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Religious Freedom Around the World

Annual Report Published by U.S. Commission

WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 15, 2005 (Zenit) - On Wednesday the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) presented its annual report on religious freedom. Along with the report, the commission announced its 2005 recommendations to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on "countries of particular concern" (CPCs).

USCIRF was established under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act and is composed of 10 members. It is not part of the State Department and is independent from the executive branch of government.

This year the commission added Uzbekistan to the list of CPCs. This list is made up of countries whose governments "have engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious violations of the universal right to freedom of religion or belief", the commission explained. The other variation this year was the removal of India from the list. The other countries - Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam - remain the same as in last year's report.

Following the recommendations by the commission it is up to the U.S. secretary of state to designate which countries are formally declared to be CPCs. In September 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell re-designated Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan as CPCs. And, for the first time, Powell designated as CPCs Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Eritrea.

In addition to asking that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice re-designate the 8 countries named last year as CPCs, the commission explained why it is asking that Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan be added.

In Pakistan, the government fails to provide an adequate response to vigilante violence carried out be Sunni Muslim militants against other believers, the commission explained. Moreover, there are problems with discriminatory legislation and false blasphemy allegations. And, so far: "Belated efforts to curb extremism through reform of Pakistan's thousands of Islamic religious schools appear to have had little effect."

In Turkmenistan the commission argued that President Saparmurat Niyazov's "absolute control" over society renders any independent religious activity impossible. And the president "is also imposing an increasingly oppressive personality cult that impinges on all aspects of public life in the country."

A restrictive law on religion "severely limits the ability of religious communities to function in Uzbekistan," the commission noted. The government imposes strict controls over the manner in which the Islamic faith is practiced. This has led to the imprisonment of thousands of persons in recent years, many of whom are denied the right to due process, according to the commission.

Watch List

The commission also has a Watch List of countries. The violations of religious freedom in these nations are serious, but not grave enough for them to be included on the list of CPCs. Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria remain on the Watch List from last year, with Bangladesh being added. Laos and Georgia were removed, even though the commission said that concerns about religious freedom in both these countries persist. As well, the commission said that it is closely monitoring the situations in Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Russia.

In Belarus the commission commented that authorities persist in enforcing the harsh 2002 law on religion. This creates "calculated and serious regulatory obstacles and bureaucratic and legal restrictions on the activities of many religious communities."

Religious belief and practice continue to be tightly controlled in Cuba. As well, religious freedom has been also been affected by the government's crackdown on democracy and free speech activists.

In its visit to Egypt last year, the commission "found that serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, including non-conforming Muslims, remain widespread."

Regarding Indonesia the commission said that even though the situation has improved since 2002, concerns remain about sectarian violence and the government's "inability or unwillingness to hold those responsible to account." While in Nigeria the government was also faulted for its inadequate response to continuing violent communal conflicts along religious lines. In addition, problems remain concerning the expansion of Islamic law into the criminal codes of several northern Nigerian states, and discrimination against minority communities of Christians and Muslims.

Concerning the request to add Bangladesh to the Watch List, the commission observed that it "is concerned that democratic institutions and constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion are threatened by religious extremism and ...

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