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U.S.: Agency Cites 12 Countries For Religious Intolerance

  • Don Hill

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has issued a list of 12 countries it wants the State Department to place on a list of states "of particular concern" for their restrictions on religious rights. Half of those named are Islamic states or countries with majority Muslim populations. RFE/RL reports on the good intentions and the possible costs of the commission's work.

Prague, 2 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the next few days, the U.S. State Department will issue a list of states around the world that it deems "countries of particular concern," or CPCs, because of their failure to permit or protect religious freedom within their boundaries.

This annual exercise by the State Department is mandated by an act of Congress known as the International Religious Freedom Act, or IRFA, of 1998. The IRFA obliges the U.S. president to consider imposing various kinds of pressure against countries designated as CPCs, although one of the president's options under the act is to do nothing at all.

The IRFA also set up an independent federal agency to monitor the behavior of other countries and to advise the State Department as to which countries deserve the U.S. mark of disapproval.

This agency, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom or CIRF, has just announced a list of 12 countries it is urging the State Department to designate as CPCs. This naturally raises questions of the U.S. entitlement to set itself up as the moral judge of other countries. Critics of the program also question its practical effect.

Half the names on the CIRF's new list are those of Islamic states or countries with majority Muslim populations. Lawrence Goodrich, spokesman for the CIRF in Washington, told RFE/RL that this does not mean the commission is especially critical of Islam. He said the designation actually is intended to protect Muslim minorities and other Muslim victims of discrimination. "So I think it's a little misleading to simply say, 'Yeah, half of them are Muslim countries,' because Muslims are as often as not the victims in a lot of these places," Goodrich said.

The commission's new list includes Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Laos, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Turkmenistan -- all countries that have been on previous CIRF lists. This year's list also includes three first-time entries: India, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

Goodrich said the United States has the right to call other countries to task because virtually all the countries of the world are signatories to one or more declarations guaranteeing religious freedom, among other human rights. "The United States, like any signatory to any international agreement, has a right to ensure that that agreement is being upheld. That's true for an arms-control agreement. It's true for a commercial treaty. It's true for an environmental treaty. And it's true for a human rights treaty as well," Goodrich said.

John L. Esposito, a Georgetown University professor and director of the Washington-based Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, is a leading specialist in interfaith relations.

He said it is true that significant human rights violations occur in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. But, he said, the timing of the religious-freedom commission's new list is problematic. "I think that it's a very difficult situation under normal conditions. I think it's complicated today by the current perception of the United States at times in its waging of its war against global terrorism, the perception of the U.S. -- not just in the Muslim world but also in many other parts of the world, including Europe -- as being rather arrogant and imperial to begin with," Esposito said.

Esposito, author of two post-11 September books on Islam, noted that the commission makes its recommendations based on one consideration only: each country's record of protection of religious freedom. The CIRF does not take into account the United States' often complex, multilayered relations with countries, e.g., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. CIRF spokesman Goodrich agreed. "Our job -- the commission's job -- is to independently take a look at the religious-freedom situation and make, you know, policy recommendations," Esposito said.

Sometimes, Goodrich said, this puts the commission at odds with the State Department, which often declines to accept CIRF recommendations. "The commission differs with [the] State [Department] in interpretation of the law in that we believe that the balancing of policy interests should come after a country is designated a CPC, when you decide what to do about it," Goodrich said.

Esposito said he fully understands why the State Department will refuse to list a given country even when acknowledging that there are religious-freedom problems in the country. "The State Department will justify what it's doing because it will say that issues of religious freedom and human rights are important but they need to be balanced with America's strategic interests. Well, you know, that kind of tension reflects what in fact the reality is," Esposito said.

Such complications, Esposito said, create still another condition in which the United States maintains two gauges" one for countries it firmly disapproves of and another for those whose favor it wants or needs. "The United States deals with many countries. And some countries it feels very free to be very clear and critical about. And [in] other countries, we wind up subordinating the very principles that we will press in another country. We will subordinate with specific allies. That again leaves the United States open to the charge that it has a double standard," Esposito said.

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