The United States for the first time named Saudi Arabia yesterday as a country that severely violates religious freedom, potentially subjecting the close U.S. ally to sanctions.
"Freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, the State Department said in its annual report on international religious freedom. "Freedom of religion is not recognized or protected under the country's laws and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam," the report said, adding that "non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes torture."
The United States also identified seven other nations as "countries of particular concern": Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan, which were on the State Department's list of concern last year, and Eritrea and Vietnam, which were added this year. Iraq was dropped.
Admonishing Saudi Arabia was a switch for the administration, which had resisted calls from human rights groups and key lawmakers that the State Department cite the desert kingdom, a key oil supplier and partner in the war against terrorism, in its annual report. U.S. officials have said they preferred to handle such concerns privately even as they acknowledged that for all practical purposes Saudi Arabia has one of the world's most repressive regimes.
The designation of Saudi Arabia was made as the Bush administration has come under sharp attack from Democrats -- and the hit movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- for its close relationship with Saudi rulers.
Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry took the unusual step of singling out the Saudi royal family during his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, saying, "I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation -- not the Saudi royal family."
Last night, a senior adviser to the campaign, Susan Rice, said Kerry supported yesterday's decision, but she accused the administration of taking a "kid glove" approach to Saudi Arabia. "President Bush's record makes clear: The only time he will acknowledge unacceptable Saudi behavior is within weeks of an election," she said.
But administration officials denied that the long-debated action was taken for political considerations.
"Never one word of that has been spoken to me by anybody," said John V. Hanford III, ambassador at large for international religious freedom. "We are not trying to counter allegations that have no basis in fact."
Hanford said that in the past year the State Department has tried to prod the Saudi government to make changes in how it deals with religious freedom, and that there had been encouraging signs that the leadership had promoted tolerance and moderation and was seeking to remove inflammatory statements from textbooks. But he said the Saudi actions were not enough to "put them back over the threshold."
Much of the discrimination in Saudi Arabia, Hanford said, was directed at other Muslims who do not practice Wahhabi, the state-sanctioned religion, in particular Shiites. "Most branches of Islam do not have freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia," he said.
The Saudi Embassy declined to comment on the administration's action.
U.S. officials yesterday declined to say what, if any, sanctions might be contemplated against Saudi Arabia if it does not improve religious freedom. "I'm not going to start speculating at this point on what might happen next," State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher told reporters. "We will be following along, considering the appropriate measures as required."
Alexandra Arriaga, director of government relations for Amnesty International USA, said the designation should have been made "quite some time ago" but what is needed now is concentrated follow-up by the U.S. government. Bush "ought to raise this issue more forcefully," Arriaga said, such as setting benchmarks for the Saudi government, including lifting restrictions on religious minorities in Saudi law.
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."
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.