Religious freedom commission showing results after 5 years, members say

WASHINGTON (BP)--Religious liberty has gained a higher profile in the United States and other countries during the last five years even as global persecution persists, members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in presenting their fifth annual report May 12.

The USCIRF, a bipartisan panel of nine members, reported on its work during the last year and provided an analysis of the status of religious freedom in various countries. Members of the commission, which was established by a 1998 law as an independent body to advise the White House and Congress, can see results from their work, some said at a Washington news conference.

USCIRF commissioner Richard Land said he thinks “there’s no question that this issue is far higher on our government’s radar screen and the radar screen of other governments around the world because of the existence of this commission.”

For one thing, the International Religious Freedom Act’s requirement of the State Department to issue a yearly report on religious freedom has transformed some of the work of U.S. diplomats, said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“What’s been the result is there has been the development of a significant cadre of career diplomatic corps officers who have been sensitized and made aware of this issue and of the abuses that are taking place around the world in a way that was not prevalent prior to 1998,” Land said. “[T]hey are listening to us, and they are listening more as they become more sensitized to the problem as a result of preparing these reports and having to interact with the people who have been victimized in the various countries where they serve.”

The USCIRF is grateful for the response of the American government, even though it would like it to follow the panel’s recommendations thoroughly, said Michael Young, chairman of the commission.

“No, the U.S government is not listening to us as much as they should.... [B]ut we have appreciated the extent to which this issue has been in the forefront of some actions of the U.S. government both in this administration and the prior administration,” Young said.

Developments in Sudan as a result of pressure from the United States and the willingness of President Bush and other officials to raise the issue of religious freedom on visits to China are examples of such actions, Young said.

The global need to combat religious persecution is growing, Land said.

“My impression as a commissioner, and I’ve been serving three years now, is that the situation is getting worse, not better,” he said.

The USCIRF reiterated the countries where persecution of religious adherents remains severe. It repeated its February recommendation to Secretary of State Colin Powell that he re-designate Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan as “countries of particular concern,” a label reserved for the worst violators of religious liberty. The panel reinforced its recommendation of the addition of Eritrea, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the CPC list.

Powell has yet to name this year’s CPC designees.

The USCIRF did not recommend Iraq return to the CPC list after last year’s United States-led effort toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The commission remains concerned about developments regarding religious freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a radical Islamic government was deposed by another effort spearheaded by the United States, it said in its report.

The Afghan constitution adopted in January has a “crucial -– and potentially fatal -– flaw,” the panel said in its report. “Though the constitution provides for the freedom of non-Muslim groups to exercise their various faiths, it does not contain explicit protection for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion that would extend to every individual -– particularly to individual Muslims in Afghanistan, the overwhelmingly majority of the country’s population.”

This failure, compounded by a clause that says “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam” and a judicial system willing to enforce a strict view of the religion, is already causing problems, according to the report.

In Iraq, a hopeful sign for religious liberty occurred in March when freedom of conscience and religion was embraced in the release of the Transitional Administrative Law, the commission reported. The panel is concerned about language in the document that says laws cannot be opposed to the “universally agreed upon tenets of Islam.”

Communist and Muslim-controlled governments largely, though not totally, comprise the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom. Not all Islamic states are repressive, some commissioners said.

“Islam is a many-splintered thing,” Land said, quoting an unnamed source. “Some expressions of Islam clearly have a problem with practicing religious freedom for people who disagree with them, and others don’t. You do have some overwhelmingly majority Islamic countries that are committed to religious freedom and in some cases have it.”

There are a “number of countries with majority Islamic populations that have obviously made efforts” in the area of religious freedom, Young said, citing Morocco, Jordan, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Focusing on Islam alone would be a diversion from “something very central,” said Young, dean of George Washington University’s law school.

“The central point is it is not Islam about which this commission is or should be concerned. It is not Hinduism. It is not the Orthodox churches that we are concerned about,” Young said. “What we are concerned about is people within those traditions, or without those traditions, who may use those arguments that they derive, correctly or incorrectly, from a religious basis or any other ideology and use those as justification for intolerance and repression of others. It is not in any way unique to the Islamic world.”

The commission also repeated its “watch list” of countries that should be closely monitored, although their religious freedom violations do not reach the level for recommendation as CPCs. The “watch list” consists of Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Georgia, Indonesia, Laos, Nigeria and Uzbekistan.

In addition to Land and Young, other members of the commission are Felice Gaer, an official with the American Jewish Committee; Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom; Preeta Bansal, visiting fellow at Harvard University; Patti Chang, president of the Women’s Foundation of California; Charles Chaput, Roman Catholic archbishop of Denver; Khaled Abou El Fadl, visiting professor at Yale Law School; and Ricardo Ramirez, Roman Catholic bishop of Las Cruces, N.M.

The president selects three members of the USCIRF, while congressional leaders name the other six. Bush appointed Land, who is serving his third and final year.

The IRFA requires the president to take specific actions against governments designated as CPCs. Under the law, he is provided a range of options, from diplomacy to economic sanctions. The president also has the authority to waive any action.

The USCIRF’s 2004 report may be obtained online at www.uscirf.gov.


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