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State Dept. says ‘many countries’ continue religious repression

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. State Department issued its annual report on international religious liberty Sept. 15 but has yet to decide which nations will be cited this year as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), or those nations with severe violations of religious rights.

In 2005, eight nations — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Vietnam, Burma, China, Eritrea, North Korea and Sudan -– received the CPC designation. This year’s list of state violators of religious freedom will likely be released in late October or early November.

John V. Hanford III, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said in a briefing following the release of the report that many countries had made strides to protect religious freedom. However, many countries “still repress their people’s religious expression through force or harassment,” he said.

“Some authoritarian governments such as North Korea routinely suppress religious expression which they clearly see as a challenge to their political dominance,” Hanford said. “China allows some religious expression but severely represses the activities of religious groups not officially sanctioned by the state. Others single out minority religions for abuse, as Burma and Iran do, or equate certain types of religious expression with security threats.”

Hanford cited Uzbekistan as a country where a decline in religious tolerance has prompted actions that “undermine a longstanding societal tradition of religious harmony.” He said the Uzbek government had used “repressive registration laws” as a means of restricting or outlawing religious practices. Congregations there had been harassed and “deregistered” as religious laws have been tightened. Other countries such as China and Vietnam also require religious organizations to register with the government, he said.

Hanford also said that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — while significant problems remain in those countries — had taken steps to “curb extremist ideology and encourage religious tolerance.”

That assessment of Saudi Arabia prompted reaction from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a nonpartisan commission established by Congress in 1998 to monitor the status of religious freedom worldwide. The commission makes recommendations regarding countries that should receive designation as CPCs.

In its report to the State Department in May, the commission said the government of Saudi Arabia “engages in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion and belief.” It also denied past State Department reports of “slight improvements” in the country’s approach to Shiite Muslims and non-Muslims.

Felice Gaer, USCIRF chair, said there was no reason for the State Department to soften its assessment of Saudi Arabia. “The commission is simply shocked that the Department removed longstanding and widely quoted language from its report that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia,” Gaer said in a USCIRF news release.

The State Department report cites five scenarios where the suppression of religious freedom occurs. Hanford said abuses can occur in “many ways both blatant and subtle,” including “totalitarian/authoritarian regimes, state hostility toward minority religions, state neglect of societal discrimination, discriminatory legislation that favors majority religions and denunciation of certain religions as cults.”

International religious freedom became a focus of the media during the reporting period from July 2005 to June 2006, the State Department noted. A primary reason for the media focus, Hanford said, was “an international backlash” earlier this year over the publication of satirical cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper.

“In choosing to publish them, the European media cited freedom of expression. However, many observers, especially in Europe’s minority Muslim communities, interpreted this as a direct attack on or demonstration of intolerance toward the Muslim faith,” the report said.

Hanford said in his briefing the publication of the cartoons illustrates a need to “go beyond protection of religious freedom and law to a concerted effort to create the conditions for harmony, mutual understanding and respect within our societies. It is the broad vision of religious freedom that Americans are striving toward in our own country and that we want to see flourish in other nations.”

The report also describes measures the State Department and other government agencies have taken to deal directly with countries that received CPC designation in 2005. In some instances, sanctions have been leveled against countries such as Burma and Eritrea. Embassy officials in those countries also continued to meet with religious leaders and non-government officials to promote actively religious freedom.

Iran, the report noted, is a different matter. The United States “has no diplomatic relations with Iran, and thus it cannot raise directly the restrictions that the Iranian Government places on religious freedom and other abuses the government commits against adherents of minority religious groups.” Jewish and Baha’i minority groups in Iran have suffered at government restrictions for years, the report said.

Afghanistan, Brunei, Cuba, Egypt, India, Israel and the occupied territories, Laos, Russia and Sri Lanka also received attention as countries of “special interest” in the State Department’s report.

If the State Department follows the recommendations from the USCIRF later this year, the number of countries receiving the CPC designation will reach 11. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Vietnam, Burma, China, Eritrea, North Korea and Sudan will remain on the list, while Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan will be added.

“In Uzbekistan, a government crackdown on Muslim individuals, groups and mosques that do not conform to the government-prescribed practices has resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of persons, and torture is endemic,” Gaer said in the USCIRF news release. “Turkmenistan is among the most repressive states in the world today, with independent religious activity quashed by the authoritarian and increasingly megalomaniacal rule of President Saparmurat Niyazov. In Pakistan, minority religious groups are targets of violence and discrimination, and religious extremism is growing in the country with little response from the government.”

Once a country receives a CPC designation, the International Religious Freedom Act (1998) requires the president to engage in negotiations with the suspect countries to seek political agreements to end severe violations of religious freedom, or to impose economic or political sanctions on the regimes. The president also can waive action against the nation.

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  • Gregory Tomlin