Baha'i News -- U.S. lists nations curbing religion

October 8, 2002

U.S. lists nations curbing religion

By Larry Witham
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The State Department yesterday identified 32 countries that violate religious freedom, ranging from anti-religious dictatorships such as China to regimes such as Saudi Arabia that are hostile to minority religions. Countries designated as "authoritarian" are nearly all communist and suppress all religion, and nations cited for "state hostility" to unapproved faiths are predominantly Muslim, according to the fourth annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
The report, which details 195 nations, said that Egypt, India and Indonesia allow sectarian violence by dominant groups, while Israel and Russia discriminate against some religions, and anti-sect laws in France and Germany are being copied by communist regimes.
"These inexcusable assaults on individual liberty and personal dignity cannot be justified in the name of any culture, in the name of any creed or in the name of any country," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said at a news conference.
"This report will serve as a basis for discussions with other nations on how best we can work together to end violations of this fundamental human right," he said.
The annual report, required by Congress since 1998, does not prescribe potential U.S. actions, but Mr. Powell is required in its aftermath to issue a list of "countries of particular concern" that may have sanctions imposed.
Nations listed for "particularly severe violations" now include North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Burma and Sudan.
Since the report and sanctions were required by the International Religious Freedom Act, economic and political penalties already imposed on these countries have been called "double designated" responses to cover the religious violations.
The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, also established by the 1998 law, has criticized the State Department for not imposing new and tougher sanctions on countries such as Sudan and China.
Amid the criticism, State Department officials have said the report establishes a basis for diplomacy with countries in hopes of solving individual cases or reversing trends of increased violation.
"You often have to take satisfaction in small victories," Ambassador at Large for Religious Liberty John V. Hanford, who is responsible for the annual report, said at the news conference.
Some countries that are allies of U.S. trade or the war on terrorism could be "on the cusp" of being added to the worst-case list, he said. "That is a tough call," he said when asked about Saudi Arabia.
In addition to traditional forms of repression, he said, religious-based terrorism is "emerging as a new cause of religious persecution."
The report said that "U.S. religious freedom policy is a means of fighting the war of terrorism" because such freedom promotes democracy abroad and relieves the duress that can produce young terrorists.
The list of 32 countries, presented in the executive summary of the report, reflect a scale of the worst "level of brutality" to lesser forms of religious restrictions, Mr. Hanford said.
Nations such as North Korea or Vietnam, where the state kills religious dissenters, are consider greater violators than Saudi Arabia, where "freedom of religion does not exist" but the violence is far less, according to the report.
Of the worst nations, only Afghanistan has shown "a major improvement of religious freedom" with the fall of Taliban, the report said.
"Religious freedom is under siege in many parts of the world," said Mr. Hanford, who has already traveled extensively to conduct quiet diplomacy since taking the post in May.
While last year's report was overshadowed by the September 11 terrorist attacks, the listing of violator countries each year has provoked criticism from world capitals.
"We're an equal opportunity offender," Mr. Hanford said. He cited the report's criticism of a French law banning sects, for example. "When I'm in Vietnam or China, this [French] law gets quoted" as justification for communist crackdowns, he said.
The report explains that highest possible grade for a nation is to "generally respect" religious liberty, since it is not realized perfectly in any nation including the United States.
The report is one of three annual human rights reports issued by the United States, the oldest being the "country reports" on all human rights. A second religious-liberty report is issued by the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is often tougher on countries than the State Department.
Yesterday's report also notes that:
•The Cuban government maintains "a strong degree of control over religion."
•Laos has 19 "known religious prisoners" who are Christians.
•Israeli laws favoring Orthodox Jews discriminate against other faiths.
•Jews, Baha'is, and Sufi Muslims are imprisoned in Iran.
•Blasphemy laws in Pakistan allow "rivals" to get revenge.
•Muslim charities in Sudan withhold aid from non-Muslims.


©Copyright 2002, Washington Times (DC, USA)

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