US blasts Saudi 'religious curbs'
The US has accused Saudi Arabia of severely violating religious freedom.
In an unusual public rebuke, the US State Department put its key Arab ally on a list of states causing particular concern over freedom to worship.
According to its annual report, freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia does not exist either in practice or in law.
Vietnam and Eritrea are also listed for the first time as "countries of particular concern". They join Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan.
The designation does not require the US to impose punitive measures, but it does raise the possibility of sanctions if there is no improvement in religious tolerance, analysts say.
The US report said that "freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, where an austere form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism is the official religion.
Christianity and all its symbols - including crosses and Christmas trees - are strictly banned, as are all places of worship except mosques.
Basic religious freedoms [in Saudi Arabia] are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam
US State Department report
The report said those groups who did not adhere to the officially sanctioned strain of Islam were facing "severe repercussions" at the hands of the religious police in the desert kingdom.
At a Washington news conference, Ambassador John Hanford, the head of the US State Department's religious freedom office, said Saudi Arabia appeared on the list despite some forward movement over the past year.
Mr Hanford mentioned official Saudi statements in support of tolerance and moderation and also said a number of text books have been modified to take out inflammatory references.
"But problems exist that push them over the line," Mr Hanford said.
The slap in the face for the Saudis mainly is symbolic but nonetheless important, says the BBC's Justin Webb in Washington.
Pressure is great on the Gulf monarchy to reform
The designation as a "country of particular concern" could in the future lead to sanctions against the Saudis, though such an outcome is highly unlikely, he says.
Much more significant is the simple fact that the Bush administration has decided to issue a formal stinging rebuke to a Middle Eastern ally.
The move appears to be an attempt to warn the Saudi royal family and other Middle Eastern rulers that America will not turn a blind eye to behaviour it regards as unacceptable, he says.
Just why the US administration is taking a tougher line towards Saudi Arabia is not entirely clear, the BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says.
But the decision comes at a time when US officials are speaking out with much greater candour - in particular about the Saudi kingdom's role in the sponsoring and financing of al-Qaeda, our analyst says.
"JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Prominent Saudis dismissed U.S. accusations of severe violations of religious freedom in the kingdom and said on Thursday that the criticisms were politically motivated.
Government officials were not immediately available over the Muslim weekend to respond to Washington's decision to put Saudi Arabia on a blacklist of countries of "particular concern" in an annual report on Wednesday tracking religious freedom worldwide.
But the move was met with skepticism by many in the kingdom, whose close alliance with the United States has come under increasing strain in the last three years and become an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. "I can't say Saudi Arabia is the freest country. But it is the cradle of Islam. Are they proposing to have churches or synagogues or Buddhist temples here?" said Abdulaziz al-Fayez, a member of Saudi Arabia's consultative Shura Council.
"All Saudis are Muslims and this is a Muslim state."
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, is also the birthplace of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. cities that killed nearly 3,000 people in 2001.
Critics say the country's strict Wahhabi brand of Islam has fostered anti-U.S. militancy. Wednesday's report said religious freedoms were denied to all Saudis except those who adhere to the "state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam."
The State Department report found -- as in previous years -- that "freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, but included it for the first time on a blacklist alongside Vietnam, Eritrea, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran and North Korea.
Some Saudis pointed skeptically to the timing of the report, ahead of U.S. presidential elections. Democrats accuse President Bush of ignoring Saudi Arabia's rights record until now for fear of causing any backlash from the world's biggest oil supplier that could affect the U.S. economy.
"Saudi Arabia is becoming an election issue. In the Cold War you would hear about the Soviet Union and China. Now, after 9/11, it's Saudi Arabia," said Khalid Dakhil, professor of political sociology at Riyadh's King Saud University.
"It's an extremely political report," said analyst Hussein Shubokshi. "It's just convenient for Saudi Arabia to be a scapegoat and put pressure on Saudi Arabia and the region." Continued ...
I'm sure the Saudis care what the kufr think.
I wonder though… the 'Kufrs' keep the Saudis whole rotten house of cards propped up.
It might be a subtle hint that they could wake up in a different country one day `ala Iraq. And they wouldn`t be in charge.
Bumped for the day crew…