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U.S. blasts Saudis on religious freedom

By KRISHNADEV CALAMUR

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia finds itself for the first time on a U.S. list of countries of particular concern "for particularly severe violations of religious freedom," paving the way for possible U.S. sanctions.

"In September 2004, the secretary of state designated Saudi Arabia as a 'country of particular concern' under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom," said the State Department's "Annual Report on International Religious Freedom 2004."

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The report said freedom of religion was not recognized or protected under Saudi law, and basic religious freedoms were denied to all but those who practiced the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

"Freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, the report said.

It noted that those who don't practice Salafi or Wahhabi Islam can face severe repercussions at the hands of the religious police. The country's Shiite-Muslim minority faced discrimination and restrictions on the practice of their faith, the report added. It also noted that the government prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities.

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"Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention," it said. "Proselytizing by non-Muslims, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles, is illegal."

The report pointed to inflammatory anti-Jewish and anti-Christian sermons being delivered by clerics who were paid by the government. This has been a key criticism by those who accuse the Saudi government of turning a blind eye to the rise of Islamic militancy in the country. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were Saudis.

John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, told a news conference that Saudi Arabia was being included despite improvements such as a bid by Crown Prince Abdullah to promote tolerance and moderation, a national dialogue with Shiites, a rewriting of textbooks to remove inflammatory statements against non-Salafi Muslims and against other religions, and the firing of firebrand imams.

"There are positive developments in Saudi Arabia that we take encouragement from, but there are a number of problems that persist that we feel place Saudi Arabia over the line," he said.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the designation.

Saudi Arabia and other first-timers Eritrea and Vietnam join six countries -- China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and Sudan -- on the list and are now subject to possible U.S. sanctions.

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Releasing the report at the State Department, U.S. secretary of State Colin Powell noted that many of the countries listed as CPCs were close U.S. allies.

"Let me emphasize that we will continue engaging the countries of particular concern with whom we have bilateral relationships," he said. "Our existing partnerships have flourished in numerous capacities, and they are just one of the best ways for us to encourage our friends to adopt tolerant practices."

Wednesday's report is mandated under a 1998 law approved by Congress. The law requires that within 90 days, a period that can be extended to 180 days, consideration must be given about some sort of consequence, which often takes the form of a sanction. The secretary of State has flexibility to grant waivers, however. No sanctions have ever been applied on countries on the CPC list since the reports first began in 1999.

The Bush administration views religious freedom as key to a stable political system, something it has been trying to foster around the world as part of its "war on terrorism." The report notes that failure to protect freedom of religion and other fundamental human rights "can undermine social order, foster extremism, and lead to instability and violence."

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"Too many people in our world are still denied their basic human right of religious liberty," Powell said. "Some suffer under totalitarian regimes, others under governments that deliberately target or fail to protect religious minorities from discrimination and violence."

Practices in Iraq are excluded because at the time the reporting period ended, June 30, the country was being governed by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. The State Department does not report on U.S. governance, but says it welcomes the scrutiny of other responsible reporters.

"Our own nation's history has not been perfect, nor do we claim to be so today," Hanford said. "We continue to strive at home and abroad to uphold religious freedom as the universal right that it is."

The report cites China, Cuba, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea and Vietnam as countries that use totalitarian or authoritarian actions to control religious belief or practice.

China is cited for its treatment of unregistered religious and spiritual groups, as well as Christians, Tibetans and Muslims. The report noted the continued arrest, detention and imprisonment of Falun Gong practitioners.

"Practitioners who refuse to recant their beliefs are sometimes subjected to harsh treatment in prisons and re-education-through-labor camps, and there have been credible reports of deaths due to torture and abuse," the report said.

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Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, all key U.S. allies in the war on terror, were rapped for hostility toward minority on non-approved religion. Also on that list were Eritrea, Iran, Sudan and Turkmenistan. The report said though these states did not implement full control over minority religions, they were hostile and repressive to certain ones, or identified religious groups as "security threats."

"These governments implement policies designed to intimidate and harass certain religious groups, demand adherents to recant their faith, or cause religious group members to flee the country," the report said.

Pakistan's government was accused of imposing limits on freedom of religion. The report noted a lack of intervention in violence against minority religious groups, pointing to anti-Shiite violence in the predominantly Sunni country.

"Human rights groups report that there have been incidents in which persons from minority groups, especially Hindus and Christians, have been abducted and forcibly converted," the report said.

The Uzbek government was accused of "continued ... numerous serious abuses of religious freedom." The report said the government curtailed Christian activity as well as unauthorized Islamic groups. Although the country is predominantly Muslim, the government has cracked down on groups and observant Muslims after guerrilla attacks in the country.

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"This campaign led authorities to be highly suspicious of those who were among the most observant, including frequent mosque attendees, bearded men, and veiled women, creating a climate of intimidation and fear for some devout believers," it said.

The report also chided allies Egypt and India for neglect of discrimination against or persecution of religious minorities. India was rapped for anti-Muslim violence and anti-conversion laws in some states targeting Christians, and Egypt for trying citizens for unorthodox religious beliefs.

Bangladesh, Georgia, Guatemala and Indonesia, Nigeria and Nigeria, Sri Lanka were also on the same list.

Azerbaijan, Belarus, Brunei, Israel, Malaysia, Moldova, Russia and Turkey are listed for enacting discriminatory legislation or policies prejudicial to certain religions.

European allies such as Belgium, France and Germany are cited for denouncing certain religions as "cults" or "sects." The Church of Scientology is scrutinized in Belgium and Germany, and France was listed for its law adopted over the summer that banned conspicuous religious symbols at schools.

The report also lauded Afghanistan, Georgia, India, Turkey and Turkmenistan for significant improvements in the promotion of religious freedom.

The U.S. government is engaged with several countries, including China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan to advance religious freedom in those nations.

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