Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The State Department has once again chosen not to add Saudi Arabia to its list of the world's worst religious persecutors, despite recommendations from an expert panel, the strong views of campaigners - and its own assessment that religious freedom "does not exist" in the kingdom.
The State Department also overruled the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's advice that it add five other nations to the list of "countries of particular concern."
The designation can carry actions including diplomatic demarches or economic sanctions, although Washington has not taken punitive steps in the four years since the first list was announced.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher Wednesday announced this year's designations, the same six countries as appeared on the previous list - Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.
The status of religious freedom had not improved significantly in any of the six, he said.
Boucher added that designation of "countries of particular concern" was just one of the tools the U.S. uses to address religious persecution and bring pressure on errant governments.
The State Department also researches and publishes an annual report on religious freedom. Those reports, and the "countries of particular concern" designation, are requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
The Act also created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body of experts in the field that gives recommendations to the executive branch and Congress.
Last September the commission wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell, advising that the original six countries be re-designated CPCs, and that another six join the list - Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Laos, India, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.
Boucher's announcement made it clear that the department rejected the recommendations in all six latter cases.
Yet according to its own most recent annual report, released last October, religious freedom simply does not exist in Saudi Arabia.
The absence of legal recognition of freedom of religion makes the kingdom a standout: In each of the other five countries, their constitutions do provide for freedom of religion, although all five are accused in the report of violations in practice.
The USCIRF expressed disappointment Wednesday that its advice had once again been overruled, "even though egregious abuses persist or have increased" in the six countries.
It noted that the State Department's own reports provided ample evidence that the six met the legislative criteria to be designated as CPCs.
"For three years, the commission has recommended Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Laos for CPC status because of their deplorable religious freedom violations, yet none has been named," said Felice Gaer, who chairs the body.
She urged the department to continue to assess the countries "and make CPC designations throughout the year."
Gaer also pointed out that the government had taken no additional punitive steps against CPCs, instead relying on pre-existing sanctions.
That may be technically correct under the law, but it was nonetheless "indefensible as a matter of policy," she charged.
Saudi Arabia is home to two of Islam's most revered sites, and is ruled under strict Islamic ( shari'a ) law. It has tiny Hindu, Buddhist and - mostly expatriate - Christian communities.
International Christian organizations campaigning against religious persecution have long identified Saudi Arabia as a particularly serious case.
Open Doors names Saudi Arabia as the world's worst violator of religious freedom, ahead of such countries as China and Sudan.
According to International Christian Concern, "non-Muslims can be arrested, lashed, or deported for any religious activity that attracts the attention of the government [and] the printing, possession, importing, or distribution of any non-Muslim religious material is banned."
The UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide says the climate in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the U.S. has made conditions for Christians and other non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia even more difficult than before.
"The anti-western, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish rhetoric of bin Laden has struck a chord with many - particularly young - Saudis," it said in a recent report.
CSW predicted that the U.S. and Britain would "avoid embarrassing the Saudis by raising religious liberty issues for fear of alienating a strategic ally."
In its letter to Powell last September, the USCIRF outlined problems in Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan in particular.
In Saudi Arabia, it said, "last year , numerous foreign Christian workers were detained, arrested, tortured, and subsequently deported," while non-Sunni Muslims were jailed for religious views that differ from those of the government.
Riyadh's violations included torture, cruel and degrading punishments, detention without charge and coercive measures against women, it said.
Hindu-majority India was scored for the government's failure to act in the face of severe inter-religious violence, affecting Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities.
Pakistan drew condemnation for discriminatory religious legislation, including blasphemy laws, and an upsurge of violence against Christians and their institutions, as well as attacks by Sunni militants on minority Shi'ites.
The USCIRF also suggested to Powell that Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Uzbekistan be added to a new "watch list" because their governments took part in or tolerated violations of religious freedom.
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