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Panel urges State Department to add 4 countries as religious violators

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended the State Department add four governments to the list of “countries of particular concern” first compiled last year.

In a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the congressionally established panel suggested Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan be on the list to be released by the department in September. These countries “have engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” commission chairman Elliott Abrams said in the letter.

The commission also recommended the seven regimes designated as CPCs in 1999 be kept on the list. They are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Serbia, Sudan and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The State Department’s selection of these governments came in the first year of a process established by the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998.

In the letter to Albright, the commission’s reasoning for recommending CPC designation for the four countries included:

— In Laos, Protestants, Baha’is and Catholics increasingly have been arrested and imprisoned for practicing their faith.

— North Korea represses all religious expression “except that which serves the interests of the state,” making it apparent religious liberty does not exist.

— Saudi Arabia bans all forms of public religious activity other than that practiced by Wahabi Muslims.

— In Turkmenistan, only the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church are recognized as legal religious entities. Suppression of other religious communities includes destruction of places of worship.

The commission noted four other countries where “grave violations of religious freedom” are either practiced or tolerated by governments. They are India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The panel said the president should take action related to these countries, as well as those designated as CPCs. Two of the nine panel members, Michael Young and Nina Shea, dissented, saying India also should be designated as a CPC.

The panel also expressed concern about the inter-religious violence in Indonesia and Nigeria.

Under the law, the president is required to announce within 90 days of the designation of CPCs what action the administration will take. He has options ranging from diplomatic protest to economic sanction.

In addition to the designation of CPCs, the State Department will release an annual report on global religious liberty as part of its congressional mandate.

Enactment of the legislation establishing the process was the result of a long and often contentious struggle. 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 the Christian Legal Society, Anti-Defamation League, National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Catholic Conference, Episcopal Church, Christian Coalition and American Jewish Committee.

The movement that resulted in passage of the legislation was fueled by growing awareness in recent years of the widespread nature of persecution inflicted on Christians overseas. It has been estimated more followers of Christ died for their faith in the 20th century than in all the 19 previous centuries combined.

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