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Dismay over failure to cite 6 countries voiced by religious liberty commission

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed disappointment the State Department did not lengthen its list of severe violators of religious liberty in its latest report.

On March 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell designated the same six “countries of particular concern” as he had previously, but the USCIRF had recommended six more governments for the list.

The repeat offenders are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan. In a letter to Powell in September, the USCIRF had recommended he add India, Laos, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as CPC designees.

“For three years, the commission has recommended Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Laos for CPC status because of their deplorable religious freedom violations, yet none has been named,” said USCIRF chairwoman Felice Gaer. “Even the State Department’s own report states that religious freedom ‘does not exist’ in Saudi Arabia. We urge the department to continue to assess the religious freedom violations in these countries and make CPC designations throughout the year.”

The secretary of state may add or delete a country as a CPC at any time, depending on changes in conditions or by the government.

The USCIRF’s Gaer also expressed concern the State Department is not using the CPC process to increase pressure on countries that remain severe violators of religious freedom.

“In the past, the State Department has taken no additional policy action against CPCs, explicitly relying instead on pre-existing sanctions simply to meet requirements under the law,” Gaer said in a written release. “While this may be technically correct under the statute, it is indefensible as a matter of policy.”

The State Department has 90 days under the International Religious Freedom Act to designate the policies it will utilize with the CPC designees. The IRFA, which was enacted in 1998, requires the president to take specific actions against governments designated as CPCs. Under the law, he is provided a range of options, from diplomacy to economic sanctions. The president also has the authority to waive any action.

September’s letter marked the first time the USCIRF has urged CPC designation for India, Pakistan and Vietnam. India and Pakistan are both guilty of failing to protect religious minorities, the USCIRF reported. Vietnam maintains repressive policies toward all religious adherents, even those registered with the government, the panel said.

The panel also reported Laos represses minority religions, including Christianity; Saudi Arabia prohibits all public expressions of religion other than those of Sunni Islam; and Turkmenistan restricts all religious groups except the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The USCIRF also established a “watch list” of countries where serious religious liberty violations occurred that did not reach the level of CPC designation. The panel’s first “watch list” consists of Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Uzbekistan.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a member of the USCIRF. President Bush appointed him to the panel in September 2001.

The IRFA established the nine-member commission to advise the White House and Congress. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six.

The CPC designation “is one of the most important human-rights acts taken by any U.S. administration,” Gaer said in a written release. “The [International Religious Freedom Act] requires the U.S. to oppose these egregious and systematic violations, whether the government itself commits them or tolerates them. We hope to see actions commensurate with the severity of these abuses.”