Religious Freedom Watchdog Urges Gov't to Penalize Saudis, Others

By Patrick Goodenough | December 19, 2003 | 7:14pm EST

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Washington's religious rights watchdog has seized on the latest State Department global survey of religious freedom to renew its longstanding calls for the administration to act firmly against Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Turkmenistan.

The three countries -- two Islamic and one communist -- are among the worst of the numerous violators cited in the fifth annual report by the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, released Thursday.

Yet the three have not been designated "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 - the legislation that set up both the State Department office, and an independent watchdog called the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The law requires the president to take specific actions against CPCs, which are defined as "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violators of religious freedom. They include sanctions and diplomatic demarches, although the punitive actions may also be waived.

Currently the administration designates Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan as CPCs.

After Thursday's release of the 2003 report, the USCIRF drew attention to three omissions from the list.

"The extent of the religious freedom violations in Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam demonstrates clearly the importance of U.S. action to ensure their compliance with international human rights standards," USCIRF chairman Michael Young said in a statement.

As it has every year since 1999, the State Department report states unambiguously that "religious freedom does not exist" in Saudi Arabia.

It is the only country that gets such a blunt assessment. Even North Korea, which top U.S. official John Hanford said Thursday was probably the worst violator in the world, gets a slightly qualified appraisal in the report, which says: "genuine religious freedom does not exist."

Hanford, who serves as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, told a briefing in Washington that Saudi Arabia was "very close to the threshold" for CPC designation.

"In terms of restrictions of religious freedom there are few countries that are more restrictive in terms of their laws," he said in reference to the kingdom.

He added, however, "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."

Yet, the report itself says that non-Muslim worshippers in Saudi Arabia "risked arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes physical abuse for engaging in religious activity that attracted official attention."

Hanford said the administration would assess how the Saudi government was doing in improving the situation before making a final decision on CPC listing.

The report's executive summary says the Saudi government "continued to enforce a strictly conservative version of Sunni Islam and suppress the public practice of other interpretations of Islam and non-Muslim religions."

The other two countries targeted by the USCIRF, Vietnam and Turkmenistan, both came in for strong criticism in the report, which covered the period June 2002-June 2003.

It said the government of Turkmenistan discriminated against those practicing any faith other than the officially approved Sunni Islam or Russian Orthodox Christianity.

It cited harassment, detention, confiscation of literature including Bibles, prohibitions on proselytizing, pressure to abandon religious beliefs, and threats of eviction or loss of jobs.

President Saparmurad Niyazov, who is the object of a personality cult, has issued a spiritual guidebook on Turkmen culture and heritage called Rukhnama, which he insists must be used in mosques and Orthodox churches, and be studied by all citizens.

On Vietnam, the report said the regime significantly restricted public activities of religious groups that it does not recognize. Officials were reported to have tried to force Hmong and other ethnic minority Protestants to renounce their faith.

Apart from its recommendation that Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam be added to the CPC list, the USCIRF had further suggestions.

It called for a congressionally funded and authorized investigation into Saudi government funding of the global propagation of any religious ideology promoting hate, intolerance, or violence.

In the case of Turkmenistan, the government should freeze all non-humanitarian assistance to the government, it said.

And the commission urged Congress to pass legislation that would link any future increase in non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam to certification by the president that Hanoi has shown improvements in protecting religious and other freedoms.

How others fared

The 2003 report named numerous countries, mostly in Asia and the Middle East, for violations.

Acknowledging the difficulty of confirming information coming out of North Korea, it said reports continued to emerge alleging that "members of underground churches have been beaten, arrested, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs."

Minority or non-approved religions faced state hostility in countries like Sudan, Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan, or discriminatory legislation in others, including Russia, Belarus and Eritrea.

Egypt was criticized for discrimination against Coptic Christians, while "converts from Islam face periodic detention and discrimination."

China was rapped for trying to restrict religious practice to state-sanctioned groups, while others suffered "intimidation, harassment, and detention," to varying degrees.

The report also noted problems in several European countries, saying certain religions were stigmatized in Belgium, France and Germany.

It said there was a "disturbing increase" in anti-Semitism in parts of Europe.

Kazakhstan and Laos were singled out for "significant improvement" in the protection and promotion of religious freedom.

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