Father John Flynn, LC - ZENIT
ROME, MAY 11, 2008 (Zenit.org).- On May 2 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released both its 2008 Annual Report and its recommendations to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on countries of particular concern.
The commission was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The act also requires that the United States designate as countries of particular concern (CPC) those states whose governments have engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom.
"In the past year, violent government repression of religious communities in China, Burma and Sudan, among other countries, confirms that religious freedom is a vulnerable human right that must be protected by the international community," said the commission chair, Michael Cromartie, in a press release.
The commission's recommendations for the 2008 CPC list are Burma (also known as Myanmar), North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
The actual designation of a country as a CPC depends on a decision by the U.S. State Department.
The recommendations are the same as in 2007, and the commission repeated its request from last year that the State Department put Vietnam back on the CPC list, from which it was removed in 2006.
In its press release the commission acknowledged that Vietnam had made "notable progress," but at the same time stated that there have been "persistent abuses, discrimination and restrictions."
The commission's letter to Condoleezza Rice gave more details on Vietnam, stating that during a trip to the country in October 2007, it found that progress in improving religious freedom was very patchy. The commission also argued, contrary to the State Department's view, that there continue to be religious "prisoners of concern" in Vietnam. In addition, authorities also limit human rights in general, the letter concluded.
In fact, the commission's letter to the State Department spoke openly of its dissatisfaction over the lack of action on countries that seriously limit religious freedom. The letter noted that the State Department has not designated any country as a CPC since November 2006.
This delay in naming CPCs "may send the unfortunate signal that the U.S. government is not sufficiently committed" to seeking improvements in countries that are severe violators of religious freedom, declared the commission's letter.
The commission also publishes a "Watch List" that names countries where violations are serious, but less grave than those in the CPC group. The list is made up of the following countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.
As well, the commission declared that it remains seriously concerned about religious freedom in Iraq. In 2007, Iraq was included on the Watch List, but this year the commission will shortly be making a visit to Iraq to investigate conditions. After the visit the commission will issue a report, along with any recommendations on what designation to give Iraq.
In the meantime the commission noted its concern for the "particularly dire conditions affecting non-Muslims in Iraq," saying the minority faces widespread violence from Sunni insurgents and foreign extremists, and also persecution and discrimination from government authorities.
Another country where the commission's report expressed dissatisfaction over the State Department's stand was Saudi Arabia. After a recommendation from the commission in 2004, Saudi Arabia was put on the CPC list. In 2006, however, the State Department removed it from the list.
In its 2008 report, the commission commented that after two visits to Saudi Arabia in 2007, the panel remains perturbed over the lack of religious liberty. In fact, the report stated, the promises given by authorities regarding steps to be taken to permit more religious freedom remain unfulfilled. Not only that, but during the commission's visits, the Saudi government refused requests for meetings with a number of key officials.
One of the conclusions drawn from the visits is that Saudi authorities continue to severely restrict all forms of public religious expression other than the officially approved version of Sunni Islam. "This policy violates the rights of the large communities of Muslims from a variety of schools of Islam who reside in Saudi Arabia," the report stated.
The commission also highlighted the Saudi government funding of religious schools and literature that supports intolerance and, in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and those Muslims not approved by authorities.
Growth amid trials
Turning to Asia, the report lamented the serious violations of religion freedom in China, but also noted that in spite of repression, religious communities are growing rapidly. Authorities endeavor to restrict religion to government-approved associations and engage in "sometimes brutal abuses" against unregistered groups, the commission commented.
Protestant house church groups and underground Catholic priests continue to experience the most intense coercion, according to the report. It also noted the Chinese government's continued actions in demolishing Tibetan Buddhist structures and statues. Authorities even acknowledge that more than 100 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns are being held in prison, the report added.
Myanmar was another country singled out by the commission for its violation of religious freedom. In fact, the already very poor record on human rights further deteriorated in the past year, the report stated.
Among recent abuses, the report mentioned the violent action taken by the military junta in putting an end to the peaceful demonstrations by Buddhist monks in September 2007. At least 30 deaths were reported, although some estimates are much higher, the commission noted. Thousands of people were arrested and hundreds still remain in detention.
Matters are no better in North Korea, where, the report stated, "Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief does not exist." There is no evidence that religious freedom conditions have improved in the past year, according to the commission. Reports by some refugees speak of some 6,000 Christians imprisoned in a camp in the north of the country.
In Africa the commission observed that in the past it had singled out Sudan, "as the world's most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion or belief." Conditions have improved in recent times, but mainly just in the south of the country.
In the north, few changes have been implemented and all citizens, including Christians and followers of traditional African religions, are subject to the Islamic Shariah law. Muslims receive preferential treatment when it comes to government services, and conversion from Islam is a crime punishable by death.
Another African country examined in the commission's report was Nigeria, where it described the government's response to persistent religious freedom concerns as "inadequate."
Among problems mentioned by the report were the expansion of Shariah law into the criminal codes of several northern Nigerian states; and discrimination against minority communities of Christians and Muslims.
Nigeria has also been severely affected by ethnic and religious violence in past years. Last year the situation improved somewhat, but even so the report said that dozens of people were killed and dozens of churches and mosques were destroyed in communal violence in several towns and villages in various parts of the country.
One of the last countries mentioned in the report is Russia. Although the nation is not singled out for one of the commission's lists, the report nevertheless expressed concern about Russia's increasingly fragile human rights situation, which it says directly affects the status of religious freedom.
Minority religious groups continue to face some restrictions on religious activities, the report said, and one of the major problems is the lack of a clear national policy on religious affairs. This means that the status of freedom of religion varies dramatically from region to region.
As the report clearly shows, religious freedom is under threat in many countries. Convincing governments to take action to change the situation is, however, not so easy to achieve.