Elusive Religious Freedom

Commission Reports on Countries of Particular Concern

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By Father John Flynn

ROME, MAY 7, 2007 (Zenit.org).- On May 2 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), published its annual report together with its recommendations on which nations should be nominated "countries of particular concern" (CPC).

The commission was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Its annual report differs from the State Department's extensive country-by-country analysis on religious freedom in that it only examines a limited number of countries.

The CPC list covers those countries where authorities engage in systematic violations of religious freedom. The commission's recommendations for 2007 are: Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The actual designation of a country as a CPC depends on a decision by the State Department. In November 2006, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, Sudan, Iran, Eritrea and Burma were re-designated as CPCs by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

There is also a watch list, consisting in countries where violations are serious, even if less grave than those in the CPC group. This year Iraq was added to this list, joining those from the previous year's report: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

In the letter accompanying the commission list of recommendations sent to Secretary of State Rice, the commission lamented the removal of Vietnam from the CPC list last year. There were positive developments in the area of religious freedom, but the letter continued, in recent times Vietnam has renewed its persecution. Therefore, this year's report requests the reinstatement of Vietnam in the CPC list.

Mideast Minorities

The letter also explained why Iraq was being added to the Watch List. Even though extremist groups are behind many of the attacks, the Iraqi government has also been responsible for human rights violations. As well, the commission continued, the authorities tolerate religiously based attacks by some factions.

The report itself goes into more detail on Iraq, including concern over the "grave conditions" affecting Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. In some areas, the report notes, "Christians have reportedly ceased their participation in public religious services for fear of inviting further violence." The commission estimates that between 2004-2006 some 27 Chaldo-Assyrian churches were attacked or bombed in Baghdad and the Kurdish areas.

The widespread violence, together with "pervasive discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the national government, regional governments, and para-state militias," is causing many of them to flee the country. In fact, some reports, the commission states, estimate that nearly 50% of Iraq's indigenous Christian population is now living outside the country.

Neighboring Iran, also on the commission's CPC list, came in for strong criticism in the report. Iran's government was accused of "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused."

Over the past year, the commission continued, this poor record has further deteriorated. One case mentioned in the report was the arrest in February last year of more than 170 members of the Sufi community in the city of Qom. The Sufi's, a Muslim minority, were detained following a protest by over a thousand people after authorities destroyed a Sufi house of worship.

Those arrested were reportedly tortured and forced to sign confessions. Subsequently, in May, a court sentenced more than 50 Sufis to jail. The defendants, along with their lawyers, were sentenced to a year in prison, fines and 74 lashes.

Christians also face severe problems in Iran. In May 2006, a Muslim convert to Christianity, Ali Kaboli, was taken into custody in Gorgan after several years of police surveillance and threatened with prosecution if he did not leave the country, according to the USCIRF report.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly has called for an end to the development of Christianity in Iran, according to the commission.

Another country on the commission's CPC list is Saudi Arabia. "The government of Saudi Arabia engages in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief," the report states.

Among the abuses committed by authorities are: torture and cruel and degrading treatment or punishment; prolonged detention without charges; and blatant denials of the right to liberty and security of the person.

Non-Muslims and Muslims from minority schools of Islam make up around 10-15% of the country's population. Nevertheless, the government vigorously maintains a ban on all forms of public expression outside the approved Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, explains the report.

The government even prohibits clergy entering the country for the purpose of performing private religious services for foreigners legally residing in Saudi Arabia.

Non-Muslims in Sudan

Another country singled out by the USCIRF report for its severe violations of religious freedom is Sudan. More than 2 million people were killed and 4 million driven from their homes in the North-South civil war from 1983 to January 2005.

Despite the signing of a peace agreement, severe human rights violations continue to be committed by the Sudanese government, states the report.

In government-controlled areas in the north of Sudan, Muslims are reported to receive preferential access to limited government services. They are also favored in court cases involving Muslim against non-Muslim. Moreover, the Islamic Shariah law is applied to the entire population, including Christians and followers of traditional African religions.

Public religious expression by non-Muslims is forbidden. One case cited by the commission took place in May 2006, when 4 Sudanese Christians, including an Episcopal priest, were detained following contact with a Muslim woman who may have been interested in converting to Christianity. Although they were released after a few days, three of them were reportedly beaten while in custody. Any converts to Christianity from Islam face such pressure that they have to flee the country.

Conditions in the western region of Sudan are also worrying. In the region of Darfur, government forces and militia forces have used brutal violence against civilians. So far efforts by the United Nations and the African Union to protect the population have been inadequate, judged the commission.

Restrictions in China

China is another country where the commission continues to report systematic violations of religious freedom. Legal reforms issued by the government in March 2005 "have not halted abuses and are used in some cases to justify arrests and other restrictions," the report stated.

The commission noted that relations between unregistered Catholic congregations and the officially recognized Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPA) are strained due to government repression and the growing number of CPA bishops and priests secretly seeking ordination and approval of the Vatican. The ordinations last year of 3 bishops without Vatican consultation added to tensions.

According to the report there are at least 40 Catholic bishops or priests under arrest, imprisoned or detained, including the elderly Bishop Su Zhimin, who has been in prison, in detention, under house arrest or under strict surveillance since the 1970s.

Unregistered Protestant groups in China also face severe problems. In the last year, at least 110 Protestant leaders were detained for a period of 10 days or more, with at least 17 of these receiving prison sentences of one or more years, according to the report.

As well, estimates by the State Department put at "thousands" the number of house church members who were detained for short periods in the last year. Religious freedom, the report clearly shows, is still out of reach for a large part of the world's population.