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Full text of the US State Departmentís annual report on Religious Freedom is provided here as a reference material for the visitors to this site. Please keep in mind that this article is copyrighted by the U.S. State Department and all rights are reserved.


Release of the 2003 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom

Richard L. Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State; Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford

Washington, DC
December 18, 2003

(10:00 a.m. EST)

Deputy Secretary Armitage remarks on the release of the State Departmentís 2003 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. State Department photo by Franklin Jones.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Good morning. Happy holidays.

Today the Department of State releases our Fifth Annual Report on International Religious Freedom at a fitting time.  This is, of course, the season of faith for so many Americans.  We have a week or less before Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa at this point.

Other Americans celebrated Ramadan last month and Diwali the month before. But whatever faith we follow, all Americans stand united in our freedom of belief. Indeed, that freedom of belief is a great source of strength for the nation and a bedrock principle -- the first right in the First Amendment. It's also a central tenet of United States foreign policy and an important part of our mission here at the Department of State.

Of course, thousands of Americans will not be spending the holidays at home this year. They'll be in Afghanistan, or they'll be in Iraq, engaged in both military missions and reconstruction efforts. But in a way, these men and women are, perhaps, experiencing their own season of faith. After all, the terrible urgency of religious freedom is crystal clear in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We see it in the faces of a people brutalized and terrorized by the extreme intolerance of the Taliban, and we see it in the mass graves of Iraqi Shias slaughtered merely for practicing their faith.

So this is an important subject and we believe an important report. I am honored to be here today to release it to the public.

Even though religious freedom is a universal right, recognized by international law and religious traditions the world over, millions of people in scores of countries do not enjoy this right, and this report tells their story.

You will find in these pages nations that use repressive and brutal means to control religious belief and religious practice. You'll find others that are hostile to minority or "unapproved" religions, or that tolerate and effectively encourage persecution or encourage discrimination. And you'll find nations that have discriminatory legislation or policies that give preference to some religions over others.

These nations range from totalitarian regimes to thriving democracies, in countries on every continent, from the Middle East to the middle of Europe.

With this report, we intend to focus attention on the plight of people who are persecuted simply for the peaceful practice of religious beliefs and to provide a resource of action, both for the United States and for the international community.

Before I turn you over to Ambassador Hanford, I want to recognize all those who have worked so hard to bring this document about. Hundreds of Foreign Service Officers and State Department Civil Servants around the world spent countless hours researching, verifying and reporting this information. And I want to congratulate them on behalf of Secretary Powell for their commitment to freedom, the freedom of belief.

At this point, I would like to invite Ambassador At Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford to tell you more about this report and to be available to take your questions.


Well, thank you, Mr. Deputy Secretary, for your remarks and for your strong commitment to the cause of religious freedom worldwide. It's a tremendous honor for me to serve you, the Secretary, the President, who all care profoundly about international religious freedom, and who have shown such leadership on this issue.

Americans have long treasured their own religious freedom. They also place a high value on the priority that our government gives to strong advocacy for those millions of people around the world who suffer persecution for their religious beliefs.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a watershed moment for such endeavors. It was in 1903 that President Theodore Roosevelt led an interfaith coalition of American Jews and Christians in sending a strong protest to Tsarist Russia condemning the Kishinev Pogrom against Russian Jews.

His advisors counseled Roosevelt to keep the U.S. out of such matters. But when he learned that members of the Russian Government had incited the murders of dozens of Jews, attacks on hundreds more, and the destruction of the homes of thousands, the President was unwilling that America stand by in silence. In fact, in addition to sending the Tsar a strong message of U.S. protest, Roosevelt pulled out his wallet and contributed his own money to the relief effort.

For a government to speak out in this way was almost unprecedented in that day, yet it heralded what, over time, has come to be a core American commitment to addressing this age-old problem of religious persecution.

Five years ago, this commitment became manifest in the unanimous passage by Congress of the International Religious Freedom Act. This legislation created my office, and it created the mandate for the annual report that we are proud to present to you today.

This commitment continues to be articulated forcefully by President Bush, Secretary Powell, Deputy Secretary Armitage and many others in this Administration. The President's National Security Strategy states plainly that we will take special efforts to promote freedom of religion and conscience and defend it from encroachment by repressive governments.

In explaining why religious freedom holds such an integral place in American foreign policy, President Bush has said, "It is not an accident that freedom of religion is one of the central freedoms in our Bill of Rights. It is the first freedom of the human soul, the right to speak the words that God places in our mouths. We must stand for that freedom in our country; we must speak for that freedom in the world."

Indeed, in many respects, religious freedom stands as the first freedom. If I might quote one champion of religious freedom, Carl FH Henry, the eminent theologian who died just this last week, "Religious liberty embraces also the right to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, and freedom to leave one's country and return."

Together, these rights constitute the seedbed of democratic development. They encourage not only the institutions and procedures of democracy, but also the virtues of democracy, including a government and citizenry that value and nurture human dignity. When the United States promotes religious freedom, it is promoting the spread of democracy.

Protecting religious freedom is also of special importance in the ongoing war against terrorism. All too often, countries that violate religious liberty also contribute to terrorism, intentionally or unintentionally. In some cases, those governments that are hostile to religious liberty have also been hospitable to terrorism.

In other cases, nations have targeted religious believers, even under the guise of antiterrorism campaigns, and driven some towards radicalism and violence. Conversely, where governments protect religious freedom and citizens value it as a social good, religious persecution and religious-based violence finds no warrant and little appeal.

Though international law supports it, and though millions of religious believers around the world desire it, religious freedom all too often remains fragile, neglected and violated. Many religious believers find themselves forced to worship secretly instead of confidently, or to hold their sacred beliefs in fear and under threat rather than peace and security. Many others suffer severe hardships for their faith, including beatings, torture, detention, imprisonments and death.

While the report we are releasing today in that it reports on conditions of religious freedom in countries around the world, it represents only the beginning of our efforts to combat the persecution of religious freedom. Our government is determined to combat persecution wherever people are forced to suffer for their faith. This is part of our nation's work in the world, of which we can all be proud. It is also an endeavor that earns Americans good will across the globe.

During my travels overseas, I am regularly thanked by religious believers for the special attention that our government devotes to their plight. Many have described their wonder and their gratitude for the focus the United States gives to religious freedom. This inspires them and it encourages us to persevere in our efforts on behalf of those who suffer who for their faith.

As I continue my term as second U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, I wish to thank all of the employees at the Department of State, here and abroad, who made this report possible. In particular, I want to acknowledge the dedicated work of our Human Rights Officers throughout the world, as well as the members of the Office of Country Reports and Asylum Affairs here at the State Department, who have worked long and hard to craft this report.

I also want to express appreciation for the vigilant and bipartisan support that Congress has demonstrated on this issue.

And finally, I wish to thank my own staff in the Office of International Religious Freedom, whose commitment to religious freedom for all people is both indefatigable and inspiring.

This, the fifth annual edition of the International Religious Freedom Report, attempts to establish a baseline of fact about the status of religious freedom worldwide. It also seeks to describe positive trends and highlight improvements. Sadly, however, too many religious believers around the world do not enjoy such freedoms, and there are a number of factors driving this grim reality.

Let me identify briefly five categories of religious freedom abuses: First, attempts by totalitarian or authoritarian regimes to control religious belief or practice are manifest in countries such as North Korea, China, Vietnam and Burma.

Second, I would point to states that favor a dominant religion and are hostile toward minority or non-approved religions, and examples here would include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Turkmenistan.

In this latter case, new, draconian legislation has effectively criminalized the religious activities of many Muslims, Christians and other faiths, and I'm speaking here of Turkmenistan.

Third, there is the problem of state neglect, discrimination or persecution toward minority or non-approved religions, and we find this in nations such as Egypt, Georgia, Indonesia and Nigeria.

Fourth, there are states that have discriminatory legislation or policies disadvantaging certain religions. And this category includes Belarus, Russia and Eritrea. In the case of Eritrea, for example, over 300 Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians currently suffer imprisonment only because their churches are not sanctioned by the state.

Fifth, certain states stigmatize particular religions by wrongfully associating them with dangerous cults or sects. As you can see, the problems that one century ago stirred President Roosevelt to action, continue today to afflict too many countries and too many religious believers.

The United States remains steadfast in its resolve to stand with the persecuted and to speak out on behalf of those whose governments would silence them. Their plight inspires our determination and our vigilance. We do this for them.

And in seeking to stop persecution, the first, and often the most vital step, is to ensure that the stories are told and the abuses revealed. And we worked very hard to make this report we are releasing today do just that.

Thank you all for being here, and I would be pleased now to take your questions about this year's International Religious Freedom Report.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Yeah. Ambassador Hanford, you went to Vietnam and Laos recently.


QUESTION: Could you tell us something about whom you met with there and what the discussions were about?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, we met at very high levels, and in Laos we have a country that has shown significant improvement. It's interesting -- the problems in both of these countries have eerie parallels, and we had fun remarking to the Vietnamese that the, the forums that Laos was using to force people to renounce their faith, in this case their Christian faith, bore a remarkable resemblance to the same forums in Vietnam, which seem to indicate an interesting case of cross-border cooperation and plagiarism.

But in the case of Laos, we have been working with them hard over the last two or three years because this sort of behavior puts a country front and center in danger of a CPC designation -- country of particular concern, and we're very pleased that they have moved away from that. Forced renunciations have stopped.

The last large group of religious prisoners was released just as we were arriving in the country. A number of churches had been reopened. There still are problems, but that is at least a partial success story.

In Vietnam, it's a little different story. We, we got good news just in the last week or two that a number of the religious prisoners that we had presented to the Vietnamese have now been released -- a pretty significant portion. Some of them, we are told, cannot be found. And so that puts the onus back on us to do our research a little better, find what prisons they're in, and get back to them.

But in Vietnam you have a complex set of problems that affect many different religious groups.

In the case Buddhists, you have some prisoners right now, members of the UBCV, United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, who are under house arrest, and this group has received -- has been outlawed, basically, has been not allowed to meet, and has been under pressure for many years.

In the case of Christians, the most severe persecution is occurring in two regions of the country, the central highlands and the northwest highlands, and in these regions we have credible reports, and many reports, of well organized campaigns to force people to renounce their faith. And this means thousands and thousands and thousands of people who have been rounded up and forced to do this.

Of course, there are officials who deny that this is the case, but while we were in country we were still receiving reports, credible reports, including one up in the northwest highlands that involved central government officials, not just local government officials.

We are also concerned that the effort by the government to so heavily restrict religious practice in these two regions of the country has resulted in many hundreds of churches and places of meeting being shut down. I remember one province where there are 150,000 Protestant believers and only two approved churches, and so we tried to stress upon the government this is a problem. Not long ago, there were about 380 meeting places and churches. And so one of the things that we are insisting upon is that these be reopened.

Unfortunately, in some cases where the government has weighed in to enforce this campaign, people have been arrested, beaten, and there are some especially heart-wrenching stories of some cases where we believe people have been beaten to death, a couple of two or three cases, another case of rape that we have raised. We don't expect the central government officials to always be aware of all of the details of these cases, but we do expect them to investigate them very carefully.

There is an important amnesty coming up in early February. It's an annual Tet, amnesty of prisoners. We are hopeful that many more may be released at that time.


QUESTION: What was your reaction to President Chirac's headscarf ban, headcovering ban?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right. Well, as many of you know, just yesterday President Chirac, responding to a recommendation from a special commission in France, announced that he was going to recommend a ban on religious symbols in public schools. And while we understand that the wearing of discreet symbols such as the Hand of Fatimah or Star of David or a cross may still remain permissible in schools, conspicuous religious items such as headscarves or yarmulkes or crosses, large crosses, it appears, would be outlawed if President Chirac's recommendation is followed up on.

He has said that such a law is necessary to promote the harmonious coexistence of religions and he has invoked the French constitution in this regard.

Now, we don't have all of the details about how France proposes to put this into place, so we can't comment entirely on this. But a fundamental principle of religious freedom that we work for in many countries of the world, including on this very issue of headscarves, is that all persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully without government interference, as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others in society.

President Chirac is concerned to maintain France's principle of secularism and he wants that, as I think he said, not to be negotiable. Well, of course, our hope is religious freedom will be a non-negotiable as well. One Muslim leader said this is a secularism that excludes too much, and we're very concerned that that not be the case. So we're going to watch this carefully, and this is certainly an important concern at this time.

QUESTION: So you don't think it's a good idea, I mean, simply stated?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: This fits with an approach we have taken with a number of countries that restrict headscarves, where we have felt that where people are wearing these with no provocation, simply as a manifestation of their own heartfelt beliefs, that we don't see where this causes division among peoples.

QUESTION: You're referring to Turkey, yes?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Turkey would be another country, yes.

QUESTION No, I meant -- in the same countries. Can I change the subject just a little bit and ask you, the language of this report, at least in the executive summary, is virtually identical to the language in last year's report, and so I am trying to find some differences.

I'd like to ask you why it is that last year, in the section that Egypt is in this year, the state neglect, Israel, Jordan and Turkey were included in that, and they are -- and Israel and Turkey have now been kind of upgraded, I guess, to the next level. And Jordan, which according to the specific country report, there was no change in religious freedoms, doesn't appear anywhere in the executive summary.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right. Well, I wouldn't look at the categories that we have there as necessarily a question of upgrading or downgrading. Some countries appear in more than one category, and deservedly so.

We try to be as precise as possible. It's hard to fit countries into categories. These judgment calls are made every year. There might have been an incident that occurred this year that tipped us one way or the other, but I wouldn't read into that, certainly in the case of Jordan, for example, that this means they got worse this last year.

QUESTION No, no, I'm not -- it suggests that they got a lot better because they're not at all listed.


QUESTION And yet, in the actual country report, it says that the conditions hadn't changed at all since the last reporting period.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, that's a good question. We are very selective in the countries that we put in, and it would appear that Jordan got bumped by another country that had more serious problems that we felt -- we shoot for about 20 countries in our executive summary because we don't want to overwhelm. The executive summary is something that's required in the International Religious Freedom Act. So I think because their problems weren't nearly as serious as some other countries you see in there, that's why.

QUESTION There's only one -- there's only two sentences in here about the increase in anti-Semitism in Europe generally.


QUESTION Can you talk about, just say something briefly, a little bit more about that general phenomena?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right. Well, of course, we are very concerned about the growth of anti-Semitism both in Europe and in Turkey. And, of course, in Turkey, in a recent incident, it became deadly.

The U.S. has spearheaded the calling of a standalone OSCE meeting on this in June and we are pleased that a follow-up meeting will be happening in April.

We, of course, had our own problems with this, as you all know, with the burning of the Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, recently.

European governments, we feel, are beginning to take this problem seriously. Not that they weren't before, but I think with renewed emphasis. The French President has established his own commission. The President of the European Commission has announced his intentions to organize his own meeting on anti-Semitism. And with repeated desecrations of Jewish sites, as well as negative depictions in the media that we have found in Greece, the Greek Foreign Minister has sought others, including international allies, in confronting this problem in his own country.

So this is something that we are working closely with our European allies on to address.


QUESTION he six countries of particular concern, do you expect any changes in them? And could you help me explain how it is that countries do get put into that category; why, for example, Saudi Arabia, where the report broadly states no religious freedom exists, is not in that category, but Iran, where, with the exception of the Baha'is, there is general religious freedom, is placed in that category?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right. Well, the way that this process comes about is that the International Religious Freedom Act requires an annual designation of those countries which practice severe violations of religious freedom. And I can go into more detail on what that is, or you can look it up in the legislation, but generally it means cases where you have systematic, ongoing, egregious, very severe manifestations of religious persecution -- torture, being detained without charges, this sort of thing.

The decision is based, to a large extent, on the annual report, and that's why it occurs after the annual report comes out, which means sometime in the coming weeks or months that we will be coming back to you and letting you know what countries will be designated this year. Although I should note that these designations can happen any time during the year, we hold option that open in case there is an outbreak of a problem, the Secretary, of course, this year, has not yet made those determinations.

We are seriously considering a number of countries right now, and, in fact, we are also working with some of those countries to see if there might be the potential for some improvements before we are required to make the designation this year.

Now, in terms of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia has been very close to the threshold, and in terms of restrictions of religious freedom there are few countries that are more restrictive in terms of their laws. There are other countries that are much harsher in terms of the ways that they manifest their laws, in terms of arresting and torture and murdering people.

The Government of Saudi Arabia has begun to implement some measures to address this problem, and we will be in the process of trying to assess how far those are along before we make that final decision.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION The '02 report that was issued in October, this year's report, of course, is being issued in December. There's a 14-month gap there.


QUESTION This prompts the question why the delay. And, more specifically, did you want to wait till the Chinese Premier was out of town before you released the report?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: No, it had nothing to do with the Chinese Premier, and there's no hesitance on the part of our government to raise these issues with him. In fact, President Bush told me just two days ago that he had raised religious freedom with the Premier, which, you know, is his pattern. This is something he feels in a very heartfelt way and he raises it regularly with foreign governments.

The Department -- or the report was delayed this year for several reasons. One, we are committed to putting out a quality report, and those are Secretary Powell's marching orders and we take those orders very seriously. And where there is the need to gather additional information to make sure the report is as complete as possible, that can slow us down.

The report is a very complicated process to compile. I don't have a copy here, but some of you have seen it. It's about this thick until it gets boiled down into the small print, and it involves many, many drafts, back and forth between the embassy, my office, others here at the State Department, and then an awful lot of technical work compiling it. And we ran into some glitches this year where some people who were involved in the processing and technical work weren't able to do the work as quickly as they have in the past.

QUESTION But one reason was because you wanted to make sure that everything was up to date, and that would include your visits to Saudi Arabia, to Vietnam and Laos, right?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, actually, the report covers the period from June to June, basically, and so that is the reporting period every year. And so my visits will not be included until next year, although some of what we learned was factored in into the report.


QUESTION have a question that's related a little bit to the headscarf issue. I'd like to ask your position about cases where crucifixes exist in the classroom, you know that that, that has been an issue of some predominantly Catholic countries in Europe.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: All right. Well, I think the headscarf issue raises that kind of question. Where, how far is this going to go, and how is this manifest in other countries? And our position is consistent that where people are wearing these simply as a heartfelt manifestation of their beliefs -- just as we see people every day doing that here in the United States -- and it's providing no personal provocation to other people, that this is, we believe, a basic right that should be protected.

QUESTION But the crucifix in the classroom, in the middle and the front of the classroom.


QUESTION Is that the same thing, or --

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yes, and we run into this -- I don't know the answer to that in the context of France. But this is an issue --

QUESTION (Inaudible).

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Okay, okay. All right. This is an issue that we also run into in many countries, for example, in Saudi Arabia, someone mentioned that. One of the issues that we've raised there is that the minority Shia population, which bear the brunt of the problems, are prohibited from displaying certain religious symbols of their own faith in the places where they meet. The same would be true of countries that raise problems for churches and meeting places not being able to put up their own symbols.

Now we're getting, here, into issues that aren't quite as severe as people that are languishing in jail, that we work on behalf of, and that we make our highest priority. But at the same time, we raise these other issues as well.

QUESTION Jim, can I follow up on that?


QUESTION You just said, "personal provocation point." It seems to me the personal provocation could -- is in the eye of the beholder. And it seems to me a standard that may not actually get you where you want to be.

Chirac could say that he finds people wearing headscarves personally provocative, and therefore, you know, chooses to endorse legislation that would bar that.


QUESTION Is there not another standard other than personal provocation? It would, seems to me to be not the one that you necessarily want that you wish to apply to this?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, I think the standard would be where people are, are peacefully practicing their faith. Is it really necessary to be outlawing their manifestation of their own faith? And that's the sort of, that's the sort of basis upon which we'll be discussing this.

Back there was up first. Yes?

QUESTION Can you -- on North Korea, can you elaborate some the situations in North Korea and also in your summary you mentions that some of the reports are not confirmed. So how credible are you saying is the cooperation for North Korea?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, North Korea would have to be up there as one of the worst and perhaps we could go so far as to say the worst situation for religious freedom in the world.

Our report says genuine religious freedom does not exist. We are frustrated by the lack of credible reports. The regime has so -- been so ruthlessly efficient in barring outside observers, that they are able to prevent the free flow of information. But we have so many reports of the problems there, including the execution of members of underground Christian churches, the torture and imprisonment of others, the fact the religious believers often experience the harshest behavior in prison.

And we have people that have been able to get out of these situations and bring us these reports. And so we have received so many reports that we have, we have felt it necessary to speak very strongly, and of course, North Korea is one of our countries of particular concern, one of our severe violators.

MR. BOUCHER: Let's do one more question, maybe.

QUESTION Yes. Changing subjects just a little bit, right now the Loya Jirga is going on in Afghanistan --


QUESTION And as you know, some of the members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as other pundits have said there's no real protections for religious freedom in the draft constitution of Afghanistan --


QUESTION and in fact, if enforced, it could end up creating a regime as bad as the Taliban as far as a judicial tyranny over interpretations of Islam. Are you -- do you have any concerns about the creation of the Afghan constitution, and looking down the road, potential similar concerns about the future constitution of Iraq?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, yes, we certainly do. The commission has done very good, thorough work in staying on top of this and in being in touch with people that are working there in Afghanistan, and my office has attempted to as well.

On the positive side of the constitution, there is an acknowledge of the fidelity which the government intends to maintain to international conventions that Afghanistan has signed, and, you know, this includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Freedom of worship is guaranteed to a point; the constitution says followers of other religions are free to perform their religious ceremonies within the limits of the law.

But the point that we've made is: What are ceremonies? And there's an awful lot that has to do with religious practice that you wouldn't necessarily call a ceremony. There's no constitutional court, which we're pleased about, because that could have placed the interpretation of whether legislation conforms to the religion of Islam into the hands of too few.

But on the negative side, what we're worried about is that the current draft of the constitution that's being considered by the Loya Jirga says that no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam and the values of this constitution. Who is going to interpret this clause and how are they going to interpret it?

Freedom of religion is neither denied, but it's certainly not fully guaranteed. Also, freedom of expression, assembly and right to life are only permitted within -- or permitted "within accordance to the law." And we have been scrambling and working with people in our government and their government to figure out what does this mean, "in accordance with the law." What law?

We are encouraged that Sharia was not explicitly the theme of this constitution and the language that might refer to Sharia is minimal. However, in Article 130 it directs the supreme court to default to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence absent any explicit statute or constitutional limit. And so how is this going to be implemented?

Now, these are -- this is getting into the weeds, but this is where the future of Afghanistan is going to be worked out. And this is something that we have worked hard to analyze, to be interacting with the Government of Afghanistan on, because we, as you so well mentioned, want to be sure that we don't wind up with Taliban Lite or something like that could ever resort back to what we were dealing with in Afghanistan before.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.


Released on December 18, 2003

©Copyright 2003, U.S. Departmant of State, All rights reserved.

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