Saudi Arabia Named Severe Violator of Religious Freedom

By Patrick Goodenough | September 16, 2004 | 8:15 PM EDT

( - The U.S. State Department finally has added Saudi Arabia to a list of the world's worst violators of religious freedom.

In the department's annual report on global religious freedom released Wednesday, Vietnam also was named as a "country of particular concern" (CPC), a designation that could potentially lead to sanctions.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has been pressing for CPC status for Saudi Arabia since 1999, and for Vietnam since 2001.

Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Horowitz hailed what he said was "an incredible breakthrough," and he attributed it to pressure on the administration from the USCIRF, lawmakers and religious liberty campaigners.

In a phone interview, he said campaign groups had been ready "to really take a very strong position on Saudi Arabia if the State Department failed to act - [they were] loaded for bear on this one."

Horowitz said he was aware of the internal State Department battles around decisions that could be seen as compromising relations with "such critical countries as Saudi Arabia."

"I'm sure the Saudi desk officers are pulling out their hair."

Horowitz said he saw in the decision a powerful signal that "the Bush Administration is going to take a much tougher line against Saudi Arabia."

He also portrayed it as part of President Bush's broader drive to promote democracy abroad - "the central, fundamental principle of his presidency."

"He has come to understand that in a post-9/11 world the best - although by no means perfect, by no means risk-free - but clearly the best way of promoting America's national interest and American security is through the spread of democracy. And Bush believes this deeply."

Freedom 'does not exist'

The USCIRF is a government-funded body established under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to give independent recommendations to the executive branch and Congress.

In a briefing paper issued earlier this year, the commission recommended that advancing religious and other human rights should be a public feature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

"The conditions inside Saudi Arabia, as well as the possibility that the Saudi government has played a role in spreading hatred, intolerance, and even violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims, have very significant implications for U.S. foreign policy."

The State Department has since 1999 chosen not to designate Saudi Arabia as a CPC despite repeated USCIRF recommendations and the widely-held view of religious freedom campaigners that Saudi Arabia is among the world's most egregious violators.

The department's stance has been criticized, especially in the light of the fact that its own annual assessment of the situation is that religious freedom "does not exist" in the kingdom - the strongest judgment applied to any country in the global report.

That verdict was repeated in its annual report for 2004, which said basic religious freedoms were denied to all those who do not adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam.

"Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention."

The report also announced the addition of Vietnam and the small Horn of Africa nation of Eritrea to the CPC list.

Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan were redesignated as CPCs. (Iraq, whose CPC designation for violations during the Saddam Hussein regime was lifted last June, is not evaluated in this year's report.)

In a statement welcoming the report, USCIRF chairwoman Preeta Bansal said the commission especially applauded the decision regarding Saudi Arabia.

"All individuals, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are denied freedom of conscience and belief in Saudi Arabia," she said. "This, together with the Saudi government's funding and global propagation of a particular brand of Islam, impedes the development of voices of toleration and debate within the Islamic tradition."

Human rights in both Saudi Arabia and Vietnam have become increasingly pressing issues in Congress in recent months.

Last May, in line with a USCIRF proposal, the General Accounting Office launched a review of Saudi Arabia's promotion of Wahhabism, an ideology critics say encourages violence and intolerance.

In August, Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced a resolution calling for CPC status for Saudi Arabia.

And in July, the House of Representatives passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act, sponsored by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, providing for a freeze on any increases in non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam because of violations.

"I think the administration saw in the cases of both Saudi Arabia and Vietnam a coalescing congressional sentiment to take on both countries and not have excuses for their conduct any more," Horowitz said.

On Saudi Arabia, he added, there was growing support behind the notion that "the Saudis may be part of our problems as a country in a post-9/11 world."

Horowitz said he believed the CPC designations would definitely have an impact. "The best index of that is the intensity with which these governments lobby not to be listed."

Next steps

The International Religious Freedom Act stipulates that the U.S. government take active steps to address violations in countries with CPC status.

The USCIRF, and others, have been critical of the actual action taken in the past, however. The administration has merely invoked already existing sanctions against those countries, rather than take new steps specifically related to the religious freedom violations.

Commission chairwoman Bansal said Wednesday that past disregard for the requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act "represents a serious failure in U.S. foreign policy."

She noted that, for the first time since the Act passed in 1998, newcomers to the CPC list did not have pre-existing sanctions applied against them.

"Now that CPC designations have been made, we look forward to working with the State Department in formulating the statutorily-required responses to these violations," Bansal said.

"The CPC designation is the beginning of focused diplomatic activity on religious freedom and not the end."

Ambassador John Hanford, head of the State Department's religious freedom office, told a press conference that no decision had been taken on further action in respect of the new CPCs.

He said according to the Act, after designating a CPC the administration had 90 days - extendable to 180 days - to give consideration to "some sort of consequence."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters he was "not going to start speculating at this point on what might happen next" with regard to sanctions.

"We will be following along, considering the appropriate measures as required."

See related story:
Vietnamese Refugees Welcome US Religious Freedom Blacklist Move (16 Sept. 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow