US names religious freedom violators

Washington, USA - On its final working day in office, the Bush administration re-designated eight countries as severe violators of religious freedom but waived possible sanctions against Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, officials said Monday.

The moves were reported to key members of Congress in late January but were not made public until Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's State Department informed the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom about them last week, State officials said.

On Jan. 16, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed documents labeling Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Sudan as "countries of particular concern" for abuses of religious worshippers. The Obama administration took office four days later.

The U.S. commission, an independent congressionally mandated panel that provides recommendations to the government on religious freedom matters, took issue with the timing of the designations and the waivers to Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. The commission also questioned Rice's failure to add more countries to the blacklist.

"The commission is disappointed that Secretary Rice refused to designate any new countries and that waivers were granted for both Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia," said Felice Gaer, the group's chair. "Religious freedom conditions in Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia are appalling and a specific U.S. government response is required."

The commission had wanted Rice to add Iraq, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the list. Such a designation can bring about a range of U.S. sanctions unless a waiver is granted.

The designations were the first by the Bush administration under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act since 2006, when it named the same eight nations "countries of particular concern." Bush officials also waived sanctions against Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan in 2006.

Normally the designations have been made annually. The commission said Rice's last-minute move was "long overdue."