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US: Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Eritrea flout religious freedom
Wed Sep 15, 3:47 PM ET - AFP Wire Report

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US State Department for the first time named ally Saudi Arabia as well as Eritrea and Vietnam "countries of particular concern" in its annual report on religious freedom.

It accused Saudi Arabia of backing anti-Jewish and anti-Christian campaigns, torturing non-Muslims and discriminating against Muslims,
mostly from the Shia sect, who did not adhere to the officially sanctioned Wahhabi tradition.

Riyadh, a principal US ally in the Middle East, had come under constant criticism for violating religious freedom principles but Washington had been reluctant so far to add it to the blacklist.

Last June, the independent US Commission of International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) strongly urged the State Department to move against Saudi Arabia.

Vietnam was charged in the report with pressuring minority Protestants to recant their faith and with beating believers. Eritrea was listed for
detaining and imposing restrictions on sanctioned religious groups.

China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and Sudan remained on the State Department list of countries of particular concern.

Governments of such countries "engaged in systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedoms," the department said.

The United States could impose sanctions on these countries under the law, but Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington would use

"Let me emphasize that we will continue engaging the countries of particular concern with whom we have bilateral relationships," Powell
told reporters.

"Our existing partnerships have flourished in numerous capacities, and they are just one of the best ways for us to encourage our friends to
adopt tolerant practices," he said.

The report also kept China, Cuba, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea and Vietnam on the list of "totalitarian regimes" restricting religious freedom, saying they regarded religious groups as enemies of the state.

Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were listed among countries with "state hostility towards minority or non-approved religions."

The report named Bangladesh, Egypt, Georgia, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Sri Lanka as those with "state neglect of
societal discrimination against, or persecution of, minority religions."

Countries with "discriminatory legislation or policies prejudicial to certain religions" were listed as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Brunei, Israel,
Malaysia, Moldova, Russia and Turkey.

The report cited Belgium, France and Germany for "using restrictive legislation and practices to brand minority religions as dangerous

US ambassador for religious freedom John Hanford said Saudi Arabia, where Islam was the official religion and "all citizens must be
Muslims," had no religious freedom.

"There were frequent instances in which mosque preachers, whose salaries were paid by the government, used violent anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in their sermons," he said.

Non-Muslim worshippers also risked arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes torture.

"But the sort of issues which concerned us most, frankly, had to do with the treatment of Muslims in Saudi Arabia," Hanford said, adding that
"Shia Muslims suffer the most" with a number of their leaders facing arrest.

Iraq, which was included in the category of countries of particular concern in 2003, was removed from the list this year, in keeping with
the department's precedent not to report on "our own governance."

The annual report covers the period ended June 30, 2004, which roughly coincided with the date of the transfer of power from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi interim government.

US law mandates that the State Department issue an annual report on the status of religious freedom around the world.

[You can view the text of the religious freedom report on Vietnam at: