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Religious Freedom: Where It Stands

U.S. Commission Publishes Its Annual Report

WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 30, 2004 (Zenit) - The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom published its annual report May 12 amid little media attention. The commission was established in 1998 to monitor religious freedom and to advise the president, secretary of state, and Congress on how best to promote it.

The timing of this year's report might strike some as inauspicious. In the wake of revelations about abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, many have criticized the pretension of the United States to portray itself as a defender of human rights. But the most obvious alternative, the United Nations, has also drawn fire for its inconsistencies.

During this year's meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, for instance, China, Russia and Zimbabwe escaped any censure, Reuters reported April 15. And a U.N. press release announced May 4 that among the countries elected by the U.N. Economic and Social Council to serve on the Commission on Human Rights was Sudan, a country singled out by independent watchdog groups as responsible for grievous rights violations.

Afghanistan and Iraq

In reviewing its activities during the last year the U.S. commission explained that a major focus was ensuring that the newly formed governments in Afghanistan and Iraq will respect religious freedom. The commission argued for protecting this freedom in both countries' new constitutions. The commission noted that its efforts were successful in Iraq, with the interim constitution being "a document which potentially stands as a model for the region."

In Afghanistan, however, "there was more limited success with respect to the constitution." The report commented that the constitution does provide for the freedom of non-Muslim groups to exercise their faith. But it lacks more explicit protections for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

A cause for concern is that the Afghan Constitution does not fully protect individuals against unjust accusations of religious "crimes" such as apostasy and blasphemy. Moreover, the U.S. commission observed that Afghanistan's Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari "has shown little regard for those who disagree with his hard-line interpretation of Islam."

6 more of "particular concern"

One of the commission's tasks is to identify those governments guilty of systematic and grave violations of religious freedom. In February the panel recommended that the U.S. State Department place 11 nations in the category of "Countries of Particular Concern." The recommendations included six countries not previously included: Eritrea, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. The other five -- Burma, China, North Korea, Iran and Sudan -- were already singled out in previous reports.

The U.S. commission also said that Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Uzbekistan would remain on a watch list of countries where the state of religious freedom is of concern because of violations engaged in or tolerated by their governments. Belarus, Cuba and Georgia would also be added to that list, the panel said.

Explaining the additions to the list of countries guilty of grave violations, the report charged that the Pakistani government continues to inadequately deal with vigilante violence by Sunni militants against Shiites, Ahmadis and Christians. And official government policies result in other religious freedom violations, including imprisonment under the anti-Ahmadi and blasphemy laws.

In India, meanwhile, violence against Muslims and Christians continues, and the government has not yet addressed adequately the killing of an estimated 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

In Eritrea, the government "engages in particularly severe violations of freedom of religion and belief," affirmed the U.S. report. Problems range from the closing of all churches not belonging to officially recognized religious denominations, to the arrests of participants at prayer meetings and other gatherings.

Turkmenistan, the commission said, "is among the most repressive states in the world today and engages in particularly severe, ongoing violations of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief." The situation further deteriorated with a new law that took effect last November. That law effectively bans most religious activity and calls for criminal penalties for those found guilty of participating in "illegal religious activity." The report also accused President Saparmurat Niyazov of promoting a state-controlled version of Islam and of rending any independent religious activity impossible.

In Vietnam, the already poor conditions of religious freedom have deteriorated over the last 18 months, the U.S. panel said. Religious dissidents have been harassed and detained, and the Vietnamese government has continued its crackdown against minorities in the northwestern provinces and the Central Highlands, including beatings and the forced renunciation of faith.

Muslim exceptions

The report noted that freedom of religion "is not well protected in the Middle East or among countries where Islam is the religion of the state." Many constitutions of these states lack provisions guaranteeing freedom of religious practice, and the rights that do exist are usually expressed only in general terms.

Yet, the commission pointed out some exceptions. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Malaysia -- countries where Islam is the state religion -- are said to "have constitutional guarantees that compare favorably with international standards." Other predominately Muslim countries such as Albania, Azerbaijan, Mali and Senegal also have adequate safeguards.

Saudi Arabia was singled out for special mention in the U.S. report. The 2003 report recommended that Congress authorize a study to determine the role played by the Saudi government and members of the royal family in propagating a religious ideology that explicitly promotes hate and violence toward members of other religious groups. Consequently, several members of Congress wrote to the comptroller of the U.S. General Accounting Office last April requesting that the agency find out what the American government is doing to identify and monitor sources of Saudi funding for institutions that advocate violence and intolerance.

In terms of the internal situation in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. report noted that violations include torture and cruel and degrading treatment or punishment imposed by judicial and administrative authorities; prolonged detention without charges and often incommunicado; and blatant denials of the right to liberty and security of the person.

Changeless China

Also under scrutiny is China. "Repression of religious freedom continues to be a deliberate policy of the Chinese government," the report said. The commission accused authorities of intensifying their violent campaign against religious believers, including evangelical Christians, Catholics, Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. Maltreatment has included imprisonment and torture.

The report noted that Catholic clergy in Fujian, Zhejiang, Jilin and Jiangxi provinces were harassed, detained and arrested. Last July, five priests were sentenced to three years in a labor camp after having been convicted of practicing "cult." And in October, Hebei provincial officials reportedly arrested 12 priests and seminarians attending a religious retreat. As well, at least 10 bishops reportedly are under arrest.

Religious freedom is also severely lacking in Cuba, according to the U.S. commission. Registered and unregistered religious groups continued to experience varying degrees of official interference, harassment and repression, the panel said.

The Castro government continues to prohibit the construction of new churches. It also enforces a regulation that prevents any Cuban or joint enterprise from selling computers, fax machines, photocopiers or other equipment to any church, except at exorbitant prices.

Private religious schools continue to be prohibited, and religious groups are required to receive permission from Communist Party officials before being allowed to hold processions or events outside of religious buildings. For many in the world, religious freedom remains an elusive luxury.


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