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Panel: Religious freedom threats mount in Afghanistan, Iraq

WASHINGTON (BP)–Threats to religious liberty have increased in two Muslim-dominated countries the United States has helped liberate in recent years from totalitarian regimes, a bipartisan government panel said in its latest annual report.

In releasing its 2006 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended the same 11 countries it cited last year for designation as the world’s most severe persecutors of religious adherents. It also expressed alarm about the conditions for free religious expression in Iraq and Afghanistan, even adding Afghanistan to a “watch list” of countries that should be closely monitored.

The commission recommended to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the retention of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), a category reserved for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom.” The panel repeated its call from last May for Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to be designated as CPCs. Rice declined to include those three countries on the CPC list when the State Department made its report in November.

The USCIRF made Afghanistan the only addition to a “watch list” otherwise repeated from last year: Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

The panel also said it is scrutinizing religious freedom in India, Russia and Sri Lanka.

The USCIRF acknowledged the situation for religious liberty in Afghanistan is improved over the conditions that existed under the Taliban, an extremist Islamic regime deposed by the United States-led military action after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The Taliban regime was on the CPC list before it was overthrown.

The problems for religious expression, however, have increased in the last year, according to the panel.

The new constitution is flawed regarding individual rights, and the judiciary is headed by a Supreme Court chief justice who does not support freedom of religion and speech, as well as the equality of the sexes, according to the commission.

“The defects in the constitution are the principle concerns for the commission, and we continue to believe that the constitution was an important, missed opportunity in our reconstruction work in Afghanistan,” USCIRF member Preeta Bansal said when the report was released at a May 3 news conference in Washington.

“But they’re compounded by the current role and power of the judicial system and the judiciary, which we continue to believe is not yet adequately versed in civil law and does not have the infrastructure and support necessary to govern with a strict sense of the rule of law. So all of these developments indicate that religious extremism, even in official circles, is an increasing threat to democratic consolidation in Afghanistan,” said Bansal, a First Amendment lawyer from New York.

Iraq, which is still seeking to establish a constitution and government after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, has been plagued in the last year by escalating violence between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, as well as religiously motivated attacks at the hands of insurgents and Islamic militants on various groups, the USCIRF reported.

“The commission has concluded that because the United States has been so directly involved in Iraq’s political reconstruction, it has a special obligation to act vigorously, together with the Iraqi leadership, to identify and to promptly remedy the systemic flaws which continue to undermine the protection of universal human rights in Iraq,” commissioner Richard Land told reporters.

Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the panel included the following among its recommendations to the U.S. government regarding Iraq:

— Appoint a senior foreign service officer to report directly to the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and to serve as the top human rights official in Iraq.

— Oppose religiously motivated violence in high-level speeches.

— Call for Iraqi leaders, with the aid of the U.S. government, to install an independent, national human rights commission.

The USCIRF also urged the White House to take action against Saudi Arabia, which was finally named as a CPC in 2004 after years of recommendations by the commission. A year after the designation, Rice approved in September a 180-day waiver of action on the Saudi regime. That time period has expired, and conditions for religious liberty have not improved substantially in the last year, commissioner Nina Shea said at the news conference.

Saudi Arabia is “one of the really dozen countries in the world that are the worst persecutors” of religious believers, Shea said. In contrasting the White House’s response to the panel’s recommendations, she said the Bush administration’s “response on Saudi Arabia is the weakest of all,” while it has enacted numerous policy proposals regarding Sudan.

The USCIRF recommends governments for CPC designation each year, but the secretary of State actually designates which countries are on the list. Communist and Islamic regimes dominate the CPC list. China, North Korea and Vietnam have communist-controlled governments, while Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan have Muslim-dominated regimes.

Burma, China, Iran and Sudan have been CPCs since the initial list in 1999.

Land, who is in his fourth year as a USCIRF member, gave Baptist Press the following assessment of religious persecution globally: “In general, it’s getting worse, but it would be a lot worse if it weren’t for the efforts of the United States government. I would have to say the most profound truth that I‘ve come away from my service so far on the commission is that most countries in the world would give [this issue] little if any attention if it were not for the insistence of the government of the United States that they take this issue seriously and they take this issue seriously in relation to their own citizens.”

The International Religious Freedom Act, the 1998 law that established the commission, requires the administration to act to bring change in CPCs. Under the IRFA, the State Department has 90 days to designate 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. The president also has the authority to waive any action.

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 2006 report may be obtained online at www.uscirf.gov.