Panel says religious violations are increasing worldwide

WASHINGTON (BP)--Seven additional countries deserve recognition as violators of religious freedom, a bipartisan federal panel said in its annual report May 1.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the State Department name Nigeria as one of its "countries of particular concern" (CPCs), a designation reserved for foreign governments that have participated in or tolerated "particularly severe" violations of religious liberty.

The commission also added six countries to its "watch list" – Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela. USCIRF names countries to its "watch list" that do not reach the level of CPCs but "require close monitoring due to the nature and extent" of abuses of religious freedom. Other governments already on the list were those of Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt and Indonesia.

Nigeria joins 12 other countries previously recommended by the commission for CPC designation: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Though USCIRF makes recommendations for the CPC list, only the State Department gives countries that designation. Outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named only eight countries as CPCs in January: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

The commission expressed its dissatisfaction with the implementation by both Democratic and Republican administrations of some provisions of the 1998 law that established USCIRF and the State Department office regarding international religious liberty. It cited the naming of only eight CPCs and the sanctioning of only Eritrea exclusively under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). In addition, two other CPCs received waivers from the Bush administration preventing penalties.

"The commission hopes that the new administration will take a new approach to presidential actions under IRFA, ending the practice of relying on pre-existing, already existing, sanctions that do not address the specific freedom abuses," USCIRF Chair Felice Gaer said at a Washington news conference.

IRFA requires the president to take specific actions regarding 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.

Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., a human rights leader in Congress, said the commission's report shows religious freedom "is under attack around the world, and the situation is getting worse."

"The U.S. cannot turn away from its leadership on these issues," he said in a written statement. "Human rights should be a top priority in U.S. foreign policy, but the early signs are that the new administration will downgrade it."

President Obama's State Department has been "abandoning religious freedom, or at best de-emphasizing it," Smith said.

The commission added Nigeria to its list of CPC recommendations after it "concluded the government was tolerating" religious violence, USCIRF member Leonard Leo said at the news conference. "There has been an unbroken chain of sectarian and communal violence the government has not addressed," he told reporters.

USCIRF commissioners and staff visited the African country on a fact-finding trip in March and April.

The Iraqi government, which USCIRF placed back on its CPC-recommended list in December, has tolerated "ongoing, severe abuses of religious freedom," especially against Christians and other religious minorities, commissioner Nina Shea said.

While overall violence has diminished in Iraq, incidents against religious minorities have continued, she said, noting that about half of the Christian community of 1.4 million people has fled Iraq or been killed in recent years.

Of Iran, commissioner Richard Land said, "[G]overnment rhetoric and actions worsened conditions for nearly all non-Shi'a [Muslim] religious groups, most notably for the Baha'is, as well as the Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians and members of the Jewish community."

In September, Iran's government initiated an attempt to invoke capital punishment for apostasy, said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. If it is approved, "members of many minority communities could be subject to death sentences," he said.

Pakistan, where Taliban-affiliated forces are making advances, has been recommended for CPC designation every year since 2002 without State Department agreement, commissioner Elizabeth Prodromou said.

The "threat to freedom of religion or belief in Pakistan has demonstrably increased," she told reporters. Pakistanis are still being murdered during worship, and females are "denied equal protection under the law," she said.

The commission reported success with one of its former "watch list" countries. It removed Bangladesh from the list because national elections during the last year were not marked by anti-minority violence, as had been true in the past. Also, the prime minister has promised to protect the rights of religious minorities and to rescind discriminatory policies, commissioner Michael Cromartie said at the news conference.

USCIRF withheld a report on India, which was plagued by anti-Christian violence in the state of Orissa last year. The commission plans to travel to India for the first time in June in order to gain information for its report, commissioner Talal Eid said.

The commission's responsibility is to advise the administration and Congress regarding the conditions for religious liberty overseas. 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 commission. An ambassador has yet to be named in the Obama administration.

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


Tom Strode is Baptist Press Washington bureau chief.

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