The United States has postponed punishing Saudi Arabia for restricting religious freedom, giving the US ally six more months to show it has made progress in its treatment of religious minorities.
One year ago, the State Department declared that religious freedom was absent in the Arab kingdom. Under US law, the Bush administration could have imposed sanctions such as trade restrictions - as it has done with some other countries.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice notified Congress last week that she had authorized a 180-day waiver of action against Saudi Arabia "in order to allow additional time for the continuation of discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues."
Rice raised the issue last week in a meeting in Washington with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, and stressed the importance of continuing to work on this issue, State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said.
Last week, the department notified Congress that Rice had banned commercial export of certain defense articles to Eritrea. The African country was cited a year ago along with Saudi Arabia and Vietnam as having records of serious concern on religious freedom.
It was the first time sanctions were applied to any country under US religious freedom law.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal agency established by Congress in 1998 to promote religious freedom around the world, disclosed Rice's action on Friday.
Responding, spokesman Cooper said the waiver was a temporary measure that "allows us to continue discussions leading to progress on important religious freedom issues."
Vietnam, the third country cited last year, reached an agreement with the State Department in May to improve religious freedom conditions.
The delay on Saudi Arabia coincided with a just-ended public diplomacy venture by Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes designed to promote democracy in Muslim countries.
Stopping in Saudi Arabia, Hughes praised leaders of the kingdom for their counterterrorism work.
The religious freedom commission, in a statement, said real progress was absent in Saudi Arabia on religious conditions and that the US government should use the 180 days to achieve real progress.
Otherwise, the commission said licenses should not be issued for exports to Saudi Arabia of technology that could be used in military programs and Saudi officials responsible for religious freedom violations should not be permitted to visit the United States.
"Freedom of religion does not exist," the State Department said last year in summing up the situation in Saudi Arabia in a report that covered religious freedom in 191 countries.
Those who do not adhere to the officially sanctioned strain of Sunni Islam practiced in the country can face "severe repercussions" from religious police, the report said.
It also cited instances in which government-paid mosque preachers "used violent anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in their sermons."
Last week, President George W., Bush waived any financial sanctions on Saudi Arabia for failing to make significant efforts to stop slave trade in prostitutes, child sex workers and forced laborers.
Saudi Arabia was one of 14 countries listed by the State Department in June as failing to adequately address the problem. But Bush decided it was not in the national interest of the United States to punish Saudi Arabia as well as Kuwait and Ecuador, who were among the 14 censured nations.
Rice is expected to release this year's worldwide religious freedom report next Thursday.