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Panel: Religious freedom report shows need for more action

WASHINGTON (BP)–The new U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom demonstrates why a non-partisan commission has been calling on Secretary of State Colin Powell to declare additional countries as severe violators of religious liberty, the panel’s chairman said.

In an executive summary of its annual report released Dec. 18, the State Department classified countries where religious adherents and groups are suppressed, discriminated against or discouraged. Few changes were made in the five categories from last year’s report.

The report said enough to convince the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom it was correct previously in recommending Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as “countries of particular concern.” CPCs, as designated by the State Department, are regimes that participate in or permit severe and ongoing violations of religious liberty.

“The extent of the religious freedom violations in Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam demonstrates clearly the importance of U.S. action to ensure their compliance with international human rights standards. The new report leaves no doubt that [Powell] should promptly designate” those countries as CPCs, USCIRF Chairman Michael Young said in a written release.

The 1998 law establishing the commission 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.

Richard Land, a Southern Baptist religious liberty specialist and a USCIRF commissioner, said the report was a mixed bag concerning Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

“I am pleased the State Department once again confirms the obvious — that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia. That’s the good news,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“The bad news is the report is naive and overly optimistic in its portrayal of the facts on the ground concerning religious freedom in Vietnam,” he said. “While the report says it is a mixed picture, in actual fact things are getting worse, not better, and the decline is accelerating.”

The USCIRF has urged Congress to authorize a study of Saudi Arabia, which is dominated by an extreme interpretation of Islam, to determine if its government is funding global promotion of an ideology that teaches hateful violence.

The commission reported in May the “already poor religious freedom conditions in Vietnam have deteriorated” since a trade agreement between the United States and Vietnam was approved in 2001. The USCIRF has urged Congress to pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which would tie non-humanitarian aid to that country’s improvements regarding religious and human rights.

The State Department’s report was released less than a week after the USCIRF expressed deep concern over developments in Turkmenistan. The November enactment of a law that penalizes “illegal religious activity” signals “a deterioration in the already appalling situation for religious freedom” in Turkmenistan, Young said. The panel has recommended the U.S. government “immediately suspend all non-humanitarian assistance” to Turkmenistan.

At a news briefing, John Hanford, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said the State Department is “seriously considering a number of countries right now [for CPC designation], and, in fact, we are also working with some of those countries to see if there might be the potential for some improvements before we are required to make the designation this year.”

Saudi Arabia “has been very close to the threshold” of CPC status, Hanford said, acknowledging, “there are few countries that are more restrictive in terms of their laws. There are other countries that are much harsher in terms of the ways that they manifest their laws, in terms of arresting and torture and murdering people.”

The Saudi government “has begun to implement some measures to address this problem, and we will be in the process of trying to assess how far those are along before we make that final decision [about CPC status],” he said.

Hanford, who visited Vietnam this year, said the State Department received “good news just in the last week or two that a number of the religious prisoners that we had presented to the Vietnamese have now been released — a pretty significant portion.”

In addition to Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam, the USCIRF also had recommended CPC designation for India, Laos and Pakistan without success. In March, Powell designated Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan as CPCs. Iraq was included because of its status before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

It could be weeks or months before Powell names the latest CPCs.

The State Department report classified in its executive summary the following as totalitarian regimes, most of them communist, that seek to control religion: Burma, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.

Another category consisted of governments that express hostility toward certain religious bodies. Islamic states dominated this category, which consisted of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Governments that fail to enforce laws against religious discrimination and persecution, according to the report, are Bangladesh, Egypt, Georgia, Guatemala, India, Indonesia and Nigeria.

Countries in which laws favor or disfavor certain religious groups, the report said, are Belarus, Brunei, Eritrea, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Moldova, Russia and Turkey.

It listed three European countries as guilty of stigmatizing specific religious groups by wrongfully identifying them with harmful cults or sects. They are Belgium, France and Germany.

The State Department credited Kazakhstan and Laos with significant improvement.

The summary also reported on efforts in the last year by President Bush and other U.S. officials to promote religious freedom.

The USCIRF expressed appreciation for the State Department’s work on the report, which begins with embassy personnel throughout the world drafting reports on religious liberty in their countries. Land and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged the important role the United States plays in protecting religious liberties.

Religious freedom is a “central tenet of United States foreign policy and an important part of our mission” at the State Department, Armitage said.

The issuance of the fifth religious freedom report is a “ringing reaffirmation of the wisdom” in passing the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which requires such an annual document, Land said.

“Consequently, someone in every American embassy around the globe is assigned the responsibility for gathering information on the status of religious liberty in his respective country,” Land said. “As a result, there are literally thousands of diplomatic service personnel who have been sensitized in new and dramatic ways to the level of persecution and discrimination perpetrated against people around the world on the basis of their faith.

“Every American should take pride in the fact that as a direct result of the concern of the U.S. government, driven in part by the International Religious Freedom Act’s requirements, there has been at least marginal improvement in the plight of hundreds of thousands of people of various faiths around the globe,” he said. “We need to, and can, do more. But if it were not for the concern and involvement of the U.S. government, little, if anything, would be done in many parts of the globe.”

The report covered conditions from July 2002 through June 2003.

The IRFA established the USCIRF as a 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. Bush named Land to his second term this year.