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Punitive Actions Against Saudi Arabia for Religious Freedom Violations Waived

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Obama administration has waived punitive restrictions for violating religious freedom on Saudi Arabia and a handful of other countries, arguing that national security concerns supersede the International Religious Freedom Act.

The State Department notified Congress on Thursday that Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan would be redesignated as Countries of Particular Concern under the IRF. Tajikistan was added to the list for the first time.

“In accordance with the IRF Act, presidential actions for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan have been implemented,” press secretary John Kirby told reporters today. “We have waived application of presidential actions with respect to Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan following determinations that the important national interest of the United States required exercising this waiver authority.”

“These designations help us shine a spotlight on countries and conditions that require the international community’s attention,” he added. “Today and every day, as you know, we are committed to working with governments, civil society organizations, and individuals to achieve our shared interest in promoting peace and stability through, in part, the promotion and protection of all human rights including religious freedoms.”

Kirby said the designation was not about imposing additional sanctions, but “reaffirming, often in many cases, sanctions or actions – they’re not all sanctions – but actions that are already in place.”

“So now it adds a layer of validity to a sanction or an action that’s already in place,” he said. “So as far as I know, there are no additional measures being taken, but the measures that are in place on those countries are now – there’s another layer of credibility and validity put on to them.”

“…In general, what I can tell you is that in the majority of cases these are sanctions or actions that affect the military-to-military relationship and aid and assistance in that regard. Some of it – some of them regard visa restrictions. And there are some additional restrictions placed on some of these countries with respect to other aid and assistance not militarily – not military related. But by and large, the impact will be felt in the military-to-military relationship, and as I said, in these cases those actions are already in place. This is just an extra – this is another layer of validity to our concerns over that particular country.”

Kirby was asked if he was aware that the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, defended to Al-Jazeera the branding of atheism as a terrorist offense now in the kingdom.

“Somebody who says that and calls for it publicly is subversive and could possibly be a terrorist,” Al-Mouallimi said. “…We are a country that is homogenous in accepting Islam by the entire population. Any calls that challenge Islamic rule or Islamic ideology is considered subversive in Saudi Arabia and would be subversive and could lead to chaos.”

Kirby said he didn’t see the comments, but “we judge a terrorist not by religious affiliation or claims of religious affiliation, but rather their actions.”