(CNSNews.com) - A panel that advises the U.S. government on religious freedom Wednesday questioned the Bush administration's decisions to remove Vietnam from a list of egregious violators and to waive sanctions against Saudi Arabia, where religious freedom does not exist.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also placed the Iraqi government on notice that it could be named a "country of particular concern" (CPC) because of worsening conditions there.
"We recommend that Vietnam be re-designated as a CPC in 2007," the commission wrote in its annual report, released Wednesday.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last November removed the communist-ruled South-East Asian country from the list, which under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act provides for the use of sanctions or other measures to prod foreign governments to respect citizens' freedom to worship.
Since Hanoi was removed from the list and joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), the commission said, "positive religious freedom trends have, for the most part stalled."
Washington removed Vietnam from the list on the eve of President Bush's first official visit to the country, citing what the State Department called "significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom."
The move drew strong criticism from Vietnamese-American groups, who said any alleged improvement was window-dressing by Hanoi designed to strengthen its case for normalized trade relations with the U.S. ahead of its WTO accession in January 2007.
Since then, the commission said Wednesday, "Vietnam has initiated a severe crackdown on human rights defenders and advocates for the freedoms of speech, association and assembly, including many religious leaders who previously were the leading advocates for religious freedom in that country.
"Given the recent deterioration of human rights conditions in Vietnam and because of continued abuses of and restrictions on religious freedom, the commission continues to believe that the lifting of the CPC designation was premature," the commission added.
The commission said lifting the designation had removed a useful "diplomatic tool" and incentive.
Among the "tools" provided for by the 1998 legislation was the imposition of sanctions against foreign governments.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, which was added to the CPC list in 2004, the administration has waived sanctions, a decision criticized by the commission.
The State Department said last July it was keeping the waiver in place as bilateral discussions had enabled the U.S. to identify and confirm policies the kingdom "is pursuing and will continue to pursue for the purpose of promoting greater freedom for religious practice and increased tolerance for religious groups."
The commission, however, remains unimpressed.
"Because previous reform pledges made by the Saudi government have not been implemented in practice, the commission remains concerned about whether and how the newly reported Saudi policies will be implemented and how the United States will monitor them," it said.
It recommended that the State Department report publicly to Congress, every 120 days, on how the policies identified during its discussions with the Saudis were being implemented.
The commission noted - as the State Department has itself in its own annual reports on religious freedom worldwide - that there is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.
"The government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government's own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam [Wahhabism] and interfering with private religious practice," the commission said.
"The government also continues to be involved in financing activities throughout the world that support extreme religious intolerance, hatred, and, in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims," the commission added.
Other countries currently on the CPC list are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Uzbekistan. Apart from Vietnam, the commission also wants the State Department to designate Pakistan and Turkmenistan as CPCs.
The commission also maintains a second-tier "watch list" of countries that may become eligible for CPC status if the situations there do not improve. This year, it decided to add Iraq to that list, "due to the alarming and deteriorating situation for freedom of religion and belief."
(Iraq was designated as a CPC under Saddam Hussein but was removed from that list after U.S.-led forces toppled the regime in 2003.)
Acknowledging that Sunni-dominated insurgents in Iraq were "responsible for a substantial proportion of the sectarian violence and associated human rights violations," the commission nonetheless scored the Iraqi government for infringements.
It said Baghdad both targeted ordinary Sunnis on the basis of their religious identity and tolerated violations by Shi'ite factions. Non-Muslims also faced grave conditions at the hands of the government and non-state actors, it said.
"The commission has added Iraq to its watch list with the understanding that it may designate Iraq as a CPC next year if improvements are not made by the Iraqi government."
Other nations on the watch list are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by the 1998 legislation to give independent recommendations to the executive branch and Congress.
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