U.S. Delays Sanctions on Saudi Arabia for Religious Rights Violations

The United States has postponed for six months a decision on whether to sanction Saudi Arabia for violations of religious freedom. The announcement came after a visit by the Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy to the country and the Middle East.

"The waiver is a temporary measure that allows us to continue discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues," the U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Amanda Rogers-Harper told Agence France-Press (AFP) on Saturday.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes visited three predominately Muslim countries with close ties to the United States in a bid to ease out the tension between their relationships caused by the Iraq war.

While Hughes was in Saudi Arabia for her second stop, the U.S. secretary expressed concern over Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

"We are concerned, and I am going to say it in Saudi Arabia, about human rights issues in the kingdom. They've got a long journey there and a lot of work to do," she told the AFP on Sept. 26.

She also hoped that Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two holiest sites, would "find room to respect people of different faith and different traditions".

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been one of the eleven countries designated by the U.S. Department of State as "countries of particular concern" for severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act.

The annual international religious freedom report published by the State Department last year noted that “freedom of religion does not exist” in 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," the report stated.

With the release of this year's report expected next month, the United States is due to decide on sanctioning Saudi Arabia in an attempt to prompt the country to improve its poor religious rights record. However, the United States has decided to give the strict Islamic kingdom an additional six months to negotiate on the issue, according to AFP.

U.S. officials, thus far, say the progress of establishing the rights of religious minorities in the predominately Saudi Arabia has not been very satisfactory.

Rogers-Harper told AFP, "Non-Muslims and minority Muslims are still subject to discrimination, harassment and detention because of their beliefs."

According to the State Department’s 2004 international religious freedom report, the majority of the 24-million strong population in Saudi Arabia are Sunni Muslims. Most of the non-Muslims come from the foreign population of 6 to 7 million, which is characterized by a wide variety of ethnic groups, including Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Egyptians, Palestinians among others.

The report revealed that even though the Saudi Arabia government has stated publicly, including before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, that non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to worship privately, specific guidelines have not been set. Therefore, this lack of clarity and instances of inconsistent enforcement led many non-Muslims to worship in fear of harassment and in such a way as to avoid discovery.

"The Government usually deported those detained for visible non-Muslim worship after sometimes lengthy periods of arrest during investigation. In some cases, they also were sentenced to receive lashes prior to deportation," the report added.

Despite the lack of progress in the area of legal protection for religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, some – such as Kurtis Cooper, another State Department spokesman – say they “welcome Saudi recognition of the need to make improvements and create a more tolerant society."