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Religious freedom panel urges 6 additions to persecutors list

WASHINGTON (BP)–The State Department should double to 12 the number of countries it has labeled as the worst violators of religious liberty, an independent federal panel says.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended Sept. 30 that Secretary of State Colin Powell add India, Laos, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the list of “countries of particular concern” for their participation in or toleration of particularly severe abuses of religious liberty. The panel also urged Powell to maintain CPC designations for Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.

It marked the first time the USCIRF has urged CPC designation for India, Pakistan and Vietnam. The commission has requested such a classification for Laos, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan in recent years, but the State Department has declined to follow its advice.

The USCIRF also established a “watch list” of countries where serious religious liberty violations occurred that did not reach the level of CPC designation. The panel’s first “watch list” consists of Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Uzbekistan.

The CPC designation “is one of the most important human rights acts taken by any U.S. administration,” USCIRF chairwoman Felice Gaer said in a written release. “The [International Religious Freedom Act] requires the U.S. to oppose these egregious and systematic violations, whether the government itself commits them or tolerates them. We hope to see actions commensurate with the severity of these abuses.”

The IRFA, which was enacted in 1998, 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. The president also has the authority to waive any action.

India and Pakistan were both guilty in the last year of failing to protect religious minorities, the panel reported.

Violence by Hindu mobs in the Indian state of Gujarat resulted in the slayings of at least 1,000 Muslims and the displacement of more than 100,000 Muslims from their homes. Also in Gujarat, Christians were persecuted and church buildings were destroyed. The state and federal governments failed to take appropriate action in response, according to the USCIRF.

In Pakistan, attacks against the Christian minority increased. Sunni Muslim militants also continued to attack Shi’ite Muslims. Charges of blasphemy under Pakistani law often result in lengthy jail time and sometimes violence against religious minorities.

The Vietnamese government maintained repressive policies toward all religious adherents. Government officials harass leaders of both unregistered and registered religious groups.

The USCIRF’s members did not agree on all the recommendations. Commissioners Michael Young and Gaer dissented from calling for CPC designation for India. Panelists Leila Sadat and Shirin Tahir-Kheli disagreed with the commission’s failure to recommend Uzbekistan as a CPC.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a member of the USCIRF. President Bush appointed him to the panel in September 2001.

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.

Last year was the first time North Korea received CPC designation. Burma, China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan have been on the list three consecutive years.

The IRFA became law after a movement started in the mid-1990s when Christians and others in the United States became aware of the widespread persecution of religious adherents in many countries.