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Trump pressed to punish Saudi Arabia over religious intolerance

A federal commission on religious freedom wants the president to end a decadelong pass for Riyadh.
An undated picture taken in 2016 shows a man walking past images of executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on a wall in the Awamiya area in Saudi Arabia's Eastern province.

In a Sunni-majority kingdom where banners of King Salman, his crown prince and deputy crown prince are widely displayed, the homage paid to Nimr is unusual and provocative.

 / AFP / STRINGER        (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

A federal panel led in part by conservative Christians close to the Donald Trump administration is pressing the president to penalize Saudi Arabia for its religious discrimination following the mass execution of 37 prisoners, most of them members of the kingdom’s minority Shiite population.

The bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) today rolled out its annual report, which makes recommendations to the State Department ahead of its own report on the issue, to be released later in the year. Today’s report calls on Trump to lift a waiver that has allowed Saudi Arabia to escape penalties from its designation as a “country of particular concern” for more than a decade.

“We’re encouraging this administration to be more forceful in following these recommendations,” Tony Perkins, a USCIRF commissioner and president of the conservative Family Research Council, told Al-Monitor. “There were some positive developments … but these recent events that have occurred really dashed those hopes.”

USCIRF also called on the State Department to lift the waiver in last year’s report.

This year’s report, which was written before the executions, cites a handful of positive developments, such as lifting the ban on women driving, less strict enforcement of male guardianship laws, more aggressive efforts to counter extremist ideology and a USCIRF meeting with the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. It also pointed out that Saudi officials had backed off their stance that Islam can be the only religion on the Arabian Peninsula and had met with Christian leaders.

“Even in two countries that we still recommend to be a country of particular concern, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, we saw continued efforts of those governments to engage,” Commissioner Gayle Manchin said during the report’s rollout on Capitol Hill today. 

Still, Perkins stressed that last week’s mass execution “only exacerbates the situation and only makes it worse from the standpoint of the abuse of religious freedom.” After the executions, which included three individuals who were minors when they were sentenced, USCIRF released a blistering public rebuke

“The Saudi government’s execution of minority [Shiite] Muslims on the basis of their religious identity and peaceful activism is not only shocking, but also directly contradicts the government’s official narrative of working toward greater modernization and improving religious freedom conditions,” USCIRF Chairman Tenzin Dorjee said in a statement.

The State Department first designated Saudi Arabia as a country of particular concern in 2004 and has maintained an “indefinite waiver” for Riyadh since 2006, the report notes. The International Religious Freedom Act requires the president to designate countries of particular concern every year. The president then has the option to choose among a menu of retaliatory measures (including economic and financial sanctions), negotiate a bilateral agreement or issue a national security waiver. 

In a dissenting opinion, Commissioner Johnnie Moore defended the State Department’s decision to maintain the waiver for Riyadh.

“I do not think the way of persuading Saudi Arabia to improve its religious environment is by shame and force,” Moore wrote. “I do think it’s through direct, respectful and meaningful engagement.”

Iran and Syria are the only other two Middle East countries identified as being among the worst offenders. The report notes that “religious freedom conditions in Iran trended in a negative direction relative to 2017,” pointing to the harassment and detention of Sunnis, Sufis, Christians and Baha'is.

For the first time, the report also recommends including Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as “entities of particular concern,” joining the Islamic State. The State Department already designated the Houthis in last year’s report and has highlighted the group’s detention of Baha'i leader Hamed bin Haydara on espionage and apostasy charges.

Conversely, the report notes progress in Egypt’s treatment of its own Baha'i minority. Egypt is listed as a Tier 2 country in which the government is accused of engaging in or tolerating “serious” religious freedom violations.

Moore made it a point to praise the Egyptian government’s “commitment to peaceful coexistence” and suggested that Cairo could rid itself of its black mark if it improves security for religious minorities in Minya, which is home to many Christian Copts, and enshrines the recognition of the Baha'i faith into law.

Nonetheless, Perkins pointed to attacks on Coptic churches throughout Egypt.

“Egypt’s still a troubled place,” he told Al-Monitor. “There are rays of light and of hope, but they’re a long way from being out of the woods.”

Accordingly, the report recommends allocating US assistance “to train and equip Egyptian security forces to protect the places of worship and other holy sites of religious minority communities.”

Other countries on the report’s Tier 2 watch list include Bahrain, Iraq and Turkey.

While the report notes that religious freedom in Bahrain “trended positive” in some areas, the government, it said, “continued its discrimination and repression of the [Shiite] Muslim community.”

As it did last year, the commission endorses legislation that would sanction the Iran-backed Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which holds 15 seats in the Iraqi parliament.

Turkey has also fallen under particular scrutiny despite releasing pastor Andrew Brunson, a US citizen, last year.

“They’re really on the borderline of becoming a Tier 1 country,” Perkins told Al-Monitor. “They’re moving in the wrong direction. We’re going to be watching very closely this next year, and if they continue on the same course, I would not be surprised to see them [downgraded].”

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