THE STATE DEPARTMENT set the record straight last week on America's favorite totalitarian, theocratic monarchy. In recent years, even while cataloguing Saudi Arabia's affronts to religious liberty, the department flouted the law by declining to list the country as one "of particular concern for religious freedom" in its annual report on that issue. Now Saudi Arabia is on the list, correcting an error so blatantly political that it threatened to turn the designations into a joke.

The law on the subject is clear: The government "shall designate each country" that "has engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" as "a country of particular concern for religious freedom." By any reasonable standard, Saudi Arabia has long deserved a prominent place on the list, which this year also includes Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Eritrea and Vietnam. In the kingdom, the State Department's human rights reports have long maintained, "freedom of religion does not exist." No religion other than Islam may be practiced publicly, and all citizens must be Muslims. Churches and synagogues are illegal, though substantial numbers of foreign Christians live and work in the country. Muslims who convert to other religions can be put to death. Shiite Muslims are discriminated against; their clerics are detained and their testimony can be excluded in court proceedings.

In explaining the change in the country's status, the department does not pretend that the situation in Saudi Arabia has worsened. To the contrary, the report notes that "there was generally no change in the status of religious freedom during the period covered by this report." In some areas, it even documents modest improvements. Nor did department officials offer a coherent explanation for their shift. Ambassador John V. Hanford III, whose office produces the report, said at a news conference that he could not say why Saudi Arabia had not been listed before his tenure but that he had now "had an adequate opportunity to dialogue [with the Saudis], to try to understand each other, to work on these problems, and we felt the time had come that Saudi Arabia should be designated." One thing seems pretty certain: Were the country not an important regional ally, the department would not have stayed its hand this long.

The designation may not have practical consequences, because the law allows the administration to waive the sanctions that the designation normally triggers if such a waiver is in the national interest. But listing Saudi Arabia is important nonetheless. It is sometimes necessary to engage dictatorial regimes, but it is never necessary to lie about them.