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Tough love

Persecution | Despite cooperation in the war on terror, Saudi Arabia earns U.S. censure for ongoing religious persecution

Issue: "Rathergate," Sept. 25, 2004

For years, Saudia Arabia was one of only two countries where religious freedom outright "does not exist" in the annual U.S. religious freedom report. While the State Department always went on to brand the other country, North Korea, as one of the world's worst religious persecutors, Saudi Arabia escaped censure. Until this year.

Secretary of State Colin Powell announced on Sept. 15 that the kingdom and key U.S. ally in the Middle East was the newest addition to a small club of countries in this year's Report on International Religious Freedom singled out as abusers of religious freedom. Violators who make the list risk trade and other U.S. sanctions. This year Vietnam and Eritrea also joined the roll for the first time, while officials dropped post-Saddam Iraq. For the largely static list, which named the same five or six countries every year, the shift was momentous.

Religious freedom advocates have waited years to see Saudi Arabia added. The country allows only its strict version of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, to operate freely. Even other Muslims who don't conform suffer restrictions on worship, particularly Shiites. Christians and other minorities may not worship in public. Sharing other faiths with Muslims is illegal, while Muslims who convert to other religions risk the death penalty.

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Besides being a major U.S. oil supplier, the country has staunch allies within Washington and the State Department. Only within the last year or so has the U.S. diplomatic corps risked debate about the links between Saudi extremist Islam and terrorism.

"We felt the time had finally come to make that designation," said John Hanford, U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom. "There are positive developments in Saudi Arabia that we take encouragement from, but there are a number of problems that persist that place them over the line."

"Events since 9/11-when most hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and indoctrinated with this ideology of hatred-led to the United States raising its concerns and not seeing much progress," said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom. "It's gotten to the point where the United States realizes this is a problem."

Vietnam earned recognition as a religious freedom violator-in spite of a bilateral trade agreement reached with the United States in 2000-for its persistent crackdown on Christians and followers of other religions, particularly Protestant members of ethnic minorities. Vietnam's communist government has closed hundreds of churches. It plans to implement a new law in November that could snuff out house-church activity altogether. And authorities continue to arrest pastors: Compass News reported on Aug. 29 that they held prominent leader Rev. Tran Mai for eight days of interrogation over his travels abroad and links to other pastors.

Eritrea also persecutes religious followers outside its four state-sanctioned faiths: Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and the Evangelical Lutherans. According to the State Department, about 400 members of other faiths have been arrested this year, with some 200 still imprisoned. Just a week before the United States included Eritrea among the worst persecutors, the government arrested five evangelicals in Asmara who were worshipping together in their church office.

With the three new additions, the number of the world's most egregious violators stands at eight. North Korea, Sudan, Iran, China, and Burma remain on the list this year. But the changes signal a new realization as the United States fights global terrorism. Mr. Hanford drew the link: "Nations that respect religious freedom rarely pose a threat to their neighbors."

If Iraq has turned a corner both on battling Christians and threatening its neighbors, other persecution hotspots endure. Christians in Iran and China endured heightened roundups and arrests, while those in other countries expected change but saw little reprieve from persecution.

Iran: The Islamic theocracy usually keeps a heavy thumb on Christians, but its latest act was even harsher than usual. Police raided the annual general meeting of the Assemblies of God outside Tehran on Sept. 9, arresting 74 leaders and 12 conference staff, according to the Jubilee Campaign. They reportedly told delegates, "We have taken control, no one should move, no one is to pick anything up, mobile phones should be switched off, and all documents must be left on tables."

Compass News reported that the police drove the captives around for hours blindfolded so they wouldn't know where they were, then took them in for questioning. They released all but one pastor within three days, and his family did not know where he was being held days after the raid. Officials interrogated each person arrested, but closely questioned top leaders.

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