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Tracking Religious Freedom

Rights: State Department report on persecution and repression of believers globally says U.S. monitoring is a promising tactic. Others see talk but little action.


When Congress passed landmark legislation in 1998 to support international religious freedom, faith groups universally hailed it as a potentially powerful tool in helping arrest the rising level of persecution against religious believers worldwide.

Now, after two years, some of them are starting to wonder: Has any of it mattered?

This week, the State Department issued its second country-by-country report analyzing the state of religious freedom around the world. The bleak assessment found that Myanmar, China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan remained "countries of particular concern," triggering a legal requirement for the U.S. government to make an official policy response within 90 days.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the government of Serbia once again were designated as "particularly severe violators of religious freedom."

The assessment also noted problems in several other countries. They include France, Germany and Austria, which have stigmatized as "cults" such faith groups as Jehovah's Witnesses; Armenia, Israel, Turkey and Russia for discriminatory policies favoring some religions over others; and Egypt, India, Nigeria and Indonesia for failing to curb the persecution of followers of minority religions.

The report criticized such countries as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for official hostility toward minority religions, and Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam for totalitarian attempts to control religion.

At the same time, Laos and Azerbaijan were lauded for "significant" improvements in religious freedom. In Laos, several Christians imprisoned because of their faith were released. In Azerbaijan, the government has overturned deportation orders against clergy, reinstated fired factory workers who were followers of a minority religion and allowed many religious groups to register for the first time.

"On balance, the new U.S. strategy for promoting religious freedom has had a promising beginning," the report says.

The report drew condemnation from some governments, including those of China and Vietnam. One Vietnamese official, for instance, called the charges "untrue and unobjective" and said they represented attempts to meddle in the nation's internal affairs.

For their part, advocates of religious freedom hailed the report for its breadth and depth. But some questioned whether the process would become an empty exercise unless there is a tougher government response to those found guilty of persecution. So far, they say, their initial hopes that religious freedom would become "front and center" in U.S. foreign policy have not come close to fulfillment.

"There have been a lot of nice words, but little action has followed," said Lawrence Goodrich, spokesman for the Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The bipartisan commission was created under the 1998 legislation, which set up fact-finding agencies in Congress, the White House and the State Department to monitor and report on religious freedom around the world. The law requires both the commission and the State Department to issue annual reports on international religious freedom and obligates the president to choose a response to an offending country from a list of 15 options ranging from a private diplomatic rebuke to full economic sanctions.

In a hearing on the report this week, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) raised concerns that the report "may not have any practical effect on U.S. policy."

Goodrich and others cited China and Sudan as prime examples of countries that do not seem to have been influenced by U.S. criticism.

The State Department found that China had intensified its repression against Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uyghurs, members of the Falun Gong sect and Protestants and Catholics not belonging to the official churches; members were reportedly subject to harassment, prolonged detention, beatings and torture.

Yet, Goodrich said, the Clinton administration ignored his commission's recommendations to require an improvement in religious freedom before lobbying Congress to grant normal trade status to China on a permanent basis. The House of Representatives easily passed a measure extending that status to China earlier this year; a Senate vote is expected soon.

The State Department said it had responded to China's crackdown on religious freedom by restricting exports of crime control and detection equipment--a response that human rights advocate Nina Shea called "a joke."

Shea, a commission member and advocate for Washington-based Freedom House, said the response on Sudan was also disappointing. While the Sudanese regime continues what she called a policy of "religious genocide" against Christians, animists and some Muslims, the administration has failed to stop foreign oil interests from raising money in U.S. capital markets. That money has helped finance the war, Shea said. Nor has the Clinton administration moved to ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies to war victims, she said.

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