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The US government’s religious freedom watchdog on Friday called for action against ally Saudi Arabia after its mass execution of 37 people, most of them Shiite Muslims.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose members are appointed by the president and lawmakers across party lines but whose role is advisory, said the State Department “must stop giving a free pass” to Saudi Arabia.

In a congressionally mandated annual report, the State Department classifies Saudi Arabia among its “countries of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom, which would normally require Washington to take punitive actions such as imposing economic sanctions.

However, successive secretaries of state have each year issued waivers on punishing Saudi Arabia, citing national security interests.

“The Saudi government’s execution of minority Shia Muslims on the basis of their religious identity and peaceful activism is not only shocking, but also directly contradicts the government’s official narrative of working toward greater modernization and improving religious freedom conditions,” the commission’s chair, Tenzin Dorjee, said in a statement as the commission urged an end to the waivers.

Saudi Arabia practices a puritanical Wahabi ideology, with the latest State Department report on religious freedom pointing to a “pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination” against the Shiite minority and a ban on the practice of any faith besides Islam.

Human rights groups say that nearly all of the Saudi citizens beheaded on Tuesday were Shiite, with one crucified after death.

The UN human rights chief said that at least three were minors when charged.

President Donald Trump has vowed to preserve a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, pointing to its major purchases of American weapons, its giant oil exports and its hostility toward US rival Iran.

Trump has not commented on the executions, although the State Department said it urged “Saudi Arabia and all governments” to respect freedom of religion.

– with reporting by AFP

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