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Concerns About Religious Freedom Grow

5/7/2006 - 6:45 AM PST

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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 ...

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