Panel Pans U.S. Over Saudi Arabia

Carol Eisenberg
News Day

For the fourth year in a row, an independent advisory panel criticized the State Department for failing to designate Saudi Arabia as one of the world's most egregious violators of human rights and as an exporter of extremist Islam.

Hours after synchronized terror strikes in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed at least 30 people, including eight Americans, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report yesterday urging an investigation of the Saudis' propagation of radical Islam around the world, including in the United States. It also called on the State Department to press the country's rulers to overhaul school curricula that explicitly promote hatred of Jews, Christians and members of non-Wahhabi strands of Islam.

The report cites such examples as an eighth-grade textbook, published by the Saudi Ministry of Education, that labels Christians and Jews as "apes" and "pigs," and another that refers to Jews as a "wicked nation," characterized by bribery, deception and betrayal.

"On the one hand, we all want to respect Islam and all that Islam represents in terms of its religious tradition," said Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, a panel member. "But that religious tradition has to be compatible with the rights to religious freedom of others, particularly of minorities, who live in the country."

To offer greater protection to such people, Murphy said, the commission asked the State Department to press the Saudis to take immediate steps to safeguard the right of religious minorities to worship in private. Though the government says it permits such practice, the report cited numerous examples of foreigners who have been detained without charges and then deported for offenses such as Bible-reading, hymn-singing or sermons at private gatherings.

Without a more constructive engagement of these issues, Murphy said, he feared that the latest terrorist acts "may be portents of things to come."

Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter and a longtime U.S. ally, has never been placed on the State Department's watch list of human rights violators, despite similar past recommendations. State Department spokesman Jeffrey Jamison said he could not comment on the latest report until it had been thoroughly studied but added that the government continues to try to work with the Saudis to improve its human rights record.

The 10-member advisory panel on international religious freedom - created by Congress to prod a State Department that is historically reluctant to emphasize human rights issues - also urged the protection of freedom of belief in the political reconstruction of Afghanistan and the use of economic leverage to halt religious persecution in Vietnam, China, Sudan, Russia, North Korea, Laos and Belarus.

In the 18 months since a U.S. invasion overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan, the panel reported some progress but also "significant disappointments," particularly outside of Kabul, where tribal war lords continue a lawless reign.

"Many of the human rights abuses practiced by the Taliban are reportedly continuing today," the report found, "including political killings, torture, coercion to enforce social and religious conformity and abuses against women and girls, sometimes with the active support of the courts and police."

The panel urged the expansion of international security beyond Kabul and asked for more forceful U.S. opposition to torture, arbitrary arrests and killings by local commanders, many of whom receive American military support.

"We continue to speak our minds with the hope that that would be a way to keep pressure on the State Department so they don't lose sight of these concerns," Murphy said.