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State Dept. Blasts Saudis, China, Iran Over Religious Freedom

The State Department, in a report being released Tuesday, cites Saudi Arabia and seven other countries as restricting religious freedom.

The report was being issued as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepares to travel to Saudi Arabia at the end of the week as part of a trip to the Middle East, and could be an irritant in her talks with Saudi officials.

In September, Rice postponed punishing the Saudis with trade or other restrictions by giving the kingdom 180 days to show it has made progress in its treatment of religious minorities.

The seventh annual report to Congress on religious freedom was delayed for more than a month, giving rise to speculation there might be major revisions in last year's findings, which for the first time included Saudi Arabia.

But a U.S. official, familiar with the report but unable to speak for attribution prior to its release, said the same eight countries would be cited as countries of particular concern.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, they are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Vietnam. Eritrea and Vietnam also were newcomers to the list last year.

A year ago, the State Department concluded religious freedom was absent in Saudi Arabia. "Freedom of religious does not exist," that report said.

In September, Rice authorized a waiver of any punishment against Saudi Arabia, saying she wanted "to allow additional time for the continuation of discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues."

Rice also raised the issue at a meeting in Washington with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, and stressed the importance of continuing to work on it, State Department officials said at the time.

She is expected again to take up religious freedom with Saudi officials during her stop in Saudi Arabia.

In September, the State Department notified Congress that Rice had banned commercial export of certain defense articles to Eritrea. It was the first time sanctions had been applied to any country under the U.S. religious freedom law.

Vietnam, meanwhile, reached an agreement with the State Department in May to improve religious freedom conditions. President Bush is expected to visit Vietnam next year for an Asia conference.