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Commission: Saudi Arabia must be pressured to promote religious liberty

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States needs to make religious liberty a significant part of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said May 13, the day after suicide bombers killed Americans and other foreigners in the Middle East country.

The commission’s annual report followed the attacks on a compound for Westerners that resulted in more than 30 deaths. The radical Islamic terrorist group Al Qaeda has been credited with planning the bombings.

In its report, the commission once again called for the State Department to name Saudi Arabia as a severe violator of religious freedom. Though the department has acknowledged religious liberty does not exist in Saudi Arabia, it has refused to add the Islamic state to its list of “countries of particular concern.”

“Advancing human rights and religious freedom has not yet been a public feature of the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship,” committee chair Felice Gaer said in a written statement.” Our goal in releasing this annual report on religious freedom has been to highlight that the protection of religious freedom and other human rights must be an integral part of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and other countries.”

The commission recommended that the United States:

— investigate the Saudi Arabian government’s funding of the international promotion of a radical form of Islam that advances hate and sometimes violence.

— push the Saudi government to improve its religious freedom status by, among other acts, eliminating the mutawaa (the religious police) and permitting places of worship not identified with Wahhabi, a narrow interpretation of Islam.

— investigate reports that religious discrimination and restrictions against U.S. military members, diplomats and workers in Saudi Arabia are taking place.

In issuing its fourth yearly report since a 1998 law established it, the commission also released new reports on Saudi Arabia and five other countries: Afghanistan, Vietnam, Russia, Laos and Belarus.

In a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, promoting religious rights should be a critical part of U.S. foreign policy, the commission said.

“The protection of religious freedom is and has been a valuable tool in the fight against terrorism,” Gaer said at a May 13 news conference. “It is a conviction of the members of this commission that a country that respects freedom of religion — that includes freedom for all religious minorities — will be a more stable and responsible member of the international community.”

The United States must lead in that task, commissioner Richard Land told reporters.

“I can tell you that if the government of the United States was not focusing on these issues, was not forcing other countries to address these issues … very few people in the world would care about religious freedom and universal human rights as they relate to freedom of conscience and freedom of worship,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “And the [USCIRF] is really the spear point to coordinate that….”

On Afghanistan, the commission expressed concern that an extreme understanding of Sharia Islam would be enforced by the new government. The USCIRF continued to recommend the United States name a high-ranking human rights official to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. It also urged the new Afghan government to dissolve the religious police.

The commission said the deteriorating conditions in Vietnam call for the State Department to name the communist government a “country of particular concern.” The commission also said religious freedom violations should end before the United States expands relations with Vietnam. It also urged withdrawal of support for non-humanitarian loans by financial institutions until religious rights in Vietnam improve.

The commission acknowledged the vast improvement in religious liberty in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union but urged the United States to act to thwart an effort in some parts of the government to stifle such freedom, attempts possibly encouraged by the Russian Orthodox Church.

In reporting on China at the news conference, Land said “official respect for religious freedom has diminished even further” in the communist giant. He said of North Korea, the world’s most secretive, communist country: “In effect, North Korea is what a country would look like if it were run by [the late mob boss] John Gotti.”

The commission reiterated its recommendation that the State Department add not only Saudi Arabia and Vietnam to its “countries of particular concern,” but also India, Laos, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. The State Department’s CPC list consists of Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.

The commission also urged the State Department to take further action against countries it has already designated as CPCs and to be more thorough in its annual report on religious liberty.

Land, who is completing a two-year term on the independent panel as an appointee of President Bush, said he has been pleased with the commission’s work but not always the governmental response to its recommendations.

“I think the [USCIRF does] a very important task, and they help to focus the attention of our government and our country on these issues,” he said after the news conference.

The International Religious Freedom Act, which established the commission and other vehicles to promote religious rights, performed an indispensable act in “making somebody in every embassy responsible for looking at these issues, because everybody’s job is nobody’s job,” he said. “It cannot be overestimated how important that is in raising the profile of this issue and creating sort of a critical mass of State Department officials who are sensitized to this issue over time.”

As a result of its independence and bipartisanship, the nine-member commission has “a unique role to play in going in and looking almost as sort of a religious rights monitor in countries around the world,” Land said. “I’m not nearly as pleased with the response. We make recommendations because we think they are important, and to the extent that they are not taken and not received positively, I’m disappointed,” he said “But we’ll continue to make recommendations about what we think needs to be done, and we’ll continue to press our government, both the executive branch and the legislative branch, to act in ways that will promote the basic right to freedom of belief and practice.”

Land and the other commissioners complete their terms this month but may continue to serve until they are reappointed or replaced. The panel consists of six members selected by congressional leaders of both parties and three by the president.

In addition to Land and Gaer, an official with the American Jewish Committee, the commission’s other members are Michael Young, dean of the George Washington University Law School; Firuz Kazemzadeh, senior adviser for the Baha’is of the United States; William Murphy, bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.; Leila Nadya Sadat, professor at Washington University Law School in St. Louis, Mo.; Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom; and Charles Stith, director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University.
Shirin Tahir-Kheli, director of the South Asia program of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University, resigned as a commissioner in March to accept a position with the National Security Council.

The USCIRF’s 2003 report, as well as new individual country reports, may be accessed online at www.uscirf.gov.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SUPPORTING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM.