News Articles

U.S. panel cites 10 countries for religious freedom concerns

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its second annual report April 30, broadening its policy recommendations to cover 10 countries in which religious freedom is at risk, according to Newsroom-online.com.

“The expansion of the report to include more countries demonstrates the fact that the commission is better established more than it suggests any particular change in world trends,” commissioner Nina Shea stated. “But it does show there is a great deal of persecution going on; there are serious religious freedom concerns that must be addressed around the world. There are also different kinds of regimes and governments, and we need to deal with those in different ways.”

Last year’s USCIRF report dealt with violations in China, Russia and Sudan. The report released April 30 includes those three countries, along with India, Indonesia, Iran, North Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam. Sections on U.S. capital markets and foreign assistance also appear in the document.

Not all of the countries treated by the report are equally pernicious abusers of religious freedom, the commission’s chairman, Elliott Abrams, said at a news conference.

“Russia, despite its problems, enjoys a much larger degree of religious freedom than many of the others,” Abrams said. “In Indonesia and Nigeria, the problem is not a central government that violates religious freedom, but local or state officials and private citizens doing so in violation of the central government’s wishes.” He noted that the commission found Sudan to be “the world’s most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion and belief.”

Abrams is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Shea is director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Freedom House in Washington. They are among 10 commissioners who serve two-year terms, which expire on May 14. Commissioners include prominent leaders of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Baha’i faiths.

USCIRF addresses its recommendations to Congress and the executive branch as required by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. Among its 2001 policy proposals, the commission advocated all companies doing business in “countries of particular concern,” as designated under the ’98 act, be required to disclose the nature of their business before being allowed to glean investment from U.S. capital markets. Along with Sudan, the nations currently identified by the State Department as countries of particular concern are Afghanistan, Burma, China, Iran, Iraq and Serbia.

Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute and an architect of the International Religious Freedom Act, said the Clinton administration had done little with the commission’s 2000 report. The administration spearheaded the fight to keep Sudan off the United Nations Security Council, he noted, but otherwise had provided “lip service and smoke” when it came to the Islamic regime in Khartoum.

By contrast, Horowitz said, the Bush administration has given signs that human rights and religious freedom concerns may figure more broadly into foreign policy than first expected. “Originally, they were reciting mantras about national interest, yet there are positive signs and signals,” he said, noting that the administration has been dialoguing with human rights and religious freedom advocates from a variety of political backgrounds. Both President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have publicly mentioned Sudan as well.

The level of attention the new administration may give the USCIRF recommendations still remains to be seen. “On the one hand, this administration is characterized by greater pragmatism and an inherent desire to engage,” observed Doug Johnston, founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington. “On the other hand, it feels the full weight of the Christian right to a much greater degree than its predecessor.” The aim of the policy center is to increase understanding and collaboration between policymakers, diplomats and religious leaders in resolving differences between people, communities and nation-states.

Johnston said he believes the USCIRF recommendations likely would be taken seriously; whether action will follow would prove another question, he said.

Highlights from the report’s recommendations include:

China: The report notes a government crackdown on unregistered religious groups over the last year and a tightening of restrictions on official religions. Among its recommendations, USCIRF urged the U.S. government to use its influence in the world to prevent China from being selected as a site for the Olympic Games until sustained religious freedom and human rights improvements have been demonstrated.

India: While a democratic country, India has experienced an increase in violence against religious minorities. The commission notes the violence has coincided with the rise of Hindu nationalist groups — which include the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — in national and state-level politics. Recommendations center on a U.S. insistence on better and more extensive communication about human rights and religious freedom. The report specifies an allocation of money for the promotion of religious tolerance education.

Indonesia: The report focuses on increasing communal violence in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. It recommends that the United States press Indonesia to pay attention to the conflict; remove all outside militia forces — Muslim and Christian; pursue a reconciliation program; and ensure perpetrators of violence are brought to justice.

Iran: The report notes unofficial and evangelistic minority religious groups suffer particularly acute official discrimination — the most vulnerable group being the Baha’i community. USCIRF recommends the president or secretary of state reaffirm in its dialogue with Iran that human rights and religious freedom improvements are a prerequisite for a normalization of relations with the United States, including a complete lifting of current sanctions.

North Korea: Though it is difficult to gain reliable information on this country, the report states, religious freedom in North Korea is “non-existent.” The United States should stress that normalization of relations and the complete lifting of sanctions are tied to human rights and religious freedom improvements, USCIRF argues. This point should be pushed in all high-level diplomatic exchanges.

Nigeria: “Religious life in Nigeria is public, vigorous, and diverse,” the report asserts. Yet communal violence along religious and ethnic lines continues to break out. In particular, as several northern states move to expand the implementation of Sharia — Islamic law — tension between Muslims and Christians continues to increase. USCIRF urges the administration to promote religious freedom in diplomatic discussions and to encourage the Nigerian government to monitor the application of Sharia-based criminal law in the north.

Pakistan: The report argues that Pakistan is not doing enough to ensure religious freedom for minority groups. Many such groups argue they are marginalized politically by a system of separate electorates. Laws against blasphemy in this Islamic nation are reportedly abused to the detriment of minority faith groups. Detention and violence sometimes result. The United States should urge the Pakistani government to take procedural steps toward curtailing the abuse of blasphemy laws and should take the position that separate electoral systems for minority groups clash with basic democratic principles.

Russia: The government of Russia has yet to speak concerning its decision not to extend the deadline for the registration of religious groups as required by a 1997 law. Meanwhile, some 1,500 religious groups face potential “liquidation” by the government. The U.S. government should monitor religious freedom issues in Russia and raise them at the highest diplomatic levels.

Sudan: In the midst of an 18-year civil war, Sudan’s Islamic regime continues to inflict widespread human rights abuses, including the bombing of civilian targets, the report asserts. The president should appoint a high-profile special envoy to Sudan, and foreign companies investing in Sudan’s oil and gas development should be closed out of U.S. capital markets.

Vietnam: “Despite a marked increase in religious practice among the Vietnamese people in the last 10 years, the Vietnamese government continues to suppress organized religious activities forcefully and to monitor and control religious communities,” the USCIRF report notes. The commission suggested that congressional consideration of a bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam be linked to “religious freedom factors;” otherwise, “it may be interpreted by the government of Vietnam as a signal of American indifference.”
Used by permission of Newsroom-online.com.

    About the Author

  • Staff