US panel on religions freedom urges sanctions against Saudis, Turkmens
WASHINGTON, May 7 (AFP) - A US advisory panel has urged the administration of President George W. Bush to designate Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan as gross violators of religious freedoms and impose sanctions against them.
These and other recommendations are contained in an annual report unveiled Monday by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom that advises the administration and Congress on a broad array of international and humanitarian policy issues.
The panel said the assistance provided the United States by a number of Arab and Asian states in Washington's war on terrorism should not deter the administration from taking a firm stand on human right and religious freedoms.
"Cooperation in the fight against terrorism does not grant them license to continue to abuse the rights of their own people," the commission said in the report.
The recommendations come at a particularly delicate time for US diplomacy, which has been trying to enlist Saudi cooperation in putting the Middle East peace process back on track and forging a unified front for a possible military operation against Iraq.
But these considerations notwithstanding, the panel said that the Saudi monarchy "denies religious freedom and vigorously enforces its prohibition against all forms of public religious expression other that those who follow the government's interpretation and presentation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam."
As many as 14 Christians of various nationalities were imprisoned without charge in the Saudi city of Jeddah last year in what appeared to be a crackdown on a loose network of private Christian "home fellowships," according to the report.
Several of those detained were subject to beatings and repeated interrogations, and all were deported from Saudi Arabia by March 2002, said the document.
As for Turkmenistan, the report found religious freedom conditions in that former Soviet republic "very poor and deteriorating."
The only religions officially recognized by the Turkmen government include Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity.
Members of other religious communities, including Baha'is, Baptists, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals and Seventh-day Adventists, have been imprisoned, deported, harassed, fined and had their services disrupted, the report said.
According to the commission, both nations deserve the designations of "countries of particular concern," which, if accepted, would trigger automatic sanctions against them under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.
These sanctions include a suspension of US development and security aid and US opposition to loans from international financial institutions.
Since the adoption of the law, the panel has recommended this designation for nine countries: Myanmar, China, Iran, Iraq, Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Turkmenistan.
So far, the State Department has agreed in six cases, including those of Myanmar, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.
Citing continued "egregious violations" in China of the rights of Roman Catholics, Tibetan Buddhist and Uighur Muslims, the commission also urged the US president to make sure the issues of religious freedom were included in the agenda of every US-Sino summit.
"The US government should endeavor to establish an official US government presence, such as a consulate, in Lhasa, Tibet, and Urumqi, Xinjiang, in order to monitor religious freedom and other human rights," the report pointed out.
With religious violence on the rise in Indonesia, the panel recommended that the United States press Jakarta to disarm militias such as Laskar Jihad operating on Sulawesi and the Moluccan Islands, where fighting between Muslims and Christians has claimed nearly 9,000 lives since 1999.
It also called for monitoring the implementation of Islamic Shariah law in Aceh, another violence-torn Indonesian province, to ensure religious freedoms.
©Copyright 2002, Agence France-Presse