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North Korea added to list of religious liberty violators

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. State Department has added North Korea to its annual list of the world’s most flagrant violators of religious liberty.

The addition of the communist country marks the first time a regime has been added to the “countries of particular concern” since the original list was compiled in 1999. The State Department, however, failed to cite the other three governments recommended for designation as CPCs by its advisory panel, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In addition to North Korea, the USCIRF urged Secretary of State Colin Powell to designate Laos, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan as CPCs. It was the second consecutive year the panel had recommended North Korea and the other three countries for the list.

The State Department kept six regimes on its CPC list: Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and the Taliban of Afghanistan. The Milosevic regime in Serbia was on the first two CPC lists but is no longer in power.

The USCIRF is “very pleased” at North Korea’s designation as a CPC but disappointed at the exclusion of Laos, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan, Lawrence Goodrich, the commission’s director of communications, told Baptist Press. “[We] strongly believe they deserve to be countries of particular concern, and we will continue to press that case.”

The commission’s nine members, who are appointed by the president and congressional leaders, include Southern Baptist religious liberty agency head Richard Land, who was named to the panel by President Bush in September. Land is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

The State Department refused to label Laos, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan as CPCs despite acknowledging in its report all three are guilty of major violations of religious freedom.

In its report on Saudi Arabia, the department said, “Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of other religions.”

In reporting on Laos and Turkmenistan, the department said the conditions for religious liberty in both had not improved in the last year. Laos’ “poor record of respect for religious freedom deteriorated in some aspects,” according to the report. Of Turkmenistan, the report said the “government’s respect for freedom of religion deteriorated.”

When asked why the State Department did not name Saudi Arabia a CPC, spokesman Richard Boucher said at an Oct. 26 news conference the “situation has not changed in Saudi Arabia,” so the Middle East country’s designation did not change. Boucher acknowledged “there is essentially no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. … So that situation is stable.”

The USCIRF’s Goodrich said the State Department’s own report on Saudi Arabia demonstrates why the country should be a CPC. “The violations of religious freedom are egregious and systematic and ongoing,” Goodrich said. “So I would agree that nothing has changed, and that is why it should be a CPC,” as has been recommended before by the commission, he said.

The State Department’s failure to label Laos, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan as CPCs illustrates an “ongoing dispute” between the department and the commission, Goodrich said.

“The State Department has a different interpretation of the law than we do,” Goodrich said. “We believe the law requires that you look at the facts on the ground,” then make a designation for that country, he said.

After a country has been designated as a CPC, the law provides the president with a range of potential responses to choose from in establishing a policy for that government, Goodrich said. Those options range from diplomatic protest to economic sanction. The president also may waive any punishment for national security reasons.

The State Department’s view is to “weigh all these factors before” the CPC designation has been made, Goodrich said. “That is way too early in the process, in our view.”

The International Religious Freedom Act, which became law in late 1998, established the USCIRF, as well as the State Department’s report and the response process for the president.

In its report on North Korea, the department said, “Genuine religious freedom does not exist” and added there had been “no change in the status of respect for religious freedom” in the last year.”

“The regime appears to have cracked down on unauthorized religious groups in recent years, and there have been unconfirmed reports of the killing of members of underground Christian churches,” the report said. “In addition religious persons who proselytize or who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border with China appear to have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties, according to several unconfirmed reports.”

Many Southern Baptist and other evangelical churches will observe International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church Nov. 4.

The State Department’s report may be accessed at www.state.gov. The USCIRF’s letter recommending governments for CPC designation is available at www.uscirf.gov.