Urging Financial Pressure to Promote Religious Freedom

U.S. Panel Has Recommendations Regarding Investments

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 5, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom published its annual report this week, with some pointed recommendations for putting pressure on businesses.

At an April 30 press conference, USCIRF Chairman Elliott Abrams noted that his panel´s job is not to provide a country-by-country review of religious-freedom violations. That task is done in the State Department´s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

«Our job,» Abrams explained, «is to study that report and gather additional information … and to come up with creative policy solutions that the U.S. government can implement to promote religious freedom abroad.»

Chairman Abrams is also president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The commission vice chairman is Firuz Kazemzadeh, special adviser to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States. Commission members include Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House.

Abrams noted that the countries in the report do not constitute the entire list of serious violators of religious freedom, nor are all of them equally bad. The nature of problems also differs widely. In Indonesia and Nigeria, he observed, the problem of violations of religious freedom lies with local and state officials and private citizens, rather than with the central government.

China´s expanding crackdown

In China, the commission noted, the government in the past year «has expanded its crackdown on unregistered religious communities and tightened its control on official religious organizations.»

Authorities have intensified their crackdown against Falun Gong followers, and confiscated and destroyed up to 3,000 unregistered religious buildings and sites in southeastern China. Government controls over the official Protestant and Catholic churches also have increased, and officials continue to interfere in the training and selection of religious leaders and clergy.

With regard to India, the commission noted a «disturbing increase in the past several years in severe violence against religious minorities in that country.» This violence has coincided with the increase in political influence of a collection of Hindu nationalist groups, of which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is a part.

The report admitted that India «generally respects religious freedom,» but added «there is concern that the government is not doing all that it could to pursue the perpetrators of the attacks and to counteract the prevailing climate of hostility.»

As for Indonesia, the U.S. panel reported a rise in the number of disputes in which religion or religious freedom is a factor. The situation is particularly grave in the Moluccas, where 5,000 to 8,000 people have died since the outbreak of Muslim-Christian fighting in January 1999.

Moreover, «there are numerous reports that elements from the Indonesian military and local police forces have done little to stop the fighting,» the commission noted. «Rather, it is alleged that they have contributed to — and perhaps even initiated — it.»

In Iran, the panel said, «the conditions of religious freedom are very poor,» particularly with respect to minority religious groups that are not officially recognized by the state and those perceived to be trying to convert Muslims. Members of the officially recognized non-Muslim minorities — Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians — are subject to legal and other forms of official discrimination, the report noted.

Muslims also suffer, the report noted, including some Shiite religious leaders who have opposed the government and have consequently been targets of state repression.

Regarding Africa, the commission singled out Nigeria and Sudan for scrutiny. The report observed that «the threats to religious freedom, including reports of religious discrimination, are serious and ongoing.» Recent events suggest the situation will worsen. Outbreaks of Muslim-Christian violence «threaten to divide further the populace along religious lines and undermine the foundations of religious freedom in Nigeria,» the report warned.

In Sudan, meanwhile, the situation has deteriorated further, the USCIRF said. Its report lamented that «the issue of Sudan for the most part remained on the back burner of U.S. policy.» The commission urged the Bush administration to mount a «sustained campaign» of protest against the abuses committed by the Khartoum government.

In Russia, the USCIRF judged that the future of religious freedom «remains uncertain at a critical moment in that nation´s history.» About 1,500 religious groups face «liquidation» after the government refused to extend a deadline for their registration.

Moreover, the government of President Vladimir Putin «has yet to establish an effective way to ensure that local and regional laws, policies and practices do not abridge religious freedom,» the report said.

Recommendations

Apart from specific measures related to each country, the commission also recommended that the United States use its weight in financial markets to promote religious freedom.

The report noted that information about companies doing business in «Countries of Particular Concern» — CPCs — is being withheld from the U.S. investing public. Foreign companies are able to raise capital in U.S. markets without disclosing their business interests in these countries.

The report called for all issuers of securities to disclose the nature and extent of their business dealings, and those of their affiliates, in CPCs.

The companies should also disclose the extent to which they or their affiliates support the discriminatory religious practices of the local authorities, the panel urged. On the issue of economic sanctions, the report recommended that the U.S. government examine how the structuring of securities transactions or the manipulation of corporate relationships by non-American issuers can be used to circumvent U.S. economic sanctions.

The report also observed that there are significant religious-freedom violations in some countries that receive U.S. foreign aid. The panel recommended that no such aid be given to any governmental or private body that, at any time during the last 24 months, has committed or abetted acts of violence or discrimination against individuals on account of religion.

USCIRF made clear its displeasure at the lack of action taken in the preceding year by then Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright against countries notorious for religious freedom violations. The report also highlighted that Robert A. Seiple, the first ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, stepped down from his office, and that his post remained vacant.

The commissioners´ terms expire May 14. This gives President George W. Bush a chance to name their successors, as well as a new ambassador — and to show how much priority he gives to religious freedom.

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