For the first time Riyadh on US list of states violating freedom of religion

In the past, Pope repeatedly deplored lack of religious freedom.

Washington (AsiaNews) – For the first time Saudi Arabia has appeared on the US State Department list of states "severely violating" religious freedom. This raises the possibility of US sanctions against the desert kingdom.

Saudi Arabia now joins the eight states (out of 191) the State Department classifies as "countries of particular concern". Five –Myanmar, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan– were on last year's list. Saudi Arabia along with Eritrea and Vietnam were added this year.

In the past, the Report has recorded the violations to religious freedom In Sadi Arabia; but this year the Sadi kingodm is put among the "countries of particular concern". The US State Department report belatedly backs claims the Vatican and the Pope have been making over the past 20 years concerning the inability of non Muslims to openly and freely practice their religion in Muslim countries in general and in Saudi Arabia in particular.

John Paul II had made his views known on the matter on several solemn occasions such as the 1995 inauguration of Rome's grand mosque or during several speeches to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See such as the one in 1999 when the Holy Father explicitly referred to Saudi Arabia as "a country where Christian worship is totally banned and owning a Bible is treated as a crime".

In its International Religious Freedom report for 2004, the US State Department asserts that "[f]reedom of religion does not exist" in the Saudi kingdom because "basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam", i.e. Wahhabi Islam.

The report highlights the actions and behaviour of the Mutawwa'in (religious police) and the "violently anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language" of mosque preachers, "whose salaries are paid by the government".

Preeta D. Bansal, head of the U.S. Commission on International Freedom, an independent group that receives US government funding and offers advice to the State Department, welcomed the report. Ms Bansal said the commission's stand stems not only from the fact that Saudi Arabia violates religious freedom within its borders "but also from its propagation and export of an ideology of religious hate and intolerance throughout the world."

Alex Arriaga of Amnesty International USA called on the US to exert "[s]ustained pressure [. . .] to bring about any improvement in Saudi Arabia's egregious record of religious repression."

Despite Saudi Arabia's addition to the US State Department list, Riyadh still plays a crucial role in the US Middle East strategy. John Hanford, the State Department's Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom, said the US administration discussed the matter with Saudi officials. He pointed out that the Prince Abdullah's recent statement on tolerance, a new attitude towards the Shiite minority, and the removal of discriminatory statements about religious minorities from Saudi school textbooks are small steps in the right direction. However, they were insufficient to prevent the country from being added to the list of countries violating religious freedom.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington has not made any comments about the State Department's decision. Saudi media have largely ignored it, except for the daily Al-Watan which reacted by stating that "to say there is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia is just a pretext".

For Abdulaziz al-Fayez, a member of Saudi Arabia's Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), the US decision is tied to the current presidential campaign and is the Republican administration's response to the Democrats' charges. "Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam," he said. "Are they proposing to have churches or synagogues or Buddhist temples here?" Furthermore, Mr al-Fayez stated, whilst "[a]ll Saudis are Muslims and this is a Muslim state [. . .] no one inquires into what people do in the privacy of their home."

Never the less, the reality is that today Saudi Arabia is host to at least 6 million foreign workers most of whom are not Muslim. Middle East Concern (MEC), an association concerned with assisting Christians in the region, has denounced the treatment of Brian O'Connor, an Indian national who has been jailed since March for, among other things, possessing several copies of the Bible. According to MEC, the items incriminating Mr O'Connor were found in his home where he led study sessions for Catholic immigrants from different countries. Following his arrest Mr O'Connor was beaten, tortured and received death threats. In April the Indian Embassy called on the Saudi government to state the motives for O'Connor's arrest but has not yet received any answer.

Along with other associations, AsiaNews has embarked on an international campaign for Mr O'Connor's release.