By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, SEPT. 25, 2011 (Zenit.org).- On Sept. 13 the U.S. State Department released its latest International Religious Freedom Report. Even though its title is the 2010 report it only covers the last six months of the year as future editions will shift to a calendar year reporting period.
In his presentation of the report Michael H. Posner, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said that the same eight states designated as Countries of Particular Concern in previous years were re-named in the latest report. They are: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
There are many other countries, however, where there are serious violation of religious freedom, Posner added. He said they were particularly concerned about the situation of Christians in Syria, where the instability and violence is leading to numerous violations of human rights.
Pakistan, Iraq, Vietnam, and Egypt were other countries Posner singled out as serious offenders when it comes to religious freedom.
The report started off by noting the variety of ways in which religious freedom is restricted.
-- Active state repression and Impunity. In countries such as Iran and North Korea religion is under strict control as part of a wider effort to dominate political and social life in general. Other states, such as Eritrea, harass people to such an extent that believers have to renounce their faith, or else leave the country.
-- Violent extremist attacks. Sometimes extremist groups worsen conditions, such as al-Qaida when last year it issued calls for violent attacks against religious minorities in the Middle East. In 2010 there were attacks on Sufi, Shia, Ahmadiyah, and Christian holy sites and their worshippers in Pakistan, the report noted. Nigeria also experienced a significant increase in violence against both Christians and Muslims. In February of this year there was a further episode of violence that caused an estimated 96 deaths.
-- Apostasy and blasphemy laws. These laws are often used to discriminate against religious minorities. Blasphemy and conversion from Islam, or apostasy, can be punished by death in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The are also frequently invoked to gain an advantage in personal disputes or arguments over ownership of property.
-- Anti-Semitism. According to the State Department there was either a continuation or an increase in anti-Semitism on every continent last year. The acts ranged from desecration of cemeteries to Holocaust denial, the publication of books, and cartoons.
-- Restrictions on Muslim attire and expression. Bans on religious clothing in public continued in some parts of Europe and were also introduced in France. The law was upheld in the French courts and the first fines were made under the new law in April this year.
-- Restrictions derived from security and related concerns. A number of countries have passed or are considering laws that restrict religious freedom justified on the need to protect national security. Some governments have restricted the activities of groups they consider to be threats.
In the section on Burma the report commented that the government continued to monitor meetings and activities of virtually religious organizations. Moreover, religious groups have to request permission before holding any large public event. According to the State Department authorities frequently refused to approve requests to celebrate traditional Christian or Islamic holidays.
It is also difficult to obtain official approval to build new churches or places of worship and in some cases even the repair of existing buildings is blocked by the authorities. Government censors continued to enforce restrictions on local publication of the Bible, Qur'an, and other Christian and Islamic texts.
Evidence of the the government’s promotion of Buddhism was seen in some cases where orphans and homeless young people were placed in Buddhist monasteries rather than in Christian groups, so that they would not be under the influence of missionaries.
Moreover, adherence or conversion to Buddhism continues to be an unwritten law for those who want to rise to senior government and military ranks.
At the same time the government maintains careful control over the Buddhist monks to ensure they do not promote human or political rights. After the pro-democracy demonstrations in 2007 a number of Buddhist monks were arrested and last year many of them were still in prison.
Turning to China the report started by observing that only those religious groups that are one of the five state-approved patriotic religious associations (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) are allowed to hold worship services.
Other groups, such as Protestant ones, or Catholics professing loyalty to the Vatican, cannot register as legal entities. In some places authorities charged members of non-official groups with crimes such as holding illegal religious activities or disrupting social stability.
“The government's level of respect for religious freedom in law and in practice declined during the reporting period,” said the State Department. Muslim leaders from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders reported increased discrimination last year.
Those who want to enter an official seminary have to obtain the support of their patriotic religious association. As well, the government requires students to demonstrate their "political reliability." Political issues are also a part of examinations for students of all religious schools.
During the period covered by the report authorities continued to monitor and sometimes harass both registered and unregistered religious groups. A number of religious leaders and followers were arrested or sentenced to prison due to their religious activities.
As for Vietnam the report said that there were numerous reports of abuses of religious freedom. For example, many Catholics and Protestants said that Christians experienced unofficial discrimination when applying for government positions.
A number of believers experienced harassment or repression, particularly if they belonged to groups that did not have official recognition. Some of the actions taken by authorities included forcing church gatherings to cease, the closing of unregistered house churches, and pressure on individuals to renounce their religious beliefs.
There were serious conflicts last year between parishioners of the Dong Chiem Catholic Church who protested the demolition of a large concrete cross by police in January. The crowd of several hundred was attacked by police who used tear gas and beat approximately a dozen individuals.
The report added that two weeks later a Catholic monk was beaten unconscious by police as he tried to enter the parish near where the cross was demolished. Later, in February, a group of nuns and other Catholics from Ho Chi Minh City making a pilgrimage to the parish were harassed by police and denied entry.
More action needed
While the State Department affirmed its continued interest in defending religious freedom the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed its disappointment that more countries were not added to the list of Countries of Particular Concern.
“Repeating the current list continues glaring omissions, such as Pakistan and Vietnam,” said Leonard Leo, USCIRF Chair, in a Sept. 13 press release.
In its own annual report, published earlier this year, USCIRF recommended that the Secretary of State maintain the existing eight CPC countries, but it also recommended more be added to the list, namely, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
Leaving aside the differences of opinion over the CPC list what is clear from the latest report i s that too many countries are allowed to get away with denying a basic human right, that of religious freedom.