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USCIRF urges action on Kazakhstan, Burma

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has urged the federal government to promote democracy, human rights and religious freedom for people in Kazakhstan and Burma.

Amendments approved in 2005 to Kazakhstan laws require religious organizations to register under the regional and national Ministry of Justice offices. USCIRF is concerned a recent draft law that is advancing in the Kazakh parliament will restrict religious communities.

Burmese citizens continue to suffer more than a year after their repressive military junta used violence to crack down on peaceful protests over the government’s drastic increase in fuel prices. Thousands of Buddhist monks joined those demonstrations. The military put an end to the protests in late September 2007 by killing, beating and jailing protesters, including monks.

“Burma’s military junta has presided over a human rights and humanitarian disaster that is deepening, not receding,” USCIRF Chair Felice Gaer said in a written release Sept. 30. “The military’s many human rights abuses are a direct challenge to every Burmese, as well as to international human rights law and regional security.”

Gaer recommended the U.S. government begin to assist the Burmese people by creating an “interagency task force” in the National Security Council and by appointing a U.S. special envoy to Burma.

USCIRF urged the U.S. government to work with both European and Asian allies to tighten sanctions and intensify diplomatic engagement with the Burmese government. The commission also recommended the United States urge the United Nations to establish requirements the Burmese military must meet in order to end the country’s isolation from the rest of the world.

The international community also must “coordinate its efforts to free all prisoners, distribute disaster relief, begin the process of democratic transition, end the abuses targeting ethnic and religious minorities, and convince Burma’s neighbors to stop propping up the junta,” Gaer added.

Overall, Gaer said the commission is mostly concerned with the number of political and religious prisoners that has doubled in Burma over the past several years. According to USCIRF, there are approximately 2,000 “prisoners of conscience” behind bars in Burma.

“The release of a few does nothing for the thousands who remain in prison for their peaceful activities to promote human rights and political freedoms,” Gaer said. “Their release must be the most urgent demand of the U.S. government and its allies.”

The U.S. State Department has designated Burma as one of eight “countries of particular concern,” a classification reserved for the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom.

Kazakhstan also is being closely monitored by the commission for its violation of religious liberty.

Recently, the lower chamber of the Kazakh parliament passed a measure restricting and governing freedom of religion and belief. The proposal calls for tighter registration requirements for all religious groups, a smaller number of religious communities and increased penalties for members of unregistered communities.

“With this law, Kazakhstan has demonstrated a disturbingly lax commitment to uphold international human rights standards,” Gaer said in a written release Oct. 3.

USCIRF urged the U.S. government to speak against the law at the Human Dimension meeting Sept. 29-Oct.10 in Warsaw, Poland.

Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, called for the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE), a 56-state regional security organization, to re-evaluate making Kazakhstan the OSCE chair in 2010.

“We strongly urge the OSCE member states to reconsider Kazakhstan’s chairmanship in 2010 unless the Kazakh government revises the draft law to be in compliance with OSCE guidelines concerning religious freedom,” Grieboski said at the meeting.

The commission also called for the U.S. government to work through diplomatic channels in urging the Kazakh government to revamp or abolish the legislation.

“Despite Kazakh officials’ assurances at the OSCE meeting in Warsaw, this law neither simplifies the legal requirements for religious communities nor augments their freedom,” Gaer said.

USCIRF also is concerned about religious liberty in Kazakhstan’s neighboring countries. Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have laws that require religious communities to register through the government in order to operate legally. The State Department has named Uzbekistan one of its “countries of particular concern,” and USCIRF has recommended Turkmenistan be added to that list.

“The U.S. government should discuss with the Central Asian governments better ways to establish a legal framework for religious communities that takes into account the need to respect international standards and provide wide legal latitude for them to operate,” Gaer said.

USCIRF is a bipartisan panel that advises the White House and Congress on the condition of religious freedom globally. The president selects three members of the commission, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a USCIRF member.
Elizabeth Wood is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.

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