department.

The country was included in a list of nations that show "hostility toward minority or non-approved religions."

The report is mandated under a 1998 law approved by Congress. The president is not obliged to impose sanctions against countries on the list, but could use it to name "countries of particular concern" and impose sanctions against them.

A section of the administration is keen to include the Saudis on this list of the most-serious violators.

The Saudi government "supports religious schools that export hate and sponsor terrorists," Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee, said in a statement.

"I urge the secretary of state and the president to act on this report and to designate Saudi Arabia as a 'Country of Particular Concern' as required by the International Religious Freedom Act."

Officials at the U.S. State Department said Saudi Arabia would be under consideration for the list.

"Saudi Arabia is a country that will be considered, given what's in the report," Jeff Jamison, of the Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told UPI Tuesday.

He said a decision would be made in "the coming weeks or months."

At present, the blacklist includes China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar (formally Burma), North Korea and Sudan.

"Sometimes close allies are countries that we have real problems with," said John Hanford, U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, at a news briefing Monday while announcing the release of the report.

"We press strongly our friends and our allies on this issue. There are ... an ally or two that we could view as candidates for countries of particular concern status and we're going to take these very seriously."

Hanford declined to name the countries, but said, "Of course, we have in the back of our minds the ones that are on the cusp."

He said Saudi Arabia's inclusion on the list was "something that we're going to have to consider very seriously."

But, he added, "you don't find the numbers of religious prisoners and you don't find the brutality on a regular basis that you do in some of the other countries that are" deemed countries of particular concern.

Saudi Arabia is said to be concerned and Adel al Jubeir, a senior Saudi diplomat, visited the State Department last week to discuss the report.

Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington would not immediately comment on the developments.

Saudi Arabia follows the Wahhabi branch of Islam and "practices contrary to this interpretation are suppressed," the report said.

Monday's report highlighted discrimination against the country's Shiite minority and also detailed the detentions of Christians, the confiscation or censoring of Bibles, and the harassment and assault of citizens and foreigners by the country's religious police and vigilantes.

U.S.-Saudi relations have been frigid since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Riyadh did not at first acknowledge that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, as U.S. officials said their investigations showed.

Washington is keen that it has the support of Riyadh, one of its key allies in the Arab world, before any potential military action against Iraq. Including Saudi Arabia on the list could sour relations further and could affect Arab support for U.S. action against Baghdad.

One U.S. official told UPI that Saudi cooperation with the United States could take one of two forms.

"There are two yeses," the official said. "The 'yes' for the troops and everything," which the official said was very unlikely, "and the soft 'yes,' which is (the Saudis saying) 'We let the junior partners of the GCC allow U.S. troops,' and we (the United States) get the (Saudi) airspace."

The GCC is the Gulf Cooperation Council, a pan-Arab body that includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh wields considerable influence in the organization.

Qatar has agreed to allow U.S. troops access to its military facilities in a possible war with Iraq. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.

Human rights groups such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have demanded that Saudi Arabia be listed as one of the world's worst violators of religious freedom.

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