Powell plays down report on Saudi religious practices

Powell plays down report on Saudi religious practices

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says he hopes to be able to remove Saudi Arabia from the State Department list of religiously intolerant countries.

In an interview broadcast Thursday on the Saudi-owned satellite television Al-Arabiyya, Powell also said the United States was determined to hold elections in Iraq in January, despite the insurgency.

In remarks translated into Arabic, Powell paid tribute to the Saudi leadership in terms that contrasted strongly with the State Department's report on the kingdom's policy toward religion.

"Freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, the State Department said Wednesday, adding the government was responsible for "particularly severe violations" of religious liberty.

Powell said Saudi Arabia had been a great friend to the United States, which has nothing but esteem for Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and his government.

The scathing U.S. report on religious freedoms was met with stony silence Thursday from the Saudi government.

But a member of the appointed Shura (consultative) Council lashed out at the State Department charges, insisting that freedom of belief is respected in the kingdom.

"Freedom of belief is guaranteed in Saudi Arabia," Nayef al-Doaiss, a member of the Council's Committee for Islamic Affairs and Human Rights said.

He said the kingdom was not affected by the U.S. criticism, "because all citizens of Saudi Arabia are Muslims ... and they enjoy religious freedom."

"Non-Muslims who live in the kingdom do not have places for worshipping, like churches, because they are not citizens ... They can practice their religions freely inside their houses," Doaiss said.

But liberal Saudi writer Mansour al-Nugaidan agreed that such practices are an obvious discrimination against non-Muslims in the kingdom.

"Saudi Arabia perceives itself as the custodian of Islam. This explains the belief that it should be void of any other religion," he added.

The report comes as U.S.-Saudi relations, strained by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, continue to come under scrutiny in the United States.

But Powell said the State Department report was a response to American legislation that requires a review of religious freedom around the world. He said the report's finding did not mean Washington would punish Saudi Arabia.

He said he hoped that, through dialogue, a way could be found to remove Saudi Arabia from the list of "countries of particular concern" - a category that means a state could be subjected to U.S. sanctions for religious intolerance.

However, some Saudis pointed skeptically to the timing of the report. Democrats accuse President George W. 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.

Turning to Iraq, Powell acknowledged the violence in the country has been escalating, but said that what was important was that the coalition members, the interim government and the United Nations were determined to hold elections on time.

"We know how to hold a fair election," Powell was heard as saying in English under the Arabic voice-over. The military commanders will work hard to defeat the insurgency in areas such as the Sunni triangle around Baghdad.