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Same 8 countries named as worst violators of religious liberty

WASHINGTON (BP)–The State Department maintained the status quo in its yearly report on international religious liberty, naming for the second consecutive year the same eight governments to its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam had been redesignated as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), a classification reserved for governments practicing or permitting particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

The State Department, however, refused to include three other countries -– Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan –- recommended for CPC designation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan panel that advises the executive branch and Congress.

“The omission of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from the CPC list is particularly troubling and a discredit to Congress’ intent in passing the International Religious Freedom Act,” USCIRF Chairman Michael Cromartie said in a written release. “Turkmenistan, among the most repressive states in the world today, allows virtually no independent religious activity. The government of Uzbekistan places strict restrictions on religious practice and continues to crack down harshly on individuals and groups that operate outside of government-controlled religious organizations.”

The State Department is in late-stage discussions with one or two possible CPCs and could make additions to the list at any time, said John Hanford, ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

While major violations of religious freedom still exist in Turkmenistan and Pakistan, both governments have made progress, Hanford told reporters when the report was released Nov. 8, according to a State Department transcript.

“Last year, the [Turkmen] government substantially revamped laws regulating religious activities,” he said. “They decriminalized violations of religious policies. They released all religious prisoners.”

Pakistan’s government “has maintained its public calls for religious tolerance,” Hanford said. Its other steps have included “attempting to curb sectarian violence and encouraging reform of the public education curriculum designed to end the teaching of religious intolerance,” he said.

Among the CPCs, Vietnam “has made some very significant efforts to improve religious freedom,” Hanford said. China and Saudi Arabia have shown a “willingness to engage” with the United States on the issue and have made “important releases of religious prisoners,” he said. Hanford also said there is hope for progress in Sudan, now that a peace treaty has been signed.

The other CPCs -– Burma, Eritrea, Iran and North Korea -– have demonstrated no willingness “to engage in any meaningful way on religious matters,” Hanford said.

The CPC list is dominated by communist and Islamic regimes. China, North Korea and Vietnam have communist-controlled governments, while Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan have Muslim-dominated regimes.

The types of religious groups undergoing persecution varies. While Christians are targets for repression in many countries, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is and others also are persecuted under some regimes.

In its response to the report, the USCIRF cited the State Department’s failure to act decisively regarding Saudi Arabia after naming the country as a CPC for the first time in 2004. A year after the designation, Rice approved in September a 180-day waiver of action on the Saudi regime. The USCIRF urged the Bush administration to use the extra time to work with the Saudis to bring about clear progress.

The International Religious Freedom Act — the 1998 law that established the system, the ambassador’s post and 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.

In addition to its CPC designations, the State Department listed the following categories and the governments, including CPCs, that fit within them:

— Totalitarian regimes that seek to control religion: Burma; China; Cuba; and North Korea.

— Regimes that repress non-approved religions: Eritrea; Iran; Laos; Saudi Arabia; Sudan; Uzbekistan; and Vietnam.

— Governments that fail to protect religious groups: Bangladesh; Egypt; India; and Sri Lanka.

— Governments with discriminatory legislation against minority religions: Azerbaijan; Belarus; Brunei; Indonesia; Israel and the occupied territories; Malaysia; Pakistan; Russia; and Turkey.

— Governments that brand some minority religions as “cults”: Belgium; France; and Germany.

The State Department also cited five countries for significant improvements: Georgia; India; Turkmenistan; United Arab Emirates; and Vietnam.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a commissioner on the nine-member USCIRF. He served from 2001-04 as an appointee by President Bush. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist named Land in July to the commission for another term.

The State Department’s full report may be accessed online at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2005/.

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