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Concerns About Religious Freedom Grow

More Countries Under U.S. Scrutiny

WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 7, 2006 (Zenit) - The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom this week issued its annual report on the global situation. As well, it announced this year's recommendations to the U.S. secretary of state on "countries of particular concern" -- CPCs, in government lingo.

Under its International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the United States designates as CPCs those countries whose governments have engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious violations of the universal right to freedom of religion or belief.

After last year's report, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designated as CPCs the following countries: North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Vietnam and Myanmar (formerly Burma). This week's report recommended that these eight countries remain on the list, and that Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan be added.

The commission, or USCIRF for short, also has a "Watch List" of countries plagued by serious problems with regard to religious liberty. This year's report added Afghanistan to the list of Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

The USCIRF is also closely monitoring the situations in India, Russia and Sri Lanka. As well, it continues to be "especially concerned" about Iraq.

Regarding the latter, the USCIRF report stated that "fundamental questions remain about the final content of the constitution, and how the provisions on religious freedom and other fundamental rights will be implemented through enabling legislation." As a consequence human rights, including religious freedom, continue to be at risk. The report also expressed concern over the violence in Iraq due to religious intolerance, as well as the attacks on places of worship.

Minority communities, including Christian Iraqis, are particularly in danger. Due to the continuing violence Christians are leaving the country, and the USCIRF warned that the exodus may mean the end of the long-established Christian presence.

Post-Taliban

Regarding Afghanistan's presence on the Watch List, the report commented that conditions have improved since the days of the Taliban regime, but that the last year has been problematic for religious freedom.

The new Afghan Constitution has flaws, including a lack of clear protections of the right to freedom of religion or belief, the report contended. This has resulted in a growing number of criminal prosecutions and other official actions taken against individuals.

The constitutional defects are exacerbated by the country's Supreme Court, "which continues to be headed by a Chief Justice who disavowed to the Commission his support for core international human rights standards."

In addition, the government's failure to effectively control much of the country outside the capital, Kabul, has led to a progressively deteriorating situation for religious freedom and other human rights in many of the provinces.

China visit

China, meanwhile, has tightened controls over religious leaders, the U.S. report said. USCIRF members visited China for the first time last August. Among other encounters they met with representatives from the "patriotic" religious organizations. These officially approved bodies are limited to five beliefs: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam,
Protestantism and Taoism.

The cost of official recognition has been high, the USCIRF noted. The approved organizations must submit to government monitoring of their activities. They have also accepted restrictions on what doctrines and traditions can be taught. Some Christian leaders reportedly have had to refrain from teachings involving the second coming of Jesus, divine healing, the practice of fasting, and the virgin birth.

"Most of China's religious practice occurs outside the system of government approved religious organizations," the USCIRF report stated. This is in spite of severe legal penalties for those involved in unapproved religious activities.

Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in the Xinjiang region also face serious restrictions in the practice of their religions, and the report accused authorities of severe abuses of human rights in these two regions.

Another country on the CPC list is Vietnam. The government "continues to commit systematic and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief," the U.S. report stated. In May 2005, the U.S. State Department announced an agreement with Hanoi on benchmarks to demonstrate an improvement in religious freedom conditions.

"Vietnam's record on fulfilling this agreement is mixed," the USCIRF contended. Some prisoners have been released and a number of places for religious worship were opened. Some of the restrictions on Buddhists and Catholics have also been eased. But many restrictions still stand.

Africa in conflict

Sudan was another country singled out in the report as being of concern. On Jan. 9, 2005, the warring parties in the North-South civil war signed a peace agreement. The provisions regarding religious liberty, however, have not been respected, according to the U.S. report.

Conditions have improved somewhat in the South, according to the report. But in the northern part of Sudan all inhabitants, including Christians and followers of traditional African religions, are subject to Shariah, or Islamic law. Government approval is required for the construction and use of places of worship, and while permits are regularly granted to build mosques, permission to build churches is routinely denied. In fact, for more than 30 years, the government has denied permission to construct Catholic churches in areas under its control.

Churches built without permission are often razed. In addition, church-owned properties that are legally recognized are vulnerable to seizure. The report noted the case of a Catholic recreational facility that was confiscated by the government for the private use of the National Congress Party.

While not applied in recent years, the death penalty in Sudan still exists for apostasy from Islam. Converts to Christianity generally face so much social pressure and official harassment that they cannot remain in the country.

Religion is also a point of conflict in Nigeria. The U.S. report stated that since President Olusegun Obasanjo came to power through popular elections in 1999, more than 10,000 Nigerians have been killed in sectarian and communal attacks and reprisals between Muslims and Christians. Recent conflicts include the killing of at least 120 Muslims and Christians during protests last February over the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The protests fueled underlying religious and ethnic tensions.

Christians in the northern states, where Shariah has been adopted, complain of discrimination at the hands of Muslim-controlled governments and describe their communities as having the status of second-class citizens.

Financing hatred

Another country that has been on the USCIRF's blacklist is Saudi Arabia. This year's report commented that the government continues to ban all forms of public religious expression other than one officially-recognized school of Sunni Islam. Private religious practice is also repressed by authorities.

As well, the report accused the Saudi government of continuing to finance "activities throughout the world that support extreme religious intolerance, hatred, and, in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims."

Religiously motivated violence persists in Pakistan, the report noted as it explained why the country was recommended to be added to the CPC list. Moreover, the government's response to this problem, while it has improved, "continues to be insufficient and not fully effective."

The report noted that a number of the country's laws frequently lead to imprisonment on account of religion or belief. Complicating the situation is the Pakistani government's political alliance with militant religious parties, which has strengthened these groups and given them influence in the country's affairs. Call it the flip side of separation of church and state.

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