Religious Freedom Around the World

U.S. State Department’s Annual Report Released

WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 31, 2004 ( Just before Christmas the U.S. State Department published a report on religious freedom for the year ending last June 30. Some countries such as China reject the annual survey as an unjustified intrusion into domestic affairs. Yet, religious freedom is a right guaranteed by numerous international documents including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.S. report noted.

The report groups a number of nations where religious freedom is lacking because of the threat religion may represent to the regime. Those nations are:

— Burma. Government agents regularly infiltrate or monitor the activities of virtually all organizations, including religious groups, notes the U.S. State Department. Abuses included restrictions on Buddhist clergy who promote human rights and on Christian groups that seek permission to build new churches. All religious publications are censored.

— China. The report accuses authorities of continuing to harass members of unregistered religious groups. Some local authorities continued a selective crackdown on unregistered churches, temples and mosques. “Many religious leaders and adherents were detained, arrested or sentenced to prison terms,” comments the U.S. report.

— Cuba. The government continues “to engage in efforts to control and monitor religious institutions and activities, and to use surveillance, infiltration and harassment against religious groups, religious professionals and lay persons,” says the report. Authorities also ignore some applications by religious groups for legal recognition and continue to deny permits for the construction of churches. Severe restrictions hinder the operation of church-run schools and the printing of religious material.

— Laos. The report cites a moderate improvement in some parts of the country, but deterioration in other regions. In general, the government “continued to inhibit religious practice by all persons, especially those belonging to minority religions.” Some local officials pressure Christians to renounce their faith, while the government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing.

— North Korea. “Genuine religious freedom does not exist,” is the report’s blunt judgment. Repressive measures include executions, torture and imprisonment. Evidence about North Korea is hard to collect, but the report noted that in April 1999 and also in May and June 2002, witnesses testified before Congress that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs generally were treated worse than other inmates.

— Vietnam. Significant restrictions still exist on religious groups not recognized by the government. “Religious groups faced difficulties in training and ordaining clergy and encountered some restrictions in conducting educational and charitable activities.” The report also says that in some Central Highland provinces, police have harassed and detained religious believers and destroyed houses of worship.

“Security threats”

The U.S. State Department places in a separate category those countries where governments are hostile to religious groups seen as a threat to “security.” They are:

— Iran. The report notes that members of the country’s religious minorities — Bahais, Jews, Christians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims — suffer degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, including intimidation, harassment and imprisonment. Followers of the Bahai faith, derided as a kind of “wayward Islamic sect,” suffer the most.

— Iraq. Before his ouster, Saddam Hussein used repressive measures “against any religious groups or organizations deemed as not providing full political and social support to the regime.” And authorities continued to strictly repress the Shiite religious leadership.

— Pakistan. The report accuses the government of failing to protect the rights of religious minorities. Discriminatory laws reigned at the national level. And authorities “failed to intervene in cases of societal violence directed at minority religious groups,” particularly Shiites.

— Saudi Arabia. “The government continued to enforce a strictly conservative version of Sunni Islam and suppress the public practice of other interpretations of Islam and non-Muslim religions,” states the U.S. report. Non-Muslim worshippers faced the threat of “arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes physical abuse for engaging in religious activity that attracted official attention.” The report also draws attention to government-paid mosque preachers who use “violently anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in their sermons.” On a positive note the report notes that authorities have replaced more than 2,000 imams for extremist preaching.

— Sudan. The report says the Khartoum government continued its policy of Islamization, “relegating non-Muslims to de facto second-class citizenship.” Non-Muslim religious groups have difficulty obtaining registration. Authorities refuse to permit the construction of any churches in the Khartoum area or in the district capitals. And the assets of various Catholic relief projects were confiscated when the projects closed temporarily or moved locations.

— Turkmenistan. The report accuses the government of continuing to restrict all forms of religious expression. Public agencies and courts interpret laws in such a way as to discriminate against those practicing any faith other than Sunni Islam or Russian Orthodox Christianity, “which are controlled by the government.” Other groups are prevented from gathering publicly, proselytizing, or distributing religious materials. Authorities also restrict the number of Muslim mosques and control access to Islamic education. Moreover, the government imposes the use of President Saparmurat Niyazov’s spiritual guide, “Rukhnama,” in educational institutions, mosques and Russian Orthodox churches.

— Uzbekistan. Mainstream religious groups are allowed to operate, but the government restricts the freedom of minority religions. The report notes harsh action taken against Muslims seen as extremists, as well as continued harassment of Christian groups with ethnic-Uzbek members. Other restrictions include an overly strict registration process for religious organizations that force many groups to operate illegally.

Partiality condoned

Some governments, notes the report, have laws that favor certain religions and place others at a disadvantage. This is often the result of the historical predominance of one religion. In Belarus, respect for religious freedom worsened during the period covered by the report, states the document. Eritrea also comes in for mention due to its harassment of Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and adherents of the Bahai faith. And in Russia, some federal agencies and many local authorities continued to restrict the rights of religious minorities.

Israel came in for criticism for discrimination against non-Jews in education, housing, employment and social services. Evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Reform and Conservative Jews complained of incidents of harassment, threats and vandalism directed against their buildings and other facilities.

Another category of countries cited are those whose authorities fail to act with sufficient vigor against violations of religious freedom. Singled out for mention here are Bangladesh, India, Egypt, Georgia, Guatemala, Indonesia and Nigeria.

As in previous years the report criticizes some Western European nations — Belgium, France and Germany — for laws that are held to “stigmatize minority religions by associating them with dangerous ‘cults.'” The U.S. State Department observes that these laws have also been criticized by other bodies, such as the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Council of Europe.

The report observes: “Promoting religious freedom is a core goal of U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. officials around the world play active roles in this advocacy.” Some may reject the idea that one nation should take upon itself this role. But persecuted believers around the world are probably grateful for all the help they can get.

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