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U.S. Says Saudis Repress Religion

Lawmakers who had pressed this issue in the past hailed yesterday's announcement.

"Finally, finally, finally," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). "I just commend the Bush administration for saying what everyone knew."

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Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), co-chairman with Wolf of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, said the action reflects "a sea change" in the view of Saudi Arabia by Congress, the executive branch and the public since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"For too many years, Saudi Arabia was above criticism. You could criticize everybody in this town, but you could not criticize the Saudis," Lantos said. "Coming face to face with the reality, not only that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis but that, directly or indirectly, Saudi Arabia or its citizens were a principal financier of terrorism -- that has now liberated even the State Department to call a spade a spade."

The International Religious Freedom Act, the 1998 legislation that requires the State Department to issue its annual report, also created a permanent, nine-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The commission's chairwoman, Preeta D. Bansal, called on the State Department to "follow up its designations with action," beginning with negotiations and ratcheting up, if necessary, to include a broad range of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Although the commission is "not at this particular time recommending any particular form of sanctions," she said, if "dialogue and consultations" fail to bring improvements in Saudi Arabia's record on religion, then "the full range of options needs to be explored, possibly in an escalating way."

The commission had recommended for two years that Vietnam be named a country of particular concern. Wolf said Vietnam had avoided censure because of its rapidly growing trade with the United States, and despite evidence of egregious violations of religious liberty.

In particular, he cited the case of the Rev. Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest who was branded a traitor and imprisoned in 2001 after he sent testimony to the commission about what he called "extremely cruel" treatment of religious people by the communist government.

Eritrea, the other nation new to the list this year, was cited because all religious activity outside four recognized groups was forced to end and more than 200 Christians remain in prison for their faith.

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