By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, SEPT. 23, 2007 (Zenit.org).- There has been progress toward reducing religious persecution and discrimination in the world, according to the latest annual report from the U.S. State Department.
The “2007 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom” was published Sept. 14. The 800-page report covers the 12-month period up to June 30, 2007.
During the press conference held to present the report, John V. Hanford III, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said that regarding the freedoms discussed in the report, much work still remains to be done “as far too many citizens of the world do not enjoy religious freedom.”
Hanford also defended the report against some criticisms made: “It’s important to note that our commitment to religious freedom is not an attempt to export simply an American approach to this issue.”
The ambassador pointed out that religious freedom is recognized as a basic human right by many international treaties, an obligation that many governments choose to ignore. “According to some estimates, half of the world’s people live under persecution or serious restriction of their religious freedom,” said Hanford.
During the press conference the question of Iraq was raised. The report itself admits that the turbulence and violence in Iraq impedes the government’s ability to protect religious freedom.
While the government itself is not generally involved in religious persecution the report does admit that some state institutions continue long-standing discriminatory practices against the Baha’i and Wahhabi Sunni Muslims.
The State Department observed that the number of Christians in Iraq has suffered a sharp decline. The official census carried out in 1987 put at 1.4 million the number of Christians. By contrast, current estimates calculate the number of Christians at fewer than 1 million. In the 12-month period covered by the report at least 9 priests, along with other Christians, were kidnapped by Islamic extremists.
Terrorist attacks have made many mosques, churches, and other holy sites unusable, the report added, with many worshippers unable to attend religious services because of the threat of violence.
Saudi Arabia is another country with serious problems, according to the report. There is no legal recognition of religious freedom and the government continues to enforce a conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam.
“Scores of foreign workers and their family members were arrested for practicing their faith and deported,” the report stated.
There were, however, some small signs of improvement, according to the State Department. The Saudi government took some steps to review educational materials that attack other religions and measures were taken to control both extremist imams and the activities of the religious police, the mutawwa’in.
Nevertheless, the government continued to commit abuses of religious freedom, the report stated, with a number of people being detained for nonpublic, non-Muslim worship. There were also numerous reports of abuses by the mutawwa’in, against both Saudi citizens and foreigners.
Restrictions on conversion
Turning to Asia, the report commented that some state and local governments in India limit freedom of religion. So-called anti-conversion laws exist in some states. These laws place barriers on activity by minority religions that seek converts, and favor Hinduism. Four of India’s 28 states have such laws in force, and another two have enacted legislation that has not yet come into force due to the lack of regulations needed to implement the law.
What the report termed as “ineffective investigation and prosecution of attacks on religious minorities” has induced religious extremists to continue with violent actions.
The issue of conversion of Hindus or members of lower castes to Christianity remained highly sensitive, the report added. It also cited information from faith-based organizations, according to which there were at least 128 attacks against Christians in 2006.
The situation is worse in neighboring Pakistan, where Islam is the state religion. The government took some steps to improve the situation of religious minorities in the past year, the report noted, but it added that serious problems still remain.
Problems range from abuse by police committed against religious minorities, to discriminatory legislation and the failure by authorities to take action against extremists who intimidate members of minority religions.
During the period covered by the report authorities arrested at least 10 Christians on blasphemy charges. In fact, the report commented that freedom of speech is subject to “reasonable” restrictions in the interests of the “glory of Islam,” according to the country’s laws.
In addition, reports continue of forced conversions of religious minorities to Islam. With apostasy from Islam classified as a capital offense, the victim who is forced to convert is effectively trapped.
One country where problems are on the rise is Venezuela. According to the report there were efforts by the government, motivated by political reasons, to limit the influence of the Catholic Church and missionary groups in some social and political areas.
One instance cited occurred in January this year, when authorities announced they would withdraw the broadcast license of NCTV, a regional Catholic Church-affiliated network. An agreement was eventually reached that allowed the network to partially continue its activities.
President Hugo Chavez, the report also noted, engaged in numerous rhetorical personal attacks against some Catholic bishops. He also warned the bishops to refrain from commenting on political issues.
Cuba, often taken by Chavez as a model, continues to lack religious freedom. According to the report, some religious figures who criticized the government’s totalitarian system in sermons were subjected to intense harassment. Security forces continued to carry out surveillance on people who worship in officially sanctioned churches, and in general the government “continued its efforts to maintain a strong degree of control over religion.”
The government continued to criticize the Catholic Church for refusing to register church and lay group publications with authorities. The Cuban conference of bishops, the report commented, has stated that the Church declines to register because registration would force it to cede control to the state regarding the content and format of church publications. In return, the state impedes access to printing by making equipment costly or placing restrictions on the sale of publications.
Catholic priests and other clergy were able to deliver sermons without advance screening by government censors, the report commented. Some of the sermons did make pointed criticisms, resulting in “intense harassment” by authorities against the clergy who dared to oppose the government.
Problems for minorities
In Russia, where the issue of human rights has come to the fore in recent times, conditions have improved for some religious minorities, according to the report. Nevertheless, obstacles continue due to the registration laws and a combination of xenophobia, racism and religious bigotry leads to discrimination against some groups.
This leads, for example, to difficulties in acquiring land or obtaining permits to build houses of worship. This particularly affects Protestant churches and non-Christian religions. The government also used counter-terrorism to commit serious violations of religious freedom against the Muslim population, the report added.
On a positive note the report said that racially motivated violent attacks against Jews decreased in the past year. Even so, anti-Semitism remained a serious problem, with reports of several anti-Semitic attacks on persons and synagogues.
While some improvements have occurred the report makes clear that religious freedom is still severely lacking in many countries.