White House issues rare critique of Saudi policy

State Dept. report assails lack of religious freedom

September 16, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration delivered an unusual rebuke yesterday to Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally whose rulers have close ties to President Bush's family, for violating religious freedom.

The State Department's designation of the kingdom for the first time as a nation "of particular concern" for denying rights to non-Muslims was an abrupt departure from the administration's customary reluctance to criticize the Saudis publicly. Until now, the two nations have confined their disagreements mostly to high-level private exchanges.

The policy shift follows criticism of Saudi Arabia from members of Congress since the Sept. 11 attacks for tolerating or even encouraging the spread of a religious creed that fuels anti-Western hostility and helps breed terrorism. The shift also follows recommendations from the Sept. 11 commission that the United States and Saudi Arabia deal with problems in their relationship more openly and directly.

Human-rights advocates praised the public criticism of the Saudis. But a former U.S. envoy to Riyadh, Chas W. Freeman, brushed it aside as a politically inspired move by the Bush administration to distance itself from Saudi Arabia and deflect charges from Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry, that the president and his family are too cozy with the royal family.

Saudi Arabia was among eight countries designated as "of particular concern" in this year's report - meaning they "engage in or tolerate gross infringements of religious freedom." The report is the sixth in a series of congressionally mandated surveys of religious freedom around the globe. Others named for the first time as of "particular concern" were Eritrea and Vietnam.

The designation could subject the countries to punitive sanctions, though officials said none were under consideration yet.

Since the first report in 1999, the State Department has stated that "religious freedom does not exist" in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh bars public worship of all faiths except Islam and generally tolerates only a Sunni branch that follows a rigidly conservative interpretation of the 18th century leader Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab.

The department has frequently noted that the Saudis practice various forms of discrimination against Shiite and Sufi branches of Islam, and that non-Muslims whose worship drew official attention risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and physical abuse.

In addition, some clerics in state-funded mosques have often been accused of using violently anti-Jewish and anti-Christian rhetoric in sermons.

The administration's decision to criticize Saudi Arabia was especially striking because this year's report said "there generally was no change" in the status of religious freedom there. In fact, it noted an improving trend. The report said the Saudi government "continued a campaign to foster greater moderation and tolerance of religious diversity," acted to delete disparaging religious references in school curricula and allowed journalists to criticize abuses by religious police.

The U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, John V. Hanford III, asked to explain why Saudi conduct warranted particular criticism now and not in the past, suggested that some of the problems noted in the past had continued despite American pressure for change.

"There are positive developments in Saudi Arabia that we take encouragement from, but there are a number of problems that persist that we feel place Saudi Arabia over the line," Hanford said

A senior U.S. official, asked to elaborate, said, "Last year we came very close" to making the designation, "and we told [the Saudis] that." But the administration at the time saw a chance to press the Saudis to moderate their policies and pursued it diplomatically.

"Quiet diplomacy brought us part way, but not far enough," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He rejected suggestions that either the U.S. presidential campaign or congressional pressure had played a role in the decision.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the report.

Hanford, at a briefing, said Saudi Arabia's cooperation with the United States in fighting terrorism had not affected the decision. Officials have said that Saudi help in combating Islamist militants has increased since Muslim extremists have carried out a series of attacks against the kingdom.

The administration, Hanford said, is most concerned about the Saudi treatment of Muslims who do not follow the preferred Wahhabi branch of Islam. Shiites, who make up 10 percent of the population, "suffer the most," he said.

Shiites represent a majority in neighboring Iraq, and the Bush administration has worked hard since the 2003 U.S. invasion to gain cooperation from moderate Shiite leaders.

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