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Panel cites leading religious persecutors, rebukes US inaction

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Commission on International Freedom added a country and deleted another in its latest list of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty.

On the same day it released its annual report May 11, the bipartisan panel recommended for the first time Uzbekistan be designated by the State Department as one of the “countries of particular concern,” a category reserved for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom.” The USCIRF also removed India from its list of countries recommended for CPC designation.

The commission recommended to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the retention of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam on the CPC list. It also repeated its previous advice that Pakistan and Turkmenistan be added to the category, a suggestion the previous secretary of state, Colin Powell, did not agree to last year.

The USCIRF recommends governments for CPC designation each year, but the secretary of state actually designates which countries are on the CPC list. Communist and Muslim-controlled governments largely, though not totally, comprise the list.

The commission urged Rice to take action called for by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) against CPC designees — action that so far has been ignored by the Clinton and Bush administrations. In the case of Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan, all long-time CPC designees, the U.S. government has enforced only sanctions already in existence against those countries for other reasons.

“The U.S. government’s reliance on pre-existing sanctions has provided little incentive for those CPC governments to reduce or end egregious violations of religious freedom,” the USCIRF said in its new report. “[That] is unacceptable as a matter of policy. The failure to take additional action under IRFA suggests that nothing further can, or will, be done by the U.S. government with respect to [CPC designees].”

The administration, the panel said, so far has missed an opportunity to act on last year’s additions to the CPC list: Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. The U.S. government did not have sanctions in place against any of those governments beforehand, the USCIRF said.

The deadline for U.S. action on these countries had passed when the 2005 report was published, and the commission “had seen no evidence of genuine progress with regard to freedom of religion or belief in any of these countries,” the USCIRF said. “The persistent delays in the process have served only to signal that the U.S. government does not take seriously its stated –- and mandated –- commitment to promote religious freedom and other human rights throughout the world.”

The State Department announced May 5 it had reached agreement with Vietnam on several religious liberty issues. As a result, the communist government agreed to implement new legislative reforms on religious belief and to call on local officials to adhere to them. In the weeks leading to the announcement, Vietnam had barred forced renunciations of belief, released several inmates who were imprisoned because of their faith, and started to register and allow the reopening of churches that had been shut down, the department said.

The USCIRF noted it was the first agreement made with a CPC designee since the International Religious Freedom Act was enacted. Preeta Bansal, the panel’s chairwoman, said the accord with Vietnam “only signals promises of improvement and not actual measurable progress, and … appears to leave a number of important areas of religious freedom concern unaddressed.”

Regarding Vietnam, the commission said more than 100 religious adherents remain in prison or under a form of house arrest, more than 1,000 churches and other worship places are still closed and reports still exist of arrests and harassment of religious and ethnic minorities.

As it has in the past, the panel also released a “watch list” of countries that should be closely monitored, although their religious freedom violations do not reach the level required for CPC recommendation, according to the USCIRF. This year’s “watch list” consists of Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria. Bangladesh is a new addition. Laos and Georgia were dropped from the list, and Uzbekistan was moved from the “watch list” to the CPC category.

The USCIRF also said it is closely monitoring religious liberty circumstances in Afghanistan, Georgia, India, Iraq, Laos and Russia.

Under the IRFA, the State Department has 180 days to institute the policies it will utilize with the CPC designees. The IRFA requires the president to take specific actions against governments designated as CPCs. He is provided a range of options, from diplomacy to economic sanctions to even waiving action. Under IRFA the president may waive any action for several reasons, including if he determines such a waiver is in America’s best interest.

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 USCIRF’s 2005 report may be obtained online at www.uscirf.gov.