Panel urges tighter scrutiny of Saudi abuses

Washington, USA - Saudi Arabia has failed to take substantial steps to promote religious tolerance, despite assurances from the Bush administration that the kingdom has made progress on reform, a U.S. watchdog said on Thursday.

A report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called for new congressional scrutiny of Saudi Arabia's progress in implementing religious reform policies announced in July 2006.

The commission, established by Congress in 1998 to monitor religious freedom, also asked the administration to pressure Saudi Arabia -- an important U.S. ally in the Middle East and the world's biggest oil producer -- to prove it is not involved in circulating texts blamed for encouraging Sunni Muslim militancy in religious schools and mosques worldwide.

"It appears that the Saudi government has made little or no progress on efforts to halt the exportation of extremist ideology," said the report, which follows a commission visit to Saudi Arabia in May and June.

The 26-page document said Saudi government practices at home continued to violate the rights of minority Shi'ite Muslims, non-Muslim religious groups and women.

"The Saudi government persists in severely restricting all forms of public religious expression other than the government's interpretation and enforcement of its version of Sunni Islam," it said.

Nascent steps toward the creation of civil society have not been realized and government pledges of reform have not brought tangible protections for human rights, the commission noted.

The report called for U.S. pressure to disband the country's autonomous religious police force, which clerics see as crucial to the Islamic state despite criticism of zealous behavior in its enforcement of Sunni religious law.

The commission criticized the United States for failing to move U.S.-Saudi relations beyond pragmatic concerns about Middle East politics and oil during successive U.S. administrations.

"Many observers contend that, even now, the United States does not want to jeopardize important bilateral security and economic ties by pushing for political and human rights reforms," the report said.

The U.S. State Department designated Saudi Arabia as a "country of particular concern" under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act in September 2004 for its systematic and egregious violations of religious rights.

But the Bush administration later granted the Saudis a waiver and announced in July 2006 that Saudi Arabia was pursuing a number of policies to promote greater religious freedom and tolerance.

"Other than the waiver, no action ... has been taken by the U.S. government," the report said.

The report specifically urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to engage Saudi Arabia about an Islamic school outside Washington, which may violate U.S. law because of evidence it is run by the Saudi Embassy in the United States.