U.S. religious freedom panel places Iraq on 'watch list'

WASHINGTON (BP)--The continuing deterioration of religious freedom in Iraq has resulted in a bipartisan United States panel placing it on a "watch list" for careful monitoring as American-led forces seek to bring stability to the strife-torn country.

The announcement of Iraq's addition to the list came as part of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2007 report, which was released May 2. In its annual report, the USCIRF recommended the same 11 countries it cited last year for designation as the world's most severe persecutors of religious adherents.

The commission called for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to retain Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as "countries of particular concern" (CPCs), a category reserved for governments that have "engaged in or tolerated systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom." The panel also urged Rice to return Vietnam to the CPC list and repeated its call from last year for Pakistan and Turkmenistan to be designated as CPCs.

In November, Rice removed Vietnam from the CPC list and declined to add Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

The USCIRF made Iraq the only addition to the "watch list," which still includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

The commission, which is independent of the federal government, recommends governments for CPC designation each year, but the secretary of state actually designates which countries are on the list. Communist and Islamic regimes make up a significant portion of the CPC list.

The USCIRF not only made recommendations in a letter to Rice, but it released a document of more than 280 pages that included reports on 25 countries.

The commission expressed concern about religious liberty in Iraq in its 2006 report but did not add the Middle East country to the "watch list" at that time, though it did place Afghanistan, another country recently liberated by American-led forces, on it.

The nine-member panel added Iraq to the "watch list" with the warning it might recommend it as a CPC next year if improvements are not made. Three commissioners -– Preeta Bansal, Felice Gaer and Elizabeth Prodromou –- disagreed with the majority and thought Iraq should be recommended for the CPC list this year.

The inclusion of Iraq on the "watch list" came because of the "alarming and deteriorating situation for freedom of religion and belief," the commission said. The country has been plagued by continuing violence between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, as well as attacks on non-Muslims.

The Shi'a-dominated government has been guilty of sins of commission and omission in the crisis, the USCIRF reported.

"Although the Sunni-dominated insurgency and other non-state actors are responsible for a substantial proportion of the sectarian violence and associated human rights violations, the Iraqi government also bears responsibility by engaging in human rights violations through its state security forces and in tolerating and in some cases even facilitating religiously based attacks and other religious freedom abuses carried out by armed Shi'a militias that have ties to the government itself," said Gaer, the USCIRF chair, at a May 2 news conference.

There are "grave conditions for non-Muslims and other minorities in Iraq who continue to suffer pervasive and severe violence and discrimination at the hands of both the state and non-state actors," Gaer said.

Commissioners who disagreed with recommending Iraq as a CPC reminded reporters of the conditions before the 2003 invasion by the U.S.-led coalition and said the commission need not wait a year before acting again.

"Religious freedom and every other freedom was a disaster under [since toppled and executed] Saddam Hussein," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and an USCIRF commissioner. "I think it's fair to say that there's unanimity in concern [among commissioners]; there is a consensus that is flexible on what to do about it this year and what to do about it next year.

"I think there's a difference of opinion about how much we can know about how much the government is capable of doing and how much these are non-state actors or state actors and to what extent the government has the capacity to control the non-state actors," Land said. "We are in the middle of a war, and war is chaos."

Nina Shea, also a commissioner, told reporters, "We're not going to be sitting on our hands for the next year on Iraq or any of these countries. We continue to take action" and possibly make recommendations, she said. The commission will be meeting with Rice in May about Iraq, Shea said.

Minority religious groups –- such as the Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, Baha'is and Jews –- are dwindling to "statistical insignificance" in Iraq, Shea said. "It's a very, very dire situation."

The Mandaean Society of America reported to the USCIRF that about 85 percent of Mandaeans have left Iraq since 2003.

The commission included a lengthy report on Turkey, where three Christian workers recently died in a ghastly case of torture and murder at the hands of some Muslims. Additionally, in January, Hrant Dink, a journalist of Armenian ethnicity, was assassinated. Also, two Roman Catholic priests were slain last year.

Some commissioners visited Turkey in November on a fact-finding trip. They found a government ostensibly committed to secularism but one that practices regulation of religious expression in public and withholds complete recognition to minorities such as Christians and Jews. Turkey's population is more than 98 percent Muslim.

"The commission has noted that secularism as practiced in Turkey is not the same as the separation of church and state that we have here in the U.S.," Gaer said at the news conference. The USCIRF "found that religious freedom problems remain, and we recommend that the United States government urge the government of Turkey to continue its legal reforms so that they will ensure full exercise of all human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief by all individuals and all religious communities in Turkey."

The USCIRF expressed its disagreement with Rice's November decision to remove Vietnam from CPC designation.

"Despite some positive developments, the commission thinks the State Department's decision was not fully supported by the facts on the ground and prematurely ended a diplomatic mechanism that had produced positive results," Land told reporters.

Since CPC designation was dropped and Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization, Land said, "positive religious trends have, for the most part, stalled, and Vietnam has initiated a severe crackdown on human rights and advocates for the freedoms of speech, association and assembly, including many religious leaders."

Burma, China, Iran and Sudan have been CPCs since the initial list in 1999.

The International Religious Freedom Act, the 1998 law that established the commission, requires the administration to act to bring change in CPCs. Under the IRFA, the State Department has 90 days after designation to decide the policies it will utilize with the CPC designees. The IRFA requires the president to take specific actions against governments designated as CPCs. He is provided a range of options, from diplomacy to economic sanctions. The president also has the authority to waive any action.

The IRFA established the commission to advise the White House and Congress. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department's ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.

The USCIRF's new report may be accessed online at www.uscirf.gov.


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