WASHINGTON (ABP) — The State Department's annual report on the status of religious freedom across the globe is out, and its chief villains have some familiar faces.
According to the report, released Dec. 18, China, Burma and North Korea remain among the world's most egregious and systematic violators of religious liberty. Meanwhile, several nations with close ties to the United States — such as Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Israel — continue to repress their citizens' religious freedom either through overt legal oppression or through unequal enforcement of laws that, on paper, protect religious freedom.
In remarks introducing the report at a State Department press conference Dec. 18, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage noted that major religious celebrations for four of the world's largest faiths — Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism — were currently taking place, or had recently passed. At this time of year, when so many Americans focus on matters of faith, Armitage said, “all Americans stand united in our freedom of belief.
“We wanted [with the report] to focus on the plight of people who are persecuted,” Armitage continued.
John Hanford, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, also pointed to the report's importance saying, “In many respects, religious freedom stands as the first freedom.”
Highlighting five broad categories of ways in which nations suppress religious freedom, the report's executive summary listed nations that exemplify each:
— Totalitarian or authoritarian regimes that attempt to control their citizens' religious belief or practice. Nations such as North Korea, Burma and Cuba continue to “regard some or all religious groups as enemies of the state because of the religion's content, the fact that the very practice of religion threatens the dominant ideology, the ethnic character of a religious group or groups, or a mixture of all three,” according to the report.
— Governments that exhibit official hostility toward minority or unapproved religions. Countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, “while not necessarily determined to implement a program of control over minority religions, nevertheless are hostile to certain ones or to factions of religious groups identified as 'security threats.'”
— Governments that neglect in some cases to prevent discrimination against, or persecution of, minority religious groups. In states such as India, Egypt and Indonesia, the report says, “governments have laws or policies to discourage religious discrimination and persecution but fail to act with sufficient consistency and vigor against violations of religious freedom by nongovernmental entities or local law-enforcement officials.”
— Nations with legislation or policies that single out specific religions for discrimination. According to the report, Belarus, Israel and Russia are countries that “have implemented laws or regulations that favor certain religions and place others at a disadvantage.”
— Nations with otherwise robust democracies that officially stigmatize religious minorities by “wrongfully associating them with dangerous 'cults' or 'sects.'” The report notes that government officials in many Western European nations — such as Belgium, France and Germany — have doggedly investigated minority groups such as Scientologists, even though their members or officials have not been found to have committed any crimes. In a question-and-answer session with reporters, Hanford was asked if Saudi Arabia would receive the State Department's “Country of Particular Concern” designation for gross violations of religious freedom. The report noted that religious liberty “does not exist” in the kingdom. It also said that the Saudi government in 2003 “continued to enforce a strictly conservative version of Sunni Islam and suppress the public practice of other interpretations of Islam and non-Muslim religions.”
Hanford acknowledged that, although Saudi Arabia “has been very close to the threshold” for being designated a CPC, the State Department has chosen to work with the Saudis toward improvements in religious freedom.
Hanford also said that, although Saudi law officially represses all religions except for a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, other countries with more liberal laws on religious rights nonetheless repress their citizens' religious freedom far more violently than does Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has repeatedly recommended CPC designation for Saudi Arabia, and the State Department has repeatedly declined to confer it on the oil-rich kingdom, which has long had close ties to the U.S.
Responding to a reporter's question about French President Jacques Chirac's support for a ban on Islamic headscarves and other public expressions of individual religious belief in French schools, Hanford expressed concern. Noting Chirac's declaration that the French principle of official government secularism is “non-negotiable,” Hanford said, “our hope is that religious freedom is non-negotiable as well.”
Hanford also expressed concern in response to a reporter's question about the ongoing development of Afghanistan's new constitution. The ambassador said he was particularly concerned with a clause in the first public draft of that document that would provide that no Afghan law could be contrary to the principles of Islam.
“Who is going to interpret this clause, and how?” Hanford asked. “We want to be sure that we don't end up with 'Taliban lite.'”
The annual report is in its fifth year since the International Religious Freedom Act established both Hanford's office and the independent Commission on Religious Freedom.