National Catholic Register


Countries Come Under Close Scrutiny in Religious Freedom Report

BY Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

June 1-7, 2003 Issue | Posted 6/1/03 at 1:00 PM


WASHINGTON — The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its third annual report May 13, updating U.S. officials on 22 countries it has examined.

So far, the State Department has put six countries on the countries of particular concern list: Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and North Korea. But the commission has recommended the same status for six more — India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Vietnam and Laos — something to which the State Department has not yet acceded.

Having India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on the list creates problems for the State Department, said Nina Shea, a commission member and the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the human rights organization Freedom House. She speculated that the reticence might be due to the war on terror.

In fact, the Washington Post recently editorialized on that theory, criticizing the fact that Saudi Arabia in particular is not on the countries of particular concern list.

However, a State Department spokesman told the Register on condition of anonymity that Saudi Arabia is “very, very close” to being added to the list, and Vietnam “is as perilously close as Saudi Arabia” is to being added. The department is working with these two countries to let them know what being put on that list means, the spokesman said, so they can take steps to avoid it. While there is no timeline on that, he said, it is not something that can be drawn out ad infinitum.

The commission is an independent agency established by Congress following the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. Its job is to keep Congress and the administration informed on how religious freedom around the world is respected. The commission also makes recommendations on actions the president and secretary of state should take with those countries that are extreme violators of religious rights.

Part of that action is to list nations as being “countries of particular concern.” The commission makes the recommendation and the secretary of state can either make the designation or not. Countries that are so designated can be subject to a variety of economic sanctions.

Not every country in the report is a country of particular concern. Two countries where commission members have visited to discuss religious freedom are France and Belgium. The commission cited them for “initiatives targeting ‘harmful sectarian organizations,’” similar to laws passed in Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and for a rise in anti-Semitism. In fact, the report states that France's and Belgium's laws are looked to as models for Eastern European countries.

One of the problems with these laws, a State Department spokesman said, is that they can be interpreted rather loosely to apply to any number of organizations, including the Catholic Church. While he does not expect that to happen in France or Belgium, it could easily be done in the emerging democracies, he said.

While the United States might have problems with these types of laws, the Catholic Church doesn't necessarily see it that way.

“Most doctrines of religious freedom are based on the premise that man cannot come to the truth and hence accept an implicit or explicit relativism about religious truth,” said Arthur Hippler, director of the Office of Justice and Peace in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis. “On the contrary, it is because the truth about God matters that you must be free to pursue it. This right, the council fathers taught in Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom), should be protected by the civil laws of the country.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters … must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order” (No. 1738).

Catholic Concerns

For Catholics, Eastern European countries are of particular concern. Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., a member of the commission, has been on two trips for the group, one to Belarus and one to Russia.

Belarus, he said, “has the most repressive religion law of any country in Europe. The criteria set up for the licensing of religions are particularly onerous.”

In a meeting with Orthodox Metropolitan Filaret, Bishop Murphy was told the Orthodox “do not want to become a state church” in Belarus. But, the bishop added, the government would like it to be that way.

Russia's constitution, on the other hand, guarantees freedom of religion, and the country has signed on to all the major international treaties regarding human rights. However, it has become like the “pre-Soviet Russian cultural mentality” where only the Orthodox Church was respected, Bishop Murphy said. “On the local level, legal authorities defer to local Orthodox leaders in decisions” about granting licenses to different religious groups.

China and North Korea come under particular scrutiny in this report. Though it is primarily about religious freedom, the report also diverges into other human-rights issues, such as China's treatment of North Korean refugees. According to a source who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity, these refugees are barely clothed when they cross the frozen river dividing China and North Korea in an average temperature of 20 below zero.

The Chinese have forcibly repatriated these refugees, according to the commission's report. The source said those who are arrested are put in the back of trucks and not given any kind of humanitarian aid on their journey back.

An American Thing

The quest for religious freedom is a particularly American concern, commission member Shea said. “It is unheard of in most places in the world.”

“Countries are always saying, ‘You're interfering in our internal affairs,’” she said, when they are confronted on human-rights issues. But, she added, “we're not applying the First Amendment here; we're applying international treaties.”

Pope John Paul II, however, is grateful for this attention to the issue. When President George W. Bush met with him on July 23, 2001, the Pope told Bush, “It is significant that the protection of religious freedom continues to be an important goal of American foreign policy.”

Because of limited resources, the report lacks a country-by-country analysis, Shea said. She expects Cuba and Egypt to be on next year's list. Cuba's repression of activists was too recent for the report, she said. And Egypt recently acquitted a group of people who had been arrested for the massacre of Chaldean Catholics there. Shea said that is something that needs to be investigated further.

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.