By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, May. 10, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom continues to show that religious freedom is a human right under fire, but changes have come about and they are not all negative.
Though Myanmar and Venezuela have a worsening record when it comes to religious freedom, India is showing signs of improvement.
On May 1 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report, together with its recommendations about which countries should be denominated as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs.
This is the 10th report by the commission since it was set up by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
The CPC countries named by the USCIRF are: Myanmar, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
The recommendations made by the USCIRF go to the State Department, where a decision is made about how many of the nations on the USCIRF list will actually be declared CPCs.
The current State Department list of CPC countries is made up of eight of the nations recommended by the USCIRF: Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
The commission also announced a “Watch List” of countries whose behavior calls for close monitoring due to the extent of violations of religious freedom. The 2009 list is made up of: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.
The report has detailed information on the countries in the CPC and Watch List categories. Myanmar, the report affirmed, has one of the world‘s worst human rights records, and religious freedom has diminished in the last year. The military regime severely restricts religious practice and monitors the activity of all religious organizations, the commission noted.
An estimated 136 Buddhist monks remain in prison, awaiting trials, according to the report, and monasteries remain closed or function in a limited capacity. As well, ethnic minority Christians and Muslims continue to encounter difficulties.
In China, according to the commission, “there has been no improvement in the religious freedom situation and, in fact, there has been a marked deterioration in the past year, particularly in Tibetan Buddhist and Uighur Muslim areas.”
“The Chinese government continues to engage in systematic and egregious violations of the freedom of religion or belief, with religious activities tightly controlled and some religious adherents detained, imprisoned, fined, beaten and harassed,” the report stated.
The commission also commented that the repression of many religious groups intensified prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Turning to the Middle East the report said that in Iran, “official rhetoric and government policy resulted in a deterioration in conditions for nearly all non-Shi‘a religious groups.”
Government policy endorses the violation of religious freedom, including detention, torture and executions based on the religion of the accused, the commission alleged.
The report also drew attention to the situation in Iraq, where it said, “The government continues to commit and tolerate severe abuses of freedom of religion or belief.”
Turning to Saudi Arabia, the report acknowledged that King Abdullah has allowed some limited reform measures, as well as promoting interreligious dialogue. Nevertheless, the government still bans all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government‘s own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam.
In addition, the commission accused Saudi authorities of supporting on the international level groups that promote “an extremist ideology, including in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims.”
In Egypt, the report continued, there are serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities. Serious religious freedom violations continue to affect Coptic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Baha‘is, as well as members of minority Muslim communities, the commission accused.
Moreover, the report argued that the government has not taken sufficient steps to halt the repression and discrimination against religious believers, or to punish those responsible for violence or other severe violations of religious freedom.
Serious religious freedom concerns persist in Pakistan, the commission noted. During the last year the power of extremist groups has grown. In addition anti-blasphemy laws have been used to silence members of religious minorities and dissenters, the report added.
In neighboring Afghanistan, the report commented that conditions for freedom of religion or belief have become increasingly problematic.
According to the commission, Afghanistan’s constitution fails to protect individuals in the majority Muslim nation who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy. As a result there are serious violations of religious freedom, in part also due to the power and influence of highly traditionalist religious leaders.
The commission recommended that Vietnam be re-designated as a CPC due to the government’s continued violations of religious freedom. In spite of some progress, the Vietnamese government continues to impose major restrictions on religious freedom, the report argued.
For example, people are still imprisoned or detained for their peaceful religious activity and independent religious activity remains illegal. Moreover, legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are vague and subject to arbitrary or discriminatory interpretations based on political factors, the report stated.
In keeping with past reports the Chinese government acerbically rejected the criticisms made by the commission.
“It is a fact that the Chinese government protects its citizens’ freedom of religious belief according to law, and every ethnic group in any part of China enjoys full religious freedom,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement, reported by the Associated Press, May 5.
“The attempt by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to smear China with the report will never succeed,” Ma said.
India, however, in a turnaround is opening itself up for a study tour by representatives of USCIRF. According to the May 2 edition of the Calcutta-based Telegraph newspaper, India’s federal government has changed a long-established policy of not allowing fact-finding visits by the U.S. government.
Member sent by USCIRF will visit India in June, for the first time, after which a report on the country will be published.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal commented on the inclusion of Venezuela in the Watch List, in a May 1 article by Melanie Kirkpatrick, deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page.
The article focused on the plight of the Jews in Venezuela. When Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, around 22,000 Jews lived in the country. Today their numbers are estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000.
“The Jews of Venezuela are fleeing to Miami, Madrid and elsewhere because of the anti-Semitism they face at home,” Kirkpatrick said.
She cited comments by Chávez, ranging from describing Venezuelan Jews as “descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ” to “a minority [that] has taken ownership of all the gold of the planet.”
In this year’s annual message to the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, Benedict XVI expressed his concern for those persecuted for their faith. His Jan. 8 address spoke of “our brothers and sisters who are victims of violence, especially in Iraq and India.”
The Pope’s concern extended to those in developed countries. “I also express my hope that, in the Western world, prejudice or hos
tility against Christians will not be cultivated simply because, on certain questions, their voice causes disquiet,” he said.
Interestingly Benedict XVI did not focus on religious freedom from the perspective of liberty, but rather took a more theological approach. “Acts of discrimination and the very grave attacks directed at thousands of Christians in this past year show to what extent it is not merely material poverty, but also moral poverty, which damages peace,” he said. A poverty that afflicts many countries, irrespective of their economic level.