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Panel: Religious liberty promotion should continue during terror war

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States should promote religious freedom and other human rights even as it combats terrorism in cooperation with countries that violate the liberties of their citizens, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a recently released report.

In its third annual review, the commission acknowledged the United States has had enhanced opportunities to advance religious liberty during the war on terrorism, but the panel said the U.S. government needs to be careful not to swap its commitment to human rights for cooperation from some of the world’s worst abusers of religious liberty and other rights.

“The campaign against terrorism has changed the relationships that the United States has with many foreign countries, including several whose governments engage in severe violations of religious freedom,” the USCIRF said in its new report. “In some cases, these new relationships afford a unique opportunity to encourage much-needed improvements by governments in the protection of religious freedom.”

Among the countries the United States has “the heightened attention of” are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, the panel said.

“At the same time, the U.S. Government must ensure that steps to improve relations with cooperating countries that have major problems protecting religious freedom and other human rights … do not undermine its human rights message to the governments of these countries, and it should carefully monitor whether these steps are impeding progress on improvements in protecting human rights,” the USCIRF recommended.

The commission cited China, Russia, Pakistan, Sudan and Uzbekistan as examples of countries in the second category.

Promotion of religious liberty is a deterrent to terrorism, commission members said.

Terrorism “can only flourish in closed societies where all disagreement is silenced at the point of a bayonet or the barrel of a gun,” USCIRF member Richard Land said at a May 6 news conference at which the report was released. “When you allow freedom of conscience, freedom of dissent, freedom of ideas, you don’t have terrorism flourishing in those kinds of societies. The best long-term insurance against the world being threatened by these kinds of terrorist activities are free and open societies where there is freedom of conscience and freedom of worship.”

Afterward, Land reiterated to Baptist Press the commission is not insisting each country switch to an American form of government.

“We are not calling for the world to adopt the U.S. system, as much as we think they would benefit from it,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “We recognize that countries have the right to determine for themselves whether they want to give preference to a particular religious system.

“However, we are calling for all nations of the world to recognize the rights of all of their citizens, recognized by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, to have freedom of conscience, which means even if they give preference to a particular religion they can’t then persecute or discriminate against their citizens who choose not to follow that religion but choose to follow another religion,” Land said.

In addition to reviewing its work in the last year, the USCIRF report also described the religious freedom conditions in 22 countries and critiqued the State Department’s effort on religious liberty.

While the USCIRF commended the State Department’s improvements in its annual report on religious liberty, the advisory panel said executive branch actions described in the report “in response to serious violations of religious freedom have been sporadic and, in several cases, not consistent with either the seriousness of the violations in question or a deterioration of conditions.”

The commission criticized the State Department report for not providing sufficient information on how United States policy advances protection for religious liberty in countries where there are violations. The panel also said the failure to fill the vacancy of ambassador at large for international religious freedom for 18 months “has weakened U.S. efforts.” John Hanford, who was nominated by President Bush in September, recently was sworn in for the position.

Among the USCIRF’s recommendations concerning the State Department were:

— The State Department should take more action against countries it has already designated as “countries of particular concern,” especially in the cases of China and Sudan. CPCs are governments that are found to be the worst violators of religious liberty. In addition to China and Sudan, Secretary of State Colin Powell has named Burma, Iran, Iraq and North Korea as CPCs.

— The secretary of State should follow the USCIRF’s recommendation to add Laos, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan to the list of CPCs.

— The State Department should observe conditions in India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam and consider CPC status for those countries if further abuses occur.

— The department should increase staff in embassies and bureaus where necessary in order to promote religious freedom adequately.

The USCIRF also released individual reports on Indonesia and Uzbekistan. They were the final two of six reports issued during the year on countries with religious liberty problems. The others previously issued were on China, North Korea, Sudan and Turkmenistan. The panel made policy recommendations for advancing religious liberty in each.

In reporting on China at the news conference, Land said “numerous, egregious violations against members of many of China’s religious and spiritual communities” continue. Among its recommendations, the commission called on the United States to urge China to halt the crackdown on religious groups and to respect the rights of religious expression by individuals and groups outside the government-approved system.

The USCIRF, as well as the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom, was established by the International Religious Freedom Act, which was enacted in 1998. The panel consists of nine members, six selected by congressional leaders and three by the president.

President Bush named Land to the commission in September.

The other members of the panel are Chairman Michael Young, dean of the George Washington University Law School; Felice Gaer of the American Jewish Committee; Firuz Kazemzadeh, senior adviser for the Baha’is of the United States; William Murphy, bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.; Leila Nadya Sadat, professor at Washington University Law School in St. Louis; Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom; Charles Stith, director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University, and Shirin Tahir-Kheli, director of the South Asia program of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

The USCIRF’s new report, as well as its individual country reports, may be accessed at www.uscirf.gov.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: RICHARD LAND.