The State of Religious Freedom

U.S. Publishes Annual Survey

WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 23, 2006 ( Largely overlooked amid the controversy surrounding the Pope’s recent remarks about Islam was the United States’ “2006 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.” The report covers the situation in 197 countries and territories in the year ending June 30. The U.S. State Department submits the annual report to Congress as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

“In today’s world, our goal of fostering religious freedom and tolerance beyond our borders is an essential component even of national security,” explained Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she presented the report Sept. 15.

In the report’s introduction John Hanford III, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, expanded on the rationale behind the document: “This report is a natural outgrowth of our country’s history.”

“Our own record as a nation on this and other freedoms is not perfect,” Hanford admitted. Nevertheless, he insisted that religious liberty is a precious concept in American history and that the report aims at making the right to this freedom a reality for all humankind.

A number of governments, however, actively work against the right to religious freedom, the introduction said. And in some countries extremists seek to exploit religion “in the service of an ideology of intolerance and hate,” attacking those who seek to worship differently.

The report met opposition by some of the countries singled out for criticism. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said the report was “groundless” interference in his country’s internal affairs, Reuters reported Monday.

Saudi situation

The report also produced a conflict with an agency within the American government, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). In a press release issued the same day as the report, the chair of USCIRF, Felice Gaer, declared: “The commission is simply shocked that the department removed long-standing and widely quoted language from its report that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia.”

“The commission continues to conclude that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia,” stated the press release. The USCIRF objected that the improvements in religious freedom mentioned recently by the U.S. government have still to be implemented.

Nevertheless, the State Department report had strong words of criticism for Saudi Arabia. “The government does not provide legal recognition or protection for freedom of religion, and it is severely restricted in practice,” it noted.

There is not even a legal right to religious practice in private. The report did state, however, that the Saudi government has made some appeals for religious tolerance. There was some evidence, as well, of a decrease in arrests and deportations of non-Muslims on religious grounds.

Even so, the report observed that in general the Saudi government enforces a strictly conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam. And Muslims who do not adhere to it can face significant societal discrimination and serious repercussions at the hands of the religious police.

Categories of abuse

Overall, the report identified diverse types of abuses regarding religious liberty:

— That type carried out by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, which seeks to control religious thought and expression. In these countries some or all religious groups as seen as enemies of the state because of their religious beliefs or their independence from central authority.

— State hostility toward minority or non-approved religions. Governments guilty of this type implement policies such as: demanding that adherents recant their faith; forcing adherents of religious groups to flee the country; and intimidating certain religious groups.

— Failure by a state to address discrimination or abuse against religious groups. “Protecting religious freedom is not just a matter of having good laws in writing,” the U.S. report noted; rather, it also requires active work by governments at all levels. Governments should also foster an environment of respect and tolerance for all people, the report urged.

— Discriminatory legislation or policies that favor majority religions and disadvantage minority religions. This often results from historical dominance by the majority religion and a bias against new or minority religions, added the report.

— Discriminating against certain religions by identifying them as dangerous cults or sects. This is a common type of abuse, even in countries where religious freedom is otherwise respected, the report observed.

The U.S. report highlighted countries with particular problems of religious freedom. One group is designated by the label, “Countries of Particular Concern.” The latest list of these countries, announced last November, comprises Burma, China, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

The report noted serious restrictions by the government in Burma (or Myanmar). Authorities continue to infiltrate and monitor activities of virtually all organizations. Efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom are also restricted. The government also promotes Theravada Buddhism, and adherence to Buddhism is generally a prerequisite for promotion to senior government and military ranks.

China also came in for strong criticism. The government’s respect for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience remained poor, according to the U.S. State Department, with little evidence that regulations introduced in 2005 have improved the situation. The situation is particularly difficult in Xinjiang and Tibet.

In addition, repression of unregistered Protestant church networks and “house” churches continued to be widely reported. Catholic “underground” bishops also faced repression, the report added, and there were clashes last April between Beijing and the Vatican over the ordination of bishops.

Negative campaigns

In Iran, “[t]here was a further deterioration of the extremely poor status of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period,” stated the U.S. report. The media intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities. And there were reports of imprisonment, intimidation and discrimination based on religious beliefs. Last Nov. 22, unidentified assailants killed a man who had converted to Christianity more than 10 years earlier. His death was reportedly followed by threats to other Christians.

In North Korea, “[t]here was no change in the extremely poor level of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period,” concluded the report. All religious activity is supervised tightly and reports by defectors from the country speak of arrests and execution of members of underground Christian churches by the regime in prior years.

The report made note of steps in India to improve religious freedom in some areas. Some extremists, however, have continued to carry out attacks on religious minorities, and their activities have not been hampered due to a lack of action by authorities at the state and local levels. The matter of religious conversion also remained a highly contentious issue and terrorists continued with violent attacks against religious targets.

Neighboring Pakistan also took action to improve the treatment of religious minorities. But the continued existence of discriminatory legislation and the government’s failure to take action against groups that promote intolerance and acts of violence meant that “serious problems remained.”

There were some improvements in Vietnam, but the U.S. report also noted that the government continued to restrict activities of religious groups deemed to be at variance with state laws and policies. Moreover, some positive legal reforms adopted in recent years still remain in the early stages of implementation. For many, religious freedom remains out of reach.

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