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Committed to Religious Freedom? (3134)

International observers await Obama designation of ‘countries of particular concern.’

12/01/2010 Comment
CNS photo/Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters

A man grieves during a Nov. 2 funeral for victims of an attack in Baghdad, Iraq.

– CNS photo/Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters

WASHINGTON — The 10th annual International Religious Freedom Report is an encyclopedic survey of persecution, documenting offenses against believers of every faith.

Released by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Nov. 17, the report also shows occasional improvements around the world.

In remarks to journalists, Clinton mentioned the recent bombing of Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad, where 52 Christians, including four priests, were murdered, as an example of how religious freedom is “under threat” in “many, many places.”

The State Department is required by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act to produce the report, which assesses whether other governments are engaging in or tolerating “severe violations of religious freedom.” If they are, the U.S. is supposed to designate the regime “a country of particular concern” (CPC) and propose ways the U.S. can encourage change, ranging from sanctions to improvement plans.

The Obama administration has never designated CPCs, but the last list compiled by the Bush administration won’t expire for two more months: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan are included.

Over the last 18 months, the Obama administration has been criticized for minimizing attention to international religious liberty. In an article published on the Foreign Policy website, “Undefender of the Faith,” Thomas Farr, a religion professor at Georgetown University and former career diplomat, complained last April that “there is no sign the administration is paying attention” to the value of emphasizing religious freedom in foreign policy.

Criticism has centered on three issues: the administration’s apparent lack of urgency in appointing an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom (it wasn’t until June that Obama nominated Suzan Johnson Cook, senior pastor of the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City); using weak language — namely referring often to “freedom of worship,” considered by some to highlight the private side of religious expression — and failing to name CPCs.

The administration appears to be trying to address all three matters, vis-à-vis the report and related gestures.

The same day the report was released, Cook testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of the confirmation process.

Regarding how the administration defines religious freedom, Clinton explained that the U.S. government seeks to protect the right to worship privately, “but [it] doesn’t end there. Religious freedom also includes the right to raise one’s children in one’s faith, to share one’s faith peacefully with others, to publish religious materials without censorship, to change one’s religion — by choice, not coercion — and to practice no religion at all. And it includes the rights of faith communities to come together in social service and public engagement in the broader society.”


Naming New CPCs

Leonard Leo, chairman of the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), also created by the 1998 law, applauded Clinton’s affirmation of a broad definition for religious freedom.

“We welcome the secretary’s strong language stressing all facets of religious freedom and are heartened that the administration has reinforced the scope of its commitment,” said Leo, a Catholic. “Earlier this year, USCIRF noted a possible shift in administration terminology away from ‘freedom of religion’ to the narrower ‘freedom of worship.’ We are pleased to see a return to the broader ‘religious freedom’ rubric in statements by Secretary Clinton and President Obama.”

On CPCs, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner, a political appointee, said the State Department is now reassessing the 2008 Bush list of CPCs, which expires in January, and will present a new group “in the next couple of months.”

At the press conference marking the report’s release, journalists were particularly pre-occupied with the fact that several governments with the worst records, such as Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are also American allies.

One journalist observed that the United States has been sending Pakistan “billions” of dollars in aid. “Why cannot you have a clause of human rights and religious freedom?” he asked.

Another queried, “In earlier answers you mentioned that you raised these issues. What exact level … and is it just a meeting and then nothing happens, or you expect some results? And when can we hear about those results?”

Mildly defensive, Posner reiterated that the U.S. uses what leverage it can: “I don’t think a meeting ever gets results. There has to be a consistent message delivered by different people, and it has to be accompanied by follow-up. That’s what we’re trying to do in each of these situations. We talked about Egypt. I’ve been there twice. I’m going to go back ...”


Christian…but Catholics?

In many places in the report, the text describes “Christians,” making it impossible to distinguish issues of particular concern to the Catholic community.  A long assessment of India, for example, never mentions Catholics, but continuously refers to Christians. One of the only passages that singles out the Holy See is a compliment for Vatican engagement with Muslims, included in the executive summary: “The Holy See has taken a leading role in recent engagement with Islam, accompanied by growing interest from diverse religious groups and regions.”

It continues, “Muslims engaged in dialogue with the Holy See seek greater respect for Islam, particularly in the West, and wish to emphasize that Islam is a religion of peace and disassociate it from violence. The Holy See favors a dialogue that will lead to greater religious freedom and tolerance for differences.”

The report reflects increased attention to Muslim outreach by the current administration, including opposition to the Swiss constitutional amendment banning the construction of minarets, approved by 57% of Swiss voters in a referendum last year. According to Posner, “The government of Switzerland — and I’ve talked to their representatives repeatedly — is now doing what it can to overturn that …”

The report also describes how, in the Philippines, USAID has expanded staff to engage with the Muslim community in Mindanao, the only Muslim-majority island in the archipelago and the one with the highest overall crime rate in the country. Meanwhile, the Filipino government is facing down a Muslim-inspired guerrilla war on the islands.


Still Useful?

Reading the report, one is struck by the vulnerability of religious minorities. But it is also apparent that the study offers equal treatment to innumerable religions and belief groups. The plight of the Baha’i or Ahmadi Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses is as often catalogued as is discrimination against Catholics or Jews.

And no religious community escapes criticism either.

Catholics, for example, are brought to task in East Timor, where, the report alleges, individuals from the Catholic majority have harassed Protestant churches and “outside of the capital non-Catholic religious groups were sometimes viewed with suspicion.”

It says, “Credible sources reported six incidents of societal abuses and discrimination in the country against a Protestant denomination established by foreign missionaries. No fatalities were reported. There have been reports that in Los Palos, Viqueque and Liquica students have been discriminated against because they are Protestant.”

Similarly, in the report’s Mexico assessment, several instances of tension between Catholics and evangelicals or Jehovah’s Witnesses are described, all related to Catholic intimidation of others for financial contributions to local Catholic festivals or holy day celebrations. These accounts appear to be gathered from local media reports.

The International Religious Freedom Report reflects the astonishing level of detail at the State Department’s command; no media outlet or academic entity has the global reach and resources available to American officials compiling this survey.

Posner emphasized the report as a “factual baseline … that gives us information we need to then make policy.”

The test is whether they can convert the massive knowledge, almost academic in its scope, into operational action. When it mentions Catholics in Egypt, for example, the report distinguishes between Armenian, Chaldean, Greek, Melkite, Roman and Syrian Catholics. Few Americans are aware of those distinctions.

As Leonard Leo said in a written response to the report, “So what’s next? Actions speak louder than words. We urge the State Department to act decisively and promptly to designate ‘countries of particular concern’ — something the Obama administration has yet to do.”

John Farina, professor of religious studies at George Mason University, is concerned that it might be impossible for the U.S. to successfully promote religious liberty around the world at this time: “The United States is helpless. That is how it seems at this time, so we have to ask: Is it still useful to raise these issues? Or, in fact, by raising these issues, by just raising religious freedom as an empty demand, are we cheapening the issue, possibly even endangering believers?”

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

Sidebar: Select Country-Level Details
In Egypt, although the constitution provides for religious freedom, the government restricts it in practice. Citizens who convert from Islam to Christianity are detained, harassed and denied documents, such as national identity cards, marriage licenses and birth certificates. An 1856 decree, still in force, requires non-Muslims to get presidential approval to build new churches and synagogues. Christian churches are routinely denied permits for construction or building maintenance. And there is random violence against non-Muslims. In the city of Naga Hammadi, six Coptic Christians were killed in an attack following Coptic Christmas Mass last Jan. 6.


In Pakistan, organized violence against all minorities, including Christians, increased over the last year. One way Christians are jailed is through accusations of blasphemy, prohibited by law, which requires little evidence. As the report explains, “Some accused and convicted persons spend years in jail before higher courts eventually overturned their convictions or ordered them freed.” In September 2009, a young Christian, Robert Fanish, was accused of blasphemy and died mysteriously while in police custody. Catholics James Masih and Buta Masih were released from prison in April 2009, having spent over two years there on a blasphemy conviction. The men were convicted of burning a Quran. They deny having done so.

The 2010 report points to one ironic improvement in Pakistan’s picture of religious liberty: Minority prisoners are now allowed places to worship while they are in jail.


In Saudi Arabia, religious freedom is “severely restricted.” Because the government does not allow non-Muslim clergy to enter the country, Catholics and Orthodox Christians are particularly limited in practicing their faith, since a priest is required for the sacraments. It’s unknown how many foreign residents are in Saudi Arabia, but, for example, there are more than 1.3 million Filipinos, mainly laborers who are typically Catholic. The State Department estimates that over 1 million Catholics are currently in Saudi Arabia. 


Evidence that internal voices object to the oppressive Saudi policies came from an unusual source: Princess Basma Bint Saud bin Abdulaziz, daughter of King Saud, published an article in Al-Madina last May accusing members of the aggressive Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which works with Saudi secret police, of committing “religious terrorism.” She accused the organization of “wasting their time barbarically chasing women and men” instead of fighting corruption.

The report’s assessment of religious freedom in Iraq acknowledges that “there was a decrease in the overall level of violence as the government became increasingly successful in restoring security, in a generally nonsectarian manner, throughout the country.” But the report will have to be brought up to date, now that violence against Christians has reemerged so dramatically, with the brutal attack on Catholics in Baghdad Oct. 31 and other recent acts of violence.


In other parts of the world, the 2010 report singles out North Korea and China, for particularly long assessments. The account covering Venezuela includes worrisome trends, while Cuba is described as a country that exhibits positive trends in religious freedom.

In North Korea, believers who worship in underground Christian churches continue to be detained, harassed and harmed. Last May, sources report, 23 Christians were arrested for belonging to an underground church. Of these, three were executed and the rest sent to a harsh political prison camp where torture and starvation are routine, and where those jailed for religious offenses are treated the worst. Some 150,000 to 200,000 people are held in political re-education camps.

In China the government allows “normal religious activities,” but gets to define “normal.” Although Catholicism is one of five state-sanctioned religions (together with Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Protestant Christianity), religious groups are all run by state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations,” which, by definition, clash with Vatican authority. So, gatherings of Catholics loyal to the Vatican, or Protestant house churches, are not banned, but they are not supposed to conduct religious services if they are not affiliated with a patriotic religious association. Other religious or spiritual groups, such as the Falun Gong, are outlawed. Restrictions against Tibetan monks and Uighur Muslims are particularly severe.

According to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, more than 5.3 million Catholics worship in places registered with the Catholic Patriotic Association. But another source, the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, believes there are closer to 12 million Catholics in China — and 12 seminaries. An estimated 40 Catholic bishops are independent of the patriotic association and operate unofficially. Unregistered bishops and priests are harassed; they are arrested and detained for short periods and kept under official surveillance. The State Department reports that 75-year-old Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo of Zhengding, Hebei, is still in prison. The bishop, who never joined the Patriotic Association, was arrested in March 2009 at the start of a Vatican-sponsored meeting on the Catholic Church in China.

Among evidence of positive improvements, last April, a Catholic diocese in Inner Mongolia, which is part of China, ordained a new bishop, the first bishop ordained in five years. Bishop Paul Meng Qinglu received a papal mandate for his ordination as well as approval from the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China.

In Venezuela, where 92% of the population is “nominally Catholic,” religious freedom is formally accepted, but any religious group or leader who criticizes the government is harassed and intimidated. After the Catholic Church issued a pastoral letter last April criticizing the Venezuelan government’s “totalitarian intentions,” as well as its “waste, corruption and inefficiency,” state-controlled media attacked Cardinal Jorge Urosa, archbishop of Caracas.

The Catholic Church and evangelical communities, like other nongovernmental organizations and private sector entities suffered property expropriations ordered by President Hugo Chavez. And last summer, the National Assembly passed a new education law prohibiting religious instruction in public and private schools.

Cardinal Urosa’s leadership in Venezuela was matched by Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s high-profile actions in Cuba.

The State Department report describes how, in Cuba, Cardinal Ortega criticized the government in a Catholic publication last spring, then took the lead in negotiating to protect the “Ladies in White,” a group of wives and family members of political prisoners — an effort which expanded to include negotiation for the release of the political prisoners themselves. Regarding religious freedom in Cuba generally, the State Department report says: “Many religious groups reported improvements in religious freedom, although significant restrictions remained in place.”

— Victor Gaetan

Filed under religious freedom