In September, the State Department designated Saudi Arabia, along with Eritrea and Vietnam, as "countries of particular concern" for the first time, under the 1998 statute that created the commission Ms. Bansal now leads. The law says the White House must either impose penalties from a list of actions in the legislation, or the president has the option to waive the provisions.
On March 15, the deadline for the State Department's extension expired and pressure from Congress and the commission has mounted on Foggy Bottom to end the delay.
In an interview yesterday, Senator Brownback, a Republican from Kansas and the original sponsor of the religious freedom legislation, said he thought now was the time for the Bush administration to impose sanctions on the House of Saud.
"At some point in time, legitimate action has to be taken, or the statutes don't mean anything," Mr. Brownback said.
"Saudi Arabia has been a longtime violator of religious freedom. I do understand the administration is saying we have one battle at a time, and we are focused on terrorism right now, not religious freedom. But I don't think this is the right idea now, particularly given the president's inauguration speech. We have to push the Saudis harder even if that has some impact on the terrorism." Mr. Brownback is currently the chairman of the Helsinki Commission, a position he has used to shed light on rights issues in the Middle East.
When asked for a comment yesterday, Senator Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said Secretary of State Rice "should do something about this."
A State Department official yesterday told The New York Sun that a decision on the three countries could be announced this week. But this official also stressed that no decisions on Saudi Arabia have been made and that formal negotiations with the country remain under way.
"Talks have been more productive with Vietnam than with the other countries," the official said. Asked about the talks with the Saudis, the official said, "When you are starting from the base Saudi Arabia is starting at, even incremental steps would be welcome and positive. An incremental step would be letting people bring religious materials or other matter of items into the country and their homes."
The 2004 State Department report on religious freedom bluntly states that in Saudi Arabia, "freedom of religion does not exist." The report noted arrests of Christian missionaries, Sufi Muslims, and, in some cases, reports of citizens being detained for practicing sorcery. Foreign workers must carry identification cards noting their religion. The state employs 500 people whose sole purpose is to convert non-Muslims to the state religion. And Saudi customs officials "routinely open mail and shipments to search for contraband," which can include Bibles and even Islamic material that does not conform with the strict Salafist interpretation preached inside government financed mosques.
Ms. Bansal suggested the State Department should deny visas to senior officials from the House of Saud involved directly in suppressing religious freedoms. "Obviously the Saudi relationship is a close one," she said. "We are mindful that our recommendations for action should be in the realm of reasonable possibility. But we think it is really important in the case of Saudi Arabia for the United States not to invoke the national security waiver under the International Religious Freedom Act."
Nonetheless, America has recently praised the House of Saud for allowing men to vote in elections for half the seats on city and town councils. In addition, President Bush has consistently said after September 11, 2001, that Riyadh was a strong partner in the war on terrorism even though 19 of the 21 hijackers in that attack were Saudi nationals.
On April 5, Secretary Rice told the Associated Press, "We're still looking at the issue. The important impact of this kind of report is that it, first of all, demonstrates this is something the United States takes very seriously, and then it allows us to work with each country to see what can be achieved. But I don't think that there's any doubt that there is a long way to go in many of these cases."
Ms. Bansal cited the findings of the September 11 commission in the interview. "Its final report said the problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship must be confronted openly. There has been undisputed evidence that the Saudi government has been directly responsible for financing an extremist ideology globally that gives fodder to terror. And we think the international religious freedom act is an important mechanism for the United States to confront that problem openly."
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