(CNSNews.com) - A statutory body that advises the U.S. government on religious freedom has welcomed the State Department's decision to keep Saudi Arabia on a list of egregious religious freedom violators -- but it wants to see further steps taken.
A Saudi expert and critic of the regime says that in the absence of punitive measures, the designation of the kingdom as a "country of particular concern" is a pointless exercise.
The State Department says Saudi authorities deny religious freedom to non-Muslims as well as to Muslims who do not adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Salifi Sunni Islam, including Shi'ites.
"The government prohibits the public practice of other religions; non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention," especially that of the religious police, it said in a report to Congress Tuesday.
The report, which surveys 197 countries, identifies Saudi Arabia and seven others -- Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Sudan and Vietnam -- as "countries of particular concern" (CPCs).
The annual report to Congress and CPC designations are requirements under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which provides for the administration to take steps against violators including sanctions -- although temporary waivers are permitted.
So far, IRFA sanctions have only been taken against Eritrea. Others on the list are already subject to pre-existing U.S. sanctions, although no action has been taken against Saudi Arabia.
The IRFA also set up the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to give independent recommendations to the executive branch and Congress.
For four years, the Commission urged the State Department to designate Saudi Arabia as a CPC, but until last year the department demurred.
Over the year since the Sept. 2004 designation, steps taken have been limited to the raising of U.S. concerns with what Tuesday's report called "a wide range of senior government and religious leaders."
Two months ago - six months behind schedule - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finally authorized a 180-day waiver of action against Saudi Arabia, "in order to allow additional time for the continuation of discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues."
USCIRF communications director Anne Johnson said Tuesday the Commission was pleased to see Saudi Arabia again on the CPC list, but hoped for further action.
"We continue to call for the State Department to take action on last year's designation," she said by phone, noting that steps could be taken at any stage, and did not have to await the end of the 180-day waiver period (next March).
"They can determine before that that there's no progress likely to be made and that they need to take action," she explained.
The Commission has recommended travel bans and restrictions on the export of "dual use" items to Saudi government elements responsible for violating religious freedom or promoting a "hate ideology."
Johnson pointed out that Saudi Arabia has evaded punishment despite getting what amounts to the department's harshest evaluation.
"There are only two countries in the world that the State Department says there is no religious freedom -- or religious freedom does not exist -- Saudi Arabia and North Korea."
Improvement, or getting worse?
At a press conference Tuesday, John Hanford, the State Department official who heads the religious freedom office, was critical of Saudi Arabia but also said the kingdom had "demonstrated a willingness to engage with us to improve religious freedom."
He cited Saudi pledges to deal with the problem of "hateful messages in Saudi-sponsored literature" and efforts by the government to promote dialogue with the Shi'ite minority.
The religious police "are kept largely under control from raiding private worship groups," Hanford said, but added that there had been exceptions, with several groups of people arrested this year.
Asked about the waiver authorized by Rice last September, Hanford said the option was taken "because we feel like our discussions are productive, unlike discussions with some other countries. We feel like the government of Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction."
In the view of Saudi scholar Ali Al-Ahmed, however, the situation in Saudi Arabia has not improved. On the contrary, he said last Tuesday, "in historical context it has gotten worse."
"Any expression of religious or cultural identity by anyone else is forbidden."
In the past, the authorities were not as well organized as they are today in acting against illicit religious items, he said in a phone interview. Now, along with Bibles, even non-religious items associated with Christianity, such as Christmas trees, were banned.
Al-Ahmed said a recent exhibition by the religious police in the southern city of Asir included, in a display of confiscated contraband, copies of the Bible.
"This is poisonous to them - it is not allowed, not legal."
He said the exhibition had been opened by, and was held under the auspices of, a "so-called liberal" member of the ruling family, Prince Khalid Al-Faisal.
Al-Ahmed, a Shi'ite who heads the Institute for Gulf Affairs think tank, was critical of the State Department report and its handling of Saudi Arabia in general, describing it as "very apologetic" and "very careful."
He claimed that the report was "harsher" on Iran than on Saudi Arabia, even though "Iran has a better religious freedom record than Saudi Arabia - there are churches and synagogues and ... non-Muslim celebrations on Iranian TV."
Without taking punitive steps against Riyadh, he said, the CPC designation was "pointless and actually counterproductive."
Al-Ahmed's criticism went beyond the religious freedom issue, saying the department in other areas too -- including the treatment of women and the question of human trafficking -- was "making excuses for the Saudi government."
In an annual report on trafficking, a phenomenon sometimes described as "modern-day slavery," the department over the summer found that Saudi Arabia and 13 other countries were not doing enough to combat the problem, making them eligible for denial of non-humanitarian U.S. aid.
But in September, the administration waived sanctions against Saudi Arabia, and several others among the 14. It argued that, in the kingdom's case, this was "in the national interest because it will allow us to continue democracy programs ... and will permit continued security cooperation to effectively prosecute the war on terror."
At the time, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), author of legislation combating human trafficking, said he was disappointed by the waiver decision.
"Ally or not, America cannot condone human trafficking by any nation, and that is what we seem to be doing," Smith said. "I have said it time and time again, 'friends don't let friends commit human rights violations."
See earlier stories:
Saudis Shred Bibles, Rights Campaigners Claim(May 19, 2005)
Saudis Accused of Spreading 'Hate Propaganda' Among Muslims in US (Feb. 01, 2005)
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