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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 ...

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