The State of Religious Freedom

U.S. Agency releases Annual Report

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On Tuesday the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2013 annual report.

“The state of international religious freedom is increasingly dire due to the presence of forces that fuel instability.  These forces include the rise of violent religious extremism coupled with the actions and inactions of governments,” stated Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, USCIRF’s Chair, on releasing the report.

The 2013 Annual Report recommends that the Secretary of State re-designate the following eight nations as “countries of particular concern” or CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. “USCIRF finds that seven other countries meet the CPC threshold and should be so designated:  Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam,” the report explained.

The report covers the year ending on January 31, 2013. It noted that the State Department has issued waivers for Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, thereby omitting any measures against those countries for their violations of religious freedom.

Moreover, there have been no new presidential actions, CPC designations, and the State Department has relied on pre-existing sanctions, the report stated.

Turning to some of the countries with particularly egregious violations of religious freedom USCIRF commented that with regard to Burma and the political reforms that have taken place, so far there is little progress in matters of faith. There continue to be severe restrictions on religious worship and education and religious groups still face many obstacles in their activities.

In China, the report commented that the “government continues to perpetrate particularly severe violations of the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.”

Ongoing violations

Egypt, Eritrea, and Iran also continue to severely violate religious freedom. Regarding Iran the report said that: “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.”

Nigeria was another country singled out as being of particular concern by the report. There are systematic and ongoing violations of religious freedom affecting all Nigerians, the report stated.

It noted that since 1999 more than 14,000 Nigerians have been killed in sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians.

North Korea and Pakistan continue to be countries with very serious violations of religious freedom, the report noted. The recent leadership transition in North Korea has done nothing to improve the situation, it added.

Vietnam was also singled out by USCIRF as a serious violator of religious freedom. “The government of Vietnam continues to expand control over all religious activities, to severely restrict independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority.”

USCIRF commented that while in large urban areas the government does permit religious activity, in other areas of the country and particularly with ethnic minorities there are serious abuses, arrests, and forced renunciations of faith.

Turning to the situation of Catholics the report commented that relationships between the government and the Catholic Church continue to be tense. As well, in the past year Catholics have been detained by authorities for participating in peaceful prayer vigils at properties previously owned by the Church.

In spite of this the number of religious adherents in Vietnam continues to grow, the report stated.

Thematic issues

In addition to detailed analyses on specific countries USCIRF’s report also had a section on thematic issues. One of the themes examined was constitutional changes. A number of countries – Egypt, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Turkey – have drafted, or are drafting, new constitutions.

The text of a constitution matters, the report affirmed, although it admitted that it will not necessarily guarantee respect for religious freedom in practice.

In 23 countries surveyed by USCIRF, all majority Muslim countries, it found that the constitutions make Islam the state religion. In another 33 nations the state proclaims a neutral status regarding religion.

Another thematic issue dealt with by the report was the increasing violations committed by non-state actors in failing or failed states.

“Non-state actors vary greatly and include individuals, mobs, vigilante groups, anti-government insurgents, militant organizations, and recognized terrorist groups,” the report explained.

In many cases local authorities lack the capacity to stop these groups, so the report urged the U.S. government to develop a strategy to deal with these situations.

Another issue the report looked at was the adoption of laws regarding blasphemy and defamation of religion. Such laws, USCIRF maintained, are contrary to international human rights standards and often lead to violations of freedom of speech and religion.

“Though often justified as needed to promote religious harmony, these laws in fact have the opposite effect, exacerbating religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence,” the report stated.

The imprisonment of conscientious objectors, the religious retreat from religious freedom in post-Communist countries, and religious freedom in international organizations were other themes dealt with in the report.

The report makes clear that there remain many serious violations of religious freedom and that it is very necessary that governments and international organizations do something on this issue.

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On the NET:

For the complete text of the report, go to:

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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