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Report on global religious liberty is challenge to U.S., Abrams says

WASHINGTON (BP)–The State Department’s second report on global religious liberty presents a challenge for the U.S. government to act against persecution, the chairman of a federal commission said.

The report, which was prepared by the Office of International Religious Freedom, provides information on the degree of religious freedom in 194 countries. In addition to a section on each country, the report includes an executive summary that divides problem governments into five categories of restrictive practices: totalitarian attempts to control religion; hostility toward minority or unapproved religions; neglect of discrimination against or persecution of religious groups; discriminatory policies toward some religions; and stigmatization of some religions by associating them with cults.

In the totalitarian section, the report lists Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. Governments practicing hostility toward minority religions are Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, according to the report. The document names Egypt, India, Indonesia and Nigeria as states failing to act to prevent discrimination or persecution by non-governmental groups. Governments with discriminatory policies include Bulgaria, Israel, Jordan, Malaysia, Romania, Russia and Turkey, according to the report. The report lists Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France and Germany as countries guilty of stigmatization of certain religious groups.

The report names Azerbaijan and Laos as countries making significant improvements that hopefully represent the “first step in a more systematic change.”

Elliott Abrams, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, praised the office for “another masterful job,” but said, “The real question is, What will the administration and Congress do with [the facts]? The record during the almost two years since passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 leaves much to be desired. While many fine words have been spoken, little action has followed.”

The commission, which was established by IRFA’s enactment, is disappointed in the Clinton administration’s policy toward some of the regimes it designated as “countries of particular concern” after last year’s religious freedom report, Abrams said.

“In the cases of Sudan and China, the sanctions it identified are grossly inadequate and ineffective,” Abrams said in a written statement.

The militant Islamic regime in Sudan continues to carry out a campaign of murder, enslavement and displacement against Christians, animists and other Muslims in the southern part of the country. China persecutes Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and other religious groups out of favor with the world’s largest communist state. About 200 members of Protestant house churches were arrested in three Chinese provinces in August, according to news reports.

Companies participating in the Sudanese oil industry continue to have access to capital markets in the United States, and the Khartoum government remains in control of most of the food provided as aid by international groups, Abrams said. The White House, meanwhile, still promotes the approval of permanent normal trade relations for China, “without requiring any improvements in that government’s egregious and deteriorating record on religious freedom,” he said.

The U.S. Senate began debating PNTR for China the same day as the State Department’s report was released. A vote is expected by the end of the week of Sept. 12. The House of Representatives approved PNTR for China with a 237-197 vote in May.

When the Commission on International Religious Freedom released its first report in early May, it recommended the United States not grant PNTR to Beijing until it made swift, measurable improvements in regard to religious freedom. The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission commended the CIRF report and called on Congress to reject PNTR for China.

“This is just more evidence from the administration’s own Department of State that China should not be granted permanent normal trade relations considering its ‘respect for religious freedom deteriorated markedly,’ according to the report,” said Shannon Royce, the ERLC’s legislative counsel, Sept. 7. “It’s just fortunate that it came out in the very week that the Senate is debating this.”

The Senate, however, is expected to approve PNTR.

Another CIRF member criticized aspects of the report from the State Department.

The report “soft-peddles religious genocide in Sudan and religious violence in Egypt, most likely in deference to the Middle East peace process,” said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, in a written release. She urged the federal government to give particular attention to Sudan, China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Nigeria because increasing religious violence in these countries threatens to disrupt large groups of people.

When the State Department names this fall its “countries of particular concern” in regard to religious freedom, it should cite the seven regimes it listed in that category last year, Abrams said. They were China, Sudan, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan’s Taliban. Four other countries — Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan — should be added to the list, he said.

After the “countries of particular concern” are named, the president has 90 days to announce what actions the administration will take. He has options ranging from diplomatic protests to economic sanction.

The religious freedom report, which was released Sept. 5, may be accessed on the State Department’s Internet site at www.state.gov.