WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 25, 2004 (Zenit.org).- On Sept. 15 the U.S. State Department published its sixth annual Report on Religious Freedom, covering the 12-month period ending June 30. The document observes that almost all nations have signed one or more international agreements committing them to respect individual freedom of thought, conscience and belief.
“In practice, however, this freedom is often restricted, abused or denied, and many people continue to suffer solely for following the dictates of conscience,” the report contended.
One of the features of this year’s report was the addition of Saudi Arabia to a list of countries where religious persecution is particularly harsh. The International Religious Freedom Act that mandates the production of the annual report also requires the State Department to determine which countries have committed particularly severe violations of religious freedom. These are then designated as a Country of Particular Concern.
Five countries continue to be on the list: Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan. Three more were added: Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and Vietnam. John Hanford, ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, explained at a press conference that the government in Saudi Arabia “rigidly mandates religious conformity.”
Arrest and torture
Non-Muslims are not the only ones who suffer in Saudi Arabia. Those Muslims who do not belong to the Wahabi strand of Islam favored by the Saudi government “face discrimination and sometimes severe restrictions on the practice of their faith,” said Hanford.
The government prohibits all public non-Muslim religious activities. “Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment or deportation for engaging in religious activities that attract official attention,” he noted.
The report itself noted that “There were frequent instances in which mosque preachers, whose salaries were paid by the government, used violent anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in their sermons.” Moreover, non-Muslims “risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention.”
Regarding the other two countries added to the list of Particular Concern this year, Hanford explained that the government in Eritrea since 2002 has shut down all religious activity outside of four officially recognized groups. More than 200 Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses remain in prison for their faith, he said. “Some reportedly have been subjected to severe torture and pressured to renounce their faith and many others have been detained and interrogated,” added Hanford.
In Vietnam he explained that at least 45 religious believers remain imprisoned, including members of the Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao and Cao Dai faiths. Pressure, and even physical force, has been used against many ethnic minority Protestants in an attempt to make them renounce their faith, said Hanford. Moreover, hundreds of churches and places of worship in the central highlands have been shut down.
“Enemies of the state”
The report groups together a number of countries listed as “totalitarian and authoritarian regimes,” where authorities seek to control religious thought and expression. “Such regimes regard some or all religious groups as enemies of the state because of their religious content,” affirms the report. Among these countries are the following:
— Burma. The government is guilty of “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” according to the U.S. State Department. This includes infiltrating and monitoring meetings and activities of organizations, discouraging or prohibiting minority religions from constructing new places of worship, and coercive promotion of Buddhism.
— China. “The Government’s respect for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience remained poor,” according to the report. The situation varies from region to region, but members of unregistered Protestant and Catholic groups “were subjected to restrictions, including intimidation, harassment and detention.”
— Cuba. “Surveillance, infiltration and harassment against religious groups, clergy and lay persons” is regularly practiced by the island’s Interior Ministry. As well, authorities restrict the importation and distribution of religious literature and materials and monitor church publications. The government also almost never authorizes construction permits for churches. Nor are churches allowed to establish schools, universities, hospitals or clinics.
— Laos. Authorities continue to display intolerance for minority religions, particularly Protestant denominations, the report noted. Some Christians were forced to renounce their faith, while others were arrested. The law allows people to be held for lengthy periods without trial, according to the State Department. And someone arrested or convicted for religious offenses has little protection under the law, the report said.
— North Korea. “Genuine religious freedom does not exist, and particularly severe violations of religious freedom continued,” is the blunt assessment offered by the report. In addition to severe repression of unauthorized religious groups, “there are unconfirmed reports of the killing of members of underground Christian churches.” Some defectors from the country have also affirmed that Christians were imprisoned and tortured for reading the Bible and talking about God.
Discrimination and harassment
The report grouped together another set of countries where minority religions face hostility and repression.
— Iran. Members of minorities such as Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Jews and Christians have reported “imprisonment, harassment, intimidation and discrimination based on their religious beliefs.” The problems faced by minorities are particularly evident in the areas of employment, education and housing.
— Pakistan. The constitution requires that laws be consistent with Islam, and the “Government fails in many respects to protect the rights of religious minorities,” the report alleges. More than 100 deaths were attributed to sectarian violence during the period covered by the report. As well, there are reports that Hindus and Christians alike have been abducted and forcibly converted.
— Sudan. “There are many restrictions on non-Muslims, non-Arab Muslims, and Muslims from tribes or sects not associated with the ruling party,” the report states. The last building permit for a church issued by authorities to a non-Muslim groups was around 1975. And many non-Muslims state they are treated as second-class citizens when it comes to government jobs and contracts, notes the report.
— Turkmenistan. In spite of some improvements during the past year the State Department accused the Government of continuing to maintain a tight control over the practice of religion. Authorities determine the appointments of the leaders of both Russian Orthodox and Sunni Muslim groups. Moreover, the government must approve all religious instruction. Laws also restrict the freedom to meet and worship in private.
— Uzbekistan. The law governing religious activity “contravenes internationally recognized norms,” notes the report. There are severe restrictions on seeking converts, importing and disseminating religious literature, and offering private religious instruction.
The report continues with an even longer list of countries that practice religious repression to some degree. However, it also notes that in some nations there have been significant improvements in the past year.
In Afghanistan, the constitution ratified in January contains provisions that help to secure religious freedom. As well, in schools both the curriculum and textbooks have been changed, to eliminate extremist views.
In India, the previous government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party had started to take steps toward toleration of minorities. The new government, in power since late May, has pledged to respect both secular government and religious tolerance, and to pay particular attention to the rights of religious minorities.
In Georgia and Turkey and other countries, major improvements were reported, though minority believers in those lands still face problems. Too often, in many nations, full religious freedom remains only a hope.