WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. State Department’s first list under the Obama administration of the worst violators of overseas religious freedom received disappointing reviews from some advocates on the issue.
A bipartisan panel and a veteran congressman expressed displeasure with the State Department’s designation of the same eight “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) last cited more than two and a half years ago. The secretary of state is expected under federal law to name CPCs each year, but the list announced Sept. 13 was the first since the Bush administration’s final designations only days before President Obama took office in January 2009.
The CPC list, which was released with the State Department’s annual report on global religious liberty, continues to consist of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom had urged the State Department in May to redesignate those eight regimes as CPCs and to add six others: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
While USCIRF welcomed the Obama administration’s first CPC list, it “is concerned that no new countries were added to the list,” commission Chairman Leonard Leo said in a written statement. “Repeating the current list continues glaring omissions, such as Pakistan and Vietnam. Since CPC designations can be made at any time, we respectfully urge Secretary [Hillary] Clinton to consider the six additional countries we recommended for designation.”
Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., also made clear his disappointment in the State Department’s failure to add CPCs.
“Countries left off the list, such as Egypt and Pakistan, should not assume they are meeting their international obligations to protect the religious freedom of their citizens,” Smith said in a written release.
Smith cited the increased persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt — persecution that includes the abduction of Coptic women and girls who are forced to convert to Islam and marry outside their faith. He also pointed to the Pakistani government’s refusal to respond effectively to the assassinations this year of two government officials who opposed the pro-Muslim blasphemy laws.
The refusal to designate Vietnam “is a lost opportunity,” Smith said. The religious freedom gains made in Vietnam after it was designated as a CPC in 2004 and 2005 appear to have disappeared in the years since it was dropped from the list, according to Smith’s office.
Smith called for the Obama administration to “apply real, hard-hitting, and religious-freedom specific sanctions” on the CPCs. Eritrea is the only regime on the CPC list that has been sanctioned by the United States precisely for religious liberty violations. In other cases, the U.S. government has cited previously issued sanctions on CPCs that have been issued for reasons other than repression of religious freedom.
“Double-hatting already existing sanctions, or just citing sanctions already in place, fails to make the point — China and the other countries need to know that there are tangible consequences for religious persecution,” Smith said. “Sanctions should encourage a change in behavior and will not have the desired effect if they are pre-existing and not in response to religious freedom violations.”
In introducing the latest report, Clinton said the State Department reaffirmed the vital role religious liberty and tolerance have in establishing strong and peaceful societies.
The United States “will speak out against efforts to curtail religious freedom, because it is our core conviction that religious tolerance is one of the essential elements not only of a sustainable democracy but of a peaceful society that respects the rights and dignity of each individual,” Clinton said. “People who have a voice in how they are governed — no matter what their identity or ethnicity or religion — are more likely to have a stake in both their government’s and their society’s success. That is good for stability, for American national security and for global security.”
Clinton cited a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution approved in March as an advance for religious liberty. Unlike “defamation of religions” measures approved by U.N. bodies since 1999, the latest resolution protects individuals from discrimination or violence based on their beliefs. The “defamation of religions” resolutions have focused on protecting religion, primarily Islam.
Among types of religious freedom violations cited in the State Department report:
— Government repression of religion or refusal to stop societal acts against religious adherents, with Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan as examples.
— Extremist violence against religious minorities in such countries as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan.
— Pro-Islam apostasy and blasphemy laws in such countries as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
— Harassment of religious minorities in such countries as Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Sudan and Vietnam.
The State Department report may be accessed online at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010_5/index.htm
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.