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State Department report on Saudi Arabia criticized by bipartisan religious liberty panel

WASHINGTON (BP)–A bipartisan federal panel on religious liberty overseas has criticized a recent State Department report on Saudi Arabia, expressing concern it is an exoneration of that Islamic-dominated country’s human rights abuses.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom acknowledged that the annual report highlighted human rights problems in Saudi Arabia, noting the State Department’s reiteration there is “no religious freedom” in the Middle East country. But the USCIRF described the report as containing “an inordinate emphasis on optimistic statements by Saudi leaders, statements that have yet to be followed by action.” The commission said the State Department report “even appears to justify serious abuses” by the Saudi regime.

The USCIRF’s criticism is the latest in a series of disagreements between the panel and the State Department over Saudi Arabia. The USCIF, which was established by Congress in 1998, repeatedly urged the State Department to designate Saudi Arabia as one of its “countries of particular concern” before its advice was finally followed in 2004. CPCs are governments determined by the State Department to be the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom.

The State Department declined to apply any sanctions to Saudi Arabia, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice approved a 180-day waiver in September “in order to allow additional time for the continuation of discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues.” That waiver will expire March 24.

The USCIF said in its March 10 statement that it “has not yet seen genuine progress” regarding religious liberty in Saudi Arabia.

The USCIRF urged the State Department to “vigorously press for concrete commitments that would result in measurable, demonstrated improvements” on religious liberty in Saudi Arabia. Without such improvements, the United States “should not hesitate in taking strong action,” the USCIRF said.

The USCIRF offered these examples of problems in the State Department’s March 8 report:

— In describing the lashing of people convicted under Islamic “sharia” law, the report “gives the impression that this particular act of torture employed by the Saudi government is administered in a humane, and thus permissible, manner.”

— In discussing religious freedom, the report gives excessive attention to comments by Saudi officials that could be perceived as upgrades, “while conditions for religious freedom have, in fact, not improved on the ground.”

— The report says the instances in which mosque leaders, whose salaries are paid by the Saudi regime, have made anti-Semitic statements in sermons and “prayed for the death of Jews” have decreased, but that “should not be construed as a significant improvement, however, given that these inciteful and inflammatory remarks by imams remain rampant,” the commission said.

On March 1, Saudi Arabia was named as the second worst persecutor of Christians by Open Doors, a ministry to the suffering church. It trailed only North Korea in Open Doors’ rankings.

In its report, the State Department said the Saudi government interprets Islamic law to require that all citizens be Muslims. It also said the regime does not protect religious liberty. Saudi Arabia “continued to prohibit the public practice of non Muslim religions and put limits on religious practices” of other Islamic groups, according to the report. If a Muslim converts to another religion, the report said, his action is considered apostasy, which can be punished by execution.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is one of the USCIRF’s nine commissioners.

The USCIRF, which is a nonpartisan panel appointed by the president and congressional leaders, researches the status of religious liberty in other countries and provides reports and recommendations to the White House and Congress.

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