(CNSNews.com) - The Bush administration has decided to extend a waiver that frees it from imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia for religious persecution, although religious freedom advocates say the kingdom has done little to improve the situation.
The U.S. decision to give its Mideast ally another reprieve flies in the face of the recommendations made by a body of experts set up under U.S. law to advise the government on religious freedom issues.
The U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom (UNCIRF) wants the administration to bar entry into the U.S. of Saudi officials responsible for severe religious freedom violations or for propagating an intolerant ideology, and to prevent the export to Saudi Arabia of items like leg irons and shackles.
It was making that recommendation, USCIRF vice chair Nina Shea told lawmakers in a June 30 House International Relations Committee subcommittee hearing, because the Saudis had not made demonstrable progress.
But the State Department said Wednesday the Saudi government was pursuing policies "promoting greater freedom for religious practice and increased tolerance for religious groups."
These included a revision of school textbooks and educational curricula to remove "disparaging remarks toward religious groups," said John Hanford, the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.
The kingdom was also retraining teachers and members of the religious police "to promote tolerance and combat extremism," and had created a rights commission to review complaints, he said.
"I am pleased that the government of Saudi Arabia has been willing to engage with us in a substantive manner on these critical issues," Hanford said in a statement after briefing members of Congress on the results of bilateral discussions.
"In light of these ongoing developments, and in view of the policies that the Saudi government has put in place to promote greater tolerance for members of the various religious groups in Saudi Arabia, the Secretary has decided to leave in place a waiver."
The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the legislation which set up the USCIRF, provided for the government to designate "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) who could then be subject to sanctions for violating religious freedoms. It also gave the secretary of state the right to waive action if this could further the purposes of the law.
In July 2001, the USCIRF first recommended that Saudi Arabia be named a CPC. For the next three years, the administration demurred, despite the State Department's own finding that "freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia" - an assessment it made in only two cases out of almost 200 countries reviewed, those of Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
In September 2004, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designated Saudi Arabia a CPC. Others on the list are China, Iran, Burma, North Korea, Sudan, Eritrea and Vietnam.
Most of those countries were already subjected to pre-existing sanctions of some form. (Eritrea was not, but restrictions on the import of defense-related articles were imposed after its CPC designation, Vietnam avoided sanctions by signing a May 2005 agreement with the U.S. undertaking to address religious freedom concerns.)
Since Saudi Arabia's 2004 designation, the USCIRF pressed for sanctions. A year later, Rice last September authorized a 180-day waiver of action against Riyadh, "in order to allow additional time for the continuation of discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues."
That waiver period ended last March, and it has now been extended.
Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's two most revered sites, in Mecca and Medina, and views itself as guardian of the faith. It is ruled by a monarchy with a legal system based on Islamic law.
The State Department reports that freedom of religion "is not recognized or protected under the country's laws, and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam."
The department cites incidents of detention without trial, abuses by the notorious Muttawa religious police, torture, and cruel and degrading treatment.
Visitors have reported having Bibles confiscated and shredded by customs officials.
Public non-Muslim worship facilities and services are banned in Saudi Arabia, but even private meetings have been targeted by the Muttawa.
Last months, the Christian news service Compass Direct reported that four East African men had been arrested for leading a private prayer service for expatriate Christians in their Jeddah home.
The Muttawa also arrest couples suspected of inappropriate behavior. Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper reported last month that a Turkish airline steward and a female colleague had been detained in a Riyadh restaurant after police had demanded to know whether they were married.
The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, a Washington DC-based organization, reported similar cases, and its director, Ali Alyami, said the police were empowered to "stop and imprison anyone they want."
The Saudi authorities also stand accused of spreading propaganda inciting anti-Christian and anti-Jewish hatred in Saudi schools, and in Saudi-funded mosques in the U.S.
According to Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Turki Al-Faisal, his government has been working to overhaul its education system for the past five years.
Less than two months ago, however, two Washington-based organizations released a report analyzing the content of textbooks used in Saudi elementary and secondary schools this year. It found that the books continue to promote an ideology of hatred against anyone, including Muslims, not subscribing to the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam.
Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and the Institute for Gulf Affairs said their report contradicted claims by senior Saudi officials that the educational materials had already been purged of inciteful and intolerant material.
The report found material in current Education Ministry textbooks commanding Muslims to "hate" Christians, Jews and other "unbelievers" and calling Jews and Christians "enemies."
Students are instructed not to "greet," "befriend," "imitate," "show loyalty to," "be courteous to," or "respect" non-believers.
"Every religion other than Islam is false," declares one book for first-graders. Teachers are instructed to tell the children that "when someone dies outside of Islam, hellfire is his fate" and to "give examples of false religions, like Judaism, Christianity, paganism etc."
A sixth-grade book says Allah will help Muslims "emerge victorious ... against the Jews and their allies," and an eighth grade book cites a scholar as calling Jews "apes" and Christians "swine."
"Whatever changes have been made in the Saudi educational system, clearly more needs to be done," said Shea, who is also director of the Center for Religious Freedom.
Hanford on Wednesday acknowledged that "some repugnant references" were still present in Saudi textbooks. He said Saudi officials with whom he had met had agreed the language was "inexcusable."
Saudi Schools Still Teach Hatred for West, Report States (May 25, 2006)
Saudis Shred Bibles, Rights Campaigners Claim (May 19, 2005)
Saudis Accused of Spreading 'Hate Propaganda' in US (Feb. 01, 2005)
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