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State Dept. urged to list key rel. liberty violators

WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. State Department disappointed religious freedom advocates by again failing to designate in its latest annual report the world’s worst violators of the human right.

The 2012 International Religious Freedom Report, the first released under Secretary of State John Kerry, described the status of the exercise of faith in nearly 200 countries or territories, but it did not designate “countries of particular concern” (CPCs). CPC designation is reserved for countries that have practiced or permitted violations of religious liberty that are “systematic, ongoing, and egregious.”

The State Department, which is required by a 1998 law to name CPCs annually, has not announced CPCs since September 2011. The CPCs it named then were Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Religious freedom advocates urged the State Department to announce CPCs quickly.

“It is important that the United States maintain its advocacy for religious freedom in the world, and one of the most important ways we do that is for our government to name CPCs for their rejection of this principle and for denying it to their citizens,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a statement to Baptist Press.

“Those who suffer religious persecution around the world are grateful for the support they get from the government of the United States, and for us to now be silent on this issue would be both tragic and a betrayal of those people who have risked their lives for ‘soul freedom’ in their countries of origin,” he said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIF) commended the State Department for its “admirable work” in the report but also called for CPC designations.

“Prompt CPC designations will send the signal that the United States prioritizes religious freedom,” USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett said in a written statement. The designations, plus diplomatic action, give the United States “an effective tool to help end abuses and promote this fundamental human right,” she said.

USCIRF — a bipartisan, nine-member panel that advises the State Department, White House and Congress on religious liberty globally — recommended in April seven other countries be added to the eight already on the CPC list. USCIRF’s seven additional recommendations for CPC designation were Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

Land was a USCIRF commissioner for about a decade before his service came to a close in 2012.

Swett and three religious freedom champions in the U.S. House of Representatives expressed concern that sanctions for the current CPCs will expire in August without State Department action.

“To permit previous sanctions to expire without issuing new sanctions would send the wrong message to oppressive governments and struggling religious minorities — namely that the United States does not prioritize the protection of religious freedom in its foreign policy,” the congressmen said in a letter Monday to Kerry.

Republican Reps. Chris Smith of New Jersey, Frank Wolf of Virginia and Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania also urged Kerry to add the countries recommended by USCIRF to the CPC list.

In briefing with reporters, Kerry said he is “making certain, and will continue to, that religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”

In its latest report, the State Department cited the following among religious liberty problems:

— A “continued global increase in anti-Semitism” — especially in Egypt, Iran and Venezuela.

— The ongoing use of blasphemy and apostasy laws, particularly in such Islamic states as Egypt, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

— Government repression in such countries as Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam.

— Increasing sectarian intolerance and violence, including in Egypt, India, Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Suzan Johnson Cook, ambassador at large for international religious freedom in the State Department, told reporters “there was progress in certain countries” but also acknowledged trends are “going downward” in others.

Kerry said countries threaten “their country’s own stability” when they undermine religious liberty. “Attacks on religious freedom are therefore both a moral and a strategic national security concern for the United States,” he said.

In commenting on the report, Kerry announced the appointment of Ira Forman as the new special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. Forman was executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council for 14 years.

The State Department report may be accessed online at http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/#wrapper
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).