News Articles

Panel commends first report on global religious freedom

WASHINGTON (BP)–The congressionally established Commission on International Religious Freedom commended the State Department’s initial report on worldwide religious liberty, saying the fact-finding process for the report already has resulted in changes in some countries.
The report could have been stronger in describing the conditions in China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, however, an organization headed by one of the commission’s members said.
The State Department’s report, which is more than 1,000 pages in length, provides information on the degree of religious freedom in 194 countries. In addition to a section on each country, the report includes an executive summary that divides problem governments into four categories of restrictive practices: Totalitarian attempts to control religion; hostility toward minority or unapproved religions; neglect of discrimination against or persecution of religious groups, and discriminatory policies toward some religions.
In the totalitarian section, the report includes Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. Governments practicing hostility toward minority religions include Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia and Sudan, according to the report. The document names Bulgaria, Egypt, India and Indonesia among the states failing to act to prevent discrimination or persecution by nongovernmental groups. Governments with discriminatory policies include Russia and Turkey, according to the report.
Robert Seiple, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said in a written statement coinciding with the release of the report “there are no good reasons for any government to violate religious freedom or to tolerate those within its warrant who do. There are, however, many good reasons to promote religious freedom. It bears repeating that the United States seeks to promote religious freedom, not simply to criticize.”
The first official U.S. report on religious liberty overseas “is but a small, measured step that we are taking,” Seiple said. “The good news is that we are on our way.”
The report, Seiple’s position and the commission were brought into existence by the International Religious Freedom Act, which gained passage last October.
The commission’s chairman, David Saperstein, said the data-gathering process of the report, which covers 18 months from the first of 1998 through June of this year, brought about changes in problem countries such as Uzbekistan. “Clearly, in taking the [International Religious Freedom Act] process seriously, the U.S. can wield significant moral suasion and influence internationally on this issue,” Saperstein said in a written release.
The nine-member panel, which was appointed by President Clinton and congressional leaders, will study the report, but Saperstein said the law calling for the report already had caused the State Department to focus on the issue. “This nation’s ‘first freedom’ must assume its rightful place as a serious consideration in American foreign policy, and this report is an important step in that direction,” he said.
The panel will go beyond the State Department’s work and be able to gather further information from human rights organizations, relief agencies and religious denominations, said Saperstein, who is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism..
Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom and a member of the commission, called the report “important as the opening salvo of an important national debate on who persecutes religious believers and what America’s relationship with them should be. With the publication of this report, it is official — international religious freedom is a front-burner, foreign policy issue.”
Some of the country profiles are not satisfactory, tending to give U.S. trading partners the benefit of the doubt and failing to conclude whether some governments are guilty of persecution, Freedom House charged.
The Washington-based organization described the section on Sudan as the “most egregious example” of a weak report. It fails to say the Khartoum regime supports a militant Islamic genocide of Christian and tribal religious groups in the southern part of the country, even though the practice has been observed by a special United Nations rapporteur and members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Freedom House said.
“It is regrettable that the State Department failed to seize an opportunity provided by the report to spotlight [the] catastrophic scale and magnitude of religious persecution in Sudan,”Shea said in a written release.
The commission will pay close attention to the report’s findings on Sudan and China and will issue detailed assessments of it, the panel said.
The law establishing the commission calls for it to report annually on countries guilty of committing or permitting violations of religious liberty. The president is required to respond to the report, but he has options ranging from diplomatic protest to economic sanction as measures to use in dealing with offending governments.
Enactment of the legislation was the result of a long and often contentious struggle to adopt a measure intended to alleviate the persecution of religious adherents in foreign countries. Its passage came after the White House, major American businesses and some religious organizations, such as the National Council of Churches, opposed previous versions.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was among a broad array of organizations that worked for passage of the bill. Other organizations supporting the legislation included Christian Legal Society, Anti-Defamation League, National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Catholic Conference, Episcopal Church, Christian Coalition and American Jewish Committee.
It is estimated more followers of Christ have died for their faith in the 20th century than in all the 19 previous centuries combined.
The report, which was released Sept. 9, may be accessed on the State Department’s Web site at www.state.gov.