Egypt called a top religious liberty violator
In issuing its annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended for the first time in its nearly 13-year history the designation of Egypt as one of the "countries of particular concern" (CPCs). The State Department has designated eight countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
Incidents of "severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the [Egyptian] government have increased dramatically since the release of last year's report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities," USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement released with the 2011 report.
The February resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in response to a popular uprising by Egyptians has not brought an improvement, Leo said.
"In his waning months, religious freedom conditions were rapidly deteriorating," he said at a Washington, D.C., news conference accompanying the report's release. "And since his departure, we've seen nothing to indicate that these conditions have improved."
USCIRF -- a nine-member panel that advises the White House, State Department and Congress on the condition of religious freedom overseas -- recommended the State Department maintain CPC status for the eight countries already bearing that designation. In addition to Egypt, the panel recommended -- as it had the two previous years -- the addition of Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the CPC list.
The State Department, however, has not designated CPCs since President Obama took office in January 2009. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued the most recent CPC list only days before Obama's inauguration.
USCIRF also placed 11 countries on its "watch list:" Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela. All were on the "watch list" last year. "Watch list" countries are those that do not reach the level of CPCs but "require close monitoring due to the nature and extent" of abuses of religious freedom, according to the commission.
In its report, the commission urged the Obama administration to announce its CPC designations soon. It also called for the president to use the authority provided by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in an effort to bring about progress for religious liberty in CPCs. Eritrea is the only regime on the CPC list that has been sanctioned by the U.S. government precisely for religious liberty violations.
Egypt's failure to protect its own citizens against threats and violence by other citizens -- what Leo referred to as "impunity" -- is one of the reasons USCIRF recommended CPC status for the North African country. In addition to Coptic Christians, Muslims who are in disfavor also have been the victims of increasing attacks, Leo said.
In its report, USCIRF urged the U.S. government to use some of the funds it provides Egypt's military to strengthen the protection of religious minorities and their meeting sites.
"Impunity" is a problem that is more widespread than Egypt, Leo said.
"It is impunity that has especially concerned the commission lately because it receives the least attention at precisely the time that it is growing tremendously," Leo told reporters.
In addition to "impunity," USCIRF reported on two other kinds of religious freedom violations: (1) "State hostility," which is government persecution of religious adherents, and (2) "state sponsorship," which is promoting, and sometimes exporting, extremist views against some believers.
The commission continued to express concern about the possibility Christianity will virtually disappear from Iraq, as well as other countries. Since the Iraq war began in 2003, much of that country's Christian population of about 1.4 million has fled. It is estimated Christians in Iraq number only 400,000 to 500,000.
Iraq's case points to "a broader phenomenon," USCIRF Vice Chair Elizabeth Prodromou said at the news conference. She called the phenomenon the "potential erasure of Christianity from its historic place of origin." This threat exists in such countries as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, she said.
"And unfortunately, the Christian community is emblematic of a broader condition whereby minorities in general find themselves under various forms of assault and siege," Prodromou said.
USCIRF encouraged the Obama administration to make certain Suzan Johnson Cook, who was confirmed April 14 by the Senate as ambassador at large for international religious freedom, has direct access to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and maintains direct supervision of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom. The Obama administration went more than two years without a person in the ambassadorial position.
The commission cited two important victories for religious freedom in the last year: (1) The approval in January of a referendum to give southern Sudan independence from a Khartoum regime that had backed an effort by extremists to impose Islam on Christians and others in the south, and (2) the United Nations Human Rights Council's decision in March to disregard the "defamation of religions" concept, instead adopting a resolution that protects individuals from discrimination or violence based on their beliefs. The result was a rejection of what critics referred to as an "international blasphemy law" that would have primarily protected Islam and violated religious freedom.
USCIRF had joined Clinton and members of Congress in working for the defeat of the "defamation of religions" concept.
The commission is unique and its task vital, members of the panel said.
"There is no other ... government institution like it in any other country that looks only at issues of international freedom of religion or belief," Leo said at the news conference. Some countries -- such as Germany and the Philippines -- are considering the establishment of such panels, he said.
Commissioner Richard Land told Baptist Press after the news conference USCIRF "performs a very, very important function in keeping the glare of world publicity on the issue of religious freedom, because unfortunately religious freedom is in decline around the world."
"Now that's both bad news and good news," he said. "It's bad news that it's on the decline, but one reason it's on the decline is there's so many people of faith, particularly Christian faith, in the world in places where there weren't very many Christians 50 years ago -- for instance, in China and in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Indian sub-continent. And so as you have more and more people of faith arising, they become more of a threat to the established order of things, and this is causing a blowback. If our government doesn't pay attention to this and ask other governments of the world to do so, unfortunately, no one else is going to do so."
Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The president and congressional leaders select the commission's members.
USCIRF's 381-page report, as well as a transcript and video of the news conference, may be accessed online at www.uscirf.gov.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.