A department report assessing the state of religious freedom worldwide said on Wednesday that in Saudi Arabia, freedom of religion does not exist and is not recognised or protected under the country’s laws.
The report also said that those who do not adhere to the officially sanctioned strain of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia can face “severe repercussions” at the hands of the religious police.
Wednesday’s announcement was a departure from the Bush administration’s practice of avoiding direct criticism of Saudi Arabia, a key ally in the “war on terrorism”, a strong backer of US policies in Iraq and a major oil supplier.
Under US law, nations that engage in violations of religious freedom deemed “particularly severe” are designated by the State Department as “countries of particular concern.”
Joining Saudi Arabia for the first time on the so-called “CPC list” were Eritrea and Vietnam. Countries re-designated as CPC countries were Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan.
Since the State Department first began making evaluations on religious freedom, sanctions have not been applied against any country on the CPC list.
Ambassador John Hanford, head of the State Department’s religious freedom office, told a news conference that Saudi Arabia was designated a CPC country despite forward movement over the past year.
Revisions to text books
“But problems exist that push them [the Saudis] over the line”
He cited statements by Saudi ruler Crown Prince Abd Allah in support of tolerance and moderation and said numerous Saudi text books have been revised to delete references to religious beliefs outside those officially approved.
“But problems exist that push them [the Saudis] over the line,” Hanford said.
The US Commission on International Freedom, an independent group that receives government funding and offers advice to the State Department recommended last February that Saudi Arabia be declared a CPC country.
Such a designation does not necessarily require punitive measures but does mandate that the secretary of state engage the offending country on what steps it may take to increase religious tolerance.
Preeta Bansal, the commission chair, said in an interview that she welcomed the addition of Saudi Arabia to the US government’s “list of the world most egregious violators of religious freedom.”
She said the commission has been advocating the inclusion of Saudi Arabia on the CPC list since legislation was approved in 1999 to evaluate the state of religious freedom around the world.
Bansal said the commission’s stand was based not only on violations of religious freedom within Saudi Arabia‘s own borders “but also its propagation and export of an ideology of religious hate and intolerance throughout the world.”
The Saudi Arabian Embassy said it had no comment on the State Department report.