WASHINGTON—The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) added five countries—Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam—to its list of “countries of particular concern,” or CPC, for their continuous, systematic, and egregious violations of religious freedom.
Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan were carried over as designated CPCs from last year. The Department of State (DOS) has also designated these eight countries as CPCs since September 2004 or before.
USCIRF released its findings on Friday at the National Press Club. Their annual report gives particular emphasis on violations of religious freedom in each of the CPC, as well as in countries on a “Watch List.” These latter countries do not rise to the level of the CPC, but, nonetheless, need to be monitored closely and, in some cases, are targeted for diplomatic action.
USCIRF is recommending that the five nations named above be added to the CPC list used by the U.S. Department of State. How and when the State Department will respond to the USCIRF recommendations is anyone’s guess. The Commission expressed some frustration at the lack of any CPC designations by the State Department between November 2006 and January 2009.
When the State Department does designate a country as CPC, the secretary of State is required by law to enter into consultations with that government to find a way to bring about remedying the situation. Sanctions are an option, such as restrictions on normal trade relations that we impose on North Korea.
The Commission’s report describes heinous violations of religious freedom and belief in countries on their CPCs and Watch List: Jews in Venezuela; Baha’is in Iran and Egypt; Buddhist monks in Burma; Christians in Iraq, Sudan, and Nigeria; Ahmadis in Indonesia and Pakistan; Shi’a Muslims in Saudi Arabia; Muslims in Tajikistan; minority religious groups in Afghanistan, Laos, Turkey, Egypt, and Russia; and severe restrictions for all or nearly all religions and spiritual groups in communist countries (China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba).
USCIRF is a federal government commission—independent and bipartisan—that advises the administration and Congress on protecting and fostering the cause of religious freedom and belief worldwide. It was created by the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 to advise the president, secretary of State, and Congress.
Although the president appoints 3 of the 10 commissioners, access to the president is apparently difficult. In the open letter on the first page of the report to the president signed by the chair of USCIFR, it states “The Commission would welcome the opportunity to discuss the Annual Report with you.”
The Commission does not just produce a report and passively stand back; it actively promotes and agitates for its policy recommendations, holding special hearings, press conferences, and articulating its displeasure with policies of the U.S. government that affect religious liberty, such as when Secretary Clinton recently stated that human rights would not be a high priority in her talks with China’s leaders.
Pakistan: Religious Extremism Threaten Religious Freedom and Security
Felice Gaer, chair of USCIRF, connected the events unfolding in Pakistan with the theme of the 2009 report:
“In the areas [the Taliban-associated extremists] already control, these groups are imposing draconian restrictions on human rights and religious freedom and engaging in brutal acts against individuals, particularly women and local police, who refuse to accede to their repressive policies.”
The Pakistani authorities ceded control in the SWA valley to “armed insurgents espousing a radical Islamist ideology,” that imposes its extreme version of sharia (Islamic law), says the report. The government fosters sectarian violence against Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis, Christians, and Hindus. The perpetrators of violence against these minorities are seldom brought to justice, according to the report.
An atmosphere of religious intolerance due to years of discriminatory laws has eroded the social and legal status of members of these religious minorities. For instance, Pakistan’s constitution declares members of the Ahmadi religious community to be non-Muslims, even though the Ahmadi regard themselves as such and affirm the Muslim faith. It is illegal for Ahmadis to preach in public or disseminate their religious materials.
The report tells of the destruction of Muslim shrines and tombs, most notably, the shrine of the revered Pashtun poet and Sufi mystic Rahman Baba.
A commonly used method by Islamic extremists to intimidate, detain for long periods, and threaten the life of members of minority religions (including moderate Muslims) is to charge them with blasphemy. If the victim is lucky enough to be acquitted, he or she is usually forced into hiding or leaving the country.
Tight Controls Intensify in China in 2008
The opposite of Pakistan, which is built on a religion, is communist China, with its atheistic foundation. China has been a CPC since the first year of the Commission in 1998, and the Commission noted that there had been “a marked deterioration” in the past year, in the build-up to the Olympic Games.
Police continue to send Falun Gong practitioners to re-education through labor (RTL) camps without trial, or to mental health institutions. “Provincial officials reportedly offer sizable rewards to anyone who provides information leading to the arrest of a Falun Gong practitioner,” says the report.
In July 2008, Zhenping Chen was “arrested and tried in secret without legal representation for being a Falun Gong practitioner. She was sentenced to eights years imprisonment,” says the report.
The 610 Office that monitors and suppresses Falun Gong has extrajudicial detention centers “used exclusively to hold Falun Gong practitioners who have completed RTL terms.”
“The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture reported that Falun Gong practitioners make up two-thirds of the alleged victims of torture,” says the report.
While members of the Catholic and Protestant faiths are harassed and their organizations monitored and interfered with by the state, they are not banned like the Falun Gong members.
The officially-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) does not allow its members or clergy to communicate with the Vatican or foreign Catholic organizations. But despite the official policy, the report estimates that 90 percent of CPA bishops and priest are secretly ordained by the Vatican, and in some places, the cooperation is open.
An example of the control and interference by the regime: On March 30, 2009, Bishop Jia was arrested in order to prevent him from meeting with another bishop who had reconciled with the Vatican. “Chinese officials objected to the relationship between the two bishops because it was ‘desired by a foreign power’ [the Vatican],” says the report.
“In the lead up to the Beijing Olympic Games, the government’s repression of house church and unregistered Protestant groups increased dramatically,” says the report. Police routinely raided churches, confiscated Bibles, detained and interrogated pastors, as well as fining them, and sometimes beating and removing them from Beijing during the Games. Religious leaders were prevented from attending a worship service with President George W. Bush, and meetings with members of Congress and the European Parliament were also prevented.
In the Tibetan Buddhist and Muslim areas, the regime continued its campaign of “patriotic education” for monks, nuns, and imams.
“Hundreds of Buddhist monks and nuns are in prison or subject to intense restrictions on their religious activities, some monasteries and other holy sites are being forcibly closed or destroyed, and Chinese officials have stepped up campaigns to pressure Buddhist monks and nuns to denounce the Dalai Lama and show loyalty to Chinese communist rule,” says the report.
Disturbing Signs in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Venezuela
In Nigeria, the Commission reports on a series of violent communal and sectarian conflicts along religious lines. In Jos, in November 2008, several hundred, possibly many more, Muslims and Christians were killed. “The government of Nigeria has done little, if anything, to address [the problem],” in Jos or Bauchi, says the report. Nigeria is an economically prosperous country and has the resources to stop the religious violence if it wanted to.
In Saudi Arabia, the government severely restricts all forms of public religious expression that differs from the government’s version of Sunni Islam. Over the past year, several Shi’a mosques were closed down by the government. In the past, even holding a Shi’a private religious gathering can result in being detained for short periods of time. Private worship by non-Muslims is legal, but sometimes raided by Saudi authorities. In April 2008, government officials arrested 16 Asian Christians, including women and children, for conducting a worship service.
Turning to two countries that the Commission added to its Watch List, Turkey and Venezuela, one can see problems but not at a CPC level. Turkey has a long tradition built into its constitution as a “secular state.” However, it differs from America’s concept of separation of church and state by having religion under state control. The government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), “controls all 80,000 mosques in Turkey and employs all imams as state functionaries,” says the report.
Some issues that result from this state control mentioned in the report are the banning of the wearing of the headscarf. Women who wore headscarves lost their public sector jobs, and students can’t register for classes, and other fallout resulted from this ban. Another issue is the ownership of property by non-Muslims, which is made difficult when the government does not recognize minority religious groups, such as the Armenian Orthodox Church. The state has confiscated hundreds of religious minority properties, and denied such communities, the right to train religious clergy, and offer religious education.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Venezuela. The report says that President Hugo Chavez and his supporters have created a hostile environment where Jewish (and Catholic) religious leaders are at risk of attack.
“Anti-Semitic statements appeared in cartoons and opinion pieces in state media, were heard on state radio programs and in rallies, and were graffitied on synagogues and other Jewish institutions,” says the report. Late last year and this year, the Jewish community has been under attack and the Venezuelan government has failed to hold the perpetrators accountable. Harassment, assaults and death threats to rabbis have caused some Jews to flee the country. Jewish businesses were sprayed with anti-Semitic slogans and there were calls for boycotts of all Jewish businesses, according to the report.