Mon, 29 Dec 2003

No celebration in Riyadh

In Saudi Arabia, "freedom of religion does not exist." That is the conclusion, once again, of the State Department, which recently released its annual report on international religious freedom. The report describes all manner of religious oppression in the kingdom. A particular conservative version of Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims, the report states.

The government "prohibits the public practice of other religions" and arrests, detains, deports, and sometimes flogs and tortures their practitioners. The law permits the death penalty for Muslims who convert and for practitioners of "magic" and "sorcery." And though there were no executions this year, people were arrested for these offenses. Shiite Muslims are the target of official discrimination and get detained when they complain about it.

All this may sound highly objectionable, but don't try to convince the State Department of that. For despite its detailed catalog of Saudi abuses of religious liberty, the government still does not include the desert kingdom on its list of countries "of particular concern for religious liberty."

The U.S. law here does not seem ambiguous. The president is supposed to "designate each country" that "has engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" -- language that must include the Saudis if it is to have meaning at all. Yet year after year, Saudi Arabia gets a pass.

Asked at a press conference on the report whether this year would be different, Ambassador John Hanford -- the department official responsible for international religious freedom -- acknowledged that Saudi Arabia "has been very close to the threshold."

In terms of legal restrictions, he noted, "there are few countries that are more restrictive" -- though he added as well that "there are other countries that are much harsher in terms of the ways that they manifest their laws, in terms of arresting and torture and murdering people." The Saudis, he said, have taken some positive steps, and the department is "in the process of (assessing) how far those are along before we make that final decision."

Saudi religious tolerance isn't very "far along" -- a fact we suspect the State Department would recognize were the kingdom not an important ally. When the government protects America's friends, it turns the designations into a political game. The administration is permitted by law to waive the sanctions that designation typically triggers, so there's no good reason to compile a list based on political convenience rather than on honest empirical assessment.

If the list is not to be a joke, Saudi Arabia ought to be on it until the day its many Christian residents can publicly celebrate Christmas without risking -- as the report puts it -- "arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention."

-- The Washington Post