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World: U.S. Commission Dissatisfied With State Department Religious-Freedom Stance

  • Don Hill

In its International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the U.S. Congress established an Office of International Religious Freedom within the U.S. State Department. The law also created an advisory Commission on International Religious Freedom. As RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports, the State Department and the religious-freedom commission can, and sometimes do, disagree -- a divide highlighted by the commission's annual report, released this month.

Prague, 8 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Congress has directed the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to issue a report each May assessing the state of religious freedom in countries around the world.

This year's third annual commission report points critically to, among other countries, Afghanistan, China, France, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. And then there's another country whose government policies the commission finds occasional fault with: the United States.

Commission spokesman Lawrence J. Goodrich says the commission is disappointed that the U.S. government has failed to label Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan as "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) -- a designation that can trigger U.S. sanctions. The commission says both these countries practice religious suppression severe enough to warrant CPC status.

"Both in the summer of 2000 and the summer of 2001, the commission recommended to the secretary of state and president that Turkmenistan be designated a 'country of particular concern.' That has not happened as of yet and the commission is disappointed in that, and continues to urge that the designation be made."

In its report, the commission calls Turkmenistan "one of the most totalitarian states in the world today." It urges the United States to immediately suspend all nonhumanitarian assistance to the Turkmen government.

The report says that Saudi Arabia prohibits all forms of public religious expression except for what the commission describes as "the government's interpretation and presentation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam." The report expresses regret that the U.S government twice has failed to act on the commission's recommendation of CPC status for Saudi Arabia.

Goodrich says the International Religious Freedom Commission has urged the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush to avoid placing the needs of the fight against international terrorism above human and religious rights. "There were some actions during the [autumn] that created the impression that there were trade-offs going on, that the U.S. government was telling other governments that it needed their cooperation in the war on terrorism and that therefore, it would look the other way." He says the commission for a time was concerned that Bush's government was wooing countries with dubious religious freedom records like Sudan and Uzbekistan in this way.

Another concern of the commission is that the United States fails to invoke all the pressures that it might on countries on which it has placed the CPC designation. These are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and North Korea.

In its latest annual report, the commission seems to express itself more boldly and independently than in past years. Many of its members -- from varied religious backgrounds and professions -- are newly appointed. The commission chair, Michael K. Young, dean of George Washington University Law School, is an expert on Asian law. He was the commission's first vice chair. All the commissioners are part-time and are unpaid for their service.

Goodrich said the commissioners have sought to be independent in their judgment from the outset and the current commissioners even more so. "And also, I think, there's the feeling that the commission is now in its third year and, in some cases perhaps, a little stronger language needs to be used to get attention -- the attention of the administration -- on some issues."

Despite some disagreements over policy emphasis, Goodrich says the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Bush administration agree more often than they disagree. "I have to say, though, that the commission has been very encouraged in conversations it has had with senior U.S. government officials that they do not intent to trade off, in fact, human rights, religious freedom against the war on terrorism."

The commission's report finds religious freedom issues in countries of Western Europe as well as in the Middle East and among developing nations. The 2002 report, for example, expresses substantial worry over France's adoption last year of an anti-cult law and publication of a list of what French authorities call "cult movements." The report says the commission is formulating recommendations about France to be made public later.

The report decries what it says is an increase in religious violence in Georgia, especially against Jehovah's Witnesses. It says the government of Iran engages in or tolerates "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of religious freedom. In Iraq, it says, Saddam Hussein's government has for decades conducted a campaign of murder, summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and prolonged detention against religious leaders.

In its first two annual reports, the commission maintained that Afghanistan's Taliban regime was a severe violator of religious freedom. Here, too, the current report says that the commission is working on a report and recommendations concerning post-Taliban Afghanistan.

One question frequently addressed to the commissioners and the commission staff is, "What right does the United States have to tell other countries what to do about religious freedom?" Goodrich responds: "The answer to that is that almost all of these countries have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and almost all of them have signed and ratified the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights. Now, when the United States signs an arms-control convention or an environmental treaty or a trade agreement with a country, it has a right to see that these conventions and agreements are being upheld and respected. It is no different, no different at all, with human rights and religious freedom."

Many of the countries targeted by the commission dispute that stance. China in past years protested angrily against what it considered U.S. interference in its internal affairs. Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov said in March that people in his country are free to practice any religion they wish. He said Turkmenistan's laws controlling religion are aimed at foreigners trying to spread what he called "alien" faiths.

Imam Alisher Sobirov of Uzbekistan's state-approved Khoji Akhror Grand Mosque said recently that Uzbek government policy and Uzbek law on religious freedom are in accord with Islamic rules opposing division within Islam. He said other groups active in his country claim to be Muslims but really "are lost people."

(The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2002 Annual Report can be found at http://www.uscirf.gov/reports/02AnnualRpt/2002report.pdf.)

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