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Saudi Arabia's religious hatred

LAST WEEK, the State Department added Saudi Arabia to its list of the world's most religiously intolerant nations. It was a step long overdue. The International Religious Freedom Act requires the department to designate each country that has "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" as a "country of particular concern for religious freedom." Few nations deserve that designation more than Saudi Arabia. But for reasons of politics and corruption, the law's clear mandate was always flouted before.

For years, the Saudi regime was exempt from harsh criticism in official US circles -- an immunity bought with the hundreds of millions of dollars Riyadh lavished on US policymakers, ambassadors, and lobbyists. Former CIA officer Robert Baer laid out many of the disgraceful details in his recent bestseller, "Sleeping With the Devil."

But that changed after 9/11, when a group of mostly Saudi terrorists sent thousands of innocent victims to their deaths. Countless Americans realized for the first time that Saudi Arabia, with its Wahhabi strain of Islam -- a radical, aggressive, and poisonously intolerant creed -- was the incubator of the world's most virulent anti-American savagery. The old speak-no-evil wall of protection began to crack. One result is the addition of Saudi Arabia to the State Department's list.

"Freedom of religion does not exist," the department states in its report on Saudi Arabia. "It 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. Citizens are denied the freedom to choose or change their religion, and noncitizens practice their beliefs under severe restrictions. Islam is the official religion and all citizens must be Muslims."

The report notes that "conversion by a Muslim to another religion is . . . a crime punishable by death if the accused does not recant. . . . The government prohibits non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim worshippers" -- millions of foreign-born Christians and Hindus work in Saudi Arabia -- "risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention."

That is clear enough as far as it goes, but Ambassador John Hanford, whose office compiled the report, took pains to assure the Saudis that it would go no further. Asked at a press conference whether the listing of Saudi Arabia should be seen as a "pressure tactic," Hanford replied:

"Oh, no, no. Uh-uh. No. These designations are ones that we make with a certain degree of sorrow because these are valued relationships, particularly in a case such as Saudi Arabia. But the US Congress has laid out for us a standard that we feel we must follow."

Secretary of State Colin Powell likewise did his best to allay Saudi fears. "This is not to punish them, or in any way to show displeasure," he assured Al Arabiya, the Arab satellite channel. "One should not see this as anything but two friends talking to one another about a problem of mutual concern."   Continued...

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