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8 Nations Still Failing Sorely in Religious Liberty

But U.S. Report Notes Some Progress Worldwide

WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 13, 2005 (Zenit) - Tuesday saw the publication of the 2005 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The report, now in its seventh edition, is prepared by the Office of International Religious Freedom of the U.S. State Department.

This year's edition, which covers the 12-month period ending June 30, examines 197 countries and territories. An accompanying introduction to the report noted "significant advances" regarding respect for religious freedom. For example, legal barriers to the free practice of religious faith have been removed in many countries. And governments in countries such as Russia, France and India have intervened to counter discrimination against minority religious groups.

Nevertheless, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at a press conference on the report, noted that far too many governments still fail to safeguard religious freedom. "Across the globe," she said, "people are still persecuted or killed for practicing their religion or even for just being believers."

The U.S. report saw the re-designation of eight "Countries of Particular Concern" -- Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam. The secretary of state explained that these countries' governments have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom over the past year.

John Hanford III, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the State Department, added that some of the countries of particular concern "have not been willing to engage in any meaningful way on religious matters." Burma, Iran, Eritrea and North Korea are in this group. Hanford noted that in September the U.S. secretary of state approved sanctions against Eritrea due to its refusal to reverse its abuses of religious freedom.

Other countries have been more open. Hanford mentioned that Vietnam had made significant efforts to improve. And he said that China and Saudi Arabia have "demonstrated a willingness to engage with us to improve religious freedom."

Barriers to freedom

The first part of the 2005 report examines the states where freedom is restricted, starting with the worst cases.

-- Burma. The government continues "to engage in particularly severe violations of religious freedom," the report states. This includes infiltrating or monitoring the meetings and activities of religious organizations, and restricting freedom of expression and association.

-- China. The U.S. State Department classified the government's respect for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience as "poor." Authorities attempt to limit religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship. Unregistered religious groups experience varying degrees of official interference and harassment. Tibet also sees tight controls over religious practices, and access to most of the region by international observers is denied.

In some areas, the report observes, security officials used threats, demolition of unregistered property, extortion, interrogation, detention, and at times beatings and torture to harass leaders of unauthorized groups and their followers.

-- Cuba. The report accused authorities of continuing to control religious activities by means of surveillance, infiltration and harassment against religious groups, clergy, and lay people. The government only rarely issues construction permits for new churches. And many evangelical denominations reported evictions from houses used for worship.

Authorities restrict the import and distribution of religious literature and materials and monitor church-run publications. As well, the government won't allow the Catholic Church to train or transfer from abroad enough priests for its needs, or to establish institutions such as schools, hospitals and clinics.

-- North Korea. "There was no change in the extremely poor level of respect for religious freedom," the report baldly stated. Not only is there no religious freedom, but there were also indications that the regime used authorized religious entities for external propaganda and political purposes. Persons who proselytized or who had ties to overseas evangelical groups operating in China were subjected to arrest and harsh penalties.

Minorities in danger

Another group of governments, the report explained, are hostile toward certain groups or identify them as security threats. They are:

-- Eritrea. The government continues its policy of disallowing activity by any groups except for the four religions authorized under a 2002 decree. That decree required all religious groups to register or cease activities. As a result, members of Pentecostal and other independent evangelical groups and Jehovah's Witnesses have been arrested.

-- Iran. The government engaged in "particularly severe violations of religious freedom." Members of religious such as Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Jews and Christians reported imprisonment, harassment, intimidation and discrimination. And religious minorities continued to suffer varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education and housing.

-- Laos. The U.S. report accused the Laotian government of interpreting its country's constitution in a manner that restricted religious practice. Moreover, people arrested for their religious activities were sometimes charged with exaggerated security or other criminal offenses. Authorities continue to deny permission to print non-Buddhist religious material.

-- Saudi Arabia. "Freedom of religion does not exist" for those who do not adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam, the report stated. Even other branches of Islam face discrimination. Authorities sometimes even ban non-Muslims from practicing their religion at home and in private. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention.

-- Sudan. Islamization of the country is an objective of the governing party, the report noted. As such, authorities place many restrictions on and discriminate against non-Muslims, non-Arab Muslims, and even Muslims from tribes or groups not affiliated with the ruling party. Many non-Muslims say they are treated as second-class citizens and discriminated against in government jobs and contracts.

-- Uzbekistan. There was a slight decline in the already poor status of religious freedom, the report noted. The government continued its campaign against unauthorized Islamic groups suspected of extremist sentiments or activities. This has involved numerous of arrests, leading to lengthy jail terms.

-- Vietnam. Respect for religious freedom has improved. But the report commented that the government continued to restrict activities of religious groups that it declared to be at variance with state laws and policies. And, despite the introduction of less restrictive legislation governing religion, laws still require that the organization and activities of all religious denominations be officially sanctioned by the government.

Some improvements

After discussing other countries with varying degrees of discrimination, the report in its second part looks at nations where religious freedom improved. These countries, however, still suffer from serious problems. They are:

-- Georgia. Since the political changes in 2003, religious freedom has improved. Attacks on religious minorities, verbal harassment, and disruption of services and meetings have decreased. Last April, the government passed a law enabling religious groups to register. Another law partly improved regulation of religious freedom in schools.

-- India. The government "demonstrated its commitment to a policy of religious inclusion at the highest levels of government and throughout society," according to the report. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, criticized by Muslim groups, was replaced with a law considered to be fairer to minorities. And authorities withdrew school textbooks that had been condemned for espousing a Hindu nationalist agenda.

Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates were also mentioned as having made improvements. But, as the report made clear, religious freedom is still sorely lacking in many countries.

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