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Schumer, Collins Urge State Dept To Add Saudi Arabia To List Of Religiously Intolerant Nations

US Senators Charles E. Schumer and Susan M. Collins today urged the US State Department to add Saudi Arabia to the US list of religiously intolerant nations, a classification that could subject the country to further action against it, including economic sanctions. While the State Departments 2003 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom has said that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia, the country still has not been designated a "country of particular concern" (CPC) for its systematic violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief.

"It boggles the mind that even though our own government has concluded that religious freedom does not exist in Saudi Arabia, the State Department still refuses to put any muscle into its relationship with Saudi Arabia," Schumer said. "We know that Saudifunded madrassas promote religious intolerance and violence in schools. We know that Saudi Arabia brutally prohibits the public expression of religion that is not the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. And we know that Saudi efforts to export militant ideology inflame antiWestern sentiments throughout the world. If that isn't enough to land a country on a list of religiously intolerant nations, I don't know what is."

"Global terrorism thrives on the spread of religious extremism. Despite supposed reform efforts, reports indicate that Saudifunded schools and mosques continue to teach hatred and preach violence around the world," Senator Collins said. "Thus I am proud to stand with Senator Schumer to urge that Saudi Arabia's religious freedom practices be carefully scrutinized."

Saudi Arabia has a long and sordid history of denigrating its religious minorities. The approximately one million Shi'a Muslims that claim Saudi citizenship are prohibited from teaching their religion and must worship in secret because government law forbids the practice of any form of Islam aside from the official state religion of Wahhabism/Salafism. Shi'a Muslims also face statesanctioned discrimination as a result of their beliefs, as the Saudi regime restricts their employment in the petroleum industry, the military, and government agencies.

NonMuslims also face similar persecution and marginalization. Despite laws permitting nonMuslims to practice their religions privately, those who do are routinely subject to arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture. Government policy allows court judges to dismiss the testimony of people who are not practicing Muslims. Crimes against Muslims often result in harsher penalties than those against nonMuslims. Finally, nonMuslim religious materials like Bibles and videotapes are often confiscated by government officials.

Schumer and Collins said that over the past year the Saudi government has continued to violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief. In September 2003, the mutawaa (religious police) arrested 16 foreign workers for practicing Sufism. A month later, two Egyptian Christians were arrested and jailed on religious grounds and released three weeks later. Also that month, several Protestant foreign workers were arrested by the civil police and released the same day without charge. In December 2003, a foreign worker was arrested and charged with apostasy, later reduced to blasphemy and resulting in a sentence of two years in jail and 600 lashes. In March of this year, an Indian Christian foreign worker was arrested and tortured for preaching Christianity, and remains in prison.

Schumer and Collins today announced that they have introduced a resolution in the Senate urging Secretary Powell to designate Saudi Arabia a country of particular concern. The designation of "countries of particular concern" (CPC) is used by the State Department to if a country is seen as guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Nations designated as CPCs are subject to further actions, including economic sanctions, by the US. The Secretary of State can make or remove a designation at any time, depending on changing conditions in a particular country as well as on how responsive the government is in addressing problems. Last year, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell designated six countries as "countries of particular concern" for particularly severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act. Those countries are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.

The SchumerCollins resolution calls on Saudi Arabia to cease its support of religious ideologies that promote hatred, intolerance, violence, and other abuses of internationally recognized human rights, and urges the US to promote religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. While the State Departments 2003 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom again notes that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia, the country still has not been designated a CPC..

The resolution also calls on Saudi Arabia to stop providing undeserved diplomatic status to Islamic clerics and educators teaching outside of Saudi Arabia, and demands that it close any Islamic affairs section of an embassy of Saudi Arabia that has been responsible for propagating intolerance. Saudi Arabia must provide an accounting of what kinds of support they provide to religious schools, mosques, centers of learning, and other religious organizations globally, including in the US, and the names of such institutions.

"This resolution by Senators Schumer and Collins reinforces the Commission's recommendation that Saudi Arabia should be designated a country of particular concern," United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Chair Preeta D. Bansal said today. "The Senators join a growing number of policy makers and experts, including the 9/11 Commission, in calling for the United States to address Saudi support for extremism."