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Saudi Arabia promises to revise textbooks

Change is one of several planned steps involving religious freedom

From Elise Labott, CNN State Department Producer

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Washington (CNN) -- Saudi Arabia has promised a comprehensive review of all of its educational textbooks and to remove all language promoting intolerance, the State Department's ambassador for religious freedom said Wednesday.

Ambassador John Hanford said Saudi Arabia is already making sincere progress in cleansing its textbooks from bigoted references and added "the Saudis agreed the language is inexcusable."

"We are very pleased with the reforms that King Abdullah and his government have been making," Hanford said.

However, there were still some "repugnant references" in the textbooks targeted at both non-Muslims and Muslims who don't follow the Saudi version of Islam, called Wahabism, he said.

Hanford's comments followed a briefing for members of Congress on a list of policies the Saudis agreed to implement in the area of religious freedom.

The new policies came after weeks of meetings between Hanford's team and senior Saudi officials to address Riyadh's designation of a "country of particular concern" in the last State Department report on religious freedom.

The State Department's last report grading religious freedom around the world said "freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia. Because Islam is the official religion of the country, all citizens must be Muslim, the report said.

As a country of particular concern, Saudi Arabia is subject to U.S. trade sanctions. But the sanctions were waived in order to give Hanford and his team the diplomatic space to address the issues directly with the Saudis, and Hanford said the trade sanctions would continue to be withheld.

A senior administration official who expanded on the agreement would only speak on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

As part of the deal, the Saudis promised to ban the use of government funds for textbooks, retrain educators and imams who espouse intolerance and incorporate education on human rights into the school curricula, the senior official said.

The Saudis also said they would protect the right to private worship for all, including non-Muslims, and impose new landmark regulations on the country's religious police to ensure religious worshipers are not harassed.

Saudi leaders also agreed to empower the newly-created Human Rights Commission to investigate and report all violations of human rights in the country and help the country improve its human rights practices.

Saudi Arabia said it had expunged all intolerant language from its textbooks. But a recent review of Saudi texts for the current academic year by the group Freedom House revealed, despite Saudi statements to the contrary, an ideology of hatred toward Christians, Jews and Muslims who do not follow the Wahabi version of Islam.

But the senior administration official said intolerant language had been removed from textbooks used in the United States and the textbooks studied in the Freedom House report were used in Saudi Arabia.

Hanford said the Saudis plan to have a comprehensive review of all educational materials to be completed within one to two years.

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