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The U.S. State Department on Wednesday for the first time included Saudi Arabia on a list of eight "countries of particular concern" for not allowing religious freedom, a potential stumbling block for relations between the United States and its Persian Gulf ally.

The department's sixth annual report on international religious freedom also added Eritrea and Vietnam to the roster of those countries guilty or tolerant of "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom."

Countries that remained on the list were Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan. Iraq, which had been on the list under Saddam Hussein's regime, was removed.

"Defending the sacred ground of human conscience is a natural commandment to all mankind and America will always heed this call," Secretary of State Colin Powell said.

Designation on the CPC list does not carry immediate sanctions, and returning countries faced little more than diplomatic pressure. Still, human rights advocates say being listed among "the worst of the worst" is a significant signal.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent watchdog group chartered by Congress in 1998, had urged Powell to also add Pakistan and Turkmenistan to the CPC list in its May report. The panel was divided on whether India should also be listed.

Pressure had been mounting on Powell to add the Saudis to the CPC list, despite their key role in the war on terrorism. Critics accuse the kingdom of exporting a militant form of extremist Islam known as Wahhabism and suppressing all non-Muslim religions.

John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom, noted some "sincere improvements" among the Saudis to reign in extremists, open dialogues with Shi'a Muslims and revising ...

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